Edited version of a contribution by IBT supporter Christoph Lichtenberg to a panel discussion on “The Death of Social Democracy,” at the closing plenary of the Platypus International Convention in Chicago on 2 April 2016.
Social democracy has its roots in Europe, beginning with the program adopted in Eisenach in 1869 by Germany’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP), which called for the abolition of all class rule and the replacement of the existing wage system with cooperative work. Its goal was to replace capitalism with a system that was not based on the accumulation of surplus value. The party later renamed itself the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and became the leading section of the Second (Socialist) International, adopting a new program in Erfurt in 1891 that contained no explicit demands for a proletarian revolution. Already the party’s practice had become reformist: the struggle focused on reforms such as women’s suffrage, the eight-hour-day, workers’ protection and the prohibition of employment of children under 14 years.
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, many of the central leaders of the Second International backed their own ruling classes in the war – the SPD Reichstag fraction voted for war credits, while the affiliated trade unions had already agreed to refrain from striking for the duration of the war. From that point, social democracy had openly turned into a tool in the service of the bourgeoisie, although retaining formal links to the organized working class.
Social democracy never took root as a mass phenomenon in the United States. As one historian of early American Marxism observed, “Class struggle in America before the Civil War could not develop along simple capital-versus-labor lines” (David Herreshoff, The Origins of American Marxism). Despite the fact that the U.S. has been home to a large industrial working class for more than a century and half, class consciousness has often proved transitory and elusive. Why?
The relatively democratic government traditions in the U.S., as well as westward expansion, were safety valves that stunted the development of sharp class antagonisms. Policies of ethnic cleansing directed at the indigenous population and war with Mexico also served to generate an identification between the rulers and the ruled, who risked their lives in these battles, but also stood to reap direct material rewards.
Divisions within the working class between English-speaking, American workers and the later waves of immigrants were also key to this process. Donald Trump is only the latest in a long line of demagogues to scapegoat foreign-born workers as the source of economic and social insecurity for the native-born.
Most significant of all has been the use of racism, particularly anti-black racism, as an element of social control. As Marx observed in Capital: “Labor in the white skin can never be free, so long as labor in the black skin is branded.” In early colonial America, there were many forms of unfree labor, including indentured servitude of white laborers and captive native Americans, as well as imported African chattel slaves. The ruling class became alarmed by the prospect of an alliance between white indentured servants and African slaves and utilized explicit racism as the main strategy for dividing the working class.
From colonial times onward, the white working class has been imbued with a false consciousness. While the relative “benefits” of whiteness are undoubtedly real, the price of this racism was a lowering of living standards of all, as racism in the working class has helped bosses to break strikes, divide workforces, undermine union solidarity and otherwise re-enforce control. To their credit both the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the left wing of the American Socialist Party recognized and articulated the necessity of black and white workers to stand together, but failed to recognize the magnitude of special oppression and the necessity of a truly revolutionary party to transform itself into a tribune of the oppressed. Even the leftwing icon of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, said: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races” (“The Negro in the Class Struggle”). These divisions served only the interests of the bourgeoisie, in building a barrier to the creation of a mass working class party in America.
This brings us to the current presidential race, with the main contenders representing the twin parties of U.S. imperialism and no working-class alternative in sight.
On 10 February 2016, the day after the landslide victory of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times described his triumph as “a remarkable rebuke to the political establishment.” Some progressive pundits have speculated that “socialism” is making a comeback.
Bernie Sanders has been, alongside Donald Trump, a center of attention and debate over the last year. It is undeniable that he has helped popularize the term “socialism” among young people – a YouGov poll conducted in January showed that respondents under the age of 30 preferred “socialism” to “capitalism” 43% to 32%.
In a country with an established social-democratic party, the Sanders phenomenon may well have occurred within that framework. But Sanders is no socialist – he is campaigning to represent the capitalist Democratic Party and has no organic connection to the labor movement. In contrast to Debs, who went to prison for opposing the imperialist machine in World War I, Sanders is openly supportive of American imperialism – he backed the war in Afghanistan and has embraced, albeit somewhat critically, Obama’s foreign policy.
Sanders has appeal among many young people because he wants to restore progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). He advocates free access to healthcare and higher education, all of which are demands that resonate with millions of workers and students. Yet he does not think that the working class should be organized and mobilized through its own party (not even a reformist one) in order to achieve these and other goals. Sanders’s campaign ultimately strengthens the Democratic Party because he brings disaffected voters back into the fold. He is yet another obstacle to the building of an explicitly working-class party in the U.S.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the Communist Party (CPUSA) nevertheless support his campaign, along with various supposed Trotskyists who hope that it will set off a massive shift to the left. Socialist Alternative, for example, is calling for “a massive mobilization of workers and youth to stand up against the establishment’s attempt to shut down the movement around Sanders,” a movement it calls a “political revolution.”
This shows Socialist Alternative’s willingness to ignore reality. If Sanders does not secure the nomination, his supporters will either back Hillary Clinton or they have to jump ship; perhaps they will support the Green Party. Because the whole thing has occurred within the framework of the Democratic Party, there is no “socialist alternative” available to them.
The Sanders campaign is no springboard to the creation of American social democracy, let alone a genuinely socialist workers’ movement for revolutionary change.
For revolutionary socialists, the political consciousness of the working class is the key to a socialist future. But such consciousness does not arise spontaneously. It requires political struggle against the existing illusions of the mass of the workers by those who grasp the fundamental proposition that the exploiters (capitalists) and their victims (working people and other oppressed layers) have fundamentally counterposed historical interests. Working within the political machine of the capitalists can never serve to advance the struggles of the working class. That requires the construction of a different machine – in the first place a political party – to fight for working people.