From Hobson's Choice
In nearly all democratic movements, there is a concomitant movement for social democracy. In many cases, the forces in society that favored social democracy were instrumental in defeating the previous regime. For example, nearly all the fighting and dying is usually done by laborers who may oppose the ancien regime, but do not benefit from the establishment of a bourgeois oligarchy. For obvious reasons, it is the professional cleric (e.g., Martin Luther), not the populist rebel (e.g., Thomas Müntzer) whose words are remembered. The great masses of the army who served under George Washington adored their leader, but put their faith in a radical transformation of the social order. They left letters and proclamations, most of which have been completely forgotten and virtually suppressed. Today, the "founding fathers" are assumed to have been zealous economic reactionaries, soldered to anarcho-capitalism, and motivated overwhelmingly by outraged pocketbooks.
The quasi-democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were usually won, in the end, by a professional elite with aristocratic pretensions, for whom the simple folk were unworthy of serious consideration. In the 1870's, a caste of pettifoggers buried the social reforms of the US Civil War, and while one hand reduced the African American to semi-slavery, the other mocked the liberating pretensions of the Radicals. The revolutions of 1848-51 tended to become serious affairs when the workers joined in large numbers—around June or July '48. Generally this was when the revolutions became actual upheavals, rather than big nationalist parades. The revolutions had been brewing since the 1840's, when a devastating global depression plunged millions of European workers into destitution. Those with jobs were "sweated," or obligated to work 12-18 hour days (or none whatever). While civil servants passed resolutions about Schleswig-Holstein, the workers were massacred with Hotchkiss guns. After 1851, when all vestiges of the new liberalism were quashed by the absolutist or oligarchic rulers of Europe, illegal organization and espionage was the order of the day. Police forces attempted to penetrate, embarrass, spy upon, or subvert, socialist parties and factions; the other side tried, with modest success, to outwit and thwart the police.
In the article that follows, we use the term "social democracy" (lower case) to refer to a political belief system; when used as a proper noun, "Social Democratic" refers to the formal political organizations in the Socialist International, such as the Northern European Social Democratic parties, the Socialist Party of France, and so on.
Social Democracy & Liberalism
Initially, liberalism and social democracy were inherently contradictory concepts. Liberalism of the early 19th century did favor extension of the vote, as (obviously) did social democrats, but while social democrats favored its immediate extension, the liberals agonized over the risk of demagogues using democracy to seize economic power. The classical liberals of 19th century Europe regarded capitalist social relations of production as springing naturally from reason; the accumulation of capital increased productivity, so the capitalist was entitled to the full economic surplus.
At the back of the tension between the social democrat and the early [classical] liberal was the concept of rights. The primary achievement of liberalism prior to the mid-18th century was the development of this idea, and the derivation of a proper social order derived from it. The right was conceived initially as anegative obligation held by the sovereign towards people of high social rank: nobility could be put to death without a trial, or were legally protected from cruel punishments. By the 1850's, the list of rights had been considerably expanded (at least, for White Europeans): the arbitrary powers of the state were largely checked, or at least under stern scrutiny. Accountability for bad government officials was also a development for which liberals could be credited. However, there was not a coherent liberal ideology for universal franchise, and even when there was, the usefulness of that franchise were severely limited. The first Reform Act, that of 1832, had as its main effect the redistribution of power to regions in England with large populations; the franchise itself was afterwards only 10% of the population. In 1867, when the Second Reform Bill extended the vote to nearly a fourth of the adult population, the Whigs were mostly opposed; it was passed by the Conservative PM Disraeli (allegedly as part of a devious strategy to crush the Whigs). Liberalism regarded political power instrumentally: it was vested best to protect the structure of negatively-defined liberty.
During its early period, the social democrats were quite literally beyond the electoral pale: "socialists" at least might embrace sweeping social agenda, but not the dangerous proposition of enfranchising factory workers and rural proletariats. Social democrats were in a sense members of the hard left in the sense that they demanded a political reform that was inherently untenable or intolerable for the ruling class in Europe. (In the USA, the state was so feeble this posed no serious threat). Social democracy typically included the surmise that the social order itself would be subject to democratic oversight. In Europe, the existence of an established church meant that the clergy acted as a special constituency with veto power; this led to social democrats regarding clergy and religious belief alike as pure conservative fiat; hence, many significant leaders of the Social Democratic parties embraced strict atheism as a fundamental tenet; they assumed that religious belief was definitionally hostile to the project of social democracy, although many rank and file members disagreed. Likewise, the owners of factories and their professional managers constituted an unelected power, with the ability to appropriate the entire surplus product of production. This was perceived as an effective second government, so to speak, capable of governing without accountability as it sidelined the elected one.
This began to change after the conception of rights expanded. Partly it reflected the swapping of allies and ideas: social democracy assimilated the organizing concept of liberalism—rights—and applied it to the entire scope of things that humans require to live. Liberals, in contrast, reached out towards democracy, with its ever-expanding demands on the haves. They did so as part of a strategy, usually ad hoc, to contain more serious threats to the core liberal rights. As we have mentioned, these included protection from the whims of a tyrannical state. From the earliest days of liberalism, the most urgent and plausible risk was that the sovereign would either tax the wealthiest non-aristocratic class, viz., the bourgeoisie, to pay for aristocratic mismanagement, or else would throw bourgeois fortunes to the wolves of proletarian anger. Both of these had been major issues for the French bourgeois in the Revolution, and for segments of the lower English bourgeois just before that. The subsequent bureaucratic states were in these respects even worse, which explains the popularity of conservativism as a political ideology among the bourgeois after the revolutionary wars. Hannah Arendt relates the rise of totalitarianism to the "political emancipation of the bourgeoisie"; what the bourgeois had to be emancipated from was, of course, the conservative (and bureaucratic) states that arose as a hard shell around the kernel of laissez-faire capitalism.
Social democrats, for their part, updated the Enlightenment thinking about rights: humans forming a society accepted membership by accepting the costs and benefits. The costs could not include enslavement and death camp labor conditions, since no one would ever agree to such a condition; therefore, social democracy could use the same arguments in 1900 that liberals had used in 1750. In the 18th century, Whigs and philosophes had maintained that no sovereign could be justly touch the lives and properties of subjects without due process of law. In the 20th, social democrats made the point that, with all of the means of production, all the land, all the natural resources, and all of the law enforcement, laws, courts, and so on, depriving a person of a living wage amounted to murder. Likewise, the concept that an industrial worker in a company town, or a farmer in a community where the same company that bought his produce also sold him supplies and lent him money, was actually a free agent at liberty in the markets, became more manifestly absurd.
A final development that tended to merge the liberals and social democrats was the growing threat of the hard left. Social democratic parties were by nature parliamentarians; they favored adherence to legal procedure. The Communists of several nations attempted (right after World War I) to carry out their program and overthrown the liberal states; as is well known, they succeeded in Russia and Hungary. However, the ease with which most Communist insurgencies were defeated might have been highly reassuring to business managers. There's no question that politics in most of the world took a sharp turn to the right after the calamities of the period 1914-1924. At issue was the disintegration of any social basis for democracy and legal government. The conservatives of the early 20th century were agitating for nationalist dictatorship, military rule, and abrogation of the entire liberal experiment. The hard left was (mostly) crushed but incidental violence inflicted on the workers through violent repression and deflation had radicalized them, quite possibly for a future assault. The older generation of soft-spoken, legalistic or aristocratic conservatives in either North America or Europe, had been replaced by professional hardliners, populists, militarists, and religious fanatics. A split between the two legally-minded political traditions in the west was not tenable.
Despite the impression of dramatic triumph for social democracy in North America during the Great Depression, it was really a period in which liberalism called the shots. The New Deal legislation was mainly a rollback of extreme conservative victories, especially in regards to the huge consolidation of business power of the 1920's. Partly this was a lucky thing: the fact that the New Deal was based on rights (the preservation of middle class property rights in the face of massive bank failure, the right of labor to organize, the right of peripheral businesses to market access) prevented another sectional conflict. One might argue that the New Deal represented a nexus of liberalism and social democracy peculiar to the USA, in which the object was to preserve an illusion of normality. Rather than actually make an ideological break with the past, the New Deal actually sought to minimize the degree to which capitalism had broken down, and cultivated the impression that individual Usonian households were not déclassé. In effect, Usonians were left with the impression that it was a triumph of the entrepreneurial virtues of courage, fortitude, and self-confidence that enabled them to get through the Depression.
On the Continent, liberalism was indeed entirely crushed by the totalitarian conquest of Europe. After the destruction of the fascist regimes, the liberals and social democrats returned as wholly separate and distinct political traditions. It thus remains the case that liberalism, in Europe, is associated with free enterprise and bourgeois family values. Social democracy retains its pretension of being non-violent but radical.
Radical Social Democracy
Social democracy in Europe has remained a radical ideology despite decades of political power in Scandinavia, and three generations as a major political tendency in all of Europe. During the 1920's, the social democratic parties suffered from a bitter clash with the hard left (the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), for example, had an especially bitter feud with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its governments under the Weimar constitution); this feud enabled the rise of the NSDAP in Germany. In France, the Socialist Party (PS) was often in coalition with the Communist Party (PCF) and several others; and in Scandinavia, the Social Democratic parties completely dominated the left (the Swedish and Danish Communist Parties were quite small and cautious). In Central Europe, there was one parliamentary democracy (Czechoslovakia) between the wars, with a fairly large Communist Party; in the Baltic Republics up to 1940, the Communist parties tended to be illegal, and operated in public as Social Democratic parties.
After the War, social democracy in Europe became one of two dominant political currents; the other was liberalism, which (as mentioned above) remained tied to classical liberalism. It was divided into two poles, with members tending to fall somewhere in the continuum between them: on the left, the abolition of capitalism through electoral measures, and on the right, support for a social welfare state sustained by a market economy. It was here, that a rift opened up between the ideals of the Social Democratic parties and the abstract concept of social democracy, because the former were either constrained mightily by the state and firm administration (as in two-party Britain, where the Labour Party won power in 1945) or by coalition partners (as in the Netherlands Partij van de Arbeid and the German SPD). During the period that followed, social democracy tended to redirect its attentions away from the economic interests of the poor to broader issues, such as the overall character of society. One might say that political leaders in the TEP were glad to be able to buy off old radical constituencies with enhanced purchasing power and social services, while the business managers resumed the actual design of society itself.
While there were many disparate constituencies for the environmental movement, opposition to colonial wars waged by the TEP, feminism, demands for a new foreign policy, and so on, during the 1950's and 1960's there was a rapid convergence of social critiques that were frankly social democracy in its purest form. Instead of being a synthesis of liberalism (rights-based) and social democracy (popular rule), this represented a synthesis of social democracy and radicalism (root change). For someone looking ahead, it might have seemed unlikely that the social democrat-liberal synthesis would be as severely challenged by the New Left as conservative regimes were. Nonetheless, the fact is undeniable. The reason was that the "new liberals" (i.e., post-classical liberals) had a world view circumscribed by their rights-based conception of social democracy. The list of rights had greatly increased, and in some cases (as in Canada and some European nations) medical care and housing, as well as the familiar political rights; this last now included the vote. However, radical democracy is conceptually at odds with rights, even when extended in this way. While rights-based parliamentary procedures provide for uniform voting or torts access, this is not the same thing as democracy, in which the character of society is open to debate. On the contrary, as democratic republics mature an ever-greater number of issues become permanently settled; the remaining space for democratic action shrinks. Yet the rate of social change (and necessarily corresponding political change) is likely to accelerate over time.
In 1963, it could be argued, "democracy" demanded that African Americans occupy a socially subordinate position. Or did it? The liberal narrative ex post facto is that universal rights were violated by segregation; and even White racists could see that they could not preserve a segregated society without sacrificing legality, normality, and rights-based justice. However, the conception of democracy as political emancipation ("people power") excludes the notion of an arbitrarily defined polity (say, the population of Mississippi) inflicted subordination on a minority; this is parliamentary procedure as a form of tyranny, not democracy. And even if we accepted that Mississippi, with its White majority, was a reasonable delineation of polity (as opposed to, say, another hypothetical state with a Black majority), we have to ask how it came to be that a group of human beings came to perceive oppression of their neighbors as liberty? Part of the problem lay in a very long antecedent period in which European humans were reduced to destitution and African humans to slavery, so that the former felt themselves compelled to impose a social order in which Africans were defined as non-human. Then, any transformation of the social order that liberated mankind from this compulsion would be expensive and aggravating. Hence, democracy could be construed to mean something at the end of an unpopular path of auto-emancipation.
Finally, the Counterculture/1968 Movement was an attempt to expose the roots of Trans-European society to public debate and, it was assumed, drastic change. In some cases, such as sexual mores and university culture, this did indeed occur; in the case of environmentalism and administrative politics (i.e., the internal governance of bureaucracies), the results were profoundly disappointing. Opponents of the status quo could point to the perfectionist character of sexual mores, and the anti-democratic principle that the sex lives of human beings were being used to mold them to a commercial (bourgeois) conception of usefulness. Or, one could point to the perfectionist principle behind militarism, that humans in peacetime lost their warlike virtues; hence, the ideology behind the war in Vietnam was a "noble lie" contrived to preserve a nation of warriors. The goal of this period was to confront the congeries of social forces and bureaucracies all at once, creating a space in which people could actually imagine a society in which they wished to live. Unfortunately, the immediate effect was to create a venue for unstructured self-indulgence.
Since the period 1965-1975, radical social democracy has entered a period of latency. A series of people power movements in the Philippines, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and so on, amounted a rolling style of middle class protest against an unresponsive executive branch; in cases such as China (1989) and Myanmar (1990 & 2007), the latter was more than prepared to strike back. Elsewhere, the larger problem with such expressions of popular anger at the executive is that they are overwhelmingly dominated by a well-positioned middle class; often, the successor to the ousted executive is hemmed in by an antagonistic lower middle class, or rural population. Class divisions have largely silenced radical social democracy for the present time.
- ↑ See, for example, Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution Penguin (2006); Christopher Hill The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, Penguin (1984)
- ↑ For an excellent account of how this happened, please see W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, §XVI: "Back Toward Slavery" and §XVII: "The Propaganda of History" (complete text, courtesy of Nathaniel Turner)
- ↑ See Hubert Bonin, "Employment and the Revolution of 1848 in France" (1998) for the economic stimuli of the July Revolution in France; for the police enforcement effect on the revolutions, see W. Scott Haine, "Police Regulation, Working Class Life". For detailed descriptions of working conditions, one is pretty much forced to turn to the leading authority on the subject, Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845—complete text online); and Capital, I.iii.10 While some readers may be allergic to Marx or his literary executor and colleague, Engels, their work on this matter is unimpeachably documented and has never been seriously challenged on the facts. Capital is copiously footnoted and covers a broad range of worker conditions.
- ↑ For a noble exception, take the exemplary case of John S. Mill, "The Subjection of Women" (1869). This essay was published by Mill (the classic liberal par excellence) late in his career, when he was regarded as a wild-eyed crank (to his great honor, in this case). In chapter 3 he introduces the argument that the right to vote is necessary for self-defense.
I should mention that, two years prior, the Reform Act of 1867 dramatically increased the number of voters in England, and in 1868, similar measures were passed for Scotland and Ireland. See Joseph Hendershot Park, The English Reform Bill of 1867 (complete text online); doctoral thesis, Columbia University [New York] (1920) pp.258-261. The experiences of France and the USA with very large franchises (>33% of the adult population) were regarded as serious deterrents at the time.
- ↑ The situation in the USA is rather complicated; until 1865, federal oversight of state voting laws was rare or nil (George Alan Tarr, Understanding State Constitutions Princeton University Press—1998, p.45). Initially, only Vermont did not have financial qualifications for voting (see Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States Basic Books; New Ed edition (2001), p.17); gradually, more states adopted new constitutions that abolished these. In many cases, property requirements applied in some elections, but not in others. During the period 1800 to 1855, most states with property-ownership requirements for voting either abolished them, or replaced them with taxpayer requirements, with militia service a common alternative path to voting rights. By 1860, almost no financial restrictions applied anywhere (Ibid., p.50). In France, the nation oscillated between extremes of universal manhood suffrage and royal dictatorship.
- ↑ Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest Books (1967): Chapter Five: "The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie," p.123,
- ↑ The Hungarian Soviet Republic (link to Hungary: A Country Study, Library of Congress) was declared 21 March 1919 and attempted to continue the war by recapturing territories ceded to Czechoslovakia and Romania in the Treaty of Trianon. On 1 August the Romanians captured Budapest, and the leadership of the HSR fled; the HSR had lasted 134 days. The Bolshevik regime in Russia lasted somewhat longer.
- Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 Oxford University Press (2002)