Paul Foot

Democracy and socialism
Century of the great hope

(January 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.237, January 2000, pp.14-16.
Copyright © 2000 Socialist Review.
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Prospects for peaceful social change seemed inevitable 100 years ago. But, the fight for the vote did not challenge economic power, argues Paul Foot, and so we still have to achieve real democracy

Margarethe von Trotta’s fabulous film about Rosa Luxemburg opens on New Year’s Eve 1899 with a huge centenary party ball organised by the German Social Democratic Party. The scene throbs with gaiety, ribaldry, and above all hope. All the great leaders of the rising new movement were there to celebrate the dawn of a new era, the start of another hundred years, which everyone assumed would be incomparably better than the century of wars and dictators which was drawing to a close.

What was the chief cause of this great hope? It was not just that the German Social Democratic Party was increasing its influence throughout the country, but that everyone expected that before too long the mass of the German people would win the vote, and that vote would lead inevitably to a prolonged period of democratic government. The essence of that new democracy was conveyed by the word ‘social’ in the party’s name. Of democratic bourgeois parties, ever since 1848, the workers had had their fill. Now at last their place was to be taken by a socialist party whose democratic qualifications were millions of workers’ votes. Now at last the travesty of democracy would give way to a government committed to measures which would be passed through parliament and at last put a stop to the rulers’ interminable exploitation of the working class.

Two characters dominated that tumultuous celebration: Karl Kautsky, the doyen of German Social Democracy, unbending in his insistence on Marxist politics in the party, and Rosa herself, fresh from a furious argument with Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein had argued against the idea that social change could only come about through social revolution. This was understandable in an age of tyranny, Bernstein argued, but plain silly when the workers, without risking either the violence or the unknown future course of revolution, could change society by electing deputies to parliament and therefore, through the majority they were certain to win in those parliaments, change the country’s laws, customs and inequalities. Rosa replied that capitalism would never consent to being reformed into another system, and would certainly resist every measure that threatened to take the country and its industry towards socialism. Those who worked from the top of society to change it from the top wanted, she argued, merely to reform the capitalist system, while she and her comrades wanted to abolish the system altogether and replace it by socialism. It was quite wrong, she concluded, to pretend that this was an argument about ends and means. Those who wanted to reform capitalism rather than replace it were seeking ‘a different goal’.

The argument was still raging when the SPD luminaries gathered for their New Year Ball in 1899. Many guests, including Karl Kautsky, responded to the Marxist language favoured by Rosa Luxemburg, though the more practical politicians among them, again including Karl Kautsky, were secretly impressed and even excited by Bernstein’s parliamentary perspective. In the film the argument hovers lightly, almost frivolously, over the celebrations without spoiling them. Whatever happened, all the guests assumed and rejoiced that under the auspices of the mighty new party life would get better.

Two decades later the SPD was elected to national office after the defeat of the German Revolution. Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of that revolution, was fished out of a river after being murdered by troops under the orders of the new SPD government. Karl Kautsky and most of the other SPD leaders had voted for the unspeakably murderous First World War, and the intellectual heirs of Bernstein were all in high office. In 1933 the right to vote, the very basis of their power and the essence of the celebrations at the centennial ball, was abruptly usurped. No sooner was Adolf Hitler elected chancellor than he banned all future elections, wiped out trade unions and opposition parties, and installed himself as fascist dictator. The century of the great hope became the century of the Holocaust.

The British experience was similar, if slower and less dramatic. British Labour leaders were far more reluctant than their German counterparts to form an independent party. They did so gingerly, and still glancing nostalgically back to the days when they were welcome in the Liberal Party. The clinching argument was the need for an independent party which would represent the working masses and fight for those masses against the rich and powerful. The new Labour Party ushered in a new era of democracy. Until then the choice for British electors was between Tories and Liberals, two parties which drew their leaders and policies from the propertied minority. The notion that by voting Labour the British people could elect a government which would then pass laws in the interests of labour and the working class was a million times more democratic than anything which had gone before. For the first time democracy meant something more tangible for the workers: a chance to choose a friendly government which could reverse the oppressive balance of class forces and immeasurably improve the lives of working people. In a speech in 1923 the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, explained that these changes would come through elected Labour governments which would, by persistently passing reforming laws, bring about a ‘gradual supercession’ of capitalism.

Almost at once MacDonald got his chance. The general election of 1929 returned Labour as the largest party. Less than two years later, in conditions of mass unemployment and economic crisis, neither of which had been expected, let alone predicted, MacDonald and his close colleagues proposed a plan to cut the dole for millions of unemployed workers. The plan was intolerable to the rank and file of the Labour Party and to the TUC. Rather than accept the majority view of the party they had built and led, MacDonald, chancellor Philip Snowden, and Jimmy Thomas, whose special ministerial responsibility was unemployment and under whose term of office unemployment had tripled, crossed the floor of the House of Commons and joined the Tories in what they called a national government. At the subsequent general election Labour lost 3 million votes and all but 50 of its MPs.

Shocked and angry, Labour Party members rallied to calls from the left never again to allow such a betrayal. The newly formed Socialist League argued that the only effective antidote to such a betrayal was a thoroughgoing socialist policy and a ruthless determination by the next socialist government to pass that policy into law. The League’s policies were designed to breathe some life into the democracy so humiliated by the MacDonald betrayal. But by the time Labour was re-elected in 1945, on the crest of precisely the wave of popular socialist conviction which the League had anticipated, the Labour leaders had lost any enthusiasm they may have had for replacing the power of capital. Despite its nationalisations and the National Health Service, the postwar Labour government stuck firmly to the old rules of parliamentary government, and before three years were out had become, for all to see, the servant of capital, not the master of it.

The same wretched process, greatly exaggerated, dogged the two other periods of majority Labour government after the war – under Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970, and Wilson and James Callaghan from 1974 to 1979. Both succumbed to the ‘continuity of policy’ which Stafford Cripps of the Socialist League had castigated as the harbinger of compromise and betrayal. Both accepted the dictation of reactionary foreign policy priorities from the United States and blatantly anti-union decisions from the judiciary. Above all, both governments trailed helplessly behind the economic priorities of capitalism: if the market called for high unemployment, the government conceded it; if the market called for low investment, the government conceded it; if the market called for cuts in public services, the government conceded them. Yet no one elected the market, and each time the elected government conceded to the market another slice of democracy was lost.

Nor was the power of capital to dictate policy restricted to periods of Labour government. In the autumn of 1992 the newly elected Tory government was proceeding happily along its carefully chosen path with Britain as a member of the ERM, which set the European rate for the currency. Massive speculation by wealthy gamblers, none of whom were elected or had any concern about public policy except to make the swiftest buck for themselves, forced the government, against its declared will, to abandon the policy and leave the ERM. Interviewed about this six years later, Kenneth Clarke, who was home secretary at the time, said the ERM debacle proved the fantastic political power of market forces. ‘We as a government were totally out of control,’ he revealed. Nor was the Tory government alone in that humiliation. Membership of the ERM was the declared policy of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

The combined effect of this relentless drain of democracy has been to convince the professional politicians that there is no real scope for any substantial change in the social order. For formerly bourgeois politicians, Liberal and Tory, this new mood represented no change. They always stood for capitalism, and are quite content to continue to do so. For Labour, which stood for at least a gradual supercession of the capitalist order and a slow, gradual march to socialism, the new pessimism required a sharp change in direction. The election in 1994 of the openly Liberal politician Tony Blair to replace the social democrat John Smith as Labour leader was the first sign of this change. Then in quick succession came the removal from the party constitution of Clause Four, which had committed it to public ownership, and a string of watered-down commitments whose combined effect was to ensure that under a Labour government the rich get richer while the workers and their unions are held firmly in the judicial grip which Margaret Thatcher had fashioned for them. As the coup de grace in this slaughter of former commitments, Blair, almost as soon as he was elected, held meetings with the Liberal Democrats to offer them seats in the cabinet. He yearned for the day when British democracy would once again hold out a glorious choice between a Tory Party committed to capitalism and an anti-Tory party committed to capitalism. Labour’s huge 1997 majority in the Commons – itself a sign of the growing wrath against years of Thatcherism – made it impossible for Blair to clinch his cherished Lib-Lab dream, but he is determined to keep trying. The conclusion at the end of the century of the great hope is that the highest aspirations of the modern Labour Party reach no further than those of the Democratic Party in the United States: that social democracy can now be dispensed with, and that any true meaning of the word ‘democracy’ will vanish with the ‘social’.

One reaction to this sad story is to proclaim the invulnerability of capitalism, and to limit politics and political action to the reactionary vistas of Tony Blair. This is the reaction of people who believe either a) that there is no working class with common wants and common interests or b) that the working class has no power to make its presence and its interests felt in high society. Coincidentally, this sort of pessimism was rife in Britain 100 years ago when a Tory government was in apparently unshakeable control and the voters were about to be seduced by a juicy war in South Africa. That pessimism was soon shattered in the great burst of agitation by workers, women and Irish republicans in the years leading up the First World War. It was shattered still further in the Russian Revolution and the burst of workers’ confidence which it inspired all over the world. The plain fact is that as long as society is split into classes, as long as the rich try to get richer by bashing the poor, there will inevitably be periods of mass protest as the workers and the poor organise to hit back.

The class struggle, in short, is not over. It will show itself again and again. As it does so, another temptation will distract workers. So sick will so many of them be of the long periods of passivity, or of the hideous betrayal of socialist principles by the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, that they will urge their followers to abandon politics to professional politicians and do their best to batter down the ramparts of capitalism armed only with strikes and demonstrations. Such a strategy leaves the rich class with their strongest weapon intact. They know, as they did in 1911 and 1921 and 1972, that workers’ militancy can fall as fast as it can rise, and that great explosions of militancy can dissolve like fireworks in the night. They know that as long as militancy can be confined to its own borders it can be contained and eventually defeated.

Socialist politics, based on the aspirations of rank and file workers, can bind that militancy together and arm it with answers to the inevitable questions. Why should better off workers go on strike – why not redistribute the wealth of richer workers among the starving millions? Is it really true that one man’s wage rise is another man’s price rise? Above all, what is this socialism and why should it be any better than what we have at present? The very questions themselves are unanswerable by those who support a society ruled by a bureaucratic state capitalist tyranny or by a grasping ruling class. The answers can only come from a militant working class movement in revolt against capitalism.

The case emerges clearly for socialist organisation whose strength and potential come from its links to workers’ militancy and their readiness to use their power to fight. The enduring political lesson of the 20th century is that socialism and social democracy through the ballot box have failed on both counts, and that there is no short cut to socialism from the rulers of class society, however enlightened or socialistic those rulers claim to be. There is no socialism, and because of that no true democracy. Those who believed that either or both could be achieved through the ballot box alone have been confounded. Roll on the next century, not only of the great democratic hope but also of the greatest possible democratic achievement: the emancipation of labour.


Last updated on 27.11.2004