Duncan Hallas

Saving the system

(November 1986)

Book review, Socialist Worker Review, No.92, November 1986, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe 1944-1985
Ian Birchall

“Between 1945 and 1985 social-democrats were in power – alone or in coalition – at some time in virtually every country in Western Europe ... This book has been written to illustrate both the resilience and the ultimately reactionary role of social-democracy ...”

This is an excellent book and it could not have appeared at a better time. It rightly concentrates on Britain, France, Italy and West Germany but brings out the highlights of developments in practically every other European country outside the Russian bloc.

My only criticism on this score is that rather more on the Scandinavian countries would have been useful.

The years 1944-5 and immediately afterwards saw a great resurgence of the social democratic parties (and of the Communist Parties as well) as a result of a massive radicalisation of the European working classes.

There was a pattern. Left wing rhetoric – often very left wing rhetoric – and actual policies designed to restore capitalist ‘normality’ as soon as possible.

The British story is probably the best known to readers of this Review so little need be said about it. I cannot however resist citing one of the many superbly apposite quotations from the book. It is Dennis Healey speaking at the Labour Party conference in 1945:

“The crucial principle of our foreign policy should be to protect, assist, encourage and aid in every way that socialist revolution wherever it appears.”

Social democrats were in government in most of the countries at this time, typically in coalitions which also included the Communist Parties.

In France the Socialist and Communist Panics together had an absolute majority in both votes and seats in the Constituent Assembly elections in 1945. They formed a coalition with a new (and supposedly left) Catholic party, the MRP.

This government rapidly restored the bourgeois state machine (largely shattered during the liberation), presided over an austerity regime in France, mounted a massive repression in Algeria (where there was a nationalist revolt) and sent troops to recover the French colony of Vietnam.

All this was accompanied by a cloud of left phrases (and fairly extensive nationalisation measures as in Britain). Here is Guy Mollet, general secretary of the French Socialist Party (then called SFIO) speaking at the party congress of 1946:

“We must condemn all attempts at revisionism, notably those which are inspired by a false humanism, the real meaning of which is to disguise the fundamental reality of the class struggle. It is this weakening of Marxist thought in the party which has led it to neglect the essential tasks of organisation, propaganda and penetration into the masses ...”

The “neglect” referred to means the party leaders’ fear of being marginalised by the bigger and better organised French CP-which was pursuing exactly the same policies. But all this was soon to change.

The Second World War was, of course, an imperialist war for the redivision of the world. And the victors soon fell out.

The United States stepped up its drive to dominate Europe, east and west, with the Marshall Plan and NATO. The USSR countered with the Cominform and the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War got underway.

The social democrats swung into the American column. Naturally, the British Labour Party (then in government) was in the vanguard of the cold warriors, developing the first British nuclear weapons and taking Britain into NATO. But most of the others soon caught up. They had an important role to play.

As Birchall says: “They could influence many who would be impervious to straightforward red-baiting.” And they did, moving rapidly to the right in the process.

Talk about ‘socialist revolution’ or ‘Marxism’ was out now. The CP were thrown out of various governments in or around 1947 and moved left within limits.

The Cold War was enormously important. It polarised the European working class movements into pro-Moscow and pro-Washington camps. US-sponsored breakaways were created (with the help of the British TUC) in a number of national union federations-most importantly in France and Italy.

Those who stood for the principled internationalist position- neither Washington nor Moscow-like our forerunner, the Socialist Review group, became extremely isolated.

Above all, reactionary ideas became dominant-ideas more reactionary indeed than the social democratic leaders had anticipated.

“By the early fifties the social democratic parties had done their job for capitalism and could be cast aside. The next decade was a period of right Wing domination: in Britain the Tories ruled for thirteen years from 1951; in West Germany the Christian Democrats won the highest share of the poll at five successive elections...in Italy Christian Democrats dominated the government and in France no SF10 minister served in a government between 1951 and 1956.

“Leaving aside the special case of Sweden and some smaller countries ... it was a bleak period for reformists.”

They survived. For the arms-fuelled long boom of the fifties and sixties pretty well excluded the development of a serious organised threat from the left for a long time.

The slowly developing crisis of Stalinism weakened their CP rivals (except in the Italian case where the PCI succeeded in becoming the dominant reformist party). And the gradual but inexorable return of crises in the capitalist economy meant that there was an essential function for social democracy.

Ian Birchall puts it very clearly:

“The bankruptcy of Stalinism left social democracy with the fundamental task of mediating between labour and capital... Social democratic parties, created by the working class but wholly committed to the existing order, are the best possible organisations [for this] ... This does not mean, of course, that the ruling class sees social democrats as the ideal party of government ... What suits the bourgeoisie is a system that keeps the social democrats in reserve as an alternative solution.”

In the last 15 or so years social democrats have been in government, at various times, in Britain, Ireland, France, West Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Even Italy, where they are now very weak, currently has a ‘socialist’ prime minister. And here in Britain, comrade Kinnock is waiting in the wings to rescue British capitalism yet again if the Tories flounder.

This book is essential reading for today’s revolutionary socialists. It is very easy reading too, and its concluding section, Co-opting the Left, could not be more relevant to our immediate situation.


Last updated on 27.12.2003