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International Socialism, Spring 1967


Brian Ebbatson

Double Deutsch


From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, pp.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Social Democratic Party of Germany
Douglas A Chalmers
Yale, 48s

From Schumacher to Brandt
David Childs
Pergamon, 15s

Traditional German Social-Democracy has long been a happy hunting ground for historians and political scientists of all flavours and varieties. The failures of the SPD since World War II, much less spectacular than its previous ones, have however found far fewer commentators prepared to risk (or forge) their academic reputations by gathering the relevant material and attempting the analysis. The revolution in the SPD (the overthrow of old-style reformism and the taking over of power by an elite of ‘classless’ technocracy ideologues) is not untypical of what seems to be happening to all the old social democratic parties in the conditions of post-war ‘stabilised’ capitalism, except insofar as it has now been completed. In many ways then, the experience of the SPD, despite many of its peculiar characteristics, such as its physical annihilation from 1933-45 and all the consequences arising from this and Germany’s central position in the international cold-war, remains as before a good model for studying the basic nature of post-war social democracy. The appearance of these two books gives recognition to this fact.

This ‘technocratic’ revolution in the SPD is distinguished (from the similar one in the British Labour Party for example) by a number of features. First, it has been completely open. The new men; Erler, Wehner, Deist, Carlo Schmid, Von Knoeringen and later Brandt, organised a concerted and well-managed campaign to take over, met a largely favourable response in the party and won convincingly at Bad Godesberg in 1959. They were overthrowing a reformism that claimed to be ‘Marxist,’ and rode a tide of anti-Marxism and electoral frustration in the party. In the Labour Party on the contrary there was no ‘Marxism’ to overthrow, the old reformism had its roots rather in liberalism, Fabianism and non-conformism, and the technocratic elite ideology is the logical result of the reformist experience after 1945, which the SPD never had; the overthrow has not been so felt or noticed, the more so since after the initial attempt by Gaitskell met considerable opposition, it is now being carried through by a shrewd power-politician parading first as a left-winger and then as a national Messiah. The SPD revolution has been clear-cut, complete and until now untested, by the left or by political power.

The two books both have as their subject this transformation, but their approach is completely different. The article by Georg Lux in IS 8, The Decline of German Socialism, is a link between the two and its conclusions are, I think, more sound. Chalmers is interested primarily in the structural changes in the SPD which he sees as the elite having achieved political and ideological leadership, then adapting the party to the political and social structure of ‘pluralist, democratic’ West Germany, which he sees as a good thing for the party and for democracy. Childs broaches the subject from the point of view of an analysis of socialist thought in the SPD and its relation to their actions. He begins with the observation that the SPD never really was Marxist, but like Lux he concludes that the decline of socialist thought and consciousness is dangerous for the prospects of democracy, and he backs this up with a very good chapter on the reactionary forces within the ruling class and the state.

All three writers observe the inability of the old reformist leadership to apply a socialist analysis to the economic recovery of capitalism, which is one of the main causes of the decline of socialist thought. Childs goes further into the problem when he says:

‘Although manual workers make up a majority of ordinary members, they find no representation at the top of the party. Indeed admitting that the relationship between social class and political ideology is by no means a simple one, there is evidence to support the view that if industrial workers were better represented in the higher echelons of Social Democracy, party policy would be somewhat different.’

Chalmers presents a comprehensive survey of the new organisation and its social content and shows its other aspect as the recreation of the party into a purely electoral machine in the hands of its leaders (again a good thing). But it is left to Lux to perceive the real significance of this revolution. In the ‘tertiary’ layers that have risen as a result of the bureaucratisation of society (’pluralisation’ in Chalmers’ analysis) is a new middle class whose class interest is the rewards rather than the power of administration.

‘In the SPD they have gained predominance over the working class element. Its change of aims only indicates once again that the party has become the representative of the class interests of this new stratum of society.’

The political conclusiom that the SPD cannot now fulfil the tasks of the working class does not exclude the possibility of socialist activity in the SPD, since this decision is influenced by external factors such as an electoral system that restricts the growth of third parties in periods of stability, and local situations that contradict the general analysis; but this is a matter for German comrades involved in the labour movement, and not for the external observer to prescribe.

Chalmers’ book, behind the abundance of sociological jargon that makes reading heavy for the uninitiated, provides a wide range of empirical data that can only be useful, but his analysis is dangerous in that he has no concept of the realities of class power in Germany and the very real danger to his own cherished constitutional democracy of a socialist party that falls over backwards to accommodate itself to the requirements and the party of the ruling class. Childs’ book deserves the praise it will get as a good, perceptive and concise history of the ideas and practice of the SPD since 1945. For the socialist who wants just this, it fills well this gap in the history of the international socialist movement, though one feels he could in places 30 deeper. Hence I recommend that it be read alongside Lux’s contribution and appeal to the writer to bring it up to date and to the IS editors to reprint it.

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