Social Democracy in Europe is Now Swinging Decisively to the Left

Capitalism-and-Social-DemocracyPublished: 5 June 2017
Author: Pat Byrne
(British Labour Party activist)

As Britain prepares for a new General Election in which a left-led Labour Party looks set to do much better than predicted, there are clear signs that the long swing to the right within social democracy in Europe is now running in the reverse direction.

In recent years, there has been much comment on the Left that social democracy was finished and that a new mass left movement was in the process of taking its place. The rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain were trumpeted as evidence for this widespread trend. While welcoming the rise of Syriza and Podemos, our Socialist Network also pointed to the potential of the left within social democracy to regain the ascendancy within the movement as an organic reflection of the rising discontent of working people hard-hit by the world economic crisis.

As we argued in our pamphlet ‘Socialists and the Mass Organisations’ three years ago:

In such a situation it is all too easy to look at the social democratic parties in a simplistic, undialectical way, ignoring the wider processes in society that affect these parties… The social democratic parties are not sealed off from the trends of society. The ongoing crisis of international capitalism opens up the possibility of the mass radicalisation of working people and offers possibilities for the growth of a strong left-wing inside the ranks of these parties.
…In the first version of this pamphlet we had written that: “Of course, right now the idea of winning a left-wing majority in the social democratic parties might sound far-fetched or impossible.” However, just 18 months later our prediction was not only confirmed but in a far more dramatic way than we could have ever imagined. Of course, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is only the first step in transforming the Party into the kind of democratic campaigning movement we need. It will take considerable time and effort to change the rest of the party but it is a tremendous step in the right direction. Jeremy’s victory also has implications for other social democratic parties elsewhere.

Events over the past year have dramatically confirmed our forecast. We are now seeing major swings to the Left within social democracy in a number of important European countries.

The success of the left in winning the leadership of the British Labour Party has been followed by the recruitment of 500,000 new members attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s policies. While the right-wing of the Labour Party has attempted to sabotage Corbyn’s leadership, even going as far as resigning all their Shadow Cabinet positions last year and then forcing a re-election campaign for party leader, the Left have continued to advance. Thus, a more left-wing shadow cabinet has emerged while Corbyn was re-elected with a bigger majority. Moreover, major changes to party policy have been achieved as reflected in the relatively radical party manifesto agreed for the British General Election campaign, a manifesto that according to the polls is supported by a large majority of the population. And, despite all the predictions that Corbyn would be a disaster with the electorate he has already proved himself to be a formidable campaigner in the snap election.

Socialist Party leader and French President Francois Hollande faced strong opposition within the Socialist Party to his dramatic turn in 2012 towards neo-liberal pro-business policies. In the process, Hollande’s Education Minister Francois Benoît Hamon, became the figurehead of leftwing rebels and for his pains was sacked in 2014 for opposing Hollande and Valls’s pro-market economic policy. Hamon then led a rebellion of Socialist Party MPs against Hollande’s controversial drive to weaken France’s labour laws.

As a result, Hollande lost all credibility in the Socialist Party and in society as a whole and was forced to pull out of the 2017 Presidential race. In the following Socialist Party’s primary for the Presidential candidate, Hamon as the youngest and furthest left of the candidates won 60% in a contest in which any voter could take part if they paid €1 and signed a form adhering to the values of the left. Unfortunately for Hamon, so discredited was the Socialist Party by President Hollande’s betrayal in the previous five years, he came in fifth in the first round with only 6% of the vote. That said, this result showed that the combined vote of the left – Hamon from the Socialist Party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from France Unbowed with nearly 20% – could have propelled them into a run-off with Le Pen, a contest the Left could have won. Once again this demonstrates that the left of social democracy needs to unite with parties to the left of social democracy if they are to defeat the right and win elections on a radical programme. Looking forward, the Left are obviously now in a big majority both among the French Socialist Party membership and Socialist Party voters.

Spain:  A major split broke out in the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) last October when the Party’s right-wing mounted a coup and took over the party allowing them to abstain from voting in Spain’s parliament and putting the Conservatives in power again. The ousted General Secretary, Pedro Sánchez, who had opposed the Conservatives returning to office, responded to the coup by shifting to the left and campaigning across the Party’s membership. Last month he succeeded in winning the leadership again which opens up great possibilities for the left within Spanish social democracy.

An important issue within the internal party struggle was over whether the Socialists should be willing to work with the broad left alternative to the Spanish Socialists, Unidos Podemos, which is polling just behind the socialists. Sánchez argued strongly for co-operating with Podemos which is exactly what Spanish workers want to see in bringing down the pro-austerity Conservative government. Interestingly, Podemos has just undergone its own internal power struggle with the existing left leadership of Pablo Iglesias being strongly reaffirmed.

Germany :  The election earlier this year of Martin Schultz as the new leader of the SPD was much compared to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US and clearly represents a major shift to the left. Most importantly, Schultz is open to the idea of joining a SPD-Die Linke-Green government (a Left-Left-Green coalition) after the next election. This is in stark contrast to the policy of the old leadership which preferred forming a ‘Grand Coalition’ government with the conservative CDU/CSU after the 2013 election rather than governing alongside the ex-communist Die Linke group.

Equally significant is the pledge given by Schultz to reverse some of the neo-liberal labour market reforms introduced by a previous social democratic government that have helped to reduce living standards for many working people in Germany.

Extending the Change
What these examples of rapid transformation within social democracy in four of the most important countries of Europe clearly demonstrate is the potential that now exists for a swing to the Left in virtually all of the social democratic parties internationally. The deepening crisis of living standards among working people means that not only is there a growing majority of social democratic party members in favour of a new radical course but there is even more support among social democratic voters. Socialists within social democratic parties need to reach out to the party’s membership using every avenue including social media, in order to challenge the existing policy and leadership of their parties. In doing so they should link up with socialists in social democratic parties elsewhere and learn from their experience.

The Socialist International
The battle for the future course of social democracy has not bypassed the International body to which all social democratic parties are affiliated, the Socialist International. The problem is that the Socialist International tends to provide a platform for the various views of the leaders of social democracy rather than reflect trends in the wider movement. Thus, instead of the new social democratic left challenging the establishment within the International we are still seeing the working through of the earlier neo-liberal counter-revolution within social democracy.

Five years ago a major factional struggle broke out inside the Socialist International. As a result, in May 2013 the right-wing of the International, having failed the year before to replace the long-serving Chilean General Secretary, Luis Ayala, went on to set up a “reformist” section of the international entitled the ‘Progressive Alliance’.  Since then, 69 of the 162 Members and Observers of the Socialist International have joined this Alliance and many of them have drastically cut their subscriptions to the International.

The reasons for the split include some justified criticism of the International’s old guard but in essence it is an attempt by the right of social democracy to “modernise” the International, and thereby abandon what little remains of its radical past. As the new faction’s name indicates, the Progressive Alliance is trying to drop the traditional “socialist” aim laid down in Clause One of the Socialist International’s Statutes which reads: “1. THE SOCIALIST INTERNATIONAL is an association of political parties and organisations which seek to establish democratic socialism.”

While the current Socialist International’s principles do accept the “mixed economy” the text contains a critique of the capitalist world and forms a potential basis for a radical democratic socialist programme. Compare this to the vacuous liberal programme of the new Progressive Alliance.

In this sense, the new Alliance is clearly trying to achieve on an international level what the Social Democratic Party did in Germany in 1959, and the Labour Party in 1995: namely, the abandonment of the original socialistic aims of the movement. The new ‘Progressive’ label also allows it to open up its ranks to non-social democratic bodies like the American Democratic Party who as we can see from its membership list have now joined the Alliance.

Socialists in social democracy should start to raise this issue in their respective parties and campaign against the Progressive Alliance and in favour of a reformed Socialist International that not only excludes ‘state’ parties and cleans up its finances, but more importantly campaigns much more clearly for the democratic socialist transformation of society.

Tasks Ahead
This rapid rise of the left in social democracy needs to be consolidated and deepened. To achieve this we should help build mass democratic broad left groupings inside each party. The goal of such groupings should be democratise their parties and commit them to a radical democratic socialist transformation of society. Policies for the democratic public ownership of the banks and leading industries need to be combined with dynamic planning of the economy in order to halt the international fall in living standards and degradation of the environment; and then lead on to utilise the growing power of technology to transform the lives of all of the world’s people.

In the interim, the current radicalisation of social democracy in Europe needs to be extended across the world – members of all parties affiliated to the Socialist International should be made aware of this huge change taking place in the leading parties of the International and encouraged to demand the same in their own parties.

By Pat Byrne
Pat can be reached at:



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