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Prospects for Social Democracy in the US: Insights From a Syndicalist in Sweden

Bernie Sanders speaks at at Saint Mary's Park in New York City's South Bronx neighborhood on March 31, 2016. (Photo: Michael Vadon)Bernie Sanders speaks at Saint Mary's Park in New York City's South Bronx neighborhood on March 31, 2016. (Photo: Michael Vadon)

Originally posted on Truhtout
By Enrique Guerrero-López and Adam Weaver
April 10th, 2017

In the era of Trump, there's a clear and growing interest in socialism, especially among young people. The first measurable shift began to peek over the horizon in polling data done in the wake of the Occupy movement, showing 49 percent of people ages 18-29 favored socialism over capitalism. The political terrain of the US was rocked to such a degree that even the Republicans took "capitalism" out of their talking points. As the narrative of free markets and unquestioned neoliberalism publicly unraveled, we reached the point in 2016 where a majority of those under 30 rejected capitalism and had a positive view of socialism. This crisis of the political establishment was further deepened by the emergence of Black Lives Matter. Ferguson became symbolic of the deep racial inequality that exists across the US, but it was also the rebellion of urban centers like Baltimore -- traditionally Democratic and with significant Black elected leadership -- which melted away the "post-racial" mythology that took hold during the Obama years.

So when Bernie Sanders stepped into the ring for the 2016 presidential election as the anti-establishment candidate building a "political revolution," he slid through the door kicked open by social movements, exceeding even his own expectations and gaining unanticipated popularity. The Sanders campaign simultaneously popularized and clouded understandings of socialism. When asked about his vision of socialism during a CNN presidential debate, Sanders responded that we should "look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway," conflating a social democratic welfare state with the anticapitalist core of socialism.

Taking a cue from Sanders, we decided to "look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway" to take a deeper look at social democracy from the perspective of those who live in "actually existing" social democratic countries. We recently spoke with Gabriel Kuhn, an Austrian-born author living in Sweden and involved in radical labor and migrant solidarity efforts, about his analysis and experience of social democracy. Kuhn, the author of numerous books including Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging A Militant Working-Class Culture, is a member of the syndicalist SAC (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation) and has in recent years mainly been involved in migrant solidarity projects. 

Enrique Guerrero-López and Adam Weaver: Through the Bernie Sanders campaign, social democracy reentered public discourse in the US. Sanders and others often point to countries such as Denmark as a model for the US to follow. As someone who grew up and lived in more than one European social democratic country, how would you respond to his supporters?

Gabriel Kuhn: Well, as someone who lived in the US for several years in the 1990s and who visited regularly during the following decade, I guess I understand the sentiment. What I mean is, if social justice, egalitarianism and civility guide your politics, European social democracy has several advantages over US realities: There is a stronger safety net for the sick, the needy and the elderly; higher education is not reserved for the economically privileged; there aren't significant amounts of the population sitting behind bars (and no one on death row); most workers are unionized; civil rights are not under constant threat by religious fundamentalists and right-wing zealots, and so forth. So, yes, if you want a "better" capitalism, I think you will find it here. But of course, it is still capitalism, with all that entails: individualism, competition, alienation, class divides, the maxim of profitability and the propagation of constant economic growth despite its disastrous social and ecological consequences. This is all just administered differently. Plus -- and this is really important -- European social democracy, like any type of government in the "First World," rests on an imperialist system that is everything but social, egalitarian and civil. The state, of course, is very powerful, which wouldn't appeal to folks with anarchist or left-libertarian leanings. Bureaucracy and red tape are a part of daily life.

With respect to European social democracy serving as a possible model for the US, there is, of course, another thing to consider, namely whether that is at all feasible, even if it was desirable. I doubt that the model could be reproduced in the US. Apart from imperialist exploitation, two factors were key for the growth of social democracy in Western Europe: a strong workers' movement and the long shadow cast by the Soviet Union on its ruling classes. This context is gone even in Europe, and it never existed in the US in the same way. In addition, there are other historical factors to consider in the US -- for example, what J. Sakai calls "settlerism," notions such as "American exceptionalism" and a deep mistrust of government, both on the left and the right. So I think that if the left in the US wants to make mitigating capitalism's worst effects a priority -- which is, basically, what social democracy has been doing in Europe throughout the 20th century -- it needs to develop its own visions and, particularly, strategies. If the focus ought to be on revolutionary politics, it would require a different framework altogether.

A common argument from those on the left who support left-leaning electoral campaigns, such as that of Bernie Sanders, or those who advocate forming a new, independent left party of some sort, is that these campaigns can help support and build social movements. Some highlight the efforts of Bernie Sanders in echoing the demands of Black Lives Matter and immigrant worker struggles as examples. In the European social democratic countries, how would you describe the relationship between electoral politics and social movements, both historically and today?

In order to answer this, I think we need to look at the history of European social democracy. I will try to make this short.

It must not be forgotten that social democracy's roots are Marxist. The Bolsheviks were originally a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Before World War I, a classless society was the goal of all social democrats, even if there were heated discussion about the right strategy; some favored a parliamentarian, step-by-step approach, others an immediate, insurgent one. Then, three major historical developments successively pushed social democracy further to the right:

1. World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a division between the social democratic camp and what now became known as the communist one; the first gathered the critics of the Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat, and the second its supporters. (Anarchists, who tried to maintain a third position, lost influence.) In Austria, the so-called Austromarxists were the last social democrats who still pursued a classless society. They tried to build bridges between social democracy and Bolshevism and reserved the possibility of a dictatorship of the proletariat -- if need be -- in their party platform. The fascist takeover of Austria in 1934 marked not only the end of the Austromarxist era, but the end of social democracy as one of three possible paths to a classless society (communism -- or, more precisely, Leninism -- and anarchism being the other two).

2. With the rise of fascism, in particular the Nazis' ascension to power in 1933, and World War II, early 20th-century social democracy was basically wiped out. The social democratic movement that re-emerged from the ashes of World War II was significantly different. Any ambition -- or even pretense -- of creating a classless society was gone, and the foundations for modern-day social democracy were laid, namely overseeing a more docile version of capitalism, characterized by class compromise, anti-communism and confusing slogans, such as "social market economy."

There are forces at play that are bigger than politicians' intentions, no matter how good they might be.

3. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the era of neoliberalism basically eradicated all differences between social democratic and bourgeois parties. If the legacy of post-World War II social democracy is preserved at all, then it is in self-proclaimed "left" or "communist" parties, such as Die Linke in Germany or Syriza in Greece. Since 1990, the shift to the right in mainstream European politics has been so strong that positions now considered "extreme left" would have been average social democratic positions even in the 1970s. We are witnessing certain attempts to counteract this development, with left currents in social democracy making themselves heard. In the UK, a representative of this trend, Jeremy Corbyn, is even heading the Labour Party. This is not without significance for public discourse, but the restraints that both the political system and the internal structures put on established power brokers, such as the British Labour Party, limit the impact of these tendencies. There are forces at play that are bigger than politicians' intentions, no matter how good they might be.

So, to answer your question about the connections between social democracy and social movements against this historical background: Historically, this connection was strong. The workers' movement, which carried social democracy in the beginning of the 20th century, was a cultural movement going beyond questions concerning wages, working conditions, union representation, housing or social services. It addressed all aspects of life, including the arts, sports and entertainment. In the early 20th century, the rise of social democracy was closely tied to mass movements focusing on everything from the emancipation of women to community education to temperance. (Issues that seemed more obscure -- such as sexual liberation or animal rights -- found stronger support among anarchists.)

The connection between social democracy and social movements was significantly weakened by the institutionalization of social democracy following World War II. Social democratic politicians have sometimes tried to gain votes by piggybacking on popular social movements (say, the antiwar movement or the anti-nuclear movement), and today's "left social democrats" certainly try to make this a part of their agenda, but, for the most part, social movements have been considered a nuisance or even a threat to the civil order maintained by social democratic bureaucrats. This is why the so-called green-alternative parties formed across Europe in the late 1970s, hoping to serve as institutional representatives of the social movements that had emerged since the late 1960s, and whose demands the social democrats were both unable and unwilling to meet. Today, of course, most of those parties have become part of the political establishment, too.

Social movements have been considered a nuisance or even a threat to the civil order maintained by social democratic bureaucrats.

I suppose that two factors allowed Sanders to champion social movement support in his campaign: First, an antiestablishment sentiment and turn toward populism and grassroots organizing in general (also on the right); and, second, what's effectively still a two-party system, which means that no other relevant party on the left occupied that role. What this means for social movements is difficult to say, and I have to leave that analysis to folks on the ground in the US. But of course, there is always the possibility of cutting off movements' edges to make them appear more acceptable, of compromising their independence by support that is more controlling than generous, and of outright co-opting them for one's own interests. All of this is hard to avoid if you play the political game.

In the US, critics argue that social democracy has historically rested on both a colorblind populism and a parochial nationalism, which sidesteps an analysis of white supremacy and xenophobia. For example, during the New Deal era in the US, a modern welfare state coexisted with both Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps. What has been the relationship between race, nationalism and social democracy in the Europe?

The critique you're mentioning certainly applies to European social democracy, too. The way in which many social democrats rallied behind national interests during World War I came as a shock to genuine internationalists, and was a major factor in the following division between the social democratic and communist camps. Even if international solidarity -- expressed in support for anticolonial movements, granting asylum to political refugees, or above-the-average foreign aid (it's a low bar) -- has characterized certain social democratic governments until the 1970s, social democracy never overcame the nationalism that is inherent in protecting the rights of a nationally defined working class. In other words, social democracy never did or could live up to true internationalism, which would extend the fight for social justice beyond national borders and attack the imperialist order.

As far as race is concerned, many social democrats were avid followers of eugenics before this so-called science was discredited by the horrors of the Nazi regime. The social democratic embrace of eugenics was related to the idea of creating "healthy," "advanced," "higher" human beings. While many social democrats must be credited for their resistance to fascism -- which they opposed due to its anti-democratic and chauvinist[ic] character, as well as its hostility toward the workers' movement and other people's movements -- there were certain ideological overlaps in the 1920s and '30s. This was also expressed in rhetoric and aesthetics.

An important question, of course, is whether these flaws are inherent in social democracy, or whether they were historical errors that can be overcome. The history of most movements, anarchism included, is stained by shortcomings and embarrassments. However, one thing is certain: The achievements of European social democracy cannot be separated from imperialism and an unjust international order. The combination of economic growth and relative social justice that characterizes European social democracy rests on the exploitation of colonized peoples and cannot be reproduced globally. Global justice requires a very different setting.

In the US, many people equate social democracy with socialism. How would you respond to those who make this claim, and what is your vision for a socialist society?

Social democracy is not socialism. No serious social democrat would claim that either. Historically, social democrats believed that social democracy can pave the way to socialism. Today, hardly any social democrat believes even that.

How socialism is going to work on a large scale in the complex world we live in is something we still need to figure out. It is an ideal well worth fighting for.

In a socialist society, the people's basic needs -- housing, shelter, food, health, education, care, access to culture, etc. -- are satisfied communally and distributed equally. It is different from a communist society in that it still allows for personal property. It is different from an anarchist society in that it still has governing institutions that are not under direct control of the people. I don't think we can point to any nation state that has realized socialism, although some -- including European social democracies -- have obviously come closer than others. Examples for true socialism -- historically and presently -- might be found in communes, cooperatives and collectives of different stripes, often during times of revolutionary upheaval. They are inspiring, but seldom serve as long-term models for the organization of millions of people. How socialism is going to work on a large scale in the complex world we live in is something we still need to figure out. Stating that it will never work is no answer. It is an ideal well worth fighting for.

Segments of the left in the US, either as organizations or individuals, called for various levels of tactical engagement with the Sanders campaign, arguing that this is an opportunity to advance socialist politics and potentially build a new party of the left. What are some examples of this being attempted in Europe? How has it played out in practice?

I think we need to distinguish between two questions here: One, when is it time for radicals to support candidates in political elections? Two, what is the long-term political prospect of this?

What I'm trying to get at is the following: There are occasions when the outcome of elections makes a big difference, both for the daily lives of millions of people and the possibilities of radical organizing. I know that many anarchists refuse to vote under all circumstances, and as far as I'm concerned, that's up to them. The "lesser evil" argument certainly isn't always the best. If you only have terrible options, why would you choose any of them? However, fetishizing voter abstention as a demonstration of political superiority or a criterion for anarchist identity is silly. It turns anarchism into a Christian ethics of conscience, rather than a commitment to social change. I can name numerous recent elections here in Europe where it was very important to vote for or, especially, against certain candidates. We live in dangerous times and there is no place for ideological quirks. And as far as the last presidential elections in the US are concerned -- which affect people worldwide, not just in the US -- I would have rather seen Sanders become president than Trump or Clinton, so I don't think there is any shame in people having tried to get him elected.

That's one thing. The other thing is what you expect from that and how much of your political effort you want to put into this. In other words, if supporting someone like Sanders becomes your political priority, and if you really think it can lead the way to a radical transformation of society, you're probably doing more damage than good to radical politics. Without a clear revolutionary perspective -- and as far as I can tell, Sanders never had one -- the changes you can make are limited. You won't be able to challenge the system itself. If you allow me to return to the opening sentences of this interview: you'll have "better" capitalism, but that's it.

Without a clear revolutionary perspective ... the changes you can make are limited. You won't be able to challenge the system itself. You'll have "better" capitalism, but that's it

As far as the comparison with Europe is concerned, I think the situation in the US with Sanders was rather unique. European radicals argue often enough about whether it's okay to support certain candidates in elections or not, but very few have illusions about this being anything more than a pragmatic intervention in the political terrain we are forced to operate in -- again, concerning how it affects both the daily life of the people and radical organizing. Maybe it's the two-party system, maybe it's a question of culture, maybe it's the lack of a strong social democratic tradition, maybe it's the sensation of a self-confessed "democratic socialist" running for president -- whatever the reasons, the fact that Sanders enthused so many on the left, including the far left, doesn't really have recent European equivalents. Even when Syriza rose to power in Greece, the understandable excitement was always kept in check by widespread skepticism and apprehension. Whether that makes European radicals more perceptive or just more cynical, I'm not sure.

This is not to say that there isn't collaboration between radicals and left-wing parties in Europe. In some cases, relatively strong left-wing parties can help extra-parliamentary politics, as long as there are personal contacts, respectful collaboration and an understanding that they are the parliamentary representation of broader struggles. If we take the example of Die Linke in Germany, there is no doubt that it strengthens extra-parliamentary socialist politics through grants, access to infrastructure and information, the influence it has on public debate, etc. As I said before, there is always the danger of co-optation, and radical activists need to be aware of that, but to assume that co-optation is inevitable is not only wrong but also assumes a position of weakness. It is wrong for empirical reasons. If we use the example of Germany, I know many folks doing radical work with the support of Die Linke without being compromised in what they are doing, both because they are aware of the potential pitfalls and because segments within Die Linke see supporting them as an obligation. It assumes a position of weakness because it reckons that any collaboration with less radical forces will necessarily weaken the radical ones. This is a big problem for the advancement of radical politics. While there are historical examples -- and certain organizations on the left -- that make such a position seem plausible, there is no natural law dictating any such outcome. Whether more or less radical forces will gain from such a collaboration will be determined by taking on the challenge. This is often the only chance for radicals to spread their ideas and gain any broader influence. The alternative is sectarianism and self-marginalization.

There are historical examples that might help illustrate what I mean. The German anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam played a significant role in one of the most exciting chapters of revolutionary history in Germany, namely the Bavarian Council Republic of 1919. Landauer was lynched for his involvement by right-wing soldiers, Mühsam spent years in prison. Both Landauer and Mühsam were outsiders in the German anarchist movement. They were influential in the Bavarian Council Republic because they met, argued and worked with communists and left-leaning social democrats. Most anarchists in Germany at the time organized around a journal called Der Freie Arbeiter and were very critical of Landauer and Mühsam. Their influence on the revolutionary upheavals in Germany at the time was close to zero. This is not where I like to see anarchism.

So, let us return to the present and the specific situation in the US. I don't have enough insight to say anything about whether a broader socialist movement that gained momentum through the Sanders campaign is able to advance radical politics. But I would say that this needs proper analysis rather than instant dismissal or tantrums about selling out. One important factor to consider is whether the current situation mainly demands defensive measures or whether this is a time for attack. To phrase this in more general terms: At what point does protecting certain social achievements take priority over pushing for revolutionary change? After all, the latter can become a dangerous exercise if the possible outcome is a step back (or several) rather than a step forward, which is the case when right-wing forces are better equipped to use a revolutionary situation to their advantage than left-wing ones. The socialist movement of the 1930s faced similar questions with regard to fascism, and I would argue that the communists' talk of "social fascism" and the rejection of any collaboration with social democrats undermined the potential of United Front policies. (Many anarchists were guilty of the same mistake, but they were no longer a significant force, so this was less consequential.) In a contemporary US context, with the Trump presidency and the right wing on the offensive, the question becomes: Is it a priority to defend civil rights and social services together with a coalition as broad as possible (not least in order to keep any possibility of future radical offensives alive), or would this mean to settle for less than what's achievable and abandon radical politics altogether? Finding answers is very difficult, but it needs to happen in order to address the issues you're raising.

At what point does protecting certain social achievements take priority over pushing for revolutionary change?

As far as building a party of the left is concerned, I'm not really sure how that would play out in the US. I'm mainly thinking of the electoral system. Basically, in most European countries, you enter parliament if you gather more than 4 or 5 percent of the popular vote. A similar percentage gets you into regional parliaments and city councils. This is why Die Linke in Germany -- to continue with this example -- is able to provide important infrastructure to extra-parliamentary movements, even if its nationwide support hovers at no more than around 10 percent. The party also receives plenty of media attention, participates in all relevant television debates, has members in federal committees, and the like. In view of the electoral system in the US, it doesn't seem likely that you reach that level of influence unless you can seriously challenge the two big parties. Under such circumstances, I'm not sure whether building a party is a useful tool to advance the socialist cause, even if you are open [to] broader coalitions. I have heard theories that the Democratic Party could be turned into a left-wing player of sorts. I have a hard time imagining this, considering both the history and composition of the party and the dynamics of US politics, but that's just my impression from across the pond.

I am convinced that the left needs organizational structures. We need solid frames for networking, collaborating, discussing and coordinating. At the same time, there must be respect for diversity and the autonomy of local groups and caucuses. Whether we need a "party of a different kind" or different names for our organizations seems mainly of academic concern. The wording isn't all that important. Important is the establishment of organizations that can strengthen socialist politics. This is one of the biggest challenges the left is facing. I believe that in order for these organizations to be effective, they ought to engage various left-wing currents. These, however, must meet on a level playing field without dominant groups absorbing the rest.

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