From Sweden to Socialism

From Sweden to Socialism

The demise of communism after the revolutions of 1989 has been, understandably, hailed by the right as the ultimate “proof” of the fiasco of the socialist idea as a whole. More surprising than the rightist glee is the selfquerying mood of many noncommunist socialists who, precisely now, want to find metaphysical or sociological “proofs” and “guarantees” of the survival and longevity of their movement. But there are no such guarantees.

Every culture prior to ours harbored influential trends that at some point lost their vitality and vanished, for various reasons. Our culture is no exception. It is entirely in the hands of socialists here and now whether their great movement, which has molded modernity for two centuries, is doomed to extinction or whether socialism will find the inner energy for rejuvenation.

Viewed in perspective, social democrats and libertarian socialists of all hues should now have ample reason for joy. The scarecrow, whose presence has always triggered the accusation of conspiring to introduce a government of terror, leveled against them whenever they proposed social change, is now gone. Yet it seems as though old-time democratic socialists, enemies of communism for reasons of principle, are anxious rather than relieved. This perplexity of (noncommunist) socialism is a highly revealing feeling, conveying the message that noncommunist socialism has not faced seriously the complex issue of the historic achievements and internal limitations of its own theory and politics. The critique of communism seemed to have spared socialism this unpleasant task, which can no longer be postponed.

Above all, socialism does not seem to have made an honest inventory of its contribution to the “normal” development of modernity. Even if socialists completely disinherit communism  as an intruder into their family, even if, as a result, they accept no responsibility for communism’s crimes, the fact still remains that the socialist contribution to normally developed modernity has been dangerously curtailed so far in several areas.

Their major claim to recognition—one without which the “Roman degeneration” of modernity into Caesarism on the one hand and the permanent indigence of the industrial proletariat on the other would have been inescapable—is the legitimization of “the social question.” The neglected needs of the working classes, as well as of those who have been forced to idleness, enjoys, for the first time in recorded history, a pride of place on the political agenda only as a result of the socialists’ stubborn campaigning. This achievement is their glory.

The socialists provided the idea of relative equality and that of social justice with a balanced meaning beyond extremist excesses.

They have, furthermore, contributed to the development of parliamentary democracy in the nineteenth, and in Spain and Portugal even in the twentieth, century by mobilizing the proletariat, initially an outcast of civil society and almost completely uninterested in politics, to transform itself into an electoral constituency and boost its social and economic power.

However, socialism accepted ready-made the idea and the modus operandi of democracy, and it has added virtually nothing to democratic theory and practice. The indifference to and often contempt for liberalism felt by many socialists blinded them to the moblike features and the totalitarian potentials of democracy.

Perception of the latter has been traditionally regarded as “aristocratism” among socialists who were committed democrats.

For the most part, the economic system of modernity developed without their participation other than as critics, which was, admittedly, a crucial function. Even when the socialists did not harbor ideas of radical utopias of a marketless society, they have, for good reasons, always considered the market a necessary evil and, rightly, market logic the principle of a continually reproduced inequality. The only economic strategy they felt affinity with, and whose agents proper they were when in government, was the Keynesian. Their traditional, and perfectly legitimate, relationship to the market has been in the last half century cohabitation and a policy of proposing restrictions with a view to social justice (which, in combination, is what “market socialism” is all about). So far, with the exception of Willy Brandt’s vague theses on the North-South relationship, socialists have not been particularly receptive to the problems arising out of the disproportions of global economy— although world economy is now the adequate framework, as was the nation state in Keynes’s time, in which recommendations for social justice and (nonmarket) rationality can be raised and implemented.

Their overwhelmingly urban origins and culture prevented the socialists from adding an iota to the agrarian question. The only redeeming feature in this regard was their zeal in implementing a program of land partitioning during certain agrarian revolutions, and this was not their own proposal. Perhaps for that reason they also overslept the emergence of the environmentalist issue, which has been advocated by nonsocialist actors.

As for nationhood and nationalism, democratic socialists or social democrats have an almost entirely unblemished record of being enemies of national, ethnic, or race bias of all kinds. (The shameful episode of the “White Australia Policy” of Australian Labour remained an incident without further consequences in the annals of socialism.) At the same time, albeit loyal citizens, socialists always felt ill at ease about national identification.

They were not internationalists in the communist sense of building a Universal Church of the Grand Inquisitor, but they were certainly cosmopolitan in an age of nationalism.

Only one socialist contingent, the Zionist Labor, became a nation-builder, and another, French socialism from Jaures to Mitterrand, has contributed to the greatness of la nation, with only a single relapse into chauvinism (under Guy Mollet during the Algerian war).

The rest of them stood awkwardly on the sideline whenever the nation and its affairs were on the agenda.   Finally, they have an ambiguous cultural record. For them, communism was tantamount either to state censorship or to intellectual elitism.

By contrast, social democrats were betting on a genuine proletarian culture in an age when class culture was already disintegrating. The government of democratic socialists in the welfare state was a benevolent patron of the arts; and the socialist movement spread literacy and the light of knowledge where the darkness of ignorance had reigned supreme. We owe the discovery of, and the support for, the best products of workingclass culture (in Great Britain), as well as some of the best novels (in Scandinavia and postwar Germany), to this welfarist patronage and social democratic spirit. But social democracy, in its aversion to intellectual elitism, has constantly lacked the great vision necessary for the flourishing of culture.

The vacuum created by the demise of communism is beneficial for socialists only if they are capable of making an inventory of their peak performances and serious limitations.

For, let us be honest, the existence of communism was not merely an obstacle for democratic socialists. In strange ways, it was also a blessing in disguise. As long as communist governments of terror or repression existed, it sufficed for democratic socialists or social democrats to pinpoint the communist practices with the remark: we shall do it in a different way. This gesture alone guaranteed votes. But now, with the scarecrow gone, they are left alone on the left, and they have to do the work in a different way or perish. To be capable of performing the new task, it is mandatory that they address their own past record.

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