Why do Social Democrats

do what they do?

by Danny Goldstick

What makes them do it? Most of us know individual NDPers who work very hard for progressive goals in the labour movement and other people’s movements. As individuals they certainly aren’t “sell-out artists” by nature, in most cases. And those NDPers who get elected to office mostly are not so very different, as individuals, from other active NDPers. Why then have elected social-democratic governments been so disappointing?

In the first place, the record is variable, after all. The CCF government of Saskatchewan in the 1940s was very progressive indeed. So was the Salvador Allende coalition in Chile, which embraced a diverse range of political forces, from just-left-of-centre to the Communists. Allende himself gave his life defending democracy and the cause of the people in 1973. So the first lesson is that different conditions produce different kinds of governments, including social-democratic governments. Under favourable conditions even Liberal and Conservative governments can be pushed into pretty progressive policies by the labour and other people’s movements. Under favourable conditions social-democratic governments can be pushed by them and led on by them even more effectively. It is the first job of progressives to make those conditions as favourable as possible by mobilizing the people in defence of their needs and interests – at election times, at any time. The big business agenda thrusts in the opposite direction, and there is no guarantee of any progressive outcome, even with a social-democratic government in office.

Why is it, though, that NDP governments elected on progressive platforms are so very vulnerable to those pressures from big business which can make them turn right around and govern at the people’s expense? To answer this we must look at just who, in the main, the NDP are, and what that social-democratic ideology which those people find so attractive actually is.

For Marxists, “socialism” means the social ownership of the main economic levers of production in a country. Inside the NDP, though, “socialist” is what those who lean to the left generally call themselves, whether they go so far as to advocate overall social ownership or not. And “social democrat” is what those who lean to the right in the NDP like to call themselves. In Marxist parlance, on the other hand, a “social democrat” can even be a very left-wing advocate of socialism. What differentiates social democrats from revolutionary socialists is the fact that Marxists and other revolutionaries stress that the present-day capitalist rulers of our society are much more powerful and ferocious than the social democrats think, and the struggle required for a major people’s advance has to be much fiercer than the social democrats admit.

Why will they not admit it? Isn’t the history of the world in the twentieth century pretty good evidence for it? They won’t admit it because it is an unpleasant thought. They want an easy route to progressive advance, not a revolutionary but an “evolutionary” style of socialism – if, that is, they recognize the necessity for socialism at all. Instead of a massive confrontation between opposing historical forces, they are afraid of any showdown, and think they can achieve their goals gradually, just by means of small victories here and there. They think electoral democracy is sufficient, and underestimate the need for people’s mobilization outside of parliament.

Marxist revolutionaries do not deny the importance of parliament and the electoral process in focusing public debate. They do not even say that social revolution must occur illegally, by means of civil war. That will have to depend. At a moment of mass popular arousal the people may be strong enough to enforce their revolutionary will more or less peacefully by cowing the capitalist minority into going along with the people’s verdict – but there can be absolutely no guarantee of that, except the strength of their mass mobilization.

The evidence for a conclusion like this does seem overwhelming. And so what kind of political people would fail to see it, despite being generally progressive-minded and opposed to big business politics? The answer is, people committed to a relatively easy path of social advancement.

Just who does belong to the NDP? For the most part, three kinds of people: labour people, white-collar hobbyists, and professional politicians. At times when the trade union membership are aroused and militant, most labour leaders will be apt to reflect that in their actions. At other times, a lot of them act more like brokers: go-betweens who have to reconcile the conflicting interests and demands of their membership, on the one hand, and their management negotiating partners, on the other. Is it any wonder they have a strong inclination to avoid heavy confrontation between the classes, if they can? It may be unfair to speak of white-collar “hobbyists” as if it were not the case that quite a few are very dedicated indeed to the different progressive causes which they support. But most moderately active NDP members are not overly serious in their commitment to people’s politics. They may be indignant at a particular political sell-out by their leaders, but their reaction may just be to drop out instead of fiercely fighting back. The leaders know from experience that the whole thing can blow over in time with no serious challenge to their position. Of course, this may be a miscalculation. The professional politicians who lead the NDP have to reckon on what they can get away with in the Party, among the voting public, and in their dealings with the business class. Like labour leaders and white-collar hobbyists, they too may much prefer an easy political path which avoids any heavy confrontation – but then again that may not be in the cards for them.

When working people get pushed and pushed too far, they become dissatisfied. They start acting for themselves, and demanding more from their leaders and their governments than they have been getting. Determined revolutionaries have a crucial role to play in every phase of that process.

Spark! #13-14, pp. 10-11