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Distinctions not cost effective, Social Democracy or Democratic Socialist: and is the Irish Labour Party hoping to slay an imaginary dragon? October 17, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Social Democracy, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers' Party.
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An interesting post on Politics.ie drew attention to a proposed motion in the upcoming Irish Labour Party Conference in November.

Motion 74 states:

Conference resolves that the party constitution is amended as follows:

Part 1, Introduction, paragraph 3, line one, delete the words ‘Democratic Socialist Party’ and substitute ‘Social Democratic Party’ Paragraph to read:

The Labour Party is a social democratic party and, through its membership of the party of European Socialists and Socialist International, is part of the international socialist movement working for equality and to empower citizens, consumers and workers in a world increasingly dominated by big business, greed and selfishness.

Now (assuming the post is correct), perhaps this displays my ignorance of the LP, but I always assumed that they were a Social Democratic party. Certainly they’ve acted as such for most of the last century. Indeed, one could argue that they’ve acted more rightward than that during that time – particularly in government. And lest that seem like a needless dig against them I am all too aware of the constraints of governing in a broadly conservative social and political milieu and applaud what gains they did make.

But let’s come back to this notion of Social Democracy as against Democratic Socialist. The comments accompanying the post are revealing. There is a clear split between those who adhere to the ‘socialist’ tag and those who consider that that is inappropriate for the LP. What is interesting is how reminiscent this is of arguments I’ve heard before. Long long ago. Wasn’t it a certain Eoghan Harris who wrote in the late 1980s of the “necessity” for Social Democracy in the WP. Moreover, whatever the nature of the WP at least in 1988 one could argue that it retained a strong Marxist approach albeit modified by the then prevailing fashions of more ‘reformist’ currents.

And what precisely are the distinctions between Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism? If we are to argue that this is a distinction between evolutionary socialism and revolutionary socialism, well then I’d suggest that anyone in the latter camp inside Labour is in the wrong party (On the other hand, a fairly cool-headed appraisal of the likelihood of revolution in this society in the near future tends towards a negative prognosis. That being the case why not, revolutionary spirit intact, join a party which has at least some serious links with the working class? And so the old song plays out).

But of course, and here in particularly, generally democratic socialist simply indicates a line further left than social democracy. But how much further left? Often the terms are used interchangeably. But they don’t have to be. Social ownership of industry? Re-distribution of wealth through taxation? Planned economy? Acceptance of representative democracy (or some form of participative and pluralistic democracy)? Marxism of whatever hue? All these appear to aspects of both social democratic and democratic socialist projects. However, contemporary social democracy appears to have essentially shied away from the first, largely the second, the third and the fifth. I’d suggest, that the first and the third might well comprise a democratic socialist agenda. To be honest even a strong social democratic program would – in this day and age – constitute a light democratic socialist program, such is the way that the left has tilted towards the centre (although that is not the whole story. There has been a retention of broadly social democratic impulses amongst the population at large – sometimes in unexpected and contradictory manifestations and government has had to act to appease such impulses hence the stalling of privatisation agendas and the ‘safeguarding’ of core elements of welfarism).

Then again, in economies where planning and ownership appear completely off the agenda the mechanisms for reappropriation seem limited in the short-term. So is this an agenda subject to perpetual delay? And it is also fair to point to new strands, or reworkings of old strands, of libertarian socialism which are strongly averse to statism of whatever form. So therefore while the terms have a utility, it is not exhaustive. But that is the point. It is impossible to clearly demarcate Social Democracy, impossible too to clearly demarcate Democratic Socialism. And as noted above, the distinctions are not entirely cost effective. At best these terms serve as guides, not proscriptions.

One interesting dynamic of contemporary Irish left politics is the way the SWP and SP have cornered the market on the term ‘socialist’. Not entirely, but sufficiently to give a certain distinctiveness to the utility of the term by others. There is no more tiresome argument than to read an SP member or other argue that they alone have some sort of moral or ethical copyright on the term socialist (although by way of balance can I propose that there is little more irksome than to read Ireland’s leading self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ use it either). On a personal note, and following on from some of Garibaldy’s comments on another thread, I entered Democratic Left in the hope that it would be Democratic Socialist/Eurocommunist (and let’s not open that can of worms). I left convinced that it was hardly less social democratic than Labour and in some very important ways, to me at least, was actually more rightward in its positions.

Consider the situation across the Irish Sea. Today, Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian last week has found Labour wanting. Writing about the dismal fiasco that is represented by the frankly disgraceful retreat on inheritance tax by Labour she notes that ‘this was the week that social democracy ebbed away’. Not democratic socialism, mind you, but social democracy. And to contextualise it she argues that Blair and Brown ‘purged’ socialism when they forged New Labour. She suggests that “Clause Four was indeed archaic nonsense’. And yet, the curious thing is that if one should trouble oneself to consult the BLP Constitution one will find…

‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.’

Now that, no doubt, will raise the occasional wry chuckle from those, like myself who have passed through the BLP at one point or another. And yet, it remains part and parcel of that party. It has a certain currency. It can be used as an yardstick against which the goals and objectives of the BLP can be assessed. But the point is that by any standards of a ‘democratic socialist’ party the u-turns on inheritance tax represented a debacle. I can stomach much, but to my mind inheritance tax is fundamental to a left project. Toynbee also, correctly to my mind, argues that “we now have a centrist government in Europe’s most unequal country. Our government stands somewhat to the right of Merke’s coalition in Germany, to the right of economic policy in France…at least in Europe there are leftwing parties to still make the public arguments: in England, due to our malfunctioning electoral system, a political generation has barely heard the case for social justice.” The point is that this dynamic is equally apparent in this polity, perhaps more so because the explicit left is so weak (although let me – if I haven’t before – rapidly reference a brilliant piece by Splintered Sunrise which notes that objectively FF was for most of its history more left wing than SF – perhaps that tells us something too).

And weirdly, despite the fact that I’m putting forward a defence of the word socialist in this context, I’ve never much liked it. I’m vastly fonder of it with the prefix ‘democratic’. I’m not hugely fond of the term Social Democrat, that may be a hangover from the foundation of the UK variants (although I’ve always admired from afar the Nordic parties of the same name). But like so much in politics categorisations seem to be hauled out often for no other reason than to bash ones ideological opponent over the head. Mind you, also worth noting that the LP belongs to the “Socialist” International, and indeed the European “Socialists”. How to square that circle? I look forward to the Conference.

For myself I see no problem with the terms Democratic Socialist and Social Democrat co-existing. Personally I prefer the terms Marxist, or leftist or indeed left progressive or red/green and, again, I’m fairly certain the word democratic is in there somewhere. But all these categories are fluid. One of the most illuminating aspects of building up this left archive is to see how catch-all ‘socialism’ is. Communists of the Moscow line were ‘socialists’, Mitterand was a ‘socialist’, the British Labour Party is ‘socialist’, Joe Higgins is a ‘socialist’, I’m a ‘socialist’ of sorts and I’ll bet a large percentile of you are ‘socialist’ as well. It hasn’t stopped some interesting and even heated discussions and debates on these pages, and if it has that flexibility… well then perhaps we shouldn’t invest it with too much emotion. Yet, sometimes we have to. Sometimes it is necessary to say that a term has a currency, however nebulous it may be, however difficult it is to feel entirely comfortable with it and that it links into broader discourses.

What I find depressing is to see an argument I saw in the late 1980s replayed inside Labour. If the left is going to move forward I genuinely believe it should start to move beyond attempts to corral everyone within neat categorisation and accept that there are different strands that have to work together. To be entirely honest, both about itself and its potential Labour would append Social Democrat as a descriptor within the Constitution in addition to Democratic Socialist.

It is entirely reasonable, perhaps even necessary, that within a political party of the left that there are different platforms that represent different strands. Sometimes this can be destructive, but sometimes it can lead to a vitality, an energy, and indeed an honesty about the realities of political formations.

But let’s put this in perspective. Is it seriously suggested that altering this term is going to bring the onset of a Gilmore tide? Where is the public demand for such a move, other than in the mutterings in the media about Labour ‘changing’ in some unspecified fashion? And yet, perhaps this is the dragon about to be despatched. Gilmore generating his Kinnock-like ‘Militant’ moment. I genuinely hope not. I find the idea that that dynamic of change, that token of political ‘authenticity’ and power, is somehow still with us uniquely depressing. Because the thought strikes me that we might well see a more overt promotion of the the term ‘Social Democrat’ within the Labour party on foot of such a change. As I say, I have no argument with that term, amongst others, in usage within Labour, but I’m also beginning to wonder could this be the first gentle soundings that would precede a name-change?

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Comments»

1. ejh - October 17, 2007

One question that might be asked is, why do these people in the media think Labour needs to change? Are there not already other parties offering much the things they want? Isn’t this really about this desire of the aggressive centre that nobody should talk about of defend socialist ideas any more?

Toynbee’s funny. If you read her regularly (which I don’t any more) she sort of has one week on and one week off. One week will attack the government for giving way to the Right, the other will attack the Left. It is unlikely that she appreciates that the second of these manoeuvres wipes out her own troops.

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2. shmurs - October 17, 2007

pam param ?

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3. splinteredsunrise - October 17, 2007

Have you seen the hilarious article in the latest Magoo? It seems Labour’s problem in the election was that it wasn’t centre-ground enough, and Rabbitte failed to effectively counter McDowell’s red scare.

Hmm…

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4. Damian O'Broin - October 17, 2007

You’ve really opened up a can of worms here WBS. And to expect people to define what they mean by their self-proclaimed socialism! Come on! Socialism is merely a flag to wave to demonstrate one’s bona fides. An economic project? A way of organising society? Sure when would we find time for all that malarkey when we have to criticise each other for not being sufficiently socialist.

I jest of course, but the question of ends vs means is implicit in your post. And perhaps the problem on the left has been too much obsession with the means (and arguments about their various merits) and not enough focus on our ends.

And if we are to build a broad left – stretching from the die-hards in the SWP to the social democrats buried within FF (And for me, that’s what we should be doing) then we need to spend a bit more time on what unites us – the ends – the society of liberty, equality and fraternity that I presume we’d all like to bring about.

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5. ejh - October 17, 2007

Well maybe, but are you expecting that we thrash it all out and come to some sort of conclusion? Because if you are, I put to the panel that no conclusion will be come to.

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6. black_mamba - October 17, 2007

Is this gonna Kill You? No i Dont Think so !

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7. WorldbyStorm - October 17, 2007

Synthesis people, synthesis!

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8. WorldbyStorm - October 17, 2007

Incidentally Splintered re Magoo, yes, who on earth was the guy who wrote that article. A more confused attempt at political analysis would be hard to find…

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9. Garibaldy - October 17, 2007

Meaningless change. I think however, the perception is that social democratic is more modern, forward thinking, and now. The kids dig it.

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10. WorldbyStorm - October 17, 2007

God, I hope not.

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11. ejh - October 18, 2007

A more confused attempt at political analysis would be hard to find…

Come on man, you’ve got internet access.

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12. WorldbyStorm - October 18, 2007

Well, yes, when you put it that way… Still it’s a classic of its kind. Might even do a counter ‘analysis’ on it….

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13. At least the Song Remains the Same… The Red Flag, The New Purpose, Eamon Gilmore, the Labour Conference and Coalition « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 20, 2007

[...] already noted how the conflict between democratic socialism and social democrat is largely – although not [...]

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