The winding road to social democracy

2014 marks two anniversaries of great importance for Europe. One is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War; the other, a quarter century since the fall of Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the eastern bloc.

The coincidence of these two dates is of particular significance to the Fabian Society, because they correspond to two distinct strands in our intellectual tradition. The first is that which aligns Fabianism with continental social democracy, what Anthony Giddens has called the ‘European social model’.

Public healthcare, worker protection, the safety-net for the unemployed, civil rights legislation and a more equal distribution of wealth were all triumphs of the centre-left, consolidated in the middle decades of the last century after the trauma of the Great Depression and two world wars.

It is a mark of social democracy’s success that most of these policies have been adopted as mainstays across both the European continent and the political spectrum. Even through the neoliberal turn of recent years, the right has dared not depart too far from these cornerstones of social democracy. Post-war European reconstruction and the social model are inextricably linked. Social democracy today clearly has its issues, but is largely something of which Fabians can be proud.

The second strand, meanwhile, fell by the wayside some time ago, and for good reason. A common charge levelled against Fabianism is that it is a doctrine in support of statism, founded on a belief in the aristocratic rule of intellectuals and bureaucrats, directing and managing the masses towards a most just and productive society.

If this sounds uncomfortable to us today it is because it bears some familial resemblance to the practical philosophy of Soviet-style communism. Indeed, this is no accident. Fabianism and Leninism share a common ideological ancestor in the party vanguards of the French Revolution, and although the former was synthesised with and diluted by British traditions of liberalism and gradualism, some early Fabians nevertheless retained their sympathy for the Soviet project. Prominent early Fabians George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb took trips to Stalin’s Russia and returned dewy-eyed with praise, much to the later embarrassment of western social democrats.

The fall of the Berlin Wall precipitated the final crisis of the eastern bloc, but the ideal of Soviet communism was already long dead. The attempts by Khrushchev to dissolve Stalin’s personality cult after the latter’s death in 1953 were successful, but served only to transform a totalitarian state into an authoritarian one; by the time Gorbachev, sincerely motivated by the possibility of a democratic socialism, made his reforms in the late 1980s, the USSR was already so hollowed-out that it swiftly crumbled in the wake of peaceful protests. The great revolutionary promise of 1917 – an end to imperialism, capitalist exploitation and global warfare – had long since degenerated into oligarchy and state terror. The Soviet model was ideologically and philosophically spent decades before it finally disappeared.

Some Fabians clearly made a mistake in endorsing Leninism, but we cannot rewrite our history, and nor should we seek to. The lessons of the twentieth century are vital ones to remember. With that in mind, we should be proud of the success of European social democracy as we work to develop both a new socialism for this country and make the case for Britain’s continued involvement in the continental project.

If the anniversaries of 2014 remind us of anything, it is that the UK cannot afford to play an irresponsible role in European politics.

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