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Student Questions: Socialism and Social Democracy


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John Simkin stated that New Labour were anti socialist. I would like to ask what specifically is anti socialist about Mr Blair and New Labour.

I'd also like to know what the difference is between a socialist and a social democrat??

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My understanding of the difference goes like this:

a socialist wants the means of production in society to be under common ownership (which could mean nationalisation, but could also mean being run by a workers' cooperative)

a social democrat, on the other hand, is quite happy for capitalist owners to continue making profits and paying dividends to shareholders (profits and dividends which have been created by the workers), provided that the state sets the rules for how these capitalist companies operate. The point with this is to ensure that profits aren't excessive, and that desirable social ends, such as equality between the sexes, can be achieved.

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The difference between social democrats and socialists has become less clear in recent years. The traditional distinction was between socialists who believed in the radical and fairly rapid, often revolutionary, transformation of society according to socialist (usually Marxist) models. Social Democrats, on the other hand, believed in "gradualism": capitalist society could be modified in the interests of the working class by working from within the "system". Thus social democrats worked towards greater social protection for workers, paid for out of the profits of the capitalist system. The great achievement of the social democrats was the establishment of the Welfare State in Western Europe. Classical social democrat parties would include the old Labour Party in Great Britain of the SDP in Germany

Over the last 30 years or so, the difference has become less clear. There are now hardly any truly revolutionary socialist parties in Western Europe outside of "fringe" groups with little or no popular support. One of the last, the Spanish PSOE(Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol) abandoned its revolutionary marxist origins in the last years of Franco in order to make itself electable. At the same time, social democratic parties were also shifting their position. Margaret Thatcher really did move the goal posts! Her "neo-liberalism" convinced almost everyone that the cost of the welfare state made western economies "uncompetitive" and restricted the "wealth-creating" potential of capitalism. It is now accepted by almost everyone that society "can't afford" to provide free medicines to the sick, or pensions to the old. At the same time, it has become axiomatic that "labour markets" must be "flexibilized". In other words, companies should be encouraged to dismiss workers according to the vagaries of "the market" in order to maintain their "competitiveness" on world markets. This seems to have become the political orthodoxy since the last 20 years of the past century, and it has been reflected in the policies of social democratic parties. The British Labour Party talks of "public-private partnerships" and "stake-holder pensions"; the German SDP says Germany -- still the richest country in Europe -- "can't afford" to pay state pensions, and both are seeking to dismantle the remnants of the welfare state.

So, what Margaret Thatcher succeeded in doing was shifting everything to the right. Former socialist parties in Spain and France now attempt to defend a model that would have been called social democratic 20-30 years ago, while some of the policies now espoused by social democratic parties would have brought almost orgasmic pleasure to conservative idealogues...

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John Simkin stated that New Labour were anti socialist. I would like to ask what specifically is anti socialist about Mr Blair and New Labour.

I'd also like to know what the difference is between a socialist and a social democrat??

One thing that unites all socialists is a desire for equality. This was an important factor in the reasons why people joined the Labour Party. It was definitely the main reason why I joined the party.

This desire for equality has historically been reflected in the policies of the Labour Party. The 1945-51 Labour government made a serious effort to create a more equal society. They did this in two main ways: changes to the tax system and the introduction of the Welfare State.

These measure were so popular that the Conservative Party could only get back into power by promising not to “undo” the measures brought in between 1945-51. There was therefore a consensus between the three main parties about the morality of progressive taxation and the establishment of the Welfare State.

Of course the Tories never became “socialist” party but it did accept that it could not remove socialist measures. In opposition the Labour Party continued to argue for a greater degree of equality. When the Labour Party was eventually elected back to power in 1964, the new government, led by Harold Wilson, did bring in measures that increased equality in the UK. This was mainly done by increasing the higher rates of income tax that enabled the government to spend more money on the Welfare State. This was especially true in the field of education. Not only was much more money spent on it but the government also promoted the idea of comprehensive education. This helped to undermine the advantages obtained by the rich via the private education system. It was also true that increased spending on the National Health Service helped to undermine the need for people to use the private health sector.

The Conservative Party responded to the 1964-70 government in the same way as it had done in 1945-51. It adopted its policies to the changes made by the Labour Government. Therefore, Edward Heath, who held power between 1970-74, made no real attempt to undo those measures brought in by Wilson. In fact, as far as comprehensive schools were concerned, more were created under Heath than Wilson (ironically, the education secretary for most of this period was a woman named Margaret Thatcher).

Heath lost power in 1974 and he was challenged for the leadership by Margaret Thatcher. Heath was attacked for accepting this “socialist” view of society. Thatcher argued for a all out attack on the measures that had been introduced by both Labour and Conservative governments since 1945.

Thatcher won the leadership of the Conservative Party and eventually became prime minister in 1979. She immediately began to “undo” those measures that she so much disliked. This included a reduction in the higher rates of income tax. To pay for this she reduced public spending and this of course reduced the quality of the Welfare State. She also passed legislation that undermined the power of the trade unions. Thatcher also began to sell off the nationalized industries at cut prices. A former Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, accused Thatcher of selling off the “family silver”. Another former Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, criticised her extremist policies, and called for a return to consensus politics.

Thatcher’s policies led to growing unemployment and a decline in the functioning of the Welfare State and the public services. The majority of the population was of course against these policies and according to the polls, Thatcher became the most unpopular prime minister in history. Then came the Falklands War. This plugged into Britain’s nationalistic unconscious. Thatcher was seen as a national hero for defeating Argentina despite the fact it was comparable to England beating Latvia at football. The polls changed and she was re-elected.

Thatcher was helped very much in this by the support she received from the right-wing dominated media we have in the UK. Nor could she have got away with it a more democratic form of parliamentary elections. (Note the difficulty that the right-wing in Germany and France have had in trying to bring in Thatcherism.)

At first the Labour Party in opposition continued to stand by its “socialistic” past. It called for a return to the higher-rates of income tax and the re-nationalisation of the public services. However, these promises did not enable them to gain power. This was an area where the media played an important role in public perceptions of the Labour Party.

Eventually Tony Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party. There is little evidence of Blair ever being a socialist. In fact, he seems to have only joined the Labour Party in order to get the woman of his dreams (the current Mrs. Blair).

One of the first things that Blair did when he became leader of the Labour Party was to do a deal with Rupert Murdoch. This enabled him to get a good press and some of Murdoch right-wing papers even advocated their readers to vote for New Labour in elections.

Blair never used the term “socialist” to describe himself when he gained power. He was quick to point out that he was a Social Democrat. This is of course a term used in Europe to describe left of centre political parties. However, Blair’s policies were never as left-wing as those adopted by the Social Democrats in Europe. In fact, his close friends in Europe have been with the right-wing leaders of political parties. Even the current conservative government in France is far to the left of Tony Blair.

In reality, Blair is not a Social Democrat but a Thacherite. He has refused to increase the taxes on higher earners. Most of the money is now raised from those in the middle-range of incomes. Nor has Blair re-nationalized the public services. In fact, he has done the opposite, he has privatized areas of the public services that even Thatcher was too scared to enter.

These right-wing policies destroyed the Conservative Party as an effective opposition. He had stolen their policies and so there was only one way to go, further to the right. Blair now hogged the “middle-ground” and the Tories became irrelevant. Blair’s problem now concerned how he could hold onto those on the left who were now deserting to join the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

As a result of Blair’s policies, the gap between rich and poor has increased more than it did under Thatcher. In fact, the gap is wider than any time since the 19th century. This is why Blair’s New Labour government is “anti-socialist”. It is true that the Labour Party still contains socialists. However, they have no power in the party. They stay in the hope that they will be able to elect a “socialist” as leader after Blair retires. However, there is little hope of this. The Labour Party is now under the control of the Blairites.

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A question for everybody now, having read many of your poilitical opinions on here, are there any policies that you would like to see altered or disregarded within the party you support?

Yes, I can think of quite a few! The Swedish Social Democrats are in their usual position of having the greatest number of seats of any of the parties in parliament, but falling short of a majority in their own right (which has been the case nearly all the time they've been in power). They are currently being supported by the Green Party and the Communists … but those parties aren't in a formal coalition with them.

The Green Party are very much in favour of 'free schools', which in Sweden means schools which are supported by taxpayers' money, but which aren't under the control of local authorities. The Greens switched their votes to the opposition in order to drive this one through, but the Social Democrats didn't put up much of a fight. The net effect of this policy is to weaken the local authority schools by draining resources away from them. Instead of, say three viable schools in an area, you can now have six that aren't viable.

Another policy the Social Democrats went along with because the Greens supported it concerns protection of people's jobs. The Greens and the opposition put through a law allowing employers to exempt a number of people from the principle of 'last in-first out' when redundancies have to be made. The net effect of this has been to give the employers the chance to fire pregnant women and trade union activists - a chance they've been glad to take.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am a member of the Socialist Party and unlike the Labour Party of which I was once a member, the members make policy at our conference. Carrying out the policy of the party is not optional for the Central Committee it is their job!

However what we are seeking to do is to create a party of the working class in the UK and that will involve the trade unions breaking from New Labour and socialists will have to win the battle for ideas. Many in the trade union movement question why their money is being paid over to a party which is engaged in privatisation and worsening the conditions of labour of their members. The Labour Party quite literally broke from any vestige of socialism when it dropped the objective of social ownership of the means of production and adopted privatisation as its mantra.

Test any statement you hear from New Labour against the facts. If a government minister bleats that there is not enough money to keep your local hospital open or to pay your cover supervisors or classroom assistants a decent wage (and of course your teachers!) then just compare the sums involved with the money they spent on war. Is there really a shortage of money, or a shortage of will?

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John Simkin stated that New Labour were anti socialist. I would like to ask what specifically is anti socialist about Mr Blair and New Labour.

I'd also like to know what the difference is between a socialist and a social democrat??

Another way of looking at this difference: a socialist wants 'the people' (ie the workers) to change things for themselves, social democrats want to change some of it for them. This is an important distinction. I relaise that 'some of it' might seem facetious, but it isn't. The process of being elected means a whole need to be said in certain ways. In a capitalist country you cannot come out at election time (as a soc dem) and say 'we're going to take money, land, privilege from the rich and use it to build a fairer and better world for everyone, not just a few. Why? Because the people who run the media are the rich, the landed, the privileged, by and large, or owe their appointments etc to them. The media are very well versed in what Harry Potter might call the 'dark arts'. So from the outset social democrats MUST adjust their desires for fairness to tailor it to something that the media (and others) may not like, but doesn't particularly threaten them or the basis of their position. Have promised to do (say) half of the socialists programme, you couldn;t then, once in power, add the other half to your intended programme (If you could, you should ask Harold Wilson why he resigned, and he wasn't even a socialist!!)

And what of John Simkin's post about 1945-51 or 1970-74? First up.... Labour 1945-51 (and it's entirely impossible to do any justice to this here) was a great time for Labour. It WAS at its most socialist. The changes (and indeed the size of the 1945 majority, rejecting a victorious wartime leader) were because 'the people' demanded them, not necessarily that Labout wanted to give them. From 1931 and the Great Betrayal, Labour were in a wilderness for a while. They began to get more popular as the 1930s progressed.

During WW2, there was very little mood among politicians for radical post-war change. By the end of 1941 things were changing. Evacuation was by and large a farce, bringing home the differences in attitudes and lifestyles. However even in the countryside, it was generally working class people who took in working class children. That 'shock' was part of the movement for change. Equally TUs had begun to call for changes (something like the NHS as it became - you don't think Beveridge thought of it all by himself now!) and some local authorities, especially Manchester, Birmingham and London (large working-class populations, taditions of socialist-style activity) had already gone some way down this route. In October, the Government (to continue people's interest in prosecuting the war) set up a Committee for Reconstruction, which began to look at how things might be after the war. There are other aspects that suggest it wasn't just a benign Labour party - the Beveridge Report was a best seller (??? a govt document ???).

All parties in 1945 said they would implement Beveridge, it was the certainty that Labour would go furthest and could be most trusted to implement that made their victory so large. For many it promised an end to the three horrors of the 1930s - unemployment, means tests and the insurance collector. In their drawing up of National Insurance (unemployment etc) and National Assistance benefits they were to the right of (Liberal) Beveridge politically. His view was that Assistance (means tested) would only be for those who had not paid enough into the system. However the rating of the Insurance benefit meant that a large proportion of beneficiaries had to endure continued menas tests (albeit not in the same way as they had been in 1930s)

Heath had been changed. The Industrial Relations Act (attempting what Thatcher achieved in the 1980s) was not something that a Social Democratic party would bring in. Blair has obviously left in the legislation passed by Thatcher and Ridley, and even reinforced it in words and actions. It's this particularly which (for me) shows Blair and co have left the tradition of the Labour party, although the logic of the move to the right has been inherent in the Social Democratic tradition.

Sorry this is so long (and too much shorthand to be overly clear, I guess??)

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