Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sheri Berman on ‘Democratic Revisionism’ and interwar Social Democracy


 above:  Sheri Berman's 'The Primacy of Politics'

The following is an engagement with Sheri Berman's book on European Social Democracy and what she calls 'democratic revisionism'.  The question of relative independance of the political sphere from the economic base is considered in depth; including the 'mututal conditioning of structure and agency upon each other'.  There are implications for Australia as well: notably the potential for progressive parties to mobilise against the 'veto' of capitalists on public policy. But at the same time - even while acknowledging the potential of democratic socialism,  the reviewer (Tristan Ewins) argues that the power of this 'veto' should not be understated.

Tristan Ewins

Jan 3rd 2013
In her work “The Primacy of Politics”, political scientist Sheri Berman compares what she refers to as “orthodox Marxism” with “democratic revisionism”, starting with Eduard Bernstein, but ultimately finding expression with Western social democracy.  Swedish social democracy is seen to have been the most successful instance; enjoying a hegemonic period spanning decades and a legacy that remains vital today. 

Berman’s book deals with a number of opposing and mediating themes.  Marxian  historical materialist determinism (with its alleged implication of political and economic ‘passivity’) is contrasted with what Berman sees as an economically activist and politically voluntarist disposition on the part of ‘democratic revisionism’.  Radical and revolutionary negation emerging from the logic and spirit of class struggle – and based on the interwar “Marxist orthodoxy” -  is opposed to reformist agendas based on class collaboration and conciliation.  Working class internationalism is contrasted against the promotion of ‘national community’ and ‘national solidarity’. Swedish social democracy in particular is praised for making that ground – of national community and solidarity – their own – effectively denying it as a rallying point for the Swedish far right. 

Here, ‘orthodox Marxism’ is held by Berman to be consistent with the perspectives of those such as Kautksy, Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer and other Social Democratic politicians during the interwar period. (for instance, Leon Blum)  Emerging with Kautsky’s popularisation of Marxism in the late 19th century, this perspective remained influential for many European social democratic parties through the immediate post-WWII period. 

Again: according to Berman, the ‘orthodox Marxist’ viewpoint was marked by belief in class struggle; a fatalistic and passively-inclined materialist and economistic determinism; and hence the downplaying of the potential for political action to shape economic outcomes.  Hence Berman notes how Leon Blum in particular distinguished between “the ‘exercise’ and the ‘conquest’ of power”; (Berman; Pp 100- 101)  Apparently this is meant to be another example of orthodox Marxian ‘passivity’.  And we have observed in earlier chapters how there is at times some substance to this charge – eg: in the Kautskyan notion of social democrats being history’s ‘midwives’ rather than history’s makers.  (ie:  revolutionary; but not revolution-making) 

And yet perhaps Blum’s distinction is useful after all.  Berman pretty much rules out widespread economic socialisation – depicting it as ideological and of little practical value.  But perhaps the reality, here, is self-containment on the basis of a presumed effective ‘capitalist veto’ on the economic policies of social democratic governments. 

Hence there is more to the ‘conquest of power’ that an electoral majority.  There remains the challenge of overcoming resistance to democracy embedded in the state apparatus of force; of the cultural “fortresses and casemates” spoke of by Gramsci; and the power of global capital – with the threat of capital strike, economic destabilisation etc.  In modern capitalist liberal democracy there has even developed a kind of “double-think” – an Ideology of democracy existing alongside open recognition of the effective ‘veto of capital’.   (although the Nordics certainly show that even in this context there is room to move if labour organisation is strong enough)

By comparison with the ‘orthodoxy’, however, Berman posits a specific and unique social democratic ideology – what she calls “democratic revisionism” – based on economic and political activism: rooted in “the primacy of the political”.  For Berman modern social democracy is synonymous with this “democratic revisionism”, and not with the Marxist orthodoxy which was ultimately outflanked on both sides – by revisionism on the Right and radically voluntaristic Bolshevism on the Left.

For Berman the Marxist orthodoxy failed at the crucial moment; that is, the interwar period, including the Depression and the rise of fascism.  Berman depicts ostensibly Marxist Socialist parties – in the tradition of the pre-WWI International - resigned to the inevitable ‘working through’ of capitalist contradictions to the point of revolution; as opposed to a struggle to significantly ameliorate human suffering within the framework of capitalism itself. 

Berman provides a host of examples to illustrate her point, but here we will mainly concern ourselves further with the experience of Swedish social democracy in the inter-war and immediate post-war period.

Berman depicts Socialist parties – in the interwar and immediate post-war period – as imposing upon themselves an “ideological purity” for which practical action for the sake of their constituencies were forsaken.  In defence of those ‘orthodox’ elements, however,  it is worth noting that it was in their efforts to avoid opportunism, and hence the disillusionment of their working class base,  that social democratic parties in the ‘orthodox’ tradition tended to avoid cross-class collaboration and compromise. Especially, for this reason they avoided taking part in coalition governments with bourgeois parties. This practical consideration was at least as powerful as any yearning for “ideological purity” – and critiques of Marxist social democracy need to allow for such motives.

Yet it is true that in his time Kautsky himself adopted a quasi-“mechanistic” Marxism which, while recognising “willing” human beings (but not ‘free will’), nonetheless discerned a nexus between universal suffrage and the rise to dominance of the industrial working class. Indeed, this was a nexus which – it was assumed – rendered socialism inevitable – assuming the prerequisite of a democratic political revolution.  Yet Kautsky’s very emphasis on the necessity of political revolution dispels Berman’s (any many others’) effective accusation of bland and undiluted economism, even though the ‘orthodox’ did suppose the primacy of the economy ‘in the last instance’.

And yet in the crucial interwar period Berman has a point that economistic fatalism could only play into the hands of the fascist enemy.  Where liberals and socialists ought have compromised with practical economic action in the face of Depression, ‘political stalemate’ saw desperate and bitter Germans turn instead to so-called ‘National Socialism’. As Berman argues, in Germany and Italy it was fascism that took up the mantle of economic activism, as well as ‘class-transcending’ and collectivist visions and rhetoric of national community.  But by contrast when Swedish Social Democrats took the ground of “national community”, cross class solidarity and economic activism, it was they and not the fascists who emerged triumphant.

As we will see, Berman appreciates the role of Ernst Wigforss – the Swedish politician, self-taught economist and political scientist, in ‘anticipating Keynesianism before Keynes.’   Berman further looks to Wladimir S Woytinsky and the German unions during interwar/Depression period – who also independently (ie: before Keynes) came up with a plan to stimulate the German economy; creating “socially useful” work with “competitive wages”.  Berman contrasts Woytinsky’s plan for “deficit financing” and economic stimulus with the “full-fledged ‘socialist’ strategy adopted by the SPD Left – in the form of a plan devised by the Austro-Marxist Rudolf Hilferding.  (Berman, p 112)

As Berman observes; Hilferding’s plan rested on moves towards economic planning and socialisation; including “nationalisation of banks, insurance…, key industries, [with] state control of monopolies, the expropriation of large estates; a shortened work-week; work sharing; and a limited work-creation program financed through increased taxes and a forced loan.” (Berman; p 112) 

But for Berman apparently Hilderding’s approach comprised an example of the ‘orthodox viewpoint’ of class struggle and economic socialisation – a vision which failed to address peoples fears or “stir their imagination”.  (Berman, pp 114-115)

Yet Berman’s characterisation could just as well be turned in the other direction: that the non-socialist parties would not compromise and actually deal with the Depression in a rational and necessarily socialist manner.  The visions of Wigforss and Woytinsky, here, resonate with our relatively vivid historic political memory of the social-democratic Keynesian ‘golden age’.  But the democratic socialism of Hilferding was never given a chance.  We will never know, now, what its outcome in Germany would have been.

Despite this, however, Berman tellingly observes an “orthodox” Marxian social democratic mainstream ‘caught off guard’ in Germany by the rise of fascism in response to the Depression. Crisis they had anticipated: but fascism they had not anticipated. As expected, class struggle intensified with the Depression.  But the lure of Nazism proved more powerful than the appeal of both the SPD and of the Communists; and in 1933 the Nazi vote had risen to almost 44 per cent.  ( Pp 109-111) and see:,_March_1933

Either Hilferding’s approach or Woytinsky’s approach may have significantly ameliorated the life experiences of impoverished and fearful Germans. But Berman effectively argues that it was Hitler’s playing upon humiliation, bitterness and desperation in the context of an appeal to national community, ‘belonging’ and solidarity that proved decisive.

The lesson suggested by Berman is as with the title of her book: “the primacy of politics”; of the power of the political imagination; of political mobilisation, strategy and action – as compared with what she calls ‘fatalistic doctrines’. (ie: specifically, the Marxist “orthodoxy”)   Hence the difference between Germany’s turn to fascism and Sweden’s turn to social democracy was to a significant degree a matter of subjective Swedish social democratic strategy and tactics. 

Berman is a voluntarist: but a democratic one – unwilling to embrace what Steger has referred to as “the extremes ends and means calculations” embraced by the Bolsheviks.

And yet Berman’s voluntarism is not unqualified.  As she concedes towards the end of ‘The Primacy of Politics”:

“Those who study Ideology tend to focus on either agency or structure.”  

Yet in reality

“structure and agency work together to shape the development of ideologies….”   (Berman: pp 201-203) 

As individuals we have free will: including the potential to come together collectively; to organise politically to reshape national economies – and ultimately the global economy. Indeed, this was the hope of Marxist Social Democracy,  and of Berman’s ‘distinct’ and ‘political’ Social Democracy. (ie: of post-war Western European and Nordic Social Democracy)  But this is no mean feat.  Capitalism as a supra-individual, supra-national phenomena develops its own logic – much of which was identified by the Marxists who Berman rejects.  Structure and agency condition each other.

Again we return to the arch-revisionist Bernstein who Berman herself sees as the originator of “democratic revisionism.”  Hence we reproduce this crucial quote from Bernstein again:

“The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.”   (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)   

These phenomena – observed by Bernstein – remain in the logic of capitalism and the processes of its ongoing systemic reproduction. Social Democratic counter-cyclical demand management helps ‘iron out’ the business cycle; and where they remain robust welfare states protect the vulnerable from the ravages of capitalism in the context of relative abundance even amidst great waste.  And yet capitalism remains wasteful, unstable, undemocratic and unjust.

Berman observes of modern social democracy: that it started with Bernstein and other like-minds - who claimed to revise Marxism – but ultimately “Social Democracy represented the final and full severing of socialism from Marxism.”  (my emphasis) (Berman, P 200)

This ‘severing’ is presented as some great victory; some triumph; a “liberation”(!)  But perhaps the rejection of Marxism has become just too fashionable. 

There is an objective need for a distinctive social democratic ideology. Distinct, that is, from revolutionary Marxism; occupying the relative ‘Centre-Left’ – of well-intentioned social reformers; armed with what Berman called a “democratic revisionist” critique of capitalism; of those willing and able to reform capitalism and ameliorate the suffering of the oppressed in the here and now.   And contra Berman’s apparent dismissal of the strategy of socialisation, historic social democratic mixed economies provide an object lesson in how a ‘hybrid economy’ can meaningfully aspire to – and to some degree achieve – ‘the best of both worlds’. 

Also a more radical and modern variant on this theme this could potentially provide the benefits of a mix of co-operation and planning; of competition and ‘free markets’; including the role of natural monopolies and the place of a democratic mixed economy in righting market failure (including the current European Depression and European/American debt crisis),  alleviating alienation and injecting democracy into otherwise plutocratic economic regimes. Crucially, there is a need to break out of a neo-liberal capitalist paradigm for which systemic imperatives of growth and profit-maximisation have been decoupled from questions of the ‘Life-world’ (Habermas)   Hence, for instance, the capitalist drive to raise retirement ages even in the midst of relative abundance.

And yet mainstream Social Democracy has widely become so technocratic and opportunistic that it can no longer inspire or mobilise.  There is talk of a ‘Centre-Left’: but what does that mean today?  There are appeals to class reconciliation – yet while this can provide a powerful rationale for a universalistic welfare state (eg: Sweden) so often this is but a veil behind which follows the disenfranchisement of workers and the oppressed. 

In the past (For instance in Australia with the ‘Accord’ process) there has been a kind of corporatism – which originally had potential, but ultimately included the organised working class only during its period of decline; containing and co-opting it during the crucial period of neo-liberal transformation . There is deregulation of labour markets in the sense of protections: but intensification of regulation in the sense of denying industrial liberties and rights.  The welfare state and progressive and corporate taxation are wound back and the vulnerable stigmatised and vilified. All these can be construed as a kind of ‘corporate welfare’ - assisting in the process of intensifying the rate and intensity of exploitation to restore profits.  And again these developments are consistent structural imperatives in capitalism – enforced globally with the complicity of the great existing and emerging world powers.

In response to these developments it must be observed, therefore, that there remain criticisms of capitalism arising from the Marxist tradition - suggested by Bernstein himself many decades ago – which remain as accurate as ever – but which are widely considered ‘unspeakable’ because of the power of dominant Ideologies and their sweeping dismissal of that Marxist tradition in all its great diversity. 

Berman is right that structure and agency interpenetrate however.  A social democracy which borrows from Marxism in both its moral and structural critique of capitalism; but which maintains a voluntarist sense of the potential for political strategy and political will – is also necessary today.  Indeed – the political and economic demands of the modern day require a plurality of social democracies; and in this vision there remains a place for the insights of the broad Marxist tradition as well as distinct positions on today’s strategic and relative ‘Centre-Left’.  Certainly ‘Marxism’ does not hold all the answers – let alone the “revolutionary Centrism” of about a century ago.  But the Marxist tradition in all its great plurality deserves a rigorous and critical reassessment – discerning those insights which hold weight today despite the verdict of the dominant Ideologies. 

Rehabilitating the outlook of class struggle is one crucial imperative.   And all the more so because overwhelmingly the corporate world embraces the neo-liberal Ideology; and is not interested in robust social democratic corporatism. And so the poor and the working class can only depend on that which they strive for through their own efforts – through industrial and civic organisation and activism.  The prospect of civic peace and reconciliation is alluring and powerful: but given the logic of capitalism; and the interests and Ideology of the capitalist class – it is often chimerical.

Because structure and agency interpenetrate and co-determine each other, the old Marxist Orthodoxy has its limits; and the potential of so-called ‘political socialism’ or ‘democratic revisionism’ needs to be taken into account. And yet despite the potential of these trends considered by Berman, she does not sufficiently consider the implications of the effective ‘veto’ exercised by monopoly capital.  She supposes a rigorous voluntarism, and ‘manyfold possibilities’ for reformist social democracy.  But she does not tackle the question of how the ‘capitalist veto’ on policy is to be overcome.   But that is the question we MUST address if we are to establish a genuine democracy in the place of default ‘dictatorship of capital.’

Berman, Sheri, ‘The Primacy of Politics – Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century’,


  1. Tristan, thanks for posting this. Actually "The Primacy of Politics" is a really important book- it has had a massive influence on my own thinking.
    nnnYou put your finger on the key issue though- the capitalist veto. This is actually a limitation built into the thinking of right-wing social-democracy itself- a kind of self-restraint exercised by social-democracy in power and this has, historically been the biggest problem of social-democracy- not that capital is objectively too powerful but that social-democrats believe that it is.
    The best example is how the "Wage-earners funds" in Sweden were basically sabotaged by the SDAP's own right wing.
    I agree we shouldn't totally toss out Marx (although I reject the term "Marxism") but I would suggest a turn to Polanyi would be theoretically very useful at this point. In fact, this is the thrust of my ongoing PhD dissertation that attempts to re-theorise social-democracy according to the Polanyian concepts of "embeddedness" and the "double-movement". Prof. Berman, in this book, has also set out some pretty good fundamentals for exactly this kind of approach.

  2. Thanks for commenting Shayn. :) I'm been thinking of reading 'The Great Transformation' by Polanyi for some time; though like you I'm working on my PhD as well - and most of what I read refers to that specifically. You might find this interesting though: I just finshed reading 'Workers in Arms' by Ilona Duczynska - who was Polanyi's wife. The book concerns the Austrian Civil War of 1934 - and the years preceding that. I've done an awful lot of work on Austro-Marxism - and maybe one day will publish some of it here....

    It's interesting you say the SAP Right sabotaged Meidner - I haven't heard that before; Mostly I have read about the huge fear campaign by the SAF... Andrew Vandenberg wrote an excellent thesis on Meidner - which I also read for my PhD - but I could not use a lot of the material as I had to narrow my scope to make the thesis viable... (I'm still studying Sweden - but only up to 1948)

    It's also interesting you think the idea of 'capitalist veto' proomtoes self-restraint based on a delusion. Most social democrats suppose capitalist destabilisation, including capital strike; and also deployment of capital's significant resources. (see what happened in Australia when the Rudd Govt tried introducing a Mining Tax...) How do you think Social Democrats can overcome capitalist destabilisation?

  3. Austro-Marxism is a fantastic subject- I've long felt it is unjustly ignored on the Left- a lot of good ideas worth taking another look at. Polanyi, while not a Marxist, was pretty close in spirit to the Austrians (he was Hungarian after all).
    Yes, the SDAP right had a lot to do with engineering the compromises that watered down Meidner because the LO and the party Left was right behind it. The Meidner plan was probably the high-point of democratic, evolutionary socialism in Europe and, I would argue, actually hints at the remaining transformational potential in social-democracy.
    But how to deal with the capital veto- yes, that is an even more serious issue these days when the power of capital has transcended the limits of national boundaries- though my argument is that we might be in a different position today had social-democratic leaders not been essentially convinced of the need to stay on capital's good side. I wouldn't say it's exactly a delusion so much as a lack of confidence and conviction in the idea of transforming a society beyond the limits of capital. Capital strikes and other interventions are, of course, tools of class-war on the right. And that's the problem: the right unabashedly wages class-war but social-democrats are afraid to even raise the spectre- thus, in a sense, the social-democratic leadership has acted as capitalism's fifth column. The same idea comes up in Przeworski, Moschonas and other critical students of social-democracy. Capital has often been rendered vulnerable at various points in recent history but it is, ultimately, ideology and its command of the "common sense" (accepted even in the socialist parties)that gives it its lease on life.
    So, what is to be done? I think two things are necessary: 1) social-democrats need to remember that they are socialists and develop a useful analysis of the current situation in order to create meaningful counter-strategies and 2) there needs to be, as part of this strategy, an increasing push to internationalise democratic structures of governance (that currently do not exist) in order to be able to struggle with the power of trans-national capital on a slightly more even terrain.
    Those are both pretty long-term goals however. In the short term, creating government-ready forces with guts aimed at, at least, seriously imposing regulations on capital and standing up to their bullying would be welcome. This is, in itself, a hard enough task for now (I'm thinking of Australia) given the corporate dominance of the media which makes it hard to explain these issues to the broader public.
    What we need in Australia is something almost so miraculous as to be a fantasy; a charismatic, honest Labor leader who has enough of a vision and can create enough genuine enthusiasm, that s/he can sell a radical program to the Australian voters (and the party itself!) despite the right-wing press and, even worse, the Labor party machine that does not favour idealists. It may seem unrealistic but really, it all does until it suddenly, unexpectedly comes together!
    I think, to be honest, it's going to take a few years to put social-democracy back in shape in Australia and Europe and I think it cannot even begin as long as social-democrats are in thrall to the "ideological given" that the demands of big capital must always come first- before social-justice and before the needs of the majority. If we can break that mind-set, step-by-step we can hopefully take things further.

  4. I should also add....obviously just a one-person show is neither realistic nor desirable- my wild fantasy about an inspiring ALP leader presupposes an organised culture within the party capable of creating, sustaining and supporting such a leadership candidate. Of course, I realise I'm fantasising but it's at least a project for those of us in the party who'd like to see "Labor values" back on the agenda for once. I'm outside the country so I'm really an ALP member in name only in some respects- but I'm right behind such a project to the extent that I can be.

  5. Shayn; I think the problem in Australia is that in the Labor Party even social liberalism or traditional post-war social democracy (Keynesianism/mixed economy) - is seen as being controversial - or even radical... Many in the ALP are tending very much towards economic liberalism. Winning acceptance for moew progressive ideas in the dominant ALP Right is a great struggle in itself; and is necessary as we need to carry 'the relative centre' of the party to get things done. Indeed we have to fight just to get significant distributive justice meausures an 'in-principle' hearing.

    The most promsing developments are Labor PM Julia Gillard's communication of 'risk' and 'social insurance' as the basis for implementing a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS. If we could convince her to implement a similar program for Aged Care (on the same basis - ie: social insurance) - then I might be convinced we were making significant progress. Practically, I think, the first step is to broaden and deepen the welfare state, reform taxation, and restore basic industrial rights. (eg: pattern bargaining)

    I know that many figures in the SAP thought Meidner "went too far"; Perhaps this undermined the broader campaign... But if a compromise could have been struck earlier on - for 'citizens' funds' - with say a ceiling of 25% of the stock exchange - 'locked in' for a number of decades - then maybe a united movement could have overcome SAF resistance. State pension funds and schemes promoting democratic collective capital formation, as well as co-operatives and mutual associations with state aid - could then be emphasised as an additional avenue for economic democracy.

    As it was the defeat of the Meidner Funds was so comprehensive that the funds were completely dissolved in any case... So perhaps Kautsky was right that economic socialisation could well take decades... One stronghold after another... Unless you get some 'revolutionary upsurge' that puts much more on the agenda... (As might be happening in Greece right now for instance)

  6. Yes totally. I think it is a process and it succeeds one battle at a time (with periods of both accelerated progress and serious counterrevolutionary setbacks such as the last 30 years of neo-liberalism).
    I also believe that the Meidner plan was a historical high-water mark and, although you can never get too far with speculations about "what might have been" there's evidence that the scenario you suggest above could have successfully come to pass.
    I'm aware of how lousy the climate in the ALP is for leftwing social change- NewLabour was, after all, based on the ALP and NZLP experience. We had NewLabour before NewLabour had even been invented but I also agree that there's a need to target the "possible" while dreaming and working towards the "next possible" (i.e. what is now impossible).


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