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Out of the Ashes

Franz Walter

Auf der Höhe der Zeit: Soziale Demokratie und Fortschritt im 21. Jahrhundert (Up to Date: Social Democracy and Progress in the 21st Century), by Matthias Platzeck, Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Vorwärts Buch, 344 pp, €14.80, ISBN: 978-3866026292

In spite of a fair modicum of electoral success in recent years the main formation of the German left, the Social Democratic Party, exists in a state of some ideological confusion. Since the last general election it has found itself in coalition with the main formation of the right, the Christian Democrats, together with its Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union. Such successes as this government has been able to achieve have boosted the popularity of its right-wing constituent while the social democrats are floundering in the polls and also facing a formidable challenge at state (Land) level from the hard left Die Linke. In this context, a renewed struggle between the traditional left and right wings of the SPD has begun. Yet neither, Franz Walter suggests, may have a satisfactory answer to the party’s problems.

Some weeks before the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) Hamburg conference in late October 2007, frequent mention of the name Eduard Bernstein could suddenly be heard again in party circles: the three modernisers much feted by the German media, Matthias Platzeck, minister-president of the state of Brandenburg, minister for finance Peer Steinbrück and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, caused a furore with a book that they presented with great fanfare as a manifesto for a modernised social democracy. Their historical role model was the revisionist theorist Eduard Bernstein, who was born in Berlin in 1850 and died there 82 years later on December 18th, 1932 – exactly 75 years earlier.

And yet this recourse to the reformist socialist Bernstein was scarcely a subversive or sensational act. The SPD’s “Godesberg Programme” of 1959, in which the party bade farewell to the class struggle, Marxism and the project of building a socialist society, had already been classified as a victory for Bernstein’s ideas. However, through their recourse to Bernstein, the representatives of the “pragmatic” wing of the SPD aimed to inject significant further impetus into the movement away from traditional social democratic ways of thinking, the parting of ways with the classical labour movement and the defeat of the oppositionist mentality which had become deeply rooted in the party over the decades.

Oppositionism had been for a long time the essential characteristic of German social democracy: a born opposition party, the SPD has spent over 110 years in opposition and only thirty in cabinet. Opposition had been its destiny for many years, and for many years social democrats had embraced this destiny, which had made them important and self-confident and even lent them the air of being better people.

The social democrats were not just in opposition for many decades: for a quarter of a century they were also persecuted, deported, imprisoned and, in the very worst years, tortured, beaten and executed by the state. But this did not succeed in halting the growth of the movement. On the contrary, state repression boosted its political mission, and also its moral one. This experience was to be fundamental for German social democrats: they grew through suffering. Indeed they almost came to love the suffering of this their “heroic age”. In the decades between Bismarck and Brandt they experienced their greatest happiness not as representatives of government but as sorely tested fighters against the trampling down of justice.

As a result, social democrats often found themselves helpless when catapulted, almost against their will, into government. Compared with the lofty dreams of the proud period of suffering, the minutiae of the business contracted by social democratic coalition governments always seemed trivial, while their achievements in office appeared to pale into insignificance beside the grandeur of their original aspirations. Thus the Germans gained the impression that social democrats were not really suited to government, that it induced in them a permanent state of disunity, prompting a strangely self-destructive disparagement of their own achievements.

The Social Democratic Party was in no way a party of the state: on the contrary, it had long avoided it. Social democracy in Germany represented too much of a self-sustaining culture for this. However, the limits of this autarchic culture also became clearly visible over the 100 years of the party’s self-help movement. The SPD had established an impressive system of education for workers; however it never replaced the state-sanctioned school-leaving certificate or university degree. The historical emancipation of the working class and the achievement of at least equal opportunity for all classes could not be achieved by social democratic civil society.

Thus social advancement was not achieved by the workers’ education system but by the state-driven educational reforms of the 1960s and ’70s. This period saw the emergence of the neue Mitte (new centre) and probably also marked the end of classic social democracy, the now vanished emancipation movement of the top rung of skilled workers. Up to the Willy Brandt era, the German Social Democratic Party was above all the party of skilled workers hungry for advancement. For over 100 years, the educational privileges of the middle classes had denied this talented and ambitious class the opportunity to escape its social position through education and climb the social ladder through the acquisition of knowledge. However, thanks to the educational reform introduced under chancellors Brandt and Schmidt, the aristocracy of skilled workers finally got its historical opportunity. From then on the former party of metalworkers, miners and printers became a party of the “new centre”, that is a party of teachers, public servants, social workers and equality officers.

The “leftover” working class has since remained politically and culturally isolated. Its former social democratic leaders were promoted and now spoke a different language, dressed better and more expensively, drank wine instead of beer and lived at better addresses in city centre apartments far away from the old locales. As a result, this working class fragment, together with the sub-proletariat, ceased to exist as a self-conscious political entity. The connection between it and the social democracy of the “new centre” had been sundered. The “leftovers” had become politically homeless and, with a volatility displayed by no other social class in the German republic, ultimately meandered between abstention, electoral support for the conservative CDU and support for the new “party of the left” (Die Linke). Social democracy had dissociated itself from its former subject, leaving it both behind and beneath it. In response, the abandoned subject withdrew its loyalty. In the course of this process the SPD lost state election after state election in the early twenty-first century.

Meanwhile the worlds of social democrats and trade unionists have become entirely decoupled. For a long time the two spheres formed a synthesis, in which shop-floor experience joined forces with political skill. Today there is no trade union leader in the SPD Bundestag parliamentary party; the local works council representative is no longer both deputy leader of the local party association and an SPD member of the urban council. Historically, there have always been tensions between trade unionists and the social democrats. However, the serious alienation that has developed since 1999 is new – particularly in view of the fact that a significant proportion of the middle management of the major trade unions has turned its back on the SPD, and not only in the short term. What was once a secure bastion of the social democratic movement appears to be becoming the recruiting and training ground of Die Linke, whose current party and parliamentary leader is former SPD party leader and finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. The trade unions were a strong pillar of social democracy for over a hundred years; at the very least this pillar has now begun to shake.

As a result, towards the end of the last millennium, the social democrats, unnerved by the rapid loss of voters in the regions and altered both socially and culturally by their social rise to the new centre, set off on a quest for new identities, withdrawing on a programmatic retreat for no less than eight years. Over this period (since 1999), the party has had four different leaders, with each change at the top prompting a break in the programme debate. This reason alone was enough to ensure that the process would be long drawn out and that the party rank and file would find it difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for it.

In principle it was remarkable that the social democrats should have to replenish their programmatic reserves when they had been in government for just twelve months. It was tantamount to an admission that insufficient conceptual preparation had been carried out over the sixteen years of opposition since Helmut Schmidt’s government collapsed in 1982, and that the party had entered government without suitable political blueprints or intellectual frameworks.

Chancellor Schröder made no secret of the contempt in which he held the SPD’s pre-1998 opposition maxims. Yet he did not choose to rely on renewal through the work of long-winded programme study groups but simply cracked the whip of surprise government decisions, driving his party on without consultation – and almost destroying parts of it in the process. In any case, Schröder did not advance the group-based programme debate. He feared that unworldly theorists with vague ideals could ultimately become a burden on the prosaic routine of government. Thus the discussion of new social democratic objectives was a non-starter from the outset. However this was not exclusively a “Schröder problem”.

Social democratic politics – and the entire political left – has already been barren in programmatic terms for around three decades. The left is not buzzing with inspiring ideas and stirring tales of the future. This is particularly true of Germany. The few visionaries who remained in the SPD borrowed set pieces from Great Britain or salvaged slogans from Scandinavia. This approach was mainly peddled by the so-called modernisers who populated the programmatic landscape during Matthias Platzeck’s brief reign as party chairman in 2005/’06. Meanwhile, the SPD left wing grumbled a bit here and bitched a bit there, but had long lost the intellectual strength to provide a coherent alternative; not even a hint of an original idea could be gleaned from the traditional right wing of the party (the Seeheim Circle).

It was under this combination of circumstances that a few young social democratic Bundestag members, calling themselves Network Berlin, gathered around environment minister Sigmar Gabriel with the aim of gradually changing the SPD’s settled view of what exactly it is. They took their leave of the “forces of inertia” within their own party, coolly distanced themselves from the putative “consumer social state”, sneered at the pessimism of the Berlin Programme of 1989 and basically gave up on the bottom third of society’s “little people”. The virtues of globalisation, free markets, daring entrepreneurship and economic growth were enthusiastically extolled. The modernisers also demanded optimism, Arbeitsfreude (“joy in work”) and the seizing of opportunity. All of this they channelled into the new principle of the “provident social state” and placed it on the new foundation of a “social democracy” that would replace the obsolete doctrine of “democratic socialism”. It was not the job of the provident social state to repair society’s defects but rather to identify its future problems in good time and systematically plan to counteract them.

The universal solution for the twenty-first century was “education”, or more precisely the provision of educational opportunity. The “new social democracy” no longer wished to mire itself in the sentimentality of the old solidarity-based terminology. It no longer had time for the craving for empathy of the old Willy Brandt SPD. The “modern” SPD groups argued in far more dogmatic and demanding terms; their theories had a cold, hard and technological tone. According to these imperative formulations, the “provident social state” would “invest in people” on a “pre-emptive” basis. The “human factors” endowed with sufficient “educational capital” in this way would then have the task of availing of the opportunities provided for them through life-long performance. Should they not succeed in this, the negative consequences they would face on the labour market and within the societal hierarchy would be entirely justified, as they would have been given every opportunity to achieve their “individual advancement” “through performance”.

Of course there is nothing wrong with the philosophy of providence. People have been making provision for the future since time immemorial. And although they primarily expect the state to provide protection and security in times of hardship and need, it cannot be said that the provision of such “aftercare” has been the only function of the social state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The social state was an institution with its own ambitions from the outset. The major pensions reform in Germany in 1957 may be seen as a prime example of provident welfare-statism, by means of which a long-existing problem – chronic insecurity and poverty in old age – was actually resolved. Scarcely any other reform introduced by the modern social state could have been as popular as the guarantee of a materially secure retirement. In terms of the rhetoric of opportunity too, everything that is now being presented as a model for the future was already initiated as part of this emblematic project of the 1950s CDU state. The coupling of pension payments with the general progression of wages created previously inconceivable opportunities for the older generation – not least the option of finally engaging in activities that used to be impossible due to family and career commitments.

However, the provident reform of pensions insurance based on the principle of solidarity was initially greeted with suspicion by modern social democrats. Characteristically, they justified this by arguing that given the prospect of future gain, people would have no desire to make a meaningless investment in the past. Or to put it in simpler terms: unproductive pensioners cost too much. To put it in more complicated terms: the negative dialectic of the principle of providence results often enough in the unexpected advent of subsequent problems. According to the modern social democrats, the cost of the great pension provisions of 1957 was borne by younger people. Thus, fifty years later, the provident reform of the Adenauer years is itself being subject to provident reform. And we can already be sure that in twenty to thirty years at the most the current reform of the old reform will result in the enormous problem of poverty among the elderly, at least among the bottom third of the population. As a result, the modernisers of 2030 will be kept busy dealing reforming the Schröder-Merkel era reforms.

What we have here in principle is the all too familiar paradox of the modern age: over and over again its demand for rationalisation and optimisation spawns monsters and deformities. The idea that the state should detect problems in good time and organise the future in a planned, systematic and methodical manner is ultimately far from new – and if it is planned to embark yet again on this programmatic path, some thought should at least be given to the now familiar perils associated with provident planning in complex systems.

German society was last seen on this path in the 1960s – with German social democracy leading the way. After two decades of the new-liberal policy of then minister for finance Ludwig Erhard, the great era of planners, policy designers and social architects dawned. Even then the aim was to transform traditional social policy for the poor into a modern social democratic social policy. Of course education was also seen as the key to social reform at the time. However, the crucial master key to technical, economic and, therefore, social progress in the early 1960s was nuclear power. Anyone who engaged in progressive and, above all, provident thinking banked on this energy source. And no party was more enthusiastic about the construction of nuclear power plants than the SPD, which had great hopes of lasting economic growth and, based on this, inexhaustible resources for affluence and social equalisation in a social democratic society. Even Erhard Eppler, later a government minister, key programmer and important critic of growth in the SPD, shared this view in the 1960s: he writes in his autobiography how he recalls “with slight horror” how he enthused about robots and fast reactors during this “decade of technocratic delusions”. Like Eppler, in 1965 hardly anyone doubted that nuclear power would become the effective instrument of a far-sighted technological policy of providence. And because the philosophy of systematic providence likes to suppress all doubt and ambivalence, doubts and alternatives never got a look in. In the enthusiasm for subsidised nuclear providence, microelectronics, for example, was given the poor relation treatment when it came to state support, with the result that Germany fell drastically behind in this field – specifically as a result of its policy of providence.

There is no great evidence of any learning elasticity in the secular utopianism peddled by the exponents of the allegedly systematic and efficient providence approach. The providence ideology always has the big plan. It is no coincidence that terms such as “building site”, “position” and “be positioned” are blithely circulated among today’s political professionals. In this philosophy, society becomes a huge building site where everyone must fulfil precisely the function assigned to them. The technocratically determined provident social state understands people as material, as production factors which must be invested in accordance with a given rate of return. The opportunities provided for people by the provident social state represent an offer that cannot be refused. Diligent and life-long self-optimisation through the state’s investments in education is compulsory. Culture, autonomy, self-will, the freedom to say no – none of these options features substantially among modern social democracy’s ideologies of the provident social state. It is the duty of the supported standardised individual in the “iron cage” of the provident state to avail of opportunities, perform and succeed. From this point of view, the negative experiences of the first educational expansion could be abruptly repeated in the second educational reform. Some will succeed; for others, their lack of success and inadequacy will therefore be all the more painful and their failure more bitter because it is associated with the stigma of self-blame. And the educational investment society will no longer have a close-knit social state to catch them when they fall.

The contributions to this book by the SPD’s modernisers mainly target the capable, efficient, productive, competitive and self-sufficient members of society. And yet German society over the next four decades in particular will have increasing numbers of people who need some clemency and require help, care and attention – and they will have to endure all of this. On no account should concepts such as those once understood by Willy Brandt under the heading of “compassion” be eliminated from a programme of social democracy.

For a long time the impression was that the young “modernisers” held sway in the SPD. In early 2007, a closed meeting of the party executive passed the so-called Bremen Proposal, which clearly pointed in this direction. However, in late summer of that year the modernisers overstepped the mark with their brash and elitist attitude during a book launch staged for the media in Berlin, acting like the avant garde of a party which in many respects, like its current leader, Kurt Beck, is still steeped in tradition, rushing headlong towards and pointing the way to the future. By adopting this attitude, they achieved the opposite of what they set out to do. They revitalised the almost apathetic old social democrats and thus strengthened Beck’s position within the party. The new version of the programme, which was subsequently passed at the SPD’s national party conference in Hamburg in October, strikes a different note, reassesses its semantics and message and takes two steps back historically.

The current programme is far more traditional. “Democratic socialism”, which had previously been deemed dead and buried, has been snatched almost triumphantly from the arms of the coffin-makers. Indeed, it features frequently as an objective in the text and is explicitly highlighted from the outset as a “proud tradition” of the party. Kurt Beck’s SPD admits that it emerged as “part of the labour movement”; in the earlier Bremen draft there was vague mention of a “freedom movement” as its locus of origin. Even “Marxist social analysis” is no longer omitted as a source of social democratic activities and included – in a historically correct way of course – in the account of the party’s roots. The modernists’ preferred term of globalisation is now replaced by a term like “global capitalism”. The “provident social state” is still there, but in a significantly pared-down and downgraded form and no longer trades as the “mission statement” and central distinguishing point of the “new SPD”. Its “activating, pre-emptive and investive” purposes have even been eliminated. Instead greater emphasis is placed on security, integration and the “fair distribution of prosperity”. The new draft shows far greater benevolence towards the older members of society who, in the rhetoric of the reformers of recent years, appeared to have become representatives of an irrelevant past. A new tone is adopted towards the previously neglected trade unions in particular, with their role once again given greater emphasis.

The SPD left saw this retreat as one victory won in the struggle against the networkers, the Steinbrücks, Platzecks and others. Yet this showed just how unambitious the left, which had remained intellectually vital for many years, has now become. Basically, the insistence on the paradigm of “democratic socialism” has the air of an immature act of defiance. Of course “socialism” is no longer a signpost for the SPD. If the word is to be taken seriously, it embodies a fundamental alternative to the current market-controlled system, the civil law system, the private focus in property ownership, the principle of profitability and individualism in lifestyles and culture. No social democrat, including Bundestag representative, deputy leader and chief of the party’s left wing Andrea Nahles – and not even Oskar Lafontaine of Die Linke – seriously aspires to such a state of affairs. Indeed, social democratic ministers practise the opposite every day.

Thus there are now enough left-wingers in Germany who are under no illusion about the fact that all that remains of socialism – be it democratic or despotic – is cold ashes. Its subject, the working class, has disappeared. Its aim, the rational long-term planning of production and consumption, constitutes a pre-modern underestimation of complexity. Its medium, the centralised state, is a hydra nobody wants anymore. In short: the left needs a new analysis, a new strategy and, ultimately, entirely new concepts.

“Democratic socialism” does not provide any direction, being nothing more than a ornament from a past of which a handful of social democrats are, justifiably, proud and to which they turn for consolation in times of difficulty. However, part of the reason for the permanent crises in the SPD is that, at programme level at least, people wish to preserve the great aim, the higher morality, the better society, the arcadia of social justice: and against this background of a great vision for the future, all practical, worldly policies appear not just small and feeble but close to a betrayal of the movement’s real principles. For this reason – and here the “modernisers” are entirely correct – it is a permanent problem for social democrats to live in harmony with their own performance in government and, in a way, in consensus with themselves. Thus the SPD gives the impression of a permanently dissatisfied and self-harming party: the pathos of socialism, which is never conveyed in the sobriety of realpolitik, generates constant frustration and jeremiad among the party membership.

And not just there. Since time immemorial, the electorate too has applied a significantly more rigorous yardstick to the SPD than to the CDU. The fury heaped on social democrats in government regularly far outstrips the criticism the bourgeois parties have to deal with. Nothing triggers a greater reaction among voters than double-dealing. Commitment to socialism on the one hand and pride in the difficult series of labour market reforms (known as Hartz I to IV) on the other just won’t work; nor will the commitment to create social justice on the one hand and the social-democrat-sanctioned aggravation of social inequality, child poverty, pension cuts and the indignities of unemployment on the other. The scorn, resentment and, yes, contempt towards the SPD, particularly among those who were once firm believers in its sweet promises, are sustained by this enduring discrepancy.

It is not possible for the programmes of large political parties to be intellectually glittering and argumentatively consistent treatises. They must unite different positions, including hard-fought consensual formulations, and they must be broadly based. The SPD’s Hamburg Programme is just such a manifesto of compromise. If things go well, it will integrate and satisfy the new and old social democrats. If things go badly, neither group will be able to identify with it; in this case, the new basic document will prove as worthless in terms of the SPD’s internal cohesion and external charisma as the Berlin Programme before it.

The renaissance of “democratic socialism” may simply go against the grain of one side. After all their pronouncements of recent years, the modernisers cannot be truly satisfied with the Hamburg Programme. And it may still harbour too much Agenda 2010 rhetoric for the other side. Thus it is possible that the rhetorical renaissance of “democratic socialism” will not draw the SPD to the left but trigger new waves of disappointment, from which Oskar Lafontaine’s competing left-wing party will benefit further. In any case, the social democrats will finally have to decide what they want to do. If they want to continue with Schröder’s politics, they should not be fiddling about with the “socialism” label. If, however, socialism is indispensable to them, then they must change their politics radically.

The faint vision of a socialist future was clearly part of Marxism’s fatal – though initially formative – legacy to the SPD, a legacy which did not wish to supply utopian zeal but instead claimed to be rigorously scientific. The magic formulae, the key concepts of this putative science were “development” and “necessity”. No other categories had such a formative influence on various SPD generations as these metaphors. Up to the Lafontaine era, there was a fondness for accusing the social democrats of allowing themselves to be overly driven by utopian ideals. In fact the opposite was the case. The social democrats were entirely incapable of political fantasy. They often lacked the creative sensitivity and imaginative power for utopian vision. Poverty of vision was the typical characteristic of the long history of social democracy’s solid skilled worker grass roots.

This applied also – and in particular – to the reformism of the early moderniser Eduard Bernstein, to whom today’s party modernisers refer. In his revisionist writings of the closing years of the nineteenth century, Eduard Bernstein transferred into the future all his experience and observations of the temporally limited prosperity of the post-1895 economic cycle. He lacked both the terminology and concepts for all of the repudiations of these that were to follow after 1914 – war, inflation, depression, totalitarian mass movements –and this is something that is clearly also applicable to his current imitators.

It is precisely this flabby lack of conceptual thinking that lay at the root of democratic socialism’s deep crisis in the twentieth century.

The Dublin Review of Books would like to thank the Goethe-Institut Dublin for its assistance in the commissioning and translation of this essay.


Franz Walter teaches political science at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen in Germany. His published work focuses on the historical development of political parties and their current activity. His most recent book is Die Linkspartei (Wiesbaden 2007, together with Tim Spier, Felix Butzlaff and Matthias Micus).

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