Bernie Sanders began running for president describing himself first as a socialist, later as a “democratic socialist”. The news media (when it wasn’t ignoring him) in turn called him a “socialist” or even, in their opinion pages, a “communist” or a “Bolshevik,”. His red-baiting opponents, and even his supporters and opponents on the left, have been arguing about what his politics really are, and what those terms mean.
Before that discussion can be constructively engaged in though, there needs to be an understanding of what socialism, capitalism’s social democracy, communism and Marxism are, and where the socialist philosophy comes from.
Philosophical forefathers of a socialistic vision include Buddha and Lao Tzu. Buddha was an Indian/Nepalese prince; Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher. Both lived in the 6th century before Jesus Christ’s birth. Jesus should also be included as a “primitive communist” as some see the Palestinian Jew, human being or god-human. These visionaries hoped that peoples could live together in peace and harmony, one great family sharing resources.
The term socialism took hold as a political ideal first in France, in the 1820s, when Henri de Saint-Simon envisioned the ideal society as one large factory. His followers chose the word socialism to represent a centrally planned society run like a cooperative business by worker-owners, and/or in conjunction with the state. The term communism also comes from France, probably back to medieval monks who shared property, living in common and feeling a sense of togetherness. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ theory of communism entailed social organization based on sharing property, the highest state of socialism in which all would live well socially in a stateless society.
Variations of Saint-Simon’s socialism have been formulated by many political theorists and writers: Thomas More, Louis Blanc, Eduard Bernstein, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx and Engels, Sydney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg.
Socialists disagree on how to develop socialism and even how to define it exactly. They all agree, however, that socialism’s economy is not dominated by private ownership of the means of production. Public ownership—either by the state or by worker cooperatives, or a combination—is central to its philosophy. It is also generally agreed that it is just and necessary to create a permanent state of social welfare with greater say in political-economic matters by the producers and folk at large. A system in which the people are the determining decision-makers has not yet been developed, neither in Russia/Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea–not anywhere.
The rise of social democracy
The first social democratic party arose in Germany by union struggles and was founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, in 1863. He was familiar with Marx and Engels’ writings. The latter founded the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) in London, the following year. They sought to unite left-wing socialists, communists, anarchists and trade unionists around class struggle and the need for a socialist revolution.
Some social democrats (S.D.) view social democracy as a “third way” while Marx and Engels maintained there can only be capitalism or socialism. There are basically two variants of social democracy in theory. One advocates evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism, in contrast to the revolutionary approach associated with Marxism. The second approach advocates state economic and social interventions, in order to promote social justice and welfare within the framework of a capitalist economy. Englishman John Keynes adapted the latter approach, which President F.D. Roosevelt employed (Keynesianism) during the Great Depression, aiming at restoring order and saving the capitalist system. In all social democratic approaches private property remains in the hands of the owner (ruling) class.
The first social democratic government occurred in Finland, in 1907, eight years after the founding of the social democratic party. In 1916, S.D. won an absolute majority and governed alone for the only time.
German social democrats achieved their first government in 1918 upon the end of the First World War. Sweden had its first S.D. government in 1921. The second oldest social democratic party was led by postal worker Louis Pio in Denmark, in 1871. Pio was inspired by the Paris Commune. Danish social democrats formed their first government in 1924, the same year the social democratic Labour Party was elected to govern in England. Norway’s S.D. ruled first in 1928 but fell after two weeks. The party split into two. One faction created the Communist Party. The S.D. ruled again in 1935. Iceland’s trade unions formed the social democratic party in 1916. The tiny nation took its independence from Denmark once the United States occupied it during the Second World War. The US took control of Keflavik airfield, and at its height there were 75,000 military personnel there. The social democratic party first came to rule in 1947-9.
The October Revolution in Russia (1917) was the key influence for social democratic development throughout Europe. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDRP) formed in Minsk, in 1898. Vladimir Lenin joined in 1902. He led the Bolshevik (majority) split at its second congress, in 1903. Bolsheviks became the Communist Party, in 1918. The Mensheviks (minority) continued as the S.D. party. The two were often at odds yet sometimes joined forces until the October Revolution.
The Bolsheviks formed a disciplined vanguard party agitating for a proletarian revolution, armed if necessary. The Mensheviks sought social democratic compromises with the “bourgeois democrats”, in which free expression would prevail as opposed to “democratic centralism”. When world war broke out Tsar Nicholas insisted on victory over Germany. He was forced to abdicate in March 1917 and a Provisional government took over, which nevertheless continued the war supported by social democrats and the Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks advocated an end to the war and a transition to socialism. Their slogan was: land, peace and bread.
Lenin and Léon Trotsky led the party to victory in October (November 1917). Their hope that social democrats would oppose world war had been dashed when German social democrats supported the bourgeoisie war. A worldwide workers’ revolution was averted when social democrats in country after country, including in Russia, allied with their capitalist class. This led to the isolation of Russia.
The Nordic Model grew out of this Great Compromise between social democratic-led trade unions and wealthy property owners. In exchange for staving off socialist revolutions the capitalists granted improvements in working and living conditions for most workers in Scandinavia, eventually in Germany, England, Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe.
The Nordic Model developed through the 1920s to the 1970s into a large welfare state. Employer and labor union institutions agreed to implement unemployment insurance and pensions; emphasizing the need for all to have a roof over head, and publicly provided social services with a high rate of investment in human capital including: child care, tax supported education and health care, maternity and some paternity leave, paid vacations; and greater social and gender equality.
Although the economy remained in the hands of the capitalist class, working/living standards improved enough to satisfy most people. These producer-earned benefits dampened Western working class enthusiasm for struggling for socialism and for international solidarity, especially with workers in underdeveloped nations whose work and living conditions neared slavery and even include slavery. No other nation joined Russia in its socialist experiment until after World War II.
No matter one’s analysis or opinions of Communist-led Russia and the expanded Soviet Union, one must recognize that its development was warped, in part, by constant subversion directed at it by the United States and many of its allies. From the beginning of the revolution, the US and several European allies, plus Australia, Canada, India, even Japan and China, supported the White Russian and Cossack counter-revolutionaries who wanted a return of the Tsar. The “democratic” allies sought to defeat the new Bolshevik army and to crush communism in the bud.
From May 1918 to July, 100,000 troops were sent to Vladivostok and other areas of northern Russia even though they were still fighting the German Axis powers. The Japanese had 70,000 troops in Siberia to solve a “border problem” between China and Russia. The US sent 13,000 troops. Most weary allied forces withdrew by 1920 but some Japanese fought on in Siberia until 1922 and in northern Sakhalin until 1925 when they were finally defeated by the Soviet Union.
World War II and Marshall Plan
Social democracy had such an impact on workers in much of Europe that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were forced to include many of its benefits for “authentic” Italians and non-Jew Arian Germans. Hitler even falsely named his party in that spirit: National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Its first priority was to draw workers away from communism and into völkisch (folk) nationalism. While the Nazis killed communists, the political strategy initially focused on anti-business and anti-capitalist rhetoric, later played down in order to gain support of industrial property owners.
Italian Fascism promoted a corporatist economic system whereby employer and employee syndicates associated to collectively represent the nation’s economic owners and producers, who were to work alongside the state to set national economic policy, and resolve class conflict.
As World War II approached, most social democratic parties did not support the peace policies of the leftist wing of the social democratic party (the Communist Party was banned by Chancellor Hitler in January 1933), and its associated parties throughout the world. Nor did social democratic parties in many countries protest the rise of fascism or even the fascist take-over of their nations. In Denmark, for instance, the Nazi-collaborationist government was led by the Social Democratic Party under the leadership of its “father” Thorvald Stauning. He was succeeded by S.D. Wilhelm Buhl. Both turned over Communists and other liberation fighters to the Nazi party, even more than asked for. The Nazis imprisoned 6000 civilians, tortured many, and executed 850. Buhl also encouraged workers to snitch on patriotic saboteurs, and to take jobs in Germany, thus aiding the Nazi war effort. Nevertheless, upon the end of the war, Buhl emerged as provisional prime minister.
Denmark was effectively liberated on May 5th by British forces led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Only four days later the Russian Army occupied the Danish island of Bornholm after intense fighting with the Germans. Russians voluntarily left the island a year later.
After the liberation, there was uncertainty about how the allies would regard Denmark, because the government had deliberately declined to take up the fight, as opposed to Norwegians. Eventually Denmark was accepted as an ally, mainly due to allied appreciation for the widespread Communist-led resistance to the German occupation during the last years of the war.
(The social democratic-led government could have waylaid the Nazi invasion of Norway, giving Norwegians time to put up greater resistance, had it sabotaged the airport at Aalborg where the Nazis would launch their attack. Ironically, it took a right-wing liberal Prime Minister, and later NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rassmussen, to be the first Danish leader to officially apologize for Denmark’s collaboration with the Nazis. As reported by the “New York Times”, August 30, 2003, he asserted this was “morally unjustifiable.” In a speech for the 60th anniversary of the end of the 1940-43 collaborationist government, Rasmussen said, “If everyone in Europe—if the Americans and the Russians—had thought the same as the Danish lawmakers, then Hitler would have won the war.” Nazi troops invaded on April 9, 1940 and the government immediately surrendered.)
Despite the fact that Russia was the main victor of the war, and suffered the greatest casualties, and that it was British troops who first entered Denmark, the social democrats and Danes generally fell in love with the United States, which has led to a lack of real sovereignty for the country.
The loss of over 60 million people (some researchers say 80 million) devastated many countries, especially the Soviet Union. It lost 13.7% of its population, some 27 million people (about 16 million civilians). Germany lost between five and eight million people, 7-11% of its population. Despite torrential bombings, the UK lost only one percent of its people, around half-a-million. About three percent of China’s population was killed, between 15 and 20 million people, three-fourths of them civilians. By contrast, the US lost only 0.32% of its population, about 420,000, nearly all military. In 1940, there were 2.3 billion people. The war took three percent of them.
Nevertheless, World War II was an economic boom for the USA. Its weapons, oil, steel, auto, and construction industries grew manifold. Their surplus financed the Marshall Plan to rebuild the capitalist economies of Western Europe and prevent socialist-communist electoral victories. This policy succeeded, especially in Greece and Italy where a majority of workers were leftist.
Europe’s two largest political parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, adopted and even extended welfare benefits enabled by the Marshall Plan. The “free market” has since largely replaced the state as the politically determining force, and the welfare model is no longer viewed as necessary as it had been. Globalization brings unprecedented profits to capital, and their friendly governments allow even greater profits by helping the largest companies and rich individuals avoid paying taxes in a myriad of ways: by granting them enormous tax cuts, ignoring their tax shelters and bogus companies, and by legal or semi-legal loopholes. Capitalists can also easily avoid paying taxes and decent wages by packing up businesses in the Western part of the world and moving them to countries where governments allow slave wages and poor conditions.
The European Union has moved towards a United States of Europe in which major monopolies are assisted in attacking the historic results of workers struggles, and forging a state of permanent fear of losing jobs and social benefits. These fears are enhanced by terrorist attacks committed by desperate and fanatic people whose countries have been invaded and sacked by NATO, and “coalition of the willing” armies, and the flooding of refugees fleeing these wars. EU has come to mean the loss of national sovereignty, un-payable debts, the destruction and privatization of the public sector—the decline of the Nordic Model.
All that moved the majority of Brits to vote themselves out of the EU. This historic rejection known as Brexit,, on June 23, 2016, opened the way for radical movements rightist and leftist.
I believe that those of us who have enough food and comforts have a co-responsibility to stop this “inhumanity” human beings have created or Armageddon will overwhelm us and the planet. That means, at the least, that the inhuman economic system known as capitalism, which requires never-ending profit over the needs of people must be replaced by a humane economic system based on cooperation and sharing.
RON RIDENOUR, latest new member of ThisCantBeHappening!, is a US expatriate journalist and anti-war activist living in Denmark. His latest books, “The Russian Peace Threat: Pentagon on Alert” and “Winding Brook Stories” are available at Amazon. His other work can be found at http://ronridenour.com/index.htm. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org