Monday, 3 September 2018

Reformism Yesterday and Social Democracy Today


“It it also true to say that the Belgian bourgeoisie found itself coming under almost constant pressure from a proletariat which had been both radicalized and held back by Social Democracy, which was both increasingly militant and increasingly contained. Social Democracy depended for its political credibility upon the power of a [workers’] movement it distrusted and which it wanted to hold back; its ability to negotiate was determined by actions which both gave it its strength and threatened its reformist strategy.”

Regular readers may have noticed I am not much of fan of the New Left, Eurocommunism, and the Frankfurt School. Although those labels do not mean much to younger socialists, there’s much to learn from their many failings.

In fairness, however, those readers should concede that my attitude towards all those once new shining things, now old, dimmed and forgotten, is less negative than my attitude towards reformism.

That ambivalence extends to names like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, associated to them. Now, it extends to a Belgian Marxist I had not read before: Marcel Liebman.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t question the intellectual merits of Thompson, Hobsbawm and -- now -- Liebman. It’s because I find merits in Liebman that I recommend his 1985 essay “Reformism yesterday and Social Democracy today”, of which I learned from Jacobin.

I don’t like Liebman’s rhetoric of impartiality, which he paradoxically adopts … together with the reformist point of view … in an article about reformism and the degeneration of Social Democracy into social democracy.  From that perspective, he complains about the “simplistic”, “almost caricatural” picture of reformist Social Democracy more radical Marxists allegedly entertain. Radicals, in his opinion, thought that “opting for legalism and gradualism [as reformists did] looked like an easy choice. It seemed to promote prudence as opposed to heroism, a pusillanimous moderation as opposed to heroic energy.”

Liebman, like Hobsbawm and Thompson in different contexts, may want to present himself as ostensibly neutral, but it’s clear that’s more appearance than reality. He carefully abstains from going into how the reformists saw themselves and their radical opponents. Nowhere he mentions their self-interested appeals to “pragmatism”. Not a peep about their “arguments”.

There’s hippie bashing in that article.

Still, I honestly find Liebman’s essay valuable. In spite of his sympathies, he was objective enough to write things like the opening paragraph, or this:
“It should be quite clear to attentive readers, careful observers, informed critics, and lucid participants in the political battle that the reformism of the past has fulfilled its historical mission, that it has lost its dynamism, and that its narrow limitations are now obvious. It is no more than a shadow of its former self, a ghost, a form of nostalgia. A nostalgia, ridiculous and poignant, for something which once existed and will never exist again.”

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