From then on, the concept of a social democrat became a term of differentiation,
with the emphasis now on democracy. Socialists who opposed the Russian
Revolution and subsequent Leninist and Stalinist rule, invariably called themselves
democratic socialists – a term we shall use interchangeably with social democrat.
Socialism, it was argued, is concerned with reforms, not revolution: it must develop
through parliamentary democracy, not through workers’ councils or soviets. It must
express itself through electoral victory, not a seizure of power: nor should socialists
tie themselves to the leadership of the working class. Socialism involves the whole
nation – not simply a part of it – and socialism must be realistic, attained through
piecemeal reforms and in a manner that works with, and respects, the liberal
tradition. As the French socialist Jean Jaures put it, ‘the great majority of the nation
can be won over to our side by propaganda and lawful action and led to socialism’
(Berki, 1974: 91–2).
Social democracy sees itself as everything that Marxism is not: democratic,
reformist, realistic, open-minded and concerned with the moral case for socialism.
What is its dilemma? It is so anti-utopian that it is vulnerable to the charge that it
is no different in essence from liberalism and even more flexible versions of
conservatism. Is it a movement in its own right? Berki makes the point that just as
in Aristotle aristocracy can turn into its degenerate form, oligarchy, so social
democracy can turn into its degenerate form, which is electoralism (1974: 104),
that is a concern to win elections without worrying about principles at all.
In other words, social democracy suffers from a serious identity problem. It is
so pragmatic and flexible, so concerned with avoiding divisiveness and outraging,
as Durbin puts it, ‘the conservative sections of all classes’ (Berki, 1974: 103), that
it becomes a form of conservatism itself (or liberalism), and cannot be called
socialism at all. Socialism, we have argued, is vulnerable to the charge of utopianism:
but a forthright rebuttal of utopianism of any kind may mean that the transformative
element in socialism is lost, and socialism degenerates.
Eduard Bernstein and the German socialists
Eduard Bernstein is a significant figure to examine, for his critique of classical
Marxism formed the theory and practice of what came to be called social democracy.
He influenced a tradition that was resistant to theory. In his work, social democracy
is not only contrasted explicitly and in detail to Marxism, but its own premises are
lucidly displayed. Indeed, the book that has the English title of Evolutionary
Socialismwas actually called (if one translates the German directly) The Premises
of Socialism and the Task of Social Democracy.
Bernstein joined the German Socialists in 1872. When the warring groups united,
the party went from electoral success to electoral success. In 1876 it won 9 per cent
of the votes cast (Gay, 1962: 38–9). Bismarck, the German Chancellor, used the
attempt to assassinate the Emperor (not it should be said by socialists) to harass
the party. Bernstein, who was in Switzerland at the time, became converted to
Despite the problems caused by Bismarck’s anti-socialist law (which only lapsed
in 1890), the German Socialists polled 12 per cent of the vote in the elections of
1881 (Gay, 1962: 52). In 1884 the party sent 24 members to the Reichstag – the
224 Part 2 Classical ideologies