It is reasonably common refrain these days that social-democrats (or labour parties) have abandoned their true beliefs, that they have become proponents of rampant capitalism, that the only people who vote for them are middle class. This assumes that once upon a time the social-democrats stood for a political philosophy that was distinct and would make the world a better place. That’s crap, since social-democracy has always been deeply problematic.

To be clear, by ‘social-democrat’ I mean the political movements and parties that split away from the socialists in 1914. Before then, communists were known as social-democrats. But when the German Social-Democratic Party voted in favour of war credits so Germany could begin the First World War, the difference became apparent. Other social-democratic parties followed suit in their own countries, thereby destroying what had been a consensus in the Second International until then: workers would refuse to fight in an imperialist war, turning their weapons against the capitalists. When the national social-democratic parties broke that agreement and supported their respective war efforts, they revealed their true colours.

The most obvious of those was an acceptance of bourgeois democracy as the untranscendable horizon within which they would work. They soon dropped the ‘bourgeois’ epithet from ‘democracy’ and argued that the ballot-box was the only way to achieve lasting change. The problem, of course, was that they chose to fight on ground not of their own choosing. That ground was chosen and laid out by the bourgeoisie, which thereby was able to set the terms of debate, the acceptable range of what could and could not be changed, which boiled down to a liberal program and the unquestioned validity of capitalism. Social-democratic parties were all too happy to oblige, feeling that they had a better agenda for making capitalism work.

This means that any change has to take the path of reform. Illegal activity is unacceptable, and social-democrats have often been the harshest on any extra-parliamentary communist agitation. But pure reform (without being subservient to a revolutionary program) entails an evolutionary approach. The champion of this was Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). He infamously argued that workers could persuade the bourgeoisie of the benefits of social-democracy, to which they would then turn in grateful acceptance. All one need do is use the sacrosanct bourgeois parliaments to achieve the necessary reforms. Bernstein liked to think that the tail would wag the dog, but the reality is that the dog was and is firmly in control of the tail. I would suggest that all social-democratic parties today are Bernsteinian by default.

That leads to some of the oddest arguments I have heard of late: social-democrats governments have actually achieved socialism by parliamentary means. I hear it reasonably regularly in relation to Scandinavia, but it has also been trotted out in regard to Scotland (!), the UK and even Australia. And it is made by those who identify as being on the Left. This position is coupled with two other assumptions. First, the communisms of Eastern Europe and Asia are assumed to be travesties, of no worth. Indeed, the achievements of Western social-democratic governments outshine – so it is asserted – any of those ‘pseudo-communisms’. Second, this curious position often appears with a good deal of nostalgia. Once social-democrats believed they could change the world: nationalise industrious and banks, establish welfare states, provide universal education. Once upon a time they actually achieved a Bernsteinian socialism. But now they have ceased to be true believers. I’m sorry, but the only faith of social-democrats is capitalism and bourgeois democracy.