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New Left Review I/122, July-August 1980


Adam Przeworski

Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon

Not to repeat past mistakes: the sudden resurgence of a sympathetic interest in Social Democracy is a response to the urgent need to draw lessons from the history of the socialist movement. After several decades of analyses worthy of an ostrich, some rudimentary facts are finally being admitted. Social Democracy has been the prevalent manner of organization of workers under capitalism. Reformist parties have enjoyed the support of workers. Perhaps even more: for better or worse, Social Democracy is the only political force of the Left that can demonstrate an extensive record of reforms in favour of the workers. Any movement that seeks to transform historical conditions operates under these very conditions. The movement for socialism develops within capitalism and faces definite choices that arise from this very organization of society. These choices have been threefold: (1) whether to seek the advancement of socialism through the political institutions of the capitalist society or to confront the bourgeoisie directly, without any mediation; (2) whether to seek the agent of socialist transformation exclusively in the working class or to rely on multi- and even supra-class support; and (3) whether to seek improvements, reforms, within the confines of capitalism or to dedicate all efforts and energies to its complete transformation.

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