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.

Social democrats choose to participate, to seek supra-class alliances, and to struggle for reforms. Yet these decisions are not independent of each other. What is crucial to understand is the development of social democracy as a process: the manner in which the response to any one of these alternatives opens and closes the subsequent choices. For it may be that any movement that chooses to participate in bourgeois institutions, and specifically in elections, must seek support for socialist transformation beyond the working class and must struggle for all improvements that are possible in the short run without regard for ultimate consequences. Are the decisions to participate and the strategy of supra-class appeal inextricably connected? Is the orientation toward immediate reforms a necessary consequence of broadening the class base? Is an electoral party that would be based exclusively on working class support and dedicated exclusively to ultimate goals even possible? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered if we are to draw lessons from the social democratic experience. What we need to know is the logic of choices faced by any movement for socialism within capitalist society: the historical possibilities that are opened and closed as each choice is made.

The reason why involvement in bourgeois politics has never ceased to evoke controversy is that the very act of ‘taking part’ in this system shapes the movement for socialism and its relation to workers as a class. The recurrent question is whether involvement in bourgeois institutions can result in socialism, or must strengthen the capitalist order. Is it possible for the socialist movement to find a passage between the ‘two reefs’ charted by Rosa Luxemburg: ‘abandonment of the mass character or abandonment of the final goals’?footnote1 Participation in electoral politics is necessary if the movement for socialism is to find mass support among workers, yet this participation seems to obstruct the attainment of final goals. Working for today and working toward tomorrow appear as contrasting horns of a dilemma.

Participation imprints a particular structure upon the organization of workers as a class. These effects of participation upon internal class relations have been best analysed by Luxemburg: ‘the division between political struggle and economic struggle and their separation is but an artificial product, even if historically understandable, of the parliamentary period. On the one hand, in the peaceful development, “normal” for the bourgeois society, the economic struggle is fractionalized, disaggregated into a multitude of partial struggles limited to each firm, to each branch of production. On the other hand, the political struggle is conducted not by the masses through direct action, but, in conformity with the structure of the bourgeois state, in the representative fashion, by the pressure exercised upon the legislative body.’footnote2

The first effect of ‘the structure of bourgeois state’ is thus that wage-earners are formed as a class in a number of independent and often competitive organizations, most frequently as trade-unions and political parties, but also as cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, clubs, etc. One characteristic feature of capitalist democracy is the individualization of class relations at the level of politics and ideology.footnote3 People who are capitalists or wage-earners within the system of production all appear in politics as undifferentiated ‘individuals’ or ‘citizens’. Hence, even if a political party succeeds in forming a class on the terrain of political institutions, economic and political organizations never coincide. A multiplicity of unions and parties represent different interests and compete with each other. Moreover, while the class base of unions is confined to those who are more or less permanently employed, political parties which organize wage-earners must also mobilize people who are not members of unions. Hence there is a permanent tension between the narrower interests of unions and the broader interests represented by parties.footnote4

The second effect is that relations within the class become structured as relations of representation. Parliament is a representative institution: it seats individuals, not masses. A relation of representation is thus imposed upon the class by the very nature of capitalist democratic institutions. Masses do not act directly in defence of their interests; they delegate this defence. This is true of unions as much as of parties: the process of collective bargaining is as distant from the daily experience of the masses as elections. Leaders become representatives. Masses represented by leaders: this is the mode of organization of the working class within capitalist institutions. In this manner participation demobilizes the masses.

The organizational dilemma extends even further. The struggle for socialism inevitably results in the embourgeoisement of the socialist movement: this is the gist of Robert Michels’ classical analysis. The struggle requires organization; it demands a permanent apparatus, a salaried bureaucracy; it calls for the movement to engage in economic activities of its own. Hence socialist militants inevitably become bureaucrats, newspaper editors, managers of insurance companies, directors of funeral parlours, and even Parteibudiger—party bar keepers. All of these are petty bourgeois occupations. ‘They impress,’ Michels concluded, ‘. . . a markedly petty bourgeois stamp.’footnote5 As a French dissident wrote recently, ‘The working class is lost in administering its imaginary bastions. Comrades disguised as notables occupy themselves with municipal garbage dumps and school cafeterias. Or are these notables disguised as comrades? I no longer know.’footnote6