Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The success of social democracy

As we mark the 200th anniversary of his birth we should remember that while Karl Marx was a social democrat, today’s social democrats are not Marxists, writes Adrian McMenamin

The split in social democracy of 1917 and 1918 in reaction to the Bolshevik coup had little immediate impact on the attitude of many social democrats to Marx. The SPD, the world’s biggest social democratic party, very firmly saw itself as Marxist, even though it, more than any other party, blazed the trail away from revolutionary catastrophism towards reformism.

(In contrast social democratic influence on Labour in its early years was not strong – the Social Democratic Federation, then an orthodox Marxist body, was a founding affiliate but left soon after.)

The bloody tragedies of Marxist rule in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere have driven an ever-larger wedge between the reformist parties of the left and that body of thought which calls itself Marxism. The failure of so many of the ‘Marxists’ to confront the fact that the abolition of the commodity form did not produce a better society but instead took place inside a charnel house has meant that dialogue too has often become weaker.

Those who stand on platforms that proclaim Marx as a prophet only add to the sense that the left refuses to be honest about its own failings and so cannot be trusted. Doing so in the presence of worshippers of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin or those who use Marxism to give a pseudo-legitimacy to their vile antisemitic racism just makes it clear why no sensible voter should trust you.

One thing has become clear over the last century: the ‘Marxists’ failed while the reformists did not. The best societies are those in which the social democrats’ ideas about socialised health and education, workers’ rights and profit redistribution through taxation have been influential. The Marxists’ ideas of abolishing private ownership, restricting trade unions and limiting individual rights in favour of an all-powerful state have produced some of the worst places on Earth.


Adrian McMenamin is a Progress columnist. He tweets @adrianmcmenamin


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Adrian McMenamin

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