above: Sheri Berman's 'The Primacy of Politics'
The following is an engagement with Sheri Berman's book on European Social Democracy and what she calls 'democratic revisionism'. The question of relative independance of the political sphere from the economic base is considered in depth; including the 'mututal conditioning of structure and agency upon each other'. There are implications for Australia as well: notably the potential for progressive parties to mobilise against the 'veto' of capitalists on public policy. But at the same time - even while acknowledging the potential of democratic socialism, the reviewer (Tristan Ewins) argues that the power of this 'veto' should not be understated.
Jan 3rd 2013
In her work “The Primacy of Politics”, political scientist Sheri Berman compares what she refers to as “orthodox Marxism” with “democratic revisionism”, starting with Eduard Bernstein, but ultimately finding expression with Western social democracy. Swedish social democracy is seen to have been the most successful instance; enjoying a hegemonic period spanning decades and a legacy that remains vital today.
And yet perhaps Blum’s distinction is useful after all. Berman pretty much rules out widespread economic socialisation – depicting it as ideological and of little practical value. But perhaps the reality, here, is self-containment on the basis of a presumed effective ‘capitalist veto’ on the economic policies of social democratic governments.
Yet it is true that in his time Kautsky himself adopted a quasi-“mechanistic” Marxism which, while recognising “willing” human beings (but not ‘free will’), nonetheless discerned a nexus between universal suffrage and the rise to dominance of the industrial working class. Indeed, this was a nexus which – it was assumed – rendered socialism inevitable – assuming the prerequisite of a democratic political revolution. Yet Kautsky’s very emphasis on the necessity of political revolution dispels Berman’s (any many others’) effective accusation of bland and undiluted economism, even though the‘orthodox’ did suppose the primacy of the economy ‘in the last instance’.
Yet Berman’s characterisation could just as well be turned in the other direction: that the non-socialist parties would not compromise and actually deal with the Depression in a rational and necessarily socialist manner. The visions of Wigforss and Woytinsky, here, resonate with our relatively vivid historic political memory of the social-democratic Keynesian ‘golden age’. But the democratic socialism of Hilferding was never given a chance. We will never know, now, what its outcome in Germany would have been.
Either Hilferding’s approach or Woytinsky’s approach may have significantly ameliorated the life experiences of impoverished and fearful Germans. But Berman effectively argues that it was Hitler’s playing upon humiliation, bitterness and desperation in the context of an appeal to national community, ‘belonging’ and solidarity that proved decisive.
“Those who study Ideology tend to focus on either agency or structure.”
Yet in reality
“structure and agency work together to shape the development of ideologies….” (Berman: pp 201-203)
As individuals we have free will: including the potential to come together collectively; to organise politically to reshape national economies– and ultimately the global economy. Indeed, this was the hope of Marxist Social Democracy, and of Berman’s‘distinct’ and ‘political’ Social Democracy. (ie: of post-war Western European and Nordic Social Democracy) But this is no mean feat. Capitalism as a supra-individual, supra-national phenomena develops its own logic – much of which was identified by the Marxists who Berman rejects. Structure and agency condition each other.
Again we return to the arch-revisionist Bernstein who Berman herself sees as the originator of “democratic revisionism.” Hence we reproduce this crucial quote from Bernstein again:
“The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.” (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)
These phenomena – observed by Bernstein – remain in the logic of capitalism and the processes of its ongoing systemic reproduction. Social Democratic counter-cyclical demand management helps ‘iron out’ the business cycle; and where they remain robust welfare states protect the vulnerable from the ravages of capitalism in the context of relative abundance even amidst great waste. And yet capitalism remains wasteful, unstable, undemocratic and unjust.
Berman observes of modern social democracy: that it started with Bernstein and other like-minds - who claimed to revise Marxism – but ultimately “Social Democracy represented the final and full severing of socialism from Marxism.” (my emphasis) (Berman, P 200)