Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The German Social Democrats: A Model for the Future of the Left?

The German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Le Monde devotes an interesting article to the party's history, drawing a certain number of contrasts with the French Socialist Party. This one intrigued me, especially Helmut Schmidt's bon mot:
Entre les Français et les Allemands, ce sont en fait deux conceptions de la politique qui s'opposent. "Les Français croient au primat du politique. Ils aiment penser qu'au lendemain d'une élection, tout peut changer. L'Allemagne est plus proche de la réalité. Helmut Schmidt avait même eu ce mot impensable en France : "Celui qui a des visions doit aller se faire soigner chez le psychiatre"", analyse Klaus-Peter Sick. Un réalisme qui explique sans doute également la proximité du SPD avec le mouvement syndical allemand : une autre caractéristique qui rapproche le SPD du Labour britannique et le distingue du Parti socialiste français. Celui-ci n'a toujours pas eu son "Bad-Godesberg", un congrès au cours duquel le SPD, en 1959, a abandonné la vulgate marxiste et assumé son réformisme.
On the other hand, as Le Monde notes in its next sentence, pragmatism is not without its disadvantages, and it doesn't always help to win elections. A second article ponders the trans-European effort to conceive of a new future for the social-democratic left, which seems to have run out of ideas. It seems that there is a new "Progressive Alliance" within the Socialist International, but this is not necessarily heartening to American Democrats who have witnessed the marginalization of the self-styled "progressive" faction within the Democratic Party over the last 50 years. The Progressive Alliance seems rather cool on the EU, a direction that admits of several interpretations, some hopeful, others less so.  A Dutch scholar, Prof. J. M. De Waele, has this to say:

En réalité, les crises ne sont pas bonnes pour elle [la gauche sociale-démocrate]. Elle est apte à partager les fruits de la croissance, pas les effets de la crise. Et elle est, sauf rares exceptions, incapable d'élaborer une alternative pour les vrais perdants de la mondialisation. Elle doit, par ailleurs, bien admettre que le cadre européen qu'elle défend n'est pas protecteur.
He goes on to say that what the left needs to do is to rethink its approach to globalization. It must admit that it cannot preserve the current hierarchy of labor in Europe and must instead adapt to the new competitive landscape. I have been making this argument for some time, though admittedly it's easier to make in general terms than to translate into specific policies. But there are some things that clearly can be done now: facilitate industrial restructuring, fund job retraining for displaced workers, encourage new investment, provide additional funds for education, government-backed R&D, increase opportunities for young researchers. This is not neo-liberalism, Government must play an active role, but it must not cling to the past in a haze of nostalgia for the achievements of the Trente Glorieuses. For one thing, those years did not seem entirely glorious at the time. For another, they ended in 1975. It's time to move on.


FrédéricLN said...

I entirely agree in full. Adding no value to this post, that precisely goes to the point. Pragmatism without an intention (a vision, values, a strategy) is just void.

bernard said...

Bad Godesberg has become a sort of meme. It is brandished on a regular basis by conservatives desperate to revive in any form the fear of marxism-communism in France. When was the French socialist party last influenced by the latter? in the seventies, probably, eg over 40 years ago. Calls for a French Bad Godesberg evoque for me an idea association with the inquisition against protestants: abjure, abjure! Embrace free and efficient markets at all times!

When we discuss Bad-Godesberg, we are discussing West Germany in the context of the cold war, ie the absence of a communist party there for obvious reasons and the absolute necessity for the SPD to establish an unbreachable ideological barrier vis-à-vis the enemy camp of the cold war, namely East Germany. What I mean is that the historical cold war context made it vital for the German social democrats to have their Bad Godesberg earlier rather than later. It seems to me that the necessity was never as obvious in France as the same result was achieved through the Programme Commun of the seventies, in a kind of Aikido move. In fact Mitterrand said as much in Austria once: he only ever embraced the French communist party in order to shrink it.