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The mutations of social democracy (late XIXth century– 1945): From long-term aspirations to “here and now” policies

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  1. Introduction
  2. Social democracy has gradually accepted the parliamentary system as the b est means of improving the workers' living conditions
    1. A gradual jettisoning of the ideal of revolution
    2. A blatant lack of success of direct action
    3. Parliamentary action as a favored instrument for achieving short-term goals
  3. In its swelling pursuit of political acceptability, social democracy has gingerly abandoned most of its marxist dogmas
    1. The war, an opportunity for responsible governmental attitude
    2. A growing defiance towards communist extremism
    3. A bourgeois Social Democracy?
  4. Notwithstanding, social democracy has remained a prisoner of its inherent contradictions which have made it unfit for power
    1. When in power: a fiasco
    2. A blatant ideological mediocrity
    3. At the end of World War II: a programmatic maturation
  5. Conclusion

In 1871, the Paris Commune, a proto-socialist attempted to form a new regime on communalistic and collectivist principles, and was savagely repressed by governmental troops led by Adolphe Thiers. Communards, if divided between patriots advocating the continuation of a revolutionary war against Prussia and several leaders of the First International, had a governmental program openly inspired by socialist ideals: the severance of Church and State, a free and laique (secular) public instruction, the owning of the means of production by the workers. Yet the conservative crackdown has put an end to these schemes and beheaded the French socialist movement for years: ?this terrible sight will lecture them? 1, Thiers has reportedly said. This landmark is a symbol of the downfall of amateurish forms of revolutionary purposes in aid of scientific socialism, and the marxist theories: to put it in a nutshell, the belief that the society is divided between capitalists that own the means of production, and workers who own nothing but their workforce; the class struggle between the two shall eventually lead to the overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat and the founding of a classless communist society. But more important than the ideological foundations of this theory is the means that shall be used in order to reach the objectives: an organized revolution, led by skilled socialists.

[...] After the years of reconstruction in Europe, the Left has taken a role of convey for what have been called ?post-materialist issues? (the expression has been coined by Inglehart), among which women's rights, the protection of the environment, individual autonomy, gay rights, rebuff of traditional authorities Yet this has not been enough for Social Democracy to avoid a severe crisis from the mid1970's until the recent years : Keynesian economics, that had been preeminent during the trente glorieuses, have appeared to be outdated, being unable to counter the dramatic rise of unemployment and the end of growth. [...]

[...] In the end, what conclusion can we deduce from the mutations that Social Democracy has known from the last years of the XIXth century to the aftermath of World War Two ? Probably the main change that has occurred is the renouncement to the marxist ideology in aid of what we have called ?here and politics, id est schemes that could better the living conditions of the working class taken in its largest definition. Social Democracy has doubtlessly more to do today with humanism and equity than with violent unrest and pipe-dreams of a classless society. [...]

[...] In its swelling pursuit of political acceptability, Social Democracy has gingerly abandoned most of its marxist dogmas The war, an opportunity for responsible governmental attitude The main event that has made Social Democracy abandon its revolutionary stance in aid of a more responsible attitude is World War I : all across Europe Russia excepted left-wing parties have decided to support the Government, even though they had pledged to support peace at all cost. Confronted to a strong nationalist feeling among workers, a majority of socialist leaders have decided to back their country, thus forgetting all the rest at least temporarily, hoping that their position would help voting social laws. [...]

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