Socialism or social democracy pt. 1

One of the worst aspects of Labourism is the tendency to use political categories and labels interchangeably. Tom Watson’s latest attack on Corbyn is no different

Watson has launched his challenge to Corbyn to try and turn back time and create a mixed cabinet of ‘all the talents’ which covers both left and right.

The Guardian reports that Watson “reiterated his demand for Corbyn to carry out a shadow cabinet reshuffle, to give “greater weight” to those MPs who have social democratic, rather than socialist views. But if that did not happen in the days ahead, he said he would “convene a group of MPs, who believe in that tradition, to develop policies.”

The fascinating thing for me here is the question of ‘socialists’ and ‘social democrats’ and what the difference is.

Now it serves the Corbynite movement’s own view of itself to call itself socialist. For them this is all about a return to socialist traditions and values whilst at the same time branching out into new socialist politic (I know it is kind of confusing but anyway…). Momentum describes itself as a “a nation-wide socialist movement”. But their politics in practice are essentially social democratic. They want a mixed economy, a regulated private sector and move public sector funding. Even the more ‘transformative’ aspects of the agenda around worker shareholders is in fact just a social democratic proposal from Sweden in the 1970s (that failed by the way).

The old non-Blairite Labour right – personified by Tom Watson – considered themselves social democrats in opposition to the ‘socialism’ of Nye Bevan in the 1950s. The Bevanites wanted a more ambitious nationalisation programme of the commanding heights of the economy so they could direct capitalism is a more planned way. The Social Democrats opposed that, wanting to limit nationalisation to that which had already been taken into public ownership (water, gas, railways, coal, etc).

Watson’s call for more social democrats to be involved in the shadow cabinet is a strange position to hold – the programme of the shadow cabinet is essentially social democratic anyway. The only thing that might be considered more ‘socialist’ about Corbyn is his foreign policy positions, namely that he wants a non-aligned politics that is unilateralist around nuclear weapons and independent of the USA. The old social democrats were in favour of NATO and nuclear weapons because they best understand that social democracy was possible as a political project due to Britains imperial position in the world.

Now this isn’t a hair splitting argument about words, it is essentially for the Labour left to understand what its politics are, and not lure itself into a position where it kids itself that it is more radical on economic questions than it actually is. There is too much at stake to get this wrong. 

I co-authored an article in 2017 with Rida Vaquas on the political differences between socialism and social democracy – I hope we can at least try and get people on the same page in terms of what politics is actually being talked about.

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Simon H

Writer, socialist, bit part player in the end of the world drama

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