No left organization in the world combines venerable history with total irrelevance like the Socialist International (SI). It can trace its lineage to the International Workingmen’s Association, which counted Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx as members. Yet the SI is now helmed by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who administered brutal austerity in his country.
It went from an organization that struggled for mass suffrage to one that for decades included Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in its ranks.
Formed in 1864, the International Workingmen’s Association (also known as the First International) fell apart a decade later with a fatal split between Marxists and anarchists. The Socialist International, an amalgamation of socialist parties also called the Second International, was established in 1889. For two decades, its member parties briskly expanded.
The German Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) was the exemplar, with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of supporters. By 1912 it was able to win a plurality of seats in the German Reichstag. The Italian Socialist Party, British Labour Party, and the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) also attracted mass support. Socialism was on the march.
In 1914, it all fell apart. Amid the run-up to World War I, several major European socialist parties supported the entry of their respective countries, triggering a decisive schism. Revolutionaries formed the Communist International (Third International) in 1919, while those who favored “evolutionary socialism” kept the social-democratic label.
The Soviet-dominated Comintern, marked by sectarianism in the late 1920s and early ’30s, was largely unable to dislodge social-democratic parties’ leading role among the European working class. The rivalry of Communists and social democrats fractured the Left, leaving it ill equipped to stop the rise of fascism. Though years too late, the Comintern devised the Popular Front in the mid 1930s, which called for Communists to ally with social democrats and anti-fascist liberals to try to stop fascism.
Social-democratic parties emerged from World War II in a strong position and in 1951, a reconstituted Socialist International was formed. Spurred by labor militancy and the Soviet challenge, its parties helped build many of the Western European welfare states. This was the SI’s crowning achievement.
But the SI was also instrumental in isolating more radical challenges. The electoral success of its parties in Western Europe made it an influential organization within emerging liberal democracies. By the 1970s, the SI was encouraging the formation of center-left parties in the newly democratizing countries as a means of marginalizing more radical forces.
The SI’s actions in the aftermath of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution are instructive. The SI played a major role in developing the Portuguese Socialist Party as the leading party of the left to counter the Portuguese Communist Party. This was more or less repeated during the Spanish transition to democracy with the reformation of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, which quickly eclipsed Spain’s Communist Party in the first post-dictatorship election of 1977.
For a brief time in the 1980s, it looked as if the SI might take a leftward turn. It was supportive of both the Sandinista seizure of power in Nicaragua and the leftist FMLN’s guerrilla war in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Even Willy Brandt, former chancellor of Germany and staunch Atlanticist, expressed enthusiasm.
But as these conflicts wore on, and the liberation movements turned to aid from the Eastern Bloc, the SI — with the exception of the Swedish Social Democrats — grew skittish at the supposedly rising influence of Marxism-Leninism. And when the wariness set in, the organization did little to confront the United States’ violent anticommunism and support for the region’s rightist guerrillas and dictators.
By accepting the mixed economy and purging references to Marxism from their programs, SI parties were unprepared to take radical measures as the postwar consensus broke down during the economic crises of the 1970s. Social democrats were too timid in confronting issues like high inflation and low corporate profitability. Despite tremendous worker militancy in this period, social democrats failed to act on this pressure from below.
This inaction provided the perfect opening for the Right.
As the reforming spirit of social democracy went into terminal decline in the 1980s, the SI could still be counted on to help develop parties in nascent democracies. Long an almost exclusively European organization, the SI expanded to include parties in many former colonies. The 1990s saw a wave of new members from countries that had been in the Soviet bloc. But these Eastern European social-democratic parties were unable to stop shock therapy. Many even participated in it.
Hungary’s Socialist Party provides the perfect example. While socially liberal, its embrace of neoliberal economics has paved the way for the right-wing party Fidesz’s current electoral dominance.
In the 1990s, “Third Way” leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Lionel Jospin, sunk the traditional goals of the SI into further irrelevance. Incapable of articulating an alternative to capitalist globalization, many of the SI’s member parties deepened it.
At the same time, SI was embracing neoliberalism, it was also granting membership to out-and-out authoritarians, including Hosni Mubarak. In 2011, the SI finally expelled Egypt’s National Democratic Party and Tunisia’s Constitutional Democratic Rally after their governments were overthrown in the Arab Spring.
The presence of authoritarian political parties in the SI provided the perfect excuse for those who wanted to further distance themselves from socialist traditions. On May 22, 2013, the Progressive Alliance (PA) was formed. It brought together many of the existing SI parties, as well as new members like the Workers Party of Brazil (PT) and Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism (MAS).
But indicative of PA’s centrist orientation is the inclusion of the Italian Democratic Party and the US Democratic Party, with former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean acting as the party’s representative to some of the PA’s conferences.
The PA takes a strong rhetorical stand against neoliberalism: “We have seen how the politics of injustice and inequality have divided our societies and have undermined social cohesion and solidarity. Neoliberalism has failed miserably.”
But this language is not backed up by the behavior of most of its members in government. Only the PT and MAS have any real claim to supporting a redistributive project among PA members — and even their records are hardly unblemished. With the current direction of the French Socialist Party, the Hartz IV reforms of the German SPD, and current strikes in Italy aimed at Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party–led attempts to reform labor laws, the PA still suffers a huge credibility gap in a region that is looking to escape austerity.
The PA’s commitment to building “campaign capacity” exhibits all the defining characteristics of center-left campaigns: strict message discipline, data collection, and money. Political education is hardly even an afterthought, the building of a radical grassroots base out of the question. This is the continuation of a type of politics that mixes a vague progressivism with the idea that the voter is a consumer looking for a new brand to purchase.
The SI continues hobbling along, but major members like the British and Dutch Labour parties have downgraded their status to observers and have indicated their desire to pursue international cooperation through the PA.
The shift to the right of SI parties hasn’t paid off, even in narrowly electoral terms. Its members in Europe, many once regular governing parties, have seen their vote shares steadily decline. From being able to win nearly 50 percent of the vote in the immediate postwar years, for instance, the British Labour Party is trying simply to win a plurality of seats in 2015.
That the SI has survived two world wars would come as a shock to Lenin, Luxemburg, and other members of the Zimmerwald Left that denounced the capitulation of the French socialists and German social democrats in 1914. But survival doesn’t equal vitality. The SI has proven itself not only incapable of challenging capitalism, but even of combatting neoliberalism.
With the emergence of new left parties like Greece’s SYRIZA, Spain’s Podemos, and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, now is the perfect time to bury the SI. Technological progress has made possible mass international organizations that are unbureaucratic, democratic, and working towards common radical goals.
Parties of the Left must reject austerity instead of administering it. And this can’t happen unless they have a vision and program that seeks to transcend capitalism.
To reclaim socialist internationalism, we’ll need a new Socialist International.