SOCIALISM IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY
The hegemonic role of the German SPD in the European socialist movement at the turn of the century was due to a combination of factors: the prestige and importance of Germany, the prestige of its intellectuals, its superb organization, and above all its electoral strength and the weakness of socialist parties in countries of comparable importance such as France and the United Kingdom. In 1890, when the German Reichstag (Parliament) desisted from renewing laws restricting the activities of the SPD, the party became, in percentage terms, the largest in Germany. By 1912, in spite of an unfavourable electoral system, it had also become the first party in the Reichstag with 110 seats. By 1914 it had 1 million members.
Before 1914 socialists assumed that all their demands could be achieved peacefully in democratic countries, and that violence might be necessary where despotism prevailed (as in Tsarist Russia). They all ruled out participation in “bourgeois” governments. The majority assumed that their task was to build up the movement until the eventual collapse of capitalism would enable socialism to be established. Some, such as Rosa Luxemburg, impatient with this wait-and-see attitude, advocated the use of the mass general strike as a revolutionary weapon to be deployed when required.
Though the German SPD provided the main organizational and ideological model for other socialist parties, its influence was less pronounced in southern Europe where French influence was more significant. The French socialists, however, could not offer a model to rival the SPD in spite of the importance and prestige of the French revolutionary tradition. It was ideologically weak and organizationally divided. The painful and difficult revival of working-class activity in France after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the persecutions that followed, failed to help the socialist movement to cohere and develop. By 1911 France had only 1 million organized workers, while the British and German trade unions each had around 3 million members.
Strong trade unions, however, did not necessarily entail strong socialist parties. The powerful British trade unions created a separate Labour Party only in 1900, well after the rest of Europe—and not until 1918 did the Labour Party give itself a socialist goal enshrined in Clause IV of its constitution. Until 1900 the British trade unions preferred to influence the Liberal Party in order to secure their basic rights. Trade unions in the United States too were unable or unwilling to form a separate party of any significance. The wave of immigrants seeking work there, and the widespread persecution the unions were subjected to, made it difficult to do more than lobby the existing political parties.
On the eve of World War I all socialist parties were united in at least one aim—the prevention of the impending war. When this did erupt, however, the two most important socialist parties of the time, the French and the German, opted to support their own governments. Many saw this as a betrayal. In reality, this “social patriotism”, as it was dubbed by its opponents, was not just a form of opportunism (for the war was, at least initially, popular among the workers). In both France and Germany, socialists had acquired a stake in the existing social order; universal or near-universal male suffrage had given them some degree of representation in parliament, and with this some negotiating strength to secure civil rights and social reforms. Where socialists had made little or no gains, or were banned and persecuted, as in Russia, there was no ground for patriotism.
The war thus effectively broke up the limited unity that had kept together Europe’s socialists. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a further body blow against socialist unity. It separated the supporters of the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, from reformist social democrats, most of whom had backed their national governments during the war. Most communist parties were formed in the years immediately following World War I by Lenin’s supporters within the socialist parties. In all instances, however, throughout the years leading to World War II, the socialist parties and not the communists remained the dominant current in both the European labour movement and in the electorate as a whole, under a variety of names: the Labour Party in Britain, the Netherlands, and Norway; the SPD in Germany; the Social Democratic Labour Party in Sweden; the Socialist Party in France and Italy; the Socialist Workers’ Party in Spain; and the Workers’ Party in Belgium. In the Soviet Union and, later, in the communist countries which emerged after World War II, the term socialism indicated a transitional phase between capitalism and communism, the phase Lenin had called the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Communists remained committed to a centralized and authoritarian view of socialism whereby all the main decisions would be taken by the Communist Party as the unelected representative of the working class. Communists everywhere owed their primary allegiance to the Soviet Union and followed uncritically all the twists and turns of Soviet policy. Socialists rejected such concepts and accepted all the basic rules of liberal democracy: free elections, civil rights, political pluralism, and the sovereignty of parliament. The rivalry between socialists and communists was interrupted only occasionally, as in the mid-1930s, in order to join forces against fascism. After World War II Soviet control over the more powerful communist parties, such as the Italian, became less pronounced, and, in such cases, the distinction between socialism and communism became less apparent.
Between the wars socialists were able to form governments, usually in coalition with or supported by other parties. They were thus able to be in power, albeit intermittently, in the 1920s in Britain and Germany, and in the 1930s in Belgium, France, and Spain. In Sweden, where social democrats have been more successful than elsewhere, they governed without interruption from 1932 to 1976. The first experiences of government of socialist parties ended in failure. In Spain the Popular Front government (1936-1939), a coalition of left-liberals and socialists, supported by the communists, provoked a fierce reaction from clerical and military circles led by General Francisco Franco. The ensuing Spanish Civil War was concluded with Franco’s victory and the establishment of a dictatorship that lasted until 1975.
In France a similar popular-front government, elected in 1936, was more fortunate. It introduced significant social reforms but was effectively ousted from power after less than a year. In Germany, after the military defeat of 1918, the SPD was able to form a government and introduced significant social legislation, including the eight-hour day, the promotion of full employment, unemployment legislation, social insurance, housing reform, universal suffrage, civil rights, and a constituent assembly—in other words, they fulfilled the “minimum” programme enshrined, some 30 years before, at Erfurt. However the SPD was not able to consolidate these gains and remained out of power for most of the 1920s. By the beginning of the 1930s the consequences of the Wall Street Crash had brought about such an increase in unemployment and a wider social discontent that the road was opened not to a socialist revolution in Germany, as the communists had hoped, but to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (see National Socialism).
The 1930s were in fact grim years for the European socialist parties and for democracy in general. When World War II broke out in 1939 the only European countries that could still be deemed democratic were Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland . Everywhere else authoritarian regimes of the right and, in the Soviet Union, of the left, held sway.
World War II offered a new chance to European social democracy. Although the main resistance in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany and its allies tended to be led by the communists, the socialist parties emerged from the war as the main party of the left almost everywhere. In Western Europe only in Italy, France, and Finland were the communists stronger. In Eastern Europe, under Soviet influence and/or occupation, the socialists amalgamated with the communists, usually against their will, and, in effect, became banned.