From Revolution to Reformism

Adam Przeworski in Boston Review:

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Afterward, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was a widespread atmosphere of demoralization within the party. Nos hicieron hablar un idioma que no era el nuestro, he answered: “They made us speak a language that was not ours.”

Note that the secretary did not evoke the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, which significantly reduced the party’s industrial working class base. Nor did he refer to the emergence of television, which reduced the importance of the party machine in mobilizing that base. He also did not point to cultural transformations in Spanish society, which rendered new ideological dimensions politically salient. Instead, he identified the root of the party’s transformation in language—the language party leaders were expected to use to address their supporters, publicly interpret the world, and justify their policies. What was this language that was not “ours”?

To answer this question we have to go back in time and to venture beyond Spain. The two keywords of the socialist movements born in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century were “working class” and “social revolution,” where the latter was expected to realize the “ultimate goal” of abolishing the class system. Yet when socialist parties entered into electoral competition and, for the first time, gained parliamentary power in the aftermath of World War I, “ultimate goals” were not sufficient to mobilize electoral support or to govern. As political leaders, socialists had to offer a program of immediate improvements to the life conditions of the public. Moreover, socialists learned to dilute or obscure the language of class in order to win elections. While communists continued to adhere to “class contra class” strategy, socialists formed coalitions and fronts aimed at appealing to “the people.”

Thus reformism was born: the strategy of proceeding toward socialism by steps, through electoral expression of popular support.

More here.