The most important event of the 20th century for workers all over Europe was the October Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, not the participation of socialist parties in government. Proof of this can also be given in the negative. Now that the political pressure of socialism has disappeared, it has become almost impossible for the trade-union movement to progress any further. In the Netherlands, the NRC-Handelsblad published the following revealing headline on the occasion of the adoption, in the nineties, of a much more restrictive law on sickness and disability : “With Stalin alive, or, possibly, Brezhnev, our new legislation would not have been adopted”.
Fernand Vandamme, philosopher and professor from Ghent, takes the same view. “We had to set up a broad system of social security because, failing this, we might have become communists. Now that this pressure has subsided, some may be attracted by the idea of introducing everywhere one and the same system based on the American pattern.”14
Whereas competition between socialism and capitalism used to enhance social attainments, it has been replaced today by an endless downward spiral. 54 countries are poorer today than in 1990. 17 among them are situated in Eastern Europe and what used to be the Soviet Union.15 After the destruction of most of its industry, Eastern Europe has become a reservoir of well-trained and cheap manpower that is made to compete with the workers of Western Europe.
Ever since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the European labour movement has been in constant regression, in spite and even because of the practically uninterrupted participation of Social-Democrat parties in government.
Since 1989, the famous Rhineland model based on the “social market economy” has not produced any social progress. After ninety years, our children will be the first generation with less social protection than that of their parents. The eight-hour working day, the five-day week and a stable job are all but memories. Half the young people in Belgium start their careers with part-time jobs. Interim jobs are precarious but they grow like poisonous fungi. In some countries, even rich ones like Germany, people have to work until the age of 67 to be eligible for a full retirement pension. Meanwhile, millions of young people do not find decent jobs and are unable to settle down or begin a family. It will soon be impossible to survive without a supplementary private pension, to be treated in a hospital without supplementary private insurance. However, such private pensions and insurances are an inaccessible luxury for a great number of workers.
Through their Lisbon 2020 agenda, European leaders want to reinforce the famous “flexicurity”. They are planning to reconsider an important part of the social advances made in the matters of labour contracts and the right to notice.
The public services in charge of energy, transport, mail and water distribution are being dismantled and handed over to multinationals. Instead of ensuring basic services to the population, the latter limit themselves to the distribution of indecent dividends to the shareholders of Suez, Veolia and others. At the same time, the needy, among them people with jobs, have to beg for energy vouchers in order to be provided with light and heating.
Ever since the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, 10% of the Belgian gross national product, 10% of the total riches that had previously been devoted to social security and public services, have been shifted from the collective funds of the social security to the safes of the holders of capital.
For two years now, the capitalist world has been engulfed in a new crisis, the worst since the thirties. World wealth has gone down. In most countries, unemployment has risen by half. In the European Union, the increase in the number of unemployed amounts to 5 million.
In his polemic with the trotskyite opposition on the occasion of the 7th enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Stalin stated: “What would happen if capitalism succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries. The working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”16 His words have come true today.
Ever since the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, the European socialists, whose contribution to its downfall is significant, have not obtained an inch more of social progress. All this makes a fable of the argument that they should be credited with the social advances of the 20th century. Had their policy prevailed, the Soviet Union would never have existed and the bourgeoisie would have had no cause for uneasiness for a long time to come.
Right from the start of the October revolution, the Social-Democrat leaders, among them the leaders of the Belgian Labour Party, were in the vanguard of the struggle against the new socialist state. In May and June 1917, at the height of the Russian democratic revolution, the POB leaders Vandervelde, De Brouckère and De Man travelled to the Russian front in order to urge Russian workers and peasants to continue the war against the Germans together with the French, English and Belgians. De Brouckère and his colleague De Man went so far as to advise Russian leaders to gun down soldiers of the seventh Siberian corps who had started a mutiny. When an international coalition headed by France and Great-Britain, with counter-revolutionaries led by ex-tsarist officers, invaded Russia and provoked a bloody civil war in December 1917, the leaders of the POB took their stand on the side of the counter-revolution. During the whole of the civil war, the POB journal, Le Peuple, led a violent campaign against the October Revolution and the other revolutions in Europe. In December 1918, it declared that “were the Spartakists to win in Germany, an intervention by Anglo-French troops would be needed.” In May 1919, it supported the foreign intervention against Soviet authority.17
The New Socialists
But here come the “new socialists”. They retrieve this tale from the refuse-bin of history. They defend the reformist system of the “old socialists” against the neo-liberals of the Schröder and Blair-style Social-Democratic system. In Germany, the leader of “Die Linke”, Gregor Gysi, belongs to this movement. In August 1999, he published “12 arguments for a modern socialism policy”18 He writes about “the Social-Democrat era” and its great conquests: “the development of productivity, innovation and the raising of the cultural level of broad strata of the population, that have been obtained in the course of the past fifty years thanks among other things to the great influence of social democracy” (Argument 2).
In a scathing criticism of these arguments, the German communist historian Kurt Grossweiler19 has declared: “Increase in productivity and innovation have nothing to do with Social Democracy. During this so-called Social-Democrat period, the USA had taken the lead in these evolutions. Moreover, if we take into account the second half of the 20th century, we can observe that the SPD (social democrats) participated in the government for only 16 years and headed the government for only 13 years. For 37 years, it was the CDU (Christian democrats) that was steering the course. A similar situation prevailed in the other countries of Western Europe”.
Gysi describes this period as “a long period of prosperity, full employment, growth of purchasing power linked to the increase in productivity, social benefits linked to the growth of income from labour, during which, however, poverty could not be totally erased. The population’s participation was on the increase: workers’ participation in the management of companies. Institutions for the defence of workers’ rights were set up: they partially replaced the principle of capital by that of social participation. All this was made possible thanks to the trade unions in the first place, to Social Democracy and the Socialist movements in the second place, and, finally, to competition with State socialism”.
Gossweiler wonders why pressure from the socialist countries comes last in Gysi’s enumeration: “This is strange: all the institutions which are deemed by Gysi to have contributed to social progress still exist today. Moreover, it was Social Democracy that was in power in the first years of the 21st century, not with the right, but with the Green Party! However, since the exact date when ‘competition with State socialism’ came to an end, these institutions have not achieved anything for the workers. They have not even been able to prevent a retreat from the achievements of this competition era. All we can see now is recession, and things got worse under Schroeder. I am not even talking about the latest achievement of Social Democracy: the return of Germany as a power taking part in wars”.
And one may wonder, together with Gossweiler, why Gysi, with his great admiration for the achievements of the old Social Democracy “does not go further in singing the praises of reforms such as the agrarian reform through which the land of the GDR was given to those who till the soil, or the collectivisation of the means of production through expropriation of the big banks and industries, the realization of equality of rights for women, the generalization of the education system, free health care, the right to work. These are achievements which no Social-Democrat party ever attained. They existed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). According to the new Gysi-style socialists, Social Democracy is the only institution worthy of respect. As far as the real historical achievements of the GDR are concerned, in Gysi’s own words uttered at the Berlin Congress of the SDP in January 1999, we must “bring to light without any compunction and criticise the relations that existed in the GDR”. What conclusion can we draw from this? The new socialists only appreciate and defend reforms that do not touch capitalism. Those which deprive capitalism of its foundations are only worthy of ‘blunt’ criticism”.