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The Social-Democratic Party-Organization

Gerassimos Moschonas compares the emergence and consolidation of the various European social-democratic parties. 

Gerassimos Moschonas 1 December 2017

Founding congress of Social Democratic Party of Finland (then the Finnish Labour Party), Turku, July 1899. via Wikimedia Commons.

Published by Verso in 2002, in a translation by Gregory Elliott, Gerassimos Moschonas’s In the Name of Social Democracy: The Great Transformation: 1945 to the Present updates and expands Moschonas’s 1994 study of European social-democratic parties after the Second World War, placing a greater emphasis on the ideological realignment that was evident by the turn of the millennium throughout the European party systems. 

If — according to the central hypothesis of this book — we are witnessing a recasting of the European social democracies, the end of a political and social cycle, it is impossible to grasp this process without some provisional definition of the specificity of the "typical" social democracy of the 1950s and 1960s. Foregrounding the social-democratic differentia specifica of the 1950s and 1960s, a period that marks the high point of governmental social democracy, will provide us with the requisite interpretative grid to cover contemporary social democracy...the first aim of the present work is to demonstrate that social democracy is a specific mode of constitution of the left, and that parties of a social-democratic type, although perceived, conceived or named in different ways, share — despite their great diversity — a number of general common features.

The excerpt below, the book's second chapter, Moschonas compares the emergence and consolidation of the various European social-democratic parties. 

Activist Parties: Die Organisation ist alles

Since they first emerged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, socialist parties have tended to base their power on "force of numbers," on the collective action of the labouring masses. In this they enjoyed a prerogative exclusive to the "European case": the largely shared history of trade unions and working-class parties, and the interaction between trade-union action and political action. 1

Indeed, in a number of European countries (e.g. Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium, later the Netherlands and, in an original and belated form, Great Britain) the relationship between the working-class party and the unions was very close at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Even in Italy and Spain, where the influence of the anarchist current remained considerable, provoking splits within the trade-union movement (in 1912 and 1910 respectively), organizational links between socialists and unions were strong. With the partial but notable exception of France, the privileged link between party and union was a semi-constant. Obviously, the structure of mobilization of the working-class movement — and the organizational forms it took — varied significantly from country to country. According to Bartolini, whom we shall take the liberty of citing at length:

in the majority of cases central co-ordination of the political organisation took place before a similar process was accomplished in the corporate channel. Denmark is the clearest case: a socialist national party was already set up in 1876-78, but it took twenty-two more years to reach a national Trade Unions confederation (1898). Also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway and Sweden political centralisation was reached before corporate centralisation, but with a less important delay, ranging from twelve to fourteen years. In Germany, Austria, Finland and France the national political party precedes the national corporate organisation, but the delays are so small that the process is one of almost parallel development. In contrast, Switzerland, Great Britain and Ireland are the only cases where centralisation in the Trade Unions sector preceded that in the political one. 3

The convergence between trade-unionism and politics in a more or less hostile environment, the reinforcement and mutual support of party and union resources, was to manifest itself in striking fashion, despite tensions and conflicts, in an organization with no real equivalent in the known partisan universe: the socialist or social-democratic organization. This organization, which spread throughout Europe and blossomed in the quarter-century before the First World War, marked the emergence of a party of a new type in terms of size, complexity and functions, which differed sharply from the established bourgeois parties. The socialist and social-democratic parties, the most developed specimen of a new generation of parties, presented and asserted themselves legitimately as the accredited form of modernity when it came to political organization. The invention of the social-democratic organization forms a large part of the "institutionalized-rational organizational pattern," which "marks a qualitative break with the general organizational weakness characterizing the plebeian and plebiscitarian patterns." 4

Initially extremely hostile towards capitalism, and often subject to severe repression, the workers' parties — which, as a general rule, were formed outside parliament — acquired unprecedented organizational features as a result. Only well-structured and fairly centralized organizations — very attentive to the indoctrination of their members, and based on a powerful (though often cursory) ideology and social affinities of a communitarian type — could constitute themselves as an effective means of compensation for the strength of the power elites in a hostile environment. 5

What historically defined these parties of militants, for which members were "the very stuff of the party, the substance of its action" (Duverger), was their capacity, with the aid of relay-organizations (unions and associations of every sort), for organizing large segments of the population. Indeed, a network of diverse organizations was constructed around the party, touching numerous spheres of life (economic struggle, social security, cultural life, education, leisure activities). The importance attributed to the function of socializing and mobilizing the world of labour, and hence to organization and ideology, enabled them to create bonds of identification, loyalty and fervour — in short, collective identities.

Parties of social protest thus assumed the appearance of a veritable political community in struggle; and in some cases — following the example of German social democracy, the guiding light at the beginning of the century — of a community tout court: anxious to cater for the social, cultural, educational and political expectations and needs of its members and the environment that formed its reference point. This was the party ghetto, the party transformed into a milieu de vie.

The "communitarian tradition" and "associational independence" of the British working class — long predating the foundation of the Labour Party, as well as the pacts with the Liberals made by the unions — prevented Labour becoming the vehicle and centre of a "labourist" counter-society. The relative "autonomy" of British working-class networks, product of a long and gradual maturation, which had no equivalent in Germany, rendered them unreceptive to any "total" political ascendancy. By contrast, the much later development of working-class communities and the tradeunion movement in Germany — a development that occurred only with social democracy, and in part because of it — together with the hostility of the middle classes and the state, contributed to the SPD finding itself at the heart of a ghetto culture.

Obviously, the different histories of the working-class movement in western Europe resist any summary presentation. Even so, we may stress that the belatedness of German industrialization, and the "premature" appearance of an independent working-class party in an adverse environment, encouraged the SPD to take on the character of both a "counter-society" and a "sub-society." The "precociousness" of English industrialization, and the greater openness and "reform potential" of the British elites, as well as the delay in the emergence of the Labour Party, were among the factors that led to a different pattern in Great Britain. 6

The SFIO — a party on the borderline of the mass model, with a very weak capacity to organize the population — never became a genuine counter-society able to offer a "whole way of life" to its members and the working class. The weakness and "independence" of the French unions, the heterogeneity and relative dispersion of the working class, did not create the conditions for an evolution of this sort. France is an exemplary instance of "electoral socialism," to employ Bartolini's typology: "The weakness of the Socialist movement in both corporate and partisan channels is astonishing if compared with its electoral development. This was a Socialism whose source of strength certainly did not lie in organisational infrastructure.” In addition, the socialists' frequent co-operation with the Radicals before 1905, the year in which the SFIO was founded, provided an important bridge between workers and the Republic." If the "constitutional weakness," both electoral and organizational, of the SFIO prevented it from "colonizing" the working-class environment, the creation of the PCF in the interwar period was to mark a new step in the constitution of the left-wing popular space in France. Gaining the adherence of revolutionary syndicalist militants from the outset, and implanting itself (especially from 1924 onwards) among the most combative working-class groups, the Communist Party became the sole authentic representative instance of the organized working-class movement in the 1930s. The SFIO's weakness allowed the Communists to conquer "a position which was largely vacant" in the working-class milieu. The PCF's success was based on an astonishing paradox: from 1935, it succeeded (in the words of Stéphane Courtois and Marc Lazar) in "fusing communist universalism, which reactivated the spontaneous collectivism of traditional peasant and working-class communities, with the individualist universalism derived from 1789." Thus the PCF was able to create — and sustain itself from — an authentic communist counter-society whose core was working-class culture, whether "real or fantasized." 10

Mass Organizations and Popular Public Space

The most significant contribution of this organizational evolution (if not revolution) consisted in the major political — and cultural — fact of establishing the "working-class people" as a central political-social actor of modernity. And this applied at the levels of social discourses and representations and strategic political action alike. Given that the majority of the working class "did not have an interest in socialism," socialist parties of the period were first and foremost parties of propaganda, while in the countries where they were "politicized," unions functioned in part as "schools of socialism." "The popular movement tradition," Göran Therborn has written, "tends to give to politics a reformatory, educational orientation and a colective organizational form." 11 In fact, social democracy exerted a considerable (but not exclusive) formative influence on the construction of the identity of working-class people and, at the same time, established itself as their privileged (though not sole) spokesman. The subaltern classes, the "uneducated," the "simple people," the "ignorant" — in short, the "people" — were encouraged to think of themselves as a "subject," and to act as a historical "subject." So, a new popular "imaginary" was progressively created around the idea of the social subject-actor and popular ways of life. In different ways, depending on the country, it selectively integrated cultural codes and practices (which formed part of the popular memory and "collective unconscious") and important aspects of socialist ideology (an intentional product of the organizations), into a more or less co-ordinated corpus of representations. Before the Great War (and in the interwar period as well, especially for those countries without an influential Communist party), the social-democratic constellation (party + unions + associational network) was, in a way, the political spinal column — ideological, organizational, electoral — of the urban working-class/popular environment. By making themselves the "tribunes," educators and organizers of the workers and the "have-nots"; by contributing to the establishment or consolidation of a vast network of working-class organizations; by radically discrediting the pretensions of the ruling classes, parties of a social-democratic type tended to constitute the working class as a class, and the people as the "sovereign power." In this sense, social democracy was constructed as a central, strategic pole, as a pole of attraction, among the working-class and disadvantaged sections of the population.

Social democracy and its collateral organizations thus succeeded in giving powerful voice to those excluded from economic, political, and cultural Capital, in a language derived from working-class and popular idioms. With radical intellectuals they contributed (to borrow a term from Habermas in a quite different context) to the establishment of a kind of plebeian public sphere, at once complementing and rivalling the celebrated bourgeois public sphere. 13 In fact, for the first time in history a great popular public space was constructed, just as powerfully structured and equally durable. This space, which was simultaneously popular "movement" and popular "public opinion," expressed and asserted itself in ways other than uncoordinated actions, riots and "spasms." 14 It thus superseded its proto-revolutionary-plebeian' or "reformist-plebeian" character, and adopted a "rational" organizational format (in the Weberian sense of the term) which, because of its effectiveness, later became largely "trans-classist."

The difference between this space and the popular movements of the past was its robust institutional and ideological framework. Rational political and associational organization not only gave workers a capacity for defining their own identity rarely achieved among other popular groups; unlike them, it also imparted a strong strategic capacity. 16 Organization thus made the working class an "inductor group" whose influence was to be progressively exercised not only over its immediate environment but also over more distant layers of the population, including even certain sections of the middle classes. This allowed the working-class movement to root itself deeply in European societies, to exert considerable influence over the political, social and economic process, and to capture the imagination and mind of the "masses" on a long-term basis.

If social democracy played a decisive role in the formation, unification and cohesion of its immediate social milieu, it was nevertheless formed and fashioned by it in turn. Thanks to their strategy of presence and their "capillary" work on the ground, parties of the social-democratic type were able to control their class and their reference groups. But the effect of presence on the social terrain, the effect of proximity, also worked in the opposite direction: this environment, which was not some mere passive milieu, was in turn a source of sensitization and change for the mass socialist parties. They thus functioned as structures for the reception and registration of social actions and reactions. At root, parties of the social-democratic type were structures for organizing the masses, and simultaneously — this is too often forgotten — structures organized by the masses. The case of the Swedish social democrats is an excellent illustration. In their constant effort to strike a balance between the ideology of socialism and "the current interests of the people," they themselves were ideologically transformed. 17 The example of 1914 is also illuminating. The desertion of a majority of European socialists to the ideologically dominant representation of the moment — "the tidal wave of nationalism" — was the best-known manifestation — the most discussed, and also the most controversial — of adaptation to the surrounding environment. 18 Famous for the formulation of the "iron law of oligarchy," Robert Michels expressed this tendency in his peremptory but invariably thought-provoking fashion: "It is a disastrous and fatal illusion to believe that the German party has hold of the masses; it is the masses who have hold of the party." 19 In this perspective, social democracy must be regarded not only as a sociopolitical "attractor" — as a pole of attraction among the popular classes — but also, and simultaneously, as a pole attracted by them.

Basically, the organizational characteristics of social democracy, which crystallized gradually, were the historical product of four major phenomena: first of all, the construction of parties of the social-democratic type as parties of the working class (in close liaison with the trade unions); next — and simultaneously — the working-class movement's encounter with democracy, which assumed different forms depending on the country; in the third place, the tendency of working-class parties — whose origin as outsiders, as it were, stuck to them — to let themselves be integrated into the capitalist system; and finally, the tendency of the social-democratic parties, initially largely restricted to the dimensions of a single social class, to become great working-class/popular formations whose horizons were no longer limited exclusively to the working class. Only through these four interdependent phenomena, and their combined effects, is social-democratic organization intelligible, and its organizational code legible.

Parties with a Strong Bureaucracy

Socialist/social-democratic organizations were not constructed out of scattered pieces and elements. Equipped with a strong armature, historically the working-class parties were vast, complex organisms whose administration required the development of a stratum of functionaries and fulltime officials responsible for making the machine run. The existence of a well-formed bureaucracy, characteristic of parties with multiple structures and an intensely active membership life, most often — but not always — became a major feature of the organized social-democratic space. For Max Weber, organization of a bureaucratic type constituted the "paradigmatic institutional expression" of the modern destiny. 20

Is organization synonymous with oligarchy? According to Michels, the true face of bureaucratic power is oligarchic. Conceived as a way of operating effectively, and being inherently inegalitarian (since it establishes a hierarchical ladder of responsibilities in the very name of equality), bureaucracy allots itself a central and relatively autonomous institutional role: "from being a servant, it becomes a mistress."

Nevertheless, the bureaucratic phenomenon does not lend itself to unambiguous interpretation. And the "demonization" of bureaucracy does not square with the complex reality of political organizations. Moreover, bureaucracy has profoundly ambivalent relations with democracy. 21 Bureaucratization is a process with two sides to it, correlative and simultaneous. On the one hand, it is "democratic," since it establishes the primacy of abstract rule over the prerogatives of uncontrolled grandees and leaders. The largely non-bureaucratized structure of some liberal or conservative parties, as of various contemporary southern European socialist parties, which are largely in thrall to the power of their "barons," grandees, and leader as a result, perfectly illustrates this thesis. On the other hand, it is scarcely democratic, since it expands the gulf between the mass membership, the different strata of the party elite and the leader.

Thus, this bureaucracy, composed either of "administrators" (executive bureaucracy) or of "administrators" who are simultaneously political leaders empowered by the base (representative bureaucracy), constituted the veritable backbone of the majority of social-democratic organizations. And it performed two functions. First, it formed the administrative element in the party, its principal task being the maintenance and smooth operation of the party machine. Next, it formed the group of militants who were supposed to ensure close liaison between the party leadership and the mass membership and, via the latter, the social base, especially the party's privileged class. In this respect, the role of the bureaucracy, particularly the representative bureaucracy, while it is administrative, is eminently political: it contributes to fixing the party in its social space, to its auto-nomy, and capacity for controlling its environment better22

While it doubtless raises the issue of "oligarchical" domination by the leadership circle over the party as a whole, the presence of a well-developed and politically coherent bureaucracy is the sign of a strong institution, one that is well entrenched and relatively stable. Viewed from a macroscopic angle, the robustness of social-democratic parties with a compact, well-delineated bureaucracy — the SPD, the SPO, the SAP or, in a quite different perspective, the PCI or PCF — compared with the fragility of parties with a meagre bureaucracy — the SFIO, the Italian PS, or even the British Labour Party (at once both armoured and vulnerable) — attests to the generally stabilizing role of a strong bureaucracy in the face of the turbulence of political and social life.

Moreover, the dysfunctions and effets pervers inherent in the bureaucratic model (ritualism and an inability to adapt to new situations, a decline in initiative, a gulf between the bureaucrats and the "public," means that tend to "consume the ends," 22 a dynamic of rationalization that "bit by bit drains the sources of innovation and rarefies charisma," etc.) have not stopped the mass socialist parties renewing themselves and remaining in place as central forces for at least a century. Obviously, it is impossible to say what the fate of social democracy without this bureaucratic frame, a famous "apparatus" more decried than described, would have been. Undertaking the sociology of an absence is a perilous exercise. But the facts are stubborn, and their reality is inescapable: the social-democratic parties were constituted as great societal organizations that did not "cut themselves off" from the "public"; if they had, they would not have remained great organizations. Despite — or perhaps because of — their bureaucratization, as organizations they proved capable of ensuring the circulation of information and ideas — "the circulation of meaning," as Jean Baudrillard would say, between the leadership circle and the electorate.

Organization after the War

The Decline in Membership Density and Working-Class Presence

Two major trends characterized the make-up of social-democratic organizations in the first phase of the postwar period: a decline in membership density and working-class presence.

In the period 1945 to 1994, parties of the social-democratic type remained mass parties, but their membership figures, as well as the extent of their enrolment of their own electoral base or the electorate in its entirety, were in decline. 25 During these years, socialist numbers fell overall in both absolute and relative terms, having briefly attained a peak following the war.

In absolute terms (i.e. number of members), the downward trend began in the case of the Finnish SDP and SFIO at the end of the 1940s; in the case of the DNA and Danish SD in the 1950s; and for the PvdA in the 1960s. 26 After a recovery during the 1970s, membership trends from the 1980s onwards exhibit the characteristics of a fundamental and well-nigh generalized erosion (with the exception of certain southern parties like the PSOE, the Portuguese PS, and PASOK, which proved rather more resilient). Compared with the organizational density of the 1930s, in some cases (Denmark, Norway and, to some extent, the Netherlands), this deterioration took the form of a gradual but violent contraction. 27 In relative terms (i.e. membership as a proportion of the electorate), the trend was identical, despite the fact that the organizational penetration of some social-democratic parties remained comparatively sizeable: SPO 8.9 per cent in 1994 (against 14.3 in 1953); SAP 4.0 in 1994 (against 15.5 in 1952, indirect members included in this figure); DNA 3.2 in 1993 (against 7.9 in 1953); Belgian PS 3.2 in 1991 (against 2.6 in 1954); Danish SD 2.3 in 1994 (against 10.8 in 1953); Finnish SDP 2.0 in 1990 (against 2.9 in 1951). The organizational penetration of the SPD was both weaker and more stable throughout the period in question (1.4 in 1994, as against 1.8 in 1954). The British Labour Party — 0.7 in 1992 against 2.5 in 1951 (collectively affiliated members not included) — remains, as ever, a separate case, since the combination of individual membership and collective affiliations (the latter underscoring, as in the case of the SAP and in part the DNA, the importance of the unions as recruitment channels) relativizes this weakness significantly, but not decisively. The PvdA, 0.6 in 1994 (1.9 in 1952), was (as Ruud Koole put it) henceforth a "modern cadre party." 28

Within the rather disparate and fragmented European socialist family, we can, at first glance, isolate two subsets distinguished by their level of organization. The first includes the most classically social-democratic parties (Sweden, Austria, Denmark, FRG, Norway); those that approximate to it (Belgium, Finland); and the highly original variant of Great Britain. During most of the postwar period, these parties were characterized by a very or fairly high degree of organization. This subset corresponds roughly to what is intuitively regarded as "social democracy" in European public opinion. A second subset includes parties such as the French PS, the Portuguese PS, PSOE, PASOK — parties whose membership fabric is very thin (the French PS), or fairly thin (the Portuguese PS, PSOE and, to a lesser extent, PASOK). This group is commonly — though inaccurately, given its pronounced internal heterogeneity — referred to as "southern European socialism."

Some notable "exceptions" in terms of organizational density and penetration nevertheless preclude a clear division between more or less classically social-democratic parties and the socialisms of southern Europe. The case of the SPD and the PvdA, marked throughout the postwar period by an organizational density situated at a level "intermediate" between north and south (the PvdA having been greatly weakened recently); and the traditionally strong organization of the Italian PS during the same period (it has now disappeared from the political scene: a veritable organizational event!) — these rule out such a dichotomy. 29 Consequently, in the framework of this introductory general survey, we shall limit ourselves to stressing the "preponderant" trend: social democracy is no longer the formidable organization it once was, and no longer constitutes a model or guide as far as organization is concerned. The most classically social-democratic parties, those corresponding to Bartolini's model of "encapsulated socialism," certainly retain their historical advantage. But their extraordinary organizational density of yesteryear is in the process of losing its originality (more so in the case of the Danes and Norwegians than in that of the Swedes and Austrians). Thus, while retaining their differentiated levels of mobilization, the formerly "organisationally over-mobilised socialism" (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, in part Norway), "union socialism" (Great Britain), and "electoral socialism" (Germany, Belgium, and Finland) are all converging on the model of "organisationally under-mobilised socialism" (historically represented by France, the Netherlands and Italy, and today, in addition to these countries, by Spain, Greece, and Portugal).

In the postwar period, changes in social stratification, the strengthening of the tertiary sector of the economy, and the slow but continuous "rise" of the salaried middle strata are reflected in the gradual restructuring of the organizational space of social democracy.

The data collected in Table 2.1 are merely indicative, 30 but they capture the general trend well, and permit the following conclusions:

1. The very weak representation of the urban and rural self-employed (shopkeepers, artisans, small businessmen, liberal professions, farmers) among members of socialist parties conveys the salience of the divide between employed and self-employed, pointing up the profound and persistent inability of the left to penetrate the core social fabric of its "bourgeois" opponents. The Austrian and German social democrats are not in a position to enlarge their organizational base there. A persistent, invisible structural barrier seems to hold them back, allowing room only for a "war of position" at the margins.

2. In terms of their sociology the social-democratic parties remained popular parties during the 1950s and 1960s, their organization being focused on two social pillars: the working class and salaried middle strata.

3. However, the imposing predominance of the working-class component tended gradually to fray. In fact, we witness a progressive "slippage" of the endo-organizational centre of gravity towards the middle classes, which deepened from one decade to the next, so that by the end of the 1960s two social bases of tendentially equal numerical importance emerged at the heart of the social-democratic organization.

Accordingly, the dominant role played by the working-class element within the party, which contributed to fashioning the texture, language, and style of the social-democratic organization, was eroded. No doubt the construction of the social democracies as working-class institutions rapidly became a highly ambiguous phenomenon. But (as we shall see) this did not prevent the decline of working-class weight being markedly more pronounced among members than among social-democratic voters as a general rule. As a result, the "internal" sociological arithmetic seems to outstrip, precede and anticipate the "external" sociological arithmetic, rather than following or merely accompanying it. Time sapped and eroded the social specificity of the social-democratic organizations a good deal more quickly than it did the social-democratic electorate.

Organization Foreshadows the Future

A structure can survive for a very long time, well past the conflicts and imperatives that produced it. Once established and consolidated, it "immobilizes time in its own way." In this sense, the organizations engendered during the conjuncture of constitution of the social-democratic parties are matrix-structures: "short time organizes long time." Naturally, the organizational development of the socialist parties was constantly affected by changes in their political, social, and cultural environment. But certain major elements in their genetic pattern endured, albeit transformed, right up to the end of the 1960s and even beyond.

Nevertheless, in the postwar period, as at the beginning of the century, no single model of social-democratic organization is open to generalization. And it is certainly not possible in this introductory part to engage in a minute description of the whole range of socialist parties, from the SPD, model party of the beginning of the century, or the SAP, a veritable party-society, up to the PvdA, a modern cadre party, or British Labour, an "open" party with badly defined organizational boundaries and a weak bureaucratic structure. But without searching for some organizational specificity to social democracy at any price — something it would be impossible to establish in the postwar period — we can say that in the years 1945 to 1973 parties of the social-democratic type, as a general rule, displayed a certain number of properties which, while not being peculiar to them, all the same pertained to the social-democratic mode of existence:

1. The constitution of the party in the form of a mass party, a great membership organization with a remarkable capacity — albeit reduced by comparison with "times past" — for the mobilization and orientation of its social base.

2. The constitution of the party most often in the form of an organization with a strong armature, a well-formed and well-developed bureaucracy, possessing its own financial basis.

3. The constitution of the party as the strategic centre of a relatively wide spectrum of collateral organizations (unions, associations).

This structure goes back to the very origins of the social-democratic parties. Indeed, they continued to refer to a model of organization that differs substantially from a simple electoral machine concentrating its activity on election times. Rooted in the working-class environment, buttressed by trade-union strength and their associational implantation, they left their mark on the social fabric. In the 1950s and 1960s the foundation of the parties of a social-democratic type remained, to a considerable extent, group social solidarity.

However, social-democratic membership density, as well as working-class presence within the organization, declined. This dual decline coincided with the gradual and partial transformation of social-democratic-type parties from mass parties into coalition, catch-all parties.

Gradually relinquishing any aspiration to "intellectual and moral encadrement of the masses," 32 more attuned to voters than to members, and tending to transcend class boundaries and address themselves to the whole population, the social-democractic parties renounced their vocation as explicit political and ideological organizer of the working class. Their integration, political education, and mobilization activity declined. The social democrats' capacity to stimulate a collective adhesion and dynamic, to perform the function of "relay" between the state and their immediate social environment, decreased. In the name of a politics of openness towards the middle classes — since the 1950s there has been no social-democratic political project that does not take account of, or end up with, the middle classes — the social-democratic parties risked politically weakening and ideologically dispersing the working-class milieu from which they traditionally drew their identity, strength, and energy.

Undoubtedly, in the 1950s and 1960s social democracy expanded rapidly on the basis of a carefully cultivated, fundamental ambiguity: the fact that it was at once — and principally — a "party of social integration," a mass party developed in a working-class matrix; and at the same time a party which, for electoral reasons, cut free and tended to transform itself into a "catch-all" political force.

Untroubled by the contradiction, and turning the ambiguity to its advantage, in these years social democracy managed to play its hand well, combining these two "natures" in itself without impairing its electoral effectiveness.

Here we doubtless encounter the two faces, but also the two developmental rhythms — and all the ambiguity — of postwar social democracy: on the one side, an ideological and programmatic profile of a semi-catch-all type; on the other, an electoral make-up focused, as we shall see, on the working class. As for the organization, it was sociologically situated at the junction point of the faces and rhythms of the social-democratic Janus: semi-working-class, semi-interclassist, it was at the intersection. In very marked fashion from the 1960s onwards, the evolution of social-democratic membership structure signalled — or, rather, foreshadowed — the sociological trajectory of social democracy in the last quarter of the century.


1. Mario Telo, Le Neu Deal européen: la pensée et la politique sociales-démocrates face à la crise des années trente, Université de Bruxelles, Brussels 1988, p. 42.

2. See Edward Malefakis, "A Comparative Analysis of Workers' Movements in Spain and Italy," in Richard Gunther, ed., Politics, Society and Democracy: The Case of Spain, Westview Press, Boulder, CO and Oxford 1993.

3. Stefano Bartolini, Electoral, Partisan and Corporate Socialism. Organisational Consolidation and Membership Mobilisation in Early Socialist Movements, Estudio/Working Paper 83, Juan March Institute, Madrid 1996, pp. 12-13.

4. Seraphim Seferiades, Working-Class Movements (1780s-1930s). A European Macro Historical Analytical Framework and a Greek Case Study, Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1998, p. 65.

5. Klaus von Beyme, Political Parties in Western Democracies, Gower, London 1985, p. 160. It seems that the degree of hostility of the environment and the incumbent government impacted considerably on the structuration of the organization. In the so-called "a-liberal" societies (e.g. Sweden, Germany, Norway, Belgium, and to some extent Denmark), the lack of integration of the working class into the political system favoured the establishment of highly disciplined, coherent, and centralized organizations. Confronted with hostile liberal movements, hostile or indifferent states, and fairly well-organized employers, the constitution of the socialist space as a strong system of organization seemed the only effective option. In these countries the organizational imperative (constructing and preserving the power and identity of the organization) became central. Sometimes it even became a veritable obsession, because "those organizations were all workers in aliberal societies had" (Gregory Luebbert, Liberalism, Fascism or Social Democracy, Social Classes and the Political Origins of Regimes in Interwar Europe, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford 1991, p. 187). Moreover, was it not Machiavelli who said that "all armed prophets have conquered, and unarmed ones have been destroyed"? By contrast, in countries like Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France, where the state was less threatening, the working-class movement less isolated, and where experiences of the Lib-Lab type before the Great War had permitted a greater legitimation of the unions and labour leaders, the organized socialist space was less coherent, less dense, and less disciplined. It was also, especially in France, less effective in attracting the working-class vote. Obviously, the matrix and organizational contours of trade-union or party "collectives of struggle" were the product of innumerable national factors. However, the inimical or co-operative attitude of the urban middle classes, the aggressiveness or otherwise of the state towards the working class and, more generally, the "alternative patterns of working-class entry into politics," largely account for the heavy infrastructure of socialist parties in "a-liberal" societies, and their markedly lighter infrastructure in France and Great Britain (Luebbert, passim).

6. Christiane Eisenberg, “The Comparative View in Labour History. Old and New Interpretations of the English and German Labour Movements before 1914," International Review of Social History, vol. XXXIV, 1989, pp. 424-9.

7. Bartolini, Electoral, Partisan and Corporate Socialism, p. 45.

8. Luebbert, Liberalism, Fascism or Social Democracy, p. 32.

9. Georges Lavau, A quoi sert le Parti communiste français?, Fayard, Paris 1981,66, 72.

10. Stéphane Courtois and Marc Lazar, Histoire du Parti communiste français, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1995, pp. 407-8.

11. Jae-Hung Ahn, "Ideology and Interest: The Case of Swedish Social Democracy, 1886-1911," Politics and Society, vol. 24, no. 2, 1996, p. 169.

12. Göran Therborn, "A Unique Chapter in the History of Democracy: The Social Democrats in Sweden," in Klaus Misgeld et al., eds, Creating Social Democracy: A Century of the Social Democratic Labor Party in Sweden, Pennsylvania State University Press, Pittsburgh 1992, p. 13.

13. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1989.

14. See Arlette Farge and Eustache Kouvélakis, "Y a-t-il un espace publique populaire?," interview in Futur antérieur, nos 39-40, 1997.

15. Seferiades, Working-Class Movements, p. 89.

16. Michel Verret, Chevilles ouvrières, Éditions de l'Atelier, Paris 1995, p. 189.

17. Ahn, "Ideology and Interest," pp. 176-9.

18. In a very polemical spirit, not devoid of a certain prophetic sense, Charles Andler accused the German social democrats: "This socialism is novel in its lack of scruple. It maintains a vigilant concern for immediate working-class interests; but it is not ashamed to reorient its principles. . . . Henceforth we know that there is a socialism ready to vote military credits, resolved not to harass German diplomacy, and disposed to stress solidarity with the dynasty. It is the only socialism that could ever accede to power; hence it is what will seduce the spirit of the masses." (Andler, Le Socialisme impérialiste de l'Allemagne contemporaine. Dossier d'une polémique avec J. Jaurès 1912-1913, Bossart, Paris 1918, quoted in Jacques Droz, Le Socialisme démocratique, Armand Colin, Paris 1968, pp. 144-5).

19. Robert Michels, Critique du socialisme, Kimé, Paris 1992, pp. 56-7.

20. Michael Reed, “Organizations and Modernity: Continuity and Discontinuity in Organization Theory," in John Hassard and Martin Parker, Postmodernism and Organizations, Sage, London 1993, p. 166.

21. See Philippe Reynaud, Max Weber et les dilemmes de la raison moderne, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1987, p. 195.

22. On the distinction between executive bureaucracy and representative bureaucracy, and the importance of bureaucracy in the construction of a strong institution, see Angelo Panebianco, Political Parties, Organization and Power, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, especially pp. 60-64, 225, 264.

23. Reynaud, Max Weber et les dilemmes de la raison moderne, pp. 199-200.

24. P. Cours-Salies and Jean-Marie Vincent, "Présentation," in Michels, Critique du socialisme, p. 27.

25. See, respectively, Gerassimos Moschonas, La Social-démocratie de 1945 à nos jours, Montchrestien, Paris 1994, Table 1; Gerrit Voerman, "Le paradis perdu. Les adhérents des partis sociaux-démocrates d'Europe occidentale, 1945-1995," in Marc Lazar, ed., La Gauche en Europe depuis 1945, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1996, Table 2.

26. Voerman, "Le paradis perdu", pp. 565-8.

27. Moschonas, La Social-démocratie de 1945 à nos jours, Table 1.

28. Ruud Koole, "The Dutch Labour Party: Towards a Modern Cadre Party," in Wolfgang Merkel et al., Socialist Parties in Europe II: Class, Popular, Catch-all?, ICPS, Barcelona 1992.

29. The measure of recruitment of their own electoral base (relation between the number of members of socialist parties and that of socialist voters), which we have developed elsewhere (Le Social-démocratie de 1945 à nos jours, Table l), better accounts for the electoral status of a party than the measure constructed on the basis of the total electorate (used by Voerman in "Le paradis perdu"). The latter underestimates the organizational density of parties with an average or weak electoral influence (case of the PSI or the PvdA). Thus, according to the measure of recruitment of their own electoral base (classically employed by Maurice Duverger), the rate of adhesion for the SPD was 6.6 per cent in 1989 (against 9.1 in 1949); for the PvdA 3.4 in 1989 (against 9.5 in 1948); and for the PSI 11.4 in 1987 (against 13.0 in 1973). These figures indicate that the SPD is closer, as regards its organizational penetration, to the most classically social-democratic group of parties as well as the PSI, whose membership rate differs profoundly from that found in the other countries of southern Europe. By contrast, the PvdA is markedly closer to parties like the French PS (3.0 in 1993), PSOE (3.1 in 1986), and PASOK (3.7 in 1994). Thus, if one establishes an organizational dichotomy between northern/central European socialism and southern European socialism, the two truly "abnormal" cases would be the PSI and PvdA (see La Social-démocratie de 1945 à nos jours, pp. 32-5).

30. For a more global approach to the sociology of the social-democratic organizations, see Part II below.

31. Emmanuel Leroy-Ladurie, quoted in Nonna Mayer and Pascal Perrnieau, Les Comportements politiques, Armand Colin, Paris 1992, p. 45.

32. Otto Kirchheimer, "The Transformation of the Western European Party System," in Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner, eds, Political Parties and Political Development, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1966, p. 184.

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