A Theory of Divisions Among The Center-Left

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Thesis: There is an underlying relationship between one’s political goals and one’s political methods. Applying this maxim we can dissect the essential components of social liberalism (i.e. SocDem) and gradualist socialism (i.e. DemSoc), and better understand why despite the similarities on paper, there remains so much tension between the two groups.

A consistent logic dictates that one’s approach to electoral politics is
dependent on exactly what their aims are. Understanding the connection between your aims and your tools is absolutely vital to effectively mobilizing. Depending on this factor, participation in electoral politics could prove essential, a net positive, inconsequential, or outright counter-intuitive.

However, the purpose of this piece will not be questioning whether or not electoralism is “useful”, as that’s a rather moot question with no one single answer. There are plenty of anti-electoralist arguments that I could make which would be completely meaningless to a non-communist, that’s just the nature of the topic. The purpose of this piece is to look at movements which have something to gain from electoral politics, and conduct an investigation into the implications for said movements.

For the purpose of making a coherent argument, I will be arguing from a possibilist lens, suspending my usual stances to make observations from a more relevant position. This thought experiment should hopefully dissect the logic underpinning reformist left-wing movements, and also explain why certain ones are more successful than others. This will also help explain the reasons underpinning conflicts within progressive/center-left circles, and help those on each side of the rift understand the other.

1. Social Democracy

Social democracy (in this context, what I am referring to is more accurately labeled social liberalism) is the left-wing movement most commonly associated with electoral politics. To define it succinctly, social democracy promotes the utilization of political institutions to keep market forces in check.

Neither hoping for capitalism’s demise nor worshipping the market uncritically, [social democrats] argued that the market’s anarchic and destructive powers could and should be fettered at the same time that its ability to produce unprecedented material bounty was exploited. They thus came to champion a real “third way” between laissez-faire liberalism and Soviet communism based on a belief that political forces must be able to triumph over economic ones. (Berman 2005, 12)

The definition alone should give you an idea of the central role parliaments play for social democrats, but let us elaborate further on exactly what this looks like.

To do this, we’re going to defer to Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who has written extensively on the dynamic between market power and political power.

The first question is: what problems do market forces pose?

If there are only a handful of firms in the typical industry, and if they recognize their interdependence, as they must both for profit and for survival, then privately exercised economic power is less the exception than the rule in the economy. It is also of a piece with the power anciently associated with monopoly. This was the clear conclusion of the new ideas. And the fact of such power, once identified by the theory, could readily be verified by observation.

The executives of the United States Steel Corporation, the longtime price leaders in the steel industry, do have authority to raise and lower the prices they charge for their own steel. When they exercise that power the rest of the industry normally follows. The same executives make decisions on where to build new plants and how much plant to build, what to pay in dividends and, subject to a periodic trial of strength with the union, what wages to pay. They have latitude on all of these matters; they are not the automatons of market forces. These decisions also affect the wealth and income of hundreds of thousands of people. As with steel so with the great core of American industry. The new theory suggested the existence of such power; the eye confirmed it. (Galbraith 2002, 50-51)

1.1. Countervailing Power

The second question: what can be done to counter said market forces? Galbraith points to the democratic state as a venue for those without economic power to stand their ground, using what he calls “countervailing power”:

In fact, the support of countervailing power has become in modem times perhaps the major domestic peacetime function of the federal government. Labor sought and received it in the protection and assistance which the Wagner Act provided to union organization. Farmers sought and received It in the form of federal price supports to their markets — a direct subsidy of market power. Unorganized workers have sought and received it in the form of minimum wage legislation. The bituminous-coal mines sought and received it in the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935 and the National Bituminous Coal Act of 1937.’ These measures, all designed to give a group a market power it did not have before, comprised the most important legislative acts of the New Deal. (Galbraith 2002, 136)

All of these examples were acts of concrete acts of legislation which could have only been realized due to civic participation. Union leaders had to lobby, citizens had to vote, and politicians had to draft up bills their peers would be willing to vote in favor of.

Galbraith’s market is one based on agonism, not antagonism. Yes, there is competition between groups over control of policy, but the competition is underlined by a mutual understanding of the necessity of coexistence. Each group seeks to make “make capitalism work for them”, but still presumes capitalism as a given.

To the SocDem, every action taken within the parliamentary sphere provides an opportunity to get the upper hand in negotiations. And to an extent, this is objectively true. As seen with the above examples cited by Galbraith, collective bargaining is a centerpiece of modern liberalism. Cutting deals and compromising is the name of the game, and it’s all underlined by a conciliatory approach to politics. They mesh well with parliaments because they’re willing to participate in good faith and trust other actors to do the same.

But it should be noted that collective bargaining is still bargaining; one can only get anything out of it if their demands are by definition negotiable. The process undeniably exists, but one has to have a use for it to take advantage of it. For the SocDems, this is no problem; the principle of countervailance holds that each legislative milestone marks a victory in and of itself. But, as we’re going to see, this isn’t always the case.

2. Democratic Socialism

On the other side of the coin we have democratic socialism. “Democratic socialism” has become a buzzword of sorts, but for the purpose of this, we’re going to use this term (and DemSoc by extent) as a colloquial shorthand referring to what is more accurately labeled gradualist socialism.

One of the earliest and most influential examples of a gradualist movement was the Fabian Society, who defined their task as such:

In every field the characteristic Fabian policy has been that of permeation. In accordance with their doctrine of continuity the Fabians set out to develop existing institutions by permeating with this or that element of their doctrine those who had power to influence policy, e.g. the civil service, the political parties, the professions, the administration of business, and local govern-ment. It was part of their creed that no sharp line could be drawn between socialists and non-socialists and that many who would not call themselves socialists could be persuaded to help with particular reforms making for socialism. (Cole 1932)

The purpose of parliamentary action within this context would be to establish the preconditions of socialism. DemSocs view parliamentary action as a vehicle for accomplishing this by exploiting the democratic nature of said parliaments.

In Germany at present, Social Democracy’s most effective means of asserting its demands, apart from propaganda by voice and pen, is the Reichstag (legislative) franchise. The influence of this franchise is so great that it has extended even to those bodies from which the working class is excluded by a property qualification or a system of class franchise; for even here the parties must pay attention to the Reichstag electors. If the Reichstag franchise were immune from attack, there might be some justification for treating the question of the franchise for the other bodies as relatively unimportant, though even then it would be a mistake to make light of it. But the Reichstag franchise is not secure at all Governments and government parties will certainly not take the decision to change it lightly, for they will be aware that such a step would inevitably cause hatred and bitterness amongst the mass of German workers, which they would show in a very uncomfortable way on suitable occasions. The socialist movement is too strong, and the political self-consciousness of the German workers is too highly developed, to be dealt with in a cavalier fashion. (Bernstein 1899, 184)

Expanding on this logic, Bernstein drafts three short-term goals for the socialist movement (176):

  1. Expanding democracy and providing resistance to reactionary institutions/movements
  2. Establishing immediate protections for workers
  3. Building up workers’ cooperatives and other public institutions

What does this look like in practice? That’s a question with a more complex answer than one might presume. “All democratic socialists agree on the need for a democratic alternative to capitalism. There is no consensus as yet as to what that alternative should look like.” (Schweickart 2007) This lack of a consensus can be attributed to many factors:

  • The social democratic project has for the most part been completed, the democratic socialist one has not.
  • There isn’t the same type of unifying theory that Marxism has, leading to a lot of different opinions regarding the specifics.
  • The term itself is rather vaguely defined, with a lot of differing movements claiming the mantle.

However, history does provide some precedent which may allow us to piece things together; we’ve already touched on the work of the Fabians, but that’s mostly theoretical. I’d say there’s two other places to look, Leninism (dealing with the question of obtaining political power) and market socialism (dealing with the question of utilizing political power).

2.1. Obtaining Political Power

Leninism might seem like an odd (and a rather objectionable) parallel to draw, but there is a connection to be made regarding how both view parliaments as an instrument for obtaining political power:

Criticism, the most keen, ruthless and uncompromising criticism, should be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable, and still more against those who are unwilling to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner. Only such criticism combined, of course, with the dismissal of incapable leaders and their replacement by capable ones will constitute useful and fruitful revolutionary work that will simultaneously train the leaders to be worthy of the working class and of all working people, and train the masses to be able properly to understand the political situation and the often very complicated and intricate tasks that spring from that situation. (Lenin 1920)

The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old minimal demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, minimal demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism and this occurs at each step — the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old minimal program is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution. (Trotsky 1938)

Leninists held that while electoralism was far from sufficient, it still had its uses in laying the foundation for a revolutionary movement. Each electoral victory marked not a victory for the movement, but rather instead a tactical opportunity.

This is to be expected considering how incredibly influential Lenin was on the theory of left-wing political organization. However, one should not go too far in drawing comparisons. The Leninist programme of old was much more radical in its aims, because it originated in an era where labor unions and parliaments were not as thoroughly integrated into capitalism.

Whereas the Leninists were ultimately interested in the outright abolition of the capitalist mode of production, democratic socialists seem to be more focused on workplace democracy as their demand. This is only natural, considering that the tools available to modern electoral movements are moreso suited to that end, and will attract people interested in such ends. One need only look at the state of remaining Marxist-Leninist parties in western countries to see this.

What connects these two strategies is the attitude, not the content. Democratic socialists may not be interested in communist ends, but they maintain the same militant outlook towards parliamentary institutions. There’s still an underlying narrative of class-war (albeit a non-Marxist one) and an essentially combative approach to politics. To the democratic socialist, there is an upper class which has interests diametrically and fundamentally opposed to that of the working class; for SocDems this is either not the case or less central to their outlook.

All this gives the class struggle another form. It works today more as a potential than as an active force, more by the knowledge of what it might be than by actual manifestation. Politically as well as economically it is fought by sections or divisions, and often in forms which are the reverse of what they ought to be according to the letter, so that it might appear as if it were not the social classes that contest with one another the control of legislation, but rather the legislators that fight for the satisfaction of the classes. But the class struggle is no less a reality because it has taken the shape of continuous barter and compromise. (Bernstein 1897)

Participation is conditional; cynicism regarding the existing institutions means democratic socialists don’t have the same loyalty to the process that SocDems do. If the electoral route appears to be at a standstill, the democratic socialist has a lot less hesitation to give it up and seek other avenues.

Accompanying this attitude is an element of expectation. By definition, a gradualist puts serious stock into the idea of a socialist society that substantially differs from our own. This is an expectation, so there’s a degree of confidence underlying it. Such an expectation isn’t as central to social democracy. There might be an optimistic outlook regarding the mixed economy and the expansion of social spending and perhaps some entertaining of a distant vision of socialism, but this is a far cry from an expectation. Political decisions are made around this expectation (or lack thereof). If one takes the idea of a future co-operative society seriously, immediate victories are interpreted within the context of a larger process. On the other hand, taking said victories at face value means that each one holds more weight, and that there’s a larger investment in the present as opposed to the future.

2.2. Utilizing Political Power

Rejecting Marxist theory and its more explicitly revolutionary implications, democratic socialists have to develop an alternative framework to work off of. Market socialism (and adjacent theories) have often provided DemSocs with a more concrete portrait of what their expectations are and how political power can be utilized to realize said expectations.

The marriage between these schools of thought is present across all sorts of thinkers both old and new. Cole and the Fabians often toyed with the idea of consumer and producer co-operatives, while modern market socialists such as Schweickart and Cockshott have often shown an affinity towards democratic socialism. Even the other main current among democratic socialists — participatory economics — still holds to those principles of decentralization and economic democracy.

What market socialism has to offer to democratic socialists is the extension of and application of this “principle of democracy” towards the economy itself. This central promise satisfies the democratic, populist, socialist, utopian, and most importantly transitional sentiments found among these ideologues.

Market socialism is democratic because it attempts to promote the population having a larger stake in decisions. It appeals to socialists because its focus is primarily economic, offering solutions that are intended to help consumers and workers. It’s populist in that the model rests on the assumption that the current organization of society is insufficiently democratic. It’s utopian in that it provides a clear blueprint on how society should be organized, providing a rebuttal to arguments of unfeasibility. And its transitional in the sense that the development of it is predicated on the parallel building up of institutions, which legislation is capable of aiding.

At the center of this is the worker’s cooperative, simultaneously the starting point and the goal of market socialism. For over a century now, democratic socialists of all stripes — from the early Fabians to modern YouTube sects — have developed a fascination with this concept. When discussing workplace democracy in practice, DemSocs often fall back on one of two examples: Spain’s Mondragon Corporation and the planned decentralization of Yugoslavia’s economy:

Quote #1 (Richard D. Wolff):

MC is composed of many co-operative enterprises grouped into four areas: industry, finance, retail and knowledge. In each enterprise, the co-op members (averaging 80-85% of all workers per enterprise) collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise (what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits). As each enterprise is a constituent of the MC as a whole, its members must confer and decide with all other enterprise members what general rules will govern MC and all its constituent enterprises. In short, MC worker-members collectively choose, hire and fire the directors, whereas in capitalist enterprises the reverse occurs. One of the co-operatively and democratically adopted rules governing the MC limits top-paid worker/members to earning 6.5 times the lowest-paid workers. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the differences distinguishing this from the capitalist alternative organization of enterprises. (In US corporations, CEOs can expect to be paid 400 times an average worker’s salary (a rate that has increased 20-fold since 1965.) (Wolff 2012)

Quote #2 (Jacobin):

Yugoslav theorists developed a socialism that called for the withering away of the state’ and the creation of society as a free association of producers. The first step was decentralization. In May 1949, the party-state ceded greater autonomy to local communal governments, whose power had been eroded since 1945. Slovene leader Edvard Kardelj explained that these reforms promoted the sense of the masses greater inclusion in the work of the state machinery from the lowest organs to the highest. Greater worker participation in the economic sphere soon accompanied this political decentralization. In June 1950, the National Assembly passed legislation introducing the self-management system. All enterprises would now have workers’ councils consisting of 15 to 120 democratically elected representatives, restricted to two one-year terms. (Robertson 2017)

Quote #3 (Jacobin):

Despite sometimes brutal methods, Yugoslavia’s de-Stalinization was productive, in the sense that it drove the party to rethink how society was organized. It led to the introduction of workers’ self-management, social ownership, and workers’ councils as the fundamental units of production and workers’ democracy. Of course, very different kinds of self-management emerged in practice. (Balhorn 2020)

There’s a lot to be said on exactly how excessively romanticized these ventures are, but that’s a topic that’s outside the scope of this piece. The important thing here to take note of is how democratic socialists view these efforts as relevant to their own project. In the first quote, we see how they conclude Mondragon (acting as a model for workplace democracy) is able to realize their goals. In the second and third ones, we see them draw a connection between government policy and this goal, providing an opening for them to rework it into a strategy more in line with the tactics they already use to influence a parliamentary government (as opposed to the SFR’s primarily autocratic approach).

3. The Rift

In practice, what we see is that often times DemSocs and SocDems pursue the same policies: increased access to social services, higher taxes and nationalization of industries, a commitment to social justice, and so on.

So, what gives with the rift between the two factions? The rift has its true origins not in policy or ideology, but attitudes. This is why the divisions are most pronounced not during the process of legislation but rather instead in moments of messaging, where the direction political movements should take are being decided. The most obvious of these moments are elections, where coalitions are being built and platforms are being drafted.

SocDems typically advance a conciliatory approach towards politics, where they attempt to further their goals by working with and cutting deals with more mainstream political blocs. To the SocDem, their loss condition involves being locked out of participation in the negotiating table. DemSocs on the other hand focus on a combative approach, using their political toolbox with the purpose of increasing their leverage. For the democratic socialist, their loss condition involves losing the upper hand in negotiations, as the populist outlook views politics as a zero-sum battleground between the interests of the people and the interests of the elite.

Is this always the case? Not necessarily, one can be a combative SocDem and vice versa, but I do believe there is a reason each side gravitates towards their respective approaches. Namely, a historic one. In the early 20th century, most industrialized economies were rather laissez-faire and labour politics was still in a relative infancy. For the burgeoning social democratic movement, it was necessary to take power before the topic of negotiations could even come into question. However, the left would eventually get their parliamentary wins and would have to come to terms with the question of how to exercise their new-found influence.

3.1. Abstentionism and its Implications

Nowhere is this more clear than in the debate over the tactic of abstentionism, in which elected candidates would refuse to participate in the parliaments they served, as a matter of undermining their influence and asserting the power of the labour movement. This remained popular while social democrats were making rapid gains in parliaments, but was quickly met with hesitation when the wave began to subside.

Revolutionaries’ belief that trends would continue to move in their favour was enshrined in the policy of abstentionism. Social Democratic parties became the largest factions in parliaments, even if they remained in the minority; but those parties abstained from participating in government. They refused to rule alongside their enemies, choosing instead to wait patiently for their majority to arrive: “This policy of abstention implied enormous confidence in the future, a steadfast belief in the inevitable working-class majority and the ever-expanding power of socialism’s working-class support.” But that inevitability never came to pass…

On the right of the workers’ movement, the social democrats were compelled to face the facts. They were waiting for their time to come, but everywhere they hit ceilings in terms of voting percentages, often significantly below 51 percent. They decided that they needed to prepare for the long road ahead. That meant, in particular, holding their membership in check when the latter tried to jump the gun by risking the organisation’s gains too soon in a “test of strength”. Social democrats (and later, communist parties) were always motivated by this fear of the too soon. Instead of jumping the gun, they would bide their time and moderate their demands in alliance with other classes. In the past, social democratic parties had been strong enough to have a share in power but did not take it based on the policy of abstention. Now, they would begin to use the power they had: it was time to make compromises, to cut deals.

It was this compromising tendency that split the workers’ movement. To many workers, giving up on abstentionism and making alliances was a “betrayal”, signaling in particular the corroding influences of other classes (petit-bourgeois intellectuals), or of certain privileged, pro-imperialist sectors of the working class (the labour aristocracy). In fact, this turn within social democracy had more prosaic roots. In the first instance, it was the only way to give the voters something to celebrate, once voting percentages stopped rising so quickly. Second, and more importantly, once the social democrats could see that they couldn’t reach the crucial numerical majority on the basis of workers alone, it made sense that they would begin to look for voters elsewhere: socialists had to “choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal, but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats, and a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class character.” Increasingly, all social democratic parties chose the latter. (Endnotes Collective 2015)

And from here, the reason behind the hostility becomes clear. Both factions are electorally co-dependent but at the same time pose existential threats to each other. Since they can’t separate, but also cannot cooperate, the only way for one faction to pursue its goals is the absolute subordination of the other. Let’s go through the various scenarios:

  1. They remain completely independent from each other. Divided, both factions quickly find themselves unable to maintain a parliamentary coalition which even remotely resembles a plurality. They both remain entirely locked out of the political arena, triggering a loss condition for both.
  2. They cooperate on equal footing. This remains an option until a sufficient amount of power is actually taken, and the DemSocs wish to leverage said power in riskier ways. From there, this scenario spills into one of the other ones.
  3. The SocDems subordinate the DemSocs. This is a win for the former as they are able to manage a sufficient coalition to have a voice in legislation and maintain their influence over an extended period of time. However, this process of negotiation is perpetual, triggering a loss for DemSocs, whose fundamental goals necessitate an advancement of political power.
  4. The DemSocs subordinate the SocDems. The focus of the movement becomes advancing political power, which the DemSocs require. However, simultaneously, the zero-sum focus of such a task makes the negotiation pursued by SocDems near impossible.

Ultimately, the only possible outcomes are either mutual destruction or subordination. In that sense, this specific arena of politics is zero-sum (even if we assume politics as a whole isn’t), which explains why emotions run higher between the two groups than between each group and much more ideologically different groups. It also explains why the tensions are so strong during elections, where said zero-sum game is being played.


Balhorn, Lauren. “How Yugoslavia’s Partisans Built a New Socialist Society” Jacobin Magazine, June 13, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/yugoslavia-tito-market-socialism

Berman, Sheri, and Dieter Dettke. 2005. Understanding social democracy. Washington: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Washington Office.

Bernstein, Eduard. “Karl Marx and Social Reform.” In Progressive Review no. 7. Edited by Paul Fiewers. Marxist Internet Archive, 1897.

Bernstein, Eduard, and Henry Tudor. (1899) 2004. The preconditions of socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, G.D.H., “Fabianism.” In Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Edited by Edwin Seligman and Alvin Saunders Johnson. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 2002. American capitalism: the concept of countervailing power. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Lenin, Vladmir Ilyich. “Should We Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments?” In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Marxists Internet Archive, 1920.

Robertson, James. “The Life and Death of Yugoslav Socialism” Jacobin Magazine, July 17, 2017. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/07/yugoslav-socialism-tito-self-management-serbia-balkans

Schweickart, David. “Democratic Socialism.” In Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, edited by Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr, 446-448. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. doi: 10.4135/9781412956215.n250.

Trotsky, Leon. “The Transitional Program”. In The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Marxists Internet Archive, 1938.

Wolff, Richard. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way” The Guardian, June 24, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/24/alternative-capitalism-mondragon

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