Our century has seen the triumph of Eduard Bernstein's evolutionary socialism against revolutionary utopias. Stephen Tindale says that we must now prepare for evolutionary environmentalismby Stephen Tindale / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Nineteen ninety-six is a fine year for centenaries. We are celebrating 100 years of the motor car and the less problematic pleasures of the cinema. Elgar produced his first important work in 1896 and AE Housman published A Shropshire Lad. That year also saw the launch of the Daily Mail, the first mass circulation daily. The secret of its success, according to its proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, was to satisfy readers’ desires for “a good hate.” Political events in 1896 also have a familiar ring: the Conservatives were in power; railway unions launched a campaign against the unreasonable behaviour of private railway companies; Britain suffered a foreign policy humiliation-in this case in the Transvaal-and quarrelled with both France and Germany; a Liberal leader mounted the moral high ground and called for British intervention to stop fighting between Muslims and Christians in south eastern Europe.
Yet 1896 was a watershed. In March, Joseph Chamberlain launched his campaign for imperial protectionism, the ramifications of which are felt on the right of British politics to this day. In August, William Gladstone finally retired from public life: his speech in response to the Turkish massacre of Armenians was his last. But it was for socialism, a movement still in its infancy, that the year was most momentous. The British left was saddened and lessened in October by the death of William Morris, a man who in his later years had proved himself not only a great artist, but a formidable agitator and inspiring utopian polemicist. His visionary News From Nowhere is one of the great texts of British socialism. Meanwhile, the German left was convulsed by an early bout of argument between traditionalists and modernisers, revolutionaries and revisionists. The year 1896 saw the first draft of the classic statement of revisionism, Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism.
Bernstein, much influenced by the Fabians who were busily implementing municipal socialism through the London county council, argued that the extension of the franchise made it possible to reform the capitalist system from within. This led him to reject Marx’s predictions of the immiseration of the working class and the inevitability of proletarian revolution, and to argue instead for a strategy of gradual social reform. Unlike most socialist theorists before him, and many since, he concentrated less on the end-state and more on the means of getting there. Indeed, as he wrote himself: “I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism.’ This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything.”
Bernstein is an unattractive figure; his writings are a mixture of insight, arrogance, pedantry and spite. Yet on any objective assessment he is one of the giants of socialism. The history of the western European left, recounted here by Donald Sassoon with style and sympathy, is the history not of revolution but of reform.
This history should be, for all those on the reformist left, a cause of great pride and celebration. Social democracy has been a resounding success. It is probably responsible for a greater diminution in human suffering than any other political movement. As Sassoon points out, western European countries blessed with strong socialist parties have less poverty, lower infant mortality, and less crime than the nominally richer US. This is not to say that the process is complete, there is still plenty of reformist “movement” required. The neo-liberal counter-attack has unpicked many of the gains, widening inequality and undermining security. The priority for most social democrats today is defensive. Our confidence is low; we do not dare propose anything in the way of bold new initiatives; we are told by new right apostates such as John Gray that we must prepare ourselves for a world “after social democracy.” But what is thought to come after social democracy looks (as David Lipsey pointed out in Prospect, April 1996) remarkably like more social democracy. There is no need to question the essential strategy of reforming capitalism from within. Indeed, the very success of social democracy-saving capitalism from its own excesses and making it immeasurably more popular than it could have been otherwise-makes any alternative strategy problematic. Bernstein remains triumphant.
There was an alternative strategy, of course. The 100 years which Sassoon surveys begin not in 1896 but in 1889, with the foundation of the second international in Paris, and end with the fall of the Berlin wall (although he allows himself to stray into the 1990s to offer some lightly coded criticisms of the latest bout of revisionism).
However, although capitalism has seen off communism, it is not quite unchallenged. If the left has by and large given up on the job of replacing capitalism, the green movement has not, at least not yet. This brings us back to William Morris. To Morris, the despoliation of the environment was an intrinsic feature of what he called “the commercial age.” “It is profit which draws men into enormous unmanageable aggregations called towns, for instance; profit which crowds them up when they are there into quarters without gardens or open spaces; profit which won’t take the most ordinary precautions against wrapping a whole district in a cloud of sulphurous smoke; which turns beautiful rivers into filthy sewers.”
(Morris did not know that the environmental record of communism would be even worse-but it would not have surprised him. He was as opposed to state socialism as he was to capitalism.)
Not all environmentalists would agree that capitalism has to be replaced. Some argue that it can be tamed, or harnessed to ecological purposes. Others might concede that capitalism is ultimately unsustainable, but nevertheless argue that it is better to reform it gradually than to sweep it away. As this suggests, the environmental movement today is having the same debates that the socialist movement began 100 years ago. As Sassoon puts it, the greens “replicated the great debate on participation in bourgeois governments which perturbed the social democratic movement at the turn of the century.” In the Rosa Luxemburg camp are those who claim that capitalism is unreformable, that it depends on exponential economic expansion and the manufacture of artificial needs which cannot be met within the earth’s carrying capacity. Rudolf Bahro and Andre Gorz are perhaps the best exponents of this view. These are the “deep greens” or, in the parlance of the German Green party where this debate has been most visibly played out (as it was in the SPD before it), the “fundis.” In the reformist Bernstein camp are the “realos” or light greens, typified by the current leader of the German Greens, Joschka Fischer, a former environment minister in Hesse. Like all good social democrats, the light greens are somewhat vague about their final goal, but they know the direction they want to go in. Current capitalist practice is unsustainable; it needs to be tamed by government intervention, taxation and regulation.
The result of this battle for the soul of environmentalism is likely to be, once again, a triumph for the reformists. Just as social democracy makes the end of capitalism less likely, so reforms enacted to reduce the worst environmental excesses make it even less likely that the green utopia will be reached (reducing the probability from minuscule to non-existent). We can already see this tension emerging. For example, Greenpeace supports the development of a less polluting car, and is condemned by other environmentalists because this will distract from the “real” agenda of getting rid of cars altogether.
That environmentalism is currently reliving the early history of socialism does not mean that all environmentalists are on the left. There are Conservatives who use Edmund Burke’s concept of trusteeship and stress the link between property rights and conservation. But the main thrust of environmentalism is recognisably left of centre.
One obstacle to the greening of social democracy is the perception that there is conflict between social and environmental goals. But there is no necessary conflict: environmental policy can be designed to be progressive. Energy taxation, for example, could exclude the domestic sector, or the revenue could be returned in flat-rate payments-a form of basic income-which would leave the rich worse off and the poor better off. Urban road pricing would be progressive because poor people in cities do not generally have cars, and if the revenue were used to improve public transport, on which poor people rely, the impact would be highly beneficial. Moreover, it is often the poor who suffer most from environmental degradation-polluted air in inner cities, estates built on contaminated land. Drinking water unfit for human consumption is a problem only for those who cannot afford Perrier.
To the extent that social democracy needs redefinition (and this should not be exaggerated, since its social tasks remain incomplete), environmentalism can help. Governments must intervene to secure the long-term public interest, as even Nicholas Ridley conceded when he was environment secretary. Although some of the most acute environmental problems have been tackled-the urban smogs, the toxic discharges killing entire stretches of river-the threat is now more pervasive. A modern William Morris, growing up in Walthamstow, would find the Epping forest which first fired his imagination carved up by trunk roads. The idyllic journey up the Thames recounted in News from Nowhere would be dominated by the drone of aircraft approaching Heathrow. The “earthly paradise” he describes in his most famous poem is further away than ever.
Social democracy has succeeded in humanising capitalism; or, to put it another way, capitalism has successfully co-opted social democracy. Now social democracy needs to co-opt environmentalism. Then it might begin to build a society which meets not only the material needs of citizens, but also their aesthetic and spiritual desires. The first 100 years of socialism belonged to Eduard Bernstein. The next 100 years should belong to William Morris. One hundred years of socialism
I B Tauris ?35