The historical treacherous role of social democracy against the revolutionary struggle of workers | IWI Webinar Keynote Speech by Kostas Borbotis

The historical treacherous role of social democracy against the revolutionary struggle of workers | IWI Webinar Keynote Speech by Kostas Borbotis

Seminar key note speech


The historical treacherous role of social democracy against the revolutionary struggle of workers

The topic of our discussion today, as we all understand, is not interesting only or mainly from a historical point of view -as the title suggests- but concerns first of all the current struggle within the workers’ movement against the forces of social democracy and reformism.

This is of particular importance in today’s conditions, where the workers’ movement and the workers of the whole world are in the midst of sharpened antagonisms and war conflicts; the imperialist conflict in Ukraine is ongoing in the midst of the strongest oppositions and contradictions of capitalism that burdens the working class of the whole world with poverty and intensifies exploitation. In Europe and many other countries, workers are experiencing unprecedented difficulties: rising inflation, rising food costs, energy poverty and difficulty meeting heating and electricity bills. All this is fueling in many countries a strong wave of discontent, with large protest rallies and strike mobilizations in many sectors, which we have the task of orienting in a militant-class direction.

In this context of high complexity, the warring capitalist forces try not only to disorient and manipulate the workers’ movement, but in addition they try to trap it in their own interests, to put it “under false flags”, to force it to take sides in favor of one or the other capitalist coalition, to make it look for the supposedly “good” or “bad” imperialist.

Social democracy plays a special role in this effort. Besides, history has proven that the current of social democracy is extremely useful to the capitalists, especially in times of sharpened class struggle, as -due to its historical roots as a current and the relations it traditionally has with the unions and the trade union movement- it has increased possibilities to trap and mislead workers.

Therefore, this strife today has a pivotal character for the workers’ movement to be able to form a line of conflict and class independence in today’s complex conditions.

From this point of view, we will certainly refer to the historical role of social democracy but at the same time we will also try to highlight some burning issues of the modern strife.


1. Introduction

History has taught us that social democracy, reformism and compromised trade unionism have been a very dangerous opponent of the workers’ movement throughout time. It has been a constant enemy against the revolutionary struggle of the working class, the struggle against capitalist exploitation.

In fact, these forces have often been the “last stronghold” of capital and the bourgeois class when their power was shaken. We have many examples especially from the history of the European workers’ movement.

Of course, the battle for the workers’ struggle to acquire a revolutionary content, so that they are not limited to claims in the context of simply a better negotiation of the exploitation, is an issue that has been a concern since the beginnings of the workers’ movement.

In other words, we are referring to the constant battle of the conscious and vanguard part of the working class to highlight the need to struggle against the root causes, the real adversary of the workers, which is capital and its power, in order to pave the way for a society free from exploitation;

In order to raise the class consciousness of the worker, to rise above the spontaneous tendency that is anyway born through the very capitalist exploitative relations; a tendency that makes the worker simply consider that it is enough to bargain the price of his/her labor power; to limit his/her struggle only to whether he will succeed in selling it at a better price (which often requires a hard struggle as well). But the key is to question the very relation of exploitation. To see behind the veil of capitalist relations.

Let us not forget that in capitalist society, internal differentiations in the working class have an objective basis. Because in the jungle of the capitalist market where the worker is pushed to be able to live, everyone appears alone. And that’s what the bourgeois class counts on: to breed antagonism and hostility between workers, or even between different branches.

They try to hide the unity of interests that exists among the workers; to say that everyone has to fend for themselves.

That is why the answer and the strength of the working class lies in unity; in the realization that in front of them they do not have the other worker as an antagonist, but the very capitalist employer; that they do not even have against them the individual capitalist employer alone, but the capitalists as a class. This is the principle of class solidarity.

Of course, in the workers’ movement we are not only facing these difficulties which arise from general tendencies and a low level of class consciousness. We are facing the organized and multifaceted intervention of capital, which by stepping on these objective factors works constantly to break class unity, to support and help employer-led unionism, to buy off, to breed defeatism and compromise.

And in this role, the capital finds a great supporter in the sold-out and compromised trade unionism and social democracy.


2. A very brief historical outline and some characteristic landmarks

We certainly cannot, in the context of this discussion, make a complete historical analysis of the course of social democracy nor exhaustively refer to historical events.

Nevertheless, we will dwell on a general outline and underscore some crucial historical landmarks and examples (regarding which we will limit ourselves mainly to European countries) to highlight some crucial conclusions.

The struggle against reformism, from the beginnings of the revolutionary workers’ movement

Social democracy has a long historical course during which it has undergone dramatic transformations and mutations. As a political current, it essentially emerged from the socialist and workers parties of the Second International in the second half of the 19th century.

It was a period of development of the workers’ movement and trade unions, as well as a period of establishment of workers’ parties in a number of countries, especially those that had a certain degree of capitalist development at the time.

Of course, revolutionary and reformist perceptions coexisted within the workers’ movement. After all, the struggle against compromise and reformism has existed in the workers’ movement almost since its beginnings.

During the period of action of the great revolutionaries Marx and Engels in the young workers’ movement at the time, they vigorously confronted reformism and laid the foundations for the action of the proletariat to acquire revolutionary characteristics, through the entirety of their political, theoretical and organizational work.

Marx and Engels, with their fundamental and pioneering economic studies, showed that without the worker the capitalist cannot make a profit. They showed that it is surplus value, essentially unpaid labor, that enriches the capitalist. This is the basis of exploitation.

They proved that without the worker not a single cog can turn -as we say in a slogan in Greece- or as a French militant unionist aptly said in a speech during the recent great strike mobilizations in the refineries, without the worker, the shareholders produce nothing, they are parasites.


Marx and Engels therefore showed that the working class must struggle against the root of evil. Against capitalist exploitation.

Thus, against views that spoke of “fair” negotiation with the capitalists, they pointed out that: “The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms”, because it steps on a fundamental class inequality: capitalist property in the means of production. As long as this class injustice remains, as long as the system of exploitation and class slavery remains, the workers cannot find their right.

They emphasized that the working class is the vanguard social force, precisely because of its position in production, because the whole complex edifice of modern social production rests on the joint labor of millions of people.

They showed that the strength of the working class lies in the awareness of its interests and its class unity. As they pointed out, the working class is certainly the most numerous social force, however, as they pointed out, the strength of numbers is weakened by the lack of unity, which is “created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves”. And that is why achieving class consciousness is important.

In this cause they distinguished the role of trade unions and the workers’ trade union movement. They said that the trade unions should become centers of organization and class consciousness of the working class.


« If the Trades’ Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.  (…) They must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.»[1]


The working class at that time was still certainly taking its first steps. Workers took militant part in the great struggles of the 19th century, in the struggle for economic and civil rights. And in this process, Marx highlights that the “emancipation of the proletariat” is the great “secret” that the 19th century reveals[2].

Moving forward, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the workers’ movement continued to grow and spread. Socialist and workers’ parties began to be established in a number of countries. In that period, as we said, one can trace the roots of social democracy as a current. Because in parallel with the development of the workers’ and trade union movement, the socio-material conditions that favored efforts to trap the workers’ movement and to spread reformism began to take shape.

This is the period that has been described in historiography as the “peaceful” period of capitalism (just to put two key milestones, between the Paris Commune in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914).

This is the period of transition to monopoly capitalism, a period in which there is a great development and spread of capitalist industry, the emergence and strengthening of monopolies as well as the intensity of colonial exploitation. In the developed capitalist countries the bourgeois classes acquire possibilities of maneuvers and concessions to the strengthening workers’ movement.

A section of the working class begins to form, whose living conditions improve disproportionately compared to the class as a whole; a section which links its own material conditions with its bourgeois class, tending to compromise. That is to say, it begins to see its own perpetuation linked to the perpetuation of the capitalists, and not to the struggle against them. It is about the formation of the social stratum of the “labour aristocracy”, which has constituted the social force in support of capital within the working class.

Capitalism seemed all-powerful, while at the same time, illusions about the supposedly “peaceful evolution” of capitalism began to be fueled and illusions about its supposedly pro-people management were reinforced.


The betrayal of social democracy during World War I and the rupture in the workers’ movement

The betrayal of social democracy reaches a whole new level during the period when World War I broke out, which is also a critical turning point for the global workers’ movement.

This period was the emblematic culmination of a course of continuous sliding in the service of the interests of capital.

From that point on, what is called social democracy is an open enemy of the workers’ movement. It goes completely into reaction and acts as the “spokesman” of capital within the workers’ movement.

With the outbreak of war, the social-democratic forces, which presented themselves as the representatives of the workers’ movement, in effect colluded with the capitalist governments in every country to enlist the proletariat in the interests of capital.

As the German revolutionaries who remained faithful to the principles of class struggle said, the social democrats turned the historic appeal “Proletarians of all countries unite” into “Proletarians of all countries slaughter each other”.

During the war, the social democrats made a shameful class capitulation, trampled underfoot the principles of proletarian internationalism and propagated nationalist hatred among the workers.

They then opposed the Great October Revolution in Russia.

They gave a blow to the 1918 Revolution in Germany. It is certainly known, but we must not forget, that the ministers who hit the strikers were leaders of the social democracy that capital drew into the government to throw dust in people’s eyes; in order to be able to manipulate the revolting masses.

The well-known social democrat G. Noske, taking over as minister to strike down the German Revolution, proudly declared that “I don’t mind, someone has to get blood on their hands.”


From this point, social democracy is separated by blood from the revolutionary workers’ movement.

It turns out that by both integration and -when necessary- repression, social democratic forces can with great flexibility and effectiveness strike the workers’ movement.

That period, as well as the years that followed after the war, was the first time that social democratic forces undertook to serve the interests of capital from government positions. Social democratic governments were formed in countries such as Germany, Sweden and Britain with the Labour Party.

It is a period when capital had to face two problems.

On the one hand, it needs to integrate the workers’ movement amid a period of revolutionary upsurge that followed the end of the war. Let’s not forget that the devastation caused by World War I and the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 contributed to spreading the revolutionary fire in Germany, Finland, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere, but the revolutions were defeated; at the same time, evidence of revolutionary upsurge are maintained in some countries until 1922-23.

At the same time, international capitalism faced the deep capitalist crisis of 1929 which triggered the need to adopt policies of state regulation and intervention in the economy. The implementation of such policies was certainly not an “exclusive privilege” of social democratic governments alone. Similar policies of Keynesian management, state interventionism and planning were followed in the USA with Roosevelt’s New Deal, in Nazi Germany and in a number of other countries. Essentially, the depth of the capitalist crisis of 1929-1933, together with other factors such as the sharpening of inter-imperialist antagonisms and the strengthening of Soviet Russia, significantly strengthened the tendencies of more active intervention of the bourgeois state in the capitalist economy.

That period also revealed the “multi-tentacled” relations between social democracy and fascist forces.

We recall that the Freikorps paramilitary groups in Germany -which were incubators of Fascist-Nazi groups- were openly supported by Social Democratic leaders such as Friedrich Ebert and G. Noske, in order to be used in the attacks against the revolutionary workers and their movement. They were the ones who murdered the great German revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Throughout this period, the social democratic forces, like all the bourgeois political forces, had open channels of communication with the fascists under the fear of the revolutionary workers’ movement and the workers’ power in revolutionary Russia. The Munich agreement in 1938 between Hitler, Mussolini and the leaders of France and England, which aimed at the so-called “policy of appeasement”, clearly showed that the common goal was the collaboration of capitalist, fascist and so-called “democratic” forces against the USSR .

To make a small time-jump forward, nowadays, the social democratic forces and the bourgeois forces in general do not hesitate to openly support fascist forces when they promote the capitalist interests that they also support. A typical example is the support of the fascist Azov Battalion in Ukraine.

Going back to the interwar historical period, it was clearly seen that the bourgeois class used alternately and complementarily both social democratic and fascist forces, as forces of capital, to strike the working-class movement; they also took advantage of the whole range of available methods: integration, manipulation, brute force and repression.

In an internal confidential bulletin of 1932 (Deutsche Führerbriefe), examining the prospects of capitalist stability, the Federation of German Industry highlighted the role played by social democracy in the period after the war and up to the crisis of 1929.

As the German industrialists consider: “This last or “outermost bearer” of bourgeois rule was, in the first period of post-war consolidation, Social Democracy”; at the same time, while conditions are changing, they see the need for rotation: “As the old sluice mechanism (Editor’s Note: social democracy) can no longer be sufficiently restored, the only possible means of saving bourgeois rule from this abyss is to effect the splitting of the working class and its tying to the State apparatus by other and more direct means. Herein lie the positive possibilities and the tasks of National Socialism.”[3]


The post-war period and the “golden age” of social democracy in Europe.

World War II shaped a new international reality. The peoples of the world paid a heavy price for the victory against Fascism-Nazism, but through this struggle, the workers’ movement in many countries came out strengthened, with increased ranks and prestige, because the workers themselves had taken the lead in the anti-fascist struggle .

On the other hand, the USA, which suffered minor casualties in the war, emerged as the engine of world capitalism, securing its primacy in the capitalist world.

After the war followed the so-called “golden thirty years”, a timeline covering the period between 1945 and 1975 and characterized by the post-war recovery of the capitalist economy. It is the era that in France was vividly described as “Les Trente Glorieuses”, the thirty “glorious years”.

This period is also a “golden age” for European social democracy, which in the majority of European countries is stabilized as a pillar of the exercise of bourgeois power; in many of these countries it forms governments, in some even long-lived ones, while in the area of economic growth it had increased room for maneuver and manipulation of the workers’ movement.

In the European states, the capitalist reconstruction was decisively supported by the direct aid of American funds (Marshall Plan), giving impetus to the capitalist economies, which after the war crisis and the post-war recovery went into an upward phase. The war, by destroying a large amount of over-accumulated capital, objectively set the stage for a new round of capitalist profitability and revitalization.

In order to rebuild the destroyed capitalist economies, it was necessary to expand and generalize the application of a policy of state monopoly regulations, which had been developed to a significant extent in the pre-war years of the 1929 crisis. In the European capitalist states, it became commonplace to form and plan a policy of medium-term and long-term state investments for the construction and modernization of infrastructure, for the renewal of industrial and technological equipment, for investments in critical sectors such as energy and the upgrading of road and railway networks; in short, for necessary infrastructure for the development of the capital. At the same time, the bourgeois state took over the support of branches of the capitalist economy, including through state ownership in certain sectors; in addition, it expanded its functions in the reproduction of the labor power, education, health and welfare, social security, laying the foundations of such functions which became generalized in modern capitalist states. It is the period when Keynesianism, the so-called “state regulation of the economy” begins to reach its peak and the foundations are laid for the creation of the so-called “welfare state” which was the “flag” of social democracy.

However, as we have shown, all this was not implemented with people’s interests in mind, but for the needs of reproduction and profitability of capital, for the needs of reorganizing capital after the war.

During this period, European social democracy records impressive electoral performances and consolidates itself as a governing force in several countries. They have close ties with the reformist trade unions and work to strengthen the trade union bureaucracy and the line of class collaboration.


Highest Social Democratic Vote 1950-1960[4]
Austria 1959 44,8%
Belgium 1954 38,6%
Germany, Federal Republic 1957 31,8%
Denmark 1954 41,3%
Great Britain 1951 48,8%
Norway 1957 48,3%
Netherlands 1956 32,7%
Sweden 1960 47,8%


Moreover, as we have seen in the case of the interwar period, the needs of the capitalist economy dictate the policy of state support and intervention; a policy pursued by both liberal-conservative and social democratic parties. Thus, the conclusion comes back: the adoption of such policies is primarily related to the phase and the needs of the capitalist economy and not to the administrators at any given time. When the British Conservatives succeeded Labour in government, they continued the program of nationalizations that the latter had implemented in the 1945-1951 period. State investment programs in France were developed during the de Gaulle governments, supporting the growth of monopolies in various industrial sectors: in electricity, aeronautics, telecommunications, the automobile industry. There are similar examples in all countries.

In conclusion, the post-war extensive state social policy, as a work of both liberal and social democratic parties and governments, was the result of three factors: a) the need for greater state support and reproduction of social capital, with the state directly taking over part of the reproduction of labor power (education, health, welfare). b) The effect exerted on the workers’ movement in capitalist countries by the social achievements in the USSR. c) The need to integrate the peoples’ and workers’ movement into the capitalist system.

In that period, the social democratic parties play a key role in all the strategic choices of international capitalism such as the formation of NATO, the formation of the EEC, the support of US-NATO imperialism around the world.

After the mid-1970s, the capitalist economy steps into a new phase. The limitation of state capitalist ownership and the re-privatization of some sectors, the limitation of state social services, the attack on labor relations are promoted.

With the dramatic effects that the overthrow of the international correlation in the late 1980s and early 1990s had for the international proletariat and the achievements of the working class, capital goes on a new attack: on the so-called capitalist restructurings, on a new round of attack against the labor rights.

The adjustments of social democracy in the 1990s are mainly marked by the infamous adoption of the so-called “Third Way”, presented as the program of the Labour Party under T. Blair in the UK, recovering in government in 1997, after 18 years in opposition. It was preceded in 1996 by the formation of the “center-left” government of R. Prodi in Italy. The German Social Democrats took over the government with G. Schröder in 1998, after 16 years.

The social democratic parties implemented much of the so-called capitalist restructuring throughout the 1990s and beyond, often with greater determination than even the bourgeois liberal and “conservative” parties. Wage cuts, flexible labor relations and part-time work, blows to pension schemes and the right to social security and welfare. In Germany, the strategy of the bourgeois class was concentrated in the anti-people measures promoted with the well-known “Agenda 2010” by the social democrats of G. Schröder.

Essentially, the result is that the differences between the social democratic and liberal-conservative parties are increasingly blurring.

Throughout this period, the social democratic forces had a systematic intervention to disarm and erode the workers’ movement. They supported a layer of compromised unionism in a planned and multifacetedly way, trying to control the organs of the workers’-trade union movement.

Let’s take a look at an example from Greece. When the social-democratic PASOK came to power in the early 1980s, it made sure to shape and strengthen the forces of reformism within the workers’-trade union movement.

The governing social-democratic faction in the trade union movement was getting stronger, while achieving particularly large share of votes in specific sectors such as bank workers, in the Public Sector, in state-owned industries of the so-called “Common Utility”. They largely manage to control the General Confederation.

This trade union faction also comes forward when necessary in holding back strike action mobilizations, with the very typical case of the great bank strike in 1982; a strike which lasted 42 days, where the social democratic forces, arguing that the strike claim was satisfied, promoted the “unheard-of” line of the so-called “militant strikebreaking”.

In the 1990s, while the workers’ movement is in deep retreat, PASOK continues and upgrades its intervention for the erosion and degeneration of the trade union movement, forming a strong trade union bureaucracy in the GSEE. It is characteristic that former trade unionists who were Presidents of the GSEE are often chosen as Ministers or Deputy Ministers of Labor.


3. Based on both historical and modern experience, 3 major areas of the strife


a) Two lines in the workers’ movement: Class struggle or class collaboration?

Through this – necessarily – very brief historical review, we have followed the corrosive and treacherous role of social democracy, reformism and compromised trade unionism in various phases.

We have essentially seen that in all historical phases two currents have been constantly clashing within the workers’ movement. The current of class struggle against the current of class collaboration and submission. Two currents that are in constant conflict.

As we have already mentioned, the current of compromise took on specific characteristics of treason especially from the end of the 19th century already, and it developed on a specific ground of historical conditions shaped by the capitalist reality at that time.

This is certainly not the place for a lengthy analysis, but it would help to remember the conditions under which the workers’ movement operated in a number of European countries.

We are talking about a historical era when the European imperialist powers reaped mythical profits from their colonial possessions and the subjugation of foreign peoples across the length and breadth of the entire planet, which ensured them a privileged position in global competition.

It is enough to take a look at the maps of the time and you will see the (geographically) tiny Britain, spreading its colonial possessions on the 5 continents, forming the Empire “on which the sun never sets”, having over 400,000,000 citizens, almost 25% of the world population at the time.


The British Empire -since we are talking about this example- was predatorily squeezing the peoples of the colonies as well as its own working class. But it was able, due to the huge megaprofits it obtained from its possessions all over the planet, to throw a few crumbs to the British workers against the extreme poverty in which a large part of the British working class had hitherto been living, in order to manipulate the workers’ movement and foster reformist delusions.

Actually, it allowed the English working class to enjoy a slightly larger share of the vast monopoly of wealth accumulated by its labor and held by the bourgeois class: about 50% of the world’s cotton, 70% of the world’s steel, 50 % of pig iron and 60% of coal, at a time when the production and demand for such goods was growing


Similar examples are found in other European countries as well. The German Empire, for example, also sought to get into the business of sharing the spoils of the colonies. As a matter of fact, it even tried to actively enlist the workers in it.

A typical example is an example from the struggle within the German workers’ movement at that time about the destructive role of submissive trade unionism.

In 1884 the reactionary government of Imperial Germany announced a state program to build new ships to bolster its merchant and war fleets at a time when a major conflict was unfolding over the control of colonies and the subjugation of foreign peoples.

The compromised social democrats and reformists welcomed the imperialist policy, saying that as long as new jobs are created the workers have no problem with the government’s colonial policy. In fact, one social democrat MP blatantly said that he sees “1000 reasons” to support colonialism and that workers should just focus on the economic benefits and the best wages they can pull off. They even went so far as to recycle all the ridiculous imperialist propaganda and talk about the “humanitarian and cultural benefits” of colonialism, and that the new ships would be “carriers of world civilization” (Kulturtraeger). Essentially, social democracy with these arguments became the best propagandist of colonial imperialist policy within the workers.

Understandably, the consistent class forces brought out the overall policy of German imperialism and fought against reformist views. They showed that the workers must struggle against imperialist plans and that the working class has only misfortunes to expect from them. And they were justified, because it was the German workers who were led en masse into the World War I that broke out a few years later because of these sharpened imperialist antagonisms.

However, similar views are found today. We’ve seen it here, in Greek shipyards where US capital is investing. And we see reformism and compromised trade unionism saying “what do we care if we build ships for NATO and if they take part in imperialist interventions, if that gives us jobs and good wages?” It is an example that illustrates the complex and demanding work needed to bring out the “big picture”.

On this issue, let us recall a useful example from the history of the WFTU.

The very foundation of the WFTU was a turning point for the world workers’ movement as the formation of the WFTU was based on the principles of class struggle and proletarian internationalism.

At the founding congress of the WFTU, which, under the pressure of the correlation formed by the heroic struggle and victory against fascism by the working class and peoples of the whole world, was initially attended by forces of compromised trade unionism, the representative of the British TUC refused to recognize the principle of independence for the peoples of the colonies, saying that this cannot concern the trade union movement. At the same time, even more tellingly, a representative of the Dutch trade unions spoke out against the struggle for independence of the Indonesian people, who were then under the Dutch colonial yoke.

The founding and the subsequent split of the WFTU is one of the great examples of the long-standing clash of these two lines within the workers’ movement.

This was marked by the withdrawal of the compromised unions from the WFTU in 1949 and the foundation of the ICFTU, which represented the forces of class collaboration.

Besides, this has been evident throughout the history of the two organizations, which have followed diametrically opposed directions. From the very first moment, the WFTU fought under the banner of class struggle and proletarian internationalism. It has been in front of every working class struggle.

The ICFTU supported all the main political pursuits of the imperialist powers,  trying to trap the workers’ movement. From its first steps, it supported the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, supported imperialist interventions such as the Korean War, promoted class collaboration and social partnership.

How eloquently these forces propagated class collaboration is shown by a characteristic statement by George Meany, president of the US AFL-CIO. When in 1955 they drew up a general “non-aggression pact” with big business he declared: “I never went on strike in my life, never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life… I had no experience with that type of power.”[5]

A similar pact was promoted by the Labour Party in Britain with the well-known document “In Place of Strife” promoted in 1969, which marked a structured first attempt to limit the activity of the trade union movement by legal means.

It was also the Labour government of 1974-1979 which, with the consent of the majority of union leaders, introduced a centralized system of wage control – the so-called “Social Contract” – which in the name of controlling inflation weakened collective bargaining, one of the foundations of trade union activity. This set the stage for the more systematic attacks on trade unions that followed in the next years by the Thatcher government.


The line of class compromise was expressed even more clearly after the counter-revolutionary overthrows in the early 1990s by the then General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and ETUC cadre John Monks.  At the launch of the Trade Union Congresses Partnership Institute – set up to promote a rapprochement between unions and business – he pointedly stated that “unions can give business a boost. Partnership helps executives take the workforce with them. This is not a barrier to business but the secret of success. I have always said that unions should be part of the solution, not the problem.”

In the period 1989-1991, with the great counter-revolutionary overthrows in the USSR and the other socialist countries in Europe, many major trade union leaderships across the globe accepted the view, very actively promoted by various social democratic forces, that the WFTU should be dissolved and everyone should run under the umbrella of the ITUC.

In those years the confrontation between the two lines within the international trade union movement was very intense. Adventurism and opportunism met with social democratic illusions. Many important trade union organizations have summarily withdrawn from the WFTU, tricking their affiliates into supporting the old reformist fallacy that the trade union instruments of the international bourgeois class will supposedly be changed “from within”. That they will supposedly turn them into “class trenches” and tools of struggle.

There are many examples of this experience. And most of you who are older know them better than I do. The French CGT, the Italian CGIL and many others have entered the “social democratic corral”. Since then, from 1995 to today, 27 years have passed. It is not a short time to draw conclusions. What has practice shown? Who was it that changed? Who finally incorporated whom? As an analogy, it reminds us of what the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg used to say about the participation of socialists in bourgeois governments. There is not a partial “takeover” of the state by socialists, as the social democratic parties said at the time, but there is a takeover of the socialist parties by the bourgeois state.

I limit myself to recalling that the CGT of France, with its glorious and heroic history, has today come to support and accept in the ITUC and the ETUC leaderships like those of the CFDT. It has come to support leaderships that essentially act as instruments of the imperialists in the wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Mali and now in Ukraine.

Each of you has your own country’s examples. Facts and actions bear witness to the truth. And it is useful to learn from this experience, because these examples confirm the dirty role of social democracy within the working class.

This is the firm line of the current of compromise: Class betrayal of workers’ interests, defense of the interests of capital, splitting the unity of the working class.

And everyone has many such examples from their own country, from their own industry, from recent and past experience.

One last very characteristic example of the undermining work of social democracy and reformism:

Not long ago our fellow militants in France fought a great strike battle in the refineries which was closely followed by the international workers’ movement; a battle which set an example and gave courage to many workers around the world.

What did the ETUC representatives say in response to this heroic strike action? They fought the strike, saying that there were “insufficient grounds”, stressing that the solution was “through social dialogue, which has proved to be the only effective method”.[6]


b) The stance of the workers’ movement on the imperialist war. Proletarian internationalism against imperialist interests or support for the bourgeois class?

The imperialist war and its outbreak are one of the leading manifestations of the destructive consequences of capitalist antagonism. Contradictions between capitalists, when they cannot be resolved by “peaceful means”, are resolved by armed conflict. The fundamental insight of the great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, that “war is merely the continuation of policy” is of great importance.


For the workers’ movement it means that, as in peace, so in war, the bourgeois class seeks to perpetuate and increase its profitability; that just as in peace millions of workers are squeezed dry for the profits of the bosses, so in war millions of workers are thrown into the battlefields for foreign interests and not their own.

Again, historical experience will help us to see the treacherous role of social democracy in the workers’ movement. Both in yesterday, and in today.

In the period of World War I, the overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic parties of the Second International adopted the position of Social-Chauvinism, essentially supporting the interests of the bourgeois class in each country. The war was fought over the division of colonies and spheres of influence between the imperialist powers. Each government, of course, told its people that the war was for “national” interests, meaning its own bourgeois  interests, baptizing as “national interests” the profitability of capital.

Only a small vanguard, the Russian Bolsheviks, the German Spartacists and some other few forces in the international workers’ movement held high the banner of class struggle and proletarian internationalism by denouncing the war as imperialist on both sides. And they kept the international proletariat standing. Due to this consistent line, the Russian proletariat managed to be led to its historic victory in October 1917.

In Germany, the betrayal of the SPD was a heavy blow to the international movement as it was the oldest and strongest party of the Second International. In August 1914, the German parliament voted for war credits and gave undivided support to German imperialism in the name of the so-called “defense of the fatherland”.

With the outbreak of war, the SPD subscribed to the doctrine of so-called Burgfrieden, the class peace that dominated German political life, according to which the political parties would refrain from confronting the government while the war was going on, in the name of ensuring national unanimity. In other words, it adopted a line of voluntary withdrawal from class struggle, a line of betrayal and compromise. So did the compromised trade union leaderships. In effect, the workers’ union cadres were assuming a new role in the context of the war economy. Since they had voluntarily relinquished the right to strike and claim, they were effectively taking on an upgraded role in ensuring the smooth running of business to contribute to the war cause.

The nationalist frenzy of the war gripped the German Social Democrats to a repulsive degree. By way of illustration, one cadre described how, on the declaration of war, he was overwhelmed by a burning desire to throw oneself into the powerful current of the general national tide”, concluding: “one could, for the first time in almost a quarter century, join with a full heart, a clean conscience and without a sense of treason in the sweeping, stormy song: ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’.” [7]

This is what the social democrats were saying to the German workers among whom they had great influence. They were telling them that they must go and fight for the interests of the German capitalists.

On the other hand, the British social democrats and reformist trade unionists were telling the British soldiers that it was in their interest to fight against the German workers.

Labour trade unionists, such as John Bromley, general secretary of the railways union, actively propagandized for the war and the British Empire. He was quoted as saying: “now, for the worker who is called upon to shed his blood, a victorious Germany would surely be a disaster. We secure the banks from unnecessary risks; we secure the profits of the railways. Both institutions are parts of our great Empire, whose needs must be protected.”

Both betrayed the brotherhood among the workers. They sided with the interests of the capitalists of their own countries against the common interests of the workers of all countries, who have nothing to divide between them.

From the distant World War I let us move on to more recent examples.

Let us remember the role of social democracy in the imperialist intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999. A war waged by NATO and the EU. In the USA at that time the President was B. Clinton of the “Democratic” Party, the President of the Commission was the Italian social democrat R. Prodi, and the head of NATO was the Spanish social democrat J. Solana. Also in the EU, at that time, the governments of many member states were led by social democratic forces. In Germany it was Schröder, in Italy M. D’Alema was Prime Minister, in France it was L. Jospin, in Britain it was T. Blair, in Greece it was PASOK.


And let’s move on to the present.

The social democrats are among the forces leading the escalation of the imperialist conflict in Ukraine and the arms race.

The most emblematic example is the decision by German social democrat Prime Minister Olaf Scholz to announce a mammoth 100 billion armaments program to modernize the German armed forces.

The social democratic governments in Spain and Portugal, which are supposedly presented as a “model” of “progressive governance”, played a leading role in the massive shipment of heavy military equipment to Ukraine, initially trying to mislead by falsely presenting that they were only sending “humanitarian aid”.

And let us not forget that it was under the seal of the social democratic governments in Sweden and Finland that their application to join NATO, i.e. to enlarge and strengthen the imperialist alliance, was put forward.


c) The workers’ movement trapped in the myth of “people-friendly” capitalism and “progressive governments”

Social democratic and reformist forces want to keep the movement trapped in the delusion that there can be a capitalism with a “human face”. It’s like saying that there can be a capitalism where both the employer and the employee, both the worker and the industrialist, the shipowner, the banker, both win equally and at the same time.

We say that between them there is a deep gap, a deep and irreconcilable contradiction. This is the principle of the class struggle; that only through their struggles can the workers win; until they finally get rid of the capitalist parasites.

The “myth” of such “people-friendly” capitalism or a supposedly “progressive” government that can manage capitalism in a people-friendly way for the benefit of workers has been debunked many times. And this is because capitalism operates by its own laws. By the laws of profit. And if this is not overturned,  there can be no change in favor of the people.

First of all, let’s remember that today in the EU, in more than 10 countries, social democratic parties govern or co-govern. We have seen what these “progressive governments” are doing and what their role is in the imperialist war.

Moreover, what are they doing about the huge wave of poverty that is hitting people’s incomes? Let’s look at the energy sector, for example. Together, both the liberal-conservative and social-democratic parties have over the years promoted a strategy of energy liberalization, on the basis of which they have enriched the monopolies in this sector; the same monopolies that are now in a period of golden profitability due to high prices. They also promote so-called “green investments”, falsely portraying that capitalists care about the environment when in fact they are the ones who are destroying it. They do not care about environmentally friendly investments, they care about new areas of investment, where they will place their capital for greater profitability.

The EU has also created a whole anti-people framework, with the emission trading and the energy exchange so that is always the people who pay.

After all, through the antagonisms that exist between the capitalist countries of NATO and the EU and capitalist Russia, there are sections of the capitalists who have been making a fortune. Very tellingly, a powerful Greek shipowner, President of the International Chamber of Commerce, stated a few days ago: “The embargo on the maritime transport of Russian oil will have a positive effect on us: We, the shipowners, will become richer. Transport costs, which have already skyrocketed, will rise even faster!”

But the social democratic and reformist forces are not just content to keep the movement trapped in the line of class collaboration. Nor are they limited to developing mechanisms to support the trade union bureaucracy and employer-led unionism.

They often seek to manipulate peoples’ indignation and the militant demands that may arise under the pressure of problems, in order to ensure the stabilization of the capitalist system through governmental rotation among the forces representing capital. In other words, they seek to turn the workers’ movement into a “tail” and helper in the plans for the governmental rise of social democracy.

This experience is certainly not limited to Europe, but is in essence similar on all continents. Social democratic forces were elected by nurturing high hopes for the popular strata in their countries, but their course revealed that these hopes were false and completely misleading.

Not only did they disappoint the expectations of the popular masses who had supported them, but their policies were generally in line with the demands of the monopolies. This has happened repeatedly in recent decades in Latin American countries.

Let us recall the case of the social democratic President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa (2007-2017), who, while elected amid international celebrations as a supposedly radical progressive, proceeded to privatize strategic sectors of the economy, launched attacks against the country’s class unions and is currently hiding in Belgium, his wife’s country of origin, as he was sentenced in Ecuador to 8 years in prison for corruption and waste of public money.

Another example, different but with similarities to the disappointment of expectations, is the case of the government of Chile under Michelle Bachelet in the previous years; while she was also elected with false promises that she would change her country in favor of the workers, soon all this turned out to be false. And while the workers have turned their backs on her, the US and its allies have rewarded her by giving her the high office she holds today at the UN.

We could also give other examples from other countries. We could mention aspects of the disappointment of people’s expectations in Venezuela, but let’s not go into that. I will just limit myself to mentioning that, in my view, through many negative aspects of experience, the perception that we all have of socialism and of the socialist mode of production is actually undermined when we officially hear that Venezuela is moving forward in building socialism.

What is proven in the case of Latin American countries? That various social democratic forces come and go in governments and capitalism lives and reigns.

Intentionally, as we have said from the beginning, we will not refer to these examples in detail, as we will focus on the European experience.

I could not therefore fail to refer to the rich experience we had in our country during the previous decade of deep capitalist crisis, of great struggles and strike conflicts, but also of the capitalist system’s attempt to integrate peoples’  mobilizations through the rise of a new social democratic party in government.

Since this is not the place for a lesson in modern Greek political history, I will give a brief outline.

Greece was particularly hit by the capitalist crisis after 2009. The Greek capitalist state had great difficulties in managing it. It had a high level of public debt and borrowing while trying to pass the burden of the crisis on to the people, with huge anti-people reforms, large cuts in wages and pensions, colossal-scale cuts in spending with a major deterioration of health and social services. Large people’s protests and strike mobilizations broke out. PAME was at the forefront of the struggles of the working class for the protection of its rights, but it also fought a big battle for the orientation of the struggles, so that the real enemy, capitalism, would be revealed and the workers’ movement would not be dragged into “painless” outbursts.

The political system encountered several difficulties in managing the popular anger but also had great contrasts and contradictions on how to manage this crisis. In a period of about 4 years, 7 different parties from all over the political spectrum changed one after another, and even coalition government solutions were tried, between the most diverse forces, from right-wing conservative to far-right parties, with social democratic forces. We note this because it may be common in other countries, but not in Greece, where single-party majority governments are usually formed based on the electoral system. The solution of coalition governments was one of the means to reassure the people.

As the more traditional parties that had ruled all the previous years had become quite worn out, capital chose to bring a “new” party to the forefront, so that it could integrate peoples’ protest and get capital out of the crisis. A party that had not been tried before in government and therefore could more easily breed illusions in the people. SYRIZA, a party that until then had an electoral share of 3%, supported by capital in multiple ways, exploded within a couple of years into a governing party. It was given forces and cadres from the old social democratic parties, took credit from the US-NATO and EU, and rose to government.

SYRIZA and the social democratic forces, throughout the previous years, had been trying to mislead about the nature of the crisis. They said that only the “bad foreign creditors” were to blame and that they could fix all the problems overnight. Their purpose was to hide the real culprit, to exonerate the Greek bourgeois class, to prevent the people from drawing conclusions. PAME and the class movement fought a great battle not only for the struggle and the masses, but also for its content and orientation. They have shown that capitalism is guilty and that the workers should have no faith in false promises. That easy solutions without conflict do not exist.

SYRIZA and the social democratic forces tried to limit the struggles of the workers’ mobilizations exclusively against a particular government (“down with the government”), just to pave the way for them to ascend to the government. Actually, they wanted to use it as a lever for governmental rotation. PAME and the class workers’ movement on the other hand put forward the slogan “no more illusions, either with capital or with the workers” to show the misleading character of the promises.

So what did SYRIZA, the “new” social democracy, do, with many false hopes, as a large part of the Greek people believed that it could achieve great and easy victories without conflict?  When it came into government, it signed new, even worse agreements with the EU and the creditors (the so-called 3rd Memorandum); it undertook to pass the most difficult measures that had previously been met with resistance; it co-governed with far-right forces to gain a majority; it collaborated with the US. The US ambassador to Greece even said that SYRIZA was the government with which he cooperated best in all previous years.


What did it do in the workers’ movement? Very briefly, it extended flexible labor relations, it maintained the abolition of collective bargaining for the minimum wage, which would be determined by Ministerial Decision and on the basis of “competitiveness” and “productivity” (i.e. on the basis of protecting the interests of big capital). By law it made cuts against social security rights and by its own law it also struck down the right to strike, making it more difficult for trade unions to be able to declare a strike. This is what the so-called “progressive” government did.

At that time many people were telling PAME and the class forces that they had to support SYRIZA and that our criticism of it was exaggerated.

This experience shows who was vindicated by the developments.


4. Summary of conclusions

Historical and modern experience confirms a timeless conclusion: Social democracy and reformism are a dangerous enemy of the class-oriented workers’ movement. They have shown -in different phases and changing conditions- a distinct flexibility and ability to promote the interests of capital within the working class.

We will conclude by emphasizing three points:

a) Throughout the historical course of the workers’ movement we will find two lines. The line of class struggle and the line of class compromise.

In the various events, in the various historical phases, again and again, we will find these two lines in constant confrontation.

Social democracy has been the historical expression of precisely this current of class collaboration.

And throughout its development in the 20th century, up to the present day, running a whole course from reformism to subordination and the service of capitalist interests, it is today a bourgeois political current which is a pillar for the stability of the system and for the governmental rotation between the capital-serving forces.

          b) On all major issues, the forces of social democracy and reformism spread confusion and put great obstacles in the workers’ struggle.

We also saw through concrete examples the multifaceted connection between social democracy and the compromised trade union bureaucracies.

We have seen that on all the top issues of the class struggle, they are working out ways to manipulate the working class movement; such is their attitude on the question of imperialism and imperialist war, as well as on the question of entrapment in so-called “progressive governments”.

In such ways they want the movement to be trapped, subjugated, unable to see outside the limits of capitalist exploitation.

They want to breed the illusions of a supposedly “people-friendly” capitalism, so that the workers do not choose the path of rupture and subversion.

c) It is shown that only the line of class struggle clears the way. The struggle against social democracy and reformism is a precondition for the strengthening of the class-oriented workers’ movement; for it to be able to advance.

We must, of course, be patient with the workers who are seduced by such promises; we must stubbornly explain, prove our point and at the same time organize the struggle. But at the same time we must be unyielding against the sold-out trade unionists and the leaderships of the employer-led trade unionism.

We proudly walk the path of class struggle, of class conflict. We know that it is not an easy path. That it requires effort and sacrifice. But it is the only choice the working class has.

We walk with faith in the power that our class has. We draw this faith from our heroic history but also from our current struggles that fill us with tenacity, will and hope!

Because this is how we carry out our duty in our historical mission, in the struggle for the liberation of the working class from capitalist slavery!

Protesters by the Greek Communist-affiliated trade union PAME hold a huge banner in front of the Parthenon at the Acropolis hill in Athens June 27, 2011. Greek public and private sector labour unions have called a 48-hour strike for Tuesday and Wednesday opposing the government’s plans for a new austerity package. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis (GREECE – Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST TRAVEL)


[1]   Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 20 : Marx and Engels 1864-68, pp. 191-192

[2]   27. K. Marx – Fr. Engels, “Selected Works”, vol. 1, p. 162 [Publication in Greek]

[3] R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution, A study of the economics and Politics of the Extreme Stages of Capitalism in Decay, p. 99

[4] The figures are listed in Geoff Eley, Forging democracy, The History of the Left in Europe, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 315

[5] New York Times, December 10, 1955, as cited in William Z. Foster, “Outline History of the World Trade Union Movement”, International Publishers, New York, pp. 546-547

[6] «Grève dans les raffineries: la CFDT désapprouve et préfère ‘’négocier’’», Le Figaro, 8.10.22

[7]  The narrative belongs to the social democrat Konrad Haenish. It is quoted in Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917, The Development of the Great Schism, Harvard University Press, 1955, p. 290