The Left Today: A Social Democratic View
An Interview with Mitchell Cohen
Robert Zwarg (Dissent Online) - September 24, 2008
(...) R.Z.: Let’s get back again to the terms we’ve used, like “social democracy,” “liberal democracy,” and “democratic socialism.” Dissent comes out of the American anti-Stalinist left of the 1950s. The German left also drew upon similar traditions, like the Frankfurt School, which were strongly critical of Stalinism and Bolshevism. Nonetheless Marxism still inspires more people in the left on the European continent than in the U.S. Around Dissent there is more talk of social democracy. Could you elaborate on these terms and what they mean for an American left position? Moreover, can you really say that social democracy can solve the problems of modern capitalism? Can it really make a change on the global level? The record of European social democrats has not been entirely successful or admirable in tackling economic crises and social democrats have sometimes allowed for some pretty authoritarian measures to be taken, particularly in Germany.
M.C.: I think a little too much energy is devoted to defining oneself by these terms. If someone calls me a social democrat today and a democratic socialist tomorrow and a liberal leftist the day after that—well, that’s ok. Moreover, if you look back at history, you find that these words had multiple careers. In the late 1890s, a “Social Democrat” in Germany was a Marxist. Social democracy became a term of abuse due mainly to Lenin who insisted “Social Democracy” as a pair of words is “unscientific” because democracy is a form of state and a classless society will be stateless. Basta! It’s a sectarian terminological game and my politics are not religious.
You have to decide what’s important. I was once a Marxist, I am not one any longer but I still appreciate Marx’s work, draw on it, and I dislike the histrionics of many ex-Marxists. What is important to me is a democratic and egalitarian social sensibility and a corresponding commitment to its translation into political and economic efforts. It is a sensibility that contrasts dramatically with the way our western societies have evolved as of late, certainly American society. The responsibility of the left is to make people’s lives better, to empower the lives of common people, and to weaken hierarchies and power structures based on illegitimate and unmerited privileges. At the same time, we must remember the disasters of the twentieth century and not get caught up in illiberal illusions. Egalitarianism must be modulated by the counter-principles of liberalism (here I mean in its classical sense). I conclude that it is better to have liberal democratic frameworks and to struggle for more social egalitarianism within them than it is to denounce representative democracy and have no coherent idea of what you would put in its place...