Socialist parties

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Socialist parties

Socialist parties in European history, political organizations formed in European countries to achieve the goals of socialism.

General History

In the late 19th cent. the gradual enfranchisement of the working classes gave impetus to socialism and the formation of Socialist political parties in many countries. Most were directly influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx. At the same time labor unions (see union, labor) were formed to improve the worker's economic status. In the 1870s and 80s, Socialist parties appeared in most European states; in 1889 they joined to form the Second International.

Despite similarities, the varying economic, social, and political conditions within countries gave distinctive national characters to the different socialist organizations. In France the political defeats experienced by socialists and other worker groups of the February Revolution (1848) and the Commune of Paris (1871) encouraged syndicalism and the revolutionary doctrine of Louis Auguste Blanqui. In Germany the state socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle gained wide acceptance. (For more detailed historical sketches of the Socialist parties in France and Germany, see below.) In Russia agrarian socialist ideas evolved indigenously (as did anarchism), finding expression in the Populist movement (see narodniki) and in the works of Aleksandr Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and others. Georgi Plekhanov introduced Marxism to Russia. (For the subsequent history of political socialism in Russia, see Socialist Revolutionary party; Bolshevism and Menshevism; communism.) Socialism in Great Britain developed in close association with the trade union movement and obtained its ideological direction from the evolutionary socialists of the Fabian Society rather than from Marxism (see Labour party). The Socialist parties in the Scandinavian countries were also generally moderate, and in the 20th cent. they soon gained a prominent political role.

All European Socialist parties were marked by schisms; the main issue dividing them was whether party members should cooperate with bourgeois-dominated governments to work for gradual reforms or should organize extralegally to hasten what Marxists viewed as inevitable, proletarian revolution. Eduard Bernstein, in Germany, was one of the first to deny (1898) some of Marx's doctrines and to argue for “revisionism.”

World War I brought the collapse of Socialist internationalism, since many socialists supported their national governments in the war, some accepting ministerial positions. Of those opposing the war, the most notable were the Russian Bolsheviks, who in 1917 won control of their country in the Russian Revolution. After the war left-wing socialists, hoping for an extension of the Russian Revolution to other European countries, split off from the more moderate majority to form Communist parties. Thus a Third (Communist) International was formed to rival the Second International.

In the interwar years most of the Socialist parties discarded their revolutionary ideology. Many participated in coalition governments with bourgeois parties, and in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark they formed their own governments. However, since they formed either coalition or minority governments they were prevented from achieving structural socialist changes, although some social reforms were enacted. Socialists were not able to counter the rise of fascism, and in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal they were suppressed.

During World War II, socialists were prominent in the resistance movement in the countries occupied by Germany. In the postwar period the cold war widened the gulf between the Socialist and Communist parties, and most Socialist parties moved even further away from Marxism. Substantial periods of power, however, enabled some to promote their goals of a planned economy and a welfare state in many European countries; their position has been especially strong in the Scandinavian countries. The end, in the 1970s, of decades of rule by Salazar and Caetano in Portugal and Franco in Spain allowed for the reestablishment of Socialist parties in the Iberian peninsula. Since the 1990s a number of Socialist parties have moderated their commit to a planned economy and the welfare state, most especially the British Labour party, which went so far as to abandon formally its traditional Socialist positions.


See M. Beer, General History of Socialism and Social Struggles (1957); C. Landauer, European Socialism (1959); G. D. H. Cole, The Second International, 1889–1914 (1956), Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931 (1958), and Socialism and Fascism, 1931–1939 (1960); S. Kramer, Socialism in Western Europe (1984); A. S. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (1984); J. Tomaszewski, The Socialist Regimes of Eastern Europe (1989).

In Germany

In 1875, at Gotha, the followers of Lassalle united with the Marxist group of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel to form the Socialist Labor party, later known as the Social Democratic party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD). Despite repressive laws the SPD grew rapidly and by 1912 was the largest single party in the Reichstag.

In 1891 the Erfurt Program, adopted at a party congress in Erfurt, repudiated Lassalle's theories and placed the party on a strictly Marxist theoretical basis. Ideological debate shook the party throughout the 1890s. Bernstein led the revisionists in urging the SPD to weaken its commitment to Marxist theories of inevitable revolution and class struggle and to form alliances with middle-class parties. Karl Kautsky was the leading supporter of Marxist orthodoxy, and his position was formally upheld by the party, but in practice revisionism prevailed.

When World War I broke out (1914), the Social Democrats in the Reichstag voted for war credits, and in 1916 SPD deputies entered the government. Late in 1915 a group opposed to the continuation of the war broke off from the Majority Socialists and took (1917) the name Independent Socialists. They were led by Hugo Haase. Another, more radical group also broke away; the Spartacus party led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. With the German revolution of Nov., 1918, an SPD government under Friedrich Ebert and Haase took control, but its failure to promote socialist policies led to Haase's withdrawal and the brutally suppressed Spartacist revolt of Jan., 1919. Under the Weimar Republic the Social Democrats joined coalitions with other parties and succeeded in improving the condition of the working classes but were unable to counter extremist resurgence, and with the rise of Adolf Hitler the SPD was destroyed.

After World War II the revived SPD in East Germany was forced to merge (1946) with the Communists in the Socialist Unity party. In West Germany, the SPD emerged as the leading opposition party. In 1966 it entered a “grand coalition” with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and in 1969 the SPD, led by Chancellor Willy Brandt, became the dominant party in a governing coalition with the small Free Democratic party. Brandt pursued a policy of normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany. In 1974, Brandt resigned as the result of a spy scandal and was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt. The SPD maintained a majority coalition, winning reelection in 1976 and 1980, but went into opposition when the Free Democrats switched to the CDU in 1982.

The SPD was a member of the East German transitional government in 1990, but lost again in the first all-German elections that year. The SPD was in opposition until 1998, when Gerhard Schröder led the party to a victory over the CDU coalition. Schröder's movement of the party toward the center led, in 2005, to formation of the more traditionally socialist Left party, an alliance of dissident SPD members (including former party leader Oskar Lafontaine) and former Communists. The SPD narrowly lost the 2005 elections to the CDU and entered into coalition with them as a junior partner (2005–9). The SPD suffered significant losses in the 2009 elections, but after the 2013 elections the SPD was again the junior partner in a CDU-led government. The SPD again suffered losses in 2017 and initially went into opposition, but it ultimately became the junior partner in a CDU-led government.


See studies by C. E. Schorske (1955, repr. 1970), D. W. Morgan (1975), G. Braunthal (1978 and 1983), and V. L. Lidtke (1985).

In France

The French Socialist party, known as the SFIO from its official name Section française de l'internationale ouvrière [French section of the Worker's International], was formed in 1905 by a merger of various socialist groups that had long quarreled over tactics. Led by Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde, the SFIO became a major political force. In 1914 the party supported French participation in World War I, accepting ministerial posts.

The duration of the war and the example of the Russian Revolution stimulated the growth of a pro-Bolshevik element in the SFIO. By 1920 the Communists held a majority in the party, and a split was unavoidable. The minority, led by Léon Blum, reconstituted the SFIO and in 1924 it joined a coalition government. In 1936, faced by economic depression, government corruption, and the rise of French fascism, the Socialists, allied with Communists and Radical Socialists, won election as the Popular Front; Blum was premier (1937–38).

In World War II the SFIO played a heroic role in the French Resistance, emerging in 1945 as one of the strongest government parties. But, flanked by Communists on the left and conservative parties on the right, it gradually lost strength, although it frequently was the leading party in governing coalitions. Split over support for the Fifth Republic in 1958, the party made a succession of alliances, unsuccessfully opposing the ruling Gaullists. It was reorganized in 1969 as the Parti Socialiste.

Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, was only narrowly defeated for the presidency in 1974, and in 1981, again with Communist support, he defeated Gaullist President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then led his party to an assembly majority. The Socialists governed, with Pierre Mauroy and then Laurent Fabius as premier, until 1986, increasing social benefits, nationalizing industrial and financial enterprises (later reprivatized by the successor government), and promoting devolution to local governments. However, its austerity policies cost it an assembly majority; a center-right coalition “cohabited” with President Mitterrand until 1988, when Mitterrand was reelected, and the party regained a majority. Michel Rocard became premier and established a minimum guaranteed income, but deficit-driven public-sector wage cuts cost him support. He was replaced by Edith Cresson in 1991, and she by Pierre Bérégovoy in 1992.

By the end of 1992, the party was divided in the face of a united conservative opposition, which triumphed in the assembly elections of 1993. The Socialists also lost the presidency in 1995, but they returned to power in the assembly in 1997, and Lionel Jospin became premier. In 2002 Jospin failed to win the presidency, placing third, and the party subsequently lost control of the assembly. The party's 2007 candidate for the presidency, Ségolène Royal also lost. In 2012, however, François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, defeated the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. They subsequently also won control of the assembly, but reforms enacted under Hollande proved unpopular with the party's traditional supporters. In the 2017 elections the party's presidential candidate placed fifth, and it did poorly in the legislative races.


See H. G. Simmons, French Socialists in Search of a Role (1970); S. Williams, ed., Socialism in France (1983); D. S. Bell and B. Criddle, The French Socialist Party (2d ed. 1988).

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