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Socialism At The End Of The Twentieth Century

In the closing years of the twentieth century, socialism experienced further transmutations. On a practical level, socialist parties tended to resemble each other more and more, though this was not necessarily due to a closer collaboration among the various socialist parties. Ever since the demise of the Second International in 1914, socialists had all but abandoned the idea of using an overarching body to coordinate the policies of the various national socialist parties. The largely inert bureau of the Labour and Socialist International (LSI) met for the last time in April 1940, and it was not replaced until 1946. The onset of the Cold War after 1948 forced changes within the LSI that resulted in the creation of a new organization, the Socialist International (SI), in 1951. Echoing the realities of the postwar era, the executive council of the SI made clear to all its members that it would "put an end to the equivocation of parties which want to belong to our socialist group while in fact obeying directives from Moscow." Apart from reaf-firming the European socialist parties' commitment to democratic socialism, the SI provided intellectual and moral support to the socialist parties that had been forced underground in antidemocratic regimes of Western Europe or were threatened by communist influence in the non-aligned movement countries. It was particularly successful at assisting the resurrection of socialism in Portugal (1974) and Spain (1975) when democracy returned to those countries in the late 1970s. During the 1980s, the SI continued to expand its influence in Europe and in parts of the Third World, though, in an age when nationalist feelings greatly diminishes the spirit of internationalism, its relevance to the future development of socialism remains an open question.

Partly in response to the electoral successes of their ideological opponents on the right, during the mid-1980s socialists throughout Europe began questioning their longstanding commitment to socialization policies, such as social welfare and public ownership (nationalization). And though a small core of purists refused to abandon the transformative goals of their doctrine, the vast majority of socialists elected to office in this period believed that social justice and equality could best be achieved by adopting the principles and practices of neoliberalism. As a result, the notion of what it meant to be a socialist underwent significant revision, with some critics arguing that the pre-capitalist values of "credit card" socialists made them indistinguishable from their liberal and conservative rivals.

Those who belong to the generation of socialists alluded to here are widely known in the early twenty-first century as social democrats, a label that refers to their commitment both to parliamentary democracy as well as to the principles of market socialism. According to this model of a mixed economy, the government should play a role in overseeing the ownership of certain enterprises (e.g., utilities and public transportation) but would allow market forces to determine the allocation of their goods and services. While the social democrats insist that their policies are aimed at implementing the classic socialist ideals of social justice and economic equality for all, they do not subscribe to the age-old socialist belief that holds that the state should function as the sole vehicle for achieving these much-desired goals.

The theoretical and policy shift that were identified with the social democratic movements of the 1980s greatly contributed to a reversal of the political fortunes of socialist parties in several countries. In Spain and France, for example, the socialists dominated national politics throughout the 1980s. The ascendancy of the New Labour Party movement in Great Britain during the late 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century seems to have signaled a further shift of socialist doctrine away from its historic ideological foundations.

The rightward drift of socialism in the last decade of the twentieth century was given even greater emphasis following the collapse of communist regimes in East Central Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991. With communist ideas largely discredited the socialists' doctrinal links with Marxism were completely severed. The intellectual preoccupations and foci of the post–Cold War era promise to erode further the core elements of socialist ideology.

It is evident from the foregoing account that socialism has been in a state of flux over the course of the past two centuries. Socialism in the twenty-first century cannot be located on the same ideological map that it occupied as a revolutionary theory in the nineteenth and greater part of the twentieth centuries. Whether it will continue to change or cease to exist as a distinct ideology remains to be seen. But whatever its fate as a doctrine, socialist ideas and values are so integral to Western political traditions that they will no doubt continue to find expression in an ever-changing political landscape.



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George Esenwein

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySocialism - Industrial Revolution And The Rise Of Socialism, Utopian Socialists: Owen, Saint-simon, Fourier