Why did socialists believe in gradualism, and why has gradualism failed?
The ‘inevitability of gradualism’ was a Fabian socialist idea which suggested that the era of socialist prevalence was indeed inevitable. This, in fact, was not a new idea; Marx had predicted the inevitable fall of capitalism due to a proletarian revolution. However, as a political concept, gradualism became increasingly popular as democracy spread throughout Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This brought with it a wave of optimism and the promise of political power for socialist parties.
This optimism was founded on a number of assumptions. Firstly, it was believed that the progressive extension of the franchise world would eventually lead to the establishment of universal suffrage, and therefore political equality. Such equality would work in the interests of the majority; that is, the working class. This would invest power in the hands of the proletariat through evolutionary, rather than revolutionary means. Socialism was seen to be the natural ‘home’ of the working class; as capitalism exploited, oppressed people would be drawn to socialism in seek of refuge. Therefore the electoral success of socialist parties would be guaranteed by the numerical strength of the working class. Finally, once in power, socialists would be able to carry out fundamental social transformations, via a programme of social reform. In this sense, it appeared that the triumph of socialism was inevitable.
However, such optimism has been proved to be inherently flawed; primarily due to the fact that the principles of democratic socialism is founded upon an ideological contradiction – namely, in order to respond successfully to the electorate, socialists have been forced to dilute their staunchly anti-capitalist policies. For this reason, socialist parties which have successfully formed a government have never had an absolute majority: the UK Labour Party gained its greatest percentage of the vote in 1951, with 49 per cent. Even the great Swedish Social Democratic Labour Party (SAP) only achieved 50 per cent of the vote once. In modern society, socialists are only able to tame capitalism, not abolish it completely. This has been linked to the fact that the working class is, indeed, a minority in modern industry – due to increased mechanization and technological improvements. The traditional ‘proletariat’ which Marx believed would be capable of a mass social revolution has decreased in size, creating a ‘two thirds, one thirds’ society – poverty and social deprivation concentrated in the ‘underclass’. In his book “The Culture of Contentment”, J.K. Galbraith points out that the economic security of the would-be working class has led to their being a politically conservative, contented majority.
If socialists wish to secure future ideological success, two paths lay ahead: to appeal more broadly for support to other social classes, or to share power as a coalition partner with middle-class parties. The former path has been followed by the UK Labour Party, the second by the German SDP. However, both options require socialist parties to seek an ideological ‘third way’, so that they can appeal to electors who have little or no interest in socialism, or to work with parties which seek to uphold capitalism.