The Socialist International: A Broken Dream?

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As the major centre-left political parties prepare to gather in Cape Town at the end of August for the Congress of the Socialist International, it is appropriate to assess to what extent the Socialist International reflects the needs of progressive parties in the 21st century. The authors of this article propose a dual track approach: a fundamental reform of the Socialist International as well exploring new forms of networking for the global progressive movement.

They argue for the social-democratic, labour, democratic socialist and other progressive forces around the world to establish a new global network where progressive think tanks, parties, parliamentarians and NGO’s coordinate, cooperate, share resources and develop the strategies that can rebuild progressive politics around the world.

The Ambition of an integrated Global Progressive Movement

The need for a better coordinated, global progressive movement is more obvious now than ever before. The near collapse of the global economy after the global financial crisis demonstrated the need for progressive leadership to address market instability and to maintain faith in government. So too, the continuing debate for an alternative to mindless austerity in the Eurozone has underlined that the prescription of the global Right must be confronted if we are to preserve the social basis of the European project. More fundamentally as the world manages the growing climate crisis and the reorientation of the world economy towards developing nations, a strong progressive voice is needed to argue for coordinated global action to promote growth and employment, address climate change and secure development and social justice.

Despite these challenges creating political opportunities for progressives around the world, our movement has shown itself unable to effectively promote at global level alternative policies, programs and campaigns that can deliver the lasting change we seek. Moreover, it has also failed to present an integrated, global, approach to these challenges.

Around the world progressive forces are on the back foot, with right-wing parties and movements resurgent in public debates and in electoral contests. In 2012 we have seen some fantastic electoral victories for progressives, but it is too early to conclude that a more systematic decline of the democratic left has been halted. In public debate, conservative and reactionary ideas around race, development, public finances and climate change have a new found currency and audience. In new democracies across the world, we see movements and parties with values in tune with social democracy, but lacking the resources and skills to turn these into winning, electoral programs. Responsibility for helping these movements rests on the entire progressive community.

Fundamentally, we face a problem of international political organisation. Our progressive architecture is showing its age and our progressive infrastructure is also creaking under new pressures. The Socialist International, formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, reflects the priorities of this period in form and outlook. It has become a debating forum of socialist and social democratic parties, rather than a genuine international force for progressive political change.

The Broken Dream of the Socialist International

The Socialist International has failed to place itself in the centre of modern, global progressive politics. It lacks relevance and is barely visible in global politics. Political leaders do not participate in its activities or at best only show up for its Congresses and Councils. The reasons why the Socialist International has failed to live up to the aspirations of our global political family are of an organisational as well as political nature.

At a time of a real global crisis, Socialist International is not a forum for practical action, helping progressive to seize the agenda. Many parties see no useful, or practical, work produced by the SI and instead see only communiqués and talking-shops. SI Councils and Congresses consist of series of speeches and produce declarations which lack substance. The organisation is plagued by chaotic working methods and a lack of transparency when it comes to internal decision-making.

There also remain fundamental problems with the structure of the Socialist International. Over the years the Socialist International has absorbed a number of parties in the hope that they would become the driving force behind the democratisation of their respective countries. In cases where these parties betrayed this expectation and became obstacles for democracy, the Socialist International failed to bring their membership to a timely end.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the Socialist International is isolated from and alien to some of the biggest parts of the international progressive family. There are no institutional links with countries such as the USA, Brazil and India and it is trapped in a framework formed 150 years ago. While the heritage of a common intellectual and political tradition should be respected, the pressures of the modern world demand a new, more flexible architecture which can embrace political parties, think-tanks and social movements which have arisen in this century.

A Cape Town Reform?

In April last year 29 leaders and SI Vice-Presidents from Europe and around the world sent a letter in which they asked for a reform resulting in “a politically relevant, publicly visible global organisation with transparent and democratic procedures”.

An interesting debate followed, but regretfully no majority was found to present to the December 2011 Socialist International Council a self-critical analysis of the political and organisational challenges the Socialist International is facing. The reform proposals put forward to the Congress mainly consist of a fine tuning of internal procedures, but fail to address any of the more fundamental problems mentioned above.

Rebuilding the International Progressive Movement: A Two Track Approach

We have identified the first major step forward: a reformed Socialist International which is relevant, visible and which could become a major player in world politics.

A second challenge consists of setting up a network linking together a range of initiatives we have seen over the last few years. Such a global network should not be a structure which is unitary and exclusive, but should reflect the changed nature of progressive politics:

  1. A network not a structure: The new global progressive politics is based much more on connected and related campaigns, organisations and structures. No longer is progressive politics solely based within political parties, but is now based around issues, campaigns, civil society actors, think-tanks and social movements. A modern global progressive movement should respond to this with a flexible structure and a policy of embracing all actors involved in global progressive change.
  2. Broadness in intellectual approach: The new global progressive politics must build on the successes of the labour and social-democratic movements from the 19th and 20th centuries, but must also seek to move beyond them to work with more broadly defined progressive issues (such as environmentalism, civil rights and international development).A modern global progressive movement should have social-democracy as its starting point, but seek to embrace other progressive causes outside of our traditional comfort-zones.
  3. An openness and democratic practice in words and deeds: Progressives everywhere are living in the digital age and recognize that social media have changed the relationship between global citizens and organized politics. The rise of social media has brought a welcome focus on democratic practice and accountability. A modern global progressive movement should embrace this positive development and welcome open debate, transparency and accountability.
  4. A focus on building the capacity and integrity of our many parts: A modern global progressive movement needs more training, more support and better access to all parts of the progressive global community. A new international progressive organisation should focus on building-up the campaign capacity and organisational integrity of political parties, movements and activists around the world. This needs to happen in the developed and the developing world. It should be through forums where ideas are exchanged, but also through direct knowledge transfer through training and development.

Examples already in existence

Around the world progressive forces have started to pull together networks and forums that point the way towards a new form of progressive political network, reflecting these ideas. Unfortunately the Socialist International has played little, or no part, in these initiatives. Around the world parties, foundations and civil society groups have begun to face the challenge of rebuilding progressive global politics piece by piece.

  • In Italy, the Partito Democratico, have convened the Conference of Progressive Parliamentary Leaders. This forum brings together progressive politicians from across the world to start discussing shared policy challenges and to foster international cooperation through government channels.
  • In Australia, the Australian Labor Party has convened meetings of an International Progressive Campaign Forum, to give progressive political parties opportunities to discuss shared electoral challenges and successful campaigns.
  • In the US, the Center for American Progress and Fundacion Ideas in Spain, have convened the Global Progress initiative which has brought together progressive politicians, policy-makers, business leaders, strategists and thinkers to discuss the challenges facing modern societies.
  • In Europe, The Party of European Socialists and the S&D Group have coordinated the Global Progressive Forum, which aims to bring together a diversity of peoples from Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, India, and Latin America to discuss and propose alternatives to the negative aspects of the current Globalisation process which specifically affects underdeveloped countries, third world countries and developing countries.

More examples could be given, but what is clear is that it is time to bring together this multitude of players and start to pool resources, share expertise and, engage in new flexible forms of cooperation. We need to build a coordinated network, flexible and nimble to meet the needs of a new century, and grounded in modern progressive politics.

The Cape Town SI Congress should be the place where our movement concludes that the Socialist International in its current form, is not the organisation we need.

We need an international progressive movement that is flexible and ready for the challenges of today and can confront the global Right internationally and locally.

Supporters of the centre-left worldwide should expect nothing less.

Author: Nick Martin and Anthony Beumer

Nick Martin is Assistant National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party. Antony Beumer is head of unit Foreign affairs of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. They have prepared this paper reflecting their personal views.

This article was first published on the Social Europe Journal on 12 July 2012.


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