Socialist International, facing uncertain future, meets in Colombia
The presidium of the Socialist International meets in Athens, Greece on March 19, 2011. George Papandreou, center, was re-elected president of the organization at its congress on Thursday. | Kostas Tsironis / AP

More than 350 delegates representing 86 parties from around the world convened in Cartagena, Colombia for the 25th Congress of the Socialist International (SI) on Thursday. The SI is one of two worldwide organizations of social democratic, socialist, and labor parties.

Cartagena was chosen as the site of the meeting as a statement of solidarity to support Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in its efforts to find a peaceful solution in the long-running civil war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Santos’ Colombian Liberal Party is a member of the SI.

Instead of Colombia’s peace efforts, though, the more important news out of Cartagena is the decision by congress delegates to re-elect former Greek prime minister George Papandreou as the organization’s president, a post he has held since 2006. The retention of Papandreou sends a signal that the SI leadership is sticking to the path that has led the international social democratic movement toward disunity.

Though it previously held the monopoly on global social democratic politics, the SI has been challenged in recent years by a new international network of parties called the Progressive Alliance (PA). The formation of the latter group was initiated by the German Social Democratic Party in 2013 after a failed effort to reform the SI.

Papandreou, who led the Greek government that oversaw the imposition of intense austerity during the early years of the Great Recession, is a key figure in the divisions that led to the founding of the PA. His re-election will only serve to deepen the split among the world’s social democratic parties.

From Karl Marx to Bill Clinton

The SI is one of a number of international organizations that have existed over the past century which trace their lineage back to the International Workingmen’s Association, or “First International,” founded in London in 1864 by trade unionists and socialists, including Karl Marx.

Marx’s group, which eventually shut down in 1876 after a split with its anarchist members, was succeeded by the Socialist (“Second”) International in 1899. The latter consisted primarily of the social democratic parties of continental Europe.

When several of those parties voted to support their respective governments in WWI, a “Third International” – the Communist International – was founded by the breakaway groups who refused to go along with the war. Most of those groups eventually became the Communist Parties of the world, many of which survive to this day.

The Communist International was dissolved in 1943 during WWII, but the Socialist International was revived by European social democrats in 1951. From the 1960s to the 2000s, it grew to encompass most of the world’s major (non-communist) left-wing, labor, and socialist parties. Its U.S. affiliate is the Democratic Socialists of America.

Though the SI always embraced a more moderate socialist politics, premising itself on democratizing capitalism through evolutionary reforms, the organization took a further turn toward the center during the Bill Clinton-Tony Blair “third way” craze of the 1990s.

While accommodating itself to the neoliberal turn in world politics, the SI also began opening its ranks to authoritarian parties that, while nominally socialist, were authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Constitutional Democratic Rally party of Tunisia, for instance, were both members of the SI. They were only belatedly expelled following their overthrow in the Arab Spring.

These dark spots on the SI’s reputation, along with accusations of corruption and other perceived improprieties, were part of what led to the latest round of socialist splits.

Social democratic split

The first signals of a major rift came in 2012 when Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the SI’s most prominent members, suspended its dues payment. The SPD’s leader at the time, Sigmar Gabriel, together with officials from the French Socialist Party, alleged that the SI’s top bodies were mismanaging the organization and had failed morally in allowing authoritarian parties to remain members.

The critics also charged that the SI had been completely ineffective in coordinating a global social democratic response to the financial crisis. Instead, SI president Papandreou had overseen one of the harshest programs of austerity and retrenchment while serving as prime minister of Greece at the head of the PASOK party from 2009 to 2011.

Anthony Beumer and Nick Martin, two prominent advocates of reform, slammed the SI in 2012, writing in the journal Social Europe: “The Socialist International has failed to place itself in the center 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.”

They said the greatest shortcoming of the SI, however, was its isolation and alienation “from some of the biggest parts of the international progressive family,” noting it had no member groups with governing potential in the United States, Brazil, or India. The SI, they said, was “trapped in a framework formed 150 years ago.”

The issue of SI functionaries doing little more than attending international meetings was further highlighted in February 2013 when Beatriz Talegón, the general secretary of the SI’s youth federation, criticized the organization’s posh conferences.

In a speech at an SI meeting, Talegón said, “I am very surprised how we intend to foster the revolution from a five-star hotel…arriving in luxury cars. I wonder if we can give citizens an answer when you, political leaders, say that you understand them, that you suffer because ‘we are socialists’.”

The SPD convened the first full international meeting of the Progressive Alliance (PA) in Berlin shortly after. The response from the SI’s top leaders – Papandreou and secretary General Luis Ayala (who has held the position for three decades) – was prompt. The two dismissed criticisms of the SI and calls for reform as “personal attacks, slander, and false allegations.” They doubled-down on the merits of their leadership and said that, essentially, everything was going smoothly.

In the aftermath of the dispute, the social democratic split has become more substantive. Major parties such as the British Labor Party and others have joined the SPD in halting their dues payments or downgrading their membership status in SI. Many of the SI’s own ancillary bodies and partner organizations – such as the Socialist International Women, the International Union of Socialist Youth, and the International Trade Union Confederation – are all now participants in the PA network.

The decision in Cartagena on Thursday to re-elect Papandreou sends a clear signal that the SI has no intention of reversing course or initiating any substantive reforms. It will only serve to further

Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German SPD, speaks at the 2013 meeting of the Progressive Alliance in Leipzig. | Progressive Alliance
Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German SPD, speaks at the 2013 meeting of the Progressive Alliance in Leipzig. | Progressive Alliance

the divisions within the international social democratic movement.

Thanking congress delegates for re-electing him last night, Papandreou said, “Our priority is to gain and maintain power.” However, he is unlikely to achieve this goal for himself at home in Greece, where his popularity continues to sag. One Greek newspaper, commenting on his SI presidency, reminded readers that the former prime minister is “largely associated with inviting the IMF to Greece in 2010,” a reference to the austerity agenda he implemented.

The next international?

As for the PA, its future is still a work in progress. The question is whether it has the potential to become the “next international”? Though it boasts a network of more than 130 parties and organizations, so far, it seems to be mostly an alliance of party officials and think tanks, with little evidence that the grassroots appreciate its importance. It is doubtful whether many party members in most countries even know it exists.

Operating as it does in the realm of elite-based politics, the PA may very well remain the loose network that it currently is. The days of centrally-directed political internationals that formulate strategy and tactics along the lines of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association or Lenin’s Comintern are probably long gone.

In its Guiding Principles, the PA says it “seeks to collaborate with other progressive organizations, unions, think tanks, foundations, and non-governmental organizations” to “achieve a century of democratic, social, and ecological progress.”

The language is kept rather general and the ties between participating organizations are intentionally loose and flexible.

There is some worry among left-wing traditionalists over the extent to which the PA, even compared to the watered-down politics of the SI, has downgraded any talk of socialism. This has been seen by some commentators as a way of opening the door for the U.S. Democratic Party to join. Indeed, Howard Dean and Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont and president of the Association of Democratic Governors, have participated in PA conferences and events. Talk by the PA member party in Sweden of a “Global New Deal Between Capital and Labor” has also raised concerns of a revival of the “social partnership” rhetoric of the third way days.

With the current situation in world politics though, such worries are secondary to the challenges of rising right-wing populism, extreme nationalism, racism, and geopolitical shifts. The fortunes of the adversaries of social democracy are on the upswing and most parties and movements are struggling to respond.

Whether the PA is up to the task of leading the response to those challenges is still to be seen. It will hold its own convention in mid-March in Berlin where it hopes to “create the basis for cross-border dialogue” to counter the global “conservative, chauvinistic, neoliberal, and nationalist roll-back” which it sees personified in figures such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

So while the PA’s story is still being written, the news out of Cartagena seems to confirm that its rival – the venerated Socialist International –is sliding further down the road of irrelevance.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.