Swiss Social Democratic Party swings to the left under pressure from its youth wing

No country is immune from the class struggle today. Even Switzerland, that country considered a safe haven for the wealth of the world’s capitalists, is feeling the effects of the world economic crisis. Social and class polarisation is taking place and this was clearly expressed at last year’s congress of the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SPS).

The Swiss Social Democratic Party (SPS) held its congress at the end of October where the left wing of the party and the rank and file scored a considerable success. A new party programme was adopted and the commitment of the party to overcoming capitalism was successfully defended. The Swiss Socialist Youth (Juso) played a very important role in the discussions and in contributing to the shift to the left, as the Swiss Marxist tendency had put forward in their perspectives.

Economic and political situation

We have repeatedly stated that Switzerland cannot escape the effects of the international crisis of capitalism. Although the unemployment rate is relatively low compared to other European countries, standing at 4.3% in the second quarter of 2010, economic and social contradictions are piling up in the country.

Switzerland is often joked about as it plays a particular role in world capitalism as a haven for the ill-gotten gains of the capitalists of the world. That explains why 10% of the billionaires of the world have their place of residence in Switzerland. This is due to the generous taxation system on high incomes.

In spite of this superficial external view of the country, social contradictions within the country are very sharp. A recent study on the distribution of wealth indicates that the richest 3% of Swiss own as much as the rest of the population put together, a concentration of wealth only beaten by Singapore and Namibia. The 300 wealthiest Swiss have enriched themselves on a massive scale over the last 20 years, seeing their wealth expand by more than five times over the last 20 years.

During the same period the exploitation of the working class has considerably gone. Hourly productivity of labour went up by 20%, while real wages have only risen by 7.6%. In spite of this immense squeezing of the working class, the OECD insists that this is not enough and at the beginning of this year they stated that Swiss labour productivity was not satisfactory.

Also, during the last 20 years the proportion of workers who have more than one job has risen by almost 90%. Many employees (7.4%) are pushed to accept two or more jobs; nearly one working woman out of ten has to do more than one job in order to make a living. And even this is often not enough to earn a decent living. In fact, an estimated 700 to 900 thousand people live in relative poverty in a population of almost 7.8 million.

The same study mentioned above states that many representatives of the Swiss bourgeoisie have been having nightmares recently. Apparently images of popular uprisings and generalized pauperization haunt them in their dreams. We do not want to question the prophetic capacity of such dreams, but we can indeed note that impoverishment and rising exploitation is a reality for the Swiss workers and youth and all this for the profits of the rich few, for the profits of the bourgeoisie.

The Swiss economy has experienced a slight recovery in the course of the past year, but the perspectives are rather gloomy. There is the threat of a housing bubble, investments are shrinking and the Swiss franc is at a very high exchange rate, which is choking the important exports industries that are already suffering due to the contraction of the world markets and which over the last year have seen more than 21,000 jobs destroyed. The pressure on the workers is going to increase over the coming period and further rationalisations will be attempted in factories and offices   as the OECD is demanding   in order to raise labour productivity, which means nothing more than re-establishing more favourable profit conditions for the capitalists.

Swiss bourgeois democracy still grants the right to decide on all laws by referendum and allows for the possibility of raising popular initiatives. The trade unions and the SPS have managed to get referendums called against attacks on social security, of which two were submitted to the popular vote in 2010. The first referendum was a resounding success with over 70% voting against a law that attacked the pension system. The second one, against massive cuts in unemployment benefit, was lost.

Basel bank. Photo: Patrik TschudinBasel bank. Photo: Patrik Tschudin Due to the character of Swiss bourgeois democracy, much of the resistance and growing radicalisation of workers and youth is still expressing itself in the political sphere for the time being. At the same time we will probably not experience any further attacks on social security on a national scale this coming 2011 because there will be elections for the national parliament and the extreme right-wing SVP (Swiss Popular Party) does not want to give the SPS and the trade unions the opportunity of fighting against austerity measures and launching campaigns against the right wing and the capitalists. However, political tensions are extremely high in Switzerland and political polarisation is increasing.

A mood of questioning bourgeois democracy has emerged amongst some radicalized layers of the youth as was revealed by the reactions to recent ballots at the end of November. The right-wing bourgeois SVP (Swiss Popular Party), under the leadership of the billionaire Christoph Blocher, had launched an initiative demanding the deportation of foreign criminals, which was accepted by a majority of the voting population. After the results were made public, youth and workers mobilised all over Switzerland to protest against this racist initiative and against the division of the working class. Especially in Zurich thousands took to the streets on that dark Sunday evening. The results generally led to a further political radicalisation in the trade unions and within the Juso with both demanding strong campaigns against racism and against the bourgeoisie’s attempts to profiteer by dividing working class along racial and ethnic lines.

Historical background and state of the party

The SPS is the only mass party in Switzerland with a working class tradition. The existence of different political tendencies and wings have always characterised the SPS and the party leadership has always considered to their task to unify these different currents in order to avoid even the slightest political confrontation that could question the policies of the parliamentary group of the party.

Over the decades, a coalition government (a federal council) of all the major parties has established itself as an essential element of Swiss bourgeois democracy. The SPS has been in such a government since 1943, always dependent on the support of the bourgeois and right-wing politicians. The Social Democratic federal councillors (ministers) have always been in a minority in these governments, which means that they have supported bourgeois policies, hoping that the representatives of the bourgeoisie would give them some crumbs every once in a while.

Over decades the participation of the SPS in a bourgeois government was hardly been questioned, neither by the party leadership, nor by the rank and file. The SPS has only been in opposition once, from 1953 to 1959. This was not planned beforehand and was merely a manoeuvre on the part of the party leadership to put some pressure on the bourgeois parties. The SPS failed to benefit from the situation – in a period of unprecedented capitalist boom worldwide   and thus that window of opposition was not successful in generating a socialist opposition. Nonetheless, whenever the question of moving into opposition has been raised it has often created great big debates within the party.

With the recent election of an openly right-wing Social Democrat, Simonetta Sommaruga, to the federal council and following manoeuvres by the bourgeois parties, there has been a greater questioning of the SPS’ participation in government. The left wing and especially the Juso started to openly question whether the party should remain within a class-collaborationist coalition in the national government.


The current SPS president, Christian Levrat, has tried to appease all the factions within the party by building up a presidency with numerous vice-presidents, who represent the different wings of the party. Thus everyone is to be allowed to have a share of the cake, on conditions that the kind of cake is decided by the parliamentary group. The draft programme was a further attempt to conciliate the right and the left wing. This compromise obviously leads to a generally watered down and weak programme, with confused analysis and with no guide to action for the party.

Christian Levrat. Photo: Adrian DörigChristian Levrat. Photo: Adrian Dörig The right wing in the SPS has always traditionally beenbased on the national parliamentary group and positions in the cantonal governments. The trade union bureaucracy, the Juso and important sectors of the French-speaking cantons   where the economic situation is worse with higher unemployment rates   constitute the traditional left wing.

Programmatic discussions are and have always been moments in which the different tendencies have come to surface and confronted one another, thus revealing the relative strength of the left, the conciliators and the right. This was also the case at the end of October this 2010, when the party held its programmatic congress. We witnessed the normal cohesion of the party seriously crumbling with internal contradictions breaking to the surface. Instead of conciliating these tendencies, the programmatic debate should be used as a point of clarification, where the basic differences in political orientation can become clear to all.

It was the right wing that moved onto the offensive, openly criticizing the programme. In particular they attacked the paragraph on the “overcoming of capitalism”, which had never been removed from the party programme ever since 1921, although it was never more than an ornament, a classic social democratic maximum demand never to be carried out. It is not surprising at all that the Members of Parliament do not respect party decisions. The parliamentary group largely dominates the political profile of the SPS and they are in no way held accountable to the party as a whole.

The right wing received massive backing from the bourgeois press, which in the days and weeks before and after the congress, and up to this very day, has insistently campaigned against and then attacked the congress results as a “setback” and a “turning away from the electorate”. The leader of the parliamentary group immediately announced that the demand to overcome capitalism has nothing to do with the so-called realpolitik of the party.

This is no coincidence. The press tries to present socialism as something “non-Swiss” and the decision by the second biggest party in the country demanding economic democracy and an end to capitalism comes at a bad moment. The changed objective situation all over Europe, with the beginnings of strong movements and mobilisations against austerity measures and cuts everywhere, horrifies the Swiss bourgeoisie, but also the SPS right-wing, imbued by decades of class collaboration with arrogance towards the party rank and file. This anti-democratic approach and the total disrespect for party discipline, which was openly exposed in the events around the congress, will only lead to a deepening of the left-right differentiation already developing.

On the other hand the congress revealed a strengthened left wing, which was able to pass many motions at the congress, often concerning the issue of “economic democracy” and managed to successfully defend the paragraph about the need to overcome capitalism. The left wing is by no means a homogeneous tendency but can be generally characterized as left-reformist. Its exponents seriously want to achieve progressive social reforms, especially by the means of popular initiatives. It has a sort of bizarre historical concept of stages towards democratic socialism with the democratisation of the economy as the final stage.

The party left and the rank and file successfully blocked the right wing’s plans to model the SPS on the German SPD and its attempts to break with its social democratic traditions moving even further towards the centre. The fact that the aim of overcoming capitalism and establishing democratic socialism continues to figure in the programme is the best proof of this.

The role of the Juso

Demonstration in 2009. Photo: JUSO SchweizDemonstration in 2009. Photo: JUSO Schweiz It is no exaggeration to say that the decisive role in the party congress was played by the Juso and especially Juso president Cedric Wermuth, who is at the same time one of the numerous SPS vice-presidents. The Juso has over the last years developed an independent political profile from the SPS and has assumed the character of a strong youth movement. The membership figures of the Juso have constantly and considerably risen over the past three years. Over this period the Juso has been re-politicised and gained confidence, which is now reflected within the party as a whole. The youth, due to their position in society is the first layer which feels the effects of changed objective situation. The aspirations of the rank and file have nothing in common with the class collaborationist policies of the past generations of social democrats. This layer is drawing important conclusions in favour of socialist policies. They see the need to break with the bourgeoisie, to mobilise, to hold democratic discussions and for political education of the ranks, and so on.

In situations like the one before us of economic crisis, events move through successive eruptions of contradictions. The Juso has become very responsive to these events and hasa adopted strong political positions, moving further to the left under the pressure of the conditions that are being created. This was the reason why the Juso has played an important role in the process of differentiation taking place within the SPS between the right and left. Not only is the youth wing anticipating the future of the party, but it is also the leading force in the fight for socialist policies in the SPS today.

A turn to the left?

What we saw at the congress is the rank and file of the party standing to the left of and expressing more militancy than the leadership. The problem is that this will not have an immediate impact on the day-to-day politics of the party. It is therefore too early to talk of a decisive turn to the left. The workers and youth have still not moved into action on a massive scale and have not yet imposed their demands on the party leadership in parliament.

The connection of the party to the working class has been systematically weakened over the last decades. To believe that merely by inserting the demand for a democratisation of the economy into the party programme one can re-establish this connection overnight is an illusion. This can only be done through the systematic work of party members in the trade unions and with a firm opposition to any collaboration with the bourgeois parties. The SPS became strong in the past when it was in opposition. In that period it was able to win major social reforms, not through class collaboration, but during the revolutionary upswing in the 1910s and 20s through mass mobilisations and class struggle.

On top of all this, the right wing is now continuing its campaigning against the party programme. The cantonal party leadership in Bern and Zurich has openly opposed the congress decisions and therefore the party programme. The right wing is organised and connected through numerous networks and organs. It will be difficult for the left wing to counter the power of the right wing in the run up to the elections, even though the left was able to gain a majority in the congress.

Because of this, we will probably see further losses for the SPS in the upcoming elections. This will serve to sharpen up the internal differentiation within the party, which will assume a more open character. As long as the leadership remains the same, based on compromise between different factions; as long as the control over the parliamentary group by the party rank and file has not been established and as long as the policy of participation in bourgeois government is the key element for large sections of the SPS, the party is doomed to go from crisis to crisis and the struggle for democratic socialism will remain no more than a flowery phrase.

The Juso has to be at the forefront in re-establishing the links between the SPS and the workers and trade unions. In the upcoming elections we must go onto the streets, in front of the schools and factories, defending the need to end with capitalism and to struggle for real democratic socialism, which is only possible with a genuine socialist programme.

Website of Swiss Marxists: Der Funke (German, French and Italian)

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