A gathering of Socialists: the first Socialist International Bureau Meeting, 1978

From Dr. William King, GHI London

In Hamburg, an impressive gathering of international figures met to discuss issues of global importance. They spoke with gravitas, conviction, and with a deep knowledge of their specialist subjects. An array of expertise was on display. A controversial past was addressed, and a foreboding and gritty future was envisioned. The international environment was bleak and, despite their best efforts, fundamental problems remained unresolved.

Which path ahead was best for the group? What were the most pressing problems? How could the dire issues facing them be resolved or explored? Could the problems be precisely defined, or must they press ahead regardless?

Yes, I could well be referring to the first meeting of our Euroscepticism project excellently written about by Alex Hobe on this blog and hosted by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. In this instance, however, I am referring to an event that occurred some 40 years earlier and, unlike our workshop (to this author’s knowledge!), this was a meeting of committed and dedicated socialists. It was the first Socialist International Bureau Meeting in 1978.

Bild: APA/Wael Hamzeh

On a European level, transnational socialist networks played an integral part in influencing, articulating, and shaping support for a socialist vision of Europe. The group, which met in 1978, consisted of international leaders, shining lights of global left-wing politics, and even a few ‘bad Europeans’. They cooperated to hopefully realise their vision of what global and European politics should look like. Indeed, transnational socialist networks would strongly influence the views of many. While the preferred path and immediate course of action could differ, for example over European Integration which elicited some similar yet some notably different approaches, the overarching support for international socialism held much of this group together and, to a degree, united them. This particular forum in Hamburg brought together “Eurosceptics”, national parties, and transnational groups into a collective meeting with a united core purpose: to support a socialist vision and a socialist way forward. Without understanding these networks, of which the Hamburg Bureau Meeting is one part, we cannot tell the whole story of competing visions for European integration.

On this particular occasion, at the invitation of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), the Socialist International had their first-ever Bureau Meeting in 1978.1 The Socialist International was, and still is, a global organisation supporting and promoting social democracy. Like many other international organisations, socialist cooperation was revitalised in the post-war period. Formed in 1951, the Socialist International carried forward and expanded upon the work of its predecessors: the First and Second Internationals (1864–1916) and the Labour and Socialist International (1919–1940). 

For the meeting, some 80 global representatives of socialist movements descended on Hamburg. The President of the Socialist International and leader of the SPD, Willy Brandt, was chair. Also of the SPD, Wilhelm Haferkamp attended as the European Commissioner for External Relations. Present was the leader of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Otto Kersten, and Irène Pétry, the leader of the International Council of Social Democratic Women (ICSDW). Five national leaders, including Helmut Schmidt, Anker Jorgensen, and Michael Manley, travelled to Hamburg.

Representing Great Britain were Jenny Little, Alex Kitson, and two particularly prominent figures in both Labour Party politics and the 1975 referendum, Ian Mikardo and Barbara Castle. Just a few years before, Castle had advocated international socialism and lambasted the ‘exclusionary’ nature of the European Economic Community. Soon after this meeting, Castle would become an MEP and lead the British Labour Group in the first directly elected European Parliament in 1979. Mikardo, author of ‘Keep Left’, also campaigned against British entry in the 1975 referendum. Nevertheless, he would soon become Vice-President of the Socialist International. Both Castle and Mikardo resisted one particular form of European integration and international cooperation while seeking other means of cooperation and collaboration with like-minded socialists. On this occasion, they were prominent and influential figures representing British socialists and the Labour Party at an international and historic event.

While the views of the attendees towards integration and institutions may have diverged, there could be little disagreement on the scale of the problem and the daunting task ahead. The Bureau agreed upon some practical steps, such as sending representatives to observe elections in Guatemala, deepening North-South dialogue, and establishing working groups to create a new ‘Declaration of Principles of the Socialist International’ and another to explore employment policies.2 While keeping a watchful eye on global events, with détente soon to be further rocked by the Nicaraguan revolution, culminating in the overthrow of the Somoza regime, the establishment of the Sandinista government, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Bureau was also looking closer to home. The problem of unemployment held a particular resonance for the attending socialists.

Willy Claes, the Belgian Economic Affairs Minister, spoke to the gathering. He starkly warned the Bureau that they were at a ‘crucial moment’.3 There had been a ‘spectacular explosion of spiralling inflation’ from 1974 to 1976, and structural deficiencies in the Western economic system had been revealed. There was widespread anxiety for the future, and uncertainty regarding Keynesian economics. According to Claes, ‘left to itself, the market’s mechanism will probably only ensure imperfectly, slowly, and painfully the essential adjustments’ needed to boost employment.4 It fell to socialists to promote employment and support workers.5 Hans Apel, Federal German Finance Minister, also reported to the group on the problems of young people and the need for economic growth. He wanted interest rates to be kept down, the private sector to shoulder its ‘fair share’ of the burden, stabilise the monetary markets, and keep international solidarity intact. His report rounded off with a call, like Willy Claes, for socialists to combat unemployment: ‘We have to use all our force, our intellectual and political capacities, our economic strength and social imagination to fight unemployment, the most serious disease of our society.’6

The Bureau Meeting, the first of its kind, thus painted a gloomy picture. Worse still, they were soon to experience a significant increase in unemployment across Western Europe. In the UK, for example, unemployment was around 5.6% in 1978. By 1984, the year of the election for the second directly elected European Parliament, this figure had more than doubled to 11.9%. But the Bureau Meeting was also a call to arms. It reflected and reiterated a belief in state intervention, reforming industrial policies, and challenging neoliberal ideas and practices. For some, the soon to be directly elected European Parliament in 1979 would be a key battle-ground over employment. It would witness the emergence of strengthening European socialist ties and even the proactive contributions of some ‘Eurosceptics’ keen to use the fledgling Parliament to achieve their aims.

Showing this growing interconnectedness between European socialists in the 1970s, one arm of the Socialist International was the Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community, founded in 1974. “Confed”, as it was known, worked hand-in-hand with the Socialist Group of the European Parliament.7 Two future leaders of Confed were at the Bureau Meeting. Together, Confed and the Socialist Group would campaign for reforms, employment, and a socialist vision for the future. They would draft literature, coordinate campaign funds, and support prospective socialist MEPs. Socialists in Europe would also draft common European election manifestos. The 1970s were thus also a time when a socialist network was increasingly working in harmony and deepening its ties, engaging and bringing together national parties and national figures under the banners of Confed, the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, and the Socialist International.

As seen in the 1978 Bureau Meeting of the Socialist International, employment and the economy were core issues. They would continue to be so and were a focal point for socialist reforms, carried forward to the first directly elected European Parliament in 1979. It would become even more critical in the 1984 European Parliamentary elections. During that time, unemployment rapidly increased in many European countries, and the European Parliament began to flex its muscles and push for reforms. This first-ever Bureau Meeting of the Socialist International reveals alarm, fears, and concerns over employment, but it was also a rallying cry and sign of things to come. It represented one key part of a larger and growing socialist network, and it put on display one key moment of international socialists cooperating, sharing ideas, and discussing problems.



Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2022, January 20). A gathering of Socialists: the first Socialist International Bureau Meeting, 1978. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/olod

  1. Socialist International Bureau Meeting Hamburg, Socialist Affairs, Socialist International Information No. 2/78, March/April 1978, 31-56. []
  2. ibid, 31-33. []
  3. ibid, 35-37. []
  4. ibid. []
  5. While this piece has focused on economic and employment aspects, other key parts of the Bureau Meeting were North-South relations, and, reflecting the scope and broad-remit of the Socialist International, the Middle East and Disarmament. []
  6. Socialist International Bureau Meeting Hamburg, 34-35. []
  7. Lodge J., Herman V. (1982) ‘The Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community’. In: Direct Elections to the European Parliament. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 131-152. []

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