The concept of a welfare state is the product of the modern age. Its historical roots can be found in the Industrial Revolution, which produced a working class that worked arduously in factories under dismal and humiliating conditions.
Long working hours were the norm and people lived under subhuman conditions. There were no sanitation facilities, clean drinking water and healthy food. Therefore, people often fell prey to various diseases. There was no provision of insurance in the event of a workplace accident and no concept social security if workers were unemployed.
Under these circumstances, some political and social movements emerged and urged the state to introduce reforms for the welfare of the working classes. In particular, early socialist movements launched a campaign to improve the conditions of workers and also presented alternative training on how to reorganise the factory system and provide basic facilities to employees. Some socialists who were at the forefront of these campaigns were Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Joseph Fourier (1768-1837) and Robert Owen (1771-1858).
Karl Marx referred to them utopian socialists. However, their contribution was that they focused their attention on the exploitative system of industrialisation.
After studying the capitalist system, Marx published ‘Das Kapital’ in 1862, which serves as a useful text to understand capitalism and the ways that it can be resisted. The Social Democratic Party of Germany was founded on the basis of Marxist ideals. The party categorically stated that its fundamental aim was to alter the condition of the working classes. They circulated pamphlets and leaflets among the people to draw attention to their political programme. This agenda attracted people who were prepared to support the party in elections.
Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898), the chancellor of Prussia, followed the policy of “blood and iron” and united Germany in 1871 after defeating France. It was a time when socialist movements were becoming active in Europe and there was talk about a ‘revolution’ that would overthrow the existing system.
Bismarck, a shrewd politician, realised the seriousness of the prevailing political and social sentiments and decided to prevent socialism and any attempt to bring about a revolution. He maintained that before falling victim to a revolution, we should bring one on our own in order to sustain the political and social structure.
Following this policy, he introduced electoral reforms and accorded voting rights to men. His objective was to earn the population’s favour to support his government. He also introduced important reforms for the benefit of the working classes, such as the right to pension after retirement and the provision of compensation in the event of a workplace accident.
Therefore, Germany was the first European country that established the welfare state. Consequently, there was a conflict between the Social Democratic Party and Bismarck as the latter wanted to curb the former’s growing influence. There was also a debate over how change would be initiated. The Social Democratic Party insisted on bringing changes through legislation while Marx and Engels believed that only revolution could create a structural changes.
The second welfare state was established in Russia after the 1917 revolution when the Communist Party came into power. The state became responsible for providing education, healthcare, employment opportunities and housing to every citizen. This Russian model was subsequently followed by China, Cuba, Vietnam and various countries Eastern Europe. It also inspired many newly-independent countries in Asia and Africa.
The Second World War radically changed Europe’s political situation. Both the victors and vanquished suffered equally. The European imperial powers exhausted their resources and lost their vigour to retain their colonies. England was no longer in a position to continue with its imperial policies. When the elections were held just after World War II, it was expected that Winston Churchill, the war hero and leader of the Conservative Party, would win the election owing to his services during the war years. This didn’t happen because a young generation of voters who weren’t in favour of war emerged and sought peace and security. A large number of young voters opted for the Labour Party, which promised to provide basic facilities to the people, such as education, health, housing, employment and the right to pension.
This model of the welfare state was also followed by Germany, France and various Scandinavian countries. This welfare state minimises social inequalities and provides equal opportunities to every citizen to compete on the basis of his/her intelligence and professional skills. This paves the way for social progress.
Is there any possibility of establishing a welfare state in Pakistan? The chances are very limited owing to the stronghold of feudal lords, tribal chiefs and sajjada nashins, who are not ready to surrender their privilege and social status.
Instead of focusing on welfare, our state has become an instituion of violence and coercion that crushes any challenge to its hegemony. The state extorts money from the people and spends it on the luxury of the ruling classes. In the absence of any resistance, the privileged classes enjoy copious benefits while the rest of the population lives in poverty, deprivation and misery. The concept of a welfare state is a remote dream for the people of Pakistan. It would be an illusion to revive the welfare state that existed in the past under the present circumstances.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.