Social democracy

Social democracy

Social democracy is a political ideology of the center-left on the political spectrum. Social democracy is officially a form of evolutionary reformist socialism.[1] It supports class collaboration as the course to achieve socialism.[2] It also advocates the creation of legal reforms and economic redistribution programs to eliminate economic class disparities between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.[3] The Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International in 1951, attended by many social democratic parties from across the world, committed adherents to oppose communism—especially Stalinism, and to promote a gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism.[4] Practical modern social democratic policies include the promotion of a welfare state, and the creation of economic democracy as a means to secure workers' rights.[1]

Since the rise in popularity of the New Right and neoliberalism, a number of prominent social democratic parties have abandoned the goal of the gradual evolution of capitalism to socialism and instead support welfare state capitalism.[5] In recent years, several social democratic parties (in particular, the British Labour Party) have embraced more centrist, Third Way policy positions. The development of Third Way social democracy has resulted in the rise of democratic socialism as a distinct break away ideology from social democracy. In many countries, social democrats continue to exist alongside democratic socialists, who stand to the left of them on the political spectrum. The two movements sometimes operate within the same political party, such as the Brazilian Workers' Party[6] and the Socialist Party of France.

The Socialist International (SI) is the main international organization of social democratic and moderate socialist parties.  It affirms the following principles: first, freedom—not only individual liberties, but also freedom from discrimination and freedom from dependence on either the owners of the means of production or the holders of abusive political power; second, equality and social justice—not only before the law but also economic and socio-cultural equality as well, and equal opportunities for all including those with physical, mental, or social disabilities; and, third, solidarity—unity and a sense of compassion for the victims of injustice and inequality. These ideals are described in further detail in the SI's Declaration of Principles.[7]



Original social democracy

In the 19th Century, the term "Social Democrat" was used as a broad catch-all for international socialists owing their basic ideological allegiance to Karl Marx or Ferdinand Lassalle, in contrast to those advocating various forms of utopian socialism. In one of the first scholarly works on European socialism written for an American audience, Richard T. Ely's 1883 book, French and German Socialism in Modern Times, Social Democrats were characterized as "the extreme wing of the socialists" who were "inclined to lay so much stress on equality of enjoyment, regardless of the value of one's labor, that they might, perhaps, more properly be called communists."[8] Ely continued:

"They have two distinguishing characteristics. The vast majority of them are laborers, and, as a rule, they expect the violent overthrow of existing institutions by revolution to precede the introduction of the socialistic state. I would not, by any means, say that they are all revolutionists, but the most of them undoubtedly are. * * *

"The most general demands of the social democrats are the following: The state should exist exclusively for the laborers; land and capital must become collective property, and production be carried on unitedly. Private competition, in the ordinary sense of the term, is to cease."[9]

Many parties in this era described themselves as "social democratic," including the General German Workers' Association and the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (which merged to form the Social Democratic Party of Germany), the British Social Democratic Federation, and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The term "social democracy" continued to be used in this context up to the time of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, at which time the term "communist" came into vogue for individuals and organizations espousing a revolutionary road to socialism.

Contemporary social democracy

A red rose is often used as a symbol of social democracy, mostly adopted in the period after World War II.[10]

The contemporary social democratic movement came into being through a break within the socialist movement in the early years of the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, this break can be described as a parting of ways between those who insisted upon political revolution as a precondition for the achievement of socialist goals and those who maintained that a gradual or evolutionary path to socialism was both possible and desirable.[11] Many related movements, including pacifism, anarchism, and syndicalism, arose at the same time; these ideologies were often promulgated by individuals who split from the preexisting socialist movement, and held a variety of quite different objections to Marxism.

One of the key founders of contemporary social democracy was Eduard Bernstein, a proponent of reformist socialism and a revisionist of Marxism. Bernstein had originally been a Marxist and had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxian thinking and began such criticism when he investigated and challenged the Marxian materialist theory of history.[12] Bernstein criticized Marxism's concept of "irreconciliable class conflicts" and Marxism's hostility to liberalism.[3] Bernstein challenged Marx's position on liberalism by claiming that liberal democrats and social democrats held common grounds that he claimed could be utilized to create a "socialist republic".[3]

On the issue of class conflict, Bernstein believed that economic class disparities between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would gradually be eliminated through legal reforms and economic redistribution programs.[3] Bernstein rejected the Marxian principle of dictatorship of the proletariat, claiming that gradualist democratic reforms will improve the rights of the working class.[13] According to Bernstein, unlike orthodox Marxism social democracy did not seek to create a socialism separate from bourgeois society but instead sought to create a common development based on Western humanism.[14] The development of socialism under social democracy does not seek to rupture existing society and its cultural traditions but to act as an enterprise of extention and growth.[15] Furthermore, he believed that class cooperation was a preferable course to achieve socialism, rather than class conflict.[16] On the issue of class conflict and responding to the Marxian principle of dictatorship of the proletariat, Bernstein said:

"No one thinks of destroying civil society as a community ordered in a civilized war. Quite to the contrary, Social Democracy does not want to break up civil society and make all its members proletarians together; rather, it ceaselessly labors to raise the worker from the social position of a proletarian to that of a citizen and thus make citizenship universal. It does not want to replace civil society with a proletarian society but a capitalist order of society with a socialist one." Eduard Bernstein[17]

Bernstein urged social democrats to be committed to a long-term agenda of transforming the capitalist economy to a socialist economy rather than a sudden upheaval of capitalism, saying:

"Social democracy should neither expect nor desire the imminent collapse of the existing economic system … What social democracy should be doing, and doing for a long time to come, is organize the working class politically, train it for democracy, and fight for any and all reforms in the state which are designed to raise the working class and make the state more democratic." Eduard Bernstein[18]

The social democrats, who had created the largest socialist organizations of that era, did not reject Marxism (and in fact claimed to uphold it), but a number of key individuals wanted to reform Marx's arguments in order to promulgate a less hostile criticism of capitalism. They argued that socialism should be achieved through evolution of society rather than revolution. Such views were strongly opposed by the revolutionary socialists, who argued that any attempt to reform capitalism was doomed to fail, for the reformers would be gradually corrupted and eventually turn into capitalists themselves.

Despite their differences, the reformist and revolutionary branches of socialism remained united through the Second International until the outbreak of World War I. A differing view on the legitimacy of the war proved to be the final straw for this tenuous union. The reformist socialists supported their respective national governments in the war, a fact that was seen by the revolutionary socialists as outright treason against the working class; in other words, the revolutionary socialists believed that this stance betrayed the principle that the workers of all nations should unite in overthrowing capitalism, and decried the fact that usually the lowest classes are the ones sent into the war to fight and die.

Bitter arguments ensued within socialist parties, as for example between Eduard Bernstein, the leading reformist socialist, and Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leading revolutionary socialists within the SPD in Germany. Eventually, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, most of the world's socialist parties fractured. The reformist socialists kept the name social democrats, while many revolutionary socialists began calling themselves communists, and they soon formed the modern Communist movement. These communist parties soon formed an exclusive Third Internationale known globally as the Comintern.

By the 1920s, the doctrinal differences between social democrats and communists of all factions (be they Orthodox Marxists, Bolsheviks, or Mensheviks) had solidified.

Post–World War II

See also History of socialism.

Social democracy, as practiced in Europe in 1951, was a socialist movement supporting gradualism; the belief that gradual democratic reforms to capitalist economies will eventually succeed in creating a socialist economy,[19] rejecting forcible imposition of socialism through revolutionary means.[19] This gradualism has resulted in various far left groups, including communists, of accusing social democracy of accepting the values of capitalist society and therefore not being a genuine form of socialism.[19] Social democracy rejects the Marxian principle of dictatorship of the proletariat and the creation of a socialist state, claiming that gradualist democratic reforms will improve the rights of the working class.[13]

After World War II, a new international organization to represent social democracy and democratic socialism, the Socialist International in 1951. In the founding Frankfurt Declaration, the Socialist International denounced both capitalism and Bolshevik communism. As for Bolshevik communism, the Declaration denounced it in articles 7, 8, and 9, saying:

  • 7. Meanwhile, as Socialism advances throughout the world, new forces have arisen to threaten the movement towards freedom and social justice. Since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Communism has split the International Labour Movement and has set back the realisation of Socialism in many countries for decades.[4]
  • 8. Communism falsely claims a share in the Socialist tradition. In fact it has distorted that tradition beyond recognition. It has built up a rigid theology which is incompatible with the critical spirit of Marxism.[4]
  • 9. Where Socialists aim to achieve freedom and justice by removing the exploitation which divides men under capitalism, Communists seek to sharpen those class divisions only in order to establish the dictatorship of a single party.[4]
  • 10. International Communism is the instrument of a new imperialism. Wherever it has achieved power it has destroyed freedom or the chance of gaining freedom. It is based on a militarist bureaucracy and a terrorist police. By producing glaring contrasts of wealth and privilege it has created a new class society. Forced labour plays an important part in its economic organisation."[4]

Following the split between social democrats and communists, another split developed within social democracy, between those who still believed it was necessary to abolish capitalism (without revolution) and replace it with a socialist system through democratic parliamentary means, and those who believed that the capitalist system could be retained but needed dramatic reform, such as the nationalization of large businesses, the implementation of social programs (public education, universal health care, and the like) and the partial redistribution of wealth through the permanent establishment of a welfare state based on progressive taxation.

Eventually, most social democratic parties have come to be dominated by the latter position and, in the post–World War II era, have abandoned any commitment to abolish capitalism. For instance, in 1959, the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Godesberg Program, which rejected class struggle and Marxism. While "social democrat" and "democratic socialist" continued to be used interchangeably, by the 1990s in the English-speaking world at least, the two terms had generally come to signify respectively the latter and former positions.

In Italy, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party was founded in 1947, and from 1948 on supported the idea of a centrist alliance. Since the late 1980s, many other social democratic parties have adopted the "Third Way", either formally or in practice. Modern social democrats are generally in favor of a mixed economy, which is in many ways capitalistic, but explicitly defend governmental provision of certain social services.

Many social democratic parties have shifted emphasis from their traditional goals of social justice to human rights and environmental issues. In this, they are facing an increasing challenge from Greens, who view ecology as fundamental to peace, require reform of money supply, and promote safe trade measures to ensure ecological integrity. In Germany in particular, Greens and Social Democrats have cooperated in so-called red–green alliances. The present government in Norway is known as the Red-Green Coalition, whilst the opposition bloc in Sweden is the similarly titled Red-Greens, with social democratic parties forming the largest components of both alliances.


Many of the policies espoused by social democrats in the first half of the 20th century have since been put into practice by social democratic governments throughout the industrialized world. Industries have been nationalized, public spending has seen a large long-term rise, and the role of the state in providing free-to-user or subsidized health care and education has increased greatly. Many of the reforms made by social democrats in Europe, such as the establishment of national health care services, have been embraced by liberals and conservatives, and there is no support outside of a radical fringe for a return to 19th-century levels of public spending and economic regulation. Even in the United States, where no major social democratic party exists, there are regulatory programmes (such as public health and environmental protection) and welfare programmes (such as Medicare[20] and Medicaid[21]) which enjoy bipartisan support.

However, since the 1980s, there has been a perception that social democracy has been on the retreat in the Western world, particularly in English-speaking countries, where social democratic values are arguably not as firmly rooted in local law and culture as elsewhere. In recent years, a number of historically social democratic parties and governments have moved away from some traditional elements of social democracy by endorsing Third Way ideals and thus supporting both the privatization of certain state-controlled industries and services and the reduction of certain forms of regulation of the market.

The adoption of Third Way ideology by many social democrats has proved divisive within the broader social democratic community. Traditional social democrats argue that Third Way ideology has caused the movement to become too centrist, and even that the movement may be becoming centre-right. In general, apparent reversals in policy have encountered significant opposition among party members and core voters; many of the latter have claimed that their leaders have betrayed the principles of social democracy.[22]

Supporters of Third Way ideals argue that they merely represent a necessary or pragmatic adaptation of social democracy to the realities of the modern world: traditional social democracy thrived during the prevailing international climate of the post-war Bretton Woods consensus, which collapsed in the 1970s. It has, moreover, become difficult for political parties in the developed world to win elections on a distinctively left-wing platform now that electorates are increasingly middle-class, aspirational and consumeristic.

In Britain, where such an electorate rejected the Labour Party four times consecutively between 1979 and 1997, Third Way politician Tony Blair and his colleagues in the New Labour movement took the strategic decision to disassociate themselves publicly from the previous, explicitly democratic socialist incarnations of their party. The Labour Government that came to power in 1997 continued the tradition that Margaret Thatcher started in the 1980s of selling out nationalized industries, and the income gap between the rich and the poor grew. This challenge to traditional social democractic ideals alienated many backbenchers, including some who advocated a less militant ideology of social democracy.[23]

The development of new social democratic policies in this environment is the subject of wide-ranging debate within the left and centre-left. A number of political think-tanks, such as Policy Network and Wiardi Beckman Stichting, have been active in facilitating and promoting this debate.


In general, contemporary social democrats support:

Socialism versus Modern Social Democracy:

Socialism Market Socialism Social Democracy
Economic Planning, Mixed Economy, Participatory planning Market economics, Market-oriented Mixed economy Regulated markets: Social Market, Mixed-Market, Welfare State
State ownership or cooperative ownership of the means of production and heavy industry State ownership or cooperative ownership of the means of production Private ownership of the means of production with minimal public ownership of some industry
State or public owns resources and major economic institutions, uses the surplus labor to fund government programs, state-directed investment State, public or worker cooperatives own resources and enterprises, uses them to fund government programs, sometimes with state-directed investment State mainly funded through progressive taxation, government regulates private business and provides welfare
Socialist economics, Economic planning Lange Model, Goulash Communism, Ricardian socialism, Mutualism, Socialist-oriented market economy Nordic model, Social Market Economy, Welfare states

Political parties

Social democratic political parties, which sometimes also include a democratic socialist element, operate in many developed and developing countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Israel and Brazil. Most European social democratic parties are members of the Party of European Socialists,[24] which is one of the main political parties at the European level,[25] and its parliamentary group the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Globally, most social democratic parties worldwide are members of the Socialist International.[26]

In many cases, social democratic parties are the dominant (India, Portugal, Australia) or second-placed (Canada, Italy, Sweden, Germany, United Kingdom)[27] players within their respective political systems, though in some cases they are minor parties in federal politics (Ireland, Russia). The United States is the only industrial nation that does not currently have an official major social democratic party, although many consider large portions of the Green Party and some liberal factions of the Democratic Party to be social democratic. Some conservatives in the U.S. have accused President Barack Obama of being either a "Democratic Socialist" or "Social Democrat", but Obama and the mainstream of the Democratic Party reject these accusations. Obama identifies with contemporary American Progressivism. Critics of Obama on the left identify him as generally holding centrist views.[28][29][30]

Since the 1960s, many social democrats have broadened their objectives beyond the field of economic policy to include aspects of environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and multiculturalism. Another notable development is the tendency since the 1980s for social democratic parties to distance themselves from distinctively left-wing economic policies such as public ownership and dirigisme, adopting instead policies that support a relatively lightly regulated economy and emphasize equality of opportunity.

This trend, known as the Third Way, is controversial among some of the left, many of whom argue that Third Way politicians (such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton)[22] have moved too far to the centre, or even the centre-right. Others, such as the leadership of the UK Labour Party, reject this critique.[31]


Socialist critics of contemporary social democracy include orthodox socialists, Marxian socialists, revolutionary socialists, anarchists and various other schools of thought. The most common criticism leveled against social democracy by socialists is that social democratic programs maintain the capitalist system (and therefore retains its fundamental issues, such as cyclical fluctuations and social contradictions); these social democratic reformist policies are also used to help legitimize capitalism and exploitation by making it more equitable, thereby becoming an impediment to fundamental restructuring of the social and economic systems.[32]

Marxists further argue that social democratic and welfare state policies limit the incentive system of the market by providing things such as minimum wages, unemployment insurance, taxing profits and reducing the reserve army of labor, resulting in reduced incentives for capitalists to invest in more production. In essence, social welfare policies cripple the capitalism and its incentive system and are thus unsustainable in the long-run.[32] Marxists argue that the establishment of a socialist mode of production is the only way to overcome these deficiencies.

Democratic socialists and libertarian socialists contend that social democracy has degenerated into pragmatic opportunism; rather than changing the world, social democracy merely changed itself to accommodate its tactics.[33] These groups regard social democracy as an elitist and unrealistic movement for relying on electoral changes to reform capitalism, relying solely on liberal parliamentary (representation from above) rather than popular representation and spontaneous organization from the grassroots-level.[33]

Notable social democrats

This is an abbreviated list of well-known social democrats. For a comprehensive list, see List of social democrats

See also

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Political theory

Social democracy as viewed by critics

Social democracy in practice


  1. ^ a b Steger, Manfred B. The quest for evolutionary socialism: Eduard Bernstein and social democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 140.
  2. ^ Berman, Sheri. Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 2.
  3. ^ a b c d Steger, Manfred B. The quest for evolutionary socialism: Eduard Bernstein and social democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 133.
  4. ^ a b c d e Socialist International. "Aims and Tasks of Democratic Socialism: Declaration of the Socialist International", Socialist International, First Congress, Frankfurt-am-Main, Federal Republic of Germany, 1951.
  5. ^ O'Hara, Phillip Anthony (ed.). Encyclopedia of political economy, Volume 2. London, England, UK: Routledge, 1999 Pp. 539.
  6. ^ BBC News: South America's leftward sweep, 2005
  7. ^ The SI's Declaration of Principles
  8. ^ Richard T. Ely, French and German Socialism in Modern Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883; pg. 204.
  9. ^ Ely, French and German Socialism in Modern Times, pp. 204-205.
  10. ^ Tament Library: About Our Logo
  11. ^ Berman, Sheri. "Understanding Social Democracy". Retrieved 2007-08-11. 
  12. ^ Berman, Sheri. Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 38-39.
  13. ^ a b Steger, Manfred B. The quest for evolutionary socialism: Eduard Bernstein and social democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 141.
  14. ^ Roger Eatwell, Anthony Wright. Contemporary political ideologies. 2nd edition. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000. Pp. 86.
  15. ^ Roger Eatwell, Anthony Wright. Contemporary political ideologies. 2nd edition. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000. Pp. 88.
  16. ^ Berman, Sheri. Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 2.
  17. ^ Steger, Manfred B. The quest for evolutionary socialism: Eduard Bernstein and social democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 137.
  18. ^ Steger, Manfred B. The quest for evolutionary socialism: Eduard Bernstein and social democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 80.
  19. ^ a b c David Robertson. A dictionary of modern politics. 3rd edition. London, England, UK: Europa Publications, 2004. Pp. 212.
  20. ^ History of Medicare (United States)
  21. ^ Brief History of Medicare and Medicaid (United States)
  22. ^ a b BBC News: Sacrifices in the scramble for power
  23. ^ The Guardian: Rich-poor gap 'has widened under Blair' Monday August 2, 2004
  24. ^ PES Member Parties
  25. ^ EU facts: Party Politics in the EU
  26. ^ Members of the Socialist International.
  27. ^ In Canada, the CCF/NDP have been or are the government at the provincial level of governance, and as of 2011 form the Official Opposition.
  28. ^ The Trouble With Barack, Newsweek, 21 January 2011
  29. ^ Obama is Distressingly Centrist, Nick Grier, July 18 2010,New West
  30. ^ Democrats Unhappy With Obama's Centrist Shift, Huffington Post, 5 February 2010
  31. ^ Labour policies
  32. ^ a b Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, by Schweickart, David; Lawler, James; Ticktin, Hillel; Ollman, Bertell. 1998. (P.60-61): "The Marxist answers that market socialism cannot exist because it involves limiting the incentive system of the market through providing minimum wages, high levels of unemployment insurance, reducing the size of the reserve army of labour, taxing profits, and taxing the wealthy. As a result, capitalists will have little incentive to invest and the workers will have little incentive to work. Capitalism works because, as Marx remarked, it is a system of economic force (coercion)."
  33. ^ a b Socialism or Social democracy? Anarchism WebSite.
  34. ^ Commission for Racial Equality: Clement Attlee Lecture: Trevor Phillips's speech, 21 April 2005
  35. ^ Nuevo impulso conservador - La República
  36. ^ Eduard Bernstein Reference Archive
  37. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Willy Brandt
  38. ^ Hjalmar Branting: The Nobel Peace Prize 1921
  39. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Wilhelm Liebknecht
  40. ^ (Portuguese) "Em 28 anos, Lula troca Marx pela social democracia" ("In 28 years, Lula trades Marx for social democracy"). Diário do Nordeste. June 30, 2006.

External links

International organizations

Social democratic literature

Criticism of social democracy

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