Social democracy (19TH CENTURY- )

Theory of democratic socialism.

Although social democracy was used to describe 19th century Marxist parties in continental Europe, the phrase established a distinctive, non-Marxist and non-revolutionary meaning after the 1917 Russian Revolution, socialism can and should be achieved by democratic means, thus extending the meaning of democracy from simple political power to include social and economic power exercised by the electorate through the state.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Social democracy is a political, social and economic philosophy within socialism[1] that supports political and economic democracy.[2] As a policy regime, it is described by academics as advocating economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal-democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve a commitment to representative and participatory democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and social welfare provisions.[3] Due to longstanding governance by social democratic parties during the post-war consensus and their influence on socioeconomic policy in Northern and Western Europe, social democracy became associated with Keynesianism, the Nordic model, the social liberal paradigm and welfare states within political circles in the late 20th century.[4] It has been described as the most common form of Western or modern socialism[5] as well as the reformist wing of democratic socialism.[6]

Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism.[7] In the early post-war era in Western Europe, social democratic parties rejected the Stalinist political and economic model then current in the Soviet Union, committing themselves either to an alternative path to socialism or to a compromise between capitalism and socialism.[8] In this period, social democrats embraced a mixed economy based on the predominance of private property, with only a minority of essential utilities and public services under public ownership. As a result, social democracy became associated with Keynesian economics, state interventionism and the welfare state, while placing less emphasis on the prior goal of replacing the capitalist system (factor markets, private property and wage labor) with a qualitatively different socialist economic system.[9][10][11][12]

While retaining socialism as a long-term goal,[13] social democracy seeks to humanize capitalism and create the conditions for it to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes.[9] It is characterized by a commitment to policies aimed at curbing inequality, eliminating oppression of underprivileged groups and eradicating poverty[14] as well as support for universally accessible public services like care for the elderly, child care, education, health care and workers’ compensation.[15] It often has strong connections with the labour movement and trade unions, being supportive of collective bargaining rights for workers and measures to extend decision-making beyond politics into the economic sphere in the form of co-determination, or even social ownership, for employees and stakeholders.[16] The Third Way, which ostensibly aims to fuse liberal economics with social democratic welfare policies, is an ideology that developed in the 1990s and is sometimes associated with social democratic parties, but some analysts have instead characterized the Third Way as an effectively neoliberal movement.


Social democracy is defined as one of many socialist traditions.[1] As a political movement, it aims to achieve socialism through gradual and democratic means.[18] This definition goes back to the influence of both the reformist socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle as well as the internationalist revolutionary socialism advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, from whom social democracy was influenced.[19] As an international political movement and ideology, social democracy has undergone various major forms throughout its history.[20] Whereas in the 19th century it was “organized Marxism”, social democracy became “organized reformism” by the 20th century.[21] In contemporary usage, social democracy as a policy regime[22] generally means support for a mixed economy and ameliorative measures to benefit the working class within the framework of capitalism.[23]

In political science, democratic socialism and social democracy are largely seen as synonyms[24] while they are distinguished in journalistic use.[25] Under this democratic socialist definition,[nb 1] social democracy is an ideology seeking to gradually build an alternative socialist economy through the institutions of liberal democracy.[26] Starting in the post-war period, social democracy was defined as a policy regime[nb 2] advocating reformation of capitalism to align it with the ethical ideals of social justice.[30] In the 19th century, it encompassed a wide variety of non-revolutionary and revolutionary currents of socialism which excluded anarchism.[31] In the early 20th century, social democracy came to refer to support for a gradual process of developing socialism through existing political structures and an opposition to revolutionary means of achieving socialism in favor of reformism.[26]

In the 19th century, social democrat was a broad catch-all for international socialists owing their basic ideological allegiance to Lassalle or Marx, 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”.[32] Many parties in this era described themselves as Social Democrat, 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. Social Democrat continued to be used in this context up to the time of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, at which time Communist came into vogue for individuals and organizations espousing a revolutionary road to socialism.[33] According to Ely:

[Social democrats] 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.[34]

As a label or term, social democracy or social democratic remains controversial among socialists. Some define it as representing both a Marxist faction and non-communist socialists or the right-wing of socialism during the split with communism.[29] Others have noted its pejorative use among communists and other socialists. According to Lyman Tower Sargent, “socialism refers to social theories rather than to theories oriented to the individual. Because many communists now call themselves democratic socialists, it is sometimes difficult to know what a political label really means. As a result, social democratic has become a common new label for democratic socialist political parties”.[35] According to Donald Busky:

Social democracy is a somewhat controversial term among democratic socialists. Many democratic socialists use social democracy as a synonym for democratic socialism, while others, particularly revolutionary democratic socialists, do not, the latter seeing social democracy as something less than socialism—a milder, evolutionary ideology that seeks merely to reform capitalism. Communists also use the term social democratic to mean something less than true socialism that sought only to preserve capitalism by reform rather than by overthrowing and establishing socialism. Even revolutionary democratic socialists and Communists have at times, particularly the past, called their parties “social democratic.”[36]

Marxist revisionist Eduard Bernstein’s views influenced and laid the groundwork for the development of post-war social democracy as a policy regime, Labour revisionism and the neo-revisionism[37] of the Third Way.[38] This definition of social democracy is focused on ethical terms, with the type of socialism advocated being ethical and liberal.[39] Bernstein described socialism and social democracy in particular as “organized liberalism”.[40] In this sense, liberalism is the predecessor and precursor of socialism,[41] whose restricted view of freedom is to be socialized while democracy must entails social democracy.[42] For those social democrats, who still describe and see themselves as socialists, socialism is used in ethical or moral terms,[43] representing democracy, egalitarianism and social justice rather than a specifically socialist economic system.[44] Under this type of definition, social democracy’s goal is that of advancing those values within a capitalist market economy as its support for a mixed economy no longer denotes the coexistence between private and public ownership or that between planning and market mechanisms, but rather it represents free markets combined with government intervention and regulations.[45]

Social democracy has been seen by some as an essentially revision of orthodox Marxism,[46] although this has been described as misleading for modern social democracy.[47] Some distinguish between ideological social democracy as part of the broad socialist movement and social democracy as a policy regime. The first is called classical social democracy or classical socialism,[48] being contrasted to competitive socialism,[49] liberal socialism,[50] neo-social democracy[51] and new social democracy.[52]

Social democracy has often been conflated with an administrative command economy, authoritarian socialism, big government, Marxist–Leninist states, Soviet-type economic planning, state interventionism and state socialism. Austrian School economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises also continually used socialism as a synonym for central planning and social democracy for state socialism, conflating it with fascism and opposing social democratic policies, including the welfare state.[53] This is notable in the United States, where socialism has become a pejorative used by conservatives and libertarians to taint liberal and progressive policies, proposals and public figures.[54] Those confusions are caused not only by the socialist definition, but by the capitalist definition as well. Christian democrats, social liberals, national and social conservatives tend to support some social democratic policies and generally regard capitalism as compatible with a mixed economy. On the other hand, classical liberals, conservative liberals, neoliberals, liberal conservatives and right-libertarians define capitalism as the free market. The latter support a small government and a laissez-faire capitalist market economy while opposing economic interventionism, government regulations and social democratic policies.[55] They see actually existing capitalism as corporatism, corporatocracy, or crony capitalism.[56] This has resulted in socialism and by extension social democracy being defined in countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom as “what a Labour government does”.[57]

With the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the Third Way between the 1990s and 2000s, social democracy became synonymous with it.[58] Many social democrats opposed to the Third Way overlap with democratic socialists in their commitment to a democratic alternative to capitalism and a post-capitalist economy. Those social democrats have not only criticized the Third Way as anti-socialist[59] and neoliberal,[60] but also as anti-social democratic in practice.[59] Some democratic socialists and others have rejected the Third Way’s centrism, for the political centre moved decidedly to the right during the neoliberal years.[61] social democratic parties such as the British Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany have been described as effectively representing a new centre-right[61] or neoliberal party

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