Social democracy


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A red carnation held in a closed fist is the international symbol of social democracy.

Social democracy is a political ideology emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from supporters of Marxism who believed that the transition to a socialist society could be achieved through democratic evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. It emphasises a program of gradual legislative reform of the capitalist system in order to make it more equitable, usually with the goal of a socialist society as a theoretical endpoint.

Alternatively, the Socialist International defined Social democracy as an ideal form of representative democracy, that may solve the problems found in a liberal democracy. It emphasizes the following principles for building a welfare state. First, freedom that includes 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, as well as the ability to determine one's own fate. Second, it also must have equality and social justice, not only before the law but also having economic and sociocultural equality as well, that promotes equal opportunities for all including those with physical, mental, or social inequalities. Finally, it must have solidarity that practices unity and a sense of compassion for the victims of injustice and inequality. See SI's Declaration of Principles (


Social democratic political parties

Social democratic political parties are a feature of many liberal democratic countries. Over the course of the twentieth century, parties such as the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, the German SPD and many other such parties throughout Europe, Canada (New Democratic Party), Australia (Labor Party) and New Zealand (Labour Party) contested elections with policies such as stronger labor laws, nationalization of major industries, and a strong welfare state.

During the later part of the 20th century, most of the aforementioned parties gradually distanced themselves from socialist-style economics. At present, social democrats generally do not see a conflict between a capitalist market economy and their definition of a socialist society. A great many social democratic parties have adopted policies of the centrist Third Way, which supports a deregulated economy and emphasises equality of opportunity as the benchmark for social equity. Modern social democrats have also broadened their social goals to encompass aspects of feminism, racial equality and multiculturalism. Whether this modern form of social democracy can properly be described as "socialist" is a matter of dispute. Many social democrats do not see themselves as socialist.

Most social democratic parties are members of the Socialist International, which is a successor to the Second International.

See also List of social democratic parties

"Democratic socialism" versus "Social democracy"

Democratic socialism or reformism arguably forms a distinct current of thought from social democracy, in that self-described democratic socialists still see themselves as working towards the establishment of a socialist state. Many separate parties calling themselves "democratic socialists" have sought to distance themselves from their social democratic counterparts. Naturally, there is some degree of overlap, and some self-professed democratic socialists remain associated with social democratic parties in an effort to render them more avowedly socialist.

In many cases, those who merely want to improve capitalism have kept the name "social democrats" (by virtue of their majority position), while those who want to gradually abolish capitalism through democratic means are called "democratic socialists". In others, particular names are used solely by historical accident.


Many parties in the second half of the 19th century described themselves as social democratic, such as the British Social Democratic Federation, and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In some cases these were revolutionary socialist or Marxist groups, also seeking to introduce what they regarded as democracy in undemocratic countries.

The modern social democratic current came into being through a break within the socialist movement in the early 20th century, between two groups holding different views on the ideas of Karl Marx. Many related movements, including pacifism, anarchism, and syndicalism, arose at the same time (often by splitting from the main socialist movement) and had various quite different objections to Marxism. The social democrats, who were the majority of socialists at this time, did not reject Marxism (and in fact claimed to uphold it), but wanted to reform it in certain ways and tone down their criticism of capitalism. They argued that socialism should be achieved through evolution rather than revolution. Such views were strongly opposed by the revolutionary socialists, who argued that any attempt to reform capitalism was doomed to fail, because the reformers would be gradually corrupted and eventually turn into capitalists themselves.

Two key figures within the socialist movement at this time were Csar de Paepe of the Belgian International Working Men's Association, and Jean Jaures (who led the French Socialist Party until his assassination on July 31, 1914, one day before the general mobilization of forces that began World War I).

Despite their differences, the reformist and revolutionary branches of socialism remained united until the outbreak of World War I. The war proved to be the final straw that pushed the tensions between them to breaking point. 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 (since it betrayed the principle that the workers of all nations should unite in overthrowing capitalism). Bitter arguments ensued within socialist parties, as for example between Eduard Bernstein (reformist socialist) and Rosa Luxemburg (revolutionary socialist) within the SPD in Germany. Eventually, after the Russian Revolution, most of the world's socialist parties fractured. The reformist socialists kept the name "social democrats", while the revolutionary socialists began calling themselves "communists", and soon formed the modern communist movement. (See also Comintern.)

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 simply needed adjustements and improvements such as the nationalization of large businesses, the implementation of social programs (public education, universal healthcare, etc.) and the (partial) redistribution of wealth through a welfare state, in order to make capitalism more humane. 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 real commitment to abolish capitalism. For instance, in 1959, the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Godesberg Program which rejected class struggle and Marxism.

Since the 1920s, differences between social democrats and communists have been constantly growing (although it should be noted that the communists themselves are far from doctrinally unified on the best way to achieve socialism).

Since the late 1980s, most social democratic parties have adopted the "Third Way" - either formally or in practice - following their inability to simultaneously realise redistributive public policies, macroeconomic stability, and electoral popularity. Modern social democrats are generally in favor of a mixed economy, which should be mainly capitalistic but with 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 increasing challenge from Greens, who view ecology as fundamental to peace, and require reform of money supply and safe trade measures to ensure ecological integrity. In Germany in particular, Greens, Social Democrats, and other socialist parties have cooperated in so-called Red-Green Alliances.

A number of the policies advocated by social democrats have become permanent in the countries where they have been implemented, in the sense that they are now supported by all mainstream political parties. Such policies include the progressive income tax and publicly funded medicine. Other measures, however, (such as tuition-free university education) have largely been overturned, often by social democratic governments themselves. Social democrats have, for the most part, also abandoned the concept of nationalization and have instead fully or partly privatised state owned industry and services. These changes have been seen in the governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Australia, that of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Gerhard Schrder in Germany, Gran Persson in Sweden, and the Rogernomics of David Lange and Finance Minister Roger Douglas in New Zealand.

In general, these reversals in policy are supported more by the party leadership and far less by the average members of social democratic parties and their voter base - although they are accepted as necessary in order for their parties to remain electorally viable. Many have claimed that the present leadership of the social democratic movement have betrayed social democratic principles; to which modernizing social democrats counter that their 'new' social democracy is an adaptation of those historic principles to the reality of the modern world.

When discussing the recent reversal of social democratic policy it is important to bear in mind that what many people refer to as 'traditional' social democracy is now generally regarded to have been possible only because of the prevailing international climate - the post-war Bretton Woods consensus. What is of interest to contemporary social democrats, therefore, is why this consensus itself collapsed, whether it would be possible to rebuild it, and how?

Some social democratic parties have at some point in their history been supporters of free trade, on the grounds that limiting international trade harms the poor by raising prices and reducing incomes: for example the Labour Party first came to government in the UK in 1924 after their opponents had lost the 1923 election by proposing protectionism.

See also History of Socialism.

Views of Social Democrats today

In general, contemporary Social Democrats support:

  • Regulatory systems over private enterprise in the interests of workers, consumers and small enterprise.
  • An extensive system of social security (though usually not to the extent advocated by democratic socialists or other socialist groups), notably to counteract the effects of poverty and to insure the citizens against loss of income following illness or unemployment. (See welfare state.)
  • Government-owned or subsidised programs of education, health care, child care, etc. for all citizens.
  • Moderate to high levels of taxation to fund government expenditure and a progressive taxation system.
  • A system of industrial regulation (statutory minimum wages, working conditions, protection against arbitrary dismissal).
  • Environmental protection laws (although not to the extent advocated by Greens).
  • Immigration and multiculturalism.
  • A secular and progressive social policy, although this varies markedly in degree. Some social democrats support gay marriage, abortion and a liberal drug policy, while others are either non-committed or openly opposed to these policies.
  • A foreign policy supporting multilateralism and international institutions such as the United Nations.

Criticism of social democracy

Obviously, most criticism against social democracy comes from their main political opponents, the right wing. Right-wingers typically argue that social democratic systems are too restrictive on their version of individual rights, and that individual choice is not as great in systems that provide state-run schools, health care, child care and other services.

Economic conservatives and classic liberals argue that social democracy interferes with market mechanisms and hurts the economy by encouraging large budget deficits and restricting the ability of entrepreneurs to invest as they see fit.

There is also extensive criticism against social democracy coming from many segments of the Left. Democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists criticise social democrats for being so dependent on the capitalist system that they become indistinguishable from modern liberals. Many social democrats explicitly renounce the label "socialist" and the goal of achieving a socialist state. This willingness to work within the capitalist system rather than trying to modify or overturn it leads many on the left to accuse modern social democratic parties of being corrupt and betraying their principles. Left critics allege that some professed social democrats, such as Tony Blair, Gran Persson and Gerhard Schrder, end up doing the work of the capitalists by implementing tax cuts, cuts in social programs, privatisations, industrial deregulation, and a rolling back of the welfare state rather than extending it.

See also

External link

da:socialdemokraterne de:Sozialdemokratie et:Sotsiaaldemokraatia es:Socialdemocracia fa:سوسیال‌دموکراسی fr:Social-dmocratie he:סוציאל-דמוקרטיה it:Socialdemocrazia nl:Sociaal-democratie ja:社会民主主義 pl:Demokracja społeczna sv:Socialdemokrati


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