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Encyclopedia > Social Democrats

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. During the early and mid-20th century, social democrats were in favor of stronger labor laws, nationalization of major industries, and a strong welfare state. Over the course of the 20th century, most social democrats gradually distanced themselves from Marxism and class struggle. As of 2004, social democrats generally do not see a conflict between a capitalist market economy and their definition of a socialist society, and support reforming capitalism in an attempt to make it more equitable through the creation and maintenance of a welfare state. Most social democratic parties are members of the Socialist International, which is a successor to the Second International.

Often, the term socialism is used to denote social democrats, although in many countries socialism is a broader concept including democratic socialists, Marxists, communists, libertarian socialists and sometimes anarchists.

In the past, social democrats were often described as reformist socialists (since they advocated the implementation of socialism through gradual reforms). They were contrasted with the revolutionary socialists, who advocated the implementation of socialism through a workers' revolution. Today, however, the democratic socialists carry on the legacy of reformist socialism and seek to bring about a fully socialist system through electoral means, while most of the social democrats only wish to make capitalism more equitable (and see the abolition of capitalism as unnecessary).

Social democratic parties are among the largest parties in most countries in Europe, as well as in the majority of European-influenced parts of the world (with the notable exception of the United States). Social democrats are seen as centre left in orientation.



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 César 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, 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.

In general, those social democrats 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.

Since the 1920s, differences between social democrats and communists have been constantly growing (although it should be noted that the communists themselves have split into a few branches which strongly oppose each other, such as the stalinists and the trotskyists).

In modern times (to be more exact, since the late 1980s), most social democratic parties have adopted the "Third Way" either formally or in practice. Modern social democrats are in favor of a mixed economy, which should be mainly capitalistic but with a strong welfare state and adequate 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. The Labour Party in Britain is especially enthusiastic about implementing Public-Private Partnerships to deliver public services, has introduced tuition fees for post secondary education and has cut back on social programs.

In general, these reversals in policy are supported more by the party leadership and far less (or not at all) by the average members of social democratic parties and their voter base. Many have claimed that the present leadership of the social democratic movement is corrupt and has abandoned social democracy in practice.

Some argue that the protectionist policies followed by social democrats to protect fragile national economies during growth or rebuilding, are exactly the policies that developing nations are today prevented from following by the IMF.

See also: History of Socialism

Views of the social democrats today

In general, contemporary Social Democrats support:

  • Private enterprise, but strongly regulated to protect the interests of workers, consumers and small enterprise.
  • An extensive system of social security, notably to counteract the effects of poverty and to insure the citizens against loss of income following illness or unemployment. (See welfare state)
  • Ensuring good education, health care, child care, etc. for all citizens through government funding.
  • Higher taxes (necessary to pay for the former), especially for higher income groups. (See progressive tax)
  • Extensive social laws (minimum wages, working conditions, protection against arbitrary firing).
  • Environmental protection laws (although not to the extent advocated by Greens).
  • Anti-xenophobic and non-fundamentalist legislation (pro-choice, anti-racist, anti-homophobic).
  • 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.

Critics of the welfare state argue that it is unaffordable, particularly as the population ages, thus putting more demands on pensions and health care provisions. Social democrats reply that many different sources of funding exist, and in any case it can never be considered "too costly" to save people's lives.

There is also criticism against social democracy coming from 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 and Gerhard Schröder, 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.

Social Democratic Parties

This is a short list of the main parties in the world who call themselves social democratic. Note that, in some cases, this label may be disputed.

See Socialist International for a list of members of that body. See Social Democratic Party for a list of all political parties named as such.

Social Democratic Parties in the United States

There have been many socialist and social democratic parties in American history, most notably the Socialist Party of America whose best known leaders were Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas and the Socialist Labor Party of America led by Daniel DeLeon, but they have been less successful than their European counterparts. In the 1970s the Socialist Party of America split into three factions, the Democratic Socialists of America led by Michael Harrington, the Social Democrats USA and the Socialist Party USA.

Today, the United States Green Party, with 2 to 4 percent of the vote in presidential elections, might be seen as the largest non-capitalist party and has the support of many American socialists. With the 2000 Ralph Nader campaign arguably having cost the Democrats the election, the Democratic Party, which has moved away from welfare state policies under Bill Clinton and Al Gore, is under pressure to adopt some social democratic measures in its platform (such as universal health care). Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich are particularly strong advocates of such a revision of the Democratic position.

List of notable social democrats

  Results from FactBites:
Democratic socialism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1847 words)
Democratic socialism is a broad political movement propagating the ideals of socialism within the context of a democratic system.
Democratic socialists maintain a commitment to the re-distribution of wealth and power and social ownership of most major industry, and some believe in a planned economy; these are all concepts which social democrats have largely abandoned.
Democratic socialists advocating direct action may tend to similar positions with anarcho-syndicalism (with which democratic socialism shares the characteristics of being both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian), although democratic socialists characteristically do not regard the state itself as an entity to be abolished.
Socialism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (3425 words)
Socialism refers to a broad array of doctrines or political movements that envisage a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to social control.
These social critics saw themselves as reacting to the excesses of poverty and inequality in the period, and advocated reforms such as the egalitarian distribution of wealth and the transformation of society into small communities in which private property was to be abolished.
Criticisms of socialism range from disagreements over the efficiency of socialist economic and political models, to condemnation of states described by themselves or others as "socialist." Many economic liberals dispute that the more even distribution of wealth advocated by socialists can be achieved without loss of political or economic freedoms.
  More results at FactBites »



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