5.2.4 Social Democracy

Étienne Schmitt

Like communism until 1919, social democracy was not clearly distinguishable from socialism. As a polysemous expression, it referred to both socialist parties and “reformist” currents inside socialism that proposed to gradually transform society through democratic institutions. Social democracy evolved in several contexts, most notably in the debate between orthodox Marxism and revisionist Marxism that took place in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, which laid the groundwork for all social democratic currents.

The Opposition Between Lassallism and Marxism

German social democracy emerged with the creation in 1863 of Ferdinand Lassalle’s General German Workers’ Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, ADAV). Although he was close to the League of Communists, Ferdinand Lassalle never shared the ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. He believed that a democratic and socialist state is the ideal framework for the emancipation of the working class. Ferdinand Lassalle conceives universal suffrage – which was extremely rare at this period of time – as the instrument of this state revolution. Despite Ferdinand Lassalle died prematurely in 1864, his influence on the development of German social democracy was important. The electoral platform of the German socialist party was strongly criticized by Karl Marx, who saw in it the stranglehold of Lassallism over the workers’ movement (1890-91/1970). The Gotha Program in 1875 is one of the founding acts of German social democracy.

Eduard Bernstein’s Revisionism

Eduard Bernstein published a series of articles between 1896 and 1898 entitled Problems of Socialism around a central question: Is revolution desirable? He published a book, Evolutionary Socialism (1899), following his articles, which marked a breaking point with orthodox Marxism. While subscribing to scientific socialism, Eduard Bernstein believed that Karl Marx’s predictions are wrong because the material condition of the proletariat has increased, and as well as a middle class emerged. Therefore, he insists that the socialist analysis cannot be dogmatic. Thus, a violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat would be dramatic, even for the proletariat. Moreover, he believes that socialism not only fights for the emancipation of the proletariat but for society as a whole. Social democracy must integrate all the dominated classes, including the middle classes. Rather than revolution, Eduard Bernstein favors evolution. Thus, he conceives democracy as the principle of “the suppression of class government” (Bernstein, 1899/1907). Nevertheless, this aim requires genuine democracy. To achieve it, Eduard Bernstein takes up the Lasallian thesis of universal suffrage excepting that it neutralizes the bourgeois character of the state to become an instrument of the general interest.

Social Democracy Elsewhere

Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism strains Marxist theory of its revolutionary elements rehabilitating the Lasallian ideas. If Bernstein’s social democracy encompasses in the context of Germany at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the reformist currents in other countries are also drawn on local political ideologies to revise Marxist theses. In France, republican socialism is inspired by republicanism, utopian socialism and mutualism. In the United Kingdom, the labor movement is instilled by the Fabian Society articulated the heritage of Owenism and that of trade unionism. In Italy, social democracy is the work of Filippo Turati, who developed a non-dogmatic reading of Karl Marx rooted in a progressive republicanism inspired by one of the fathers of Italian unification: Giuseppe Mazzini. In the United States of America, social democracy was built on the trade union and anti-segregationist movements. This broad diversity of local contributions makes it difficult to designate social democracy as a homogeneous current.

Social Democracy Today

The electoral results of today social democracy are decreasing, especially old social democratic parties have been losing their predominant role. According to Giacomo Benedetto, Simon Hix, and Nicola Mastrorocco: “social democratic parties that once commanded over 40% of votes have collapsed to the low twenties, tens, or lower” (2020, p. 1). Three phenomena are explaining this low electoral performance of social democratic parties:

  • Social democratic parties turned to the “third way” (see Pro-globalization socialism) in the 2000s, losing its ambition and blurring its scope. Its acceptance of neoliberalism contributed to drive a wedge between socialism current.
  • Because of deindustrialization of Western societies, social democratic parties change their electorate basis from Industrial workers to urban professionals, more centrist and more versatile.
  • Contributing to the privatization of large state-owned enterprises and the withdrawal of the state of many sectors during the 2000s, social democratic parties have lost many voters from the public-sector workers’ electorate.

Adam Przeworski (2001) noted the existence of three historic waves for social democracy: revolution (trying to struggle capitalism), revisionism (trying to reform capitalism), and remedialism (trying to mitigate capitalism). Przeworski speculated about resignationism as a new wave by which social democracy has capitulated to capitalism. Despite the facts, many social democratic parties remain in power in Europe and reinvent social democracy like in Portugal where the Partido Socialista shifted leftwards, proposing a new focus on environmental concerns and postcapitalist issues. Maybe the new wave will be the renewal.

What Is Social Democracy?

Social democracy is a revisionist socialism, aiming to intervene in the economy to create an egalitarian society and democratically reform the state in order to emancipate the society as a whole.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Étienne Schmitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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