What is Social Democracy?

What is a social democracy?

Social democracy is a political ideology, responsible for promoting the direct intervention of the state in the economy, in the context of a capitalist society. The purpose of this intervention is to be able to redistribute income in a more social way, ensuring the welfare state and the general interest.

The main goal of social democracy is to reduce levels of inequality within an economy. That is why, as a left current, it promotes the redistribution of wealth through a complex tax system. This political current that claims to be committed to poverty, as well as the priority of having comprehensive universal public services.

Although wrongly associated with socialism, social democracy is far removed from the socialism concept. Both are currents of the left, but social democracy considers among its principles the guarantee of the functioning of representative democracy, as well as of the social economy, but of the market.

History of social democracy

Social democracy is a political current that has its origins in Europe. In the middle of the 19th century, it appeared for the first time, starting from the left principles, promoting socialism with a greater democratic character.

In this way, democracy supports a united Europe, where collective forces guarantee a prosperous economy.

The social-democratic current was born in France. This current has its origins during the revolution of 1848. Although Karl Marx has defined democracy in his writings, the truth is that there is a great conflict about who was the real founder of social democracy in Europe.

Another Marxist, Eduard Bernstein, claimed that the term “social democrat” was coined by the German poet Gottfried Kinkel.

In this way, Bernstein’s claims gain credibility in the face of the emergence of the first political party, designated as the Social Democratic Party, as his country of origin is Germany. This was a party founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, which was named the “General Union of German Workers”.

This political party was the first in history to be declared a Social Democrat. He did it through his main newspaper, called “La Social democracia”. In this way, a political current is born that continues to enjoy great political representation today. However, it is no longer just in Europe, but its expansion is already global.

Ideology of social democracy

The social-democratic conception of socialism is that of a set of political and moral values, such as solidarity, equality, and unconditional support for liberal parliamentary democracy, and not that of an “a priori” predetermined specific form of social and economic organization.

The goal of modern social democracy is to reform capitalism in order to align itself with the moral ideals of social democracy, rather than create an alternative and purely socialist economic system.

In other words, social democracy supports the development of the mixed economic system and is fully compatible with the capitalist organization of production, as long as it is cost-effective, as long as it increases the general level of prosperity, and if the surplus-value is fairly distributed to the factors of production. That is, entrepreneurship, labor, and capital.

Social democracy, therefore, supports the development of entrepreneurship, but also creates institutions of market control. Its aim is to smooth out the inequalities created by the rules of the free market.

The state, which has a regulatory and controlling role, contributes to the realization of this goal. At the same time, however, modern social democracy rejects statehood, as well as the producer and industrialist state.

This happens, as there is a point beyond which the expansion of the state is squeezing the free economy to the extent that it is against the interests of private-sector workers, and in favor of only a privileged class of bureaucrats and civil servants. The central goals of social democracy include full employment, social inclusion and the welfare state.

The social democratic parties

There are three basic characteristics of classical social democracy.

Revisionism of Marxism

The main weakness of Marxism-Leninism is economic reductionism, the idea that the antinomies of the capitalist mode of production lead, sooner or later, to its revolutionary overthrow, later to the dictatorship of the proletariat, to socialism and, finally, to communism.

According to Bernstein, belief in laws that inevitably lead to the end of alienation is a wrong strategy in overthrowing the capitalist system. The revolution in the twentieth century, as was clearly seen in the Russian case, led to Stalinist totalitarianism.

Democratic reformism

Based on the above, it is not the revolutionary/violent strategy of the Leninist type, but a gradual/evolutionary strategy that will lead to the extension of civil, political, economic, and social rights to the popular strata. This can happen with the acquisition of the right to vote and the gradual integration of the proletariat into the active political arena.

Based on the above strategy, the massively organized social democratic parties, in the so-called “golden age of social democracy” (1945-1975), managed to take power in a democratic way and to humanize the barbaric capitalism of the 19th century. They managed to develop the welfare state, strengthen the rule of law, and support representative democracy.

Democratic socialism

Contrary to those who believe in the perpetuation of capitalism, the proponents of evolution/reformism aim to create objective conditions that can lead, through parliamentarism, to a post-capitalist state where the ownership of the means of production will pass from the private to the collective (mainly, but not permanent) through cooperative type organizations.

Social Democracy and the Radical Left

To the extent that one can generalize, based on the above analysis, there are significant convergences between the social democracy and the radical Left on the issues of revisionism, reformism, and democratic socialism. The main deviation has to do with statism.

The radical left does not take seriously the reduction in the autonomy of the nation-state that globalization has brought. They still believe that the nationalizations that were relatively successful in the golden age of social democracy are another way of controlling domestic and multinational capital.

This, of course, is at the level of ideology. On a more practical level, when the radical Left becomes a government as in the case of SYRIZA, privatizations are imposed from above and are implemented in an ambiguous way. 

What would bring the Social Democrats and radical left closer together is if the former manage to distance themselves from neoliberalism. And if the latter realizes that the political control of capital and especially of financial capitalism is not possible in a single country (especially small or medium-sized).

If that happens, the comparisons between the Social Democrats and the radical Left will be more important than the differences. Since both men and women do not aim at the transition from neoliberal to more human capitalism with the aim of achieving democratic socialism in the future.

Main features of social democracy

The main features that define modern social democracy, as well as its requirements in the various parliamentary bodies, are listed below:

  • Mixed economy
  • Enhanced public services
  • Free and universal education
  • Free and universal health care
  • A strong social security system
  • Immigration policies and cultural diversity
  • Strong representative democracy
  • Ecological support
  • Support for the creation of intermediaries that take care of the interests of the most vulnerable groups (trade unions, competition organizations, consumer aid organizations)
  • Progressive tax system
  • Progressive policy, against conservative values
  • Promoting what the Social Democrats call “Social Justice”
  • A foreign policy based on cooperation and multilateralism

Critique of social democracy

Since its inception, Social Democracy – as has happened with many other political ideologies throughout history – has been harshly criticized from a liberal and conservative point of view.

Although Social Democrats claim to be defending the free market, its strong commitment to government intervention in the economy challenges the Social Democrats’ definition of liberalism. And liberalism in which state intervention is ancillary or, in some cases, does not exist.

On the other hand, social democracy has also been strongly challenged by the guarantees that social democracy itself collects and that it is required to be effective. Among these principles, the most controversial was that of representative democracy. The difficulty that democratic systems present in representing and that – as promoted by social democracy – includes minorities, has justified the criticism.

Modern social democracy

Social democracy is on the way to recovery. Fifteen years ago, traditional social democratic parties in many European countries, either collapsed or were reduced to a partner role in center-right coalitions. However, “the Social Democrats form parties to govern”, as the Social Democratic parties have never been described as parties of social protest, nor have they been content with the role of opposition. For these, it was not a convenient political suit.

It has been argued that, among other factors, the political collapse of the Social Democratic parties was due to the fact that they were alienated from their social base, from members of the working middle class that was once their main source of power, choosing strategically identify with neoliberal austerity policies. In this way, the Social Democratic parties, with this political shift, fully accepted the consequent increase in social inequalities, and for this reason, it was considered that they did not keep the popular mandate.

Social democracy seems to be gradually re-establishing its relationship with its socio-political base, which it expects to express, after a prolonged period of elitism. It is a long time coming for the social democratic forces to move away from their fundamental political principles and their apparent inability to adapt to the new demands and demands of civil society, with a vision, strength, and groundbreaking policies that will inspire.

Future of social democracy

Therefore, the new content of social democracy should be defined as a new contract that combines traditional values, new challenges, and demands, but also the following five axes:

1. Pursuit of a just society – intergenerational equality

With the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences, the demand for the promotion of equality, mainly through redistribution, is coming back strong. It must be the main goal of the social democratic parties in a social environment where inequalities are widening rapidly. Therefore, the new content of social democracy should be defined as a new contract that combines traditional values, new challenges, and demands, but also the dimension with five main axes.

2. Promoting green growth – a prosperity economy

A prerequisite for any social-democratic redistribution policy is “income generation” for redistribution. This means promoting all the structural reforms and other conditions for the exploitation of investment opportunities (Recovery Fund, etc.) and economic growth and (full) employment that will lead to a new inclusive model of green economy, free from traditional pathogens and fully in line with the requirements of the fight against climate change.

3. “Establishment” of a new visionary state

We need a new visionary state. That should start with the sweeping reform of all services and institutions in the public sphere. It is the starting point for the promotion of any social democratic policy for society. The main axis is the digital transformation (already attempted). As well as radical changes to promote transparency, meritocracy, accountability, the fight against corruption, but also the development of forms of participatory democracy and consultation.

4. Deepening unification – new patriotism

European unification is the pre-eminent left-wing project of the 21st century. The promotion of a democratic European Political Union should therefore be a central goal of any social democratic strategy.

Political Union can prevent countries from slipping into the paralyzed state of uncontrolled sovereignty of nation-states as the neo-nationalist forces persistently seek.

5. Democratic framing of globalization

The pandemic highlighted the limits and opportunities of globalization. For modern social democracy, globalization is basically a positive process, part of the multilateral system of institutions and rules of cooperation. However, this process must operate within a framework of democratic rules and institutions (and not anarchic and unregulated) in order to benefit the wider world community.

The goal of social democracy must therefore be “democratic framing” / regulation and not the annulment of globalization.

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