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Social democracy is an ideological view of the left.


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Social democracy is a political ideology that emerged in the late 19th century out of the socialist movement. Modern social democracy is unlike socialism in the Marxist sense, which aims to replace the capitalist system entirely; instead, social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of state sponsored programs and organizations which work to ameliorate or remove perceived injustices inflicted by the capitalist market system. The term itself is also used to refer to the particular kind of society that social democrats advocate.

Social Democracy.
Hjalmar Branting was the first Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden.

Social democratic parties initially advocated socialism, in the strict sense, achieved by class struggle as defined by the Orthodox Marxists within or affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany: August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Schisms within the party during the early 20th century led to the desertion of the revolutionary socialists, and the primacy of Bernstein's evolutionary or reformist democratic path for social progress within the social democratic movement. Throughout Europe, a number of other socialist parties simultaneously rejected revolutionary socialism, and the followers of these movements ultimately came to identify themselves as social democrats or democratic socialists. Consequently, while social democrats share many views with the democratic socialists, they often differ on specific policy issues. While social democracy is currently the strongest current of socialism in international politics, followed quite closely by democratic socialism, the two movements often share political parties, such as the British Labour Party in the 1980s, and the Brazilian Workers' Party today.

One way to delineate between social democratic parties and movements and democratic socialist ones is to think of social democracy as moving left from capitalism and democratic socialism as moving right from Marxism: in other words, a mainstream leftist party in a state with a market economy and a mostly middle class voting base might be described as a social democratic party, while a party with a more radical agenda and an intellectual or working class voting base that has a history of involvement with further left movements might be described as a democratic socialist party. However, this is not always the case. The British Labour Party charter identifies the party as a "democratic socialist party," even though the current and former leader, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, self-identify as social democrats.

The Socialist International (SI), a worldwide organization of social democratic and democratic socialist parties, defines social democracy as an ideal form of democracy that can solve the problems found in unregulated capitalism. The SI emphasizes the following principles: first, freedom - 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; second, equality and social justice - not only before the law but also economic and socio-cultural equality as well, and equal opportunities for all including those with physical, mental, or social disabilities; and, third, solidarity - unity and a sense of compassion for the victims of injustice and inequality. These ideals are described in further detail in the SI's Declaration of Principles.

Social democratic parties originally included both democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, the split with the revolutionary socialists, including Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, was spectacularly hostile. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, many leading social democrats, including Eduard Bernstein, were explicitly non-revolutionary. Consequently, as the years passed, the Bolsheviks and other Marxist-Leninist parties ultimately adopted a strategy of publicly denouncing social democrats as "social fascists."

History of Social democracy: Pre-war - social democracy and Marxism.

Many parties in the second half of the 19th century described themselves as social democratic, such as the German Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein and the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (which merged to form the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), the British Social Democratic Federation and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In most cases these parties were avowedly revolutionary socialist which were not only seeking to introduce socialism, but also to introduce democracy in undemocratic countries. Most of these parties were to some degree influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were still actively working to influence European politics from London.

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; these ideologies were often promulgated by individuals who split from the preexisting socialist movement, and held a variety of quite different objections to Marxism. The social democrats, who had created the largest socialist organizations of that era, did not reject Marxism (and in fact claimed to uphold it), but a number of key individuals wanted to reform Marx's arguments in order to promulgate a less hostile criticism of capitalism. They argued that socialism should be achieved through evolution of society rather than revolution. Such views were strongly opposed by the revolutionary socialists, who argued that any attempt to reform capitalism was doomed to fail, for the reformers would be gradually corrupted and eventually turn into capitalists themselves.

Despite their differences, the reformist and revolutionary branches of socialism remained united through the Second Internationale until the outbreak of World War I. A differing view on the legitimacy of the war proved to be the final straw for this tenuous union. 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; in other words, the revolutionary socialists believed that this stance betrayed the principle that the workers of all nations should unite in overthrowing capitalism, and decried the fact that usually the lowest classes are the ones sent into the war to fight and die. Bitter arguments ensued within socialist parties, as for example between Eduard Bernstein, the leading reformist socialist, and Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leading revolutionary socialists within the SPD in Germany. Eventually, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, most of the world's socialist parties fractured. The reformist socialists kept the name "Social democrats", while many revolutionary socialists began calling themselves "communists", and soon formed the modern Communist movement. These communist parties soon formed an exclusive Third Internationale known globally as the Comintern.

By the 1920s, the doctrinal differences between social democrats and communists of all factions (be they Orthodox Marxists, Bolsheviks or Mensheviks) had solidified. These differences only became more dramatic as the years passed.

Post war - social democracy and democratic socialism.

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 needed dramatic reform, such as the nationalization of large businesses, the implementation of social programs (public education, universal healthcare, and the like) and the partial redistribution of wealth through the permanent establishment of a welfare state based on progressive taxation. 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 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 Italy, the Italian Social Democratic Party was founded in 1947, and from 1948 on supported the idea of a "centrist alliance". Since the late 1980s, many other social democratic parties have adopted the "Third Way," either formally or in practice. Modern social democrats are generally in favor of a mixed economy, which is in many ways capitalistic, but explicitly defend 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 an increasing challenge from Greens, who view ecology as fundamental to peace, require reform of money supply and promote safe trade measures to ensure ecological integrity. In Germany in particular, Greens, Social Democrats, and other left-wing parties have cooperated in so-called Red-Green Alliances. This is also not uncommon in Norway.

Social democracy: the third way.

In recent years, a number of social democratic parties and governments have moved away from some traditional elements of social democracy by supporting both the privatisation of certain state-controlled industries and services and the reduction of certain forms of regulation of the market. These changes have been perceived in the policies of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Australia, Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, Jens Stoltenberg in Norway, Göran Persson in Sweden, David Lange, Roger Douglas in New Zealand, Wim Kok in the Netherlands and Ricardo Lagos in Chile. In general, these apparent reversals in policy have encountered significant opposition among party members and core voters: many of the latter, indeed, have claimed that their leaders have betrayed their traditional principles. In other cases, such as the Brazilian administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party won power by openly pursuing a centre-right coalition designed to keep the more left-wing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) of the Workers' Party out of power. Lula ultimately won the next presidential election in 2002, only to promote a vision based largely on European social democratic economic policy.

"Modernising" social democrats counter that their Third Way ideals merely represent a necessary or pragmatic adaptation of social democracy to the realities of the modern world: "traditional" social democracy thrived during the prevailing international climate of the post-war Bretton Woods consensus which collapsed in the 1970s. It has, moreover, become difficult for political parties in the developed world to win elections on a distinctively left-wing platform now that electorates are increasingly "middle-class", aspirational and consumeristic. In Britain, where such an electorate rejected the Labour Party four times consecutively between 1979 and 1992, Tony Blair and his colleagues (known colloquially as New Labour) took the strategic decision to overtly disassociate themselves from the previous, strongly democratic socialist incarnations of their party. This challenge alienated many backbenchers, including some who advocated the less militant ideology of social democracy.

The development of new social democratic policies in this environment is the subject of wide-ranging debate within the centre-left. A number of political think-tanks, such as Policy Network and Wiardi Beckman Stichting, have been active in facilitating and promoting this debate.

Views of social democrats today: In general, contemporary social democrats support.

  • A mixed economy consisting mainly of private enterprise, but with government owned or subsidised programs of education, healthcare, child care and related services for all citizens..
  • Government bodies that regulate private enterprise in the "interests" of workers, consumers and "fair competition"..
  • Advocacy of fair trade over free trade..
  • An extensive system of social security (although usually not to the extent advocated by democratic socialists or other socialist groups), with the stated goal of counteracting the effects of poverty and insuring the citizens against loss of income following illness, unemployment or retirement..
  • Moderate to high levels of taxation (through a value-added and/or progressive taxation system) to fund government expenditure..
  • Environmental protection laws (although not always to the extent advocated by Greens), such as combating global warming and increasing alternative energy funding..
  • Support for immigration and multiculturalism..
  • A secular and progressive social policy, although this varies markedly in degree. Most social democrats support gay marriage and abortion rights..
  • A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights and where possible, effective multilateralism..
  • As well as human rights, social democrats also support social rights, civil rights and civil liberties. .

Social democratic political parties.

Social democratic political parties are a feature of many democratic countries, and are found in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere. Over the course of the twentieth century, parties such as the British Labour Party, the German SPD and the Australian Labor Party have stood in elections on political platforms that included policies such as stronger labor laws, the nationalization of major industries, and a strong welfare state. Most European social democratic parties are members of the Party of European Socialists, which is one of the main political parties at the European level, and most social democratic parties are members of the Socialist International, which is the historical successor to the Second International. The United States and Japan are the only first world nations which do not possess a competitive social democratic or democratic socialist party.

During the latter part of the twentieth century, most social democratic parties distanced themselves from socialist economic policies and socialism in general. Many modern social democrats have broadened their objectives to include aspects of environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and multiculturalism.

Since the 1980s, a number of social democratic parties have adopted policies which support a relatively lightly regulated economy and emphasise equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome as the benchmark for social justice. This trend, known as the Third Way, is controversial among some of the left, many of whom argue that Third Way parties (such as New Labour in the United Kingdom) have embraced liberal ideology, and have ceased to be social democratic or even left-wing.

Examples of social democracy.

The prime example of social democracy is Sweden, which prospered considerably under the leadership of Olof Palme. Sweden has produced a strong economy from sole proprietorships up through to multinationals (e.g., Saab, Ikea, and Ericsson), while maintaining one of the longest life expectancies in the world, low unemployment, inflation, infant mortality, national debt, and cost of living, all while registering sizable economic growth.

Others also point to Norway as an example of a social democratic nation, where the Norwegian Labour Party played a critical role in Norway's recent political history by making social democratic reforms after WWII. In Norway, progressive taxation was introduced and the public sector greatly increased in size. Recently, Norway's economy has experienced an acceleration in economic growth, aided, in part, by the exploitation of oil deposits.

Another prominent example is the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which has been politically dominated by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and its successor the New Democratic Party since 1944. While in office the CCF and NDP have nationalized major industries, initiated wide ranging public works, and introduced generous social services such as universal health care (later implemented nationally in Canada), as well as the establishment of public automobile insurance. Today, however, while retaining its social democratic philosophy, the Saskatchewan NDP is no longer as far to the left as it once was, in comparison with the federal NDP.

To a lesser extent, the Canadian Province of Manitoba is viewed as social democratic, with nationalized businesses such as Manitoba Hydro. However the Manitoba NDP is also more moderate in comparison to the Federal NDP. Generally speaking, the provincial wings of the NDP that are major contenders for government (British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba & Nova Scotia) tend to be more in the modern Third Way mould of social democracy, as opposed to the federal party and smaller provincial wings that still follow the older style of democratic socialism (reminiscent of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation).

Criticism of social democracy.

Social democracy has been criticized both from the right, by economic liberals and conservatives, and from the left, by socialists and communists. The majority of contemporary criticism comes from social and economic liberals, who advance the following arguments:

  • Social democratic systems limit individual rights, especially economic freedoms, to an excessive degree (this argument was put forward strongly by Friedrich von Hayek, who is believed to have influenced both Margaret Thatcher and the Chicago School of economic thought)..
  • The regulations placed on the market by social democracy tend to limit economic efficiency and growth..
  • Social democratic programs sometimes entail large government outlays, which can result in sizeable budget deficits..
  • State provision of education, health care, childcare and other services limits individual choice. Even where private alternatives are available, liberals would argue that it still limits individuals choice, since it requires that an individual effectively pay twice for a service (to the state and the private provider)..
  • It has been argued that social democracy tends to tax the working class more than the rich who can evade taxes through sophisticated accounting, therefore impeding the efforts of the working class to build wealth..
  • It has also been argued that social democracy, by taxing wages, places the burden of the tax on the middle class, and not on the rich who live off of dividends and capital gains. .

Social democrats reply that their policies in fact enhance individual rights by raising the standard of living of the great majority of the population, increasing social mobility, raising the power of workers and consumers in society, keeping production and, therefore, GDP higher, stabilizing economic conditions by providing economic security to individuals, and eliminating the threat of extreme poverty. Individual rights are also maintained, as in many places alternative private facilities are also available. It is also argued that, by restricting some economic rights, social democracy makes the market "fairer." Social democrats also contend that the conservative administrations in the United States and Britain have been responsible for far larger budget deficits than any social democratic government.

There is also criticism of social democracy on the left. Many social democrats reject the label "socialist" and the goal of achieving Socialism. For their part, socialists regard social democracy as an obstacle to truly radical reform of society. They claim that social democrats can only operate within the constraints of the existing capitalist orientated economic system, limiting many social reforms, and buy into the capitalist system to such an extent that they eventually become indistinguishable from conservatives. Left-wing critics allege that some professed social democrats, such as Tony Blair (UK), Gerhard Schröder (Germany), and to a lesser extent Göran Persson (Sweden) have violated the principles of social justice and equity by implementing tax cuts, cuts in social spending, privatisation of elements of the welfare state and industrial deregulation.

The record and the future of social democracy

Many of the policies espoused by social democrats at the beginning of the twentieth century have since been put into practice by social democratic governments throughout the industrialised world. Large-scale nationalisations have taken place, the role of the state in providing free-to-user or subsidised health care and education has increased greatly.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, it was widely perceived that social democracy was on the retreat in the Western world. The resultant adoption of Third Way ideology by many social democrats, and the subsequent electoral success of Third way advocates Clinton and Blair, has proved divisive within the broader social democratic community. In Britain, for example, most of the nationalised industries were sold off in the 1980s and 1990s, and Tony Blair's Labour government, rather than reversing this process, continued it. Inequalities of wealth have also risen in some countries under social democratic governments, including the United Kingdom under Blair. Social Democrats have justified these policies by accepting the claims of many liberal economists that a rise in the gap between rich and poor does not necessarily indicate a lower standard of living for the working class of the country in question.

Many of the reforms made by social democrats in Europe, particularly the establishment of national health care services, have been embraced by liberals and conservatives: in Britain, both the Liberal Democrats and all but the most hard line Thatcherites in the Conservative Party campaign heavily in favor of the protection of the National Health Service established under the post-War Labour government of Clement Attlee. Even in a country with no major social democratic party, such as the United States, there are regulatory programmes, such as public health and environmental protection, and welfare programmes, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which remain in place during administrations of all political persuasions.


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