Rediscovering Social Democracy

Rediscovering Social Democracy

Two shibboleths dominate contemporary discussion about the future of the left in advanced industrial democracies. The first is that globalization is creating a fundamentally new environment for leaders and publics, imposing burdens and constraining choices. The second is that traditional social democracy has played itself out as a political ideology, creating a vacuum that can and should be filled by some new progressive movement with greater contemporary relevance.

Ironically, however, the very conditions that lead so many observers to proclaim social democracy’s demise provide an excellent context for its re-examination and possibly even its resurgence, albeit in somewhat different form. This is because the issue at the heart of contemporary globalization debates—whether states can dominate market forces or must bow before them—is in fact very old. Indeed, social democracy emerged from similar debates within the international socialist movement a century ago. Those debates have been forgotten or misunderstood, and that’s why many contemporary discussions of social democracy are so superficial and intellectually impoverished.

These days, having been abused by friends and foes alike over the years, the term “social democracy” is more an epithet or a banner than a meaningful designation. Very few people, even among its own members, could give a coherent definition of the movement’s nature or goals. Underneath the confusion, however, two broad views can be discerned. The first, often espoused by critics, sees social democracy as an unstable half-way house between Marxism and liberalism, cobbled together from elements of different and incompatible traditions; social democrats are basically socialists without the courage of their revolutionary convictions. The second view, often held by supporters, sees the movement as an effort to implement particular policies or uphold certain values; social democrats are the champions of the welfare state, or equality, or solidarity. Each view contains some truth, but both miss the larger picture. Properly understood, social democracy is far more than a particular program. It is neither watered-down Marxism nor bulked-up liberalism, but rather a full-fledged alternative to both. Apprehending the true nature of this ideology, however, requires returning to the circumstances of its birth.

The Origins

The first half of the nineteenth century was the golden age of liberalism, which emerged alongside the industrial revolution as the first modern political and economic ideology. In many parts of Western Europe, liberalism appeared as a progressive and even revolutionary force, promising to break down the remaining structures of the old regime and replace them with a system based on individualism, rationalism, and permanent economic progress. Yet by the middle of the century, the practical consequences of unfettered capitalism—dramatic inequalities, social dislocation...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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