Social Democracy: Past and Future

Social Democracy: Past and Future

At the close of the century, many people believe that liberalism or neoconservatism has emerged triumphant. The evidence for this view is considerable. During the past two decades, in many of the developed democracies the state has been in retreat before the onslaught of the market. Hundreds of millions liberated within the old Soviet empire have seen Leninism replaced by unregulated capitalism and minimal government. Even the once mighty Asian tigers are under unrelenting pressure from the Americans and the International Monetary Fund to shed their state-led form of capitalism and adopt the “normal” model—that of the United States.

During the same two decades, international trade and development policies have been characterized by policies and treaties that deliberately exclude any consideration of justice or human rights. We have also seen the successful emergence of a new global association of conservative, liberal, and republican parties. The explicit goal of the International Democratic Union, established at a conference hosted by Margaret Thatcher in London in 1983, is the global spread of market economies and limited government. While endorsing political and civil rights, it strongly opposes economic and social rights. It now has a membership of seventy governing and opposition parties in over sixty countries.

As if this picture were not ominous enough for the left, many of our own political parties, notably in the Anglo-American world, seem to have discovered once unsuspected virtues in liberalism. One hundred years ago, the leading German social democratic theorist Eduard Bernstein had quite plausibly predicted that the twentieth century would see the triumph not of liberalism, but of social democracy. What, we may ask, has been going on?

We should begin by acknowledging liberalism’s significant contributions to humanity: artistically creative societies, rapid economic growth, scientific discoveries, medical cures in abundance, and for ordinary people a supply of consumer goods and services that only ascetics can decry. Unquestionably, its greatest political gift has been the amalgam of rights-based representative government anchored by tolerant civil societies in which pluralism and the rule of law prevail.

This being acknowledged, we must ask, what about our new or residual problems—consumption as a way of life, increasing class-based inequality, sexism, racism, ecological destruction, unemployment? Contemporary liberals claim that such matters either require stronger doses of some aspect of liberalism, or are irremediable in any form of free society. In any case, they contend, social democray had its chance during the four decades following World War II, and has lost out.

Why should this be? If liberalism in its various phases and contradictions has been with us for more than three hundred years, why should the time of testing for social democracy, its most significant offspring, be redu...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: