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Social democracy is a political ideology of the political left and centre-left on the classic political spectrum. Social democracy emerged in the late 19th century from the socialist movement and continues to exert influence worldwide.

The concept of social democracy has changed throughout the decades since its inception. The fundamental difference between social democratic thought and other forms of socialism, such as orthodox Marxism, is a belief in the primacy of political action as opposed to the primacy of economic action or economic determinism.

Historically, social democratic parties advocated socialism in the strict sense, which was to be achieved by class struggle. In the early 20th century, however, a number of socialist parties rejected revolution and other traditional ideas of Marxism such as class struggle, and went on to take more moderate positions. These moderate positions included a belief that reformism was a desirable way to achieve socialism.

However, modern social democracy has deviated from socialism, and supports the idea of a mixed economy which incorporates elements of both socialism and capitalism. Social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of programs that work to counteract or remove the social injustice and inefficiencies they see as inherent in capitalism. A product of this effort has been the modern democratic welfare state. This approach significantly differs from traditional socialism, which aims to replace the capitalist system entirely with a new economic system characterized by either state or direct worker ownership of the means of production.

In many countries, social democrats continue to exist alongside democratic socialist, who stand to the left of them on the political spectrum. The two movements sometimes operate within the same political party, such as the Brazilianmarker Workers' Party and the Socialist Partymarker of Francemarker. In recent years, several social democratic parties (in particular, the British Labour Party) have embraced more centrist, Third Way policy positions. This development has generated considerable controversy.

The Socialist International (SI) is the main international organization of social democratic and moderate socialist parties. It affirms 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.


Pre-World War II

Many parties in the second half of the nineteenth century described themselves as social democratic, such as the General German Workers' Association and the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (which merged to form the Social Democratic Party of Germany or SPD), the British Social Democratic Federation and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In most cases these parties were avowedly revolutionary socialist, seeking not only to introduce socialism, but also to introduce democracy into nations lacking democratic institutions. Most of these parties were to some extent influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were at that time working abroad, in Londonmarker, to influence Continental European politics.

The modern social democratic movement came into being through a break within the socialist movement in the early years of the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, this break can be described as a parting of ways between those who insisted upon political revolution as a precondition for the achievement of socialist goals and those who maintained that a gradual or evolutionary path to socialism was both possible and desirable. 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 International 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 they 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-World War II

See also History of 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 health care, 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. While "social democrat" and "democratic socialist" continued to be used interchangeably, by the 1990s in the English-speaking world at least, the two terms had generally come to signify respectively the latter and former positions.

In Italymarker, the Italian Democratic Socialist 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 Germanymarker in particular, Greens, Social Democrats, and other left-wing parties have cooperated in so-called red–green alliances. The present government in Norwaymarker is known as the Red-Green Coalition, whilst the opposition bloc in Swedenmarker is the similarly-titled Red-Greens, with social democratic parties forming the largest components of both alliances.


Many of the policies espoused by social democrats in the first half of the 20th century have since been put into practice by social democratic governments throughout the industrialized world. Industries have been nationalized, public spending has seen a large long-term rise, and the role of the state in providing free-to-user or subsidized health care and education has increased greatly. Many of the reforms made by social democrats in Europe, such as the establishment of national health care services, have been embraced by liberals and conservatives, and there is no support outside of a radical fringe for a return to 19th-century levels of public spending and economic regulation. Even in the United States, where no major social democratic party exists, there are regulatory programmes (such as public health and environmental protection) and welfare programmes (such as Medicare and Medicaid) which enjoy bipartisan support.

However, since the 1980s, there has been a perception that social democracy has been on the retreat in the Western world, particularly in English-speaking countries, where social democratic values are arguably not as firmly rooted in local law and culture as elsewhere. In recent years, a number of historically social democratic parties and governments have moved away from some traditional elements of social democracy by endorsing Third Way ideals and thus supporting both the privatization of certain state-controlled industries and services and the reduction of certain forms of regulation of the market.

The adoption of Third Way ideology by many social democrats has proved divisive within the broader social democratic community. Traditional social democrats argue that Third Way ideology has caused the movement to become too centrist, and even that the movement may be becoming centre-right. In general, apparent reversals in policy have encountered significant opposition among party members and core voters; many of the latter have claimed that their leaders have betrayed the principles of social democracy.

Supporters of Third Way ideals argue that they 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 consensusmarker, 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 1997, Third Way politician Tony Blair and his colleagues in the New Labour movement took the strategic decision to overtly disassociate themselves from the previous, explicitly democratic socialist incarnations of their party. The Labour Government that came to power in 1997 continued the tradition that Margaret Thatcher started in the 1980s of selling out nationalized industries, and the income gap between the rich and the poor grew. This challenge to traditional social democractic ideals alienated many backbenchers, including some who advocated a 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 left and 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.


In general, contemporary social democrats support:

Socialism versus Modern Social Democracy:
Socialism Market Socialism Social Democracy
Economic Planning, Mixed Economy, Participatory planning Market economics, Market-oriented Mixed economy Regulated markets: Social Market, Mixed-Market, Welfare State
State ownership or cooperative ownership of the means of production and heavy industry State ownership or cooperative ownership of the means of production Private ownership of the means of production with minimal public ownership of some industry
State or public owns resources and major economic institutions, uses the surplus labor to fund government programs, state-directed investment State, public or worker cooperatives own resources and enterprises, uses them to fund government programs, sometimes with state-directed investment State mainly funded through progressive taxation, government regulates private business and provides welfare
The Economy of the Soviet Union, various other theories (see Socialist economics) The Economy of SFR Yugoslavia, Lange Model, Goulash Communism, Ricardian socialism, Mutualism, Socialist-oriented market economy The Economy of Sweden(Nordic model), the Social Market Economy in Germany and Austria, Welfare states

Political parties

Social democratic political parties, which sometimes also include a democratic socialist element, operate in many developed and developing countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Israel and Brazil. 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 its parliamentary group the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Globally, most social democratic parties worldwide are members of the Socialist International.

In many cases, social democratic parties are the dominant (India, United Kingdom, Portugal) or second-placed (Italy, Sweden, Germany) players within their respective political systems, though in some cases they are minor parties (Canada, Ireland, Russia). The United Statesmarker is the only industrial nation that does not currently possess a major social democratic party.

Since the 1960s, many social democrats have broadened their objectives beyond the field of economic policy to include aspects of environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and multiculturalism. Another notable development is the tendency since the 1980s for social democratic parties to distance themselves from distinctively left-wing economic policies such as public ownership and dirigisme, adopting instead policies that support a relatively lightly regulated economy and emphasize equality of opportunity.

This trend, known as the Third Way, is controversial among some of the left, many of whom argue that Third Way parties (such as the UK's Labour Party) have moved too far to the centre, or even the centre-right. Others, such as the leadership of the UK Labour Party, reject this critique.


The majority of contemporary criticism of social democracy comes from fiscal or social conservatives and classical liberals. Critics advance the following arguments:

  • The regulations placed on the market by social democracy tend to limit economic efficiency and growth, and impede the creation of wealth that may be needed to alleviate global poverty.
  • Social democratic programs sometimes entail large government outlays, which can result in sizable budget deficits.
  • State provision of education, health care, childcare and other services is inefficient, limits individual choice, and requires users to pay more if they opt to use privately-run services.

There is also criticism of social democracy from socialists and communists, who regard it as an obstacle to truly radical reform of society. Left-wing critics claim that social democrats are forced to operate within the constraints of the existing capitalist system, and that they buy into that system to such an extent that they eventually become indistinguishable from pro-capitalist right-wingers. To take specific examples, it is argued that Tony Blair (UK), Gerhard Schröder (Germany) and to a lesser extent Göran Persson (Sweden) violated the principles of social justice and equity while in office by implementing tax cuts, cuts in social spending, privatisation and deregulation.

Notable social democrats

This is an abbreviated list of well-known social democrats. For a comprehensive list, see List of social democrats

See also

Political theory

Social democracy as viewed by critics

Social democracy in practice


  1. Democracy "Social Democracy" Merriam-Webster. Merriam Webster Online.
  2. BBC News: South America's leftward sweep, 2005
  3. The SI's Declaration of Principles
  4. History of Medicare (United States)
  5. Brief History of Medicare and Medicaid (United States)
  6. BBC News: Sacrifices in the scramble for power
  7. The Guardian: Rich-poor gap 'has widened under Blair' Monday August 2, 2004
  8. PES Member Parties
  9. EU facts: Party Politics in the EU
  10. Members of the Socialist International.
  11. Labour policies
  12. Commission for Racial Equality: Clement Attlee Lecture: Trevor Phillips's speech, 21 April 2005
  13. Nuevo impulso conservador - La República
  14. Eduard Bernstein Reference Archive
  15. Encyclopædia Britannica: Willy Brandt
  16. Hjalmar Branting: The Nobel Peace Prize 1921
  17. Encyclopædia Britannica: Wilhelm Liebknecht

External links

International organizations

Social democratic literature

Criticism of social democracy

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