Social Democracy

Social democracy encompasses a broad range of beliefs, from those who believe in similar ends to Marxists to those who are very accommodating of capitalism. Social democrats are often called revisionists or reformists, and these terms are useful. Revisionism, developed by Eduard Bernstein in the early twentieth century, suggests re-examining earlier theories in light of contemporary events and society. Reformism suggests gradual and peaceful change, using rather than smashing the existing system. It is also possible to distinguish between social democracy and democratic socialism, particularly when discussing the ideas of the British Labour Party, although this is not essential for an A-level Politics student.

Eduard BernsteinSocial democrats were inspired by the works of theorists such as Bernstein, who argued in 1899’s Evolutionary Socialism that capitalism had matured, the worker’s position was improving and classes were able to compromise and cooperate. This meant that Marx was wrong, revolution was not inevitable and it was not desirable either. Bernstein focused on democracy as the best way to achieve socialist goals and was supportive of trade unions and other cooperative movements in their campaigns to improve workers’ rights. Social democracy combines an acceptance of capitalism with a belief in a strong interventionist state to restrict capitalism from its excesses and to provide some form of welfare state in order to create equality in society. Gradualism refers to the theory that it is not revolution that is inevitable but parliamentary socialism. .

Gradualists reject revolution and argue that the same or similar ends can be achieved peacefully and democratically. This form of socialism is inclusive of all classes and aims to unite the nation without class divisions. As the economic and social position of the worker improved in the later parts of the nineteenth century, he (not she — yet) also received the vote and was integrated into society through other means such as via trade unions. As a result, a political party based on socialism (such as the Labour Party in the UK) would emerge to attract the support of the new voters. Naturally, the working-class voter would be attracted to a socialist party, as with its pledges of equality it would obviously be their political home. The working-class voter would eventually form the majority of the electorate, so the socialist party would soon find itself forming the government.

Once in power, the party could use the neutral state to introduce a series of measures to create a socialist society. In contrast to revolutionary socialists, social democrats do not see the state as a tool of the capitalist class. They argue that it is a neutral body, that can be moulded to fulfil any role assigned to it by those in power. Social democrats are very critical of the inequalities caused by free-market capitalism, but they also accept that capitalism is the best way of creating large amounts of wealth. The economic failures of the Soviet system, with queues for food, prove this for social democrats. So they do not reject capitalism but seek to reconcile socialism with capitalism. This involves narrowing social and economic inequalities through welfare and redistribution. The use of progressive taxation systems allows money to be taken from the wealthy and given to the poor via the welfare state. Instead of nationalisation of all businesses, social democrats favour a mixed economy, with a combination of private enterprise and state control of the ‘heights of the economy’, such as water and electricity. John Maynard Keynes, a liberal economist, had a huge influence on twentieth-century social democracy, which encouraged active state involvement in stimulating the economy.