Social Democracy

Social democracy covers a wide range of beliefs, from those with similar goals to Marxists to those who are more accepting of capitalism. Social democrats are often referred to as revisionists or reformists. Revisionism, introduced by Eduard Bernstein in the early 20th century, involves re-evaluating earlier theories in light of current events and society. Reformism suggests gradual and peaceful change, working within the existing system rather than overthrowing it. A distinction can be made between social democracy and democratic socialism, especially in discussions related to the British Labour Party, though this distinction may not be crucial for A-level Politics students. Social democrats draw inspiration from thinkers like Eduard Bernstein, who argued in his 1899 work "Evolutionary Socialism" that capitalism had evolved, workers' conditions were improving, and classes could collaborate and compromise. This perspective challenged Marx's view that revolution was inevitable and undesirable. Bernstein emphasized democracy as the most effective path to achieving socialist objectives and supported trade unions and other cooperative movements in their efforts to enhance workers' rights. Social democracy combines an acknowledgment of capitalism with a belief in a robust interventionist government to regulate capitalism and establish some form of welfare state to promote equality in society. Gradualism suggests that parliamentary socialism, rather than revolution, is the more likely outcome.

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.