Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition

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Download the full report here: Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition 


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Reader's Guide

The purpose of Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition is to provide a political history, overview and critical evaluation of the social democratic tradition in Western politics - and in Canada in particular - in this moment of upheaval, inequality and decline in democracies around the globe.

The paper serves as a starting point for the Broadbent Institute’s project Change the Game and seeks to shed light on some fundamental questions:

  • What is social democracy?

  • What gains can we attribute to it, and are they still relevant today?

  • Who benefitted from social democracy and what has been lost as the social democratic project has lost ground?

This reader’s guide offers a summary of the paper and provides some key questions for reader’s to ask and consider as they read.

What is social democracy?

The term social democracy designates both a social and political movement and a distinctive political theory that developed in opposition to liberal capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. As used here, the term social democracy means the full extension of democratic principles to both the social and economic sphere and overlaps closely with the concept of democratic socialism, which denotes building a different kind of economy.

Social democracy is about more than capitalism plus a welfare state, and very much remains a goal rather than a reality.

The historical roots of social democracy lie in the movements of the industrial working class and the ideas of socialist opponents of liberal capitalism. Social democracy thus has a more tangential and more recent relationship to feminism, anti-racism, the environmental movement and struggles for the recognition of disability rights and Indigenous rights. Social democratic renewal is very much about building deeper linkages to other social movements promoting equality and recognition of differences other than those based upon social class.

Social democracy’s evolution

The first section of the paper (see page six) explores the relationship between social democracy and the rise of social citizenship and the recognition of economic and social rights. While social democrats can take a great deal of credit for the (temporary and contested) transformation of liberal capitalism into the Keynesian welfare state, this was not exclusively a social democratic achievement. Moreover, social democrats advanced a distinctive view of the welfare state with rights to education, health and welfare based upon citizenship as opposed to much more narrowly targeted and residual social programs. Social democrats also supported a strong labour movement as a key foundation for equality and economic democracy.

The social democratic tradition has recognized that inequality of both condition and opportunity is rooted in the concentrated ownership of private capital and in the fact that the logic of capital accumulation limits the workings of political democracy. Until well into the post-war period, economic democracy in the sense of social ownership and regulation of private capital was very much on the social democratic agenda.

The second section of the paper (see page 13) looks at the historical development of the social democratic political movement from the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century until the Golden Age of the immediate post-war years. Prior to the First World War, the expansion of labour and democratic rights led to increased political representation and socialists had to come to terms with the fact that capitalism was capable of both advancing working-class living standards and implementing social reforms, contrary to the tenets of orthodox Marxism.

Socialism came to be seen by some reformists as a goal to be achieved gradually through the political institutions of liberal democracy, as opposed to a moment of transition. The division between democratic and revolutionary socialists became explicit after the Bolshevik Revolution, but democratic socialists and social democrats retained a vision of a post-capitalist economy. The Great Depression and a divided left kept democratic socialism mainly on the sidelines in the 1930s, with the exception of Swedish social democracy, which promoted Keynesian policies and the expansion of the welfare state.

The third section (see page 21) of the paper examines social democracy from the heyday of the Keynesian welfare state to the Great Recession of 2008. The post-war period saw the implementation of many social democratic policies and a significant decrease in economic and social inequality alongside full employment and strong economic growth. This seemingly confirmed that capitalism could coexist with the recognition of labour and economic and social rights, leading many to reject socialism in the sense of social ownership as an ultimate goal. This shift also took place against the backdrop of the rise of a skilled middle class, the decline of the traditional industrial working class, the mass entry of women into the workforce and, perhaps, a more individualist political culture.

The heyday of social democracy was also marked by the rise of the new social movements and a new left calling for fundamental change, including the pursuit of less material goals than traditional social democracy. The emergence of stagflation (high inflation combined with rising unemployment) in the 1970s set the stage for the return of more market orthodoxy (free-market liberalism, or neoliberalism), including the attack on full employment, government regulation, the labour movement and the welfare state by the political Right. Democratic socialists saw greater socialization of private investment and a major role for public investment as the means to maintain economic growth and full employment, but many social democrats increasingly embraced neo-liberal ideas, albeit with an emphasis on maintaining past advances and maintaining equality of opportunity.

The final section of the paper (see page 36) very briefly summarizes current prospects for social democracy at a time when neoliberalism has clearly failed to deliver shared economic and social progress. The key elements of an alternative economic and social agenda exist, including an emphasis on new forms of social ownership, the importance of public investment, and the central importance of environmental transition. A renewed social democracy will also mean building a broad social movement for change in close alliance with other movements including feminist and anti-racist movements.

Key questions:

  1. What were the primary innovations of social democracy?

  2. Do you agree with the definition of social democracy? What does it leave out?

  3. What were/are the blind spots of social democracy? Did social democracy reinforce or create barriers and discrimination?

  4. What is the relationship between social movements, trade unions and political parties in the creation of social democracy?

  5. Is social democracy fundamentally at odds with neo-liberalism?

  6. How can social democracy become an inclusive project allied with other left movements?


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Download the full report here: Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition