Social Democracy: daring to be more radical

Social Democracy had no coherent response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s.


Social Democracy, as a family of political parties, is in the midst of an existential crisis. Its unity, its long-term future and the status of its members on the political scene are under threat. To remain true to the cause that saw them emerge in response to the industrial capitalism of the first globalisation, Social Democratic parties will have to break with a series of decisions that limited them to the role of mere managers of contemporary globalisation.


With its persistence, in spite of all the upheavals during its over hundred years of existence, and on account of its resilience, stronger than that of its communist and christian democrat rivals, Social Democracy has always appeared to be more or less in a state of crisis. Its political choices were mostly the outcome of internal party battles, rather than of some unfathomable Social-Democratic essence.

Social Democracy had no coherent response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Policies of orthodox economic liberalism were implemented before new concepts were put in place and became dominant during the years of strong post-war growth. While some defended the strategy of united proletarian fronts, others promoted popular fronts including bourgeois and democratic forces. Some, like the neo-socialists in France, united around a national rallying call — seen, by some, as a prelude to collaborating with the Nazi occupier.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Social Democracy was faced with a less challenging environment, but one that rendered its post-war model ineffective (declining growth rates, depletion of Keynesian revenues, the end of the bipolar world, increasingly diversified societies, etc.). Again, there was no unanimous move towards the idea of “Social Market Democracy”, followed by Blair and Schröder on the eve of the 21st century. Certain left-wing fringes argued for a Socialist radicalisation of the Social Democratic project but were decisively defeated.

Today, the very real risk of becoming obsolete once again looms large for Social Democrats. They have offered no new alternative to the austerity and “structural reform” measures that are hurting so many of their traditional supporters, and are struggling to come up with new ideas to deal with threats to rights and freedoms. Formidable opponents have appeared, in the shape of emerging pro-European centre-right movements and a more attractive, alternative Left. Nationalist right-wing forces have taken advantage of the migrant crisis to introduce issues of national identity, always a problematic subject for the Left, into the political debate. The result has been a widespread electoral decline from which almost no branch of the Social Democratic family has been spared and which is gathering pace (the chance of record low election results has rocketed in recent years).

In my opinion, the future of Social Democracy is still open and will probably be different depending on the country. If it is to stay faithful to its central promise to defend the underprivileged, it must break away from the doctrinal and institutional status quo, which is currently biased in favour of neoliberal and climate-killing policies.

Grassroot activists should fight for organisational innovations that enable more competition for internal party roles and election candidates.

New sources of inspiration are available: Labour in the UK, for example, has incorporated ideas of political economy that propose to redistribute not only wealth and “opportunities”, but also decision-making powers in companies. This is an interesting prospect, as is an alliance with movements advocating a ban on carbon-based energy sources and seeking to restrict the investments by multinationals.

More generally, the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggested a mixed strategy for social transformation that would meet the ecological and social challenges of our time. On the one hand, Wright called for legal provisions to restore the conditions of “positive class compromise” for ordinary citizens. On the other hand, he proposed encouraging non-capitalist spaces and activities (cooperatives, employee stock ownership plans, solidarity financing, etc.).

It is clear that such a project would lead to a confrontation with the dominant players and existing rules of the European Union. What’s more, it is far from attractive to the many Social Democratic elites that have become part of the decision-making circles of the European and international institutions or been co-opted by business. To combat this, grassroots activists should fight for organisational innovations that enable more competition for internal party roles and election candidates.

Moreover, elected Social Democratic representatives who choose this path, and appear to their comrades to be “heretics”, will have to assume the responsibility of making their disagreements public at a European level, as Paul Magnette of Belgium did during the negotiations for the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada (CETA).

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