Social democracy developed during the early twentieth century and really began to become accepted in the years after 1945. It uses socialist principles but has different aims and methods to that of revolutionary socialism. After Britain and other Western nations recovered from the traumas of World War Two the poorer parts of society, supported by many who were better off, demanded more from their state. Many people felt that not only should they be better supported by the nation for the work and services they provided but also that society as a whole would benefit from a raise in living standards created by the state.
The foundations for social democracy are based upon moral thinking- the idea that socialism is the ethically right thing to do in a civilised world. Social democracy theorists claim that as humans want to be good then a socialist way of acting is the only moral solution in how society should be developed. People such as William Morris used humanist ideas to support social democracy (humanism is an idea that says that the satisfaction of all peoples needs should be a priority of society).
Christians have also supported social democracy because they claim that all people are created by God equal and should therefore be supported by each other and society. People such as Tawney supported social democracy because he claimed that it supported people against the problems of unregulated capitalism.
Social democrats supported their ideas with the principle of social justice; the idea that people should have a greater equality of wealth and therefore opportunity as this is the only fair way to run a society.
The goals of revolutionary socialism were seen by social democrats as too extreme because they wanted to completely reorder society and remove capitalism, which was viewed as irredeemable (cannot be made good). However, by the twentieth century some socialists had come to believe that these views were inaccurate. People such as Eduard Bernstein advocated evolutionary socialism which argued that Marxism needed revising or adapting (revisionism).
Revisionists argued several main ideas. They claimed that capitalism had not been shown to be collapsing and was not necessarily doomed (as predicted by Marx), but it needed to be used for the whole of society.
They also argued that the divisions between class outlined by Marx (bourgeoisie and proletariat) were too simplistic, as business ownership was widening as a result of the ability to buy and sell stocks and shares and a growing class of technical and professionally skilled workers. Therefore, the divide and the need for revolution was not so straightforward.
Bernstein argued that capitalism could be reformed and made to work for the good of society through state intervention such as the nationalisation of industry and the creation of legal protections for people, welfare and pensions. This process would create wealth and create a happy and more equal society. The theories of Keynesian economics developed as a result (regulating the economy and attempting to achieve full employment). A more equal society could they believed be created though using the state to redistribute wealth so that the creation of profit benefitted all involved.
As a result, socialists such as Crosland in The Future of Socialism argued that socialism should focus on several values. It should be achieved through a democratic process because it did not need to overthrow capitalism. He claimed that the state should follow ‘managerial socialism’. This meant that private property was permissible, but the state would manage the economy to ensure fairness for all using powers of economic intervention such as progressive taxation and nationalisation.
After 1945 social democracy seemed to have triumphed because it combined the economic drive of capitalism with fairness and equality without extremism. However, this success did not last. Many thought that the compromise between socialism and capitalism was always unstable and unworkable and therefore would quickly fall apart.
When capitalist economies were doing well it was possible to use redistribution to create a more equal society. However, when economies started to do badly in the 1970s there was a direct link between the principle of wealth redistribution was criticised. If the state struggled for money the argument over who should get what caused a problem for social democrats. Another problem was that as economies began to deindustrialise many people did not see themselves as working class. This causes socialist political parties such as the UK Labour Party to have to move away from socialism to get elected in the mid-1990s.
In addition, in the early 1990s the main communist nations of Europe collapsed and despite the social democrats having moved away from Marxism this meant that the ideas of socialism were discredited (seem as unrealistic).
In response to the crisis faced by social democracy in the 1980s and 90s, socialist parties began to move towards ‘neo-revisionism’, also known as the ‘third way’. The third way attempted to navigate a path between traditional social democracy and free-market neoliberalism. Key ideas of the third way include:
- Primacy of the market: neo-revisionists reject top-down state intervention and support a dynamic market economy as the best way of generating wealth. A globalised, capitalist economy is therefore accepted
- Value of community and moral responsibility: emphasising that people have moral links and responsibilities to their community, attempting to balance rights with responsibilities
- Society bases on consensus and harmony: to move away from traditional class divisions. Values such as fairness and self-reliance should be promoted
- Social inclusion: emphasis on equality of opportunity to create a meritocracy. Tony Blair, a key figure associated with the third way, suggested that welfare should be a ‘hand up, not a handout’. Welfare should therefore be more specifically targeted at getting people into work, for instance
- Competition/market state: the state should focus on social investment, for instance in education, employment and training, in order to boost economic growth and improve a nation’s standing in the world economy
The third way was electorally successful during the New Labour years and has influences many left-of-centre parties. In the UK however it has been criticised as not containing many socialist ideas, and just being an attempt to win more votes from ‘centre-ground’ voters. The UK Labour Party has since moved away from the third way and back towards more social democratic thinking.
- Explain and analyse three ways that the concept of human nature is significant to socialist thinkers. (9 marks- 3 paragraphs)
- Your answer should include: Positive / Cooperative / Sociable / Alienating / Capitalism / Competition / Nurture / Marx