The Origins of Social Democracy

Updated on March 15, 2019
Joseph G Caldwell profile image

My focus as blogger the past 4 years is on politics and economics in historical context.

Synthesis of Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy

Social democracy came about as a synthesis of socialism and parliamentary democracy beginning in the pre-Marxist era of co-operatives and trade unions of the 1830’s-40’s. Towards the 20th century egalitarian democracy was confronted by the historical forces of nationalism and wars and bifurcated into democratic and authoritarian streams. Socialism split into revolutionary and reformist branches. Marx was revolutionary whereas the reformers, Ferdinand Lassalle and Eduard Bernstein, both supported implementing socialism in the form of social democracy within the government. Marx claimed the state was the organ of exploitation by the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, which enslaves the majority of humans for the realization of its aims.

Ferdinand Lassalle vs Karl Marx

Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was the prototype of the state-socialist – one whose goal is to incorporate socialism within the existing state. He told the workers that the state is something “that will achieve for each one of us what none of us could achieve for himself.” Marx taught the exact opposite, that the working class had to emancipate itself and abolish the existing state in the process. Lassalle declared: "The immemorial vestal fire of all civilization, the State, I defend with you against those modern barbarians (the liberal bourgeoisie)"

Lassalle founded the General German Workers' Association in 1863 which eventually evolved into the Social Democratic Party. His version of socialism, later termed "revisionism", borrowed from German idealist philosophers Kant and Hegel and French socialists Blanc and Proudhon. Lassalle advocated universal suffrage (voting rights) as the means by which the workers would force the state to grant to them the whole fruits of their production. The working class, he believed, embodied the spirit of the people whose higher will was manifest in the state. Until it captured the state, the working class could expect little from independent trade union activity. It was on this point that Lassalle, or rather the Lassalleans, and Marx vehemently disagreed (Marx outlived Lasssalle by 19 years). Lassalle, like Marx, assumed the existence of an Iron Law of Wages, whereby labor was inevitably driven down to the lowest level necessary to maintain life. Lassalle found that labor could free itself only though the invincible power of the state. Marx believed the Iron Law could only be broken by the power of labor itself. He had little faith in the power of the state unless it directly responded to the interests of the working class, and had no faith whatsoever in the German state.

Evolution of Social Democracy

Lassalle settled in Berlin in 1859 and soon believed that the revolutionary phase had come to an end and that only a legal and evolutionary approach could hold hopes of success. With this goal in mind he held discussions with the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck in 1863–64. Stuck in a difficult political situation, Bismarck was seeking allies in his struggle against the majority liberal opposition, while Lassalle was pondering a monarchical welfare state. This was to be based on extending voting rights to all classes, not just the aristocracy (upper social echelons). He thus hoped to integrate the working class into politics and move from a bourgeois state based on private property to a democratic constitutional state. Eventually Bismarck created the first modern welfare state by incorporating these ideas into social programs which provided to German citizens all the following: health insurance, accident insurance (workman's compensation), disability insurance and an old-age retirement pension.

Although Lassalle was not a Marxist, he was influenced by the theories of Marx and Friedrich Engels and he accepted the existence and importance of class struggle. However, unlike Marx's and Engels's The Communist Manifesto, Lassalle promoted class struggle in a more moderate form. Marx viewed the state negatively as an instrument of class rule that should only exist temporarily upon the rise to power of the proletariat and then dismantled, whereas Lassalle viewed the state as a means through which workers could enhance their interests and even transform the society to create an economy based on worker-run cooperatives. Lassalle's strategy was primarily electoral and reformist, with Lassalleans contending that the working class needed a political party that fought above all for universal adult male suffrage.

The German Social Democratic Party emerged as the colossus of European reformist (parliamentary) socialism, and its growth kept pace with the phenomenal industrial growth of the country after German unification in 1871. As the dominant party in the Second International, created in 1889, it was the premier socialist organization of the world. Yet, socialism was not making headway in the U.S. or Britain in the form of organized parties. Britain's socialist Fabian Society began to grow within the middle class, akin to radical liberalism and firmly anti-revolutionary. French Socialism also fell to a moderate reformist position. It became apparent that wherever political democracy showed strength it tended either to neutralize the appeal of a revolution via liberal democracy or thwart its development altogether. Conflict emerged in Germany between orthodox Karl Kautsky and revisionist (reformist) Eduard Bernstein who maintained that class conflict was diminishing, that capitalism was proving supple and strong and that socialism should be approached by piecemeal and parliamentary means.

Lassalle was for many decades considered a reformist heretic by the worker’s movement, which then adhered to the deterministic notions of popular Marxism according to which the dictatorship of the proletariat was foreordained by history. By others Lassalle continued to be romantically glorified as a pioneer of socialism. The modern significance of Lassalle was realized belatedly, only since the time of Eduard Bernstein and the era of revisionism, when the German Social Democratic Party took the form of parliamentary democracy. He is less remembered as the theorist and the organizer of a workers’ party.

Fabianism, Kautsky, and Bernstein

In Britain Fabian Socialism determined that laissez faire capitalism was destroying the social and cultural life. Like Marx, the Fabians assumed the logic of capitalism necessarily led to socialism. They lobbied for the introduction of a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of a universal health care system in 1911 and for the abolition of hereditary peerages in 1917. Fabian socialists were in favor of reforming Britain's imperialist foreign policy as a conduit for internationalist reform, and were in favor of a welfare state modeled on the Bismarckian German model.

Orthodox Marxist, Karl Kautsky, advocated the democratic method as essential for socialism, democracy with parliamentarism, poltical and social liberties, and the socialization of the means of production. By contrast, the Bolsheviks were a despotically organized minority that annulled the meaning socialism acquired in combination with democracy. To maintain that non-democratic methods adopted in the name of socialism was to introduce uncontrolled abuses of power. Kautsky felt that modern socialism required the democratic organization of society. His socialism was indissolubly linked to democracy. He asserted that the Bolsheviks concept of dictatorship was actually contrary to Marxist theory, which posed a historically necessary link between proletarian development and socialism. Bolshevism did not provide for a healthy gestation of the proletariat's maturation via capitalist development and the experience of struggle seasoned by the exercise of political and civil liberties. Without this development there is no proletariat strong enough and intelligent enough to build a socialist state.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was a major socialist thinker and, in many socialist circles, as the founders' successor. In the years following Engels' death, Bernstein took an increasingly critical view of Marx, beginning with his recognition that Marx's prediction of capitalism's imminent demise in Das Kapital sharply conflicted with the emerging realities of industrialized European states where market forces gained strength and where the living conditions of workers were gradually improving. Bernstein rejected key ideological tenets of Marx, including Marx's economic theories and dialectical materialism. Bernstein concluded that Marx's worldview was unfounded; however, he respected and urged fellow socialists to uphold Marx's intent to improve the living conditions of the laborer. He maintained, however, that violent revolution was unnecessary and that social reform could be effected through the ballot box. He favored advancing the rights of workers and increased state intervention in the economy but in the context of a democratic society based on rule of law.

Bolshevik Authoritarianism vs Social Democacy

In the course of World War I and the years that followed soon thereafter a final break took place between the the democratic-revisionist majority and radical revolutionary minority. This decisive turn was triggered by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, October 1917, and by reaction to the victory of the revolutionary over the reformist line. Before the Bolshevik hegemony. Russia had a powerful social democratic party, The Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDRPR), founded in 1898. Lenin, however, as early as 1903, had broken away from it in a militant revolutionary fighting party, founding the Bolsheviks in Prague in 1912. The 1917 Russian Revolution included the cessation of the Romanov dynasty, establishment of a Provisional Government, and its violent overthrow in October by Lenin's Bolsheviks.

If Bernstein's democratic views had prevailed over the partisans of violent revolution such as Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), the repression and genocide that characterized totalitarian states such as Leninist-Stalinist Soviet Union, Mao Tse-tung/Maoist China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and totalitarian North Korea might have been avoided. Bernstein's thought did shape the views of today's pro-democratic social democratic party of Germany, the Socialist Party of France and the Labor Party of the United Kingdom as well as numerous other socialist political parties. In post-communist societies, communists have tended to revert over the past two decades and embrace pro-democratic political positions that parallel Bernstein's.

Sources

The Age of Ideologies: The History of Political Thought in the 20th Century by Karl Dietrich Bracher

History of Socialist Thought: From the Precursors to the Present by Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/chartism-feargus-oconnor-democracy-suffrage-thomas-paine

Socialist Thought: A Documentary, Eds A. Fried, R. Sanders

https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/5-lassalle.htm

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ferdinand-Lassalle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabian_Society

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_German_Workers%27_Association

Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_democracy

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Eduard_Bernstein

https://libcom.org/library/dictatorship-proletariat-joseph-weydemeyer

http://www.politicalsciencenotes.com/theories-of-state/marxist-theory-of-state-definition-origin-and-2-models/769

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://soapboxie.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)