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Development of Social Democratic Politics

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What's the Difference Between a Socialist and a Social Democrat?

Social democrats share common roots with socialists, but maintaining representative democracy is their primary goal. Unlike pure socialists, social democrats put the construction of a socialist society second in importance, and do not object to the private ownership of property. There are also other distinctions.


The Roots of Social Democracy

Social democracy developed in Germany in the middle of the 19th century out of worker’s movements. These were socialist and drew on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

However, more moderate socialists moved closer to the political centre and established Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Goals of the Gotha Program

The Gotha Program of 1875 set out the aims of the SPD. It called for the creation of “socialistic productive associations” not for the state takeover of the means of production. Other goals were:

  • Abolish exploitation of every kind;
  • Extinguish all social and political inequality;
  • Grant the vote to everybody above 20 years of age;
  • Secret ballots;
  • Freedom of the press;
  • Free and compulsory education;
  • A single, progressive income tax, both state and local, instead of all the existing taxes, especially the indirect ones (such as sales taxes), which weigh heavily upon the people;
  • Unlimited right of association;
  • A normal working day corresponding with the needs of society, and the prohibition of work on Sunday;
  • Prohibition of child labour and all forms of labour by women that are dangerous to health or morality;
  • Laws for the protection of the life and health of workers;
  • Sanitary control of worker’s houses;
  • Inspection of mines, factories, workshops, and domestic industries by officials chosen by the workers themselves, and an effective system of enforcement of the same; and,
  • Regulation of prison labour.

The fact that all of those demands sound quite temperate today, except to many Americans, tells us a lot about the living conditions of working people 135 years ago.

Together with the German labour unions, the SPD came to embrace a moderate, democratic, evolutionary approach to socialism. By 1914, the SPD had become the single largest political party in the German parliament; its lead was followed elsewhere in the Western world.

Social Democracy in the Western World

In Britain, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald was in power for ten months in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931. The Australian Labour Party held office from 1929 to 1932, from 1941 to 1949, and from 1972 to 1975. The Labour government of New Zealand, elected in 1935, remained in power until 1949. In Scandinavia, candidates of the Social Democratic parties of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were elected to high positions early in the 1920s.

Canada has never had a social democratic government in Ottawa, although the movement has held power in a number of provinces. Under the banner of the New Democratic Party, social democrats have governed British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario.

Since World War II, the Scandinavian countries have been governed mostly by social democratic parties. While the goals of the Gotha Program mostly have been achieved, social democrats believe there remains a lot of work yet to be done.

More Goals for Social Democrats

At the 18th Congress of the Socialist International in Stockholm, Sweden in 1989, a Declaration of Principles was adopted. Some highlights of this include:

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  • A fairer distribution of the world’s wealth between developed and developing countries. The United Nations goal of developed nations providing 0.7% of their Gross Domestic Product to aid must be met;
  • Disarmament and the destruction of weapons: “Peace is the precondition of all our hopes. It is a basic value of common interest to all political systems and necessary for human society. War destroys human life and the basis for social development;”
  • A greater emphasis to be placed on protection of the environment because the planet is “threatened by an uncontrolled urban and industrial expansion, the degradation of the biosphere, and the irrational exploitation of vital resources;”
  • A strengthening of international political structures; and,
  • New technologies need to be introduced under democratic political control to ensure that they are not harmful to the environment and that they create jobs rather than increase unemployment.

Change Is Inevitable

Hand-built cars above, and robot-built cars below.

More Goals for Social Democracy

  • “Manipulation of human genetic material and exploitation of women through new reproductive technologies must be prevented;”
  • An economy that includes public ownership of some sectors. Where there is private ownership public oversight is needed to ensure that social and environmental goals are achieved;
  • There should be “worker participation and joint decision-making at company and workplace levels as well as union involvement in the determination of national economic policy;”
  • Citizens, workers, and consumers should have greater control over the means of production and working-life issues rather than having power concentrated in a few hands;
  • “Special attention must be given to the relations between different generations. Elderly people in particular need the respect and support of the young. They need a guaranteed income through social security and public pensions, homes and nursing in the community, room for cultural and social activities, and the right to live their old age in dignity;”
  • Women in every culture and structure of society must be accorded justice and equality; and,
  • “We . . . reject and condemn any form of religious or political fundamentalism.”

These goals appear far from revolutionary to most Europeans, but to Americans they constitute socialism and that is anathema.

Weakened Social Democracy

Writing for Politico, Matthew Karnitsching notes that “Since World War II, social democracy has stood, along with the center right, as one of the twin pillars of European democracy.” But, he adds that it’s under attack by populists from the left and the right.

In Germany’s 2017 election, the SPD suffered its worst losses since 1949.

Denmark’s Social Democrats were booted out of power in 2015 by a centre-right coalition.

The incumbent Social Democratic Party of Austria lost power to a conservative party in the 2017 national election.

In recent elections in France and Greece socialists struggled to get six percent of the popular vote.

In 2019, Britain's Labour Party suffered the worst defeat in its history.

In many European countries the issues of immigration and security are pushing the core values of social democrats onto the sidelines. In addition, as blue-collar jobs fade away and with them the strength of organized industrial workers, the foundation of social democracy, becomes less of a force.

Bonus Factoids

  • Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator from Vermont, self identifies as a social democrat. In a Harvard-Harris poll in April 2017, he was viewed favorably by 57 percent of registered votes. The Hill commented “Sanders is the only person in a field of 16 Trump administration officials or congressional leaders included in the survey who is viewed favorably by a majority of those polled.”
  • A common criticism of social democracy is that it kills business. However, the social democratic nations of Scandinavia seem to contradict that notion. According to the business magazine Forbes, Sweden is the fourth best country in the world in which to do business. Denmark ranks seventh, Finland 14th, and Norway 15th.


  • “The Gotha and Erfurt Programs.” Hanover College, undated.
  • “Declaration of Principles.” Socialist International, June 1989.
  • “Political Ideologies and Political Philosophies.” H. B. McCullough, Thompson Educational Pub (revised 1999).
  • “Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact (10th Edition).” Leon P. Baradat, Prentice Hall; 10 edition (March 2008).
  • “The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought.” Alan Bullock et al, editors., Harper Collins, April 1988.
  • “Like Germany’s Social Democrats, Left-Wing Parties Are Losing Ground Across Europe.” Rick Noack, Washington Post, September 25, 2017.
  • “Who Killed European Social Democracy?” Matthew Karnitsching, Politico, March 3, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

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