Social Democracy – history and impact 

Photo by Josh Barwick on Unsplash

My family fled USSR led Communism and the word ‘socialist’ still evokes unpleasant memories of Communist dogma for me. The regime in Hungary behind the Iron Curtain was not a social democracy, but state capitalism. 

Ordinary people owned nothing, as the state expropriated everything, like my mother’s family’s farm land. The castles and stately homes of the former aristocracy were occupied by people who were considered worthy members of the Communist party. Most other people were poor and afraid of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and getting a nightly visit by the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB.

But, I have to admit that there were some aspects of the Communist system that people in the new capitalist era miss: Everybody was in work, as jobs were created to ensure this. Especially if you were a loyal party member. The health services were for everyone and as good as the standard of medicine at that time allowed. And children were encouraged to study (not just Communist dogma) which led to a high number of doctors and teachers and other professions. Even a hairdresser or a waiter/waitress had to take A-levels and learn a foreign language – one of which had to be Russian. There was still a small percentage of privileged families of party officials, but the rest of the country was pretty equal. There was no homelessness and very low crime rates.

Are we better off in the UK, a Parliamentary democracy? 

Russell Jackson on Twitter criticises the current British system:

The foreign, non-dom billionaire-owned UK “news” media exist to protect and prioritise the interests of a handful of greedy, cruel and grotesquely wealthy elites against social democracy. But don’t take my word for it: listen to Albert Einstein and to L T Hobhouse:

But what is “social democracy”?

Russell Jackson tweets:

“If you listened to representatives of the UK Government, the right-wing UK media, or any of the usual ‘outrage porn’ culture war extremists, you’d think it was some kind of Marxist plot against humanity, because that’s what voters are told to believe.” 

According to Wikipedia, social democracy is

“a politicalsocial, and economic philosophy within socialism that supports political and economic democracy. As a policy regime, it is described by academics as advocating economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of liberal-democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy.” 

It is a fair and common sense ideology which is meant to improve people’s quality of life by reducing inequalities and stop the accumulation of wealth by the few wealthy impoverishing others.

History of Social Democracy 

According to Britannica, based on 19th century socialism and on the teachings of Marx and Engels, social democracy shares some common ideological roots with communism. However, it wants to achieve its aims peacefully and not by revolution. It opposes militancy, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. 

“Social democracy was originally known as revisionism because it represented a change in basic Marxist doctrine, primarily in the former’s repudiation of the use of revolution to establish a socialist society.” 

First Social Democratic Party 

The first social Democratic movement was founded by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht in Germany. They cofounded the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, which in 1875 merged with the General German Workers’ Union. This then became the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

According to Britannica,

“Bebel imbued social democracy with the belief that socialism must be installed through lawful means rather than by force. After the election of two Social Democrats in 1871, the party grew in political strength until in 1912 it became the largest single party in voting strength.”

The social democratic movement started to spread to other countries in Europe, including Britain. The success of the party as against communism was due to the influence of a German political theorist Eduard Bernstein, who did not believe that capitalism was doomedlike Marxists did. He pointed out that many of the weaknesses cited by Marx, like overproduction, unemployment and inequalities were overcome in modern industrialised societies. Ownership was becoming diffused and the working class did not feel so subjugated that they would to resort to Revolution.

According to Britannica:

 “Bernstein argued that success for socialism depended not on the continued & intensifying misery of the working class, but rather on eliminating that misery, noting that social conditions were improving, and that with universal suffrage the working class could establish socialism.

Britain’s Liberal Party 

In 1906, Britain’s Liberal Party won a landslide victory. The welfare state based on the German example was fiercely opposed by the press baron brothers Alfred and Harold Harmsworth. The newspaper owners  were especially hostile to David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as he wanted to provide old age pensions for people over the age of seventy.


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Russian Revolution and post WWII 

It was the violence of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath which led to the final split between the social democratic parties and the communist parties.

Social democratic parties came to power after the disastrous WWII in many western European countries. In Britain it was Clement Attlee’s transformative UKLabour Party which laid the foundations for a much fairer and much more equal society. It introduced modern European social welfare programs, including our amazing NHS.

German mixed economy

Social democracy changed gradually, especially in West Germany. Despite the fact that the principles of the various social democratic parties began to diverge, certain common fundamental principles were prevalent: social democracy took a stand in opposition to totalitarianism.

Britannica says:

“The Marxist view of democracy as a “bourgeois” facade for class rule was abandoned, and democracy was proclaimed essential for socialist ideals. Social democracy adopted the goal of state regulation of business and industry as sufficient to further economic growth & equitable income.”

Fairer society makes happier citizens

Until the 1980s social democracy was dominant in much of Western Europe and the US. This made for happier citizens who were well informed and felt that they were treated with fairness. Equal societies are the happiest.

Sadly, since then inequalities have slowly returned again. Wealth has crept into the hands of a small elite who exert undue power. This seems to be especially crass in the UK.

According to the Equality Trust

“Compared to other developed countries the UK has a very unequal distribution of income, with a Gini coefficient of 0.35. According to 2013 data from 19 OECD member states in the Luxembourg Income Study data set, the UK is the fifth most unequal, and fourth most unequal in Europe.”

Wealth is also unevenly spread across Great Britain. The South East is the wealthiest of all regions with median household total wealth of £387,400, over twice the amount of wealth in households in the North West (£165,200). (Equality Trust)

People in countries where there are high levels of inequality, are obviously dissatisfied with their lives. This makes it easier to be manipulated by political and media elites, creating division by identifying and vilifying scapegoats.

See Brexit and the UK Rwanda Plan for deporting refugees.