Opinion: Social Democracy is still a valid cause but not the end goal

This article is written by Owen Buchan, writer for News and Politics of The Yorker, and Deputy Editor of York Politics Review.

We have to face some hard facts. The political, social and economic order is here to stay. We can spend all day pointing out the systemic injustices against people form marginalised groups. How wealth and power are being concentrated into a smaller and smaller group of oligarchs. How the continuation of policies is leading us to a climate disaster. Finally, how powerless the masses seem to be to counter these and various other issues. Identifying these issues and devising a better system is a worthwhile cause. The works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Kropotkin (just to name a minuscule variety of left-wing writers) have rich insight and analysis that is invaluable to the cause of a better world. Yet we still have to face the grim reality that we live in that isn’t going to alter any time soon. 

The ultimate aim is a society free from the various systems/institutions of coercion and domination. Systems like capitalism or institutions like the state for example would ideally be abolished. While this is the end goal, the potential of this occurring is relatively slim. A global changing event, something much larger than a global pandemic, would need to occur. Despite this, laying down and accepting the status quo is not preferable and still not acceptable. So if we have established that there are systems in society that we cannot abolish but we still want to alter the status quo, what can we do? 

A plan is a two-pronged approach. Direct action through protest and mass movements that put pressure on parties to take action for example is one aspect. The Other approach is electoralism and party political formation. In terms of the latter, social democratic parties have seen major historical success and it’s time we try and put it back into action.  

Social democracy is a revisionist form of Marxism and socialism that admittedly tones down the more radical elements such as the abolition of capitalism and the overall aim of communism. They seek to work within the confines of the current system of “liberal democracy” to create a more equitable and fair society. This is normally done through state intervention in the economy, generous welfare spending and promotion of socially progressive values. If you want a catch-all term, it is the promotion of “social justice”. Thus the aim is not to abolition capitalism, but to make it more palatable and workable for the average person. Compare this to socialism generally that seeks to end capitalism totally. 

Social Democracy has been incredibly successful. It was social democracy that rebuilt Western Europe after World War 2. In the UK for example, it was the Labour party under Attlee and a clear social democrat manifesto that created the ever loved and enduring British Welfare state. These collections of policies such as the creation of the NHS and free education that aimed to ensure all in society were cared for from the “cradle until the grave”. As the Labour continued to get into power up into the 70s, we saw the nationalisation of major industries and major social victories with the abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality and protections against sex-based discrimination. Through all this, society was radically altered. A society in which people were living longer, had more rights and lower income inequality. It was only after 1979 when Thatcher came to power that we saw a shattering of the Social Democrat order in the UK. 

While all these achievements are in the past, their effects are still felt and needed today. While the UK has moved away from the mixed economy of social democracy, the Scandinavian countries have held strong and retain strong social democratic policies. Vast investments into public services and industries have meant that the Scandinavian nations have the highest standard of living in the world. With leading public education and humane prison systems that create a happy and more equal society. It is a trope in US politics to point at the Scandinavian nations and proclaim them socialist, obviously this is not true as they still have capitalism. Bernie Sanders is right to point to them and argue it’s a model for what could be for the USA. For the UK it’s a calling for specifically the Labour party to return to its roots of social democracy. For all the criticism directed at Jeremy Corbyn; the nationalisation of the railways was a prime social democratic policy that was incredibly popular. 

Social democracy is pragmatic and has created results. In a system controlled by wealthy elites and interest, social democrats have been able to get results for people. Some may view these as mere concessions. A concession is ultimately still a result. It’s time for social democracy to come back cautiously. The banners of socialism cannot fly high and scare the establishment. It must be subtle. Conflict with major interest is not one that social democracy can win. By navigating and moving within the system we can get results. Pushing the system to its limits opens the debate to working outside the system. 

Social democracy is still heavily flawed. It relies heavily on a neo-colonial exploration of the developing world to sustain large welfare expenditure. Social Democrats are also in constant war with the bourgeoise and often deliver watered-down versions of policies. It fails to tackle the underlying issue in society like capitalism. Furthermore, they often become hostile to socialism more broadly and become the part of the class they are meant to oppose. See the Spartacist Uprising and you’ll see why social democrats aren’t always to be trusted. This is why social democracy is only a part of a wider plan. It can get some results but soon it will hit a roadblock. So we should support social democrats when we can. Moving the Labour Party and the Democrat Party to the left so that social democrat policies become normalised again is a route forward. Even small policies can bring major changes to the lives of ordinary people and that alone is worth supporting but we must not lose sight of the wider prize.

Written by Owen Buchan, Deputy Editor of YPR in collaboration with YPR. Read more from YPR at https://yorkpoliticsreview.wordpress.com/.