What was social democracy?

Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society traces the origins of current socialist terminology1

Netherlands: Social Democratic Workers Party (1918)

Communism is an ancient concept of the community sharing everything in common. It has its roots in religious communes. Socialism by contrast is a modern concept that focuses on the issue of ‘society’, which is itself a bourgeois concept. Marx sought to relate the two concepts of communism and socialism to capitalism.

Social democracy is a concept that emerged around the 1848 revolutions, which posed what was at the time called the ‘social question’: namely the crisis of society evident in the phenomenon of the modern industrial working class’s conditions. Social democracy aimed for the democratic republic with adequate social content.

Marxism has in various periods of its history used all three concepts - communism, socialism and social democracy - not exactly interchangeably, but rather to refer to and emphasise different aspects of the same political struggle. For instance, Marx and Engels distinguished what they called “proletarian socialism” from other varieties of socialism, such as Christian socialism and utopian socialism. What distinguished proletarian socialism was twofold: the specific problem of modern industrial capitalism to be overcome; and the industrial working class as a potential political agent of change.

Moreover, there were differences in the immediate political focus, depending on the phase of the struggle. ‘Social democracy’ was understood as a means for achieving socialism; and socialism was understood as the first stage of overcoming capitalism on the way to achieving communism. Small propaganda groups such as the original Communist League of Marx and Engels, for which they wrote the Communist manifesto, used the term ‘communism’ to emphasise their ultimate goal. Later, the name ‘Socialist Workers Party’ was used by the followers of Marx and Engels in Germany to more precisely focus their political project specifically as the working class struggling to achieve socialism.

So where did the term ‘social democracy’ originate, and how was it used by Marxists - by Marx and Engels themselves as well as their immediate disciples?

The concept of the ‘social republic’ originates in the revolution of 1848 in France - specifically with the socialist, Louis Blanc, who coined the expression, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, to describe the goals of the society to be governed by the democratic republic. Marx considered this to be the form of state in which the class struggle between the workers and capitalists would be fought out to a conclusion.

The essential lesson Marx and Engels learned from their experience of the revolutions of 1848 in France and Germany, as well as more broadly in Austria and Italy, was what Marx, in his 1852 letter to his colleague and publisher, Joseph Weydemeyer, called his only “original discovery”: namely the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat”; or, as he had put it in his summing-up report on the revolutions of 1848 in his address to the central committee of the Communist League in 1850, the need for “the revolution in permanence”, which he thought could only be achieved by the working class taking independent political action in the leadership of the democratic revolution.

This was a revision of Marx and Engels’s position in the earlier Communist manifesto on the eve of 1848, which was to identify the working class’s struggle for communism with the democratic revolution. They claimed that “communists do not form a party of their own, but work within the already existing [small-d!] democratic party”. Now, after the experience of the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx asserted the opposite: the necessary separation of the working class from other democratic political currents.

Petty bourgeois

What had happened to effect this profound change in political perspective by Marx and Engels?

Marx had come to characterise the failure of the revolutions of 1848 in terms of the treacherous and conservative-reactionary role of what he called the “petty bourgeois democrats”, whom he found to be constitutionally incapable of learning from their political failures and the social reasons for this.

The historical horizon for the petty bourgeois democratic discontents in the social crisis of capitalism was too low to allow the contradiction of capital to come within political range of mere democracy, no matter how radically popular in character. The problem of capitalism was too intractable to the ideology of petty bourgeois democracy. The problem of capitalism exceeded the horizon of the French revolutionary tradition, even in its most radical exponents, such as Gracchus Babeuf’s Jacobin “conspiracy of equals”. Such democracy could only try to put back together, in essentially liberal-democratic terms, what had been broken apart and irreparably disintegrated in industrial capitalism.

This was not merely a matter of limitation in so-called ‘class interest or position’, but rather the way the problem of capitalism presented itself. It looked like irresponsible government, political hierarchy and economic corruption, rather than what Marx thought it was: the necessary crisis of society and politics in capitalism, the necessary and not accidental divergence of the interests of capital and wage-labour, in which society was caught. Capital outstripped the capacity for wage-labour to appropriate its social value. This was not merely a problem of economics, but politically went to the heart of the modern democratic republic itself.

The petty bourgeois attempt to control and make socially responsible the capitalists, and to temper the demands of the workers in achieving democratic political unity, was hopeless and doomed to fail. But it still appealed nonetheless. And its appeal was not limited to the socioeconomic middle classes, but also, and perhaps especially, to the working class, as well as to ‘enlightened, progressive’ capitalists.

The egalitarian sense of justice and fraternal solidarity of the working class was rooted in the bourgeois social relations of labour, the exchange of labour as a commodity. But industrial capital went beyond the social mediation of labour and the bourgeois common sense of cooperation. Furthermore, the problem of capital was not reducible to the issue of exploitation, against which the bourgeois spirit rebelled. It also went beyond the social discipline of labour - the sense of duty to work.

For instance, the ideal of worker-owned and -operated production is a petty bourgeois democratic fantasy. It neglects the fact that, as Marx observed, the conditions for industrial production are not essentially the workers’ own labour, but rather more socially general: production has become the actual property of society. The only question is how this is realised. It can be mediated through the market, as well as through the state - the legal terms in which both exchange and production are adjudicated (that is, what counts as individual and collective property): issues of eminent domain, community costs and benefits, etc. Moreover, this is global in character. I expect the foreign government of which I am not a citizen to nonetheless respect my property rights. Bourgeois society already has a global citizenry, but it is through the civil rights of commerce, not the political rights of government. However, capitalism presents a problem, and a crisis, of such global liberal democracy.

Industrial capital’s value in production cannot be socially appropriated through the market, and indeed cannot at all any longer be appropriated through the exchange-value of labour. The demand for universal-suffrage democracy arose in the industrial era out of the alternative of social appropriation through the political action of the citizenry via the state. But Marx regarded this state action no less than the market as a hopeless attempt to master the social dynamics of capital.

At best, the desired petty bourgeois political unity of society could be achieved on a temporary national basis, as was effected by the cunning of Louis Bonaparte, as the first elected president of Second Republic France in 1848, promising to bring the country together against and above the competing interests of its various social classes and political factions. Later, in 1851 Bonaparte overthrew the republic and established the Second Empire, avowedly to preserve universal (male) suffrage democracy and thus to safeguard “the revolution”. He received overwhelming majority assent to his coup d’état in the plebiscite referenda he held both at the time of his coup and 10 years later to extend the mandate of the empire.

Marx and Engels recognised that to succeed in the task of overcoming capitalism in the struggle for proletarian socialism it was necessary for the working class to politically lead the petty bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution. This was the basis of their appropriation of the term ‘social democracy’ to describe their politics in the wake of 1848: the task of achieving what had failed in mere democracy.

The mass political parties of the Second, Socialist International described themselves variously as ‘socialist’ and ‘social democratic’. ‘International social democracy’ was the term used to encompass the common politics and shared goal of these parties.

They understood themselves as parties of not merely an international, but indeed a cosmopolitan politics. The Second International regarded itself as the beginnings of world government. This is because they regarded capitalism as already exhibiting a form of world government in democracy; what Kant had described in the 18th century, around the time of the American and French revolutions, as the political task of humanity to achieve a “world state or system of states” in a “league of nations” - the term later adopted for the political system of Pax Americana that US president Woodrow Wilson tried to achieve in the aftermath of World War I. As the liberal chronicler of Napoleon, Benjamin Constant, had observed 100 years before Wilson, in the wake of the French Revolution and its ramifications throughout Europe, the differences between nations were “more apparent than real” in the global society of commerce that had emerged in the modern era. But capitalism had wrecked the aspirations of Kant and Constant for global bourgeois society.

The International offered the alternative, “Workers of the world, unite!”, to the international strife of capitalist crisis that led to the modern horrors of late colonialism in the 19th century and finally world war in the 20th.


The political controversy that attended the first attempt at world proletarian socialist revolution in the aftermath of World War I divided the workers’ movement for socialism into reformist social democracy and revolutionary communism and a new Third International. It made social democracy an enemy.

This changed the meaning of ‘social democracy’ into a gradual evolution of capitalism into socialism, as opposed to the revolutionary political struggle for communism. But what was of greater significance than the ‘revolution’ sacrificed in this redefinition was the cosmopolitanism of the socialist workers who had up until then assumed that they had no particular country to which they owed allegiance.

The unfolding traumas of fascism and World War II redefined social democracy yet again, lowering it still further to mean the mere welfare state, modelled after the dominant US’s New Deal and the ‘four freedoms’ the anti-fascist Allies adopted as their avowed principles in the war. It made the working class into a partner in production, and thus avoided what Marx considered the inevitable contradiction and crisis of production in capitalism. It turned socialism into a mere matter of distribution.

For the last generation, since the 1960s, this has been further degraded to a defensive posture in the face of neoliberalism, which, since the global crisis and downturn of the 1970s, has reasserted the rights of capital.

The “spectre of communism” that Marx and Engels had thought haunted Europe in the post-industrial revolution crisis of capitalism in the 1840s continues to haunt the entire world today, after several repetitions of the cycle of bourgeois society come to grief - not as a desired dream misconstrued as a feared nightmare, but rather as the evil spirit that does not fail to drive politics, no matter how democratic, into the abyss. And, as in Marx’s time, the alternating “ethical indignation” and “enraptured proclamations of the democrats” continue to “rebound” in “all the reactionary attempts to hold back” the ceaseless crisis of capitalism, in which “all that is solid melts into air”.

We still need social democracy, but not as those who preceded Marxism thought - to mitigate capitalism, as was attempted again, after the failure of Marxism to achieve global proletarian socialism in the 20th century - but rather to make the necessity for communism that Marx recognised over 150 years ago a practical political reality. We need to make good on the “revolution in permanence” of capitalism that constantly shakes the bourgeois idyll, and finally leverage the crisis of its self-destruction beyond itself.


1. This article is based on a talk originally presented on a panel with Bernard Sampson (Communist Party USA), Karl Belin (Pittsburgh Socialist Organizing Committee) and Jack Ross (author of The Socialist Party of America: a complete history) at the eighth annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention April 1 2016 in Chicago.