The Social Democracy Question

By Kenneth C. Dewar

Over the past twenty years, the fate of social democracy has been the subject of numerous inquiries by intellectuals, academics, journalists, and politicians. These have frequently taken the form of questioning whether there is any life left in the movement at all, or alternatively, of asking what needs to be done to revive it. “What happened to the European left?” asked American political scientist Sheri Berman in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, when (counter-intuitively) support for the left declined rather than rose. At the same time, in the same magazine (Dissent) a journalist asked whether European social democracy had a future, while two years earlier in another venue two other writers had asked, like relatives at a bedside, “Is the left alright?” More recently, in 2013, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent delivered the Jack Layton Memorial Lecture at Ryerson University, choosing as his title, “Social democracy: dead as the dodo, or the only option?” It’s not giving too much away to say that he inclined toward the latter.1

Almost all of these discussions assume an identification of social democracy and particular political parties; they are really asking, in other words, why support for social democratic parties has declined in the states in which they operate. Broadbent’s lecture was an interesting exception to this, not because his party had made unprecedented gains in the federal election two years earlier, but because his view of social democracy was more expansive. He noted during the course of his remarks that John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative governments of the late 1950s and early 1960s brought in a number of progressive measures, including a national hospital insurance program, and that the Liberal governments that followed, under the leadership of Lester Pearson, introduced universal health care – Medicare – and the Canada Pension Plan. He also included Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s in the United States and his State of the Union address of 1944, calling for an “economic bill of rights,” among the various expressions of social democracy. One might add William Lyon Mackenzie King’s unemployment insurance legislation of 1940 to his Canadian list, and Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program and the creation of Petro-Canada as a publicly owned petroleum utility in the 1970s. In another context, Broadbent had said of Tom Kent, a former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and one of Pearson’s chief advisors on social policy, that, “whatever his political affiliations were during parts of his career,” he had been “above all else a social democrat.” The Liberals, in fact, though not a social democratic party, were the chief instrument, often with NDP support (or pressure), of social democratic legislation in Canada at the national level.2 His overall point suggests the need for a more open discussion of how the goals of social democracy might be achieved.

Broadbent aside, the conversation these days about social democracy seems inwardly directed. Even a recent Canadian collection of scholarly papers, Reviving Social Democracy: The Near Death and Surprising Rise of the Federal NDP, reveals its party orientation in its subtitle.3 But if one thinks about a social democratic ideology – or even a social democratic outlook – rather than parties, one might more readily notice the variety of expressions it has had in Canada. Maybe it is time, as many others have suggested, for wider conversations between the Liberals and the NDP.4 The Greens might be included as well, since environmental issues have assumed almost the same importance on the left in the twenty-first century that social and economic ones had fifty or sixty years ago. Perhaps the time has come to shift our conversation away from political party and towards a more ideological understanding of social democracy.

What is Social Democracy?

We might start by asking a more elementary question than those with which this essay began. Rather than wondering what happened to the social democratic left, it might be more useful first to ask, just what is social democracy? It so happens that Sheri Berman started with this question in a suggestive and thought-provoking synopsis of European social democracy in the twentieth century, published in 2006. There, she argues that it was defined by two basic features, one a belief in what she calls the “primacy of politics” and the other a belief in communitarianism.5 This deceptively simple formulation rests on a prior argument about ideological conflict in the twentieth century. Instead of seeing liberal democrats lined up against fascists, national socialists, and Marxist-Leninists, or capitalists vs. socialists – what she calls the conventional narratives – Berman thinks it’s more helpful to see the battle as one between those who believed that economics came first in thinking about the state and society, and those who believed that politics came first. Seen in this way, classical liberalism and orthodox Marxism end up in the same category, the first holding that capitalism will meet society’s needs if left to operate freely, the second that the development of capitalism will inevitably lead to revolutionary change in the interests of the majority. In both cases, political action in the here and now was consigned to a very restricted sphere. On the other side were arrayed the unlikely threesome of social democracy, fascism, and national socialism, the first believing in state control of markets in the interests of democratization, the second two in state control for nationalist ends, rejecting democracy while claiming to act in the name of “the people.” One might question whether fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were political regimes, strictly speaking, but they did affirm the primacy of the state.

Social democracy, in Berman’s telling, is a distinct ideology, neither “watered-down Marxism” nor “beefed-up liberalism.” It emerged at the turn of the twentieth century in response to an apparent impasse in political thought and action. Liberalism had little to offer to counter the inequalities and alienation resulting from the progress of capitalism, while orthodox Marxism counselled patience as the internal contradictions of capitalism worked themselves out. Social democracy, as articulated notably by Eduard Bernstein in Germany, expressly sought to remedy social inequalities and encourage social solidarity through political action in the present, which implied both a measure of compromise and the prospect of ongoing reform, rather than pursuit of some final, pre-defined end. The final goal of socialism, wrote Bernstein in 1899, “means nothing, the movement everything.” The aim was to change, not to overthrow, the capitalist system. Unlike classical liberals or orthodox Marxists, the great social democrats of the period, Berman writes, recognized that “the most important thing politics can provide is a sense of the possible.”6

Something similar occurred across the channel in Great Britain, the main source of Canadian social democratic thought. There, Fabian socialism represented the evolutionary, parliamentary road to socialism, and the “new liberalism” a modification of classical liberalism away from a narrow individualism toward collective responsibility for social ills. Early Fabians included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells, while T.H. Green, Leonard Hobhouse, and J.A. Hobson laid the intellectual foundations of the new liberalism. The two groups agreed not only that change was best pursued through political means rather than revolution, but that change, whatever its ultimate end, entailed an ethical revival to counter the individualism and alienation of modern society. A sense of social responsibility, they thought, would bring individual preferences into line with the social good.7 The tensions between them, and their convergences, gave rise to a new, social democratic mode of thought that accepted capitalist markets as efficient and productive, but refused to accept the inequalities and exploitation they created when allowed to operate freely. It argued for control of markets sufficient to ensure that the individual rights claimed by liberalism were accessible to all, and for a promotion of social solidarity.8

In Canada, these ideas were reflected in J.S. Woodsworth’s address to the founding convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation at Regina in 1933, where he was chosen leader of the new party: “Perhaps it is because I am a Canadian of several generations,” he declared, “and have inherited the individualism common to all born on the American continent; yet with political and social ideals profoundly influenced by British traditions and so-called Christian idealism; further with a rather wide and intimate knowledge of the various sections of the Canadian people – in any case, I am convinced that we may develop in Canada a distinctive type of Socialism.”9 Similarly, the historian Frank Underhill, who wrote the first draft of the party’s new platform, the Regina Manifesto, argued in an essay on Jeremy Bentham published in the same year that socialism was grounded in liberalism. He quoted Sydney Olivier, a prominent Fabian, to the effect that, “Socialism is merely Individualism rationalized, organized, clothed, and in its right mind.” Hobhouse, whose ideas helped anchor the new liberalism, had expressed the same idea rather more sedately: “The ideas of socialism,” he once wrote, “when translated into practical terms, coincide with the ideas to which Liberals are led when they seek to apply their principles of Liberty, Equality, and the Common Good to the industrial life of our time.”10

Both Woodsworth and Underhill succeeded in grounding their brand of socialism in Canadian soil, but it was not really very different from the position of many social democrats in Britain, or even the United States, where American progressivism emerged as an ideology with a close kinship to social democracy. In 1914, Herbert Croly became the first editor of the New Republic, a journal modelled on the British New Statesman, founded by the Webbs a year earlier. It became the voice of progressives, publishing work by writers such as Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, and Charles Beard. Like the Fabians and new liberals, the progressives grounded their political thought in experience and history, rather than abstract reasoning and theory, which resulted in a pragmatic approach to issues of the day. It was on this basis that all of them placed their faith in politics. Social and economic problems had no ultimate solution, only partial solutions arrived at in the arena of democratic politics, and always on the understanding that reform was a never-ending process.11

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, social democrats, like socialists of varying stripes, sought a transformation of the capitalist system, which seemed on the point of failure, but after World War II, in the midst of postwar recovery, their position moderated. At the same time, many liberals, influenced by the role that the state had assumed in the war effort, and hoping to prevent a return of the conditions of the thirties, became more open to social democratic ideas. The Report on Social Security of 1943, written by Leonard Marsh for the federal government’s Committee on Reconstruction, the White Paper on Employment and Income of 1945, outlining plans for government economic policy after the war, and the “Green Book” proposals that were presented to the Dominion-Provincial Conference of August, 1945 all helped to create a climate in which the kinds of fiscal and economic policies recommended by the English economist J. M. Keynes in the 1930s came to be seen as credible and practicable. Over the next quarter-century, Canadians enjoyed a period of increasing prosperity, to no small extent as a result of policies introduced by a newly activist federal government.

The ideological affinities among socialists, new liberals, social democrats, and progressives, it seems to me, outweighed their differences. Here I take some issue with Berman, who crosses the channel herself toward the end of her book in order to comment on the “third way” that emerged in Britain in the 1990s, drawing a sharp line, if only by implication, between new liberals and social democrats. Criticizing the policies adopted by former prime minister Tony Blair, and supported by such intellectuals as the sociologist Anthony Giddens, she suggests that they revived, not social democracy, as they claimed, but a “strand of liberal revisionism” that she does not identify but by which she clearly means the new liberalism of Green, Hobhouse, and Hobson. The proponents of the third way, according to Berman, conceded too much to the virtues of efficiency and allowed the market principle to trump their commitment to the social good. This is where they crossed the line into liberal revisionism. For “true social democrats,” efficiency was only one of many criteria in the assessment of policy, not the overriding one. The third way, she writes, could hardly be thought to “constitute the outer reaches of contemporary progressive aspiration.”12 One can hardly disagree with that, but the “outer reaches” of progressive aspiration are not what’s at issue.

Whatever one thinks of the specific policies of Tony Blair (or Bill Clinton, for that matter), Berman’s judgment seems odd coming from someone who argues for the primacy of politics in social democratic thought and practice. Perhaps I am reacting to the tone of the judgment as much as to its content. When it comes to drawing ideological lines, however, it is worth recalling Hobhouse’s warning not to get hung up on the precise limits of socialism and liberalism. Whether one was a socialist liberal or a liberal socialist, he said at one point, paled in significance when the political enemy they both shared was a reactionary and imperialist Conservative party.13 (We might consider this warning to be all the more pointed in a time when even supposed socialists hesitate to designate themselves as such.) Hobhouse’s point is underlined by a passage from the minutes of a meeting of the Rainbow Circle, a discussion group of socialists and liberals that met regularly in London before the war: “The discussion turned largely on the relative merits of Liberalism & Socialism, but suffered from the fact that the definitely socialist members & the definitely liberal members did not seem to be agreed on what Liberalism & Socialism were.”14 It seems at least possible to me that the line Berman wants to draw between revisionist liberals and social democrats is actually a line between Anglo-American social democracy and continental European social democracy.

Even that line, though, is fuzzy in places. Underhill’s argument that socialism was an outgrowth of liberalism, not a reaction against it, was widely shared in Britain, but it also found echoes in continental Europe. Leading figures like the Swedish Social Democratic Party leader Hjalmar Branting and the Italian socialist Carlo Roselli, as well as Eduard Bernstein, traced the roots of their ideas to liberalism.15 The new liberalism, according to many scholars today, grew out of liberalism and social democracy out of socialism, but the relationship between them was actually one of “mutual influence” and “intellectual interdependence,” in the words of Cambridge historian Ben Jackson.16 Their genealogies were not so simple.

Ed Broadbent’s acknowledgment that other parties might pursue social democratic policies, or harbour social democratic ideas, reflected the complicated development of these ideologies, but it did not lead him to qualify his loyalty to the NDP. Those complications, however, might lead some of the rest of us to think of social democracy independently of party, at least some of the time. Frank Underhill famously (or notoriously) moved to the Liberals in the early 1960s partly because he thought his old friend Mike Pearson was just the person to open his party to ideas on the left. “Liberalism belongs to the left, or else it becomes meaningless,” he wrote Pearson, shortly after he had been elected leader.17 He also urged him to see if he could parachute Tom Kent into the editorship of the Toronto Globe and Mail. Instead, Pearson appointed Kent his principal secretary.

Renewing Social Democracy

But just what shape a revived social democracy – or some new, similar construct – might assume in Canada remains to be seen. It will not be an easy task to determine the meaning of community in the changed cultural and ideological context of the present day, evocatively characterized by the American intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers as an “age of fracture.”18 Rodgers argues (to grossly oversimplify) that it is no longer possible to conceive of a unitary public sphere or public interest. Markets are everything and niche markets prevail – in consumer products, on the World Wide Web, and so on. The media have fragmented – newspapers, television, radio, the blogosphere – and made it possible to choose one’s preferred reading or viewing (preferred at least for the moment) from an infinite number of sources. Issues and interest groups have proliferated, and the federal government has shed any responsibility for supporting voluntary organizations in the interests of cultivating civil society. The idea of the public good that once framed political discussion has been displaced by targeted constituencies and fragmented identities.

The Conservatives have made themselves masters at exploiting this fragmentation, appealing to ethnic communities, soccer moms, royalists, people fearful of crime, and suburban commuters in swing ridings, but they are not responsible for its creation, even if the right-wing think tanks that are their intellectual forebears contributed to the climate that encouraged it. (In the oft-quoted words of Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as society.”) The origins of “fracture” lie rather in the destabilizing effects of post-industrial society, and its manifestations are resistant to simple ideological categorization. Everyone acquired the capacity to make himself or herself seen and heard on YouTube or Facebook, with often unpredictable results. Sexuality became plural, along with so much else; gender became performative, as did identities of all kinds. Much academic and intellectual discourse splintered under the influence of a new cultural and linguistic turn. The results of fracture are not uniformly negative or positive.

A philosophical complement to Rodgers may be found in the philosopher (and sometime NDP candidate) Charles Taylor’s earlier reflections on the “malaise of modernity” in the Massey Lectures of 1991.19 Taylor identified three features of modernity that he found disturbing. The first was a distorted form of individualism, a self-centredness that leads to a detachment of the self from its foundation in social relations; the second was the dominance of instrumental reason, a form of thought divorced from ethics or any idea of ultimate ends, leading to decisions being made in all kinds of areas on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation of economic efficiency; and the third was the effect of the first two on public life, which was a fragmentation akin to the fracture seen by Rodgers, in which people see themselves atomistically and lose their desire and capacity to act together in pursuit of a common purpose. Taylor’s discussion of these features was subtle and multi-faceted, carefully assessing where the quest for self-fulfilment and the belief in instrumentalism depart from principles that he otherwise shares. His concluding question, nevertheless, was similar to the one that many believe to be implicit in Rodgers: how does one fight fragmentation?

This is the question that social democrats must face in pursuing a renewal of community, and the answer, whatever its particular content, will entail a renewed commitment to politics at the same time. The trick will be to avoid hankering for a lost golden age of collectivity – which many would argue never existed anyway – but to consider how best to adapt to changed conditions and circumstances; which is to say, fragmentation is not so much to be fought as used and redirected. A new political language will be needed that recognizes that the terminology of the twentieth century – social welfare, industrial strategy, progressive taxation, income redistribution, even national identity – no longer resonates as it once did. The values underlying those terms need to find new expression. The renaissance of localism – in everything from food production and consumption to “locavore architecture” – offers one possible avenue to explore, even though it is itself a manifestation of a kind of fragmentation. It offers the potential for cultivating a sense of empowerment when so many feel powerless confronting the state or large corporations, and for developing a sense of connectedness with others when so many feel isolated. On the face of it, this runs diametrically counter to the desire for a stronger central government that drove earlier generations of social democrats, but it holds out the possibility of renewing connection to the larger political community if local action is linked to an ideal that reaches beyond itself.

A recognition of the various expressions of social democracy might also lead to a recognition among historians of the pluralism of the Canadian left in the twentieth century. Leftist and centrist ideologies interacted with each other in a way that renders any simple labelling of any of them – of liberalism, for example, as essentially possessive individualism – problematic. Liberals were influenced by social democrats in bringing in certain measures, but there was also an internal development of liberalism that opened to the left, and the influence moved in both directions. The history of public ownership in Canada for national and developmental ends (Ontario Hydro, Canadian National Railways, the CBC, Air Canada), cutting across party lines, adds another dimension. We need to understand the malleability and complexity of ideological development in a way that acknowledges persistence while also recognizing adaptability to a changing field of meaning. Liberalism, socialism, and social democracy borrowed from each other sufficiently to lend the three of them, at least sometimes in the Anglo-American world, a certain family resemblance.

Kenneth Dewar is a Professor Emeritus at Mount Saint Vincent University. He recently published Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas with McGill-Queen’s University Press.


1 Sheri Berman, “What Happened to the European Left?” Dissent, 57, 3 (Summer 2010): 23-9; Robert Taylor, “Does European Social Democracy Have a Future?” Ibid., 5-11; William Paterson and James Sloam, “Is the Left Alright? The SPD and the Renewal of European Social Democracy” German Politics, 15, 3 (Sept. 2006): 233-48; Ed Broadbent, “Social democracy: dead as the dodo, or the only option?” The Jack Layton Memorial Lecture, Ryerson University, Toronto, September 24, 2013 <>.

2 There are those, of course, who would argue that postwar social legislation represented the achievement of a liberal welfare state, rather than a social democratic one (following the typology created by the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen). See Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

3 David Laycock and Lynda Erickson (eds.), Reviving Social Democracy: The Near Death and Surprising Rise of the Federal NDP (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).

4 See, for example, Gerry Caplan, “To prevent the unthinkable, the NDP and Liberals must cooperate,”, Feb. 2, 2015 <>

5 Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

6 Ibid., 200, 218; James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 249.

7 Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory, 348, 352.

8 Stefan Collini, Liberalism and Sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England, 1880-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

9 Walter Young, The Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF 1932-61 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 45, quoted.

10 Frank H. Underhill, “Bentham and Benthamism,” Queen’s Quarterly 39 (November 1932), 667, quoted; Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory, 405, quoted.

11. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory, 107.

12 Berman, Primacy, 211.

13 Collini, Liberalism and Sociology, 79, 96.

14 Ben Jackson, “Socialism and the New Liberalism,” in Liberalism as Ideology: Essays in Honour of Michael Freeden, eds. B. Jackson and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1, quoted <>; see also Michael Freeden (ed.), Minutes of the Rainbow Circle, 1894-1924 (London: Royal Historical Society, University College London, 1989).

15 Berman, Primacy, 152-3, 207.

16 Jackson, “Socialism and the New LIberalism,” 3.

17 Kenneth C. Dewar, Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 128, quoted.

18 Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

19 Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: Anansi, 1991).

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One thought on “The Social Democracy Question

  1. Veronica Strong-Boag

    I think this is a very good essay and one that should cause social democrats in the NDP and the Liberal party to think once more of what they share and the dangers of fragmentation in October 2015.

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