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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: June 2010

The Roots and Rationale of Social Democracy



Two related themes have dominated discussions about the Left in advanced industrial democracies in recent years. The first is that an increasingly integrated world economy is creating a fundamentally new situation for leaders and publics, imposing burdens and constraining choices. You can either opt out of the system and languish, or put on what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called neoliberalism's “Golden Straightjacket”—at which point “two things tend to happen: your economy grows and your politics shrinks.” The second is that traditional social democracy has played itself out as a political ideology, creating a vacuum that can and should be filled by some new progressive movement with greater contemporary relevance. For example, Ralf Dahrendorf has argued that “socialism is dead, and · none of its variants can be revived,” while Anthony Giddens has written that reformist socialism has become “defensive” and perhaps even “moribund.”

This essay argues that social democracy's current problems provide a perfect opportunity for a reassessment of its history and significance. This is because for all its purported novelty, the issue at the heart of contemporary globalization debates—whether political forces can dominate economic ones or must bow before them—is not new at all, but rather very old. Indeed, social democracy emerged from similar debates, within the international socialist movement a century ago, about the relative power and import of political and economic forces.