The Birth of Social Democracy

From Karl Marx to Eduard Bernstein
Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany Board on 5 December 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

Democratic socialism is an ascending idea in the United States, despite its marginal American history and also because of it. In Europe, democratic socialism has a rich and complex record of achievements and failures through continental social-democratic parties and the British Labour Party. In the United States, only a modicum of social-democratic decency has ever been achieved and now even those modest gains are threatened, yielding a surge of interest in democratic socialism.

Negatively, the latter development reflects a widespread recognition that neoliberal capitalism works only for a minority and is ecologically harmful. Often it registers the bitter verdict that liberals do not fight for social justice. “Democratic socialism” summarizes what is lacking. Positively, the current flow of young people into democratic socialism reflects a growing recognition that economic justice is fundamental to all struggles for justice and liberation, and that there is no common ground for progressive movements without it.

European social democracy has helped create societies in which health care and the rights of self-determination are universal for all citizens, elections and higher education are publicly financed, and grotesque levels of inequality are not tolerated. In the United States, health care depends on what you can afford, millions have no health coverage at all, voter suppression campaigns are routine, electoral politics is dominated by the donor class, students are buried in debt, and until recently, huge disparities in income and wealth were not even a subject of political debate. Democratic socialism is a demand for economic democracy, extending the principles and values of democracy into the economic realm. In the United States it is also a protest against the claim that caring about economic inequality is un-American.

But no movement for democratic socialism can afford to ignore the ambiguous history of the struggle for it. The very name, “democratic socialism,” is a self-conscious marker that many kinds of socialism were and are democratic only in a tortured sense of the term, or in no sense at all. François-Marie-Charles Fourier, in France, and Robert Owen, in England, propounded the original idea of socialism in the early 1820s. It was to achieve the unrealized demands of the French Revolution, which never reached the working class. Instead of pitting workers against each other, a cooperative mode of production and exchange would allow them to work for each other. Socialism was about organizing society as a cooperative community.

When Owen started writing about communal socialism, he had not read his paternalistic French forerunners—François-Noël Babeuf and Henri de Saint-Simon—but he shared their belief that a good society doesn’t allow anyone to live off the labor of others. Owen’s early work influenced Fourier. Soon there were many kinds of socialism, conceived by a stunning array of thinkers: Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Georgi Plekhanov, William Morris, Karl Kautsky, Sidney Webb, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin, and G.D.H. Cole, and Christian socialists Philippe Buchez, John Ludlow, Frederick Denison Maurice, R. H. Tawney, Stewart Headlam, Charles Marson, Henry Scott Holland, Conrad Noel, Hermann Kutter, and Leonhard Ragaz. Buchez and Lassalle made pioneering arguments for state-supported producer cooperatives, which Blanc and Marx took the lead in rejecting. The founders of socialism who were not religious blamed capitalism for all of society’s ills, but religious socialists did not, tracing the source of human woe back further still; that difference meant that there were specifically religious versions of nearly every kind of socialism.

All variations of socialism retain the original idea of organizing society as a cooperative community, yet there is no core that unites what cooperative communalists, Marxists, Fabians, anarcho-syndicalists, Communists, and Social Democrats—to name only six broad categories—believe about the state, socialization, trade unionism, and democracy. Even those belonging to the democratic-socialist tradition aren’t always in agreement about these matters. I believe that the best candidate for an essential “something” in democratic socialism is the ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community. This ethical impulse retains the original socialist idea in multiple forms, inspiring struggles for freedom, equality, recognition, and a democratic commonwealth.

Democratic socialists, past and present, insist that liberal rights and democracy are essential to socialism as ends and means. Historically this meant that democratic socialists in continental Europe, though not in England, had to fight for their right to the socialist name. (For a long time, Marxism held a marginal role in British socialism, and what passed for orthodoxy in the British Labour Party was instead a pastiche of Christian socialism, ethical socialism, union reformism, and Fabian ideology.) They had to fend off the persistent left-wing socialist claim that “democratic socialism” is a mere euphemism for “opportunism” and “revisionism,” epithets that were powerful in continental contexts where Marxism was especially influential.

Every socialist tradition had debates over what counted as opportunism. Running candidates for office? Making immediate demands of any kind? Casting a vote on national budgets? Forming electoral coalitions with bourgeois parties? Democratic socialists were usually ready to do all these things, and thus were constantly accused of being opportunists. “Revisionism,” on the other hand, is something quite distinct and not a substitute term for democratic socialism. “Revisionism” names the periodic necessity of adjusting the socialist idea to real-world circumstances.


Eduard Bernstein (The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo)

Contrary to countless claims by both detractors and disciples of Eduard Bernstein, he was not the founder of democratic socialism. British socialism in the nineteenth century was mostly democratic, and both of Germany’s Social Democratic parties of the 1860s and early 1870s were predominantly radical-democratic, not Marxist. But Bernstein was the first great socialist revisionist; his historic significance owes much to the fact that he was a Marxian social-democratic hero before he turned against orthodox Marxism. Bernstein rocked the German Social Democratic Party in 1898–99 by contending that Marx and Engels got many things wrong, and that the party’s Marxist ideology was less credible and democratic than the party’s reformist practices. In Sweden a similar watershed occurred in 1928 under Per Albin Hansson, who committed the Social Democratic Party to the Bernstein approach and built a political powerhouse. All Continental social-democratic parties eventually took the path of Bernstein and Hansson. In Britain the parallel benchmark came in 1955, when Hugh Gaitskell’s revisionist faction won control of the Labour Party, seeking to replace Fabian Collectivism with pluralistic economic democracy.

Each of these revisionist episodes was a creative response to a stagnant orthodoxy and a blow to the conviction that “socialism” names something definite and credible. Most nineteenth-century continental socialists believed that capitalism is antagonistic toward democracy and socialism is intrinsically democratic. The latter belief, however, was construed in profoundly contrasting ways. Anarchists and Marxists contended that political democracy is a bourgeois fraud, and that real democracy emerges only from a proletarian revolution. The state must be smashed as the enemy of freedom (anarchism), or it will wither away after the revolution for lack of anything to do (Marxism). The bitter debate between anarchists and Marxists destroyed the First International in the 1870s, but both camps said it was ridiculous for a socialist to lionize democracy as a socialist value or the best road to socialism. Democracy would only come as a gift of the proletarian revolution. This contention compelled democratic socialists to name themselves self-consciously, rejecting the subordination of democracy and liberal rights to a catastrophe vision of revolutionary deliverance. Socialists had to be democratic and liberal on their way to achieving socialism.

Democratic socialism and social democracy would become significantly different things after democratic socialists insisted that democracy is both the means and end of socialism. When democratic socialists founded the Second International in 1889, they believed that socialist revolutions were inevitable. But they were wrong about socialist revolutions occurring in all industrialized societies, or any at all. So they competed for votes in capitalist societies, which set off debates over how the democratic-socialist ideal should relate to questions of getting and using power—and, ultimately, the divergence between unreconstructed democratic socialists and revisionist social democrats.


Bernstein said too many Marxists were like medieval scholastics, wielding a doctrine about a necessary perfect ideal.

Bernstein’s life and work are essential for understanding such debates. He was born in 1850 to a Berlin family boasting many rabbis, physicians, mathematicians, and other high achievers. His father was a locomotive driver who attended a Reform temple that conducted services on Sundays. Bernstein took a job as a bank clerk after his gymnasium schooling, and renounced Judaism on the day after his mother died. In 1871 Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, the founders of Germany’s second Social Democratic party, bravely blasted the Franco-Prussian War that yielded the German Empire. They were convicted of treason and Bernstein joined their party out of hero worship, knowing hardly anything about Marxism.

He learned his socialist theory in the movement. Germany’s two Social Democratic parties bitterly fought each other, splitting the socialist vote, which compelled a merger in 1875. Bernstein played a unifying role at the merger conference at Gotha, while German chancellor Otto von Bismarck campaigned to outlaw socialism. In 1878 social-democratic publisher Karl Höchberg asked Bernstein to be his secretary on his foreign travels. Bernstein accepted, clueless that crossing into Switzerland would exile him from Germany for twenty-three years. In Switzerland he befriended budding Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky and won over Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on a trip to London, proving his Marxist acumen. Bernstein took over the Swiss version of Der Sozialdemokrat and flooded Germany with 12,000 weekly copies of the smuggled paper. He ran the paper through its glory run, 1881–1891, when the Social Democrats surged in Germany. They made spectacular gains in the face of government suppression, winning 312,000 Reichstag votes in 1881, 550,000 in 1884, 763,000 in 1887, and 1,427,000 in 1890. By 1890 the renamed Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) held 20 percent of the national assembly, making it the largest single party in Germany.

Bernstein wrote winsomely astute articles that brought thousands of readers into the party. He explicated Marxian orthodoxy impeccably, as expounded by Engels and Kautsky after Marx died in 1883: parliamentary politics would never create a socialist society, and German Socialists needed to prepare for the inevitable revolution that delivered Germany from capitalism. But first they had to survive Bismarck by being vigilant, intransigent, unified, and careful, breaking no laws. If the party stayed defiant but legal in the Reichstag, the downtrodden masses would flock to social democracy. Policy vigilance was crucial. Engels, Bebel, Liebknecht, and Kautsky described Bismarck’s welfare programs as a form of blackmail that kept the monarchy and propertied classes in charge. Bernstein won the favor of SPD bigwigs by editorializing that welfare disastrously strengthened the government against the people, as did Bismarck’s subventions for the steamship industry that enabled imperial expansion. It didn’t matter that working people liked health insurance and subventions financed dockyard jobs. Bernstein stuck to a hard line, fended off protests from unions, and contributed mightily to the SPD’s glory period.

In 1888 he lost his refuge in Switzerland, when Bismarck persuaded Swiss authorities to shut down Der Sozialdemokrat. Bernstein moved the paper to London, where his comradely relationship with Engels grew into a close friendship. Bernstein surprised himself by reaching beyond Engels’s group. He greatly admired William Morris, a literary star and ethical socialist who approached socialism through his artistic imagination, very unlike Engels. He befriended Fabian leaders George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, and Beatrice Webb, surprised to find they were serious socialists. He also befriended Anglican clerics Stewart Headlam, “Brother Bob” Morris, Percy Dearmer, and especially Thomas Hancock, astonished that they were no less socialist than his German comrades.

Later, all of this would be cited against Bernstein, after he stunned the SPD and Socialist International with his heresy. British progressives had seduced him! Always he denied it, contending that his mind was changed by factual evidence, not personalities. A key episode in this change of mind occurred on January 29, 1897, when Bernstein gave a lecture to the Fabian Society on “What Marx Really Thought.” Halfway through the lecture, he realized he wasn’t persuading himself; he was making Marx sound like Bernstein. He vowed that he needed to clarify, to himself and others, what Marx got right and wrong.

Bernstein said too many Marxists were like medieval scholastics, wielding a doctrine about a necessary perfect ideal. Meanwhile democracy was advancing throughout Europe, and a fully realized democracy was not hard to imagine. Democracy changed the equation because it compelled states to meet the needs of common people, no longer serving merely a class interest. Huge industrial firms were growing in size and number, and advanced economies needed the rule of law and considerable planning, with or without capitalism. To take Marx literally about the stateless socialist end was incredible. Rightly understood, social democracy is not a fantasy about “society” somehow transforming the transport system into something requiring no governmental administration.

Bernstein began there, rather gently. Then he went on to say that Marx got many things very wrong, notably that capitalism was destroying itself. To Bernstein, what mattered was the movement for liberation, not any particular doctrine about where socialism was going. Marxism is true as a reflection of the struggle for liberation, and debatable concerning everything else.

This position evoked a barrage of rage and accusation, wounding Bernstein. He countered that Marxian dogmatism did not exempt Marxists from the problems of idealism and fallible knowledge. After all, materialism itself is an idea; all knowledge of physical reality is hypothetical and thus ideal; and science is open-ended and revisionist, rooting out errors. Socialists must be open to correcting their errors. At the SPD Congress of 1898, Bebel declared that a fighting party must have a final goal; otherwise it will not fight or be socialist. Young Rosa Luxemburg weighed in, agreeing with Bebel. What made Socialists different from progressives was their commitment to the conquest of political power that produces a communist society. Lacking that, she said, there is no reason to be a social democrat. Kautsky explained that his old friend had lost touch with the German struggle, having enjoyed himself too much in England.

Bernstein even claimed that capitalism was advancing. If this were true, Kautsky said, it would mean that socialists had no hope of reaching their goal! That had to be wrong. Kautsky judged that Bernstein had become an ethical socialist, believing that achieving democracy comes first, whereas true socialists believe the reverse—that the victory of the proletariat is the precondition of achieving democracy.

The final end was crucial because it was the only thing that fused the rhetoric of the SPD to its political practices. As long as the party had a constant final goal—the conquest of power yielding a classless society—it could rationalize all manner of electoral and parliamentary maneuvers. Running for office was revolutionary if it was only a tactic, an expedient implying no commitment to parliamentary democracy. No tactic was right or wrong in itself. The right means helped to achieve the given end. Kautsky said repeatedly that what made anything revolutionary was its end, never its means. As long as the party had a defining final goal, everything else in its program and campaigning made sense. Or so many of the party’s leaders believed. Bernstein threatened the party’s ability to make sense to itself. This was more important than anything else in the Bernstein controversy.

Bebel and Luxemburg wanted to expel Bernstein, but Austrian Social Democratic leader Victor Adler persuaded Bebel to back down, contending that being wrong should not disqualify Bernstein from party membership. Revolutionary Marxism versus non-revolutionary socialism was a legitimate debate within social democracy, and Bernstein was an able champion of the wrong view. If the party expelled Bernstein, it would have to expel many others. On that basis Bernstein kept his place in the party, championed its agrarian-union-reformist-democratic wing, and appropriated the parts of Marxism that seemed right to him. 


Bernstein wanted Continental social democracy to be more compelling and up-to-date than the dire apocalyptic face it presented to the world.

He took for granted that historical materialism is the foundation of Marxian theory. All events are necessary in the sense that matter moves of necessity in accordance with certain laws. There is no cause without its necessary effect and no event without a material cause. The movement of matter determines the formation of ideas and the directions of human will, so everything falling under these categories is also necessitated, like all other human events.

If all events are necessary, how should the factors of force be understood as relating to each other? How should nature, the economy, legal institutions, and Marx’s own ideas be understood? Marx’s theory of the material forces and relations of production was his answer: productive forces and relations are the determining factors. The bourgeois mode of production was the last antagonistic form of the social process of production, and the forces developing within it created the material conditions needed to end the antagonism. Human society would end its prehistorical phase when the contradictions of capitalism yielded a communist society. Bernstein passed over the part about communism, since it was hypothetical, belonging to the future. He disliked Marx’s reductionism about human ideas and will, contending that Marx should have left more room for human agency.

On Bernstein’s telling, Marx’s problematic determinism reflected the fact that he took too much from Hegel and too little from Kant. He agreed with neo-Kantian F. A. Lange that Hegel’s idea of development through antagonisms, though brilliantly illuminating, was also over-determining for Marx. For example, the Communist Manifesto declared that the bourgeois revolution was the prelude to an immediately succeeding proletarian revolution. Bernstein doubted that Marx would have been so self-deceived had he not over-believed in contradiction dialectics. As it was, Marx never quite got rid of it.

Similarly, the Marxist tradition never quite threw off Blanquism—the belief in massive revolutionary explosions from below. On several occasions Marx and Engels extolled Blanquist terrorism as a near-miraculous force that propels revolution. This defect preceded Marxism and ran through the entire Socialist movement, putting two streams of thought into constant tension. One was constructive in variously utopian, sectarian, or peacefully evolutionary forms. The other was destructive in variously conspiratorial, demagogic, or terroristic forms. Constructive currents conceived emancipation as occurring primarily through economic organization. Destructive currents conceived emancipation as occurring primarily through political conquest and expropriation. Bernstein argued that Marx combined the essential elements of both streams, synthesizing the constructive investigation of the economic and social preconditions for liberation with the revolutionary conception of liberation as a political class struggle, and that Marxism still featured this twofold character.

Marx and Engels assumed that proletarian revolution followed the pattern of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century revolutions. A progressive bourgeois party would take power, aided by revolutionary workers as a propelling force. It would rule for a while, run its course, and give way to a radical bourgeois party, which would soon be overthrown by the revolutionary party of the proletariat. But that was not what happened in France in 1848 and 1871, when revolutions immediately thrust forward the most radical party. Bernstein said there was no reason to believe that socialists and revolutionaries would take a back seat to bourgeois radicals or liberals. It was far more likely that bourgeois types would withdraw, leaving political responsibility to the proletarians. Bernstein doubted that a radical bourgeois government would last a single day in Germany. Thus, Socialists had to be ready to govern Germany, something he shuddered to imagine. SPD leaders routinely reduced Blanquism to a stereotype about a handful of vanguard conspirators waging terrorism, which had nothing to do with them. Bernstein said this was convenient for them, but wrong. Blanquism is the theory that the overthrowing power of revolutionary force is immeasurably creative and indispensable. This cult of force, a legacy of the French Revolution and contradiction dialectics, is toxic and hard to uproot; social democracy should not merely wave away such an idea, but actively purge it from its ranks.

Other Marxian concepts had similar problems. Bernstein cautioned socialists against assuming that Marx’s theories of value and surplus value were the last word on these subjects, because Marx’s measure of commodity value involved too many abstractions and reductions to be intelligible. Marx treated the rise of the joint-stock company only as an example of the concentration and centralization of capital, failing to recognize that joint-stock companies create a counterweight to the centralization of wealth by centralizing business enterprises. Joint-stock companies permit concentrated capital to be extensively divided, making it unnecessary for capitalist titans to appropriate capital to concentrate their enterprises. Bernstein said socialists were slow to grasp what made corporate capitalism different because Marxian theory steered them away from doing so. Plus, Marx claimed that the concentration of industrial entrepreneurs runs parallel with the concentration of wealth, which is not true. Bernstein dramatized the ongoing capitalist boom in Germany, England, Holland, and France with a slew of graphs. He insisted that socialism had a viable future because social wealth was increasing, not decreasing. The movement had to give up its dire dogma that its future depended on an imminent catastrophe—a diminishing capitalist class that sucked up all surplus value. Modern production greatly increased the productivity of labor, which greatly increased the mass production of goods for use, generating enormous new wealth.

Socialists had to stop pining for a capital crisis that wiped out the growing middle classes of the world. Bernstein wanted Continental social democracy to be more compelling and up-to-date than the dire apocalyptic face it presented to the world. Marxism rested everything on a theory about the structural contradictions of capitalist production and an argument about the exercise of political power by a class party of workers, described in the transition period as a dictatorship of the proletariat. All three parts of this platform were problematic, and the third part was repellant. Social democracy needed to acknowledge that wage earners were not the homogeneous mass devoid of property that the Manifesto depicted. Moreover, the most advanced industries produced highly differentiated labor hierarchies in which feelings of solidarity were tenuous at best. Bernstein grieved that his opponents condemned him with barricade rhetoric. Perhaps it was exciting to proclaim, but it repelled toolmakers who made decent wages and farmers who wanted to own their land.

Marxian theory came from an era in which democracy was merely a form of government, and thus not the point for a Marxist. Bernstein said democracy morphed into something else in the late nineteenth century. Socialists, radical democrats, and progressive liberals brought out the negative meaning of democracy as the absence of class government. No class should have a political privilege against the community as a whole. Progressives got clear about this in fighting against the anti-democratic privilege of the monopolistic corporation. Moreover, Bernstein argued, this negative definition brought out the idea that a majority’s oppression of individuals and minority communities is repellant.

For similar reasons, social democrats had to stop bashing liberalism indiscriminately. Bernstein said this was another hangover from decades past. Before liberalism bonded with democracy, liberals were pro-capitalist enemies, and old-fashioned liberals still were. It mattered greatly that most liberals now supported democracy. Moreover, Bernstein claimed, social democrats prized civil liberties above everything else. Liberals did not own this issue.

Bernstein’s admiration of England was excessive, extending to British imperialism, which he insisted was more good than bad because it exported democratic civilization. He could be florid on this theme, lamenting that Germany’s imperialism was closer to the brutal and tyrannizing side of the imperial continuum than to England’s. Anglican socialists Headlam, Hancock, Marson, Holland, and Charles Gore railed against British imperialism, but they were moralists at heart. Bernstein identified with Sidney Webb and other Fabian leaders who did not moralize about colonialism or their socialist political ends. Morality had a role to play, but not the leading role. Orthodox Marxists took unwarranted pride in spurning morality, yet they clutched proletarian internationalism as a moral dogma. Bernstein pitched his case to the quiet majority of social democrats he thought were out there. If he got to return to imperial Germany, he would not stand in the way of its interests, and saying so might help him return. More important, German socialists had to prove they would defend the German nation.

Bernstein shot to the top of the quiet party majority he believed was there. Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, figuring that Bernstein’s return might split the SPD, allowed him to come home in 1901. Bernstein defended his position at the Lübeck Congress, condemnations were proposed and defeated, Bebel took it hard, Bebel’s milder resolution of rebuke passed, and Bernstein celebrated his vindication. The reformist side of the party had never had a theorist, much less a star with a storied history in the SPD. Everywhere he spoke, Bernstein drew huge crowds of supporters. They launched a journal, Sozialistische Monatshefte, proving that democratic socialism was a real position with a large following, not a just a grab bag of compromises.

Bernstein identified the aspects of Marxism that were problematic for democratic socialism. He established that socialists could draw deeply from Marx’s economic analysis without accepting Marx’s apocalyptic vision of deliverance, showing that democratic socialism had a real basis in socialist and even Marxist theory. Socialists needed to grasp that capitalist economies were more complex than Marx said. Control of the economy was not inevitably destined by the process of industrial concentration to fall into the hands of a few monopolistic firms.

Until war and imperialism became the dividing issues in the SPD, Bernstein championed the reformist wing of the party. Desperate to prevent war, he railed against the fearmongering toward France and Britain that paved the way to World War I. Like all SPD officials, he wanted to believe that socialism was the antidote to capitalist wars. The war came and Bernstein briefly accepted it, voting with the party majority on August 3, 1914, that committed the SPD as a block to support Germany. He shared the customary German dread of Russia and the SPD’s fear of being trampled by pro-war patriots.

But shortly afterward, Bernstein judged that Germany was chiefly responsible for causing the war. He allied with Kautsky and other SPD centrists, who tried to stop the conflict without opposing Germany’s war aims or government. This was impossible in every way. Bernstein’s antiwar faction was expelled from the Reichstag and regrouped as a new party, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which opposed the pro-war SPD and Germany’s imperialist war aims. During the German Revolution of November and December 1918, Bernstein tried to unite the SPD and USPD—another hopeless effort and equally fateful. The USPD conceived the worker and military councils of the November Revolution as foundations of a new society, advocating pure council-Marxism instead of parliamentary democracy. It prohibited dual memberships with the SPD, and in 1920 its majority joined the Communist International, shattering Bernstein’s dream of what should have been.


I am against giving up on national-scale strategies, but also against identifying economic democracy solely with them.

Subsequently, he played a mostly commendable role in trying to create a decent republic. Bernstein saw the demon coming in his beloved nation before it fell for hyper-nationalism and stab-in-the-back mythology. He inveighed against Germany’s refusal to accept responsibility for the war, enraging the SPD; he became a pariah in it, albeit with a seat in the Reichstag. When Bernstein died in 1932 nobody in Germany treated him as an esteemed founder of social democracy. His death passed without notice. Capitalism had not evolved into socialism, he flunked the nationalistic test that the party struggled to pass, and the chasm between his ethical idealism and the prevailing reality made him obsolete. His brand of socialism seemed completely irrelevant and discredited. After World War II, Social Democrats outside West Germany remembered him with mild respect, but the SPD still claimed to be a Marxist party. The SPD lost two successive elections to the Conservative Party before it conceded that Bernstein had been right.       

Party leaders Carlo Schmid, Herbert Wehner, and Fritz Erler said it was ridiculous to keep saying that middle-class people should vote for the Marxist party. The SPD had to stop claiming that a centrally planned economy would be better, which defied the common sense of West Germans about why they were better off than East Germans. At its Bad Godesberg conference in 1959, the SPD disavowed its goal of creating a classless society, declaring that it sought to insinuate socialist values into a capitalist society. It also explicitly disavowed anti-clericalism and the refusal to support West German defense policy, two hangovers from a century long past. The party’s central objective, it said, was to democratize economic power, not to overthrow private ownership. Public ownership is one form of public control among others, and nationalization is one way to curb economic domination—specifically, the last way.

At one stroke the party halted its electoral decline, making itself welcome to the middle-class progressives it had long wanted. Bernstein was belatedly remembered as the icon of democratic socialism. Today he symbolizes the pathos of social democracy, for the gap between the democratic socialist idea and the present social-democratic reality is vast and expanding. Every social-democratic and workers’ party is struggling to rethink its mission in the face of economic globalization and reactionary movements based on racism and xenophobia. In Germany the SPD has capitulated to neoliberal capitalism and has become habituated to its junior-partner alliance with the Conservative Party, albeit with codetermined enterprises. In Sweden the Social Democratic Party has disavowed its historic attempt to democratize major enterprises, the Meidner Plan for Economic Democracy, which folded in 1992 after a ten-year run. In Britain the Labour Party has slightly revived by turning against its entire past generation of accommodation. Nearly all social-democratic and workers’ parties in Europe are now consumed by the battle to save the welfare states they created.

No social-democratic party has taken even a pass at democratizing major enterprises on a national scale since Sweden abandoned the Meidner Plan. Today the struggle for economic democracy has been left to stubborn types in the back rows of traditional parties and to a new generation of activists determined to build new organizations. I am against giving up on national-scale strategies, but also against identifying economic democracy solely with them. Democratic socialism expands the cooperative, public bank, and social-market sectors; mixes worker and community ownership; dismantles white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege; repudiates Eurocentric presumptions; and upholds ethical commitments to freedom, equality, community, and ecological flourishing. It is far more complex and unwieldy than the supposedly inevitable outcomes that Marxists and Fabians predicted. Many young people today want to belong to something that encompasses all their social-justice commitments, not just one or two. Thus we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in an old idea: democratic socialism.


This article adapts themes from the author’s book Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism, published this month by Yale University Press. Used by permission.

Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: 

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include ‘Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit,’ which won the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award in 2013, and ‘The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel,’ which won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017.

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