What is Social Democracy?

Instructor: Barnaby Raine
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The left’s recent electoral resurgence has given new life to an old term: social democracy. First coined in the 19th century to designate Marxists (as opposed to utopian socialists), the term came gradually to signify a reformist brand of socialism that, rather than seeking to smash capitalism and the state, aimed to use the instruments of liberal democracy to engineer full employment and economic equality. And for much of the mid-twentieth century, social democratic parties throughout Western Europe were able to implement expansive welfare states and produce relatively high standards of living. Yet by the late 1970s social democracy was in crisis, afflicted by inflation, stagnation, and social unrest. Now, 40 years after the triumph of neoliberalism, social democracy is once again being ventured as a political program. But, what is social democracy, and what can it mean in the twenty-first century? How can we understand the tensions that beset historical social democracy in its attempts to “manage” capitalism while operating under the aegis of, first, European and, later, U.S. imperialism? And how does social democracy figure in any revolutionary horizon? Can it be, as some of its advocates claim, a necessary stage on the way to some truer socialism? Or does social democracy stand at the very limit of plausibility? Is there no alternative?

In this course, we will examine the meaning, history, and contemporary possibilities of social democracy in order to gain a richer understanding of the problems and the assumptions motoring socialist politics today. We’ll explore the early twentieth century conceptual laboratory where a new socialist vocabulary was honed, before turning to post-1945 social democratic civilisation and its undoing, and considering the conditions and politics that have once again brought social democracy to the fore. We will focus on developments in Britain, a heartland of both social democracy and the Thatcherite counter-revolution that later displaced it. We will read theorists and historians of social democracy like Adam Przeworski, Sheri Berman and David Edgerton. We will read central figures who shaped the social democratic horizon, from Eduard Bernstein and Sidney Webb to Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi. We will engage critics of social democracy from 1930s guild socialists to the New Left. And we will study socialist responses to its crises, from the prophecies of Michal Kalecki to Stuart Hall, Antonio Negri, Simon Clarke and others grappling with the lessons of social democracy’s eclipse amid the ascent of neoliberalism. 

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
October 22 — November 12, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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