Unpacking Social Democracy in Modern Times

“Britain is already a European-style social democracy,” screamed a recent headline in The Telegraph newspaper in the UK. The headline may come as a surprise since at the helm of the British government are the Conservatives.

Labor: the party that ordinarily would be associated with social democracy are in opposition. “It is clear that austerity (an antithesis to social democracy) is not over for an age, but a millennium”, one Conservative MP once wrote.

In the light of these development, the question worth considering is: what is the meaning of social democracy in modern times?      

In a pamphlet titled; Has Socialism Failed? comrade Joe Slovo sought to respond, among others, to the question; “How did it happen that, in the name of this most humane and liberating ideology (Socialism), the bureaucracy became so all-powerful and the individual was so suffocated?”

One of the reasons this happened, he argued, was the thesis of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” which was used as the theoretical rationalization for unbridled authoritarianism.

The term “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” has its origins in the understanding that capitalist formations represent “Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie”, whose rule must be replaced by a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.  This was to be a key feature of the period of transition to Socialism, in which case power would be exercised in the interests of the majority, leading to an ever-expanding genuine democracy — both politically and economically.

Slovo’s pamphlet was penned at a time of great despair and confusion, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Up to this day, the pamphlet is credited for having given direction and sound guidance to left formations across the world, at a time when this was needed the most.

In the pamphlet, Slovo contended that the choice of the word ‘Dictatorship’ to describe the socialist transition opened the way to ambiguities, abuse and distortions. He argued in favor of its abandonment!

This he did, however, without rejecting the historical validity of its essential content – premised on the understanding that; without a limitation on democracy there was no way the revolution could have defended itself in a time of a civil war and the direct intervention by the whole of the capitalist world.

In Lenin’s view whatever repression may be necessary in the immediate aftermath of the revolution would be relatively mild and short-lived. This, Lenin argued, was because the state and its traditional instruments of force would begin to ‘wither away’ almost as soon as socialist power had been won and the process of widening and deepening democracy would begin.

The SACP and many other communist parties across the world abandoned the phrase “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” This led to fierce debates in our country and in many parts of the world as two whether Socialism was inherently democratic or not.

In his contribution titled: “A Survey of the South African Debate on the Decline of Socialism in Eastern Europe,” Comrade Pallo Jordan makes the following observation:

“Despite differences in emphasis and the awkward defense of orthodoxy, all the participants showed a concern to learn from the errors of the past and to get to the root of the problems of socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. They appear to agree that a socialism that is not democratic ceases to be socialism. They differ among themselves on the exact character of the democratic institutions that should be the basis of a socialist society. While none of the contributors dismiss parliamentary democracy, few regard it as the ultimate solution to the problem. They agree that there must be a role for an autonomous civil society and democratic accountability to the working class, written into the law, in a socialist society.”

Recalling these developments is useful because they help us trace how and why many left formations, including many communist parties, have embraced social democracy. On the “right” side of social democracy – where the Conservatives belong – is the belief in the greater use of economic and social entrepreneurship levers and civil society rather than a strong state.


By definition social democracy, allows for a greater role for the state in society and in the economy, but also acknowledges the role of an independent civil society and places a high premium on democratic accountability to the populous.

To me social democracy is the most common form of modern socialism. Put differently, it is a reformed way of democratic socialism.

In some quarters social democracy is associated with a welfare state. In others it is seen as an equivalent of Keynesian Economics.

Social democracy encompasses both elements of state intervention and private enterprise. Some scholars go further to argue that it is intended to “humanize capitalism” and create conditions for it to lead to greater democratic and more humane outcomes.

Social democracy embraces a mixed economy. In many ways it is a compromise between socialism and capitalism. It is characterized by an unflinching commitment to policies aimed at dealing with inequality, eradicating poverty and addressing the plight of those on the margins of the economy and society. It supports expanded access to quality public health care, education and social welfare. It seeks to entrench workers’ rights. It is also supportive of progressive concepts such as collective bargaining, a decent wage as well as a minimum wage.

I would characterize the ANC as a social democratic party. In our documents, including the Strategy & Tactics, we define the form and character of the ANC as a disciplined force of the left whose policies and programmes will continue to maintain a deliberate bias towards the poor and the working class.     

In modern times, and especially now in the era of COVD-19, the contested relationship between the public and private sectors has shifted significantly. The pandemic has reinforced the legitimacy of public investment, especially in health care. Increasingly, governments the world over are forced to pay even greater attention to the tasks of saving lives and preserving livelihoods.   

Furthermore, the pandemic has legitimized a greater and more active role of the state in guiding the economy and society.  It has forced a rethink on public services that are now seen as a necessary investment rather than a liability.

One of the limitations, however, of a bigger state with a greater role, especially in the economy is that it tends to discourage private initiative and “crowd out” private investment by substantially increasing the cost of funding for private borrowers. A bigger state is also often accused of curtailing civil liberties and limiting human freedoms.

I think what is required is to strike a correct balance between the role of the state, the role of private enterprise and general freedoms of the citizenry.

In South Africa, today, we often talk about a developmental state. We define this as a state that is developmental in orientation, and capable in operation; able to lead, guide and mobilize all social partners in the realization of common objectives.

A developmental state does not necessarily mean higher levels of state ownership. It does, however, require that the state is able to provide strategic guidance to the operation and direction of the economy. This includes the use of the state’s own institutions and companies as instruments to strategically guide economic development.

Equally in the ANC we do not promote the idea of a state that encroaches on the rights of individuals. For this we rely heavily on our progressive constitution, a fiercely independent judiciary as well as robust Chapter 9 institutions that guarantee and protect the right of individuals.

Being the compromise that it is, l believe social democracy represents the “Third Way.” In the South African context, it can also be a stepping stone on the path towards a classless society, as envisaged by the Communist Party. For now, however, it appears that the age of social democracy will be with us for a long time to come.







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