This year is the 125th anniversary of the formation of the Irish Trades Union Congress which was the first Irish based trade union movement and the precursor to the Irish Labour Party. With the huge influence that social democracy has had on the world, it is prudent to look back at its history and how it has changed since its conception. 

To understand social democracy, you must first understand its beginnings in the early Marxist movement. In the early days of Marxism, the various parties were united under the Second International, which was an umbrella group that represented international socialism. The Second International had two main focuses during its existence. The first was the question of reform or revolution. The more moderate Marxists wanted to gradually reform society into socialism through democratic means whereas the more Orthodox Marxists thought a violent revolution was the only way to overthrow capitalism. The second issue was the threat of a large-scale European war. The Second International, with the support of the Orthodox Marxists, took up a strong anti-war position and called for mechanisms to be put in place to prevent it.

The beginning of World War One was the end for the Second International. It took up an anti-war position and encouraged its constituent parties to follow suit. However, most of the individual parties decided to support their own countries in the conflict. One of the few influential antimilitarists, Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), was assassinated by a French nationalist shortly before the war began which was a death knell for any possibility of peace. The few influential antimilitarists remaining were mainly Orthodox Marxists, like Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg. While there were attempts to reunify the International it was irreparably damaged by this rift and it officially disbanded in 1923. Two organisations claimed to be the successor to the Second International. They were the Third International, which was set up by the USSR to represent hard-left Leninists, and the Labour and Socialist International, which represented the more moderate tendencies of the socialist movement.

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These social democratic parties were highly influential in the post-war years. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) remained the largest party in Weimar Germany until Hitler came to power. The UK spent almost seven years under a Labour prime minister. The SFIO in France regularly went into government as part of broad coalitions. However, the movement did face many difficulties. Stalin, through the Third International, ordered the many Leninist parties throughout Europe to refuse to work with social democratic parties. This move brought about significant instability and was a major factor in Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

After the Second World War social democracy went through a period of change. It argued less for a gradual shift to socialism and instead embraced a more Keynesian economic model. This meant that they were in favour of a large social welfare state, strict regulations, and nationalisation of key industries but they were willing to work within a capitalistic framework provided it doesn’t hinder social justice. This move was rather successful with social democratic parties becoming a staple of most multiparty democracies across the globe.

However, the social-democratic movement faced a crisis in the late seventies and eighties with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. They brought about a Neoliberal shift in politics. They pushed for broad privatisations, reducing the role of the state in the economy, and shrinking social security. The popularity of these positions forced a deep reflection for many social democratic parties. Many moved toward the Third Way model, which took heavy influence from Neoliberalism and arguably broke with socialism completely. This model had some significant followers, with both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair being strong advocates for the Third Way. This was highly successful, bringing a significant number of social democratic governments into power.

This model did have its faults. After the 2008 banking crisis, social democratic parties faced widespread criticism for their part in the crisis and so, saw their support tumble. The SPD in Germany, the Socialist Party in France, and the Democratic Party in Italy, among others, saw their vote share hit unprecedented lows. However, some social democratic groupings have recovered quickly, in particular parties that have distanced themselves from the Third Way. The Labour Party in the UK, the Socialist Party in Portugal, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the US have all made gains while withdrawing from the Neoliberal position and embracing the more left-wing positions of the post-war era. 

The history of social democracy is extremely rich, shifting from Marxism, to democratic socialism, to the current situation. Whether the resurgence of the left-wing of the social democratic movement is an enduring change or if the Third Way will return to its former popularity, it’s difficult to deny that the movement has altered the very fabric of society.


Conall Clarke – Politics Writer