Ideology Now – part 3

This post was contributed by Nick Pearce, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Is there a distinct social democratic ideology which has political relevance in the 21st century? Patently not, if you think that social democracy was the product of a particular moment in European history that has now passed. This view, exemplified by John Gray’s After Social Democracy, holds that social democracy was a geo-political response to the Cold War, a class compromise to build a democratic, social market alternative to Soviet Communism and US capitalism, which lasted nearly forty years, until a combination of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall administered its last rites. 

Ironically, this perspective is obliquely endorsed even by self-professed social democrats. In Ill Fares the Land, the late Tony Judt lamented the passing of the post-war European order but did so in terms that conceded the depth of social democracy’s political defeat and offered little hope of its resurrection.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Third Way revisionists seeking to revive the fortunes of the democratic left in the 1990s recoiled from professing an ideological position. Anthony Giddens gave the subtitle The Renewal of Social Democracy to his book The Third Way but “what matters is what works, not ideology” was more often the lodestar of New Labour. In the pre-crash period of steady, continuous economic growth – or so-called Great Moderation – a distinct political ideology came to be seen as a little outré.

The political terrain of post-crash politics is more rugged. But as European voters splinter off the mainstream political parties, there is no guarantee that social democracy will furnish the ideological or political tools for a new generation to bring it back to power. Indeed, even contemporary Labour theorists like Maurice Glasman who are critical of the New Labour record disdain the term social democracy, preferring to nourish themselves on European Christian Democracy, Catholic social movements, and the guild traditions of British socialism.

Yet for all that, the social democratic tradition is a remarkably resilient and versatile one. It defeated its main rivals, Marxism and Fascism, in the 20th century. It fed off a productive intellectual and political relationship with liberalism, the other great winner of the last century, and built institutions for the common good, as well as individual liberty, that have endured successfully in European countries. It was pragmatic, recognising the necessity of building cross-class alliances, and drew political success, as well as ideological flexibility from that pragmatism. But it held fast to core beliefs, chief amongst them the universality of citizenship, a claim which it embodied in institutions of the welfare state, like the National Health Service, through which social democratic values live and breathe, assumed and unspoken, today. And it renewed its political appeal despite the passing into history of the Cold War era and the organised industrial working class which had done so much to shape it. Its most successful Nordic bastions remain beacons of social justice, human flourishing and the pursuit of a decent common life.

If social democratic ideology has continued relevance today, it is because it asserts the “primacy of politics” in Sheri Berman’s felicitous phrase. It insists on the importance of active democratic citizenship and the primacy of politics over economics. As Europe seeks to emerge from the wreckage of the global financial crisis, it will need a new political economy. A new generation of social democrats are likely to be at the heart of that endeavour, even if in partnership with other political movements, and actors, as they have been for most of their history.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.