By the beginning of the 20th century, workers in many industrial countries had acquired the vote and the right to organize into unions and parties. Many socialists were thus led to believe that the working class, the largest group in modern society, could increasingly direct the STATE towards abolishing POVERTY, inequality and class exploitation, ie, capitalism could be transformed through legislation. The German socialist Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) pioneered the idea that all-out class struggle was not inevitable and that a peaceful, nonrevolutionary road to SOCIALISM was both possible and desirable.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 precipitated an irrevocable split between the revolutionary and evolutionary wings - with the former emerging as communist parties and the latter as social democratic parties.
After this date, social democracy could be defined by its opposition not only to capitalism but also to communism. Social democrats are resolute in their defence of individual rights and constitutional methods, and in their repudiation of the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They also argue that political democracy (eg, equal right to vote) needs to be expanded to include social and economic democracy (ie, equal right to an education, medical care, pensions, employment and safe working conditions). Believing in the power of education and persuasion, and the potentially benevolent power of the state to redistribute wealth, social democrats have encouraged the emergence of an activist, interventionist state that provides extensive SOCIAL SECURITY assistance to the less privileged.
In Canada, one of the earliest exponents of reformism was the Social Democratic Party of Canada, founded in 1911 out of frustration with the more doctrinaire and revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada, established in 1904. Later, the LEAGUE FOR SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION (1932-42), closely patterned after Britain's Fabian Society, provided the most visible intellectual expression in Canada of democratic socialism. Through the journal the Canadian Forum and the book Social Planning for Canada, individuals such as F.R. SCOTT, Frank UNDERHILL, Eugene FORSEY, Leonard MARSH and Harry Cassidy communicated their ideas on social democracy.
The CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION (CCF) and its successor, the NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY (NDP), have been the political parties which have most consistently expressed a social democratic vision. Accordingly, the NDP belongs to the Socialist International, a confederation of social democratic parties. Several CCF-NDP manifestos provide detailed illustrations of the social democratic philosophy: the Regina Manifesto (1933), the Winnipeg Declaration (1956), the New Party Declaration (1961) and the New Regina Manifesto (1983). Leading political practitioners of social democracy have included J.S. WOODSWORTH, T.C. DOUGLAS, "M.J." COLDWELL, Stanley KNOWLES, David LEWIS, Ed BROADBENT, Allan BLAKENEY, Roy ROMANOW, Mike HARCOURT, Glen CLARK, Bob RAE, Gary DOER, Audrey MCLAUGHLIN and Alexa MCDONOUGH. The PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS, in addition to being nationalist and separatist, also lays claim to being a social democratic party and has sought and received observer status in the Socialist International.
Social democratic thought in Canada inspired legislation such as WORKERS' COMPENSATION, MINIMUM WAGE, OLD-AGE PENSION, UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE, FAMILY ALLOWANCE, subsidized housing (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) and medicare (see HEALTH POLICY). The WELFARE STATE has largely been the product of joint action by social democrats and reform-minded liberals. Certainly, the birth of the CCF in 1932 and its rapid growth in the early 1940s induced the LIBERAL PARTY to shift to the left lest it be displaced like its counterpart in England.
However, social democracy appears to have had its greatest impact in the provincial governments formed by the CCF-NDP in BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Most notable was the Douglas regime in Saskatchewan, North America's first socialist government, which pioneered medicare. While the party has never formed the government federally, it has had considerable influence on the policy of MINORITY GOVERNMENTS. Internationally, social democracy's greatest advances occurred in the postwar era of the late 1940s and 1950s when it seemed to offer a moderate alternative to the polarization of capitalism and communism.
However, as socialists came to power, the practical problems of governing led many to question important socialist assumptions about the methods employed. Unlike the communists, social democrats do not believe that wholesale nationalization of the means of production is a panacea to the ills of capitalism. Instead, they propose selected expansion of PUBLIC OWNERSHIP (eg, co-operatives, CROWN CORPORATIONS and state enterprises) in a mixed economy.
In the past, social democrats have favoured the creation of public enterprises such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Air Canada and state institutions such as the Bank of Canada. With the emergence of KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS, social democrats had begun to argue that government FISCAL POLICY and MONETARY POLICY (eg, TAXATION rates, government expenditure, and regulation of the money supply) could regulate the market economy in a socially beneficial manner; for example, full employment, greater equality and economic growth could be achieved through a combination of government planning and legislation, public enterprises and use of the market mechanism.
Social democrats have not only advocated the lessening of inequalities between SOCIAL CLASSES but also between regions (see REGIONALISM). They have thus supported government actions to redistribute wealth from the richer to the poorer provinces and have encouraged Canadianization of the economy through greater public ownership (eg, PETRO-CANADA) and state regulation (eg, FOREIGN INVESTMENT REVIEW AGENCY) which would lessen Canada's dependency on other countries.
In recent years, social democratic doctrine has come under increasing criticism from both the left and the right. The more radical and revolutionary left charges that social democratic reforms are too eclectic and produce only cosmetic changes at best, making capitalism appear more humane and workable, and delaying needed structural change. They also suggest that the social democrat's reliance on the Keynesian model is even less effective today as an antidote to capitalism. These critics claim that social democrats have nationalized too few and mostly unprofitable industries and question whether social democracy can ever lead to socialism. They cite detailed statistical analyses of Canadian society which reveal that the welfare state has not altered class inequality to the degree expected and that poverty is more firmly entrenched than the optimistic social reformers suspected.
The welfare state is also under attack by neo-conservatives. Critical of large increases in government expenditure and the size of the civil service, conservatives question both the desirability of increasing state power and the growing cost of that power. They note that economic growth, a premise of Keynesian economics and past social democratic thought, is now slowing down. STAGFLATION raises the spectre of reduced funds with which to finance social programs, and the universality of some programs (eg, pensions and medicare) has increasingly been challenged.
Several additional problems have arisen as well. Social democratic theory has long had a predisposition towards central government planning, and in a country such as Canada that has strong concerns about provincial rights, particularly in Québec, such centralizing policies have hindered the spread of social democratic thought. Indeed, there is a significant gulf between the social democratic forces in English and French Canada, represented by the NDP and the PQ, respectively.
In recent years many European social democratic parties seem to be faltering electorally. In Canada, the NDP, despite varied levels of support in public-opinion polls, has yet to come to power federally. However, in 2002 it was in power provincially in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Critics have suggested a need to reformulate its social democratic doctrine. Social democrats seem less certain today than in the 1950s about the most effective way of pursuing their goals. To survive, any ideology must be an evolving doctrine which provides more effective answers to today's problems. As Canada enters the 21st century, social democrats will need to deal with the issues of technological changes in the workplace, the shifting composition of the labour force, increased globalization and competitiveness, the growing North-South gap internationally, the decline in economic growth in industrial countries such as Canada, the continuing quest for greater industrial democracy despite higher levels of unemployment and indebtedness, the growing might of multinational corporations, increasingly negative perceptions about the role of government, the plight of the Third World, the mounting concern about our environment, and the continued danger of war.
Author ALAN WHITEHORN
J. Richards, et al, eds, Social Democracy Without Illusions (1991); A. Whitehorn, Canadian Socialism (1992); J. Laxer, In Search of a New Left (1996); B. Rae, From Protest to Power (1996); K. Archer & A. Whitehorn, Political Activists (1997).
Links to Other Sites
New Democratic Party of Canada
The official website of the New Democratic Party of Canada.
A video focusing on themes of the Democracy 250 program in Nova Scotia. From YouTube.