Theorizing Social Democracy

I’ve started reading The Theory of Social Democracy, by Thomas Meyer. The book was initially published in German in 2005 and was published in English in 2007, just before the financial meltdown and the onset of the Eurozone crisis. Meyer is professor of political science at Dortmund as well as high ranking member of the SPD (Germany’s Social Democratic Party).

One of the problems with social democratic theory is they way social democrats tend to conceptualize the relationship between liberalism and social democracy. For many social democrats, social democracy is an outgrowth of liberalism, a mere extension of liberal ideals of equality and liberal notions of rights to the socio-economic realm. However, social democrats like Meyer are aware of the contradictions within liberalism; Meyer in particular explores the contradiction between liberal notions of freedom conceptualized as property rights. The point here is that liberalism’s promise of universality is undermined by the class based underpinnings of the very conceptions it claims to universalize. All of this will be familiar to anyone versed in the Marxian critique of liberalism.

Nonetheless, there remains in Meyer’s book an implicit characterization of liberalism that is problematic. What is implicit in Meyer’s argument is that liberalism is inherently democratic even though liberal theory is characterized by this contradiction. It is up to social democrats to work past the contradiction in order to realize the promise of liberalism. In this way, social democracy becomes the perfection of liberalism.  Here are some notable examples from the opening chapter of Meyer’s book:

‘By the nineteenth century it became apparent that liberalism had the potential to become more democratic both legally and institutionally.’

Apparent to whom? Just because liberalism became democratized by the beginning of the 20th century does not mean that this process of democratization was apparent  ‘by the nineteenth century’. Liberals were noticeably anxious about the prospects of democratization. Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that democracy would issue in; John Stuart Mill agonized over the prospects of the ‘class legislation’ that a working class majority would implement through democratic politics. Indeed, one could say that, far from recognizing the democratic potential of liberalism, many nineteenth century liberalism were actively trying to find ways to liberalize democracy. Indeed, it was Marx and Engels, not John Stuart Mill, who advocated universal suffrage. Rather, Mill was busy finding ways to make democracy safe for liberalism by concocting a formula of proportional representation, topped off with plural voting for the educated and the propertied, to offset the anti-liberal (or anti-bourgeois) prospects of a democracy that would empower the working class. It is because of this ambiguous history of liberalism vis-a-vis democracy, that the following statement by Meyer is rather shocking:

‘Restrictions on political participation such as property qualifications, gender, and educational levels gradually yielded to the evolving inner political logic of liberalism.’

Class and gender based restrictions to the franchise did not ‘gradually’ yield to the ‘evolving inner political logic of liberalism’. Rather, they were wrenched from liberals and conservatives alike. In his book, Wrestling with Democracy, Dennis Pilon chronicles the extent to which liberals and conservatives colluded in order to engineer voting systems that would offset the political power of working class majorities in the wake of enfranchisement (which itself often only came as a result of working class struggles). Indeed, while some notable liberals like T.H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse and J. Hobson put forward innovative liberal doctrines that borrowed from a resurgent left in the context of industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other liberals were intent to clarify the extent to which liberalism and democracy were completely different political traditions. The Italian liberal, Gaetano Mosca, would make clear distinctions between libearlism and democracy:

‘The first current we shall call the liberal current. It was based on the doctrines of Montesquieu. It sought to set up a barrier against bureaucratic absolutism by means of a separation of powers.’

‘The second current is the democratic current. Its intellectual parent was Rousseau. According to this theory, the legal basis of any sort of political power must be popular sovereignty – the mandate which those who rule receive from the majority of citizens. Not only the legitimacy of governors but their worth – their ability to satisfy the interests and ideals of the masses and to lead them toward economic, intellectual and moral betternment – depends upon their genuinely applying the premise of popular sovereignty.’

This was written between 1895 and 1923, republished in English in 1939 as The Ruling Class. Also during the 1930s, Spanish liberal philosopher Ortega y Gassett would write:

‘Liberalism and Democracy happen to be two things which begin by having nothing to do with each other, and end by having, so far as tendencies are concerned, meanings that are mutually antagonistic. Democracy and Liberalism are two answers to two completely different questions.’

Better known to English speakers is Hayek and Berlin, the latter being well known for his famous ‘negative’ conception of liberty. In The Constitution of Liberty, published in 1960, Hayek says:

‘Liberalism … is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government, whether democratic or not, whereas the dogmatic democrat knows only one limit to government – current majority opinion. The difference between the two ideals stands out most clearly if we name their opposites: for democracy it is authoritarian government; for liberalism it is totalitarianism. Neither of the two systems necessarily excludes the opposite of the other:  a democracy may well wield totalitarian powers, and it is conceivable that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles.’

And finally, Berlin writes:

‘The third characteristic of this notion of liberty is of greater importance. It is that liberty in this sense is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-government. Liberty in this sense is principally concerned with the area of control, not with its source. Just as a democracy may, in fact, deprive the individual citizen of a great many liberties which he might have in some other form of society, so it is perfectly conceivable that a liberal minded despot would allow his subjects a large measure of personal freedom.’


‘Freedom in this sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government.’

Two questions then arise when beginning to approach Meyer’s Theory of Social Democracy. First, if it was so apparent ‘by the nineteenth century,’ that liberalism had democratic potential, then why did so few liberals and democrats see this potential? Secondly, if democratization resulted from the ‘evolving inner political logic of liberalism’, then why did it entail so much struggle against liberals? And why were so many liberal theorists differentiating between liberalism and democracy, and privileging the former over the latter?

Nonetheless, Meyer’s book looks to be an interesting read and seems to be far superior to the Third Way nonesense penned by Anthony Giddens. At the very least, Meyer seems to engage substantively with the literature on political economy, in particular the ‘varieties of captialism’ debates. It will be interesting to see what insights can be gleaned from this pre-crisis contribution to social democratic thought.


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