Flickering Candle or Blazing Sun?


In 1918 revolutions occurred in Germany and Austria, and social democratic republics were inaugurated in both countries that endured until fascist parties took over in the 1933.  Following World War II, social democratic governments returned to power in a number of European countries, flourishing most in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

At its best, social democracy has been a powerful movement for human liberation, visionary in its aims and successful in its everyday practice.  Health care and public education for all, strong labor unions, retirement benefits, voting rights, women’s rights – these are among the victories that have been won.  Social democracy has at times also extended political self-determination into the workplace, so that workers become actors in shaping the aims and conditions of their own labor.

But social democracy has also suffered tragic defeats. Its achievements in the first half of the 20th century came about, paradoxically, during an era blighted by world war, economic collapse, colonial exploitation, and genocide. Those politically engaged on the left failed to avert Europe’s “dark times,” as Hannah Arendt calls them. In a collection of essays about 20th-century writers and activists, including Rosa Luxemburg and Berthold Brecht, she asks whether their light was the “uncertain, flickering … light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.” Indeed their legacy remains undetermined, as social democracy today struggles to find its way forward.


The German Weimar Republic aimed to enable economic recovery, social solidarity, and peace.  But the Republic was besieged from the very beginning, facing unremitting hostility not only from the right but from those further to the left as well (more on this conflict in 1918-1919  here and thereafter here).

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) and Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) engaged in a debate within the Social Democratic Party that began even before the birth of the  Republic. Their respective strategic visions – reformist (Bernstein) and revolutionary (Luxemburg) — continue to divide the social democratic tradition today. For Bernstein, a better society can be achieved by working within the existing political order. Luxemburg, on the other hand, holds that only a social movement or party that is independent of the ruling institutions can open the door to a better future for humankind.  She views  the  concessions that German social democracy makes to capitalism as unethical and unnecessary.


This debate about strategy has played a role in the history of social democracy in Austria, as well.  Adelheid  Popp (1869-1939) embraced the gradualist approach advocated by Bernstein and his German comrades.  Friedrich Adler (1870-1960) knew Rosa Luxemburg and visited her in Berlin. Early on, he shared her  revolutionary views, although he was not as critical of reform initiatives as she was.  Following the first world war and his own near-death experience, he rethought and renewed his commitments to pacifism, Austria’s social democratic party, and the international trade union movement.


The problems that the world faces today — among them, climate change, pandemic disease, racism, militarism, and a global refugee crisis — will not be solved by unfettered capitalism that continues to exploit the planet and pile up wealth for the one percent.  Social democratic “green new deal” solutions are called for.  In the case of the United States, getting to those solutions is going to require an ideological convergence that we haven’t seen in this country since the New Deal in the 1930s.  The pages of this website will explore some of the internal conflicts that have defeated social democratic purpose in the past, in the hope that such enquiry will cast light on our predicament today.

A 2021 update of social democracy’s prospects is located here.