Promise of Social Democracy


The images posted to this website examine social democracy from the perspectives of three 20th-century German Jews: Rosa Luxemburg, Eduard Bernstein, and Hanna Arendt.

Social democracy in Europe is now well over a century old. At its best, it has been a powerful movement for human liberation, visionary in its aims and successful in its everyday practice. Free health care and public education, strong labor unions, retirement benefits, voting rights, women’s rights – these are among the victories that have been won. Social democracy is participatory democracy, extending 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. Reforms achieved in the past are today under attack, and social democracy struggles to find its way forward.

A century ago, it was in Germany that the prospects of social democracy were most promising. In 1918 a revolution occurred in Germany, and Social Democrats inaugurated the “Weimar Republic,” which endured until Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933.

The Weimar Republic was besieged from the very beginning, facing not only unremitting hostility and violence from the right, but left opposition

as well.  Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) and Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) engaged in a debatewithin the Social Democratic Party that began even before the birth of the Weimar 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 criticizes German social democracy for the concessions it makes to capitalism.

(For more on Luxemburg’s complex relationship with social democracy,  click here.)


This debate about strategy is important also to Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German political theorist and journalist who emigrated from Europe to America in 1941.  Arendt, like Rosa Luxemburg before her, is critical of the social democratic tradition, but at the same time she builds upon its ideals of participation and justice.  Arendt gives a persuasive account of human freedom and responsibility that points the way to a reconciliation of the longing for a fundamentally better world with realistic expectations and compromises in this one.