Flickering Candle or Blazing Sun?

Social democracy as witnessed by 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.  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 came about, paradoxically, during an era characterized also by world war, economic collapse, racial injustice, 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.


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 defined its values as social democratic: individual freedom, social solidarity, and peace.  But the Republic was besieged from the very beginning, facing not only unremitting hostility and violence from the right, but left opposition as well (more on this conflict 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 website was created in 2011. You will find a 2021 update 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.  An example of this reconciliation in the United States today is the proposed Green New Deal (see Update 2021), which will tackle the crises of climate change while at the same time generating millions of jobs every year.  Parallel initiatives include the Energiewende in Germany and the European Union’s Climate Law.