In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Social Democracy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Origins
  • Electoral Dilemmas

Political Science European Social Democracy
Jonathan Hopkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0022


European social democracy is at once a political theory, a political movement, and a set of institutions. As a political theory, European social democracy has its origins in the development of the workers’ movement, inspired by Marxist and utopian socialist ideas, in the second half of the 19th century. This movement spawned political parties with the label “social democratic,” “socialist,” or “labor” in practically every European country, and these parties mobilized industrial and agricultural workers as well as intellectuals in opposition to capitalism and political authoritarianism. Social democracy as a distinct political force emerged out of the split in the workers’ movement between revolutionary socialists and those who sought to achieve socialism through a parliamentary route. This split was formalized in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, with revolutionaries creating separate Communist parties while the rump of the workers’ movement adopted a gradualist or revisionist strategy of reforming capitalism through democratic institutions. Social democratic parties went on to establish themselves as mainstream political forces, participating in government or forming the main opposition, in almost every European country. Where social democrats were electorally successful, they were able to promote institutions such as the welfare state and corporatist bargaining in the workplace, and in some countries they brought parts of the private economy under government control. By the end of the 20th century, however, many European social democrats adopted increasingly promarket stances, arguing that globalization and technological change had rendered the classic social democratic model obsolete.

General Overviews

There are few up-to-date general works on European social democracy, as scholarly work has tended to focus on the particular dilemmas facing social democracy at particular historical junctures, with the result that many analyses swiftly become dated. The best starting points for an approximation to the subject matter are the works cited in this section, which mostly adopt a historical perspective and place the phenomenon of European social democracy in the broad context of the democratization and modernization of Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries. Sassoon 1996 offers an extensive history of socialist and social democratic parties in Europe from their formation until the end of the Cold War, and Birnbaum 2002 compares the European labor movement with American reformism. Lindemann 1983 presents another historical overview focused mainly on the early phases of the labor movement, whereas Padgett and Patterson 1991 focuses on the postwar period. General works with a more theoretical orientation include Esping-Andersen 1990, which offers perhaps the definitive guide to the development of the modern welfare state, and the role of socialist parties and others in constructing it. Pierson 2001 assesses the evolution of social democracy over the 20th century and evaluates the conversion of European social democratic parties to more promarket positions after the end of the Cold War. Accessible introductions to the theory of socialism and social democracy include Newman 2005, which provides a concise introduction to the theory and practice of socialism, and Cohen 2009, which offers a readable illustration of Cohen’s arguments for socialism and an analysis of its limitations.

  • Birnbaum, Norman. After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Compares European socialism and US progressivism from a radical perspective, outlining the differences in their respective origins and assessing the postwar development of the welfare state. Also looks at national and regional variants of socialism in Europe.

  • Cohen, G. A. Jerry. Why Not Socialism? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    A concise and accessible assessment of the case for socialism from the point of view of normative political theory. Outlines the criteria for a socialist society, drawing on the values of egalitarianism and community.

  • Esping-Andersen, Gøesta. Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1990.

    Develops a typology of welfare regimes contrasting those built on the social democratic ideas with those inspired by liberalism or conservatism. Esping-Andersen also presents the power resources theory of social democracy, which stresses the differing success of European left parties in building cross-class electoral alliances to win government power and implement socialist policies.

  • Lindemann, Albert S. A History of European Socialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

    Broad-reaching history of the socialist movement in Europe from its origins in the second half of the 19th century through to the postwar period. Particularly focuses on the early period of development of the labor movement and on the larger European democracies.

  • Newman, Michael. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Introduces socialist and social democratic theory and ideology, contrasts social democracy in western Europe with the communist tradition, and outlines the tensions between the key concepts of socialist theory.

  • Padgett, Stephen, and William E. Patterson. A History of Social Democracy in Postwar Europe. London: Longman, 1991.

    An outline of the successes and failures of socialist and social democratic parties in the postwar period up to the end of the Cold War. Analyzes the ways in which left parties competed electorally and the dynamics of ideological and policy change in the European labor movement.

  • Pierson, Christopher. Hard Choices: Social Democracy in the 21st Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001.

    Offers a balance sheet of the social democratic project at the end of the 20th century, reviewing the historical evolution of social democracy and discussing the challenges facing it in the new century, with particular reference to globalization and demographic changes.

  • Sassoon, Donald. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. London: New Press, 1996.

    A sweeping historical account of social democracy in western Europe through the last century, with a particular focus on the ideological and organizational evolution of socialist and social democratic parties and their successes and failures in government.

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