Social Democracy is a political philosophy founded around Marx's time.
Initially, social democracy referred to socialism but later came to mean a political philosophy favoring reform over revolution as a way to achieve socialism. After the second world war, most social democratic parties abandoned the goal of socialism, and the label "social democracy" came to mean support for a welfare state in a capitalist economy.
Today they hold considerable influence in the world, although many, such as the British Labour Party, have moved towards the centre in order to gain votes. They still however often advocate regulation and a mixed economy.
In general modern Social Democrats support the following.
- A mixed economy consisting of both private enterprise and government-owned or subsidized programs of education, health care, childcare and related social services for all citizens.
- An extensive system of social security (although usually not to the extent advocated by socialists), with the stated goal of counteracting the effects of poverty and insuring the citizens against loss of income following illness, unemployment or retirement.
- Government bodies that regulate private enterprise in the interests of workers and consumers by ensuring labor rights (i.e. supporting worker access to trade unions), consumer protections, and fair market competition.
- Environmentalism and environmental protection laws; for example, funding for alternative energy resources and laws designed to combat global warming.
- A value-added/progressive taxation system to fund government expenditures.
- A secular and progressive social policy, although this varies markedly in degree.
- Immigration and multiculturalism.
- Fair trade over free trade.
- A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights and where possible, effective multilateralism.
- Advocacy of social justice, human rights, social rights, civil rights and civil liberties.
- They also often support gay marriage or at least civil unions - though this would not necessarily have been on the radar prior to about 2000
Since the 1950s or so, Social Democracy has been rooted in what's called the Keynesian economic model. Keynesianism was a response to the Great Depression in order to save capitalist economies. Its motto was that economic depressions happen because people stop spending. Its solution is to have the government spend to make up for the lack of spending. Many socialists and centre-leftists used Keynesianism as a chance to spend on social programs, thus creating the modern welfare state.
Others, like Mussolini and Hitler, used Keynesianism to create giant armies. Most western countries fall somewhere in between, but Keynesianism is the dominant economic theory in every developed country in the world. A "Social Democrat" usually just means you want to direct a Keynesian capitalist system to care for the disadvantaged. But as progressive as some Social Democrats might be, it isn't "true" socialism.
Many parties in the second half of the nineteenth century described themselves as social democratic. All most all of these parties were to some extent influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were at that time working abroad, in London, to influence Continental European politics.
The social democrats, who had created the largest socialist organizations of that era, did not reject Marxism (and in fact claimed to uphold it), but a number of key individuals wanted to reform Marx's arguments in order to promulgate a less hostile criticism of capitalism. They argued that chich socialism should be achieved through evolution of society rather than revolution. Such views were strongly opposed by the revolutionary socialists, who argued that any attempt to reform capitalism was doomed to fail, for the reformers would be gradually corrupted and eventually turn into capitalists themselves.
The break occurred during World War One. The reform-minded Social Democrats and the Revolutionary Communists split partly because the reformists wished to support their individual nations in the war. It is too simplistic to say this was the only reason, as most countries had a social democratic minority who were anti-war but who none the less did not ultimately become Communists. One reason for this is that Lenin required Communists to accept the authority of the Comintern and, in effect, of the Soviet leadership in Russia.
Soon the revolutionary socialists became Communists and the reformists held the title of Social Democrats (later, a distinction was drawn by some people between Social Democrats and Democratic Socialists).
Following the split between social democrats and communists, another split developed within social democracy, between those who still believed it was necessary to abolish capitalism (without revolution) and replace it with a socialist system through democratic parliamentary means, and those who believed that the capitalist system could be retained but needed dramatic reform. Eventually, most social democratic parties have come to be dominated by the latter position and, in the post-World War II era, have abandoned any commitment to abolish capitalism.
Many of the policies espoused by social democrats in the first half of the 20th century have since been put into practice by social democratic governments throughout the industrialized world. Industries have been nationalized, public spending has seen a large long-term rise, and the role of the state in providing free-to-user or subsidized health care and education has increased greatly. Many of the reforms made by social democrats in Europe, such as the establishment of national health care services, have been embraced by liberals and conservatives, and there is no support outside of a radical fringe for a return to 19th-century levels of public spending and economic regulation.
The United States had no real Social Democrat party but some members of the most leftist parts of the Democratic Party can arguably be defined as "Social Democrats".