Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books.

If had to nominate a social democrat worth reading it would be Michael Walzer. His Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality is a model of how modern political theory should be done. It has insight and interesting arguments on just about every page, and Walzer is a stylish writer. But when I mention Walzer to social democrats they rarely know his work, or know only his writings on just and unjust wars.

There are lots of smart, book-writing social democrats, and even more smart, book-reading social democrats, so this lack of greater social democrat books and thinkers is really a bit odd. But it is consistent with their social democracy being a sensibility rather than something that is book learnt. Books may give details of injustices and suggestions for policies to correct them, but the core social democratic ideas are built on such powerful intuition that social democrats do not find its theory useful. Perhaps theory even drains the core beliefs of passion more than it energises them with insight.

Compared to social democracy, liberalism probably does come from books. My liberalism started with a book, and I don’t think I am too unusual in that regard. There are more counter-intuitive ideas in liberalism – order without central control, putting up with people you disagree with, morality without God or church, etc – than in either social democracy or conservatism. The great thinkers and their books explain the arguments, and are acknowledged as great for pointing out things we didn’t realise before. But social democrats have much less need for such people, and so they have not given high and lasting status to any of their thinkers.

37 thoughts on “Why no great social democratic thinkers?

  1. “The Future of Socialism” by Anthony Crosland seems to get mentioned alot in the UK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Future_of_Socialism). It was very much ahead of its time when it was published in 1956, and also makes the point that social democracy (or socialism as everything on the left was called back then) is about the end rather than the means. “Spheres Of Justice: A Defense Of Pluralism And Equality” sounds interesting – But I’m not sure I would get through it all!

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  2. There are more counter-intuitive ideas in liberalism – order without central control, putting up with people you disagree with, morality without God or church, etc – than in either social democracy or conservatism.

    Surely this depends on the intuitions in question. “No central control” is buttressed by the “I can run my own damn life” intuition; “putting up with people you disagree with” fits nicely with the “live and let live” intuition. “Morality without God or church” follows naturally from any of a number of intuitions: the “brotherhood of Man” intuition; the anticlerical/antiauthoritarian intuition — even the “cup-of-tea irreligion” intuition.

    Perhaps my definition of “intuition” is too broad. But my feeling is that any consistent political alignment will concord with some intuitions and prejudices and sit uneasily against others.

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  3. Leon – At one level I agree, in that all political movements have sociological antecedents. And many of the intuitions you mention are far more common now than when some of the key liberal texts were written, so in that sense they have become less counter-intuitive over time. But there is a big leap between the intuition that ”I want to run my own life” to understanding how a society works when everyone thinks that. Religious tolerance is still a tough argument, as we see in the vicious attacks by the celebrity atheists or the relentless targeting of various minor Christian sects deemed a thread to social cohesion (the private school debate and anti-discrimination law debates show how this debate on religious tolerance goes on and on).

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  4. Krystian – Yes, Crosland was an important intellectual figure in post-war British ‘socialism’. His major book is still available, but ranked 106,002 at Amazon.UK. TH Marshall was big too (joining the ideas of citizenship and the welfare state), and Citizenship and Social Class is also still in print, but ranked around 394,000 at Amazon.

    But the classical liberal books – a microscopic group compared to social democrats – are still bestsellers by comparison. Road to Serfdom is ranked 2,799. Capitalism and Freedom is 3,158. On Liberty is hard to assess because there are so many editions, but the best-ranked I found was 4,683 (though it is probably the highest of them all if all editions were counted together). Wealth of Nations also has a multiple editions issue, but best 5,365. Even Locke’s Two Treatises, the least accessible for the modern reader, is 13,466.

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  5. “Left liberal” and “social democrat” are fairly fluid nowadays, and I suspect a lot of “social democrats” are so practically minded that they have been content to turn to Rawls or one of the many who have engaged with Rawls, when they feel a need for philosophical justification.
    An example. Back in the mid-1980s, you might remember seeing a book on Social Justice, by one Andrew Theophanous, briefly flit through the Monash bookshop. Though Theophanous, like his brother Theo, was aligned with the ALP’s Socialist Left, as I recall the book pretty much took Rawls as its foundation.
    There’s a copy in the Victorian Legal Aid Library, if you want to check.

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  6. Comparing (classical) liberalism and social democracy is apples and oranges. Liberalism is an idea that never gets implemented. Social democracy is fundamentally programmatic (publicly funded or directed health, education, housing etc) and what was vaguely called the “mixed economy”, with a combination of public and private ownership of the means of production. You could fill entire libraries with books about social democratic programs. As to philosophy, social democracy was historically thought of by its protaganists as socialism with democracy, to explicitly distinguish it from communism. Since social democracy was defined in the negative (not communism) it was (is) hard to make it emerge as the outcome of a ground-up philosophy, though some have tried to backwards engineer it that way. On the non-communist Left, social democracy as a program of action was thought of as too Fabian, too accommodating to capitalism and too associated with people on the the Right of Labo(u)r Parties (such as Anthony Crosland). Many preferred the term democratic socialism (this kind of hair splitting was endemic to the Left.) No one in the Australian Labor Party has ever been fond of the term social democracy. The Left has traditionally preferred democratic socialism; the Right not liking the term because it didn’t give enough weight to unions (the sort that supported the Right in any case).

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  7. Keynes

    Perhaps “social democracy” is best thought of as simply a moderate form of socialism… just like classical liberalism could be thought of as a moderate form of libertarianism.

    When we lived in a more classical liberal world (100 years ago) it made sense for the social democrats and socialists to work together to work for change, while classical liberals and conservatives worked together to prevent change.

    Now that we live in a more social democratic world the old alliances are changing. Social democrats don’t want to go much further to socialism and so there is a split on the left (perhaps demonstrated by the increasing popularity of the more socialist Green Party).

    And the conservative-liberal union is also under stress because the conservatives and still conserving while the classical liberals now are the people arguing for change.

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  8. How can social democrats have a philosophical underpinning when it can’t by virtue of belief system. It’s a mish mash of ideas which is most cases have no logical consistency. Like it’s close sibling- populism – you end up in exactly the same position Rudd has found himself with his appalling little essays in the Nation.

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  9. Social democracy has always struck me as a merging between liberalism and socialism. It starts with socialism taking on political liberalism (elections, Parliamentarianism, etc) in the later C19th. Then, at various times, forms of social liberalism (essentially, extending equality before the law to Jews, women, blacks, gays, etc; removing restrictions on aspects of personal life: censorship, availability of contraception, etc). Since the mid 1950s, it has taken on various aspects of economic liberalism (abandoning further nationalisation, later moving to deregulation and privatisation motivated by a concern to have an economically and financially sustainable welfare state).
    Essentially, social democracy took on aspects of liberalism either because socialism did not have anything specifically useful or because of widening realisation that it did not really work.
    So, if social democracy is a process of socialism retreating and liberalism advancing, it is hard to see how it could generate any great thinkers.

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  10. Perhaps social democracy is nothing more than the great melting pot of ideas, the chaos, that results when policy is set by democracy instead of grand ideas comprehensively articulated.

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  11. Michael – I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. While the policy implications will often by the same, I still however think that there is a distinction between how liberals and social democrats see lifting various restrictions on or discrimination against particular social groups – liberals seeing it in terms of liberty and social democrats in terms of equality (or, in sensibility terms, the suffering and victimhood of those groups).

    It does occasionally manifest itself in policy differences, for example the willingness of social democrats to sacrifice liberties of minority groups in the name of equality.

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  12. Would you class Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen as “left liberals” or “social democrats” or both?
    They collaborate on a thing called the “capabilities approach”, but while Sen came to it via economics Nussbaum’s entry was via Aristotelian political philosophy, and one of her early stabs at it was an article called something like “Towards an Aristotelian Social Democracy”.

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  13. Andrew, I have no problems with your point, since I take some sort of commitment to equality to be a defining characteristic of the Left. (I do not think “the Right” has any defining characteristics apart from have strong views about politics and not regarding equality as a trumping virtue.) So I do not claim that social democrats are liberals, just that the liberal element in social democracy has been increasing over time.

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  14. I take some sort of commitment to equality to be a defining characteristic of the Left. (I do not think “the Right” has any defining characteristics apart from have strong views about politics and not regarding equality as a trumping virtue.)’

    Michael what do you make of Sen’s arguement that all of the major and enduring political philosophies believe in equality of something. For classic liberalism, that something is equality before the law. Is that a defining characteristic?

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  15. Perhaps social democracy is nothing more than the great melting pot of ideas, the chaos, that results when policy is set by democracy instead of grand ideas comprehensively articulated.

    I’m sure if you stuck a bunch of monkeys in a room with orchestral instruments you would end up with a bunch of incoherent noise, Charles.

    Brimming with ideas is quantity not quality.

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  16. Popper’s ideas about knowledge are closer to liberalism than social democracy (does social democracy even have an epistemology?). Maybe he held some social democratic views on helping the poor – I’m not sure – but if so he was a thinker about other topics who happened to be a social democrat rather than a social democratic thinker.

    Nearly everyone can find something that suits them in Orwell. Though he was a self-described democratic socialist, in that he was genuinely anti-totalitarian I am happy to classify him as a social democrat.

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  17. Andrew:

    Didn’t he change in later life?

    I also think that in a lot of cases the times obscure a person’s thinking. Orwell was one of the smartest people to hit the planet by some accounts how he was also human and that means he was a creature of his environment. For a decent whack of his adult life he never knew or really spent time in a country without the heavy hand of the state which was the UK from the 30’s to Thatcher.

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  18. I am a social democrat, albeit with a pronounced “conservative” streak. (Of course the founders of social democracy were typically aristocrats in league with labor unions, such as Bismark, Churchill, Keynes, Beveridge, Rooseveld. Aristocrats tended to be cultural conservatives. So being a cultural conservative is more or less implied by social democracy.)

    I take social democracy to be, in Popper’s terms, the scientific method applied to social engineering. This is the method of piece-meal rather than wholesale, social engineering. With a positive role for government but a strong suspicion of claims to omniscience and a respect for tradition.

    The scientific method is best summed up by the best scientist, who was Einstein:

    The scientist, however, cannot afford to carry his striving for epistemological systematic that far. He accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system.

    He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as free inventions of the human spirit.

    The scientific method is essentially pragmatic and anti-dogmatic, unwilling to commit once and for all to one theory or one technology because something better may come up later. This explains the un-doctrinaire aspect of social democrats. They are, as Rooseveld once remarked, “willing to try anything” to solve the problem.

    This anti-ideological attitude (somewhat echoed in Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics) scandalises the ideological purist. But it gets things done and is not afraid to admit error and go back to the drawing board if things dont work out.

    So one will never see the definitive work of social democratic principles because social democracy is essentially practical and forever a work-in-progress.

    The best way to describe social democratic principles, such as they are, is to point out that they are utilitarian problem solving. Where priority is given to solving the problems of the lower-status majority, because thats where the votes are.

    Thats why I am a social democrat (conservative and hostile to post-modernist liberalism though).

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  19. Andrew N says:

    “Popper’s ideas about knowledge are closer to liberalism than social democracy … Maybe he [Popper] held some social democratic views on helping the poor …”

    All you are doing is showing your limited knowledge of Karl Popper.

    Karl Popper is the chappy who originally popularised the term “social engineering”, which he thought Government should employ on a piecemeal basis (as Jack S notes) to advance the lot of the common folk.

    Popper openly, emphatically and repeatedly said he wanted his ideas on knowledge and the methods of science employed by an interventionist Government.

    Ditto for Orwell.

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  20. It is practically impossible to have a decent idea about KP because his ideas have been mangled beyond recognition in the secondary literature. That applies to his philosophy of science (labelled and lampooned as “falsificationism”) and to his political philosophy also.
    The best available take on Popper’s politics comes from Jeremy Shearmur, now at ANU. He placed Popper within a whisker of classical or minumum state liberalism. Popper moved from a brief spell as a Marxist to nuanced social democrat position to a stronger non-left liberal position because the more he saw of social democracy the less he liked it.
    You need to recall that the Open Society was written for social democrats so he had to lean their way (and be easy on Marx) because he wanted a readership.
    “Social engineering” as he described it is not a social democrat thing (despite drawing fire from conservatives and libertarians), it is just the only way to do effective social reform, that is by trial and error, learning from mistakes as you go.

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  21. Rafe,

    not only have you failed to understand Popper but you have also failed to understand what Shearmur said about Popper. So here is Shearmur on Popper taken from a radio interview:

    ..

    “Popper stressed the significance of markets, but I think that he simply didn’t have the kind of confidence in markets as a system, that really inspires Hayek’s work. And for Popper, you need a set of institutions where the government protects people’s liberties, but also secures them against economic exploitation, but the main themes in Popper’s politics, then become a program of piecemeal experimental policy conducted by government , with critical feedback from citizens.”

    ..

    “And Popper really says, Well I’ve come to the view that to discuss politics in terms of just straightforward ideologies of this sort really isn’t any good. He says, Well look, I agree with Socialists that there is need for much greater equalisation of incomes , that we need bold but critical experimentation in politics that this could include the socialisation of the means of production, but only if the dangers of this are understood and met, and that it isn’t seen as a cure-all.

    ..

    He thinks that certain business interests may interfere in a dangerous way with politics and should be controlled if necessary by socialisation and also that monopolies should be broken up or socialised, but, he wanted to say, there isn’t a cure-all in politics. ”

    ..

    “I think there was a lot of disagreement [with Hayek]. I mean Popper really I think thought that Hayek’s criticisms of social justice just were hopeless, and also that they would be politically devastating, and Popper’s big concern especially just after the Second World War, was to try to see whether he could get an alliance together between non-totalitarian socialists and liberals, and in this context wrote when he was invited to join Hayek’s Mont Perelin Society which became over the years kind of hardline economic liberalism, he wrote suggesting the name of a whole lot of Socialists who Hayek should get to become members on the grounds that otherwise, to set up such a society would make a split in exactly this group that he thought it was so important to try and keep co-operating.”
    ..

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2008/2397055.htm
    ..

    So even your preferred source of information, Jeremy Shearmur, puts Popper’s ideology squarely in the social democrat camp and well outside the right-liberal camp.

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  22. The point is that Popper’s position shifted over time and he became much more non-left, far more non-left than Jeremy indicated. That was especially apparent in an interview not long before he died. The interviewer was pushing him to say that after the Fall of the Wall, with hard-line communism and socialism out of the way, the western democracies could focus more attention on redistributive reforms and big goverment health, education and welfare reforms. Popper would not have it.
    Even in his social democrat days he warned that every increase in the role of government was potentially dangerous and constant efforts should be devoted to identifying the downside of government interventions. He was in favour of safety nets but NOT significant redistribution. He acknowledged that it was distressing to see extremes of wealth and poverty but he did not accept that redistribution was the answer.
    Not that I care all that much where he stood, he made mistakes, and he should not be regarded as an authority on anything, even his own ideas.

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  23. Initially Rafe said:

    “The best available take on Popper’s politics comes from Jeremy Shearmur, now at ANU. He placed Popper within a whisker of classical or minumum state liberalism.”

    Now that I’ve demolished that particular fiction, Rafe says:

    “The point is that Popper’s position shifted over time and he became much more non-left, far more non-left than Jeremy indicated.”

    Then we have this spectacular falsehood:

    “The interviewer was pushing him to say that after the Fall of the Wall, with hard-line communism and socialism out of the way, the western democracies could focus more attention on redistributive reforms and big goverment health, education and welfare reforms. Popper would not have it.”

    But Shearmur clearly acknowledges that Popper was a proponent of social justice and, in his very own words, a much greater equalisation of incomes, ideas rejected in their entirety by Hayek and practically all libertarians.

    Popper’s leftist leanings are confirmed by his close friend and regular pen pal, Bryan Magee.

    But your finale is jaw dropping:

    “Not that I care all that much where he stood, he made mistakes, and he should not be regarded as an authority on anything, even his own ideas.”

    You are practically obsessed with Popper and admit it here:

    “Rafe Champion is a writer interested in philosophy and science, especially the work of the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and the Austrian economist F A Hayek.” http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2246827.htm

    You’re odd, dude.

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  24. Last week, when my comments were not being accepted, I wanted echo Michael Warby and suggest that there is no great social democratic thinker because a great thinker would realise that classical liberalism is a better way to obtain peace, freedom and prosperity.
    That is why Popper moved in that direction, a course that was first described by Shearmur’s book on Popper’s politics, though he never moved quite as far as I would like.
    If you want to make a serious case for Popper as a social democrat, after The Open Society, you need to quote statements (in context) from more recent times, like his interview with Encounter in 1969 and the interview that I mentioned in 1992.

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  25. Rafe – All comments with 2 links or more go into moderation, but I have not rejected any. If nothing appears in a few hours email me. Your other comments must have been classified as spam.

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  26. You can read most of the interview on google books.

    Page 36 is relevant. Some of the dialogue where the interviewer was urging stronger intervention is missing. Popper was concerned with alleviating misery and distress but that does not call for redistribution, just safety nets and more of a free market in labour.

    Other relevant comments can be found in the 1973 Encounter interview but you really need to read more of Popper on your own account to make a useful contribution.

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  27. Your lack of honesty is tiresome, Rafe.

    You said I needed to read Shearmur to get a true picture of Popper, then when I gave you numerous Shearmur quotes that confirmed in every imaginable way that Popper remained a social democrat to the end, you said Shearmur was wrong.

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  28. It is years since I scanned Jeremy’s book but he pointed out (from memory) that Popper’s position was far too nuanced to describe simply as “social democrat” especially as he moved on from The Open Society which he deliberately wrote to appeal to socialists and social democrats.
    The point is to find just how far he moved and that calls for attention to what he actually wrote after the OSE, with attention to the date and the audience (which can distort the message, simply because it is not possible to say everything at once that needs to be said about a complex topic). Have you checked out page 36 in the google book, cited above?
    Having a concern for the poor and the weak does not mean that a person is a social democrat.
    Seeing a role for government to help the poor and the weak does not make a person a redistributionist.
    Social engineering is neutral with regard to ideologies, all policy makers are bound to be engineers in some sense.
    To demand interventionism by the state does not mean social democracy, you need to discriminate between interventions that support the rule of law (protecting property rights and minimising force and fraud) and interventions that are ad hoc, promote big government and support various interests in defiance of the rule of law and free trade.
    I have got more Popper quotes up my sleeve but I am not convinced that you are really interested, it may be that you just want to score debating points.
    If you cherry pick from Jeremy’s conversation you can support your case but I think that extracts from off the cuff conversation can be very miselading. The classcial example is Margaret Thatchers comment “there is no such thing as society”, which is recycled by the left with blissful disregard for the context and the real thrust of her conversation.

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  29. Rafe says:

    “It is years since I scanned Jeremy’s book but he …”

    Yet you recommend him as the best authority.

    “If you cherry pick from Jeremy’s conversation you can support your case but I think that extracts from off the cuff conversation”

    You are being dishonest again. I quoted about half of what Shearmur said and his comments were made during a lengthy and completely non-confrontational interview.

    You are more than welcome to quote something from the Shearmur interview that shows I engaged in “cherry picking” but haven’t done so because you know I did no such thing. I suggest you apologise.

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  30. I think that the line in Shearmur’s book is a better guide than remarks in conversation (see Thatcher on “no such thing as society). The book signalled that Popper’s position cannot simply be labelled “social democrat” due to his distrust of bureaucracy and his view that government is a necessary evil that should be kept to the minimum, otherwise freedom will be at risk.
    I am sorry that you have not read enough of Popper to have any evidence from that source to support your claim that he should be regarded as a social democrat rather than a classical liberal.
    Still, I think he would have been even more aligned with minimum state liberalism if anyone had explained to him that unemployment and the existence of monopolies are mostly due to state intervention, rather than the free market.

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  31. “Still, I think he would have been even more aligned with minimum state liberalism if anyone had explained to him that unemployment and the existence of monopolies are mostly due to state intervention, rather than the free market.”

    That is exactly the type of religious-like devotion to an all encompassing ideology cum theology that Karl Popper, rightly in my view, found utterly frightening.

    Google has extracts of Shearmur’s book on the web. Page 32, 35 and 140 deal with social justice although page 140 is not available. Everything written there aligns perfectly with what Shearmur said during the radio interview I quoted as do other sections on income redistribution etc..

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