Definition: a social democrat is a usually suscription-paying member of a left-wing, ex-communist or centre-left political party that combines basically socialist aims with constitutional methods, plus a general acceptance (or tolerance) of some of the basic tenets of the capitalist system. The present system in China springs to mind as an unequalled example of an ex-communist country embracing a good many of the principles of social democracy. A bad example would be Cuba, where the system is wholly totalitarian, and the methodology of early sovietism in Soviet Russia is commonplace.
The name ‘social democrat’ is believed to have been invented by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel in Germany, at the founding of their German Social Democratic Labour Party in 1869. The party based itself on the teachings of Karl Marx, though it recommended evolutionary reform by democratic and constitutional means.
The party joined the German Workers’ Association in 1875, which itself had been founded by Ferdinand Lasalle in 1863. Renamed the Social Democratic Party it had been subjected to anti-socialist legislation by Otto von Bismarck (q.v.).
In other countries copies of the SPD appeared, notably in Denmark (1878), Britain (1883), Norway (1887), Austria (1889), the United States (1897, later becoming ‘The Socialist Party’, and still later becoming ‘The Democratic Party’), and Russia (1898). In the latter country the Social Democratic Party split (in 1903) into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.
In some countries (France, Italy and Spain for example), the name ‘Socialist Party’ was commonly adopted by its members. In Germany the SDP was the biggest party in the Weimar Republic (q.v.), governing the country in a tolerable manner until its prohibition in 1933, when President von Hindenberg appointed Adolf Hitler head of the government.
After World War II the party in what was then West Germany was reformed with a new constitution (1959), which ended any Marxist connection. In 1966 it entered into coalition with the Christian Democrats, and then yet another coalition with the Free Democrats between 1969 and 1982. Things were different in what was then East Germany; there, a revived SDP campaigned for office in 1990 after the collapse of the communist regime.
In Britain four distinguished members of the Labour Party resigned in 1981 to form a Social Democratic Party. It had a short and uneventful life. It merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form ‘The Social and Liberal Democrats’, but this cumbersome label was shortened to the ‘Liberal Democrats’ in 1989.
Labour leaders Kinnock, Smith and Blair reformed the British Labour Party in the 80s and 90s of the last century. Today it retains the name, but could be more accurately described as a social democratic rather than merely a socialist party.