In Germany, the transformation of democratic socialism was formal and explicit. As late as the mid-1950s, Germany’s Socialist Party (the SPD) continued to espouse classic socialist ideology. A key SPD leader declared that the crucial point of the party’s agenda was “the abolition of capitalist exploitation and the transfer of the means of production from the control of the big proprietors to social ownership.” But after a series of electoral defeats at the hands of a center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that itself supported a significant welfare state, the SPD came to understand that its post-war program had been outrun by events. Rapid economic growth based on private property and regulated markets during the 1950s had sparked the emergence of a new middle class and rendered obsolete an economic program centered on nationalization of key industries. The Soviet Union was a threat to social and political freedom, not an economic model to be emulated.
The SPD’s famous Bad Godesberg Program, adopted in November 1959, represented a fundamental change of course. It castigated Soviet Communism and repudiated Marxism. The proletariat was no longer the sole engine of progress; the SPD had changed from being a “party of the working class” to a “party of the people.” Henceforth, democracy, freedom, equality, and the fullest possible development of each individual would be the guiding principles.
The Program defined the social function of the state as “provid[ing] social security for its citizens to enable everyone to be responsible for shaping his own life freely and to further the development of a free society.” While achieving this aim would require substantial government regulation, it would not necessitate government ownership except in the rare cases in which “sound economic power relationships” could not be guaranteed by any other means.
The new economic vision rested on freedom—“free choice of consumer goods, free choice of working place, freedom for employers to exercise their initiative as well as free competition.” Where excessive concentration restricted competition, government must intervene to restore competition. The task of a freedom-based economic policy was to contain the power of big business, not to replace the private sector. In some instances, they suggested that what we would now call a “public option” could be used to broaden choices for consumers and diminish corporate power. But in a remarkable break with socialist orthodoxy, the Program stressed that “every concentration of economic power, even in the hands of the state, harbors dangers.” Widespread government ownership of the means of production is not always the solution; it may be part of the problem.
The Program focused, not on government taking control of the economy, but on using government to improve the lives of all citizens. Key planks included full employment, generous wages and shorter working days, a redistributive system of taxation, secure retirement with a state-guaranteed minimum pension, universal access to health care, and decent and affordable housing. These are among the building blocks of the system of “social democracy” that developed and spread throughout the West as the alternative to both socialism and unregulated capitalism. As scholar Sheri Berman puts it, “Capitalism remained, but it was a capitalism of a very different type—one tempered and limited by political power and often made subservient to the needs of society rather than the other way around.”
The bottom line? Socialists are NOT communists. When socialist parties have been in power in Europe, they do not attempt to “takeover” the private sector. Instead, they focus on things like a secure retirement, like Social Security, or basic healthcare for the elderly, like Medicare, or on higher taxation for the wealthiest citizens. As this makes clear, the United States is not a 100% free market capitalist system. We Americans are staunch supporters of the free market but we are also staunch supporters of a basic safety net, public schools, a state run retirement system, and other programs which are arguably socialistic.