I am confused by tim's great answer to this question on Bernie Sanders's political orientations. To summarize the answer, though Sanders labels himself as a socialist, it seems that social democrat suits him better.

Definitions are often blurry in politics, so here are the definitions used in the answer (formulation is mine):

  1. Socialism: policy that promotes public ownership of the means of production (either through direct ownership by workers, or through state ownership). With this definition, communism is a particular form of socialism.
  2. Social democracy: ideology that advocates mixed economy, where the market is regulated towards social and economical justice.

Note that I am not considering that the socialist is intrinsically revolutionary, or that it has to be implemented through a dictatorship or a unique party.

Now consider Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Red Revolution in Russia in 1917. He promoted a Communism of War during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) but when the communists finally won, the country was ruined. He then decided to reform the country through the New Economic Policy (NEP). In a few words, the NEP is a mixed economy were private ownership of small businesses is accepted while the State controls the banks and big industries.

This seems to suit better the definition of social democracy than the definition of communism. It is strange to me as Lenin was the founder of USSR, the big evil empire that (try to) spread communism all around the world.

Is it appropriate to call Lenin a social democrat? Or am I misunderstanding the NEP?

Note: from the definition, it seems that social democracy has nothing to do with democracy, the system where the political power is given to citizen. Am I wrong in my definition of social democracy?

  • 4
    I think the major issue is that Lenin wasn't pro-democracy from what I recall.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 2:22
  • The Social Democrat party was the German party nearest to marxism at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. So it does make sense to use its name to describe Lenin. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – MasB
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 3:49
  • 3
    @BernardMassé except we're not talking about German parties. Alas, I think the question is going to be mostly opinion based as there's so many angles one could argue this. Many of them valid, yet contradictory.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 3:54
  • Given Sanders views on things, I think a more accurate description of social democracy is public ownership of the results of production (e.g., people's income).
    – Andy
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 1:40
  • 3
    NEP is more similar to Deng Xiaoping's ideology. Neither can be called social democracy. "Socialist market economy" maybe. Commented May 17, 2019 at 2:11

6 Answers 6


I think that you are wrong both in your definition of social democracy, and in your understanding of how meaningful a reform the NEP was under Lenin.

"Social democratic" is conventionally part of the name of center-left political parties in multi-party political systems in which elections are a genuine mechanism by which leadership is chosen, which adheres to policies which favor a strong welfare state, significant regulation of private sector economic activity to further the public good, and even nationalization of industries when that would prevent monopoly power or would create efficiencies and advance social good due to economy of scale.

But, a social democrat does not generally aspire to predominantly nationalize private sector economic activity, does not afford a central role to central planning of economic activity, and is anti-authoritarian.

Lenin's NEP may have allowed a limited small business private sector economy, but nationalization of all big businesses which were administered on a central planning basis, an authoritarian single party political system, and enforced loyalty to the state were all still firmly in place and as a result it would be conventional and appropriate to call Lenin a "communist" even though he experimented on a very limited basis in an economically unimportant part of the economy with alternative models.

Similarly, while the NEP "abolished prodrazvyorstka (forced grain requisition) and introduced prodnalog: a tax on farmers, payable in the form of raw agricultural product", the bottom line was that farmers were handing over lots of the grain that they produced to the government either way in a manner not all that different from the feudal system that prevailed for centuries under the tsars.

In the same sense, we don't say that the economic system that prevails in Hong Kong is not capitalist, even though at the family and extended family scale, property rights break down and people work according to their abilities and receive according to their needs, and even though there are charitable activity in their civic society that also does not operate on a market basis.

The notion that "political power was given to the [average] citizen" under Lenin in the Soviet Union vastly exaggerates the extent to which the NEP changed the status quo. Mostly it changed how farming was administered, replacing large factory style communes that didn't work with more conventional farming estates, in the wake of the 1921 famine caused by overdoing agricultural reform. It had little impact in cities or in most industries, or outside of the economic sphere.

Also, keep in mind that the NEP lasted only from 1922 to 1928 (when Stalin abolished it), and was devised from the direction of a die hard communist experimenting in the direction of a less statist economic policy. It was devised and implemented from the top down, and abolished in the same way.

Conceivably, given more time and encouragement, it might have blossomed into a more free economic system, with greater political and social freedoms over time and allowed Lenin to mature from a communist into a socialist. But, it was nipped in the bud before this more or less purely economic and not social or political experimentation reached a point at which it could legitimately be called social democracy.

  • Thank you for the answer. Could you expend on the paragraph about Hong Kong? I thought Hong Kong had a pure liberal system, and that Beijing's Communist Party had few influence on HK. From the perspective of a tourist, HK does not seem to be different from Seoul, London or New York.
    – Taladris
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 4:07
  • Good answer and good definition of Social democracy. I'd point out also that Social Democracy emerges from the subsequent socialist international meetings arranged after the fall of lenin and the rise of Stalinism, as a more moderate and leninist approach to socialism.
    – CptEric
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 7:50
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    @Taldris Hong Kong is often thought of as extremely capitalist in its economic system, but even the most capitalist system in the world is not purely capitalist, because husbands and wives, and parents and children within a household aren't part of a market economy.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 15:05
  • @CptEric Social Democracy existed long before the rise of Stalinism. Lenin writes about it quite extensively and positively, and he was a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He says social democracy started in 1883. It is true though that there was a shift in the meaning of social democracy afterwards, as well as many other shifts in the following years.
    – tim
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 19:17
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    @tim indeed it existed, but it's after stalinism starts the purging, that many socialists elsewhere shift towards a more moderate social democracy, with the 4rth international being the basis of many modern left wing parties.
    – CptEric
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 7:05

The general problem is that when these ideas and parties first emerged, socialism, communism and even democracy where pretty much utopian ideas without implementations.

Sure Britain technically already had a parliament for some time, but there were still royal prerogatives that were probably more real than they are now, there's literally an upper chamber with the nobility and it took until until 1918/1928 for male/universal suffrage and apparently until 1948 to remove plural voting for property owners and university staff who could vote both in their home constituency and their property/university.

Technically the U.S. had a democratic republic, but then again they also had slavery, racism, the president is a pseudo-king (so electable monarchy without the folklore) and apparently some founding slave owners were so appalled by the idea of democracy that they outright called it "mob rule" and warned that the "tyranny of the majority" could vote to take away their excessive property. While realistically it might have been more aptly described as a tyranny of the wealth white minority:

In the early history of the U.S., most states allowed only white male adult property owners to vote (about 6% of the population). By 1856 property ownership requirements were eliminated in all states, giving suffrage to most white men. However, tax-paying requirements remained in five states until 1860 and in two states until the 20th century (wiki)

Where universal suffrage was achieved or re-achieved as late as 1965.

France was bouncing back and forth between republic and absolutism. Paris had a socialist revolution in 1871 though rather short lived (2 months).

But seriously implementations of the concepts of social contracts, democracies, social welfare systems, republics and so on were scarce and where they existed often left a lot to hope for. Just take a look at when countries achieve universal suffrage. Some male suffrage dates are earlier, but with lots of asterisks such as high age requirements (30+) or property requirements and so on. So most came with the turmoil of the world wars and the following decolonization so early to mid 20th century.

So there was plenty of time and opportunity to build utopian ideas without implementation, to criticize the liberal democracies for failing towards their aspirations or to critique their aspirations for a lack of vision and to argue that if that is what democracy looks like, you'd need a revolution.

And in all of that time you had hundreds of of definitions of socialism, communism or any other sort of workers and welfare movement. Like the first retirement plan was implemented by Bismark in 1881 in combination with a few other social security measures. Largely to take away power from the socialists movements who might have actually had a much more easy time generating a revolutionary sentiment among a population group that worked 10-16 hours a day, 6 days a week (1 day for church), until they couldn't work no more and died of poverty.

So yeah there were hundreds of people and groups in dozens of countries using these terms inflationary and within their local translations, accusing each other of not being revolutionary enough and whatnot. Like apparently for Marx socialism and communism were used interchangeably, also for many socialists it was quite obviously that socialism and democracy are inseparable. They just thought they'd also need to bring the ideal of a republic to the economic sphere, given how apparent it was how lacking democracy can be if it's rigged in favor of the rich.

So before a certain point the usage of "social", "democratic", "socialist", democratic socialist", "social democrat", "communist", "anarchist" was just a matter of preference and priorities. Like for example Marx apparently claimed the term communist and wrote a manifesto for that. Which subsequently lots of people called their strong or weak references to him "Marxism", with Marx himself not always being in favor of "Marxism". His rivalry with the anarchist split the 1st international, though both anarchists and communists might still have called themselves socialists. The internationalism vs nationalism struggle than broke the 2nd international as WWI left them with axis-socialists, allies-socialists and "what the fuck weren't supposed to unite"-socialists. While the reform vs revolution struggle apparently lead to some stressing democracy more while the other still implied that, though where that comes in the name is still a matter of preference.

Also Marx briefly talking about the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which in context just means "government" by the workers rather than the capitalists and an expected period of turmoil after the revolution. While Engels already warned that this approach of a vanguard party and seizing power and implementing shit top down has failed, doesn't work and should be abandoned in favor of a more democratic bottom up approach.

Though apparently Lenin either not having gotten the memo or just not caring about it, does exactly that, vanguard party, coup d'etat and top down implementation. There is the expected turmoil. Many supporting the bolsheviks because hey nows revolution and the czarists suck. Then Lenin's authoritarianism begins to show and that by dictatorship of the proletariat he might actually mean dictatorship (of him). He gets more and more flak from fellow leftists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronstadt_rebellion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_Socialist-Revolutionaries

After Lenin's death even Trotzky, who was happy gunning down other Leftists in as "counter-revolutionaries", was now on the list of "counter-revolutionaries" ironically for promoting a permanent revolution.

NEP was apparently an attempt to appease the situation after the civil war and to get international grants for Russia's development. The thing is according to Marx the progressions of societies is determined by the material conditions and the mode of production. And so the progression predicted would have been feudalism, liberal revolution towards capitalism, socialist revolution to post-capitalism (aka communism). Though Russia went from feudalism to post-capitalism, at least that was what many thought and so they expected that capitalist interlude and thought Russia wasn't sufficiently developed for communism.

So yeah a mixture of appeasement, experimenting, getting foreign grants and so on. Also Lenin didn't see much of that in the making, he made that plan 1921 in 1922 the civil war ended in in 1923 he had his third stroke and lost the ability to speak and in 1924 he died...

While Stalin mostly coined a lot of the terminology. Calling Lenin's power grap it's own ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the dictatorship of the proletariat "socialism" which would serve as that "turmoil and transition state", with the side effect of justifying him to continue a dictatorship indefinitely. The idea as a whole to restrict that economic system to one country opposed to ... you know "workers of the world unite".

And so the reform vs revolutionary aspect of "social democracy" vs what Stalin now called (real existing) socialism became much more distinct and meaningful.

Though for example the SPD apparently still had claims to nationalize the industry in their party program and it was still common to reference Marx as a social democratic party. So it's not that they were in favor of capitalism, just that they were more willing to do that in the framework of liberal democracy (which had evolved at least something over time). Though there had also already been currents who just wanted better working conditions and a welfare state in whatever system (political or economical), because again times were rough in the late 19th century. So it's more that they evolved apart from each other and that we label them with hindsight knowledge while they at the time might have used many of these terms differently.


Lenin clearly states his position against social democracy inn his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, which is a response to the Kautsky's pamphlet The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Kautsky and social democracy
Kautsky writes in response to the dismissal of the Russian constituent assembly and other manifestly non-democratic measures carried out by the Bolshevik government after their November Coup d'Etat. Kautsky's position perfectly aligns with what is understood nowadays by social democracy, despite his long history and expertise in Marxism (which is why Lenin labels him renegade - a traitor of Marx, although earlier he applied the moniker the pope of communism, for the work that Kautsky has done in preparing and publishing Marx' manuscirpts - among them the unpublished volumes of the Das Kapital.)

In the same time, Kautsky was a life-long member of the German Social-Democratic party, which originated from a merger of two communist parties - the Lassalean ADAV and the Marxist SDAP - the merger that was criticized by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program - criticized precisely for being engaged in the peaceful political process, rather than aiming at the change of the political system by force. This controversy woudl plague the SDP for a long time, resulting in revisionist controversy and eventual splitting off of the more extreme Marxist wing, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg.

Revisionism resulted from the Eduard Bernstein proposal to revise Marxist teaching, as it didn't correspond to the reality - the economic conditions of the working class were improving, and this was achieved via peaceful political engagement. Kautsky himself first opposed Bernstein, but eventually became a de facto social-democrat, despite his Marxist background.

Lenin and the Communism
Lenin's response points back to the original Marx teaching, which criticizes democracy as a system grounded in individual rights and therefore inherently unjust. Indeed, anyone born to a caring family, anyone who is more beautiful, or physically gifted, or more intelligent is guaranteed to be more successful than their more mediocre peers - provided that they are given equal rights. The Communist response is therefore giving more rights to the disadvantaged, e.g., but restricting the participation of more advantaged persons in the political process.

On the political level Marx/Lenin criticize the election of representatives - presidents and deputies, as inherently flawed, as they are out of public control for the duration of their mandate, and are likely to use it to seek financial support guaranteeing their re-election, than to promote the well-being of their voters.

Council system
As the alternative, the Marxists propose the council system (soviet is just the Russian term for council), where the representation is granted not on the basis of equal individual rights, but to those engaged in the industrial production processes, via workers' councils. The councils then elect representatives to higher level councils, which in turn elect representatives to higher level councils and so on. It is assumed that the elected representatives could be recalled at any moment.

After coming to power, Lenin and collaborators immediately tried to put directly such a system in place. One reason for this was that they didn't have the majority in the Constituent Assembly - hence its dismissal. The other reason - much criticized by Kautsky - is that the Council system suffers from arbitrariness of who should have a right to vote and who shouldn't. A housewife or a teacher, not directly involved in the production process would not have a vote. The manager of an industrial enterprise might not have a vote either, or may be treated on part with the most unqualified workers - effectively undermining their ability to manage the production process. Moreover, the Russian Communist went further, arbitrarily revoking the right for political participation, e.g., to workers who had additional sources of income - like those who rented a room in their apartment, and therefore belonged to the bourgeoisie, or those who owned their apartment/house.

Thus, although in his earlier life Lenin was associated with various movement having social-democracy in their name, a social democrat was he not.



Lenin's party initially started in 1898 as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party but renamed itself into Communist party in 1918 to avoid confusion with Social Democrats. The explanation was that Social Democrats more often suggest looking for possibilities of improving the Capitalism, while Communists are looking instead for possibilities to eliminate and replace this social order.

Why 'Russian Social Democratic Labour Party' was good enough for many years, it is not obvious. Either this represents the evolution of Lenin's political views, or he simply co-operated with Social Democrats for strategic reasons without fully supporting they ideas.

  • So it was "yes" for 20 years and then suddenly "no"? Are other political movements also allowed to use that time travel get out of jail free card?
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 10 at 22:18
  • In the Soviet history textbook I learned from at school it was clearly written that the name has been changed do remove associations with socialdemokrats.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Apr 11 at 5:44
  • @alamar no, just like you can't label someone a child or an adolescent because they went through that stage before emerging as an adult.
    – wrod
    Commented Apr 11 at 9:06
  • That should highlight that Lenin is indeed a social democrat. If Soviet textbooks tried to downplay something, it means there was something to hide. @wrod If you were a goth at 16 and then became a banker, you still were a goth. Calling you a "totally non goth" is disingenous to all other people in the world who are not, and were not, a goth.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 11 at 10:39

This question smacks of the question "is the Pope Catholic?"

V.I. Lenin was the founder of The Communist Party. His political philosophy can only be described as "Communist" because that is the philosophy based on which he founded the criminal organization responsible for more death and human suffering than any philosophy which has ever existed. Any attempts to whitewash his guilt, by extension, whitewashes the guilt of all other Communists.

  • 1
    French have a derisive expression about some people trying to be more Catholic than the Pope. In this sense, Lenin did try to be more communist than Marx.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 11 at 10:04
  • This does not answer the question.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 11 at 20:05
  • @alamar incorrect Commented Apr 11 at 21:49
  • @RogerV. Marx wrote a theoretical work. Lenin created a political party which put it into practice. In that respect, Lenin's Communist philosophy is more canonical. Many people have many ideas. Many people join clubs. But when people create political movements which gain power, the principles behind those movements are the ones canonically describing them. Commented Apr 11 at 21:56
  • @RadicallyReasonable Describing whom? These movements? Duh. Or these ideas? Not necessarily.
    – haxor789
    Commented Apr 12 at 11:11

Lenin was an active participant, and later a leader, of Russian Social Democratic Labour Party , while it was still one of the parties in Russian Empire's multi-party parliament (Duma).

He was also chosen to participate in Second International, an international movement of social democratic parties.

Therefore, objecting that Lenin was a social democrat constitutes a "no true Scotsman" fallacy. You should not be allowed to retroactively eject people you don't like from your political side of preference in order to paint it "better" than it actually is.

  • 2
    This is very misleading. Lenin was a member for a matter of months before splitting the party and leaving in the far-left group, the Bolsheviks. Classic entryist strategy. It doesn't prove Lenin was a social democrat any more than his baptism into the Orthodox church proves he was a Christian.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:08
  • @StuartF The split happened in 1903, but both of its factions were still called, and recognized as, Social Democratic until 1918. So it took 15 years of Social Democracy. The last part about Orthodox is even more confusing. If somebody calls themself Orthodox and was baptised Orthodox then they are definitely Christian.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:17

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