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?

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    I think the major issue is that Lenin wasn't pro-democracy from what I recall.
    – user1530
    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
    Mar 13, 2017 at 3:49
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    @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
    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
    Mar 15, 2017 at 1:40
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    NEP is more similar to Deng Xiaoping's ideology. Neither can be called social democracy. "Socialist market economy" maybe.
    – Fizz
    May 17, 2019 at 2:11

1 Answer 1


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
    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
    Mar 13, 2017 at 7:50
  • @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
    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
    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
    Mar 14, 2017 at 7:05

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