Third Way

Not to be confused with Third Position.
This article is about the political philosophy. For other uses, see Third Way (disambiguation).
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, early adherents of the "Third Way"
Manuel Valls and Matteo Renzi, contemporary political leaders considered to follow the "Third Way"

In politics, the Third Way is a position akin to centrism that tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by advocating a varying synthesis of right-wing economic and left-wing social policies.[1][2] The Third Way was created as a serious re-evaluation of political policies within various centre-left progressive movements in response to international doubt regarding the economic viability of the state; economic interventionist policies that had previously been popularized by Keynesianism and contrasted with the corresponding rise of popularity for economic liberalism and the New Right.[3] The Third Way is promoted by some social democratic and social liberal movements.[4]

Major Third Way social democratic proponent Tony Blair claimed that the socialism he advocated was different from traditional conceptions of socialism. Blair said "My kind of socialism is a set of values based around notions of social justice ... Socialism as a rigid form of economic determinism has ended, and rightly".[5] Blair referred to it as "social-ism" that involves politics that recognized individuals as socially interdependent, and advocated social justice, social cohesion, equal worth of each citizen, and equal opportunity.[6] Third Way social democratic theorist Anthony Giddens has said that the Third Way rejects the traditional conception of socialism, and instead accepts the conception of socialism as conceived of by Anthony Crosland as an ethical doctrine that views social democratic governments as having achieved a viable ethical socialism by removing the unjust elements of capitalism by providing social welfare and other policies, and that contemporary socialism has outgrown the Marxian claim for the need of the abolition of capitalism.[7] Blair in 2009 publicly declared support for a "new capitalism".[8]

It supports the pursuit of greater egalitarianism in society through action to increase the distribution of skills, capacities, and productive endowments, while rejecting income redistribution as the means to achieve this.[9] It emphasizes commitment to balanced budgets, providing equal opportunity combined with an emphasis on personal responsibility, decentralization of government power to the lowest level possible, encouragement of public-private partnerships, improving labour supply, investment in human development, protection of social capital, and protection of the environment.[10]

The Third Way has been criticized[11] by some conservatives and libertarians who advocate laissez-faire capitalism.[12] It has also been heavily criticized by many social democrats, democratic socialists and communists in particular as a betrayal of left-wing values.[13][14][15] Specific definitions of Third Way policies may differ between Europe and America.


The term "Third Way" has been used to explain a variety of political courses and ideologies in the last few centuries. These ideas were implemented by progressives in the early 20th century. The term "Third Way" was picked up again in the 1950s by German ordoliberal economists such as Wilhelm Röpke, resulting in the development of the concept of the social market economy. Later Röpke distanced himself from the term and located the social market economy as "first way" in the sense of an advancement of the free market economy.[16] Subsequently Enrico Berlinguer, General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s, used the term "Third Way" to advocate a vision of a socialist society which was more pluralist than the "real socialism" typically advocated by official communist parties, whilst being more economically egalitarian than social democracy. This was part of the wider trend of Eurocommunism in the official communist movement, and provided a theoretical basis for Berlinguer's pursuit of a Historic Compromise with the Italian Christian Democrats.[17] Most significantly, Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, based his philosophy of government on what he entitled in a book, The Middle Way (1938).

Modern usage

The Third Way has been defined as:

... something different and distinct from liberal capitalism with its unswerving belief in the merits of the free market and democratic socialism with its demand management and obsession with the state. The Third Way is in favour of growth, entrepreneurship, enterprise and wealth creation but it is also in favour of greater social justice and it sees the state playing a major role in bringing this about. So in the words of... Anthony Giddens of the LSE the Third Way rejects top down socialism as it rejects traditional neo liberalism.
Report from the BBC, 1999, [18]

Usage by social democrats

A variant of the Third Way exists which approaches the centre from a social democratic perspective. It has been advocated by its proponents as an alternative to both capitalism and what it regards as the traditional forms of socialism, including Marxist socialism and state socialism, that Third Way social democrats reject.[19] It advocates ethical socialism, reformism, gradualism - that includes advocating the humanization of capitalism, a mixed economy, political pluralism, and liberal democracy.[19]

It has been advocated by proponents as a "competition socialism" - an ideology in between traditional socialism and capitalism.[20] A chief social democratic proponent of Third Way, Anthony Giddens, has publicly supported a modernized form of socialism within the social democracy movement but claims that "traditional socialist" ideology referring to state socialism that involves economic management and planning are flawed and states as a theory of the managed economy, socialism barely exists any longer.[21]

In defining the Third Way, Tony Blair once wrote “The Third Way stands for a modernized social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice.”[22]



Under the nominally centre-left Australian Labor Party from 1983 to 1996, the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating governments pursued many economic policies associated with economic rationalism, such as floating the Australian Dollar in 1983, reductions in trade tariffs, taxation reforms, changing from centralized wage-fixing to enterprise bargaining, heavy restrictions on union activities including on strike action and pattern bargaining, the privatization of government run services and enterprises such as Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, and wholesale deregulation of the banking system. Keating also proposed a Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 1985, however this was scrapped due to its unpopularity amongst both Labor and electorate. The party also desisted from other reforms, such as wholesale labour market deregulation (e.g., WorkChoices), the eventual GST, the privatization of Telstra and welfare reform including "work for the dole", which John Howard and the Liberal Party of Australia were to initiate after winning office in 1996.

Various ideological beliefs were factionalized under reforms to the ALP under Gough Whitlam, resulting in what is now known as the Labor Left who tend to favour a more interventionist economic policy, more authoritative top-down controls and some socially progressive ideals, and Labor Right, the now dominant faction that is pro-business, more economically liberal and focuses to a lesser extent on social issues. The Whitlam government was first to use the term economic rationalism.[23] The Gough Whitlam Labor government from 1972 to 1975 changed from a democratic socialism platform to social democracy, their precursor to the party's "Third Way" policies. Under the Whitlam government, tariffs across the board were cut by 25 percent after 23 years of Labor being in opposition.[24]

Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's first speech to parliament in 1998 stated:

Competitive markets are massive and generally efficient generators of economic wealth. They must therefore have a central place in the management of the economy. But markets sometimes fail, requiring direct government intervention through instruments such as industry policy. There are also areas where the public good dictates that there should be no market at all. We are not afraid of a vision in the Labor Party, but nor are we afraid of doing the hard policy yards necessary to turn that vision into reality. Parties of the Centre Left around the world are wrestling with a similar challenge—the creation of a competitive economy while advancing the overriding imperative of a just society. Some call this the "third way". The nomenclature is unimportant. What is important is that it is a repudiation of Thatcherism and its Australian derivatives represented opposite. It is in fact a new formulation of the nation's economic and social imperatives.[25]

Rudd was critical of free market economists such as Friedrich Hayek,[26] although Rudd described himself as "basically a conservative when it comes to questions of public financial management", pointing to his slashing of public service jobs as a Queensland governmental advisor.[27]


The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is considered a Third Way politician.

The Italian Democratic Party is a plural social democratic party including several distinct ideologic trends. Politicians such as the current and former Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi and Romano Prodi are Third Way-ers.[28]

Under Renzi's secretariat, the Democratic Party took a strong stance in favour of constitutional reform and of a new electoral law, on the road toward a two-party system.

It is not an easy task to find the exact political trend represented by Renzi and his supporters, who have been known as Renziani. The nature of Renzi's progressivism is a matter of debate and has been linked both to liberalism and populism.[29][29][30] According to Maria Teresa Meli of Corriere della Sera, Renzi "pursues a precise model, borrowed from the Labour Party and Bill Clinton's Democratic Party", comprising "a strange mix (for Italy) of liberal policy in the economic sphere and populism. This means that, on one side, he will attack the privileges of trade unions, especially of the CGIL, which defends only the already protected, while, on the other, he will sharply attack the vested powers, bankers, Confindustria and a certain type of capitalism."[31]

Renzi has occasionally been compared to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his political views.[32] Renzi himself has previously claimed to be as supporter of Blair's ideology of the Third Way, regarding an objective to synthesize liberal economics and left-wing social policies.[33][34]

United Kingdom

See also: New Labour

In 1938 Harold Macmillan wrote a book entitled The Middle Way, advocating a compromise between capitalism and socialism, which was a precursor to the contemporary notion of the Third Way.[35]

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is cited as a Third Way politician.[36][37] According to a former member of Blair's staff, Labour and Blair learnt from, and owes a debt to, Bob Hawke's government in Australia in the 1980s on how to govern as a "third way" party.[38] Blair wrote in a Fabian pamphlet in 1994 of the existence of two prominent variants of socialism: one is based on a Marxist economic determinist and collectivist tradition, and the other is an "ethical socialism" based on values of "social justice, the equal worth of each citizen, equality of opportunity, community".[39] Blair is a particular follower of the ideas of Giddens,[37] as was his successor Gordon Brown.

In 1998, Blair, then Labour leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, described the relation between social democracy and Third Way as the following:

The Third Way stands for a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice and the goals of the centre-left. … But it is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an Old Left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests; and a New Right treating public investment, and often the very notions of "society" and collective endeavour, as evils to be undone.[40]

United States

Two Third Way proponents: Professor Anthony Giddens and former U.S. President Bill Clinton

In the United States, "Third Way" adherents embrace fiscal conservatism to a greater extent than traditional economic liberals, and advocate some replacement of welfare with workfare, and sometimes have a stronger preference for market solutions to traditional problems (as in pollution markets), while rejecting pure laissez-faire economics and other libertarian positions. The Third Way style of governing was firmly adopted and partly redefined during the administration of President Bill Clinton.[41] The term "Third Way" was introduced by political scientist Stephen Skowronek.[42][43][44] "Third Way" presidents "undermine the opposition by borrowing policies from it in an effort to seize the middle and with it to achieve political dominance." Examples of this are Nixon’s economic policies, which were a continuation of Johnson's "Great Society", and later Clinton’s welfare reform.[45]

Clinton, Blair, Prodi, Gerhard Schröder and other leading Third Way adherents organized conferences to promote the Third Way philosophy in 1997 at Chequers in England.[46][47] The Third Way think tank and the Democratic Leadership Council are adherents of Third Way politics.[48]

Other countries

Other leaders who have adopted elements of the Third Way style of governance include Gerhard Schröder of Germany, Wim Kok of the Netherlands,[49] António Guterres and José Sócrates of Portugal,[50][51] Ehud Barak of Israel,[52][53] David Lange, Roger Douglas and Helen Clark in New Zealand,[54][55] François Hollande, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Manuel Valls in France,[56][57][58] Costas Simitis in Greece,[59] Viktor Klima and Alfred Gusenbauer in Austria,[60] Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson in Sweden,[61][62] Paavo Lipponen in Finland,[62] Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark,[63] Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in South Korea,[64] Jean Chrétien in Canada,[65] Ferenc Gyurcsány in Hungary,[66] Victor Ponta in Romania,[67] Leszek Miller in Poland,[68] Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil,[69] Alan Garcia and Alejandro Toledo in Peru,[70] Thabo Mbeki in South Africa[71] and Muammar Gaddafi of Jamahiriya-era Libya.[72][73]


In 1990, after the dismantling of his country's communist government, Czechoslovakia's conservative finance minister, Václav Klaus, declared, "We want a market economy without any adjectives. Any compromises with that will only fuzzy up the problems we have. To pursue a so-called 'third way' is foolish. We had our experience with this in the 1960s when we looked for a socialism with a human face. It did not work, and we must be explicit that we are not aiming for a more efficient version of a system that has failed. The market is indivisible; it cannot be an instrument in the hands of central planners." [74] However, it should be noted that in historical context, the "third way" proposals of 1960s Czechoslovakia were better described as "liberalized centrally-planned socialism" rather than the "socially-sensitive capitalism" that Third Way policies tend to have been identified with in the West.

Left-wing opponents of the Third Way argue that it represents social democrats who responded to the New Right by accepting capitalism. The Third Way most commonly uses market mechanics and private ownership of the means of production; and in that sense it is fundamentally capitalistic.[75] In addition to opponents who have noticed this, other reviews have claimed that Third Way social democrats adjusted to the political climate since the 1980s that favoured capitalism by recognizing that outspoken opposition to capitalism in these circumstances was politically nonviable, and that accepting capitalism as the current powers that be and seeking to administer it to challenge laissez-faire capitalists was a more pressing immediate concern.[76]

Charles Clarke, a former UK Home Secretary and the first senior "Blairite" to attack Prime Minister Gordon Brown openly and in print, stated "We should discard the techniques of 'triangulation' and 'dividing lines' with the Conservatives, which lead to the not entirely unjustified charge that we simply follow proposals from the Conservatives or the right-wing media, to minimize differences and remove lines of attack against us."[77]

William K. Black said that "Third Way is this group that pretends sometimes to be center-left but is actually completely a creation of Wall Street—it's run by Wall Street for Wall Street with this false flag operation as if it were a center-left group. It's nothing of the sort."[13][14][15]

Third Way and Social Capital

The shift towards a political discourse heavily influenced by social capital is clearly observable comparing the 1979 and 1997 Labour Party manifestos (Ferragina and Arrigoni 2016 [78]). In 1979, the Labour Party professed a complete adherence to social democratic ideals and rejected the choice between a "prosperous and efficient Britain" and a "caring and compassionate Britain" (Labour Party, 1979: 23). Coherent with this position, the main commitment of the party was the reduction of economic inequality, via the introduction of a wealth tax (Labour Party, 1979: 1). In the 1990s, this agenda drastically changed with the progressive dismissal of traditional social democratic ideology. In particular, New Labour de-emphasized the need to tackle economic inequality and instead focused its political strategy on the expansion of opportunities for all, keeping public intervention in the market to a minimum. In this context, the aim to foster social capital creation by holding together the modernization of the state and the creation of stronger social ties became the flagship of New Labour (Ferragina and Arrigoni 2016:5 [78]).

This change of political orientation was based on a profound revision of social democratic principles. These principles were considered by New Labour to be an obstacle to the activation of evidence-based policy-making. In this context, the prevention of market failures, that is, targeting child poverty and educational disadvantage, was preferred over the redistributive approach endorsed by the Labour Party during the 1970s. The new vision implied the full acceptance of market principles and pushed traditional social democratic values even further away. This ideological shift took place despite the fact that the period between 1979 and 1995 was characterized by the sharpest increase in economic inequality since World War II (Ferragina and Arrigoni 2016: 5 [78]).

The importance attributed to the creation of social capital is symptomatic of New Labour's interest in civil society. This interest can be explained by the effect of growing individual freedom, fostered by economic and technological modernization, in a context where traditional forms of solidarity and interdependence are needed to prevent social disintegration; a "social paradox" already identified by the founding fathers of sociology. For this reason, New Labour considered the creation of social capital as a good antidote to the tension between traditional and modern values.

Tony Blair proposed to manage social change by unifying moral values, represented by the Tocquevillian quest for community, and scientific evidence, used to inform evidence-based policy-making. The fusion of these two elements in the Third Way was, according to Blair, the only remedy for the social paradox illustrated above. One could say, as Durkheim, that during an age of modernization and transformation, the values cultivated in secondary groups need to be universally accepted because they confer a human face to a society dominated by competition and the pursuit of efficiency. In this vision, the creation of social capital balances growing individualism with the need for interdependence, serving as a sort of glue to prevent modernization from heading towards societal disintegration. After merging social capital’s argument and the Third Way discourse (Giddens,1998), New Labour also bridged theory and practice, through policy making at various levels, that is, in education, health, and neighbourhoods; and attempting to measure the direct impact of these reforms on social capital. In this context, the objective of creating social capital, through the empowerment of families and communities and the decentralization of social services, became one of the main driving forces of New Labour's political action (Ferragina and Arrigoni 2016: 5 [78]).

See also


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