Book review : « The Third Way » by A. Giddens

Book review : « The Third Way » by A. Giddens


The sociologist Anthony Giddens is one of the most famous "Third Way" theorists. In 1994, he published a book of political theory entitled Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, which met with phenomenal success.

The British Labour Party, which had been in opposition for 20 years, decided to use Giddens' writings to reinvent its social-democratic doctrine and propose a new political offer in a world that had become unipolar following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anthony Giddens thus became one of Tony Blair's most influential political advisors. His political essay entitled The Third Way published in 1998, is an attempt to popularise the ideas of the "Third Way" in the United Kingdom.

The ideas developed by Anthony Giddens on the concept of the "Third Way" did not only serve as a doctrinal basis for the British Labour Party. They have also been widely discussed and debated within the whole Social Democratic family and utilized to reinvent itself in many countries such as the United States, Sweden and Germany.

Anthony Giddens places the "Third Way" in the centre-left of the political chessboard.

"La substance du débat consiste à savoir comment les valeurs du centre gauche peuvent être amendées, puis appliquées à un monde globalisé."1

For him, globalization should not be understood at economic level only, with the financial markets. It is a complete transformation in people’s lives, taking into account changes in family, culture, government structures, communication systems that create “new transnational systems and forces”, a level infinitely higher than the nation-state.2

He is aware that the left has to reinvent itself if it wants to win the elections in the United Kingdom again. It is a question of giving the left a new guiding thought. Hence the subtitle of the book: "The Renewal of Social Democracy".

It involves a radical break with the classic social democratic model. The role of the state must be reinvented at the economic and social levels to take account of the globalization of the world, which implies going beyond the framework of the nation.

Comparison with the social democratic model of the 1950/60s

1. The role of the state in the economy

The social-democratic model of the "Glorious Thirty" was based on an interventionist state, i.e. a state that was an important economic actor and that regulated capitalism within its territory. The economic policies carried out there had to ensure economic growth (of collective wealth) and full employment.

Giddens considers that the interventionist role of the state is outdated as a result of the globalization of economic exchanges and that the economy must now be regulated at a supranational level. In

his view, the globalization of the economy must be seen as “positive” that “can be an engine of economic development” and integrated into the thinking software of the left.3

2. The role of the state in society

The social-democratic model of the "Glorious Thirty" is based on an important social state. Redistribution policies must ensure a more egalitarian society and the protection of individuals throughout their lives. The Thirdwayers reject the Welfare State:

2.1. "Real" equality of opportunity vs. egalitarian society

The Thirdwayers are abandoning the universal belief in social justice. Indeed, this vision could lead to a conflict between equality and individual freedom.4 They prefer to talk about real equality of opportunity. Equality must be defined as “inclusion” by opposition of inequality as “exclusion”.5 The state should not support individuals throughout their lives but ensure that inequalities are corrected at the root to ensure real equality of opportunity. This requires aid for the most disadvantaged and major state investment, particularly in education and health.

In the United Kingdom, for example, New Labour has tried to reconcile a market economy of "free and undistorted competition" with significant public subsidies in the fields of health, education and transport or with the creation of a national minimum wage, advocating a more social European Union and increasing the number and amount of social benefits (e.g. the winter fuel oil bonus).6

2.2. New individualism vs. class society: valuing the individual and individual success (e.g. Bill Gates)

The Thirdwayers give an important role to the individual. Individualism should no longer be seen as a conservative value as opposed to the collectivism advocated by communists and socialists.7

"C’est la croyance en une individualisation du social qui se trouve ici consacrée. En atteste, en parallèle, l’imposant travail de conceptualisation d’un nouvel individualisme."8

The objective is not to equalise living conditions between groups or social classes, but to offer an autonomy of action allowing each person to fulfil himself, implying a more active way of living his life.9 "One might suggest as a prime motto for the new politics, no rights without responsibilities."10

2.3. A reduced and active rather than an expanded but passive Welfare State

They reject the Welfare State, i.e. interventionism and redistributive policies, and prefer the efficiency of the State, a smaller but active and positive Welfare State, tougher fight against crime, etc., rather than a larger but passive Welfare State, synonym of "bureaucracy"11.

"Il faut accepter l'idée d'un marché du travail dynamique parce que flexible. Ce qui signifie, pour un certain nombre de pays européens, moins de régulations. Dérégulation ne signifiant pas forcément, dans mon esprit, diminution de la protection sociale. La dérégulation du travail favorise en général la création de nouveaux emplois."12

The State should not be a "safety net" that protects individuals throughout their lives. It must be transformed into "un État tremplin"13 that does not intervene directly - or little - in the economy, but which encourages innovation and economic activity, thus promoting employment, while guaranteeing equal opportunities for all and protecting the weakest.

The government should be reformed following the ecological principle of "getting more from less"14, learning from business best practice.

3. The centrality of ecology

The economic growth model of the 1950/60s was based on the production of goods and heavy industry, which left little room for ecology. For the Thirdwayers, on the contrary, it is essential to place ecology at the heart of the new social democratic project: "ecological modernization is beneficial for business"15. Environmental hazards must be treated as an opportunity for innovation, and this must be done at a supranational level, across the borders of nations, in a world that is interconnected in practice.


The role that the Thirdwayers give to the State is therefore completely different from the social democratic model of the "Glorious Thirty".

The "Third Way" was an attempt to reinvent social democracy in the 1990s. Anthony Giddens placed it halfway – or more exactly beyond - between the social democratic model of the 50/60s and the neo-liberalism of the 70/80s.

La troisième voie n'est qu'une étiquette qui signifie un renouvellement de la social-démocratie. Je l'avais mise en sous-titre d'un de mes livres. Mais je n'en suis pas dépositaire, chacun peut l'utiliser comme il veut. Il s'agit de repenser la social-démocratie en Europe et ailleurs à la lumière des changements massifs qui ont affecté la planète: mondialisation, déclin du keynésianisme et du socialisme, entrée dans l'âge de l'information? On ne peut plus continuer à réfléchir dans les mêmes termes qu'hier comme si de rien n'était. Les deux autres voies - d'un côté, la gauche social-démocrate traditionnelle axée sur le conflit des classes et de l'autre, le néolibéralisme et sa croyance fondamentaliste dans le marché - ont perdu de leur pertinence.16

The doctrine of the "Third Way" has been strongly criticized, especially on the left, which has seen it as nothing more than disguised neo-liberals - a reshaped version of capitalism with a human face17 - and a betrayal of the values of the workers' movement from which it originates. The right also questions the "Third Way", seen either as a marketing mirage (responding to a decline in traditional class loyalties) or “a Trojan horse for socialists whose ideology threatens free society”18.

The Third Way doctrine theorized by Giddens, however, met with electoral success in the 1990s, symbolized by the elections of Tony Blair (United Kingdom), Bill Clinton (United States) and Gerhard Schroeder (Germany), guided by a pragmatic view in the face of new global challenges (globalization, ecology, changing nature of family, work, personal and cultural identity).


Basham P. (2000), "The Third Way: Marketing Mirage or Trojan Horse?", Public Policy Sources, The Fraser Institute, 2000(33), 38 p.

Bell S. (2011), "Quel avenir pour la social-démocratie en Europe ?", Fondapol (Fondation pour l’innovation politique), December 2011, 44 p.

Boileau J, (2002), "Anthony Giddens au Devoir - Le penseur de la troisième voie", Le Monde, 2 June 2002.

Giddens A. (1998), The Third Way, London, Polity Press, 1st edition? 166 p.

Giddens A. interviewed by Enderlin S. (1999), "La troisième voie n’est pas une potion magique", Le Temps, 7 January 1999.

Giddens A. interviewed (2001), "La troisième voie ne signifie pas abandonner les valeurs de la gauche", L'Economiste-Libération, 8 June 2001.

Jobert B. (2003), "La troisième voie : un impératif de civilisation ?", Lectures critiques in Revue française de science politique, 2003/2 (Vol. 53), pp. 305-312.

Tournadre-Plancq J. (2010), "La Troisième voie et la question sociale", Informations sociales, 2010/3(159), pp. 24-33.

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