German Social Democratic Party

German Social Democratic Party

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The German Social Democratic Party (SDP) was established in 1875 with the publication of its Gotha programme. The programme was a mixture of the ideas of Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lasselle. Its originally leaders included Ferdinand Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht.

In the 1877 General Election in Germany the SDP won 12 seats. This worried Otto von Bismarck, and in 1878 he introduced an anti-socialist law which banned Social Democratic Party meetings and publications.

After the anti-socialist law ceased to operate in 1890, the SDP grew rapidly and in 1912 the party won 110 seats in the Reichstag. Led by Ferdinand Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Friedrich Ebert, and Eduard Bernstein, the SDP was now the largest political party in Germany. During the First World War a group of members led by Kurt Eisner left to form the Independent Socialist Party (USPD).

In October, 1918, Max von Baden invited right-wing members of the SDP to join his coalition government. On 9th November Friedrich Ebert took power and during the German Revolution he called in the German Army and the Freikorps to deal with the extreme left. Ebert was now condemned as a traitor by the Independent Socialist Party and the German Communist Party.

On 11th February, 1919, Friedrich Ebert was elected as the first chancellor of the Weimar Republic. Ebert, preoccupied with economic problems and a fear of further revolution, remained in office until his death in Berlin on 28th February, 1925.

The Social Democratic Party continued to be the largest party in the Weimar Republic until July 1932 when the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) won 230 seats to the SDP's 133.

The SDP voted against the Enabling Act in March, 1933, which gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers. The Nazi Party banned the SDP in June 1933 and most of its leaders were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The SDP was re-formed in 1959 and has taken part in several coalition governments in Germany in recent years.

The Social Democratic Party, the child of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels themselves, had long ceased to be the dangerous revolutionary movement that its supporters and opponents thought it to be before 1914. The war revealed it to be a moderate, respectable patriotic organisation which loyally supported the imperial war and its aims - so loyally that its more radical elements had seceded from it. Numerically the most important of these was the Independent Social Democratic Party, which had for some time supported a "peace without annexations and indemnities." The main body of working class activists in and out of uniform, from the shop-stewards of the Berlin engineering works to the revolutionary sailors, supported it.

How long will the psychological reasons for submission to Hitler hold in the face of continuing economic instability for the great mass of people? Hitler has been successful in selling to the Germans the idea that he saved the country and all Europe from bolshevism, and that bolshevism is a destructive force, a strictly Jewish movement. Lately the term bolshevism with too much use has begun to lose its sharp edge. The Catholics also have been accused of bolshevism. The result has been to throw them into the opposition movement. In the Saar one of the illegal papers of the underground movement appears with the hammer and sickle combined with the Catholic cross. A priest about to be arrested was warned by the underground route; his house was surrounded by workers and peasants from the neighborhood, few of whom were Catholic, and the troopers coming to arrest him turned back at the sight of the dense crowd.

The existence of the underground movement is denied in the legal press, but twenty illegal papers come out regularly in Berlin alone. Hundreds of others appear irregularly. The papers are distributed by children and by workers during their working hours. The penalty for distributing such contraband may be the concentration camp; it may be death. Strikes are treason, and leaders are punished by death at the hands of a firing squad or by sentences to concentration camps. Yet strikes go on. Dozens occurred last summer, especially in the metal trades. Sometimes the strike consisted in a passive laying down of tools for an hour. Sometimes work was merely slowed up, "sticking," as they term it, "to the hands." Demonstrations used to be made for the release of Thälmann, the Communist leader, but lately there have been none, and it is not known for certain whether he is alive or dead. Only Germans who get their information from the legal press have any illusions about the so-called "bloodless revolution" of the Nazis; blood has flowed and is flowing. But if this last year was marked by the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the big industrialists, it is also notable that in the same period the underground movement made its greatest progress.

The outside world is always impatient of the predicament of a particular nation. Other people are always stupid and gulled by their leaders. Even within Germany itself some underground workers still puzzle at the suddenness of Hitler's blow. How could the powerful trade-union movement have been so easily crushed? The German worker, they say, was ideologically the best-informed worker in the world; he read economics, was versed in Marxist theory. The German worker was also patient and endowed with power to wait and endure. His very virtues became a trap for him. His long training under an earlier militaristic Germany in which order was a god made him an easier dupe.

It has taken time to recover from the blow of Hitler's seizure of power. At first Socialists and Communists did not work together and had no association with outside groups. But conversion is not the aim of the underground. Communists are willing to work with Catholics for religious liberty, and if, as an underground worker told me, half of a group of Socialists working with Communists in getting out a paper turn Communist, such an event is the outcome of an experience and not the focus of the movement. That neutrals have become weary of the parades, the constant orders to beflag houses, to appear on streets for "spontaneous" demonstrations has made it a little easier for the underground to work. The spying eye may not be so willing to see all that goes on around it. Moreover, the circle of Hitler's enemies widens every month. New recruits for the underground are made by Hitler himself. When he dissolves the Stahlhelm he suddenly touches many a family not formerly antagonistic. As yet they may merely not be so ready to hang out flags; they may smother their resentment and grow only a trifle more angry at the rise of prices; but by these tokens they serve the opposition whether they know it or not.

Between them, the Communists and Socialists had more votes than Hitler who was financed by the steel magnates. But because they could not unite, Hitler won and proceeded to wipe out both working class organizations. The Socialists had been opposed to unity with the Communists on principle and this had led to their undoing. The Communists appealed to the Socialists for unity but insisted it be on Communist terms. They opposed unity to defend German bourgeois-democracy against Hitler and argued that Socialist-Communist unity must be conditioned on acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Communists operated under the theory that the Social-Democrats were "social-fascists," a harmful concept and an insurmountable barrier to unity. This theory held that the Socialists were paving the way for fascism and consequently could be considered its allies. Serious errors of both movements contributed to Hitler's victory, but neither could be called his allies. They were his enemies and the members and leaders of both groups ended up in Nazi concentration camps, in Nazi torture and execution chambers.

This terrible object lesson was not lost on the world, and certainly not on Communists, Socialists and trade unionists. Hitler's regime of murder and of war preparations now confronted mankind with the greatest danger in all history. In the wake of Hitlerism and the almost world-wide depression, fascist movements arose in many countries. Here at home, fascist demagogues like Father Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith and Huey Long flourished. Something else began to flourish here and abroad: popular anti-fascist movements, determined to combat fascism everywhere.

History of the German Social-Democratic Party

In almost every International, after the first, we notice one dominant party. In the Second, it was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), in the Third it was the Russian Communist Party, in the Fourth (in the time of Trotsky) it was the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) of the United States. Therefore, to examine a history of an International means to focus principally on the history of its dominant party, to trace its rise and fall.

The history of a party is the struggle of the factions within it. But, this history is only the subjective side of the problem. The objective side of the problem is presented by the world wars, the revolutions, the social and economic problems of the times. Hence, every history of an International has to deal both with the objective and subjective sides of the problem.

Hence, the history of the Second International must deal, tentatively, with the following major topics:

1) the history of the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD, from now on)

3) the revolutions which followed from this war, mainly the Russian, the German and the Hungarian. In addition, there were also risings in Ireland, in Bulgaria, and in Poland. Italy was on a brink of a revolution too, repression of which led to the rise of Mussolini and the fascist movement. 

History of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Sources of information on history of SPD

It should be noted that both Karl Marx and F. Engels criticized the German Social Democracy. Of principal interest here is "The Critique of the Gotha program", 1875, and a letter by Engels to Bebel in 1875.

One source on the history of the SPD is Franz Mehring's  “History of the German Social Democracy ”. Mehring was one of the leaders of the left wing of the SPD   during World War One . However, his books dealt mainly with the early years of the SPD.   One may call this a "pre-history".

To understand "revisionism" in the SPD, it is necessary to read the main revisionist of Marx - Eduard Bernstein. The principal book of the author on this topic is translated in English as "Evolutionary Socialism", 1899 (available at 

Close to Bernstein is Karl Kautsky. To understand this "socialist", I recommend reading a collection of articles of his collected in English under the title "Social Democracy vs. Communism" (available at

To hear a criticism of Kautsky, I recommend a book of Lenin's "Proletarian revolution and renegede Karl Kautsky", 1918.  

August Bebel is a boring writer. I tried reading his "Reminiscences" several times, but failed to finish. Much more interesting is Leon Trotsky's "My life". Chapter XVI is called "The second immigration and the German socialism".

Finally, Rosa Luxembourg. The principal book of hers for understanding the German Social Democracy is "The Junius pamphlet", 1915. 

Struggle between the Lassaleans and the Eisenachs

The SPD originated in the union of two factions: the Lassalleans and the Eisenachs. Who were the two factions?

Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was a son of a wealthy Jewish trader. He participated in the revolution of 1848-49, for which he got a year in prison and was banned from living in Berlin. However, in 1855 Lassalle applied to the police commissioner and to a Prussian prince, begging for the ban to be lifted. According to Marx, this was a compromise with the powers that be.

In the beginning of 1860's, Lassalle makes speeches in the workers' clubs. In 1863, he founded the General German Workers' Association (ADAV, Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein). The principles of the organization were: 1) struggle for a general right to vote by peaceful, legal means 2) state subsidies for workers' productive cooperatives.

Marx, in a letter dating from 13 October, 1868, to Schweitzer, a chairman of ADAV at the time, characterized Lassalle in the following way: "As for the union of Lassalle, it appeared in the period of reaction. After a 15 year slumber, Lassalle has awaken in Germany the workers' movement, and that is his immortal service. But he has committed big mistakes. A trifle starting point - his opposition to Schulze-Delitze - he has made the central point of his agitation, - the state subsidy as opposed to self-help. Thus he was forced to make compromises with the Prussian monarchy and Prussian reaction (feudal parties) and even clerics".

Lassalle was known for his compromising with Bismarck. For example, when a Zolingen mayor, a member of a bourgeois Progressive party, shut down a workers' meeting with Lassalle, the later sent a telegram to Bismarck in which he asked protection of the Junker minister against the bourgeois mayor.

According to Mehring, in 1864 there were private negotiations between Lassalle and Bismarck regarding the electoral right and state credit for workers' productive associations. All writings of Lassalle were first sent by the author to Bismarck. The Junker minister said of Lassalle, in 1878 (i.e. 14 years after the later's death): "Our relations could not assume the character of political negotiations. What could Lassalle offer and give to me? He didn't have anything to back him up".

At this time in Prussia there was a struggle between the Junkers (the landlords) and the bourgeoisie. The Junkers used the organization of Lassalle in support of their program. For example, Lassalle wanted the Hamburg workers to pass a resolution inviting Bismarck to join Schleswig-Holstein (a state in northern Germany) to Prussia. This was against the will of Austria, and a union of Prussia with Austria was the political plan of of bourgeois parties. Meanwhile, a union of Prussia with other smaller German states, without Austria, was the political plan of the Prussian Junkers.

On 15 December 1864, there was a trial issue of "Social Democrat", a newspaper of ADAV. Marx and Engels were among the collaborators. In the newpaper, Schweizer spoke favorably of Bismarck and the Kaiser. Marx and Engels left the editorial board. In a statement on 23 February, 1865 they demanded that the same language be used in reference to the feudal-absolutist party as towards the Progressive party. W. Leibknekht also left the editorial board because Schweizer was too soft on official Prussia.

After the death of Lassalle, his followers were known for their compromises with members of the Bismarck government. A friend of Lassalle, Bucher, became an official of Bismarck government and was known for writing memos to Bismarck. Marx and Engels were suspicious of Schweizer. In 1873 his right-hand man, Carl Wilhelm Tölcke, said at a meeting of leaders of ADAV: "Some time before he went to prison, Schweizer told me that in case anything happens, I can always go to Berlin police presidium. Schweizer went there with me and introduced me especially important is that he manifested a good knowledge of situation of the rooms". Also Tolcke said that Schweizer used for his own private purposes the dues paid by the members of the association. After the meeting, Schweizer was expelled from ADAV by a vote of 5595 vs. 1177.

As opposed to Lassalleans, another party of the working class of Germany was emerging at this time. Its origin (like ADAV) dates to 1863, when a Federation of German Workers' Clubs was founded in Frankfurt. The Federation originated from as a left wing of a bourgeois party. Bebel and Rosmessler were the leaders of this movement. Liebknekht, who was originally in ADAV, in 1865 joined the Federation. In 1866 there was a meeting of representatives of Saxon Workers' Clubs and ADAV. As a result of the meeting, a Saxon People's Party was formed, a political wing of the Federation of German Workers' Clubs. At the head of the party were A. Bebel and W. Liebknecht. The party adopted a "Hemnitz program" (1866). The program:

1) gave a review of the political situation at the moment: end of war between Prussia and Austria

2) discussed "the German question", i.e. the problem of unification of Germany

3) demanded various democratic rights.

We should note that a political program is similar to a medical diagnosis it should offer an evaluation of the situation. Hence, if a party strives for a global revolution, its program should offer a global analysis.

Between the Saxon People's Party and the ADAV there were significant differences. The ADAV believed that a compromise was possible when workers support the bourgeois condidate in one district, provided the bourgeois parties support the workers' candidates in another. For Liebknecht, on the other hand, the main point of parliamentary elections was enlightenment of the workers. Schweizer (of ADAV) accepted the North German Confederation, advocated by Bismarck, while Liebknecht opposed it. Schweizer was for union with other classes of the nation against "the intrigues of Bonaparte" Liebknecht thought that Bismarck deserved the difficulties which France and Austria mounted against Prussia. Liebknekht declared Schweizer an agent of Bismarck, while Schweizer declared Liebknekht in secret agreement with the bourgeoisie.

Schweizer did have grounds for accusations against Liebknekht. "To the question 'what position Social-Democratic Workers' Party takes towards the resolutions of Basel Congress of the First International regarding turning land into collective property', the SDWP paper replied: 'None. Each member of the party can and should take a certain stand, but the party, as such, doesn't have to do it'. This gave Schwizer grounds to say that the Eisenachs do not have the courage to admit themselves supporters of one of the main principles of scientific communism, i.e. socialization of the means of production, as the German People's Party (of which the Saxon People's Party formed a branch) demanded a straightforward renunciation of the Basel manifesto". F. Mehring also mentions that the Federation of German Workers' Clubs was subsidized by a bourgeois "Nationalist Union". Supporting the Basel manifesto meant losing this subsidy. 

Despite the differences, there were attempts to unite the two parties. On 17 July 1869 a workers' newspaper announced a general social-democratic workers' congress for 7-9 August, 1869 in Eisench. At the meeting, there were 110 delegates from ADAV, representing 102 thousand members, and 262 delegates from the Federation, representing 140 thousand workers. After an initial meeting, it became clear that mutual work is impossible, and hence each of the two factions went to its own meeting. The delegates of the Federation constituted a "Social-Democratic Workers' Party", according to a plan prepared by Bebel. Hence, this party obtained the name of "Eisenachs".

In 1874 Tolcke, the right hand man of Schweizer, speaks to the leadership of SDWP about unification of the two organizations. This union was insisted on by Schweizer: "a union at all costs - with the leaders, if they will want it, without them, if they will remain passive, and against them, if they will oppose". ADAV poses no special conditions for unification, and that surprises the leaders of SDWP. We suppose that Bismarck, who was probably behind the ADAV, wanted the union in order to control both organizations.

In 1875 there is a unification congress at Gotha. Marx, in a letter to the leadership of SDWP, criticizes the tentative program of the new party. He attacks imprecise, bungled wording of the program, its being geared towards “popular” understanding. Marx is arguing against clichés of Lassalle which the new unified party was going to adopt, such as the Lassallean catchword of the “undiminished proceeds of labor”.  Moreover, he criticized  t he program for its lack of international direction. For the sake of a merger, the leaders of SDWP gave up on their Marxist principles and adopted the rehash of the Lassallean mumbo jumbo.

Engels, in a letter to A. Bebel, 1875, restates the objections which he, together with Marx, have against the program:

  1. To begin with, they adopt the high-sounding but historically false Lassallean dictum: in relation to the working class all other classes are only one reactionary mass
  2. Secondly, the principle that the workers’ movement is an international one is, to all intents and purposes, utterly denied in respect of the present, and this by men who, for the space of five years and under the most difficult conditions, upheld that principle in the most laudable manner
  3. Thirdly, our people have allowed themselves to be saddled with the Lassallean “iron law of wages” which is based on a completely outmoded economic view, namely that on average the workers receive only the minimum wage because, according to the Malthusian theory of population, there are always too many workers (such was Lassalle’s reasoning).
  4. Fourthly, as its one and only social demand, the programme puts forward – Lassallean state aid in its starkest form, as stolen by Lassalle from Buchez
  5. Fifthly, there is absolutely no mention of the realization of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions (because Lassalle was opposed to trade unions, and rather organized his people as a sect).
  6. The free people’s state is transformed into the free state. Grammatically speaking, a free state is one. with a despotic government
  7. "The elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”, is similarly a most dubious expression. As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated
  8. “less importance attaches to the official programme of a party than to what it does. But  a new programme is after all a banner planted in public,  and the outside world judges the party by it”.

Let's note that a union of revolutionary and reformist parties, as a rule, ends up in victory of refomist principles. Take the example of France. In 1905 we saw a unification of a revolutionary and a reformist wings of the French Socialist Party. Fridland and Slutsky write: "Although the unification of the socialist party was a result of the purges of the reformist group (Mil'eran, Brian and Viviani), and the unification platform manifested the victory of Gedist's principles of a class war, soon it was found that the party did not reject reformism in action. Here, as in Germany, rejection of revolutionary principles was all the more pronounced the stronger grew the party, the more election successes it achieved". We can suppose that if in Russia the Bolsheviks united with the Mensheviks in a single Social-Democratic Party, the reformist principles would be victorious too.

Democratic-Republican Party

Though the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, factions soon developed among the new nation’s founding fathers.

The Federalists, including George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government and a national banking system, masterminded by Hamilton.

But in 1792, supporters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who favored decentralized, limited government, formed an opposition faction that would become known as the Democratic-Republicans.

Despite Washington’s warning against the danger of political parties in his famous farewell address, the power struggle between Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party dominated the early government, with Jefferson and his supporters emerging largely triumphant after 1800.

The Federalists steadily lost ground in the early 19th century, and dissolved completely after the War of 1812.

Revolution ↑

After the outbreak of the revolution in November 1918, the two social democratic parties temporarily cooperated in the Council of People's Commissars of the revolutionary government (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) before fundamental disagreements about the design of the Republic tore up the old trenches again and the USPD left the Revolution Cabinet at the end of December 1918. In December 1920, the left wing merged with the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD), which was founded at the end of 1918 by the Spartacists and other radical groups, while the right wing USPD reunited with the MSPD in September 1922. The SPD and KPD remained irreconcilable until the end of the Weimar Republic.

Walter Mühlhausen, Stiftung Reichspräsident-Friedrich-Ebert-Gedenkstätte

Social Democracy

Definition: a social democrat is a usually suscription-paying member of a left-wing, ex-communist or centre-left political party that combines basically socialist aims with constitutional methods, plus a general acceptance (or tolerance) of some of the basic tenets of the capitalist system. The present system in China springs to mind as an unequalled example of an ex-communist country embracing a good many of the principles of social democracy. A bad example would be Cuba, where the system is wholly totalitarian, and the methodology of early sovietism in Soviet Russia is commonplace.

The name ‘social democrat’ is believed to have been invented by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel in Germany, at the founding of their German Social Democratic Labour Party in 1869. The party based itself on the teachings of Karl Marx, though it recommended evolutionary reform by democratic and constitutional means.

The party joined the German Workers’ Association in 1875, which itself had been founded by Ferdinand Lasalle in 1863. Renamed the Social Democratic Party it had been subjected to anti-socialist legislation by Otto von Bismarck (q.v.).

In other countries copies of the SPD appeared, notably in Denmark (1878), Britain (1883), Norway (1887), Austria (1889), the United States (1897, later becoming ‘The Socialist Party’, and still later becoming ‘The Democratic Party’), and Russia (1898). In the latter country the Social Democratic Party split (in 1903) into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

In some countries (France, Italy and Spain for example), the name ‘Socialist Party’ was commonly adopted by its members. In Germany the SDP was the biggest party in the Weimar Republic (q.v.), governing the country in a tolerable manner until its prohibition in 1933, when President von Hindenberg appointed Adolf Hitler head of the government.

After World War II the party in what was then West Germany was reformed with a new constitution (1959), which ended any Marxist connection. In 1966 it entered into coalition with the Christian Democrats, and then yet another coalition with the Free Democrats between 1969 and 1982. Things were different in what was then East Germany there, a revived SDP campaigned for office in 1990 after the collapse of the communist regime.

In Britain four distinguished members of the Labour Party resigned in 1981 to form a Social Democratic Party. It had a short and uneventful life. It merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form ‘The Social and Liberal Democrats’, but this cumbersome label was shortened to the ‘Liberal Democrats’ in 1989.

Labour leaders Kinnock, Smith and Blair reformed the British Labour Party in the 80s and 90s of the last century. Today it retains the name, but could be more accurately described as a social democratic rather than merely a socialist party.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD)

The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, or SPD) was Germany’s oldest formal political party. Until the rise of the National Socialists (NSDAP), the SDP was also the most significant party of the Weimar era.


The SPD began in 1875, primarily as a Marxist movement formed from the union of two workers’ parties. The newly formed SPD was able to tap into a large supporter base of industrial workers and unionists.

In the 1877 Reichstag elections, SPD candidates received more than 500,000 votes and won 13 seats. While these figures made the SPD a minor party unable to influence policy, its rapid growth and increasing popularity alarmed the imperial government.

In 1878, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, promulgated the first of several Anti-Socialist Laws. The pretext for this was two failed attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1878. Bismarck blamed the SPD and its Marxist ideology for fuelling revolution and terrorism.

For much of the 1880s, the SPD was targeted by numerous police raids, individual arrests, surveillance and hostile government propaganda. Several militant unions were also targeted or broken up. While the SPD continued to operate during this period, the party found it difficult to attract members or potential candidates.

A cartoon depicting Bismarck taking aim at SPD and liberal politicians

The SPD moderates

The SPD survived Bismarck’s suppression and by the late 1880s was again on the rise, fuelled by a revived union movement. By the 1890s, the SPD had adopted a more moderate political position.

In the post-Bismarck era, SPD leaders and candidates urged social democratic reforms rather than a socialist revolution. They embraced causes beyond the conditions of workers, calling for improved rights for women and condemning the killing of natives by German colonials in Africa.

The numbers of SPD candidates grew steadily during the 1890s and 1900s. By 1912, the SPD had more than a million members and was the largest party in the Reichstag. It began to assert influence on public policy, achieving improvements in education and healthcare, as well as better rights and conditions for industrial workers.

The SPD also began to work with, rather than against Kaiser Wilhelm II‘s government. In 1913, the SPD supported increased taxes that were necessary to fund the kaiser’s program of military expansion.

Factionalism and splits

As is common in large political parties, the SPD’s main weakness was its ideological diversity and factionalism across its membership. With more than a million members, the SPD housed a range of views from across the political spectrum.

The party’s leadership were moderate socialists, committed to progressive reforms through democratic processes. August Bebel (the SPD’s founder and first leader) and Friedrich Ebert (Bebel’s successor) believed socialist advances could be won through parliamentary means rather than violence or revolution.

The SPD also had a right-wing, comprised of liberals and centrists, and a radical left-wing, containing hardline socialists and Marxists. The latter group embraced more radical policies such as the abolition of the monarchy and the dissolution of aristocratic titles and landed estates.

War divides the party

The divisions within the party were generally manageable. At times of controversy or crisis, however, the SPD’s factions tended to turn on each other. No issue tested the cohesion of the SPD more than the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

The SPD’s radical left-wing took a strong stance against the war, arguing that it was an unnecessary, aggressive and imperialistic adventure. They condemned the war and the moderates in their own party for endorsing it. Some of these anti-war figures, such as Karl Liebknecht, were arrested and imprisoned by the government while others were expelled from the SPD.

A radical faction of the SPD, led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, broke away from the party and formed the Spartakusbund. This group led an unsuccessful revolution in January 1919 and reformed as the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The Communists despited moderate SPD leaders for their alliance with the right-wing Freikorps and their alleged involvement in the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. As a consequence, the SPD and KPD never reconciled. The two parties remained bitter rivals during the 1920s and early 1930s.

A major player

Until the rise of the NSDAP in the early 1930s, the SPD was the largest political party of the Weimar era. It was the only party to win more than 100 seats at every Reichstag election, beginning with 165 seats in January 1919.

Despite its internal divisions and Germany’s political and economic woes, the SPD remained a strong and consistent supporter of the Weimar Republic and its constitution.

The SPD was a major partner in all but one of the Weimar coalitions. SPD deputies sat in all Weimar era cabinets, three of them as chancellor (Philipp Scheidemann, Gustav Bauer and Hermann Muller.

The party’s approach during the 1920s was moderate and conciliatory: it tried to walk a fine line between steady, conservative policies and progressive reforms, without really succeeding at either. By the early 1930s, the SPD had lost almost half of its voter base. Most were frustrated at the party’s inability to secure stable and lasting progress in Germany.

A historian’s view:
“During the period of the Weimar Republic, the SPD remained essentially a party of the working class and made very little inroad into the middle classes. Part of the problem for the SPD at this stage was that it was limited by attachments to its trade union movement and was concerned that any attempt at a more concerted appeal to the middle classes would lose it votes to the communists.”
Stephen Lee

1. The Social Democratic Party or SPD was originally a Marxist-socialist party. It was formed in Germany in 1875 from two workers’ groups.

2. In the 1880s the rapidly growing SPD was subjected to suppression and persecution after the passing of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws.

3. By the early 1900s, the party leadership adopted moderate social-democratic policies and became more willing to work with the Kaiser’s government.

4. The SPD was split by the party leadership’s support for World War I, with the radical left-wing breaking away to form the Spartacist League and KPD.

5. The SPD supported the Weimar Republic and for much of the Republic’s lifespan was its largest single party. The SPD was well represented in the Reichstag and participated in all coalitions and cabinets until the rise of the NSDAP.

Citation information
Title: “The Social Democratic Party (SPD)”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 19, 2019
Date accessed: Today’s date
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.

Every 10 years the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) presents the grotesque spectacle of its regular anniversary celebration. On May 23, the SPD was 140 years old. No other party places so much emphasis on history and tradition—and is, at the same time, so disinterested in historical truth and in learning lessons from history.

Even a quick look at the entrance ticket to this year’s festivities forced a sharp gasp of breath. Depiction of the party’s ancestral line begins with a portrait of August Bebel and ends with Gerhard Schröder—and between them: Rosa Luxemburg, Kurt Schumacher and Willy Brandt. What a decline! Enough to make one cry, “Hands off Bebel and Luxemburg—the great socialists!”

What is so striking about the current celebrations is that no one is in the mood for celebrating. For months, the party’s chairman has been blackmailing party members to support an austerity programme, affecting all areas of society and overturning everything that the SPD formerly stood for. The state’s social security schemes, which are almost as old as the SPD itself and were introduced by the first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, as a means to cut the ground from under the feet of the fledgling SPD, are now being dismantled by a social democratic government. What an irony of history.

Just 130 years ago, Bismarck was powerless to prevent the rise of the SPD, either with the carrot of social reform or the whip of anti-socialist legislation. Now, a social democratic chancellor is demolishing state social security provision step by step, thereby inaugurating the final stage of the long political degeneration of his own party.

When a dozen or so parliamentary representatives demonstrated against this by trying to collect signatures for a survey of party members’ opinions, the party executive was outraged. Franz Müntefering, leader of the parliamentary faction and former general secretary of the party, called the initiative “one big dirty trick” and threatened that any MP “who stabbed the chancellor in the back” would have to pay the consequences. Today, fundamental democratic rights are suppressed and every “deviant” intimidated in the party that in its early years had democracy and socialism written large on its flag.

Accompanied by applause from the right-wing media, Chancellor Schröder raises the question of confidence in his leadership and the threat of his resignation before every major party and parliamentary vote. Many commentators see this as a sign of strong leadership and congratulate him, but in fact the truth is quite the opposite. A party leader who can only maintain his authority by making ultimatums and threatening to resign has basically already lost his authority. Obsequious and always available for discussion with company managers and business organisations, Schröder has established an outright dictatorship within his own party and silenced all opposition.

During a speech on May 22, party leader Schröder solemnly declared that his Agenda 2010 programme was in “the best social democratic tradition.” Quite true! Since opportunism took over the party just 90 years ago, it has always gone the way of least resistance, thereby aiding and abetting the most reactionary social forces.

This is happening again today. The planned social cutbacks and the way the social democratic leadership treats the party and parliament are encouraging and strengthening the right-wingers of the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union) coalition and the FDP (Free Democratic Party). The situation is reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, the anti-social policies of the government of Hermann Müller, a social democrat, paved the way for Heinrich Brüning, a centrist who then invoked emergency decrees and paved the way for the Hitler dictatorship. Even at the time, it was clear that the reduction and abolition of social, democratic and parliamentary rights, initiated by the SPD, would finally be directed against the SPD itself.

However, this party has long forgotten how to draw lessons from history or reflect on the political consequences of its attacks on social and democratic rights. That is also the case in relation to the opposition within the party. This internal opposition criticises the Schröder leadership but can offer no alternative. Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD cabinet minister under Schröder, uses every opportunity to accuse the party leadership of betraying election promises and points out that this government is conducting a redistribution of society’s wealth in favour of the rich in a manner more remorseless than any other post-war government. But what is his answer to the crisis?

As party chairman, architect of the 1998 election victory and finance minister, Lafontaine had the chance to put his words into deeds. But as soon as the business community put him under pressure, he threw in the towel and gave way to Schröder. Not only Schröder, who is well known for his readiness to read the lips of company managers, but also Lafontaine is unwilling to stand up to the business lobby. He, too, wants to avoid a mobilisation of the masses and social conflict. But he took the cowardly course of retiring from office because the neo-liberal offensive cannot be stopped without a broad mobilisation of the population.

Reminiscent of the way Karl Kautsky betrayed the principles of the revolution a hundred years ago, when party practice had long been following the opportunistic theories of Eduard Bernstein, Lafontaine today invokes the phraseology of 1970s social reformism, although the party has long been set on a course of economic liberalism. Just as in the past, the opposing tendencies in the SPD merely represent the left and right varieties of opportunism—although reformism has also degenerated totally over the last hundred years.

No one any longer expects from this party any serious contribution to a progressive solution to major social problems. A mood of depression and morbidity dominated this year’s SPD birthday party. According to the party executive, 7,283 members of the SPD left the party last month—an average of 242 each day.

The main argument of the utterly blockheaded party bureaucracy runs: If we don’t do it, the conservatives will, and everything will be even worse. In view of the difficult economic situation—national and international—no other way remains but the abolition of social provisions for the weakest in society and tax concessions for the strongest and the richest.

The tax reform implemented three years ago by the current government relieved companies of tax payments amounting to 30 billion euros. Not only do many major companies not pay a single cent of tax but taxation offices have actually been reimbursing them with millions of euros over the last two years. Rarely before has a government so openly and shamelessly acted as the rich man’s bailiff in this way—and always with the argument that there’s nothing else that can be done.

There could be no sharper contrast to the founding years of the SPD. In imperial Germany at that time, social conditions were far worse, but the response of the early social democrats was just the opposite: Something has to be done! Tremendous optimism and the conviction that the political and cultural education of the masses constituted the key to a better and fairer society inspired the political endeavours of the young August Bebel and other socialists of those early days.

When delegates from 11 towns and cities assembled in Leipzig in May 1863 and founded the General Association of German Workers in the presence of approximately 600 workers, the 23-year-old Bebel was only a delegate in the audience, but he was already highly regarded in the Workers Education Organisation. Six years later, he founded the Social Democratic Workers’ Party together with Wilhelm Liebknecht and entered the First International.

This was the beginning of a powerful movement that soon conquered the hearts and minds of workers in the towns and the countryside. Basing itself on the teachings of Marx and Engels, the early social democracy became the catchword for the struggle for freedom and democracy.

The speeches of August Bebel gave concrete rendering to the vision of a new, higher level of society. From then on, the tone of the party was no longer to be set by exploitation and personal enrichment paired with stupidity and arrogance, but by notions of social equality, solidarity and education for all. Party membership rocketed in spite of attempts to suppress it by the Prussian authoritarian state and Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws.

At the turn of the century, the sense of an imminent change towards a better future was widespread and was based on rapid developments in science and technology. However, the dynamic rise of capitalism also nourished the conditions for a rapidly growing stream of opportunism that finally engrossed a major part of the party leadership. Only a year after Bebel’s death, the SPD parliamentary faction voted to accept the Kaiser’s request for war expenditure in August 1914, thus leading millions of workers into the slaughterhouse of the First World War.

This betrayal had devastating consequences for the entire twentieth century. From then on, the SPD devoted itself entirely to the maintenance of the bourgeois order and saw itself as responsible for the suppression of any revolutionary change. When the Russian Revolution gave a powerful impulse to the socialist movement at the end of the war and the Kaiser was deposed in Germany, the SPD’s official party organ Vorwärts published advertisements for the counter-revolutionary Free Corps—the paramilitary war veterans organisation that later produced many of the leading Nazis.

While the SPD’s chairman and future president of the German Reich, Friedrich Ebert, cooperated with the military high command, his party friend Gustav Noske, as head of the military department, organised the bloody suppression of the Spartakus rebellion and allowed thousands of revolutionary workers to be slaughtered. The most prominent victims were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

This was followed by the refusal of the SPD to fight alongside the communists against Hitler and the National Socialists. After Hitler’s rise to power, the social democratic trade union leaders offered to cooperate with the fascist regime, though this failed to save them from the concentration camps. Leon Trotsky wrote in 1932: “The most decrepit layer of decrepit capitalist Europe is the social democratic bureaucracy.”

Owing to the role of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and internationally, the SPD again became influential after the Second World War. It exploited the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy to stir up anticommunist sentiment. Moreover, the post-war economic recovery seemed to back the claim that the social market economy was a successful alternative to socialism.

The SPD achieved its greatest success at the beginning of the 1970s—shortly after the post-war boom had reached its height. Since then, it has declined at an increasingly rapid rate. The end of the Cold War also heralded the final stage in the decomposition of the SPD. There no longer exists the slightest basis for politics based on class compromise and the welfare state. The new role of the United States, under whose protective umbrella social democracy had been able to carry out its reformist policies, has now made the SPD irrelevant.

August Bebel would doubtless have had nothing but scorn and derision for today’s SPD with all its bickering factions and tendencies. The process of decay has advanced enormously since Rosa Luxemburg referred to the party as a “stinking corpse.”

Contrary to those who regard the twentieth century as the grave of all socialist aspirations, Bebel and Luxemburg were apt to reflect that the birth of bourgeois society was also painful and took a long time. They regarded the great achievements in science and technology as proof of the enormous creative energy of humanity. And instead of moaning about the demise of a political party that has long since outlived its relevance, they would call for the working population to take up the struggle to determine its own political fate.

What Happened to Marxism in Germany after Marx

Karl Marx had envisioned an international movement without boundaries. (Image: Good Luck Photo/Shutterstock)

Nationalist parties formed in different countries although Karl Marx had expected it to be more of an international movement without boundaries. Therefore, these parties came together in the Second International, or the Socialist International. It was established in the highly symbolic year of 1889, the 100 th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Second International was planned to continue the work of the First International. They met in international congresses that were held periodically. In these congresses they renewed their promises of international solidarity.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels collaborated to found modern socialism. (Image: Photo of Karl Marx by Friedrich Karl WunderPhoto of Friedrich Engels by George Lester/Public domain)

More than 20 countries took part in the congresses and they did some considerable work for the improvement of working conditions. For example the eight-hour working day, the introduction of International Women’s Day (8 March), and the International Workers’ Day (1 May) were all first suggested or campaigned in these congresses.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The German Social Democratic Party

The national parties that participated in the Second International came from many different countries. But the most significant national socialist party was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was established in 1875.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, Germany was rapidly turning into an industrialized country. The SPD also had started to grow in the political arena. They had aimed for the parliament (the Reichstag) and planned to increase the number of their deputies in the parliament. In a period of three years, from 1871 to 1874, the size of their national vote tripled. With the advances of industrialization, their popularity among people also increased. In the 1877 parliament election, half a million people voted for the SPD. This popularity raised a red flag for the conservative party, most importantly Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The SPD is Outlawed in Germany

First of all, Bismarck decided to compete with this popularity by passing a number of laws to win the hearts of workers. As a conservative, it was very unlikely of him to introduce socially motivated laws. The Sickness Insurance Law, Old Age Pensions, and Accident Insurance were the most notable ones.

He considered Social Democratic parties the enemies of state and society and believed they had to be taken seriously. When the last German emperor, the Kaiser, was targeted by anarchists’ assassins (although not successful), Bismarck passed the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878 and banned all activities of the Social Democratic Party.

The SPD continued to work as an underground organization and even had their candidates stand for the parliament. Some of the leaders were in prison but the movement itself showed no signs of decline. Since the SPD was outlawed, the candidates stood for elections as independent politicians. Ironically, the party saw tremendous growth in votes, parliament seats, and the membership of SPD-sponsored trade unions.

The SPD Grows Bigger

After a while, the SPD was not just a political movement. In fact, it had turned into a subculture that was present in many aspects of the Germans’ lives. There were many social and cultural associations, groups and clubs, even kindergartens, libraries, and schools that worked as socialist entities. Socialist workers and their families supported them and these were interpreted as the early signs of the utopic society of workers.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck considered Social Democratic parties the enemies of state and society. (Image: Evert Duykinck/Public domain)

Finally, with Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, the Anti-Socialist Laws were invalidated and the SPD won a historic battle. In the following years, the popularity and social base of the SPD continued to grow. It had the largest vote among German parties in the 1912 federal elections. 4.5 million people voted for the party and they occupied 110 seats, which was a third of the seats in the parliament. Another major development was the number of women in the party, which constituted 16 percent of the members.

With this large number of supporters, a German Socialist government would be bound to form in an election. But they also widely advertised their revolutionary ideas. Ironically, the social support, the socialist subculture that was manifested in many social, cultural, and political forms prevented them from carrying on a revolution. They wanted to keep their political careers rather than engaging in changing the status quo. Although they belonged to the opposition, they were parts of the system and did not want it to change.

Common Questions about Marxism in Germany

The SPD is the Social Democratic Party in Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands). Although at some point it was banned, it continued to grow into the largest Marxist party in Europe.

The SPD had a great influence in Germany . It changed from a mere political party into a subculture that was present in many cultural and social aspects. Socialist schools, kindergartens, libraries, reading clubs, and sports associations operated with the support of socialist workers.

Otto von Bismarck was the Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890. As a conservative, Bismarck banned all the activities of the SPD . After his resignation, all the bans were removed.

As a reaction to the popularity of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Otto von Bismarck introduced a number of social welfare laws . He wanted to improve the working conditions to prevent workers from supporting the SPD .

Bismarck Tried to End Socialism’s Grip—By Offering Government Healthcare

It was 1881, and German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had a serious socialist problem. He’d passed the Anti-Socialist Law of 1878, which banned Social Democratic meetings, associations and newspapers, but he couldn’t remove the party outright from the Reichstag. The socialists still found favor with too many constituents.

The political climate of the era was a result of German unification, the period stretching across the 19th century and culminating in 1871, when 26 small states, principalities, duchies and territories formed the German Empire. But thanks to the German constitution, Bismarck didn’t have to worry about pleasing the populace his chancellorship was approved solely by Wilhelm I. But with the European economy in free fall, a nearly successful assassination attempt on the kaiser, and a short-lived but bloody socialist uprising in France, Bismarck was determined to undermine a party that he saw as a danger to the volatile new nation state. So the Iron Chancellor came up with a masterful plan: beat the socialists at their own game by offering health insurance to the working class.

“That was a calculation,” says historian Jonathan Steinberg, the author of Bismarck: A Life. “It had nothing to do with social welfare. He just wanted some kind of bribery to get social democratic voters to abandon their party.”

Bismarck didn’t care what the program—Krankenversicherungsgesetz—was called or how it was described, as long as citizens knew that the state—his state—coined the idea. “Call it socialism or whatever you like,” Bismarck said during the 1881 Reichstag public policy and budget debates. “It is the same to me.”

So in 1883, with the passage of the Health Insurance Law, Bismarck made Germany into a welfare state—all to stymie the socialists. The law was the first national system in the world, Steinberg says. Both employers and employees paid into insurance funds, and the German government verified workers’ enrollment by comparing employer records with fund membership lists, threatening employers of uninsured workers with fines.

Over the next several decades, the initial law would be expanded with accident insurance (1884), disability insurance (1889) and unemployment insurance (1927)—and before long, the rest of Europe had taken note of Germany’s program. (Great Britain, for example, went in a different direction its health care laws stipulated treatment be financed by the government through taxes.)

Bismarck’s insurance scheme wasn’t an entirely original idea. European governments had implemented public health measures since the 14th century, when the Italian city-states took measures to control the spread of bubonic plague through quarantines. And community organized health insurance groups—called “mutual societies” or “sick funds”—appeared around the same time in certain professions. Miners in Bohemia, for example, had Knappschaftskassen, whose members paid into a common pot. The money went towards hospitals and the care of widows and orphans of miners killed in work accidents. The idea only grew in popularity during the Industrial Revolution, which dramatically reshaped the workforce. By the time Bismarck got around to his proposal five centuries later, 25 to 30 percent of workers in northwest Europe had sickness funds.

“Factory work harmed worker health. There was a demand for healthcare that they needed to finance,” says John Murray, an economist at Rhodes College and the author of Origins of American Health Insurance: A History of Industrial Sickness Funds. “But a key part of the Industrial Revolution that’s overlooked is that once workers got paid in cash once a week or every few weeks, they had cash that could be spent on what we would call health insurance.”

In other words, the availability of currency in densely populated cities made it logistically much easier to organize sickness funds. Farmers and workers like domestic servants were often paid with the goods they produced or in room and board rather than with cash, which made paying into a sickness fund much more complicated.

Those hurdles in the way of universal coverage remained unsolved under Bismarck’s law. Anyone who earned a living through in-kind compensation (like farmers) weren’t required to join the insurance groups. But as the population grew in cities, coverage boomed. In 1885, the enrollment was 4.3 million Germans by 1913, that number had jumped to 13.6 million. And this came with a number of surprising repercussions.

In the 19th century, Germany had been one of Europe’s largest labor exporters, with more than 1 million leaving the country between 1851 and 1860 alone. Most made the U.S. their destination. “At the time, the combined effects of industrialization and the war against France had heightened a new sensitivity to the consequences of migration, both in economic and military terms,” writes economic historian David Khoudour-Castéras. By providing workers with government-mandated health insurance—something they couldn’t find anywhere else—Germany made itself more appealing to its citizens. Emigration decreased dramatically in the years leading up to World War I, in part because workers could take sick days if they stayed in Germany.

Meanwhile, the United States only started organizing mutual funds in the 1870s, and workers compensation in industrial accidents was limited before World War I. It wasn’t until the Social Security Act of 1935 that the federal government got involved in a meaningful way, and even then most health insurance was employment-based, not unlike the Bismarck system but without the government mandates. As Khoudour-Castéras writes, “The level of protection of American workers against the main threats… was very low before the Great Depression and virtually nonexistent before World War I. By contrast, most German workers were covered by social insurance mechanisms by 1913.”  

As for the German economy, it did grow in the decades after Bismarck’s law passed whether that was a direct response to the increasing number of people covered by insurance is hard to say. “Yes, there was a correlation, but it’s not clear to me whether the growth caused greater insurance coverage or the other way around,” Murray says. He adds that part of the benefit to the economy and the government was that with insurance, workers who fell sick were less likely to fall into poverty and strain the government’s poor law institutions.

But did Bismarck’s new insurance actually improve worker health? According to economists Stefan Bauernschuster, Anastasia Driva and Erik Hornung, it did. Between 1884 and the end of the century, blue collar worker mortality rates fell 8.9 percent, they write in a recent study. “Surprisingly, the insurance was able to reduce infectious disease mortality in the absence of effective medication for many of the prevailing infectious diseases.”

The German model evolved over the 20th century, but remained effective and popular. When the system was exported to the Netherlands, Belgium and France during World War II, each of the countries kept the model, despite the fact that it was imposed under Nazi occupation.

All told, Bismarck’s system was a massive success—except in one respect. His goal to keep the Social Democratic Party out of power utterly failed. “The vote for the Social Democratic Party went up and by 1912 they were the biggest party in the Reichstag,” Steinberg says. Perhaps fortunately for Bismarck, he wasn’t around to see their rise. He died in 1898 without another chance to remove the socialists from power.

That Bismarck was able to create the system at all is thanks to a series of unlikely events, Steinberg says. After all, Bismarck only remained in power long enough to establish the law because of the longevity of Wilhelm I—who survived multiple assassination attempts and lived to be 90 in a period when the life expectancy was around 40. If the kaiser had died sooner, his heir would’ve immediately replaced Bismarck, probably with a less conservative chancellor, and who knows what would’ve happened with the healthcare law.

“[The insurance law] was manipulative, clever, worked well, and left a great inheritance,” Steinberg says. “But I think Bismarck never cared much that he was the founder of the welfare state in Germany.” 

Editor's note, July 17, 2017: This article has been edited to clarify the type of government established in Germany during unification. Germany did not become a republic until after World War I.

Wilhelm Liebknecht and the Founding of the German Social Democratic Party

Liebknecht (1826-1900) significantly influenced the shape and destiny of the German Socialist movement and dominated its Marxist wing. He was involved in several abortive insurrections in Germany, was imprisoned there, and after his release, was exiled to England where he worked closely with Engels and Marx. After his return to Germany, his influence led ultimately to the founding of the Social Democratic party.

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