The German Social-Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) was the largest working class party built so far by Marxists, yet it is mostly remembered today with infamy for the great betrayal of 1914.
When its Reichstag deputies voted for war credits, Lenin was so shocked by a copy of the party’s paper Vorwärts justifying the decision he thought it was forgery. How could a party with over a million members, that garnered over four million votes (a third of the electorate) and 110 MPs, capitulate to its own government and throw sand in the face of international solidarity?
The party was founded in opposition to the German state, its leaders refusing to vote for war credits in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. SPD leaders had served time in prison for their political convictions, was forced underground (1878-1890) and had to fight for every bit of democratic space to organise. The slogans “Not a man [sic] and not a cent for this system” and “war on the palaces, peace to the huts” summed up their defiance.
The party had been instrumental in establishing the Second International in 1889, which repeatedly pledged to oppose war between the great powers. Even in late July 1914, the party was publishing manifestos against the imminent conflict, organising anti-war demonstrations in Berlin and preparing for illegality.
Yet on 2 August, the SPD-led trade unions made an agreement with the employers that there would be no strikes or lock-outs, and that all collective agreements would be extended for the duration of the hostilities. The SPD Reichstag fraction met on 3 August and decided by 78 votes against 14 to vote for war credits. The minority agreed to respect discipline on the following day and so the party’s decisive weight was added to the government’s war policy. The SPD became in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, “a stinking corpse”. Similar betrayals took place across Europe, with few honourable exceptions.
The history of the SPD has mostly been refracted through subsequent lens: the Bolshevik-led Russian revolution, the emergence of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the third, Communist International. Sociologists such as Max Weber dubbed the party “a state within a state”, while Robert Michels’ identified an increasingly conservative party-union oligarchic bureaucracy, apparently foretelling the party’s demise.
Yet not a single Marxist theorist of note called for a break with the SPD before 1914. On the contrary, the SPD remained the model for Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and countless others, despite the sharp criticism they directed against elements of the party and its leaders. The SPD was their model of a mass working class party for good reasons. Its history was replete with lessons about how to fight for independent working class politics, how to translate Marxists ideas into practice and how to develop class consciousness among wide layers of the working class. In its pomp, the SPD looked like the organisational distillation of working class political representation. Its early years were both subversive and liberationist. The SPD deserves to be studied critically by a new generation who want to change the world.
It took socialists fifty years to build the SPD into the force it was in 1914. They did so from a very limited base and in very difficult conditions, something Marxists today should take heart from.
Before the 1848 revolution, Germany was fragmented into a series of monarchical states, with only a small industrial working class and very little labour movement organisation. It took until 1871 for Germany to be unified from above by Bismarck’s wars against Austria-Hungary and France, and for the subsequent combined, state-led industrialisation for a millions-strong working class to develop.
The origins of the SPD go back as far as the Communist League, which Marx and Engels joined in exile in 1847. Communist League members worked in the larger organisations of German workers — often educational associations — which gave them the possibility of public propaganda and from which they could recruit members. Franz Mehring described how the communists worked in his biography of Karl Marx:
“The procedure of these associations was the same everywhere; one day in the week was marked down for discussion and another for social intercourse (singing, recitation, etc.); libraries were founded everywhere in connection with the associations and where possible classes were organised to instruct the workers in the elementary principles of communism.”
The Communist League is best remembered today as the organisation that commissioned Marx to write the Communist Manifesto. From its ranks sprang the embryo of an international working class party and slogans such as “workers of the world, unite”. When the 1848 revolutions broke out, many members of the Communist League took part, most as the left of the democratic movement, and then suffered further imprisonment or exile. After the revolutionary tide had ebbed, the organisation split and soon dissolved. It never cohered into a sizable organisational force. For example Michael Löwy was able to identify 65 members between 1847 and 1852, of whom half were intellectuals and the rest artisans and workers. But some of cadres went on with a new generation to refound the German labour movement in the 1860s.
There were many efforts to revive the working class movement across the German states and many false starts.
Communist League member Stephan Born tried to form trade unions. After the 1848 revolution, it was within the movement of liberal Arbeiterbildungsvereine (Workers' Education Associations) that most workers took their first political steps.
Independent working-class political representation emerged from this milieu. Most significantly, on 17 May 1863, 110 delegates from forty-five cities met in Frankfurt to form the Verband deutscher Arbeitervereine (Union of German Workers’ Leagues, VDAV). The organisation included August Bebel, who would become the central leader of social democracy until his death in 1913. Wilhelm Liebknecht, a former Communist League member who spent 12 years in exile with Marx and Engels, also worked within it. In 1866 the VDAV severed ties with the liberals and merged with the People’s Party (Volkspartei).
Around the same time another organisation split away to form the Allgemeiner deutscher Arbeiterverein (General German Workers’ Association, ADAV). It was the first working class political party in German history.
The ADAV invited Ferdinand Lassalle, a former associate of Marx and Engels who by then was living off the proceeds of his relationship with a countess, to address their gathering. Lassalle, in the year or so he led the ADAV (he died fighting a duel in 1864) emphasised that workers should maintain unconditional ideological and organisational independence vis-à-vis the liberal bourgeoisie — although this did not prevent him offering his services to the Prussian chancellor Bismarck. The Lassalleans regarded trade unions as incapable of permanently improving workers’ conditions because of the “iron law of wages”, a notion ridiculed by Marx and Engels. They also promoted universal manhood suffrage along with their panacea of state-funded cooperatives.
The most relevant lesson from this early period is that socialists worked within the existing labour movement and sought to find a way to reach workers. They published newspapers to propagate their views and used parliamentary and local elections to promote socialist ideas. Travelling agitators built the movement through face-to-face persuasion, expressing “a boundlessly exaggerated negative criticism of prevailing conditions and of the foundations of the existing social order”, those responsible for the plight of the workers and the means of working class self-liberation.
They also built supporters’ groups in localities and workplaces. As one wrote in 1875: “Whenever a particular area or industrial district is to be opened up for socialism, this usually takes the form at first not of a big ‘people’s rally’. Rather, a few comrades quietly enter the region, take up work, and at their workplaces and in the factories and in other places where they come into contact with their fellow workers they sow the seeds of socialism.” Party intellectual Karl Kautsky would sum up the approach in 1903: “We should never forget that we are first and foremost still a party of propaganda. Our most important practical task is at present much less the conquest of power than the conquest of the masses.”
The Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (SDAP) was founded in 1869 at a conference in Eisenach, which brought together Bebel and Liebknecht’s supporters with some dissident Lassalleans around Wilhelm Bracke.
In 1868, both the VDAV and the ADAV affiliated to the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International), led by Marx in London. State repression of socialists of all stripes also drove to unity. Bebel and Liebknecht took a principled anti-war position during the Franco-Prussian conflict and supported the Paris Commune in 1871. The SPD united with the ADAV at Gotha in 1875 to form the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD).
The growth of the party was rapid. The ADAV claimed 500 members when it was founded in 1863. The SDAP had around 10,000 members in 1869, and the SAPD claimed 25,000 when it was founded. After twelve years of illegality, it emerged in 1890 as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) with 290,000 members. It would reach half a million in 1907 and over a million by 1914.
The means by which the party was built from a propaganda group to a mass party are instructive. It was built through splits and fusions, as well as individual recruitment.
The party programmes of 1869 and 1875 were compromises, and made great concessions to the Lassalleans. Marx and Engels wrote scathing criticisms of the Eisenach and Gotha programmes and threatened to dissociate themselves from the party. Even the Erfurt programme (1891), with a maximum vision of socialism and minimum set of demands drew fire from Engels. Liebknecht was renowned for avoiding quarrels, and putting organisational compromise before political lines of demarcation.
However he and Bebel insisted that the political limitations could be overcome because the basic organisation was highly democratic. The ADAV under Lassalle and his successors was regarded as highly dictatorial. By contrast, Bebel maintained that the sovereign annual congress should make the party’s major political decisions, with controls over the executive committee alongside strong local organisations. In 1871, the SDAP established the institution of the Vertrauensmänner (“trusted person”) to maintain a regular channel between local branches and the central party organisations.
A member was someone who “actively supports the party”, advocates the party programme and pays monthly dues. Early on Bebel argued passionately for regularly monthly dues to finance party activities, but the dues were waived for subscribers to the party’s official organ. According to a history by Gary Steenson’s, local branches were not bound by the statutes to support the larger party financially, nor did the party leadership have statutory control over the local press, the selection of electoral candidates or any other aspect of local party activities.
J P Nettl argues that the SPD was extremely democratic. The party press “debated problems at great length, and opened its pages to the representatives of all divergent opinions”, at least until 1911. But for most of the period before the war “almost any view could get a public airing. At the party congresses there were no attempts to restrict the expression of opinions other than those dictated by time”. The SPD congress jealously guarded its rights and privileges: “there was no guillotine and the chairman’s [sic] rules of order were lax.
Above all the opposition had many opportunities of putting its views to meetings in various localities all over the country. Local party secretaries were more concerned with having interesting and provocative speakers in order to provide a worthwhile evening for their members than with any attempt to impose a party line”. Up to 1900, the party only expelled seven people for violations of the rules.