Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The SPD as a Marxist mass party

6. Four decades after Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto and based socialism on a scientific foundation, German social democracy developed, under the influence of Marxism, into the world’s first mass party of the working class. The SPD carried out pioneering historical work, whose results would have a lasting effect for many decades, even after the party had long turned away from Marxism. It formed the working class into a politically conscious class and developed within it a broad, socialist culture embracing all areas of life. Both the communist parties and the Fourth International rested on this early work of the SPD.

7. The necessity for an independent workers’ party resulted from the defeat of the democratic revolution of 1848, which revealed the irreconcilable contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the political impotence of the democratic petty bourgeoisie. The bourgeois-democratic revolution was delayed in Germany, because the existing petty states, which continued into the 19th century, held back the development of trade and industry. When the revolution finally broke out in 1848, the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was already so deep that a common struggle against Prussian absolutism was no longer possible. In particular, after the first great battle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, which flared up in July 1848 in Paris, the liberal bourgeoisie feared the revolution’s threat to its property far more than its lack of rights under Prussian rule and stabbed the revolution in the back. The democratic petty bourgeoisie—the mass of the nation consisting of craftsmen, merchants and farmers—proved unable to play an independent political role and failed pitifully. The first freely elected national assembly, which met in the Frankfurt Paulskirche, was, in the words of Engels, “from the first day of its existence, more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together.”[1]

8. In their analysis of the 1848 revolution, Marx and Engels stressed that the working class had to organize itself independently of the democratic wing of the bourgeoisie. Even under conditions, where “the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed”, where they “preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation” and “seek to found a great opposition party”, unity with them must “be resisted in the most decisive manner”, they wrote. The democratic petty bourgeoisie “seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent positions and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy.” They called for an independent organisation of the workers’ party, “in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.”[2]

9. In a further passage, on which Leon Trotsky would later base himself in the elaboration of the Theory of Permanent Revolution, Marx and Engels explained: “While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”[3]

10. The defeat of the 1848 revolution temporarily pushed the working class into the background. State suppression, which culminated in the 1852 Communist Trial in Cologne, obstructed its political organization. The years of political reaction were, however, marked by the advance of the industrial revolution and the rapid growth of the working class. Banking, industry, mining, the railways, shipping and foreign trade experienced an enormous upturn. In the 1860s, the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV) of Ferdinand Lassalle and the Federation of German Workers Associations (VDAV) of August Bebel developed as independent political workers’ organizations. They united in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAP), which was renamed in 1890 as the SPD.

11. Inside the SAP, Marxism began its advance. Bebel’s faction, which was identified with Marxism, increasingly gained authority. Although the party was banned between 1878 and 1890 under Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws, was politically persecuted and legally only able to contest national and state elections, it developed into a powerful social force. Its electoral successes and a mass strike, which shook Germany in 1889-90, finally led to Bismarck’s resignation and to the rescinding of the Anti-Socialist Laws. Now the SPD became the largest party in Germany. It educated the working class in Marxism and for hundreds of thousands of workers became the centre of their lives. At the high point of its power, it published more than 70 daily papers and numerous weekly publications, which were read by 6 million people. Its publishing houses produced books in large print runs on history, politics and culture. It had its own party school and 1,100 libraries. It coordinated an enormous network of leisure activities from gymnastics to choirs.

12. The SPD not only defended the social interests of workers, it was also the only party in Germany that consistently fought for democratic rights and sharply opposed anti-Semitism. The petty bourgeoisie and bourgeois intelligentsia, which had stabbed the 1848 democratic revolution in the back, lined up in its majority behind Bismarck and the Wilhelminian state, after the unification of the empire through “blood and iron”. In contrast to England, France and the United States, there is no bourgeois democratic tradition in Germany. From the outset, the struggle for democratic rights was inseparably connected with the workers’ movement. The working class confronted a powerful, hostile state. The mere fight for social rights presupposed the struggle for political rights. That is why in Germany, the establishment of a workers’ party preceded the building of the trade unions. Influential trade unions only developed afterwards, as an initiative of the SPD and under its leadership.