German Social Democratic Party

   The German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands—SPD) was established in everything but name in 1875 when it existed as the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands). At this time the party was an amalgamation of the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle and the supporters of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. At its founding conference at Gotha it produced a program that, while in some respects Marxist, also drew severe criticism from Karl Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Two years after its creation the party received 493,000 (9 percent) of the votes cast in a general election, and by 1890 this had risen to 1,427,000 votes (nearly 20 percent), the largest share of the vote for a single party. In 1891, at its Erfurt conference, it renamed itself the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands and Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein revised its program to give it a firmly Marxist basis and including in it a commitment to fight “for the abolition of class rule and classes themselves.” The SPD continued to increase its share of the vote in elections receiving 4,250,000 votes (35 percent) in 1912, when it finally became the largest party in the Reichstag having been handicapped by unfavorable constituency boundaries. At a local level the SPD also gained electoral success with some 13,000 local and municipal councilors in 1913.
   World War I saw the SPD turn from a commitment to international brotherhood and against war to supporting the “fatherland” in its war of “national defense.” A minority within the party opposed the war including notable figures such as Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. In 1917 the growing split between the pro- and anti-war groups within the SPD led to the creation of the Unabhängige Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands (German Independent Socialist Party—USPD). In 1918 the SPD joined a new government that introduced parliamentary government and sought a negotiated peace. With Germany clearly losing the war a revolutionary impulse swept across the country leading to the declaration of a republic under the SPD leader Friedrich Ebert and the creation of a Council of People’s Representatives which ruled with extensive powers. A new national assembly was formed in 1919 and elections to it gave the SPD 165 seats (38 percent of the vote) and the USPD won 22 seats (over 7.5 percent of the vote). The SPD represented the majority party in a ruling coalition that introduced the Weimar Constitution in August of that year along with various social reforms. The general election of 1920 saw support for the SPD drop and the party was only ever a junior partner in coalition governments that governed up until the Nazis came to power. In spite of this, aided by the return of the bulk of the USPD in 1922, SPD membership rose to 1,261,072 in 1923. The SPD also continued to exercise power and influence at a local level, both in municipalities, rural districts and even states. With the onset of Nazi rule the SPD became the target of increasingly repressive and violent actions, and in 1933 it was banned and its deputies removed from the Reichstag. Many of its leaders and members were forced to flee and an SPD executive-inexile continued the party’s activities chiefly working to publicize the true nature of the Nazis.
   With the end of World War II the SPD re-founded itself in Germany, but from the outset clearly differentiated itself from both the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (German Communist Party—KPD) and Soviet communism. The party conference at Bad Godesberg in 1959 essentially marked the final break with Marxism as the party adopted a program based on social justice, individual liberty, parliamentary democracy, pluralism, the recognition of the value and validity of competition and profit, and a rejection of wholesale public ownership of the means of production and of revolution. In one way the Bad Godesberg conference may be seen as the overdue acknowledgement of a path down which the party had been moving for many years. In the late 1890s Eduard Bernstein had recognized a separation between revolutionary Marxist theory and reformist practice in the party’s activities, and in the revisionist debate he had battled Kautsky and Luxemburg in an effort to revise the party’s Marxist theoretical foundation. Bernstein lost his battle, but the party, while retaining its Marxist theory, pursued a reformist practice and made little reference to Marxist thought in its decision and policy-making. While the pre–World War II social democrats, including Bernstein, remained committed to Marxism, the postwar German social democrats ended that commitment.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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