I built the first instance of this website in 2011, ten years ago, inspired by the commitment and courage of Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein. I wanted to imagine the world as they experienced it, and to engage with their debate about social democracy — a disagreement that proved so consequential in shaping the course of history, and that continues to vex progressive political activism today.
In Europe in the second half of the 19th century, working people’s efforts to organize in support of decent wages and working conditions encountered severe repression by the state. Governments mobilized police and sometimes soldiers to crush strikes and other kinds of resistance. So workers recognized that they had to contest for political power in order to advance their economic interest.
Labor faced this predicament elsewhere in the world too, although on this website we’ll concentrate on what happened in two countries, Germany and Austria. The Social Democratic Party had been banned in Germany during the 1880s, but became legal at the end of that decade. It immediately attracted strong working class support and by 1912 was receiving more votes than any other party. (More on this subject here.)
In late 19th century Austria, moderate and radical factions of the social democratic movement were unable to agree on a common platform until 1889. In January of that year, reconciliation (enabled by a physician, Dr. Victor Adler, whom both sides respected and trusted) occurred at a 3-day congress held in the town of Hainfeld, and the Austrian Social Democratic Workers Party was born. Like its German counterpart, the Party grew quickly and remained quite popular until the commencement of war in 1914.
Social Democrats encountered, however, a strategic dilemma early on: whether to campaign to reform the current social order or aim to replace it altogether in favor of a classless, socialist society. Reform versus revolution — that debate pitted advocates like Eduard Bernstein against more radical activists like Rosa Luxemburg, and it nearly tore the Party apart. The fight was no less chronic and divisive in Austria. The radicals stood with Karl Marx, who had held that the proletariat, becoming ever more impoverished and oppressed, could emancipate itself only by overthrowing capitalism. But reformers observed that in fact history was not evolving just as Marx had predicted.
“Workers unite! You have only your chains to lose,” proclaimed Marx in the Communist Manifesto in1848. Trouble is, half a century later many working people in Western European nations had become invested in the world as it is. They had jobs, even if not secure or well-paid. They had health care, a roof over their heads, and were able to put food on the table. As Austrian social democrat Friedrich Adler (1879-1960) said in 1908, many people “have more than their chains to lose.”
The changing character of capitalism complicated the mission of the Social Democratic opposition, pitting the revolutionary wing of the Party against the reformist one. At annual party congresses, Eduard Bernstein and his like-minded colleagues advocated in favor of an “evolutionary” approach to changing the world, whereas the Rosa Luxemburg contingent gave rousing speeches in favor of revolution: the existing economic-political order has to be abolished in order to emancipate the working class.
The clash between these two strategies — moderate left versus radical left — has never been resolved anywhere in the capitalist world, with the possible exception of Scandinavia at certain times in the past. Here in the United States, the Democratic Party has perennially faced resistance from a radical left that opposes the compromises that the Party makes with the status quo. During the 2020 election cycle, Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were able to reconcile their differences. (See Update 2021.) But will this truce hold?