I set out to build this website in 2011, ten years ago, inspired by the ideals and the courage of Luxemburg, Bernstein and Arendt. I kind of fell in love with all three — although there was little love lost between Rosa and Eduard! I wanted to imagine the world as they experienced it, and to engage with the debates internal to social democracy that proved so consequential in shaping the course of history, and that continue to vex progressive political activism today.
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. But Social Democrats encountered a strategic dilemma: 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 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) acknowledged in 1908, many workers “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 in the first half of the 20th century. Here in the United States, the Democratic Party has perennially faced resistance from a more radical left that opposes the compromises that the Party has made with the status quo. Just recently, during the 2020 election cycle, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were able to reconcile their differences. But will this truce hold?
The debates internal to early German social democracy needn’t obscure the points of unity that held the Party together. Luxemburg and Bernstein both believed in the potential of human beings, through democratic deliberation and collective action, to build a radically better world that is no longer ravaged by injustice and suffering. Their experiences and vision remain relevant today. From awareness of history, Arendt writes, “new insights, our new memories, our new deeds take their point of departure.” Finding a new place to begin — that is the aim of these webpages.