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From the Enlightenment to Social Democracy
Two new theories became influential in the 2nd half of the 19th century in Europe: Charles Darwin’s scientific account of the evolution of species, and Karl Marx’s account of class society. Marx’s view, though, was different from anything in the natural sciences; it was openly prescriptive as well as descriptive, talking about the way the world could and ought to be. This visionary aspect of Marxism — the hope for building a more fair and humane world — inspired early social democrats. But that inspiration draws as well upon a humanist tradition that goes back for centuries. We can find it in the 18th century European Enlightenment, represented in Germany by people like Gotthold Lessing and Wilhelm von Humboldt.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Lessing eloquently presented the case, in his philosophical writings and drama, for freedom of thought and the value of cultural and religious diversity.
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was an educator, philosopher, linguist, and diplomat. He was instrumental in reforming the Prussian educational system, from elementary school through the university. Humboldt advocated free and universal education as a right of all citizens.
Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), a pioneer of German social democracy, had met and befriended Marx and Engels in London. He became a democratic socialist, but was critical of the view that internal contradictions would cause capitalism to break down and be replaced by socialism. Rather, the path to a classless society would be a gradual one, evolving out of capitalism. Bernstein served as Social Democratic representative to the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) from 1902 to 1918, and again from 1920 to 1928. His revisions of Marxist theory and practice became the perennial subject of debate within the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD) until the Weimar Republic’s demise in 1933. An excellent book in English on Bernstein is Manfred Steger’s The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy (2006).
Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), who emigrated to Germany from Poland, took strong exception to Bernstein’s political reformism and what she took to be his apologies for capitalism and imperialism. She was a brilliant economist, but is known most of all for her uncompromising advocacy of the causes of justice, peace, and democracy. In 1916 she co-founded the Spartacus League (named after the Roman gladiator Spartacus, who led a slave revolt) and in 1917 joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which had split from the Social Democratic Party in protest against the Party’s support for the war. She initially favored the revolution in Russia in 1918, but was alarmed by the Bolshevik’s undemocratic methods. Open dissent and debate are, for her, the social democratic path forward: “Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks otherwise.” (Luxemburg’s complex relationship with social democracy is discussed here.)
Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) was a close friend and political comrade of Rosa Luxemburg. She was an activist in the German labor movement and, from 1892 to 1917, the chief editor of Die Gleichheit (“Equality”), a Social Democratic newspaper addressing women’s issues. She joined and served the German Communist Party in the Reichstag from 1920 until 1933. She remained a Party member for the rest of her life, although she was sometimes critical of its top-down, sectarian policies. Not long before her death, she was carried in a chair to the Reichstag podium and, facing an arrogant and threatening bloc of Nazi deputies, she argued that “The most important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism…. Before this compelling historical necessity, all inhibiting and dividing political, trade union, religious and ideological opinions must take a back seat.”
Hugo Haase (1863-1919). Along with Luxemburg, Bernstein, and other social democrats disillusioned with the Social Democratic Party because of its endorsement of the war, Haase helped to create a new party, Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, and he became the party’s first chairman. “Social democracy was for him,” writes Carl Schorske, “perhaps less a political movement than a vehicle for moral protest and the asssertion of humanistic principles.” Haase was murdered in 1919.
Paul Levi (1883–1930) was Rosa Luxemburg’s attorney and close friend. After her death he continued to lead the German Communist Party. But his criticism of the Party, including his opposition to Communist plans to overthrow the Weimar Republic, led to his expulsion. In 1922, he published Rosa Luxemburg’s manuscript, “The Russian Revolution,” which makes the case for democracy and transparency in left movements. In that same year, Levi rejoined the Social Democratic Party. Levi died in 1930. During a commemoration for Levi in the Reichstag, both the Nazi and Communist deputies left the assembly hall.
Luise Zietz (1865-1916) was a leader of the women’s movement inside the Social Democratic Party. She also served as an SPD deputy in the Reichstag. She advocated equal rights for women, but, in keeping with her opposition to war, argued that equality did not mean that women would become soldiers. Her approach to women’s issues and social transformation was more moderate than that of Luxemburg and Zetkin, and they sought to reduce her influence within the Party.
Tony Sender (1888–1964). Leading up to World War I, she was active in the German peace movement. During the revolution in 1918, she served on the executive committee of the Council of Workers and Soldiers in Frankfurt. Thereafter she became an SPD representative to the Reichstag and edited the party-sponsored women’s magazine “Frauenwelt.” After the Nazi takeover in 1933, she emigrated to America, where she remained dedicated to progressive causes. She represented the American Federation of Labor in the UN, and worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.