<–  Back to “Early Evolution”

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 photoRosa 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.

“The Strike”

In the second half of the 19th century, working conditions in Germany’s rapidly industrializing economy were often harsh and grim. In Robert Koehler’s painting, The Strike (Munich, 1886), “the distance between the owner’s elegant brick villa … and the factory in the background has been aggressively foreshortened by the artist. This allows Koehler to better emphasize the workers who stream out of the factory to come support the shop-floor representative, who … confronts the factory employer…. The tenseness of the situation is expressed by the representative’s stance and his red shirt, not to mention the foreground figure who arms himself with a rock. The employer’s stiff posture, reinforced by his black suit and top hat, suggests that he is not inclined towards compromise; even his own servant, standing behind him, seems fearful of what will come after the heated exchange of words.” (German History in Documents and Images)

Besieged by workers, as in the painting above, an owner might be inclined to appeal to state authority in order to restore “order.”  When in the late 19th-century violent intervention of police and troops on the side of the employers became commonplace, workers realized that they would have to increase their political influence in order to fight back.

Collaboration between labor and the Social Democratic Party in Germany flourished in the early part of the 20th century, was suppressed during the Third Reich, and then resumed again at the end of the Second World War.   Two weeks before he died, Hans Boeckler(1875-1951), who was a labor union organizer and SPD representative to the Reichstag, signed a co-determination (Mittbestimmung) agreement with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, giving workers in large companies a managerial role in determining the conditions and aims of their labor. Cooperation between trade unionists and social democrats has been instrumental in the construction of Germany’s model of economic development, which economist Steven Hill calls “social capitalism,” in contrast both to America’s “Wall Street capitalism” and China’s “communist capitalism.”

Advocacy of social democracy and trade unionism was illegal in Germany from 1878 to 1890. When the ban was lifted in January 1890, the Social Democratic Party became at once very popular, and in the election of February 1890 won 19.75% of the vote. The headline of the Party newspaper proclaims “1,341,587 Social Democratic Voters — Gain of 567,405.” The banner held by the woman in the image reads: “Ours the world, in spite of all that,” which alludes to Freiligrath’s poem “Trotz Alledem” in support of the revolution of 1848, which in turn harks back to “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” by Scottish poet Robert Burns.  Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht supposedly sang this song just before he was executed in 1919.

By 1912, the Social Democratic Party, received more votes than any other party, and it played a role in the cultural as well as the political lives of its members. The Party organized reading groups, cycling clubs, choirs, chess clubs, gymnastic associations and the like. To get to your vacation destination, you might take a bus or train that the Party had chartered. Social democracy became virtually a way of life.

Workers of All Lands, Unite!” This water color on wood, made in 1889, is based on a drawing by an English artist, Walter Crane (1845-1915). The image emphasizes the international character of workers’ solidarity. May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the Socialist International’s congress in 1891. The Social Democratic Erfurt Program of 1891 proclaims that “With the expansion of global commerce, and of production for the world market, the position of the worker in every country becomes increasingly dependent on the position of workers in other countries. The emancipation of the working class is thus a task in which the workers of all civilized countries are equally involved. Recognizing this, the German Social Democratic Party feels and declares itself to be one with the class-conscious workers of all other countries.”


Luise Otto-Peters (1819-1895) was a co-founder of the German women’s movement, organizer on behalf of workers’ rights, and activist in the Revolution of 1848.  She was called the “Lerche des Völkerfrühlings” (lark of the springtime of nations) for her passionate advocacy of freedom and human rights.