Undividing the Left Hand

The disagreement about strategy that separated Rosa Luxemburg from Edward Bernstein is one that has divided social democratic movements throughout the 20th century.   It continues to divide social democracy today: are mainstream political  institutions so compromised by concessions to wealth and power that they cannot serve as agents of progressive social change?  Or should the left remain in and try to reform these institutions, including social democratic parties?

Bernstein’s choice was to work within the constitutional framework established by the Weimar Republic.  He and other Social Democrats believed that their party, through the participation of newly enfranchised working class men and women, could lead the way to a better world.  This optimism figured prominently in SPD publicity.

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Wissell Slate!

Women!  Same rights — same duties
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Social Democratic Party of Germany

Rosa Luxemburg didn’t share Bernstein’s optimism about the prospects of the Social Democratic Party within the Weimar Republic.  Yet she too recognized the importance of Party membership.  German workers gave their allegiance to the Social Democratic Party, she said, and hence leftists had to remain engaged in the Party too, in order to work with and influence the working class.
A Spartacist newsletter recommended “reconquest of the Party from the bottom up,” and Luxemburg commented: “However commendable and comprehensible the impatience and bitterness which leads so many of the best elements to leave the party today, a flight remains a flight. It is a betrayal of the masses …”
However, the contradiction within the SPD between those who supported the war and those who opposed it could not be contained; anti-war activists, including Luxemburg and Bernstein, were expelled from the Party in 1917.  They responded by creating the “Independent Social Democratic Party” (USPD).  Luxemburg went on to found the Communist Party (KPD) in 1918.  Following Luxemburg’s murder in January 1919, leadership of the German Communist Party was assumed by Paul Levi, who had been Luxemburg’s attorney and close friend.   Like Luxemburg, Levi believed that leftists had to participate in the Social Democratic Party in order to remain politically relevant.  In 1922, under his leadership, many Communists rejoined the SPD.

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As for Bernstein, he rejoined the Social Democratic Party in 1920. But over the next decade, the Party proved incapable of uniting the left.  Instead of allying to resist the growing fascist movement, Social Democrats and Communists fought one another.  The Communist Party called for the overthrow of the Weimar Republic.

The Spartacus League and the Communist Party (KPD) that it became held that the Reichstag was essentially owned and controlled by the ruling elites. The German Communist Party proclaimed in the late 1920s that social democracy amounted to “social fascism.”

Down with this system

Although the disagreements between Social Democrats and Communists were substantial ones, these two movements could have worked together to discredit and defeat fascism.  Instead, competing for the support of Germany’s working class, these movements battled one another.

Facing daunting economic obstacles, SPD governments did succeed in introducing many reforms, including more humane working conditions in factories, workers’ participation in enterprise management, an 8-hour working day, low-income housing, free education for all.

Within the ranks of SPD-led political coalitions, however, factions quarreled, magnifying their differences from one another, and this in-fighting, combined with the Geat Depression, contributed to the demise of the Republic.  Perhaps what Freud called a “narcissism of small differences” helps to explain the self-defeating actions of potential allies.

We appear to have the same values and the same aims.  Why, then, are we at loggerheads?