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Social Democratic Party - Early Years

Socialism is at once a theory, or rather a whole body of theories, and a movement, or rather a number of movements more or less closely connected. The name has been used during the past century to describe many different social theories, in all of which a common character has been perceived. In recent times it has come to be used less with reference to any definite theory than for the purpose of describing the movements in various countries which have adopted the name or have declared their adhesion to Socialism. It is thus possible, in setting out to give a summary account of Socialism, to describe it either by its connotation, that is to say, in terms of the ideas for which it stands, or by its denotation, that is, in terms of the groups and parties which profess allegiance to it. But neither of these methods of description is by itself satisfactory, nor is it possible by either, or even by a combination of both, to arrive at a satisfactory or adequate definition of Socialism.

The word" Socialism" first came into use in the third or fourth decade of the I9th century in England and France. Its use then spread much more rapidly on the continent of Europe than in Great Britain, and it was mainly in connexion with the growth of continental Socialist movements (Louis Blanc in 1848; the First International Working Men's Association in the 1860s and the Paris Commune of 1870). The word " Socialism " refers definitely to doctrines and movements which owe their rise to the growth of large-scale production and the capitalist system in industry. Modern Socialism, although it has claimed many adherents belonging to other classes, is thus essentially a working-class or " proletarian " movement, in that it is based upon and directly due to the rise of the " proletariat" as a distinct social class capable of independent class organization and suffering under a sense of injustice and inhibition.

Karl Marx's first important contribution to Socialist thinking, The Communist Manifesto (1847), which was drafted jointly by him and Friedrich Engels, is generally recognized as the starting point of the modern Socialist movement. His Das Kapital, of which the first volume was published in 1867, is the working-out into a system of the most vital ideas originally presented in The Communist Manifesto.

In Germany it was long an axiom that socialists must leave ordinary politics and political machinery severely alone as an evil thing. The short and futile struggle for constitutional liberty in 1848-1849 had driven most of those who were " thinking socialistically " into abandonment of political reform and into plans of fundamental change amounting to revolution. Karl Mario (1810-1865) and K. J. Rodbertus contented themselves with laborious and profound studies not intended to bear immediate fruit in practice. Marx and Lassalle were not so pacific. The former was from the first (see his Manifesto of 1847) inclined to give socialism an international character, taking also no pains to distinguish it from communism. Lassalle desired it for his own nation first. Marx looked beyond his own nation. He founded the International Union of Working Men in 1864, the year of Lassalle's tragic death.

In early August 1869 the Social-Democratic Party of Germany was founded at Eisenach. The congress was arranged by Liebknecht and Bebel for the purpose of forming a definitely Marxian party out of some disgruntled elements of the Lassallean organization and the members of unions affiliated with the International. In spite of bitter opposition from Schweitzer, Lassalle's successor, the congress was a great success and the aims of its promoters were fully realized. The founding of the new party atoned in some degree for the serious troubles which beset the International in that year, mainly owing to the pernicious activity of Marx's old antagonist, Michael Bakunin. The Social-Democratic Party was closely affiliated with the International Workingmen's Association established at London by Karl Marx. Before the common danger of police prosecutions and persecution the followers of Lassalle and Marx were united at the congress of Gotha in 1875. The name social democrats had crept into use about 1869 when the followers of Marx founded at a congress in Eisenach the social democratic working men's party. The party began to be a power at the congress of Gotha.

In the town of Gotha in 1875, the General German Workingmen's Association (Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein), which had been founded in 1863 by Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), merged with the Social Democratic Workers' Party, founded in 1869 by August Bebel (1840-1913) and Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900), to form the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands - SAP), renamed Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands - SPD) in 1891. Bismarck's government, alarmed by attempts on the life of the emperor and by the increased number of votes given to socialistic candidates for the reichstag, procured the passing of the Exceptional Powers Act (Ausnahme Gesetz) in 1878. Combined action and open utterance in Germany became almost impossible. But the agitation as a whole was driven underground; and it speaks well for the patience and self-control of the people that no widespread excesses followed. In 1881 repression was so far relaxed that trade unions were allowed to recover legal standing. In 1890 the reichstag refused to renew the law of 1878 for a fifth period; and finally in 1899 it repealed the law forbidding the amalgamation of workmen's unions, and specially aimed at the new socialistic unions, the natural allies of the social democrats. The vexatious prosecutions and condemnations for Majesttsbeleidigung (lse majest) following 1890 did the cause more good than harm.

The socialistic voters increased from 437,438 in 1878 to 1,800,000 in 1894 and 2,120,000 in 1898, while the elected members increased from 12 in 1877 to 46 in 1894 and 56 in 1898. By 1903 the voters had increased to three millions and in the elections of February 1907 they were 3,240,000. The socialists, however, in 1907 found themselves represented by 43 members as against 79 in 1903. The reduced representation was due to a combination of the other parties against them, the matters at issue not being industrial policy, but colonial government and naval expenditure. The increase in the number of voters remained a proof that the power of the party in Germany had rather increased than diminished.

But "remedial measures" had been passed which were intended to make socialism unnecessary. Bismarck, who admired Lassalle and had no scruples about the intervention of the state, had planned a series of measures for the insurance of workmen against sickness, accidents and old age, measures duly carried out in 1883,1884 and 1891, respectively. The socialists not unreasonably regarded the government as their convert.

The attitude of the social democratic party became less uncompromising than in earlier days. Since they regained their liberty in 1890, their leaders have kept them well in hand. Their principal journal Vorwrts was conducted with great ability. Their agitation became as peaceful as that of trade unionists or co-operators in England. They ceased to denounce the churches. They tried to gain sympathy, quite fairly, by taking up the cause of any distressed workers, or even ill-used natives in colonies, and urging redress from the state. The present state had become to them almost unconsciously their own state, a means of removing evils and not a mere evil to be removed. The anarchists had been disowned as early as 1880. The extreme socialists who demanded return to the old tactics were cast out at Erfurt in 1891, and became "Independent Socialists."

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:19 ZULU