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German Social Democracy

November 7, 2017

The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878.

The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878. (Source: Reichsgesetzblatt, 1878 Nr. 34)

Jacobin Magazine has recently published a short introductory essay by Adam J. Sacks (MA and PhD from Brown University) on the German Social Democratic Party’s civil society and associational life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, titled “When Social Democracy was Vibrant.”

I do not always agree with and can be quite critical of Jacobin, largely because they can adopt a very rigid Orthodox Marxist approach that reproduces the Revolution/Reform divide that has torn the global Left apart over the 20th century and which continues to foster liberal, social democrat, and socialist autocannibalism in American politics today–a cycle that only benefits, empowers, and emboldens conservatives, reactionaries, nationalists, and racists in this country.

Sacks’ article on how the German Social Democrats built a party not strictly through political and electoral success–indeed, as he points out, Bismarck banned the party between 1878-1890)–but through creating and building a network of civic associations and a distinctly Social Democratic social environment, is a truly fantastic introduction to the study of German Social Democracy and German history more broadly.

I really have to commend Jacobin for providing Sacks the platform, and Sacks specifically for writing such a wonderful, easy to read introduction to what can be a twisted, meandering, and confusing historiography accessible in this country to really only the specialist few. Sacks’s article is just damn good history, written damn well, and extremely accessible to the non-specialist reader. Without drowning the reader in historiography or a sea of esoteric German historical terms, Sacks breathes life into Social Democrat life while also illustrating why specialists find it so significant.

Here is one particularly striking example of Sacks’ accessibility, clearly explaining why SPD’s history matters in a way that absorbs the reader.

Building an alternative public sphere was a means of self-preservation and a way to provide immediate benefits to members who enjoyed scant political power. Despite being Germany’s largest party, the SPD was essentially shut out of lawmaking and had no say whatsoever in any cabinet or government ministry, which were formed at the pleasure of the kaiser. Their elected representatives used parliament mostly as a platform to circulate socialist views — agitating for an expanded franchise, for instance — and to lend the party a certain amount of legitimacy. Parliament was also seen as a barometer of mass support. Party members gleefully watched as their vote totals rose, seeing an inexorable march toward socialism.

But in the meantime, workers were ailing. So even as the party organized for the socialist future, they also built associational organizations that became a “cradle to the grave,” alternate socialist public sphere.

The desire was for universal emancipation in all senses of the term. Without education, health, and communion with others, there could be no liberation. And without socialist organizations, the dominant society could further monopolize all spheres of life with its values of competition and chauvinism.

Sacks does a fantastic job of making German and Social Democratic history here accessible, without dumbing it down. Here we see how he then links this explanation with one of the most crucial concepts in German studies, history and society, Bildung:

One important animating ideal for the Social Democrats was the notion of Bildung. A concept for which there is no simple English translation, Bildung encompassed education along with self-actualization: one can formulate a new image of oneself and, over time, attain it through conscious effort. For the Social Democrats, winning socialism meant winning Bildung for all — not just the privileged classes. Bringing the working class, excluded and beaten down, into the most elevated realms of society, and exposing them to the loftiest of human achievements, would prove to workers their worth and further prime them as democratic agents.

With time, these institutions and community-building efforts signaled a moral protest against a failing society, where elites weighed down upon even the most modest dreams of workers.

As a historian of Germany myself who can frequently get lost in my own words, creating a slurry of superfluous references and seemingly endless foreign words whose meanings are inadequately inferred, I am quite envious of Sacks’ lucid prose. This is precisely the kind of historical writing that we are in need of right now, and I don’t think its an exaggeration to state that Sacks’ article on Jacobin will probably do more to engage lay readers today than all the specialist monographs being worked on right now. That’s not to say it is an all-encompassing or comprehensive essay at all–but I think this is precisely how historians must engage with readers and the public in order to foster further exploration and engagement of the subject.

From a strictly popular history standpoint, I also am happy for the article engaging readers with complex German history that does not revolve around Hitler, National Socialism, or either World Wars, which are the primary ways of engaging Americans in German history. Sacks’ article is a nice antidote to this monolith of German history in America, and I hope to see more historians, and not just the super stars of the field writing op eds, but all those underemployed PhDs and graduate students with knowledge worth sharing, in the pages of popular magazines and websites.

If Jacobin keeps providing a space for history like this, they may just win a subscription from this critic of theirs (though to be fair, I do enjoy or agree with some of their articles already).

Again, I would highly recommend giving Sacks’ article a read here.


(Featured Image: The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878. Reichsgesetzblatt, 1878 Nr. 34)

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  1. Der 9. November | Patrick Gilner

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