Bild: Karl Liebknecht: Last revolutionary tradionalist standing., “Tradition can become an oppressive burden”

When the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) almost unanimously supported the granting of war credits on December 2, 1914, it had already come a long way. The party initially had an anti-establishment stance but soon made its peace with the society of Imperial Germany.

Founded in 1875, The Socialist Workers Party (which eventually became the SPD in 1890) had little interest in the bourgeois parliamentary democracy. It wanted to overthrow the capitalist system by means of revolution. To counter this and to curb the growing support for the Social Democrats, the German government introduced “Anti-Socialist Laws”. These laws effectively banned the party from 1875-1890. When the ban was lifted, the party started to change its outlook drastically. Instead of continuing or intensifying its revolutionary efforts, Social Democrats made their peace with the parliamentary system and stepped away from the position of total opposition.

Changing the system from within

Under the influence of Eduard Bernstein who argued that “for a party which has to keep up with a real evolution, criticism is indispensable and tradition can become an oppressive burden” the SPD started to change the system from within. Abandoning the revolution seemed cheap since the party gained more and more seats with every election. In 1912, it became the largest faction in the Reichstag with 110 Members of Parliament remaining in opposition. However, parliamentary opposition did not prevent the party from being swept away by patriotic duty. All social democratic parliamentarians (except Karl Liebknecht) voted to grant the war credit. In his objection speech, Liebknecht stated: “But my protest is against the war, against those responsible for it, against those who are directing it; against the capitalistic ends for which it is being pursued.” This speech showed to what extent the Social Democrats moved away from their revolutionary ideals and how much the party had changed. Instead of fighting the system, it became one of its central supporters.

Guest author :Jan Freytag


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