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Division of the subject

SPD logo.jpg

SPD logo

In almost every International, after the first, we notice one dominant party. In the Second, it was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), in the Third it was the Russian Communist Party, in the Fourth (in the time of Trotsky) it was the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) of the United States. Therefore, to examine a history of an International means to focus principally on the history of its dominant party, to trace its rise and fall.

The history of a party is the struggle of the factions within it. But, this history is only the subjective side of the problem. The objective side of the problem is presented by the world wars, the revolutions, the social and economic problems of the times. Hence, every history of an International has to deal both with the objective and subjective sides of the problem.

Hence, the history of the Second International must deal, tentatively, with the following major topics:

1) the history of the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD, from now on);

2) the First World War;

3) the revolutions which followed from this war, mainly the Russian, the German and the Hungarian. In addition, there were also risings in Ireland, in Bulgaria, and in Poland. Italy was on a brink of a revolution too, repression of which led to the rise of Mussolini and the fascist movement. 

History of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Sources of information on history of SPD


Franz Mehring

It should be noted that both Karl Marx and F. Engels criticized the German Social Democracy. Of principal interest here is "The Critique of the Gotha program", 1875, and a letter by Engels to Bebel in 1875.

One source on the history of the SPD is Franz Mehring's “History of the German Social Democracy”. Mehring was one of the leaders of the left wing of the SPD during World War One. However, his books dealt mainly with the early years of the SPD. One may call this a "pre-history".

To understand "revisionism" in the SPD, it is necessary to read the main revisionist of Marx - Eduard Bernstein. The principal book of the author on this topic is translated in English as "Evolutionary Socialism", 1899 (available at 

Close to Bernstein is Karl Kautsky. To understand this "socialist", I recommend reading a collection of articles of his collected in English under the title "Social Democracy vs. Communism" (available at


Rosa Luxembourg

To hear a criticism of Kautsky, I recommend a book of Lenin's "Proletarian revolution and renegede Karl Kautsky", 1918.  

August Bebel is a boring writer. I tried reading his "Reminiscences" several times, but failed to finish. Much more interesting is Leon Trotsky's "My life". Chapter XVI is called "The second immigration and the German socialism".

Finally, Rosa Luxembourg. The principal book of hers for understanding the German Social Democracy is "The Junius pamphlet", 1915. 

Struggle between the Lassaleans and the Eisenachs

The SPD originated in the union of two factions: the Lassalleans and the Eisenachs. Who were the two factions?

Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was a son of a wealthy Jewish trader. He participated in the revolution of 1848-49, for which he got a year in prison and was banned from living in Berlin. However, in 1855 Lassalle applied to the police commissioner and to a Prussian prince, begging for the ban to be lifted. According to Marx, this was a compromise with the powers that be.

Ferdinand Lassalle


In the beginning of 1860's, Lassalle makes speeches in the workers' clubs. In 1863, he founded the General German Workers' Association (ADAV, Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein). The principles of the organization were: 1) struggle for a general right to vote by peaceful, legal means; 2) state subsidies for workers' productive cooperatives.

Marx, in a letter dating from 13 October, 1868, to Schweitzer, a chairman of ADAV at the time, characterized Lassalle in the following way: "As for the union of Lassalle, it appeared in the period of reaction. After a 15 year slumber, Lassalle has awaken in Germany the workers' movement, and that is his immortal service. But he has committed big mistakes... A trifle starting point - his opposition to Schulze-Delitze - he has made the central point of his agitation, - the state subsidy as opposed to self-help... Thus he was forced to make compromises with the Prussian monarchy and Prussian reaction (feudal parties) and even clerics".


Bismarck, 1886

Lassalle was known for his compromising with Bismarck. For example, when a Zolingen mayor, a member of a bourgeois Progressive party, shut down a workers' meeting with Lassalle, the later sent a telegram to Bismarck in which he asked protection of the Junker minister against the bourgeois mayor.

According to Mehring, in 1864 there were private negotiations between Lassalle and Bismarck regarding the electoral right and state credit for workers' productive associations. All writings of Lassalle were first sent by the author to Bismarck. The Junker minister said of Lassalle, in 1878 (i.e. 14 years after the later's death): "Our relations could not assume the character of political negotiations. What could Lassalle offer and give to me? He didn't have anything to back him up".

At this time in Prussia there was a struggle between the Junkers (the landlords) and the bourgeoisie. The Junkers used the organization of Lassalle in support of their program. For example, Lassalle wanted the Hamburg workers to pass a resolution inviting Bismarck to join Schleswig-Holstein (a state in northern Germany) to Prussia. This was against the will of Austria, and a union of Prussia with Austria was the political plan of of bourgeois parties. Meanwhile, a union of Prussia with other smaller German states, without Austria, was the political plan of the Prussian Junkers.

Wilhelm Liebknecht

W. Leibknekht

On 15 December 1864, there was a trial issue of "Social Democrat", a newspaper of ADAV. Marx and Engels were among the collaborators. In the newpaper, Schweizer spoke favorably of Bismarck and the Kaiser. Marx and Engels left the editorial board. In a statement on 23 February, 1865 they demanded that the same language be used in reference to the feudal-absolutist party as towards the Progressive party. W. Leibknekht also left the editorial board because Schweizer was too soft on official Prussia.

After the death of Lassalle, his followers were known for their compromises with members of the Bismarck government. A friend of Lassalle, Bucher, became an official of Bismarck government and was known for writing memos to Bismarck. Marx and Engels were suspicious of Schweizer. In 1873 his right-hand man, Carl Wilhelm Tölcke, said at a meeting of leaders of ADAV: "Some time before he went to prison, Schweizer told me that in case anything happens, I can always go to Berlin police presidium. Schweizer went there with me and introduced me; especially important is that he manifested a good knowledge of situation of the rooms". Also Tolcke said that Schweizer used for his own private purposes the dues paid by the members of the association. After the meeting, Schweizer was expelled from ADAV by a vote of 5595 vs. 1177.

* * *



As opposed to Lassalleans, another party of the working class of Germany was emerging at this time. Its origin (like ADAV) dates to 1863, when a Federation of German Workers' Clubs was founded in Frankfurt. The Federation originated from as a left wing of a bourgeois party. Bebel and Rosmessler were the leaders of this movement. Liebknekht, who was originally in ADAV, in 1865 joined the Federation. In 1866 there was a meeting of representatives of Saxon Workers' Clubs and ADAV. As a result of the meeting, a Saxon People's Party was formed, a political wing of the Federation of German Workers' Clubs. At the head of the party were A. Bebel and W. Liebknecht. The party adopted a "Hemnitz program" (1866). The program:

1) gave a review of the political situation at the moment: end of war between Prussia and Austria;

2) discussed "the German question", i.e. the problem of unification of Germany;

3) demanded various democratic rights.

We should note that a political program is similar to a medical diagnosis; it should offer an evaluation of the situation. Hence, if a party strives for a global revolution, its program should offer a global analysis.

Between the Saxon People's Party and the ADAV there were significant differences. The ADAV believed that a compromise was possible when workers support the bourgeois condidate in one district, provided the bourgeois parties support the workers' candidates in another. For Liebknecht, on the other hand, the main point of parliamentary elections was enlightenment of the workers. Schweizer (of ADAV) accepted the North German Confederation, advocated by Bismarck, while Liebknecht opposed it. Schweizer was for union with other classes of the nation against "the intrigues of Bonaparte"; Liebknecht thought that Bismarck deserved the difficulties which France and Austria mounted against Prussia. Liebknekht declared Schweizer an agent of Bismarck, while Schweizer declared Liebknekht in secret agreement with the bourgeoisie.

Schweizer did have grounds for accusations against Liebknekht. "To the question 'what position Social-Democratic Workers' Party takes towards the resolutions of Basel Congress of the First International regarding turning land into collective property', the SDWP paper replied: 'None. Each member of the party can and should take a certain stand, but the party, as such, doesn't have to do it'... This gave Schwizer grounds to say that the Eisenachs do not have the courage to admit themselves supporters of one of the main principles of scientific communism, i.e. socialization of the means of production, as the German People's Party (of which the Saxon People's Party formed a branch) demanded a straightforward renunciation of the Basel manifesto". F. Mehring also mentions that the Federation of German Workers' Clubs was subsidized by a bourgeois "Nationalist Union". Supporting the Basel manifesto meant losing this subsidy. 

Despite the differences, there were attempts to unite the two parties. On 17 July 1869 a workers' newspaper announced a general social-democratic workers' congress for 7-9 August, 1869 in Eisench. At the meeting, there were 110 delegates from ADAV, representing 102 thousand members, and 262 delegates from the Federation, representing 140 thousand workers. After an initial meeting, it became clear that mutual work is impossible, and hence each of the two factions went to its own meeting. The delegates of the Federation constituted a "Social-Democratic Workers' Party", according to a plan prepared by Bebel. Hence, this party obtained the name of "Eisenachs".

In 1874 Tolcke, the right hand man of Schweizer, speaks to the leadership of SDWP about unification of the two organizations. This union was insisted on by Schweizer: "a union at all costs - with the leaders, if they will want it, without them, if they will remain passive, and against them, if they will oppose". ADAV poses no special conditions for unification, and that surprises the leaders of SDWP. We suppose that Bismarck, who was probably behind the ADAV, wanted the union in order to control both organizations.

In 1875 there is a unification congress at Gotha. Marx, in a letter to the leadership of SDWP, criticizes the tentative program of the new party. He attacks imprecise, bungled wording of the program, its being geared towards “popular” understanding. Marx is arguing against clichés of Lassalle which the new unified party was going to adopt, such as the Lassallean catchword of the “undiminished proceeds of labor”. Moreover, he criticized the program for its lack of international direction. For the sake of a merger, the leaders of SDWP gave up on their Marxist principles and adopted the rehash of the Lassallean mumbo jumbo.

Engels, in a letter to A. Bebel, 1875, restates the objections which he, together with Marx, have against the program:

  1. To begin with, they adopt the high-sounding but historically false Lassallean dictum: in relation to the working class all other classes are only one reactionary mass
  2. Secondly, the principle that the workers’ movement is an international one is, to all intents and purposes, utterly denied in respect of the present, and this by men who, for the space of five years and under the most difficult conditions, upheld that principle in the most laudable manner
  3. Thirdly, our people have allowed themselves to be saddled with the Lassallean “iron law of wages” which is based on a completely outmoded economic view, namely that on average the workers receive only the minimum wage because, according to the Malthusian theory of population, there are always too many workers (such was Lassalle’s reasoning).
  4. Fourthly, as its one and only social demand, the programme puts forward – Lassallean state aid in its starkest form, as stolen by Lassalle from Buchez
  5. Fifthly, there is absolutely no mention of the realization of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions (because Lassalle was opposed to trade unions, and rather organized his people as a sect).
  6. The free people’s state is transformed into the free state. Grammatically speaking, a free state is one... with a despotic government
  7. "The elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”, is similarly a most dubious expression. As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated
  8. “less importance attaches to the official programme of a party than to what it does. But a new programme is after all a banner planted in public, and the outside world judges the party by it”.

Let's note that a union of revolutionary and reformist parties, as a rule, ends up in victory of refomist principles. Take the example of France. In 1905 we saw a unification of a revolutionary and a reformist wings of the French Socialist Party. Fridland and Slutsky write: "Although the unification of the socialist party was a result of the purges of the reformist group (Mil'eran, Brian and Viviani), and the unification platform manifested the victory of Gedist's principles of a class war, soon it was found that the party did not reject reformism in action... Here, as in Germany, rejection of revolutionary principles was all the more pronounced the stronger grew the party, the more election successes it achieved". We can suppose that if in Russia the Bolsheviks united with the Mensheviks in a single Social-Democratic Party, the reformist principles would be victorious too.

Next: Second International continued

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