Social Democratic Party of Germany

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Social Democratic Party of Germany


(Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; SPD), a party originated in 1869 at a congress in Eisenach, where the League of German Workers’ Associations (founded 1863) and leftist elements of the Lassallean General German Workers’ Association (founded 1863) merged to form the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (the Eisenachers), which basically adhered to scientific socialism and proletarian internationalism. A. Bebel and W. Liebknecht, the leaders of the Eisenachers, sought a counter-weight to the Lassalleans, who tended to support Bismarck’s policy of unifying Germany “from above,” in reliance on Prussian militarism; they therefore followed the lead of Marx and Engels and attempted to move the German workers’ movement onto the path of struggle for the revolutionary unification of Germany “from below” and, thereafter, onto the path of struggle for socialism.

After the unification of Germany, many of the differences between the Eisenachers and Lassalleans faded away, which was essential to a union of the two groups. In 1875, at a congress in Gotha, the Lassalleans joined the Eisenachers to form a united party of the German working class—until 1890 called the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, and thereafter the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The party program adopted at the congress—the Gotha Program—made significant concessions to Lassalleanism. It included several Lassallean dogmas; in particular, in contrast to the Marxist tenet of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it treated the question of the state much as if the state were a supra class institution. Marx and Engels criticized the Gotha program on these grounds.

In practice, in order to counterbalance the compromise Gotha Program, the Socialist Workers’ Party on the whole followed a revolutionary policy. Its influence grew; in 1877 it received about 500,000 votes in elections to the Reichstag. In response, the Junker-bourgeois government in 1878 introduced the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists, which remained in effect for 12 years.

During this heroic period—as V. I. Lenin defined it—of the German workers’ movement, the party successfully combined legal and illegal struggle and strengthened its ties with the masses. From 1879, in place of the banned Social Democratic newspaper Vorwdrts (founded 1876), the illegal Social Democratic newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat was published; from 1890, Vorwdrts was once again the central SPD organ.

With the aid of Marx and Engels, the SPD successfully overcame the right opportunism of K. Hochberg and others and the putschism of extreme leftist elements, such as J. Most and W. Hasselman. A whole galaxy of revolutionaries emerged in the German workers’ movement. The SPD grew to become the most authoritative party of the international proletariat. Its activity was a model for Marxist politics and the tactics of the proletariat’s class struggle. In 1889, German Social Democrats took an active part in the founding of the Second International.

In 1890 the SPD held 35 seats in the Reichstag, and in 1898, 56 seats, which represented more than one-fourth of all votes cast in the election. The party leaders, supported by Engels, rebuffed both rightist elements, such as G. Vollmar, and the semianarchist opposition group of the “young.” In 1891 a congress of German Social Democrats met in Erfurt and adopted a new program—the Erfurt Program—a significant improvement over the Gotha Program. The Erfurt Program propounded the seizure of political power by the proletariat and the elimination of classes and class rule as the ultimate goal of the party. However, even it did not demand a dictatorship of the proletariat; this, and other concessions to opportunism, such as failure to include a slogan on the democratic republic, prompted criticism from Engels.

With the era of imperialism, opportunist tendencies grew much stronger in the SPD. E. Bernstein and his supporters initiated a revision of Marxism. At this time, however, the SPD still held to the position of class struggle. In the early 20th century, the party had three main currents. The revisionists, or right opportunists, included Bernstein, E. David, and K. Legien. The centrist group masked its opportunism with revolutionary phrases. The leftist group, which included K. Liebknecht and R. Luxemburg, held firm to the class struggle and actively opposed militarism and preparations for imperialist war; however, the leftists had not yet concluded that it was essential to make a complete ideological and organizational break with the opportunists.

In 1905, under the pressure of the revolutionary masses, the Jena Congress of the SPD adopted Bebel’s proposed resolution on the necessity of the broad use of the mass strike as one of the most effective means of struggle. As early as the Mannheim Congress of 1906, however, the revisionists succeeded in bringing this resolution virtually to nought. The right opportunists and centrists renounced the struggle against militarism. In 1907 the Essen Congress adopted a chauvinist resolution on “defense of the fatherland” in the impending world war. A rapprochement between the revisionists and the centrists, under K. Kautsky, set in. The party leaders, especially after the death of Bebel, subordinated all party activity to the struggle to win seats in parliament; in the Reichstag elections of 1912, the SPD, which numbered about 1 million members, received 4.5 million votes and more than one-fourth of the seats. During the revolutionary upsurge in the period before World War I, the SPD proved unable to lead the working class in the struggle for democracy and socialism. Aided by the opportunists, the bourgeoisie succeeded in weakening the working class as a force capable of preventing the imperialists from driving the German nation into the catastrophe of world war.

With the beginning of the imperialist war, the SPD leaders took a Social-Chauvinist position. On Aug. 4, 1914, the Social Democratic fraction in the Reichstag voted for war credits and for support of the imperialist war. In the subsequent vote of December 1914, only Liebknecht courageously opposed war credits. In late May 1915, leftist Social Democrats organized an antiwar demonstration of working women in front of the Reichstag building. On May 1, 1916, an antiwar meeting was held on Potsdam Square in Berlin, a meeting at which Liebknecht proclaimed the slogan “Down With the War! Down With the Government!” Those loyal to the revolutionary banner of Marxism and proletarian internationalism rallied under the slogans of the leftists in the workers’ movement. As Lenin put it, the leftists saved the honor of the German proletariat.

In April 1917, disagreeing with the policy of “class peace” favored by the opportunist SPD leaders, the SPD left wing founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhangige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; USPD), at the head of which, however, stood centrist opportunists. The USPD leaders took social-pacifist positions. Only the Spartacus group upheld internationalism. In October 1918, at their pan-German conference, the Spartacists put forth a program of immediate cessation of the war, the revolutionary conquest of democratic rights and liberties, and the overthrow of German imperialism; they regarded the fulfillment of these tasks as a precondition for the transition to socialist revolution. During the November Revolution of 1918, the Spartacus group founded the Spartacus League (the leading figures were Liebknecht, Luxemburg, K. Zetkin, F. Mehring, and W. Pieck), which left the USPD in late 1918. On this basis was founded the Communist Party of Germany (CPG).

At the helm of power during the first years of the revolutionary upsurge, the rightist Social Democrats, led by F. Ebert, P. Scheidemann, and G. Noske, and the centrists helped save German imperialism. The rightist Social Democratic leaders pursued policies contrary to the fundamental interests of the working class, policies that had a telling effect on programmatic questions. At a congress in Gorlitz in 1921 and, finally, at a congress in Heidelberg in 1925, a new program was adopted (to replace the Erfurt Program), a program in which even the concept of class struggle was missing. The SPD leaders countered the CPG efforts to mount a united front of the working class to struggle for vital working-class interests and against militarism and the threat of war. They supported the German imperialists’ rearmament of Germany, which was most evident in the policies of the coalition government under SPD leader H. Müller (1928-30).

During the world economic crisis of 1929-33, SPD leaders advanced the theory of the “lesser evil,” which amounted to support for the reactionary government of H. Brüning; they restrained the workers from active struggle against the advancing fascist danger. Despite the opposition of rightist SPD leaders, the CPG succeeded in establishing unity of action among worker-communists, Social Democrats, and nonparty elements during the miners’ strike in the Ruhr in 1931. Rightist Social Democrats stopped at nothing to thwart the CPG-inspired antifascist action campaign of the summer and fall of 1932, whose goal was to unify all toilers against fascism and war. The split in the working class, caused primarily by the opportunist policy of the rightist SPD leaders, made it all the easier for Hitler to come to power. Certain SPD and trade union leaders attempted to accommodate themselves to the fascist regime—on Mar. 23, 1933, at the opening of the Reichstag, Social Democratic leaders made a statement on cooperation with the Hitler government—even though the fascists increasingly intensified their repressions against the SPD. On June 23,1933, the SPD was banned.

Despite the resolutions of the SPD’s Central Board, which had emigrated to Prague (then to Paris and later to London) and which rested its hopes for the overthrow of the Hitler regime on certain circles in the German bourgeoisie and Western powers, many rank-and-file SPD members and various leading figures, such as O. Grotewohl and M. Fechner, remained in Germany and threw themselves into the antifascist struggle. Between 1936 and 1939 many Social Democrats fought in the International Brigades in Spain. During World War II, rank-and-file Social Democrats worked along with communists in the national Free Germany committee (founded July 1943), the organizational center for German antifascists in the USSR. Meanwhile, the rightist SPD leaders were hostile to the Soviet Union.

After fascist Germany was defeated in World War II, all the parties banned by the Hitlerites, including the SPD, were again able to pursue their activities unimpeded. On Apr. 19 and 20, 1946, as the democratic transformations in the eastern part of Germany were moving forward, a CPG congress and a SPD congress adopted resolutions on party unification, a step that had been preceded by conclusion of the agreement of the CPG and SPD on June 19, 1945, on unity of action. On Apr. 21 and 22, 1946, a congress of the CPG and SPD, held in Berlin, proclaimed, first, the unification of the two parties on the basis of the principles of Marxism and, second, the formation of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. In the eastern part of Germany, Communist and Social Democratic organizations were merged. In West Germany, the unification of Social Democratic and communist organizations was impeded by rightist SPD leaders, who denied the very possibility of creating a unified party of the working class, noting that Germany was still disunited. In May 1946, at a congress in Hanover, after the Socialist Unity Party had been formed in eastern Germany, the Social Democratic organizations of West Germany joined together to form a party that took the name of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.


Marx, K. “Kritika Gotskoi programmy.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19.
Engels, F. “Pis’mo A. Bebeliu (18-28 marta 1875).” Ibid.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Tsirkuliarnoe pis’mo A. Beleliu, V. Libknekhtu, V. Brakke i dr.” Ibid.
Engels, F. “K kritike proekta sotsial-demokraticheskoi programmy 1891 goda.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. Chto delat’? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Marksizm i revizionizm.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “O broshiure luniusa.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm i raskol sotsializma.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii. Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. “Germanskaia sotsial-demokratiia i vooruzheniia (mai 1913 g.).” Ibid., vol. 23.
Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands: Protokolle, vols. 1-2. Bonn-Bad Godesberg, 1971.
Aizin, B. A. Pod”em rabochego dvizheniia v Germanii v nachale XX veka (1903-1906). Moscow, 1954.
Ovcharenko, N. E. V bor’be za revoliutsionnyi marksizm: Problemy teorii, taktiki i organizatsii germanskoi sotsial-demokratii v kontse XIX v. Moscow, 1967.
Ovcharenko, N. E. Germanskaia sotsial-demokratiia na rubezhe dvukh vekov. Moscow, 1975.
Mehring, F. Istoriia germanskoi sotsial-demokratii, 2nd ed., vols. 1-4. Moscow, 1923-[1924]. (Translated from German.)
Bartel’, V. Levye v germanskoi sotsial-demokratii v bor’be protiv militarizma i voiny. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from German.)
Germanskoe rabochee dvizhenie v novoe vremia: Sb. st. i mat-lov. Moscow, 1962.
Germanskoe rabochee dvizhenie v noveishee vremia: Sb. st. i mat-lov. Moscow, 1962.
Osnovy istorii germanskogo rabochego dvizheniia. Berlin, 1963.
Ocherk istorii nemetskogo rabochego dvizheniia. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from German.)
Das Heidelberger Programm: Grundsatze und Forderungen der Sozialdemokratie. Berlin, 1925.
Geschichte derdeutschenArbeiterbewegung,voh. 1-8. Berlin, 1966.
Kundel, E. Marx und Engels im Kampf um die revolutiondre Arbeitereinheit. Berlin, 1962.


Social Democratic Party of Germany


(Sozial demokratische Partei Deutschlands; SPD), a political party founded in West Germany in May 1946.

The program of the SPD, adopted at the party congress in Bad Godesberg in 1959, is clearly reformist. It completely repudiates Marxism in questions of the theory and practice of class struggle and propounds the thesis of the transformation of the working-class party into a national party. This line has been confirmed at subsequent SPD congresses, including the Mannheim congress in November 1975.

The policies of the SPD leadership help perpetuate the capitalist order in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), even though the SPD also formally favors social transformations. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the SPD opposed the arming of the FRG and the FRG’s entry into NATO. Under pressure from the right wing, however, it changed its official course, moving toward approval of remilitarization of the FRG. In November 1960 the Hanover congress came out in favor of the equipping and effective arming of the Bundeswehr.

Between 1966 and 1969, the SPD was a partner in the government coalition headed by the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). In 1969, after the Bundestag election, the CDU/CSU was ousted from power. The SPD, together with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), formed a new coalition government, headed by W. Brandt, chairman of the SPD. The SPD-FDP government adopted a series of measures consonant with the true status quo in Europe. The FRG signed treaties with the USSR (1970), Poland (1970), Czechoslovakia (1973), and the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 1972). In 1972, in a Bundestag election held before the government had served its full term, the SPD received 45.8 percent of the votes and won 230 seats, which made it the largest fraction in the Bundestag.

In later years, however, the SPD has lost influence, as was especially clear in 1973 and 1974 during the Landtag elections, in which it lost a considerable number of votes. One of the main reasons for its decline was its failure to keep the many promises it made about improving the material conditions of the toilers. Another reason was the opposition and its attacks on the governments of Brandt (federal chancellor, 1969-74) and H. Schmidt (federal chancellor since May 1974), attacks in which the opposition exploited the economic difficulties resulting from the economic and monetary-financial crisis that has overtaken the FRG and other capitalist countries.

The SPD is the largest political party in the FRG and one of the leading parties of the Socialist International. It is influential among much of the toiling population. Its highest body is the congress; between congresses, the leading body is the Executive Committee. The chairman is Brandt, and the chairman of the SPD fraction in the Bundestag is H. Wehner. The SPD has 995,000 members (1975). Its central press organ is the weekly newspaper Vorwdrts, and its theoretical organ is the monthly journal Die Neue Gesellschaft.


Der Godesberger Parteitag und das Gmndsatzprogramm der SPD. Berlin, 1960.
Ezhov, V. D. Klassovye boi na Reine: Rabochee dvizhenie v Zapadnoi Gennanii, 1945-1973. Moscow, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.