Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The growth of opportunism in the SPD

13. The SPD was never a homogeneous party. The unification conference in 1875 in Gotha made numerous concessions to the supporters of Ferdinand Lassalle, who had died in 1864. Marx sharply criticised the Gotha programme, which he accused of being “tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state”. Lassalle had wanted to establish socialism with the help of the Prussian state, which he regarded as an institution standing above the classes. He had even met secretly with Bismarck, in order to exploit the latter’s conflicts with the bourgeoisie in the interests of the working class. Lassalle justified this opportunist “alliance with absolutist and feudal opponents against the bourgeoisie” (Marx) by saying that in relation to the working class, “all other classes are only one reactionary mass”. This ultra-left cliché blurred the difference between the democratic petty bourgeoisie, the liberal bourgeoisie and feudal reaction. It was also reproduced in the Gotha programme and was angrily rejected by Marx.[1]

14. After Gotha, Lassalle’s supporters were increasingly on the defensive and Marxism was successfully established as the official party doctrine. But after the abolition of the Anti-Socialist Laws, Lassalle’s perspective—of establishing a kind of national socialism under the wing of Prussian despotism—received new support. In June 1891, the Bavarian Social Democrat Georg von Vollmar delivered two speeches in Munich’s Eldorado Palace, which received much attention. Vollmar called on the party to abandon its past slogans, and become a practically-oriented democratic reformist movement. The party was best served by striving “for economic and political improvements on the basis of the present state and social order”, he said. He expressly opposed the internationalism of the SPD. Whoever was not a dreamer had to recognize that “differences of nationality and community are deeply rooted”. He warned against “a paradoxical denial of a legitimate, healthy national life and the obligations arising therefrom also for us”. He praised the tripartite alliance, the imperialist alliance between Germany, Austria and Italy, as serving the interests of peace, and threatened that any power breaking the peace through an attack on German soil would confront the armed force of the German working class.[2]

15. Vollmar’s Eldorado speeches became the manifesto of the revisionism that was corroborated theoretically by Eduard Bernstein seven years later in his book The Preconditions of Socialism. Bernstein claimed that the development of capitalism had disproved Marx’s economic analysis, and lampooned as “socialist catastrophitis” his prognosis that, due to its internal contradictions, capitalism would confront a fundamental crisis. Capitalism had developed “means of adaptation” that allowed it to dampen and overcome its periodic crises. Socialism was not a historical necessity, but was the end result of gradual reforms within the context of bourgeois society. It was not the result of the class struggle, but the product of moral and humanist principles founded on Kant’s categorical imperative.

16. In this way, Bernstein rejected the socialist perspective itself. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her reply to Bernstein, the rejection of the Marxist theory of capitalist crisis leads inevitably to the abandonment of socialism. Luxemburg wrote, either the socialist transformation flows from the objective contradictions of the capitalist order or “the ‘means of adaptation’ will really stop the collapse of the capitalist system and thereby enable capitalism to maintain itself by suppressing its own contradictions. In that case socialism ceases to be an historic necessity. It then becomes anything you want to call it, but it is no longer the result of the material development of society.” If Bernstein was correct regarding the course of capitalist development, then “the socialist transformation of society is only a utopia”.[3]


George von Vollmar, Über die nächsten Aufgaben der deutschen Sozialdemokratie, Munich 1891


Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or revolution.