Something slightly different this week. As mentioned in my last post, I have once again started to do a bit more digging into the exact origins of the term ‘democratic centralism’ within the German-speaking workers’ movement. In short: we know that the term is taken up within Russian Social Democracy by the Mensheviks in 1906 (perhaps in response to debates in the SPD at the Jena Congress of 1905), but it would appear that the term, and more importantly the practices associated with it, have a much longer history within the German-speaking workers’ movement. I stress German-speaking, because it is also possible – as my friend Daniel Gaido has suggested – that the term’s origins may lie in the organisations of the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschösterreichs (SPÖ), which had to deal with a panoply of thorny issues related to centralism and federalism in light of the ‘nationalities’ question’ in that territory.
That being said, I recently came across a piece in the very first edition of ‘Der Sozialdemokrat’, the illegal/semi-legal weekly publication of German Social Democracy, which was produced in Switzerland and smuggled into Germany by the ‘Red Postal Service’ around Julius Motteler. My translation will appear here in two parts. As you will see, the term itself does not make an appearance, but the basic themes of party democracy, central leadership, the sovereignty of the party congress etc all make an appearance. And they are contrasted with the organisational norms and practices of the ADAV – the Lassallean party headed by Johann Baptiste von Schweitzer. The search continues, but the good news is that we seem to be arriving at a much more rounded understanding of the history behind this highly disputed term.
If you enjoy this content and would like to support our work in the search for democratic centralism and other buried treasures from the past of our movement, then please make sure to become a supporter of our work on Patreon. Every contribution – however small – really makes a difference to continuing, and expanding, our output.
The Organisation of German Social Democracy (Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 1, 28 September 1879)
Ever since the Anti-Socialist Law was approved and the socialist press in Germany was deprived of any opportunity to express its views publicly, Social Democracy has become the defenceless prey of the occasionally open and occasionally cunning hostility of the bourgeois press, which shuns no means when seeking to attack us. By equal measure our party has also been subjected to the most unbelievable ignorance on the part of this press. Of course, the party already became familiar with both of these characteristics of the ‘sixth great power’ a long time ago; but back then the bourgeois press was at least to some extent cautious in dealing with us, because the socialist press kept a close eye on what was written and immediately noted and exposed any side-swipe – regardless of whether such swipes were crude or more refined nature. Now, by contrast, the noble-minded pack of hounds in the press can let loose to their heart’s desire all kinds of nonsense, lies and slander about Social Democracy, without having to fear any unpleasant rebuttals. And it hardly needs to be said that the bourgeois press will not allow this wonderful opportunity to let its spirit and courage shine bright pass it by.
So now that our party once again presides over a publication that is specifically geared towards Germany too, it will be one of our tasks – and not exactly the most joyous one at that – to correct the falsehoods and lies circulating against German Social Democracy in the press, insofar as we find them worth engaging with. Let’s get right to work.
One of the institutions that has always been among those most targeted by our enemy’s distortions is our party organisation. And often this flowed from the sheer hostility – but almost even more so the inability – of our enemy, to understand our movement. The fact that hundreds of thousands of bold, self-confident men who are prepared to carry out any service and make any sacrifice to our cause can voluntarily submit themselves to the tightest discipline on all necessary matters, but in doing so do not need to degenerate, like most other parties, into a herd completely lacking in their own will, but can nevertheless remain members with equal rights who do not for one moment renounce their right to express their views freely or to participate in all questions that affect the outlook of the party and its institutions – all of this is simply beyond the comprehension of most of our enemies. After all, when they look at the reactionary parties, they are accustomed to observing the unrestricted reign of the leaders, on the one hand, and the thoughtless subordination of those they lead on the other.
It should therefore come as no surprise that, following the death of one our unforgettable comrades, comrade August Otto Geib, voices in the press have made themselves heard that ascribed to our deceased comrade an inappropriate influence over our party and presented him as a kind of dictator. And yet nothing could be more false: every experienced party comrade will know that these claims are downright ridiculous.
This notwithstanding, one of our longest-standing comrades, comrade [August] Otto-Walster, has now made the effort to demonstrate just how false these assertions are and to enlighten the broadest circles. He has done so in such an incisive manner that – especially because since the passing of the Anti-Socialist Law our party has gained a number of new recruits who are still unfamiliar with relations in our party – we find it quite useful to print his excellent piece work in the very first edition of our new party paper. [NB I am unable to locate this piece!]
Otto-Walster writes that if we take a closer look at the praise the press has heaped on Geib, then it seems as though it had all been written simply in order to present the party as something that can only be seen as the appendage of an outstanding chief. But this is actually the most insolent distortion of the most significant historical manifestation of our age – the organisation of German Social Democracy.
The bourgeois papers assure us that the so-called Central Election Committee (previously the party leadership) was embodied in August Geib. And yet that is nothing other than a quite unjustified disparagement of the intelligent and experienced comrades who sat on the committee alongside him. Then it is claimed that the Central-Election Committee determined the party’s approach on all questions. But this is quite a futile claim, because the party’s approach on all questions was determined by the party programme, to which the Election Committee was bound as much as each and every party member was. Practical questions that cropped up from time to time, and even the selection of the official candidates for the Reichstag elections, were the business of the forum that was the annual party congress.
As such, only matters of lesser significance were left to be resolved by the Central Committee and for the most part this body acted in accordance with the supervisory board, or with the outstanding party comrades who had been called upon to carry out such [monitoring] work.
“If, in some place or other, a newspaper or party association was to be found, then Geib had to be informed of this and his opinion on it had to be gathered before steps could be taken to realise this endeavour. He hired the editors, agitators, speakers, leaderships of the associations, agents and sub-agents, marshalled any disputes between the individual leaders in the party and dismissed party employees, or ensured that they were redeployed to another area of work.”
Everything that is obvious in this statement is true. And whatever is not immediately obvious has simply been made up. It is obvious that each new association, if it wanted to join as a new chain of the party whole, had to inform the Central Committee of this. It is also obvious that whenever a new publication was founded which claimed party support, that it made the Committee aware of this and gained its approval. But wherever a group of members relied on its own initiative, then it obviously got straight down to work.
As far as the hiring, firing and redeployment of the editors is concerned, it went without saying that, when it came papers produced and run by the party, this executive authority had to perform its duties. But there were around fifty socialist papers in Germany, of which only 5 or 6 were directly run and produced by the party; the editors of the independent publications were voted into their positions by the local press society. The fact that here and there those involved in such initiatives also turned to the committee for advice and information has nothing to do with the matter at hand, because it was just as common, or even more so, that such inquiries were directed to the editorial board of the main party paper, the Volksstaat, which was later renamed Vorwärts.