Who was a member of the SPD?
Who was a member of the SPD?

Who was a member of the SPD?

This week – by popular demand! – we are taking a quick break from the Marchlewski text on Bolshevism to bring you something I first started thinking about a while ago when working on some of controversial issues of democracy and centralism within the history of the socialist movement. This research, and my work more generally, is informed by the important yet largely obscured historical fact that the organisational debates within the German-speaking sections of the socialist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century fed directly into controversies within Russian socialism, not least when it comes to terms such as ‘democratic centralism’, as I outline here. Other translations that might be of interest on this score are two public posts I made a while ago: here and here.

Back then I did not have in my possession a book by Wilhelm Schroeder (1912) entitled the History of Social-Democratic Party Organisation in Germany, which helpfully – albeit with a revisionist tint – outlines some of the key organisational debates within German socialism from  1863 to 1912. What is more, it reprints each and every party constitution agreed upon at the sovereign body of the Social Democracy – the party congress – from that time.

Translating, contextualising and analysing a work of this scope is obviously a project in itself, but today I wanted to highlight a not insignificant amendment to the first paragraph of the SPD’s party rules between 1890 and 1900. While this might seem a rather esoteric academic exercise, the comparison is significant because it to some extent pre-empts one aspect of the controversy between the ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Menshevik’ factions at the 1903 Congress of Russian Social Democracy – namely over the precise definition of a party member in the very first paragraph of the party’s rules.

Martov’s resolution read as follows:

1) A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is one who, accepting its programme, works actively to accomplish its aims under the control and direction of the organs of the Party.

Lenin proposed the following:

1. A Party member is one who accepts the Party’s programme and supports the Party both financially [my emphasis – BL] and by personal participation in one of its organisations.

The issues of programme, participation and dues in particular are therefore at the crux of this matter. On this score, it is worth contrasting the first paragraph of the SPD statues from 1890 and 1900. I have retained the slightly clunky and outdated language (‘by paying funds’ etc) to provide a translation that is as close to the original German as possible

1890 (Agreed upon at the Party Congress in Halle on 19 October 1890):

1. Anyone who proclaims the principles of the party programme and who supports the party to the best of their ability is a party member.

1900 (Agreed upon at the Party Congress in Mainz on 21 September 1900):

1. Anyone who proclaims the principles of the party programme and who continually supports the party by paying funds is a party member.

This shift in the definition of membership in 1900 is clearly of significance to the debates in 1903. The aforementioned account by Wilhelm Schroeder recalls an organisational commission – set-up by the parliamentary fraction – that presented the Mainz Congress with a draft of changes to the party’s statutes. Some, he notes, rejected this draft as not going far enough to create what he calls a ‘strictly centralist organisation’. (A future post will look at the other sections of the two statutes to explore this further).

When it came to the issue of party dues, Schroeder notes that it had now become necessary to include some kind of a financial obligation in the party constitution. Previously this had not been legally possible given the SPD’s fragile constitutional status and even in 1900 individuals paying dues to the SPD would likely be blacklisted or face threats from the police. As such, many opposed the new definition of party membership, and it is noteworthy that the rightwinger Ignaz Auer, a member of the organisational commission, spoke out against it in the following terms:

‘An old acquaintance,’ said Auer, ‘the weaver from the Owl Mountains, who has no money at all … we are suddenly asking him to demonstrate his party membership through financial contributions. This objection  is as old as organized social democracy in Germany itself. It was paraded against the ten-penny dues in the General German Workers’ Association and against the Eisenach organization. The only strange thing is that this old and recurring demand has never come from the weavers in the Owl Mountains or the Ore Mountains themselves, but always from party comrades from places where, as far as one can speak of such a thing among workers at all, a certain prosperity prevails.’

When time permits, I will return to these debates and elaborate more on the party-political context in which they occurred, because the discussion does not seem to boil down to the left demanding stricter, more centralist organisation and the right opposing it. Again, the context is decisive, as this was a time when the party was discussing whether to formalise its local structures or to stick with the system of elected ‘trusted representatives’ that it had used in times of illegality and semi-ilegality.

Writing in Die Gleichheit, for instance, Clara Zetkin defended a certain autonomy and freedom of party bodies:

‘In our view, the history of the Social Democratic movement proves that the loose form of organization has not damaged the party’s firm, internal unity or its effectiveness, nor has it impaired its material capacity. The old saying that ‘the better is the enemy of the good’ applies here too. We do not believe, however, that transferring party business to self-contained associations would result in a significant strengthening of the party organization and greatly increase its material capacity, as some have predicted.’ (Die Gleichheit, No. 19, 1900)

Some food for thought! Happy reading and thanks to all of you who have recently joined as ‘free’ members. If you are here for the first time and enjoy reading this kind of material, then please consider becoming a Patron to receive posts of this kind delivered to your inbox every week.


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