What Happened to Marxism in Germany after Marx

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Socialist movements experienced tremendous growth around the world after the death of Karl Marx. They continued to expand in societies and political systems, but were they in line with his predictions and principles? And, what was the Second International?

A red flag, the symbol of socialism.
Karl Marx had envisioned an international movement without boundaries. (Image: Good Luck Photo/Shutterstock)

Nationalist parties formed in different countries although Karl Marx had expected it to be more of an international movement without boundaries. Therefore, these parties came together in the Second International, or the Socialist International. It was established in the highly symbolic year of 1889, the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Second International was planned to continue the work of the First International. They met in international congresses that were held periodically. In these congresses they renewed their promises of international solidarity.

Photograph of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels collaborated to found modern socialism. (Image: Photo of Karl Marx by Friedrich Karl WunderPhoto of Friedrich Engels by George Lester/Public domain)

More than 20 countries took part in the congresses and they did some considerable work for the improvement of working conditions. For example the eight-hour working day, the introduction of International Women’s Day (8 March), and the International Workers’ Day (1 May) were all first suggested or campaigned in these congresses.  

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The German Social Democratic Party

The national parties that participated in the Second International came from many different countries. But the most significant national socialist party was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was established in 1875.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, Germany was rapidly turning into an industrialized country. The SPD also had started to grow in the political arena. They had aimed for the parliament (the Reichstag) and planned to increase the number of their deputies in the parliament. In a period of three years, from 1871 to 1874, the size of their national vote tripled. With the advances of industrialization, their popularity among people also increased. In the 1877 parliament election, half a million people voted for the SPD. This popularity raised a red flag for the conservative party, most importantly Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Learn more about Marx and Engels: An Intellectual Partnership.

The SPD is Outlawed in Germany

First of all, Bismarck decided to compete with this popularity by passing a number of laws to win the hearts of workers. As a conservative, it was very unlikely of him to introduce socially motivated laws. The Sickness Insurance Law, Old Age Pensions, and Accident Insurance were the most notable ones.

He considered Social Democratic parties the enemies of state and society and believed they had to be taken seriously. When the last German emperor, the Kaiser, was targeted by anarchists’ assassins (although not successful), Bismarck passed the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878 and banned all activities of the Social Democratic Party.

The SPD continued to work as an underground organization and even had their candidates stand for the parliament. Some of the leaders were in prison but the movement itself showed no signs of decline. Since the SPD was outlawed, the candidates stood for elections as independent politicians. Ironically, the party saw tremendous growth in votes, parliament seats, and the membership of SPD-sponsored trade unions.

Learn more about The 1871 Paris Commune as a Model of Revolt.

The SPD Grows Bigger

After a while, the SPD was not just a political movement. In fact, it had turned into a subculture that was present in many aspects of the Germans’ lives. There were many social and cultural associations, groups and clubs, even kindergartens, libraries, and schools that worked as socialist entities. Socialist workers and their families supported them and these were interpreted as the early signs of the utopic society of workers.

A portrait of Otto von Bismarck in 1873.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck considered Social Democratic parties the enemies of state and society. (Image: Evert Duykinck/Public domain)

Finally, with Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, the Anti-Socialist Laws were invalidated and the SPD won a historic battle. In the following years, the popularity and social base of the SPD continued to grow. It had the largest vote among German parties in the 1912 federal elections. 4.5 million people voted for the party and they occupied 110 seats, which was a third of the seats in the parliament. Another major development was the number of women in the party, which constituted 16 percent of the members.

With this large number of supporters, a German Socialist government would be bound to form in an election. But they also widely advertised their revolutionary ideas. Ironically, the social support, the socialist subculture that was manifested in many social, cultural, and political forms prevented them from carrying on a revolution. They wanted to keep their political careers rather than engaging in changing the status quo. Although they belonged to the opposition, they were parts of the system and did not want it to change.

Common Questions about Marxism in Germany

Q: What does SPD stand for in Germany?

The SPD is the Social Democratic Party in Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands). Although at some point it was banned, it continued to grow into the largest Marxist party in Europe.

Q: What did the SPD do?

The SPD had a great influence in Germany. It changed from a mere political party into a subculture that was present in many cultural and social aspects. Socialist schools, kindergartens, libraries, reading clubs, and sports associations operated with the support of socialist workers.

Q: What is Otto von Bismarck known for?

Otto von Bismarck was the Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890. As a conservative, Bismarck banned all the activities of the SPD. After his resignation, all the bans were removed.

Q: Why did Otto von Bismarck introduce social welfare measures?

As a reaction to the popularity of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Otto von Bismarck introduced a number of social welfare laws. He wanted to improve the working conditions to prevent workers from supporting the SPD.

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