How close is social democracy to socialism?

SPD - Social Democratic Party of Germany

1. On the history of the SPD

The SPD derives its origin from the General German Workers' Association, founded in 1863 by Ferdinand Lassalle, and the Social Democratic Workers' Party, established by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1869, which merged in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers' Party Ds. The party was shaped by the traumatic experience of state persecution under the Socialist Law (1878 1890), a time when (vulgar) Marxism was programmatically received, but politically the party decided to participate in → elections and to work in parliament. As early as 1912, the SPD had become the strongest → parliamentary group in the Reichstag, then became one of the pillars of semi-presidential → democracy in the Weimar Republic and was repeatedly represented in Reich governments. The historical social democracy of Wilhelminism, of the Weimar Republic, but also of the first decade in the history of the FRG, was primarily a social movement: an association and organization of mainly skilled workers who were constituted at the workplace, but encompassed all areas of proletarian existence - that is not only work, but also living, leisure and education. A diverse and complex network of leisure, cultural and economic organizations formed the institutional backbone of social democracy. Organizational strength has always been viewed by the SPD as a means of self-assertion in a capitalist environment experienced as hostile. Above all, however, the social democratic subculture represented something like the anticipation of the socialist future, so that in everyday organizational life the theory and practice of the desired socialism merged. Social democracy was at the same time a social movement, a political party and represented a certain lifestyle. The social structure, the organizational network and the ideology seemed to fit seamlessly into a solidarity community.

It was only through the organizational reform of the Stuttgart Party Congress of 1958, due to which the internal party power was transferred from the bureaucratized party executive to the Bundestag faction and the SPD adapted to the parliamentary system, and through the Godesberg program of 1959 with its ideological pluralism, the SPD opened up to the rapidly modernizing Federal Republican → Society. This paved the way for participation in the grand coalition with the → CDU / CSU 1966-1969, for the social-liberal coalition 1969-1982 and the red-green coalition 1998-2005 and for the second grand coalition 2005-2009.

2. The SPD of the 21st century

2.1 Organization

In contrast to the comparatively coherently structured solidarity community of the Weimar Republic and despite considerable changes in the last two decades, the SPD can still today be characterized organizationally as "loosely coupled fragments" or - more pointedly - as "loosely coupled anarchy". The party is highly decentralized and fragmented. The local and regional party organizations (approx. 9,500 local associations and 350 subdistricts) enjoy a high degree of autonomy. The district or state organizations have great political weight, especially when the party is not in government at the federal level. The party executive and party presidium are not at the head of a centralized, pyramid-shaped, oligarchic organization, but they act largely independently of the rest of the party. In terms of federal politics, the center of power lies with the party executive. The various regional associations, wings and working groups are represented in the party executive committee; it tries to hold the diverging forces together and to integrate the party. The three party levels - the local, the state or district level and the federal level - are almost unrelated. Analytically, the party can be seen as a grand coalition of local and regional party organizations, of various intra-party interest groups, the working groups (such as the Young Socialists, the Working Group of Social Democratic Women, the Working Group of Senior Citizens 60 Plus or the Working Group for Workers' Issues), of traditional party wings ( from left, right and centrists or in the Bundestag faction the Seeheimers and the parliamentary left), from patronage machines and from ad hoc inner-party → citizens' initiatives. In addition, there are the various social democratic parliamentary groups, from the → municipalities and districts to the → regional parliaments to the Bundestag parliamentary group, as well as the various social democratic "government teams" in the municipalities and states, i.e. the so-called party in public office or the party in government. Around 20,000 to 25,000 (institutional or informally organized) actors cooperate and compete with and against each other under the umbrella of the SPD. The focus of intra-party decision-making processes is the formation of coalitions. However, the vitality within the party, which was one of the foundations of the "loosely coupled anarchy", has clearly declined in recent years: paralysis and frustration are rampant. Almost half of the local associations do not meet more than twice a year for political events. In addition, local associations in their municipality only work relatively seldom with clubs, associations, citizens' initiatives, leisure organizations, → churches and → trade unions. So they are hardly networked with their social environment. The number of members is falling. Political contradictions play a marginal role between the inner-party actors or - as in the case of Agenda 2010, which Chancellor Schröder introduced like an attack - they are not brought into the inner-party decision-making process. After all, the social function of the party as a place for parties, celebrations, excursions and private acquaintances is becoming increasingly weaker.

The actual top performers of the party organization are no longer the honorary functionaries but the mandate holders from local, state and federal politics, the SPD is increasingly becoming a "parliamentary party".

Compared to the solidarity community, the social composition of the members and functionaries of the contemporary SPD is extremely heterogeneous. Skilled workers no longer determine the social structure, in 2009 only 16% of the members belonged to the "workers" category. Rather, there is a motley mix of blue, white and gray-collar workers, academics, small business owners, some managers of transnational corporations, (few) students, housewives and (many) retirees and retirees. Looking at the time after 1949, the number of members reached its peak in 1976 at over 1 million. Since then, this has been falling continuously, reaching 513,000 at the end of 2009, less than the CDU (excluding the CSU) at that time. The party is dying of its members; but many also resigned in protest against the change in policy under the Schröder government (Agenda 2010). Until recently, the 68 generation, the age cohort of the "grandchildren" of long-time party chairman Willy Brandt, dominated among members, functionaries and in the party elite. These included Björn Engholm (party chairman 1991 1993), Rudolf Scharping (party chairman 1993 1995) Oskar Lafontaine (party chairman 1995-1999) and Gerhard Schröder (1999-2004). The following party chairmen symbolize a departure from the 68ers: Franz Müntefering (2004/05) was socialized as a small employee, Matthias Platzeck (2006) in the GDR. Kurt Beck (since 2006-2008) comes from a skilled worker milieu, was also only 18 years old in 1967/68, Sigmar Gabriel (born 1959) is a high school teacher.

In terms of age structure, the SPD threatens to "calcify" and "grow old". At the end of 2009 only 8% of the members were under 35, i.e. of legal age, whereas 37% were over 65 years of age. Efforts to win over young people have failed, not least because of the changed organizational behavior of young people. The aging of social democracy is evident not least in the fact that it appears tired and drained both externally and internally. The proportion of women among SPD members has risen continuously since 1946 and reached its peak in 2009 at 31.2%. The proportion of women in party committees and parliamentary groups has also increased, not least due to the quota resolution of the party congress in Münster in 1988, after at least 40% of the functions or mandates must be performed by members of one gender from 1994 and 1998 respectively. Of the members, around 6% "very actively", 22% "fairly actively" participate in party life, and around 10% are voluntary functionaries.

Financially, the SPD finds itself in an increasingly precarious situation. As a result of the loss of members, not only does the income from membership fees decrease, but in view of the poor performance in elections, government grants flow to a lesser extent. The amount of government grants is based on the latest results of state and federal elections as well as → elections to the European Parliament as well as the revenue from membership fees and donations. The party received € 39.6 million in government subsidies in 2009, almost € 4 million less than in 2005. However, a closer look reveals an imbalance in the finances that reflects the party's fragmented structure. The local associations and subdistricts are not only financially independent, they also live quite well from the fact that they receive part of the membership fees as well as regular contributions from mandate holders and donations. Around 60% of the membership fees go to the districts or state associations (which all full-time party secretaries and other employees pay in their region), 25% to the district associations subordinate to the districts (local associations and sub-districts) and only 15% to the federal party. It is by no means uncommon for local associations and subdistricts to have assets of several thousand euros. The state parties and, above all, the federal party, on the other hand, need additional funds, they are often in debt, but they cannot reach the unused funds at the local level. The state parties and the federal party finance their organizations and the election campaigns only to a small extent from membership fees, but mainly through state funds, through some larger private donations and through loans. However, the federal party is able to rely financially on shares in real estate, printing and publishing houses, which, according to its statement of accounts, comprised fixed assets of around € 156 million for the 2009 calendar year. These financial assets include Relic of those assets (people's houses, party press, printing works and publishers) that social democratic clubs, associations and organizations once acquired from membership fees in response to state persecution in the Bismarckian Empire.

Source: Andersen, Uwe / Wichard Woyke (ed.): Concise dictionary of the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany. 7th, updated Aufl. Heidelberg: Springer VS 2013. Author of the article: Peter Lösche