Before AOC, There Was the SPD

With her challenges to status quo politics and denunciations of elites from the halls of power, AOC is channeling an unlikely source: the early German socialists who founded the world’s first mass democratic-socialist party.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) answers questions from reporters as she leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting on the potential impeachment of Donald Trump on May 22, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee / Getty

Bronx-born, New York City congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has broken through the dull haze of complacency that has characterized Democratic Party politics for decades. She delivers “A message from the future,” where massive social investment has fixed failing public infrastructure and transformed the economy; she leverages her up-from-the-people bona fides (“I just got health insurance a month ago”) to excoriate the elite accoutrements of Congress and the broader political system; she uses Twitter and Instagram to break down the barrier between representative and represented, serving up doses of political education and withering bon mots alike.

But far from a new style, her approach is about as old as the original democratic socialist party: the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Long shots of history, these early socialists became the world’s first and ultimately largest mass political party. They mobilized disenfranchised voters, articulated unconventional policy ideas, made innovative use of new media, and most of all, used their bully pulpits to denounce and expose the depredations of capitalism. The cries from these orphans and stepchildren of modernity (“free love,” “women and girls out of the shadows”) offered workers and their families a vision of a world free of grinding poverty and stunted dreams.

The activists and parliamentarians of the SPD came from modest backgrounds, with little formal education. Their parliament, the Reichstag, stood more for the idea of democracy than its reality, and despite support from a broad swath of the German working class, the party had no influence over the formation of government. Figuratively flipping the building on its head, they transformed the Reichstag into a forum to go toe to toe with the powerful, giving workers a sense of being avenged and providing a model of courage through a canny strategy of political education, media distribution, and biting speeches.

At her best, Ocasio-Cortez and some of her fellow leftist freshmen — Rashida Tlaib in particular — do something similar. Their speeches bring the spirit of moral indignation into the suffocating, oligarchic halls of power. They hail from backgrounds and professions much humbler than the average congressional leader. They issue statements of protest that take on a heightened currency when launched from the platform of parliament (or Congress). Most critically, AOC and the early German socialists share an underlying supposition: that there is a struggle of class afoot — and that for too many, this struggle is literally one of survival.

The German socialists initially resisted entering parliament. While they knew they had the hearts of workers, they feared that taking positions in the parliament would be seen as a tacit endorsement of the German state’s repression and imperialism. SPD leader Wilhelm Liebknecht questioned whether anything could be accomplished in the Reichstag — where, he worried, socialists could only be led to treason or blindness. Others, like Johann Jacoby, counseled members to refuse to accept duly elected seats, holding that a parliamentary voice would not transform a militarist state into a democratic one. But despite such reservations, a strategy emerged: instead of retreat from the parliament, the SPD would use its seats to issue protest lectures and signal opposition as often as possible in this era of “blood and iron” politics.

Beginning with its fierce criticism of the war credits that fueled Germany’s invasion of France in 1870, the SPD stood staunchly against the country’s dominant brand of politics, which enriched landowners and employers while stoking a feverish nationalism. Though at the time they needed, on average, seven times more votes than other parties to obtain a Reichstag seat (due to skewed districting), the SPD took their places in parliament and drafted a platform calling for the enfranchisement of workers, reductions in working hours, and freedom of association.

From the floor of the Reichstag, Liebknecht denounced the growing arms race and nationalist saber rattling as fueling a coming global war. He exposed corporate and industrial malfeasance, backed up by massive evidence from an SPD intelligence outfit. Party leader August Bebel insisted that workers would find pride in representatives that did not give way to adversaries but instead battled them in the nation’s political institutions.

Victims of their own success, the SPD’s early gains spurred a reaction from elites, who scrambled to forestall their growth. By 1878, the SPD’s media and organizational apparatus had been outlawed. But there was a loophole: individual members could still run for federal office. The party that had hesitated to enter parliament now saw it as a lifeline. Their votes doubled in the period of illegality (1878–1890) to over 20 percent. Tested under such adversity, campaigns proved to be among the most effective means of disseminating socialist politics and advancing the cause of the oppressed.

On January 26, 1889, with the party still banned, Bebel rose to challenge the country’s headlong rush into colonialism. Contrary to the other parliamentarians’ pronouncements, he thundered, German workers did not support colonial conquest:

Just now, these gentlemen based their views on the fact that a particular enthusiasm for colonial policy can supposedly be found in the German Reich …. Today, the colonial question leaves the vast majority of the German people cold to the very core. I will take this one step further by saying that if the overwhelming majority of the Reichstag approves the demands of the government, as will undoubtedly happen, you will not be able to say that you are in agreement with the majority of the people.

More than just a bully pulpit, these early German socialists used the Reichstag as a canvas to paint a picture of the society they were fighting for. In 1893, after a Catholic Center deputy demanded that the Social Democrats explain what a future socialist society would look like, the SPD turned the parliament into a forum for radical debate. All of the heavy hitters took turns expounding their views in this Zukunftsstaatsdebatte (debate about the future state). Bebel confidently proclaimed:

once the obstacles to progress erected by the inherent irrationality of capitalism have been overcome there is virtually no limit to what can be accomplished. Industrial and agricultural production will be radically increased while the length of the work day is significantly reduced; a higher quality of goods will be produced and their distribution will be simplified and made more efficient; new kinds of foods will be developed which will be more appetizing, more healthful and easier to prepare; and solar energy will be harnessed to produce the electrical power needed by an increasingly mechanized society.

Clara Zetkin emphasized the feminist promise of a socialist future: “Unhindered by social influences, feminine talent will be able to unfold freely … with the emergence of a higher more harmonious structuring of family life.”

Covered extensively in the press, the five-day debate was also excerpted for a bestselling pamphlet edition. Engels could hardly contain himself. This “new victory,” he enthused, had made “the German parliament … occupy itself for a few days with the reorganization of society according to our ideas.”

The SPD’s parliamentarians were skilled debaters and orators for a reason. The party consciously built up the capacities of its membership, imparting education and preparing its future parliamentarians and officials for elocution. Itinerant teachers were sent to the most remote corners of the country, where they proved their mettle and taught the basics of socialism. The party refused to accept these oft-forgotten rural areas as conservative strongholds. For those even younger, the party fostered pen pal exchanges with youngsters in different economic circumstances, frequently outside of Germany. The written exchanges would culminate in in-person student exchanges.

The goal was to bring education to a working class deprived of it. The SPD’s membership was largely barred from higher education, for reasons financial and otherwise. Likewise, even though they were thinkers and wordsmiths, the SPD parliamentary cohort had the lowest proportion of university educated.

The transformation of budding elocutionists into skilled orators was the linchpin of the SPD’s effort to develop capable party organizers. The party set up speaker classes to train would-be officials in debate and extemporaneous speech-making, in a variety of situations. Once they got to the Reichstag, parliamentarians made great use of their right to speak, countering every aggressive speech from anti-socialist deputies with countless questions and follow ups.

Often parliamentarians took their speeches outside of the Reichstag (frequently derided as the “center for lying”). Due in no small part to their efforts, places of protest migrated from the royal palaces and buildings to outside parliament. They also inaugurated the mass gatherings on May Day. At the heart of both were radical speeches, inevitably delivered with great élan.

But it was from within the parliament itself that the SPD introduced another crucial innovation: the press office. Bringing the force of a free press right inside the halls of power, the party developed a tightly woven matrix of media distribution. Observers from London marveled: “the social democratic party executive could sit on the top floor of the Vorwärts building [the flagship party newspaper], pass a manifesto paragraph by paragraph, have it put into type and circulated to every tenement in the city of Berlin by the next morning. ”

The media became one of the party’s prime assets, with printed papers available for every section of the movement, from intellectual and satirical journals to papers for women, young people, and the blind. At its height the party oversaw 169 different publications, distributing up to 113 million copies, and even helped sister movements in other countries get their media apparatus off the ground.

 These Social Democrats were no “parliamentary cretins.” Through their path-breaking party organs and their impassioned addresses on the floor of the Reichstag, the early German socialists used parliament both as a training ground and an essential site for realizing a better tomorrow.

Democratic-socialist politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are channeling, however unconsciously, the traditions of the earliest mass socialist party. They use their bully pulpit to capture the imagination of millions, providing a vision of a better world while pillorying the business class and its elected courtiers. Going beyond mere theatrics, AOC — that bartender-turned-politician — cannily uses her speaking allotment in Congress to drive home demands in a language that pushes back against the confines of protocol. Though few in number, these dynamic leaders continue to prove that any marginality is not in their message, which speaks to the heart of most Americans’ everyday struggles.

Their legislative power also stems from their recasting of Congress as not just a platform to elevate worker demands but to educate the citizenry. It might be an unfair burden for Ocasio-Cortez, asking her to make up for an education system and corporate media that speak about workers only when they’re imploring them to improve their skills. But these are the times we live in. To speak in class terms, to educate everyday citizens about the modes of corruption in Congress, to challenge the common sense of the time — like the SPD before them, AOC, Rashida, and others must be righteous teachers without succumbing to a bureaucratic administrator mentality.

The comparison between AOC and the German socialists of yesteryear has some obvious limitations. While locked out of power, the young SPD benefitted from a proportional parliamentary system (as the largest party faction no less!) and, crucially, a strong trade union movement that sustained and nurtured a working-class party organization. The rich tapestry of clubs, choirs, and papers fostered a culture and common sense for workers and parliamentarians alike. The basics of socialism became second nature.

Operating on the fringes of a capitalist party, Ocasio-Cortez enjoys no such advantages. Often her opponents are members of her own caucus. And she’s made some missteps, too. Earlier this year, she deferred to the Democratic leadership on Venezuela, which has recognized the right-wing, would-be coup-maker Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful president. Not exactly the action of someone who’s imbibed the fundamentals of anti-imperialism. Some of this can be chalked up to age — AOC is still shy of thirty. But even more important is the weakness of the US left. The fin-de-siècle SPD parliamentarian would have grown up going to SPD clubs and reading the working-class press. They would have been schooled in the depredations of militarism and the rudiments of anti-imperialist politics — and surely wouldn’t have been tripped up by attacks in the bourgeois press. AOC, even if she came to Congress on a wave of grassroots organizing, is not the product of a mass, politicized working-class movement.

Still, the New York congresswoman stands in the tradition of early German socialists: a righteous disturber of the peace, an adept orator for the working class, a creative user of new platforms. Though still on the periphery of power, she is showing us a different kind of politics. Instead of accommodating herself to the powers that be, she’s expanding people’s sense of the possible. Going forward, we’ll need nationwide networks of left politicians, real structures outside the Democratic Party, and a vibrant working-class movement that can groom the next generation of socialists — a movement that seeks, like AOC has already done, to transform words of denigration into titles of honor: to wit, “agitator”!