Why was communism never achieved democratically?

Left-wing extremism

Hans-Gerd Jaschke

To person

born 1952; Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences for Administration and Justice.

address: University of Applied Sciences for Administration and Justice Berlin, Alt-Friedrichsfelde 60, 10315 Berlin.

Publications including: Fundamentalism in Germany. God-fighters and political extremists threaten society, Hamburg 1998.

Communism elevates radical egalitarianism to a virtue. He wants to achieve a 'leveling down': the private should not gain the upper hand over the communal.

Lenin / Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. (& copy AP)

Divisions into reformist and revolutionary factions have been part of the history of the workers' movement since its inception. The first approaches of the German trade union movement, in the context of the 1848 revolution, the "General German Workers Fraternization", called for the participation of the workers in the government: "We do not conspire against the existing government, we just want people to us to give a place in the common fatherland "; At the same time, the League of Communists in exile in London demanded the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of class society and the establishment of a new society without classes and privileges (Weick 1974: 19). The later factioning into reform-oriented democratic socialism on the one hand and the revolutionary communist workers' movement on the other is already indicated here and accompanies the history of socialism to this day.

The beginnings of socialist ideas go back to the so-called "early socialists" in the period between the French Revolution in 1789 and the publication of Marx's "Communist Manifesto" (1848). They refer to a still pre-industrial society and concentrate primarily on designing an ideal new social order (Ramm 2002). It was only after 1848 that Marx and Engels and their followers drafted a critique of bourgeois and capitalist society that was so momentous for the further development of socialism. The party-like split in the German labor movement into a reformist and a revolutionary wing goes back to the 1860s. The supporters of Ferdinand Lassalle and his General German Workers' Association, founded in 1863, called for a strategy to bring about social changes in favor of the workers in a peaceful, legal way.

Universal suffrage and workers' social representation should be steps in that direction. Lassalle believed that the state was the central actor in the implementation of socialist ideas, so the aim must be to implement the state as far as possible with socialist ideas. According to Lassalle, the working class, the fourth class, is synonymous with the cause of all humanity. The state should not be a night watchman state according to liberal guidelines, which only has to protect the personal freedom of the individual and property, its tasks are much broader, it must promote the development of the human race towards freedom. In contrast, the supporters of Marx, Engels, Bebel and Liebknecht and their Social Democratic Workers' Party, founded in 1869, insisted that the necessary changes could only be implemented by revolutionary means, since the state is only an instrument of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. The Gothaer Program of 1875 was a compromise: The unification congress of both parties merged both directions, but did not establish a real unification of the underlying analyzes and strategies.

The truce between the two directions lasted until the First World War. The persecution by Bismarck's Socialist Law (1878-1890) and the strong unity of the trade unions prevented the controversy from breaking out again. However, when the SPD parliamentary group in the Reichstag approved the war credits in 1914 and did not oppose the national tendencies to break up, and the unions also supported Germany's entry into the war, the revolutionary left rallied in the "Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany" (USPD) founded in 1917. A little later, in 1918, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was founded, the USPD remained an episode. Some returned to the SPD, others went to the KPD. This sealed the split in the labor movement and anticipated the further development into a social democratic and a communist current.

The development of Marxist and socialist theories around the turn of the century had had a decisive influence on fractionation. Marx and Engels understand history as a progressive, lawful, but also contradicting process that has a further development and an end goal: the classless, communist society. This view understands the progress of civil society in the political field and in the development of technology as a necessary but surmountable stage on the way to the historical ultimate goal. The bourgeois democracy and the capitalist economic order are mere intermediate stages in the further historical development that must be overcome by the organized struggles of the workers' movement. Especially in the German social democracy before the First World War, influenced by the theorists Bebel and Kautsky, a chiliastic view gained dominance. The course of history leads with legal necessity through certain stages of bourgeois development towards socialism. Kautsky proclaimed the victory of the proletariat as a natural necessity. Giddens summarized the basic philosophy of communism as follows:
"Communism elevates radical egalitarianism to a virtue. To express it in more recent terminology, it would like to 'level it down' and let itself be guided by ascetic thoughts: the private should not gain the upper hand over the communal, and egoism should be almost completely exterminated. Communism is not based on the control of production, but on the regulation of consumption. It is essentially an ethical order that sees in egalitarianism not so much an end in itself, but rather an instance of the necessary moral control, that protects the weak from the strong "(Giddens 1999: 87).
Lenin added a decisive turn with momentous consequences for further development. In his opinion, the labor movement is not in a position of itself to take the reins in hand, it lacks class consciousness and the ability to act. Therefore, according to Lenin, what is needed is a strong working class party which, as a revolutionary vanguard, is the only one capable of correctly assessing the situation and drawing political conclusions from it. The party is infallible, it demands obedience, loyalty to the line and allegiance. From here the step towards a model of the dictatorship of the Marxist-Leninist party is obvious.

The Russian October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent spread of the Soviet communist model across half the world, shaped by Lenin's ideas, accelerated and solidified the separation of the KPD from social democracy in Germany. The KPD became dependent on the Communist International (Comintern) and the Marxist-Leninist ideology and dogmatics prescribed by Moscow. This is also the reason for the KPD's inability to approach the SPD in the final phase of the Weimar Republic in order to prevent the rise of National Socialism and the seizure of power through a united front. The division of the German labor movement into socialists and communists was a very important factor in Hitler's takeover. After the Second World War, the communist tradition was continued in the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and small communist groups in West Germany. In the GDR, the SPD was forcibly united with the KPD to form the SED; in West Germany it saw itself as a party of the working class until the Godesberg party congress in 1959, when it took a turn towards the popular party.

The victory of social democratic reformism had several reasons. On the one hand, in a time of East-West confrontation, the SPD had to differentiate itself more clearly from communism with its Eastern European characteristics in order to retain its credibility. In the face of mass prosperity, far-reaching participation of workers in prosperity and in-company co-determination, and the advance of employees, it had to open up to a broader group of voters. With the turn of the SPD towards the People's Party, the left-wing extremist camp was of course even more isolated, as alliances could no longer be envisaged, or only under difficult conditions.


Giddens, Anthony: Beyond Left and Right. The future of radical democracy. Frankfurt 1999, p. 87.

Ramm, Tilo: The early socialists. In: Bernd Heidenreich (Ed.): Political Theories of the 19th Century. Conservatism, liberalism, socialism. Berlin 2002.

Weick, Edgar: Article "Labor Movement". In: Axel Görlitz (Ed.): Handlexikon zur Politikwissenschaft Vol. 1. Reinbek 1974, p. 19.

From: Hans-Gerd Jaschke: Politischer Extremismus, Wiesbaden 2006, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. The volume from the series "Elements of Politics", ed. v. Hans-Georg Ehrhart, Bernhard Frevel, Klaus Schubert and Suzanne S. Schüttemeyer has been published as a licensed edition by the Federal Agency for Civic Education and can be ordered here.