Why is social democracy good

Basic political values

Helga Grebing

To person

Dr. phil., born 1930; Prof. em. at the Institute for Social Movements at the Ruhr University Bochum, Clemensstrasse 17-19, 44789 Bochum. [email protected]

Richard Saage

To person

Dr. phil., Dr. disc. pole. habil., born 1941; Retired professor for political science at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. [email protected]

Like an erratic bloc, the social democracy asserts a special position in the history of the German party landscape: the mass party, called the SPD after the end of the Socialist Law in 1890, has retained its basic values ​​and convictions unchanged from its foundation to the present day. Why was it that despite all the defeats, catastrophes and phases of disorientation in its 150-year history, the SPD was able to maintain the value horizon of "freedom, justice and solidarity" associated with its name? What role did your image of man play in this context? [1]

It is true that the image of man always only includes the socio-cultural dimension of the "whole" man, which is non-dualistic interlocked with his first animal, that is, biological nature. But at the same time a distinction must be made between the image of man and the horizon of values ​​associated with it. It is true that the values ​​of a social movement can be predetermined by axiomatic reasons. But the image of man is shaped to a far greater extent by social and historical contexts within which political action takes place. It is therefore more appropriate in the social democratic context not to speak of "the" valid image of man, but of images of people that react to changed historical contexts. Their current significance can only be adequately captured if there is clarity about their historical development.

The social democratic image of man before 1933 cannot be understood without its roots in evolutionary natural history. Indeed, Charles Darwin's theory of descent aroused great interest in the social democratic working class and among party-affiliated intellectuals. But at the same time it was just as clear to them that humans are not only "nature" in the sense of their physiological organism, but that their actual life takes place in a historically and socially impregnated sphere of "culture". It is no coincidence that the essential birthplaces of social democracy were the workers' education associations.

Nor is it surprising that this nondualistic duplication established the decisive dividing line which separated the overwhelming majority of social democrats from liberal right-wing Darwinism on the one hand and socialist left-wing Darwinism on the other. Both currents provided the formula of the "struggle for existence" with a different thrust: some used it to legitimize the capitalist principle of competition, others to delegitimize it, since the property constitution of bourgeois society overrode the natural selection principle in the interests of the capital owners. But the consensus of both directions that the organic-natural categories of the theory of evolution could also be applied to society was rejected by the great majority of social democrats. The social theory inaugurated by Karl Marx, who argued not with biological but with non-genetically determined socio-economic categories, was responsible for the social analysis.

On the other hand, recourse to the evolution of his biological roots sensitized the social democratic image of man not only to the altruistic, but also to the aggressive aspects of his nature. Only democracy creates institutional prerequisites for communicative structures that can act as correctives of aggressive behavior so that individual freedom and, connected with this, the universalistic equality of life chances enjoy legal protection and have a reliable possibility of realization. The social democratic decision in favor of democracy before 1914 and in the period between the two world wars also created a decisive distance from the elitist images of mankind of fascism and communism, which destroyed the liberal basic and human rights. With both conceptions of a "new person", she confronted the democratic postulate of securing livelihoods guaranteed by the welfare state and educational opportunities for everyone in order to help individuals to achieve their autonomy and dignity.

In the SPD, as in other social democratic parties in Europe, a left-wing social Darwinist movement opened up to the global discourse on racial hygiene and eugenics. But at no point could it gain any appreciable acceptance. All social democratic party programs rejected racist orientations and colonialist and imperialist desires, as did racial hygiene and eugenic programs. Instead, demands for universal suffrage and a social and educational policy that should benefit everyone dominated. It was not natural inequality based on genetic factors that was spoken of, but the universalistic demand for equal rights and duties of citizens. The Gotha program (1875) emphasized the importance of work and not of genetic substance as the "source of all wealth and all culture". It is important, according to the Erfurt program (1891), to abolish "every kind of exploitation and oppression", "whether it is directed against a class, a party, a gender or a race".

What the Social Democrats did not foresee when they realized the evolutionary potential for aggression was the enormity of the murder of six million Jews on an industrial scale. She analyzed German fascism too exclusively as a primarily socio-economic phenomenon. An aggressive independence of racist ideology, which leads directly to the Holocaust, they considered impossible.

Holocaust disaster

The experience of the fragility of human reason evidently had such a traumatic effect on the exiled Social Democrats that, apart from possible exceptions, there was a renewed discussion of their conception of man only after their return from exile in 1945. In view of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, could the Enlightenment horizons on which the social democratic conception of man thrived up to now be held? After a critical self-reflection of the rational potential, what modifications had to be made to the previously valid image of man with its optimistic orientation, if it did not want to lose its persuasive power? This discussion was not steered by party congress resolutions. Without being able to fall back on a unified party opinion, individual elected officials and intellectuals close to social democracy spoke up. With their arguments they succeeded in having a considerable effect on public opinion.

In fact, there were contributions to the discussion that wanted to continue seamlessly with the idea of ​​the social democratic community of solidarity before 1933. But this trend was overshadowed by the debate about the collective guilt of the Germans with regard to the systematic mass murder of the Jews in the "Third Reich". On the one hand, Kurt Schumacher assumed that the Germans knew about the crimes of the Nazis: to the extent that they allowed these atrocities, they deprived them of a people who were alien to democracy and who deviated from the values ​​of "cultural humanity". On the other hand, like Willy Brandt, he criticized the collective guilt thesis without being aware of the contradiction in his argumentation. They demanded self-examination, shame and remorse as a prerequisite for the moral recovery of the German people and declared the social democratic labor movement's right to education.

This debate had a serious impact on the social democratic view of man. A contemporary program is only possible if the optimistic humanism of Bebel's social democracy is corrected in the light of the experiences of the terrorist dictatorship of the "Third Reich" and the crimes of the Second World War. Man has a considerable potential of reason, but if this is not supported by suitable institutions, he could fall below the level of animals.

Compared to before 1933, the balance between man's aggressive and reasonably altruistic potential changed in favor of the former. This insight led to two further modifications. On the one hand, the old social democracy's belief in progress, interpreted in terms of world history, lost its power of persuasion. It was incompatible with the fact that, in one of the most culturally and scientifically advanced countries in the world, fascism could lead to barbarism such as had never been seen before. On the other hand, Stalinism had delegitimized the idea of ​​progress to justify its totalitarian dictatorship and its millions of victims.

Furthermore, if human aggressiveness is to be reckoned with as a permanent legacy of its evolution, the vision of a "New Man" is devastated. The social democratic skepticism towards such hybrid self-empowerment, which was already evident in the interwar period, deepened. For social democracy, people were not something that had to be formed from the outside, as Waldemar von Knoeringen emphasized. Rather, it was more important for them to create conditions under which "man and humanity survive" (Willy Brandt). This required two things: on the one hand, a return to and renewal of the axiomatic value horizon, which, as the Godesberg Program (1959) says, elevates freedom, justice and solidarity to "basic values ​​(s) of socialist will"; on the other hand, it is also based on a realistic image of man. Despite all the creativity in creating a world of artifacts that will shape our civilization, man remains an abysmal being capable of mass murder and the destruction of his natural living conditions.

The Berlin program (1989) takes this knowledge into account when it does human condition describes as follows: "Man, determined neither for good nor for evil, is capable of learning and rational. Therefore democracy is possible. He is fallible, can err and fall back into inhumanity. That is why democracy is necessary. Because man is open and different Carries possibilities, it depends on the circumstances in which he lives. A new and better order, committed to human dignity, is therefore possible and necessary at the same time. "