The Old Social-Democratic Party of Germany

An overview of the Old Social-Democratic Party of Germany (ASPD) and the attempt to create a ‘National Social-Democracy’

Throughout the history of the Weimar Republic there were a number of attempts by Social-Democrats to formulate a more nationalist interpretation of their ideology, one which rejected the internationalism inherited from Marx and which replaced Social-Democracy’s focus on the interests of the international proletariat with a focus instead on those of the Nation or the Volk. The Old Social-Democratic Party of Germany (Alte Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, ASPD) was not only such an attempt, it was easily one of the most significant, as it involved active political organization (even involvement in government) rather than just theoretical formulations, speeches, and argument. The ASPD was originally founded in Saxony in 1926 as a consequence of a split within the Saxon branch of the Social-Democratic Party (SPD), with the more radical and more pro-communist ‘Left-Socialists’ on one side, and a minority of more moderate Social-Democrats (including the majority of the party’s elected representatives in the Landtag) on the other. When the radical majority expelled the more moderate minority from the party, the moderates formed the ASPD in response, asserting that their new party would represent the ‘old’, patriotic socialism of the War years, carrying on the tradition and legacy of figures like Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske. In an attempt to give the ASPD firmer ideological direction, two radical mavericks who had also been expelled from the SPD – Ernst Niekisch and August Winnig – were invited to participate, and under their direction the ASPD rapidly evolved into a national-revolutionary party, extolling a nationalist, völkisch-oriented interpretation of Social-Democracy which proved highly controversial within the wider labor movement. Although the Old Social-Democratic Party did not last very long (Niekisch and Winnig, disillusioned, left in 1928, and the remainder of the ASPD rejoined the SPD in 1932), it nonetheless played a significant role in Saxon governance during the late 1920s and represents one of the only real attempts at translating a leftist national-revolutionary programme into parliamentary politics. To give an overview of the development and history of the ASPD, I have transcribed segments from two different academic sources, both by historian Benjamin Lapp. The first, taken from an article which Lapp wrote on the ASPD, details the background and events which led up to the party’s founding. The second, taken from Lapp’s excellent book Revolution from the Right: Politics, Class, and the Rise of Nazism in Saxony, 1919-1933, goes into more detail on the history of the party and the ways in which Niekisch and Winnig took its ideology and tactics in an overtly nationalist, radical direction. 

The Background: Social-Democratic Conflict in Saxony
From Benjamin Lapp’s “A ‘National’ Socialism: The Old Socialist Party of Saxony, 1926-32”

Until the nazi Machtergreifung forced the German Social-Democrats to begin a reappraisal of their former beliefs, German Social-Democracy stood in an uneasy relationship to nationalism and the nation-state. According to classical Marxism, at least, the class struggle was privileged over the national community; nationalist ideology was viewed as part of the ‘capitalist system of political repression’. During the Weimar Republic, when the SPD1 was closely associated with the new democracy, the party’s position on the central issue of the relation between class and nation remained ill-defined. In theory, the party remained committed to proletarian internationalism, while in practice its policies often subordinated working-class to national interests – without, however, admitting it. Despite pressures from the revisionist wing of the party, the SPD stubbornly held on to the principle of internationalism and to its own self-representation as a Klassenpartei rather than a Volkspartei.2 Thus, throughout the 1920s, the political right maintained a monopoly on the ‘national issue’. Conservatives and liberals claimed to speak for the Volk and to represent the national interest and the state; the Socialists, despite their close association with the Republic, nevertheless defined themselves as a working-class party.

There was one noteworthy attempt in the 1920s to overcome the Socialists’ hesitant attitude toward the state and to reclaim the national issue by creating an alternative Socialist party that was avowedly nationalist and state-affirming. This attempt took place, surprisingly, in ‘red Saxony’, a region known for its strong Social-Democratic traditions and its left-wing militancy. Rejecting the dogmatic Marxism of the regional party organization, a group of Social-Democrats formed a new Socialist party called, in homage to the legacy of Lasalle, Bebel, and Liebknecht, the Old Social-Democratic Party (ASPD).3 Originating in the right wing of the party as a reaction to the ‘left’ orientation of the Saxon SPD and its united front policies, the ASPD, through its association with the proletarian nationalists Ernst Niekisch and August Winnig, made a reputation as a party of the political right. Within a year of its foundation, the ASPD became known throughout Germany as a novel attempt to create an alternative, ‘national’ socialism.

The almost total neglect of this Socialist splinter party in the historiography is unfortunate. While the ASPD only lasted for three years, it nevertheless played a significant role in Germany’s third largest state, Saxony: the Old Socialist Max Heldt was the Minister-President of the state from 1926 to 1929. Moreover, the ASPD’s attempt to overcome the polarization of the political spectrum into two antagonistic blocs and to mobilize a working-class constituency around a nationalist programme received national attention both in the Socialist and in the bourgeois press. This essay will provide an overview of the party’s programme and its brief history, which represents a curious and little-known chapter in that of Weimar Socialism and helps to illuminate the problems involved in the adoption of the national issue by Socialists in the Weimar period. The case of the ASPD suggests the difficulties inherent in the use by Socialists of such traditionally rightist themes as the ‘nation’ and nationalism.


The origins of the ASPD can be traced to the severe political and parliamentary crisis of the Free State of Saxony in 1923 and the extended conflict within the Saxon SPD in the years 1924-6. Saxony was the most heavily industrialized and urbanized state in Germany, and a region notorious for its class hostilities. In contrast to the South German states, where co-operation between the SPD and the left-liberal bourgeois parties was not uncommon, the SPD remained isolated within the Saxon party system. Furthermore, since Saxony was an overwhelmingly Protestant state, the Catholic Centre Party did not play a mediating role between the bourgeois parties and the SPD, as it did in Prussia. Known as ‘the red kingdom’ after the Social-Democrats won an absolute majority in the Reichstag elections of 1903, Saxony was the scene of bitter – and often violent – conflicts concerning the plutocratic suffrage system in the Kaiserreich.

The political isolation of the SPD in Saxony was complemented by an extremely strong regional party organization. In 1925, with only 8 per cent of the total population of Germany, 16 per cent of the national Social-Democratic party membership resided in the heavily industrialized state. Saxony was a stronghold of the Socialist ‘milieu’: workers’ sports clubs, consumer co-operatives, and proletarian evening schools were part of the everyday life of the Saxon party member. The Social-Democratic Vereinswesen was particularly strong in the districts of Dresden and Leipzig.

Erich Zeigner, Minister-President of Saxony, March 21 to October 30, 1923. Photo taken circa 1945; Zeigner is speaking in his capacity as mayor of Leipzig.

Saxony was not only the centre of the Social-Democratic subculture; Saxon Social-Democracy in the Weimar Republic was also dominated by the left wing of the party. As Richard Hunt has argued, the left Social-Democrats of the 1920s can, paradoxically, be described as the Party’s true conservatives. While affirming democratic institutions and rejecting Putschist strategies, they nevertheless – following the precepts of Kaul Kautsky – viewed Weimar as a class-state that had to be transformed through class struggle and, in that sense, remained ‘true to the precepts of nineteenth-century Social-Democracy’. Thus, their attitude towards the Republic remained ambivalent at best. In practice, this attitude meant the rejection of coalitions with the bourgeois parties; until October 1923 – and in the face of the express disapproval of the more moderate national party executive – the SPD ruled Saxony as a minority government dependent on communist support. During this period of Socialist hegemony, the Socialists pursued an ambitious programme of political reform, particularly in the areas of education (secularization of the school system) and democratization of the civil service. The Socialist Erich Zeigner, Minister-President of the state from March to November 1923, intensified co-operation with the KPD.4 From 12 to 29 October, the Communists actually participated in a coalition government with the Socialists until that government was forcibly deposed by the national government of Gustav Stresemann under an emergency decree.5 After 1923, the Socialist left remained excluded from political power within the state.

Following the intervention of the Reich and the collapse of the Communist-Socialist coalition, Saxon Social-Democrats split on the issue of whether to form a ‘Great Coalition’ with the two liberal parties – the German Democratic Party (DDP) and the German People’s Party (DVP) – or to seek to reconstitute the united front government of 1923. The majority of the party membership remained committed to achieving a workers’ government (a KPD-SPD coalition). A majority of the Socialist parliamentary fraction, by contrast, rejected the possibility of a resurrection of the alliance with the communists and called for a coalition with the liberal bourgeois parties. The argument over political strategy led to that long and bitter debate between Social-Democracy’s left wing and its moderate leadership, known as the Sachsenkonflikt.

In a prolonged and – to the national party executive – endlessly troublesome quarrel, twenty-three of the forty Social-Democratic deputies chose to enter a coalition with the two liberal parties against the express wish of the regional party organization and membership. Despite repeated efforts by the national party executive, all attempts to reconcile the two wings of Saxon Socialism failed. In early 1926, after considerable pressure from the Saxon party membership, the national party executive joined the Saxon party in calling for the dissolution of the Landtag and new elections. The twenty-three refused and were promptly expelled from the party.

During the lively debate concerning the Sachsenkonflikt at the Heidelberg congress of the SPD in 1925, the Landtag deputy Bethke, a spokesman for the twenty-three, made an impassioned plea for a Great Coalition in Saxony. The politics of the Socialist left and the insistence on a proletarian majority were counterproductive, argued Bethke. In the Kaiserreich, he continued, Social-Democracy could afford a stance of principled opposition. In the Republic, by contrast, it was necessary to avoid a rigid class-conflict ideology and to collaborate with the bourgeois parties on the basis of democratic principles. “The working-class,” he proclaimed, “must be convinced of the importance and necessity of the state.” Bethke’s position was appropriated by the twenty-three as their justification for founding a new party following their expulsion from the SPD. In its initial programmatic statement, released to the press in April 1926, the Old Social-Democratic Party (ASPD) declared itself willing to pursue the goal of “positive work within the state” in contrast to the “useless position of opposition” preferred by the Socialist left. Echoing Bethke’s defence of the Great Coalition, the ASPD affirmed its relationship to the Republic: “We acknowledge this state as ours and want to work with it… we regard it with the same love with which a father regards his own son.” Such an attitude allowed for more effective work in the interests of the working-class than did the “radical agitation” and hysterical emotionalism of the Saxon SPD. In contrast to the left Socialism of Zeigner, the Old Social-Democrats expressed their solidarity with the moderate and “state-affirming” politics of Ebert, David, and Noske,6 and openly expressed their desire for reunification with the Social-Democratic Party. The Old Social-Democrats declared that they, in contrast with the Socialist left, were realists who were willing to “adapt to real circumstances.”

Nationalist Socialism: The Old Social-Democratic Party
From Benjamin Lapp’s “Revolution from the Right: Politics, Class, and the Rise of Nazism in Saxony, 1919-1933”

…On April 12, at a public meeting in Dresden, the ASPD released to the press the following declaration:

In the context of the present economic and political situation, the assembly views the policies of the twenty-three comrades as the most effective means of helping the working-class. The useless position of opposition does not bring us one step further; thus, we call upon the twenty-three to pursue their positive work within the state.

Despite the expressed hope of the Old Socialist leadership for reconciliation with the SPD, there was little chance of any cooperation between the new party and Saxon Social-Democracy. The memory of the Sachsenkonflikt was too all-pervasive. In what seems to be the first use of the term, the KPD branded the Old Socialists as “Social Fascists.” Likewise, the Socialist press continuously accused the Old Socialists of “gross treachery,” which was “unheard of” in the history of the German labor movement. In the summer of 1926, Social-Democratic organizations in Saxony such as the Sozialistische Arbeiterjugend expelled all members of the new party from their ranks. Members of the ASPD were excluded from Socialist organizations, and Social-Democrats were warned by the party press not to visit ASPD assemblies: the Old Socialists had become pariahs in the socialist “milieu.”

In the state elections in October, the ASPD received only 98,000 votes and won four seats in the Landtag. Fifty percent of its vote share came from the electoral district of Dresden-Bautzen in eastern Saxony. During the early years of the republic, this district was a stronghold of the MSPD6 – the Independents had been relatively weak there – and it also contained a concentration of union functionaries who were hostile to the leftist policies of the Saxon SPD. In the state elections of 1929, the ASPD’s vote share was reduced to 89,568, and two seats in the Landtag. The ASPD never succeeded in building a mass movement. Nevertheless, the ASPD played a significant role in Saxon politics throughout the 1920s.

Front page of the 12 July, 1926 edition of ‘Der Volksstaat’ (‘The People’s State’), the ASPD’s official party organ.

The ASPD’s ability to be an important player in Saxon politics had to do with the dynamics of coalition-building. Given the hostility between the SPD and the ASPD, the formation of a “proletarian” government was not an option in 1926. Nor, however, was the great coalition of 1924-26. The two liberal parties – the German Democratic Party and the German People’s Party – had been decimated by the elections; their combined strength had dropped from 27 to 17 seats. The great winners of the elections were the new “special interest parties” such as the Business Party (Wirtschaftspartei, WP), with 10 seats, and the People’s Justice Party (Volksrecht-Partei, VRP). Only a broad coalition extending from the rightist DNVP to the Old Socialists could form a government without the Social-Democrats. After prolonged negotiations, the parties did just that by forming a coalition including six parties. Until May 1929, the ASPD was the only party in the ruling coalition representing the interests of the working-class voters in “red” Saxony. The ASPD played the role of Zünglein an der Waage:7 without its support, neither of the two “blocs” in the Saxon Landtag could construct a cabinet; the unwieldy coalition, ranging from the Nationalists and the Business Party on the right to the ASPD, held 49 seats as against the 31 held by the SPD and the 14 by the KPD. Thus, Max Heldt – a founding member of the ASPD – remained Minister-President of the state until May 1929. In the words of Hans Fenske, “the historical significance of the ASPD lies in the fact that, while it was not capable of overcoming the sharp opposition between the working-class and the Bürgertum8 which had always dominated the politics of the state, it succeeded in rendering that opposition ineffective.” In fact, the political work of the Saxon government in the period under discussion was far less ideologically charged than in the early years of the republic. Fear of the left and a resurgence of the “proletarian majority” provided the common ground for an extremely heterogeneous coalition including the Old Socialists, the Democrats, the People’s Party, the Nationalists, the People’s Justice Party, and the Business Party…

…[I]t is worth pointing out, however, that the coalition’s heterogeneity prevented the government from pursuing an activist policy. “It was,” wrote the Democratic Minister of the Interior in Saxony, after the elections of 1926, Willibalt Apelt, “never easy to reconcile six different parties that included the German Nationalists, all parties that called themselves bürgerlich, as well as the so-called Old Social-Democrats…” The work of governance could, however, continue, since a large part of the political responsibilities of the states under the Weimar constitution consisted of administration. Nevertheless, a coalition that included a party which claimed to be Socialist with the reactionary German Nationalists was a novelty in the Weimar Republic, and could only be achieved against the resistance of much of the party membership.

How did the Old Social-Democrats justify the extremely controversial coalition? Just as the “23” had defended their participation in the great coalition government of 1924-26 by stressing their “affirmation” of the state, the ASPD emphasized its “positive” relation to the state (Staatsgesinnung).9 The left-Socialists, the ASPD declared, did not possess this quality; the united front policies of the Saxon SPD were characterized by a complete lack of understanding for the necessities of state. Minister-President Max Heldt accused the Zeigner government of ruining the administrative apparatus of the state through its democratization program. “It was if,” he wrote rather melodramatically, “the state had ingested a poison which engendered its self-destruction.” Moreover, by preaching class-conflict, Zeigner and the Socialist Left had unnecessarily antagonized the Saxon Bürgertum; the broad alliance from the ASPD to the right-wing DNVP, by contrast, represented the Volksgemeinschaft…

…In this attempt to legitimize its position in the coalition and to construct an identity which would sharply distinguish it from the SPD, the ASPD drifted toward the extreme right of the political spectrum. In July 1926, one of the founding members of the ASPD, Eva Büttner, invited the journalist Ernst Niekisch to become the editor of the new Old Socialist newspaper, Der Volksstaat. The choice of Niekisch had important political implications. Niekisch enjoyed a following among the Hofgeismarkreis10 of the Young Socialists and was well-known for his advocacy of nationalist views. Imprisoned for two years because of his participation in the Bavarian Räterepublik, Niekisch had caused a stir by publicly demanding that the SPD lead the German nation in the struggle against Western imperialism. Niekisch’s proposals led to a controversy in the Social-Democratic press; no less a figure than Eduard Bernstein accused him of formulating foreign policy in Deutschnational fashion, suggesting (without basis) that Niekisch had important backing from leading German industrialists. By the summer of 1925, Niekisch had lost all influence within the Young Socialist movement, and at the beginning of 1926 Niekisch was officially condemned by the party. In July of that year, Niekisch officially resigned his party membership and in an accompanying explanation declared his intention to join the Old Social-Democratic Party of Saxony.

Ernst Niekisch, editor of ‘Der Volksstaat’ and chief ideologist of the ASPD.

The background to the decision to hire Niekisch as editor of the party newspaper, Der Volksstaat, remains unclear but seems to have had its basis in the desire to create a new political identity dramatically different from that of the Saxon SPD. Certainly, Niekisch did not hide his political orientation. At a party rally held in August 1926, he declared the necessity to formulate a new politics based on a synthesis of republicanism, socialism, and nationalism; his speech was enthusiastically greeted by leading figures in the party such as Eva Büttner and Wilhelm Buck. Before the elections of October 1926, however, the party sent forth mixed messages. Niekisch’s association with the ASPD was, after all, in apparent contradiction to the party’s claim to represent the moderate, reapolitische wing of Social-Democracy. After the formation of the coalition, however, the Old Socialists no longer presented themselves as the moderate wing of German Social-Democracy but rather as an advocate of “proletarian nationalism.” The party increasingly adopted the “national” issue as a means of distinguishing itself from the “internationalist” and staatsfeindlich11 SPD. In its public proclamations, the ASPD rejected the traditional internationalist dogmas of the Socialist movement and sought to reconcile the cause of German nationalism with social reform. By the fall of 1927, Niekisch had become the dominant figure in the party, and his influence pervaded the ASPD’s public pronouncements. To be sure, his views were not shared in their entirety by all of the Old Socialist leaders; in particular, the former Minister-President of Saxony, Wilhelm Buck, and the parliamentary deputy Karl Bethke remained skeptical of Niekisch’s “national-revolutionary” doctrines. Minister-President Heldt – according to Willibald Apelt, the Democratic Minister of Justice in the Saxon cabinet, a particularly opportunistic figure – supported Niekisch’s nationalist orientation. Whatever the conflicts within the party, however, Niekisch was its official spokesman in the years of its greatest significance, and it was associated with his position. Niekisch became the “spiritual leader” of the ASPD, and under his guidance the party attempted to expand its following outside Saxony.

Niekisch brought in new members who, he hoped, would buttress the party’s new ideological orientation, notably August Winnig, formerly Oberpräsident of East Prussia, who had been expelled from the SPD because of his participation in the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch. Under the guidance of Niekisch and Winnig, the party attempted to expand its following outside Saxony and to place itself within the “national” camp; this involved a repudiation of the heritage of left-Socialism and the development of a brand of Socialism which claimed its origins in the experience of the First World War. The ASPD, Winnig proclaimed, would provide the foundation for a “new Socialism,” in which the workers would place themselves at a front of the movement for national liberation. Likewise, Niekisch spoke of his ambition to transform the ASPD into a “revolutionary party.”

The broad outlines of the party’s new orientation can be found in the editorials and articles in the party newspaper, Der Volksstaat, in the years 1927-28. First, the ASPD sought to identify itself with a Lassallean tradition of German Socialism. Lasalle, announced Niekisch, in contrast to Marx, had a “positive” relation to the state and was willing to take steps to preserve the integrity of the state. Marx, by contrast, was a negative and critical theoretician, and it had been a historical catastrophe that Marxist anti-statism had been taken over by the SPD at the expense of the Lassallean tradition. “Only Lassallean Socialism has a future in Germany,” proclaimed the Volksstaat. “Ebert supported the transformation of the SPD into a national workers party. The victory of the radical wing of the SPD threatened this development from taking place. Because the ASPD represents the Lassallean tradition, it realizes Ebert’s own plans.” In the view of the Old Socialists, this Lassallean wing of Social-Democracy had been marginalized by the negative, critical element following unification with the Independents.

August Winnig, former Social-Democratic official and one of the most prominent advocates of a nationalist socialism.

Where had the SPD gone wrong? Using language that had strongly racialist overtones, August Winnig emphasized the “infiltration by foreign elements” (Ueberfremdung) into the leadership of Social-Democracy. Winnig contrasted an indigenous socialism, based in the trade union movement, with the anti-national influence of the bourgeois intellectuals. The history of German Socialism was, above all, the history of a struggle between a volkstümlich12 working-class constituency and bourgeois intellectuals who attempted to lead the working-class movement. The intellectuals were characterized by the rejection of Germanism. To be sure, with the declaration of war and the Social-Democratic vote in support of the war credits, the relationship of German Socialism to the state had entered a new stage. The Burgfrieden13 had provided proof of a national community – a Volksgemeinschaft – that had existed prior to class differences, which had roots in the depths of human experience. “The position of the SPD in the War represented a rejection of the ideology of internationalism.” Likewise, adopting the language of the völkisch movement to describe the “spirit of 1914,” Niekisch spoke of the “dark stream of blood… which flows through individuals and ultimately… creates a Volk, against which all individual and even group characteristics appear insignificant…” “In August 1914,” wrote Winnig, “the spirit of the unions defeated that of the intellectuals.” Nevertheless, the struggle between the two wings of the Socialist movement continued even during the war itself; the intellectual leadership of Socialism, organized into the USPD, viewed the national politics of the Burgfrieden as a “diversion from the path, a confusion which had to be ended.” The merger of the left-wing Independents within the SPD in 1922 had tilted the balance in favor of the bourgeois intellectual Socialists. “Victorious,” proclaimed Winnig, “were those who desired a German defeat. Their victory was so complete that the other section of the movement was demoralized and no longer stood up for its position.” German Social-Democracy was paralyzed “as soon as necessities of state and issues of the nation were brought up.” The present-day Socialist movement, Winnig wrote, had a “bad conscience in relation to the Kriegserlebnis.14

And yet, the Old Social-Democrats emphasized, it had become most urgent for a working-class party to address the national issue following the Treaty of Versailles. Like Moeller van den Bruck, Niekisch proclaimed Germany to be a “proletarian” nation. Following the First World War, Niekisch wrote, Germany had become an “object of exploitation” for international capitalism: “The German currency is only German in name.” Nor was Germany’s “proletarian” status a subject of disinterest to the German labor movement. German workers suffered the most from the international subjugation of Germany. Reparations had a “devastating” effect on the social and economic conditions of the German working-class, and it was “incomprehensible” that the SPD only condemned German capitalists while supporting a foreign policy of fulfillment which ensured the hegemony of French, British, and American capital:

The interests of the German worker, on the one hand, and the Treaty of Versailles and the Dawes Plan, on the other hand, are irreconcilable. To tear up these treaties and to renege on these agreements… that is the only politics which can save the German worker from hopeless enslavement. In this issue the interests of the German worker are at one with the German nation.

“Protect your Children! Protect your women! Protect yourself!” Recruitment poster for the German Reichswehr, circa 1920.

Niekisch condemned Social-Democracy for having identified itself with the politics of fulfillment; a policy, he wrote derisively, which was “actually proud of enriching foreign capitalists with the sweat of German workers.” He pointedly contrasted the Erfüllungsgesinnung15 of the SPD with the Staatsgesinnung of the ASPD. The pages of the Volksstaat are full of references to the “chains of foreign capital” and other phrases common to the vocabulary of Germany’s political Right. In the same vein, the party newspaper stressed the need for the recreation of a powerful German military based in the Volk. Following a military exercise of the Reichswehr in Dresden, the Volksstaat commented enthusiastically on the cheering crowds which had greeted the army, and condemned the “pacifist spirit” which informed the official anti-militarism of the SPD.

What distinguished the rhetoric of the Old Socialists from that of Weimar’s traditional Right and from the theoreticians of Weimar’s “conservative revolution” was the former’s attempt to locate its constituency among the working-class and to combine a nationalist program with one of social reform. To be sure, the Volksstaat argued, the Bürgertum had traditionally embraced the state – but only on the condition that the state did not interfere in the sphere of property relations. Because of the Bürgertum’s monopoly on nationalism, the latter had tragically become associated with a selfish and socially reactionary domestic politics; for Niekisch and Winnig, bourgeois nationalism was suspect. For the workers, by contrast, property was not a barrier separating them from the state: “The very fact that the workers do not possess property… makes them the ideal tool of the state [reinen Werkzeug der Staatsraison].” It was the responsibility of the revolutionary working-class to take up the national issue. “The working-class,” stated Winnig, “must learn to think in terms of foreign policy…”

It was, however, necessary that the state pursue a social policy so that the workers could identify with it. The “national” socialism represented by the ASPD would lead the way in helping to transcend the opposition of social and national which continued to plague the workers’ movement: an opposition which was rooted both in the myopic and anti-labor politics of the German Bürgertum, as well as in the intellectual leadership of German Social-Democracy. Since neither the SPD nor the KPD provided the working-class with a national revolutionary party, the ASPD represented the last hope for the German nation.

Which workers were to follow the Socialist nationalism propagated by the ASPD? At the party conference of the Old Socialists held in July 1927, Niekisch expressed his concern that the Saxon working-class, in particular, was especially “alienated” from the state and that it was necessary for the ASPD to “educate” the Saxon proletariat and to assist the development of a “state-affirming” attitude. By 1928, however, the ASPD had begun to lose the few remaining ties it had to the organized working-class. Those union functionaries – especially in the textile industry – who had supported the politics of the 23 parliamentary deputies and initially the ASPD, had left the party in protest against the influence of Winnig and Niekisch. In the fall of 1927, the leadership of the Reichsbanner, the paramilitary formation of the Socialists, decided to expel all Old Socialist members from the organization. The official journal of the Reichsbanner declared that the ASPD was “seeking its allies in the fascist camp” and that the party did not belong in an organization committed to defending the republic. The decision of the ASPD to become a national party and to compete in the Reichstag elections of May 20, 1928, drew an outraged response from the SPD; Vorwärts16 accused the ASPD of receiving money from industry and of propagating a fascist program. Immediately prior to the Reichstag elections, a series of ASPD meetings in Berlin were violently disrupted by Reichsbanner men.

Declaration by Otto Hörsing, leader of the republican Reichsbanner paramilitary, barring Old Social-Democrats as members.

The ASPD responded in kind. The party sought a new source of electoral support in the ultra-nationalist paramilitary organizations such as the Stahlhelm and the Jung Deutsche Orden. If the ASPD were to develop a following, it would have to expand its membership to include workers not involved in the web of Social-Democratic associations; the nationalist associations provided a potential reserve of workers seeking a more “national” form of Socialism. In early 1928, the Old Socialist Eugen Mossakowski spoke before a crowded assembly of nationalist organizations in Brandenburg an der Havel and declared the necessity of bringing the front-soldiers and the workers together. Both workers and soldiers – in contrast to the “lazy” Bürgertum– understood what solidarity and discipline entailed. The social struggle of the working-class, Mossakowski argued, should be linked to the “national-revolutionary mission” of the paramilitary associations: “A new front of soldiers and workers must be constructed: such a coalition would provide Germany with a future.” In the same vein, the supposed antagonist of Niekisch within the ASPD, the parliamentary deputy Karl Bethke, wrote that the paramilitary associations were made up primarily of workers, and they shared with the ASPD the desire to lift Germany out of its colonial status. In fact, the attempt of the ASPD to cultivate the nationalist leagues enjoyed a measure of success; the journal Der Stahlhelm praised the ASPD for offering the working-class an alternative to Marxism and reconciling them to the national cause. In a well-publicized move, the leader of the Stahlhelm in the state of Braunschweig joined the ASPD.

Not surprisingly, the ASPD’s decision to enter the national political arena drew an overwhelmingly positive response from conservative and nationalist circles: the ASPD was praised as offering an alternative to the “internationalism” and “party-socialism” of the SPD. Thus, the Nationalist Dresdner Nachrichten celebrated the nationalist awakening of the working-class. The Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten appropriated the party’s own distinction between itself and the SPD. The central question, the paper asked, is: What is the respective relationship of the rival parties to the state? The SPD was made up of grumblers and nay-sayers who had no patriotic love of homeland; by contrast, the Old Social-Democrats had a “warm heart for the Fatherland.” The tradition of Winnig and Niekisch was, the paper argued, rooted in a positive tradition of German Socialism associated with Lassalle; while unapologetically socialist, this tradition nevertheless stood “on firm national ground.” “Now we shall see,” concluded the paper, “whether August Winnig has enough strength to free the working-classes from the claws of internationalism…” Likewise, the Erzgebirgische Volksfreund praised the “unconditional celebration of the state” in the party program and wrote that it represented “the rejection of the un-German doctrine of the class-struggle…” With an obvious reference to the left-liberal Democrats, the paper commended the ASPD’s “strong national will which is not always to be found in the programs of the so-called bourgeois parties.” For bourgeois nationalists, the existence of the ASPD not only allowed for a state government which excluded the Socialists, it also provided a more ideologically compatible coalition partner than did the confrontational and class-conflict-oriented politics of Saxony’s SPD.

The Old Socialists were, in fact, attempting to construct a “national” socialism and, not surprisingly, the National Socialists viewed the ASPD as a potential Bundesgenossen.17 An article in the Völkischer Beobachter stated that the politics of the Old Socialists were “entirely compatible” with National Socialism and expressed the hope that the ASPD would draw workers away from the Marxist “house of lies.” The Nazi newspaper only expressed reservations about the name “Old Social-Democratic Party,” which suggested an older, purer form of Marxist socialism that had existed in the past. Furthermore, the Völkischer Beobachter argued that the Old Socialists had not taken a clear enough stand on the Jewish issue.

Unlike the National Socialists, however, the ASPD proved a dismal failure in Weimar’s electoral contests. In its attempt to extend beyond Saxony’s borders in the 1928 Reichstag elections, the ASPD did not succeed in gaining one mandate, despite intensive electoral agitation: the party received 65,000 votes, of which 35,000 came from the Saxon districts. The election results made a “fiasco” of Niekisch’s political plans. Moreover, the electoral catastrophe forced a rethinking of the party’s strategy among its founders; Niekisch’s “national-revolutionary” platform had not succeeded in bringing in votes! On October 12, 1928, the party published a revised party program from which the national-revolutionary elements were eliminated. Furthermore, the party expressly disassociated itself from the nationalist leagues. Niekisch and Winnig both expressed their disillusionment with the party and resigned their memberships. For Niekisch, the ASPD experiment became a steppingstone on the way to his later involvement with National Bolshevism. Others who had been attracted to the party because of its national-revolutionary message, like Richard Schapke and Eugen Mossakowsky, drifted to the NSDAP.18

The about-face of the ASPD and the departure of some of its most prominent members did little, however, to halt the electoral decline of the party. In the state elections of May 1929, the ASPD received only two seats; its role as the Zünglein an der Waage, without whom neither the proletarian or the bourgeois bloc could form a government, was taken over by the NSDAP. With the departure of its nationalist wing after the debacle of the 1928 Reichstag elections, the ASPD lost all sympathy it had gained from the political Right. In the state elections of June 1930, the ASPD did not receive a single mandate, and in July 1932 the remnants of the party reunited with the SPD. As a political experiment, the Old Social-Democratic Party had failed; it had alienated a traditional Socialist constituency without succeeding in mobilizing working-class voters potentially sympathetic to the party’s program.


The following notes are my own, and were not in either of Lapp’s original texts. When transcribing from his works I did not carry over his own footnotes, for reasons of efficiency. – Bogumil

1. SPD – The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, i.e. Social-Democratic Party of Germany.

2. “A Klassenpartei rather than a Volkspartei – i.e. a “class-party” rather than a “people’s party.” A “people’s party” (Volkspartei) was one that claimed not to represent the interests of one particular social class or special-interest group, but to represent the interests of the entire nation or the Volk as a whole. The German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, DNVP) presented itself as a Volkspartei, although it was regarded with skepticism by workers and national-revolutionaries alike as a party of the propertied middle-classes, with backing from heavy industry and big business. The NSDAP, which had a very broad base of support ranging from the working-classes through to segments of the aristocracy, was arguably a genuine Volkspartei – although, ironically, the earliest National Socialists tended to reject this label and instead perceived National Socialism mostly as a kind of workers’ movement. (See Rudolf Jung’s comments on the subject of “people’s parties” in his Der nationale Sozialismus).

3. In the original text, author Benjamin Lapp actually refers to the party here by the name “the Old Socialist Party (ASP).” The party’s official name was Alte Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, i.e. “Old Social-Democratic Party of Germany” (ASPD), although some of its publications (particularly in its early years) also occasionally referred to it as the Alte Sozialdemokratische Partei Sachsens, or “Old Social-Democratic Party of Saxony” (ASPS). The use of the moniker “Old-Socialists” (Altsozialisten) as a shorthand for the party was fairly common, both in the ASPD’s own publications and in those of others, but this was an informal designation – for clarity’s sake I have changed Lapp’s initial mention of the party’s name here to make it more accurate, and for consistency have amended his use of the acronym ‘ASP’ throughout the text to read ‘ASPD’. For purposes of explanation, the use of the term “old” in the party name derives from the split within Saxon Social-Democracy which led to the party’s founding: in contrast with the ‘new’, more radical socialism popular within the Saxon SPD in the early ’20s (a more revolutionary form of Social-Democracy which advocated closer cooperation with the Communists), the Altsozialisten wanted to return to the ‘old’ socialism which the SPD had embodied before, during, and immediately after WWI, when the party was more patriotic, more open to working with bourgeois movements, and more “understanding of the needs of the state and the nation” (to quote from the ASPD’s second party programme). Niekisch and Winnig, when they became involved in the ASPD, took this further; to them “Old Socialism” meant a return to the politics of Ferdinand Lassalle, who had developed close ties with Bismarck and who was a strong advocate of state socialism.

4. KPD – The Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, i.e. Communist Party of Germany.

5. A reference to the Saxon Reichsexekution of 1923, in which Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert declared martial law in Saxony and used the Reichswehr to remove the Saxon state government under Erich Zeigner (b.1886 – d.1949). Zeigner had become Minister-President of Saxony in March 1923 as a result of the previous state government having been forced to resign; his cabinet constituted a coalition between the SPD and KPD, and swiftly became noted for its radicalism. Zeigner began introducing measures to control prices and trade, encouraged the workers to organize ‘proletarian defence’ units, and made strident speeches attacking the Reichswehr. Coupled with Germany’s worsening economic situation, Zeigner’s policies precipitated Saxony’s rapid slide into instability, with even many communists (who initially did much to encourage extremism in the workers) balking at the level of chaos unleashed. Mob violence and riots directed against employers and businesses became commonplace; the ‘proletarian defence’ organizations began looting farms and businesses; bourgeois groups could no longer safely hold meetings. As food shortages heightened and prices skyrocketed, as the violence grew out of Zeigner’s control, the Reich government under Stresemann – fearing a potential revolution forming and spreading throughout the Republic – opted to declare a state of emergency and send in the Reichswehr to forcefully remove Saxony’s SPD-KPD government, replacing it with a caretaker SPD government free of Communists. The split this action created within the Saxon SPD, between those who had supported Zeigner and those (primarily the SPD’s parliamentarians) who viewed Zeigner and his legacy as dangerous and wanted no more cooperation with communists, is what precipitated the 1926 conflict which led to the party splitting and the formation of the ASPD.

5. Friedrich Ebert (b.1871 – d.1925), Eduard David (b.1863 – d.1930) and Gustav Noske (b.1868 – d.1946). All leading figures within the SPD, and all ‘moderates’ in Social-Democratic terms. Reference to these figures is significant, since it demonstrates that the ASPD was initially meant to be a continuation of the spirit of the MSPD (see below). Noske in particular, who as Defence Minister had called up the Freikorps to put down several communist insurrections, was still an extremely controversial figure among the SPD’s left wing.

6. MSPD – The Mehrheitssozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, i.e. Majority Social-Democratic Party of Germany. The MSPD came into existence in 1917 after the SPD, which as a party had officially supported the German war effort, finally split over the issue into pro- and anti-war factions (the anti-war faction became the Independent Social-Democratic Party, or USPD). The USPD represented a more radical line  somewhere between Social-Democracy and Bolshevism; the MSPD, by contrast, was a bastion of reformism, and after Germany’s surrender did much to prevent a communist revolution, to safeguard the parliamentary system, and to protect the German bourgeoisie. The MSPD name was dropped in 1922 after the USPD broke up, with most of the Independent Social-Democrats either joining the KPD or returning to the SPD.

7. “Zünglein an der Waage” – In English, “tipping the scales”.

8. Bürgertum – In English, the “bourgeoisie”, i.e. the middle-classes and property-owners.

9. Staatsgesinnung – In English, this means something like “disposition towards the state” or “inclination towards the state”; in other words, a “state ethos.” As the ASPD explains in its first party programme: “[The ASPD’s] socialist attitude is the complement to and the evidence for its state ethos (Staatsgesinnung); its stance is one of a highly-developed sense of social and national responsibility… It is in accordance with the state ethos of the ASPD that it approves of all institutions and actions which are appropriate for promoting the state’s position of power and prestige to the outside world, as well as its domestic stabilization.”

10. Hofgeismarkreis – A circle (‘kreis’) of intellectuals within the Jungsozialisten (the Young Socialists, i.e. the SPD’s youth movement), whose founding meeting was in the town of Hofgeismar in 1923. The Hofgeismarkreis represented a more nationalist orientation within German Social-Democracy – they were interested in reformulating Social-Democracy on a nationalist rather than an internationalist basis. Both Ernst Niekisch and August Winnig associated with the Hofgeismarkreis, and a number of its leading figures (such as Carlo Mierendorff and Theodor Haubach) later became the architects of the Iron Front, whose dreipfeil (triple-arrow) symbol has now rather ironically been coopted by various anarchist organizations.

11. Staatsfeindlich – In English, “subversive” or “hostile to the state.”

12. Volkstümlich – This word does not have a simple, direct translation into English. “Volkstümlich” combines a mixture of meanings; generally it means “popular”, but it also has an element of “folksiness” to it. By calling the working-class volkstümlich, Winnig means that they are salt-of-the-earth type people and are in touch with their own national (or völkisch) traditions and heritage.

13. The Burgfrieden (“castle peace” – the term has medieval origins) was the name given to the truce which the SPD – very hostile to the Imperial order and still containing strongly revolutionary elements – forged with the bourgeois parties and with the Kaiser upon the outbreak of war in 1914. The SPD at the time was the largest party in Germany and had the largest mandate in the Reichstag, so it putting aside its hostility in favor of the war effort was significant. The Kaiser’s famous words on 1st August, 1914 (“I no longer think in terms of parties or confessions; today we are all German brothers and only German brothers”), combined with the rising swell of patriotism which even many Social-Democrats eagerly succumbed to, gave the impression that all classes and interest-groups had put aside their individual differences in collective support of the Nation, the Volk. This “spirit of 1914” was frequently brought up by nationalists in later years as an example of the Volksgemeinschaft which they were trying to recreate.

14. Kriegserlebnis – In English, “experience of the war.”

15. Erfüllungsgesinnung – In English, something like “inclination towards fulfillment” or “fulfillment ethos” (as contrasted with the “state ethos” of the ASPD). A reference to the “Fulfillment Policy” (Erfüllungspolitik) pursued by the Weimar Republic in the early ’20s, wherein the government attempted to show, by fulfilling the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, that the treaty was unfair, with the hope that this would lead to the Entente powers agreeing to negotiate new terms. The term “Erfüllungspolitik” subsequently became an insult, directed by nationalists and socialists against any foreign policy strategy which they deemed too deferential to other nations.

16. Vorwärts – The Vorwärts (‘Forwards’) was the SPD’s national newspaper and main party organ.

17. Bundesgenossen – In English, “allies.”

18. Richard Schapke and Eugen Mossakowsky not only drifted from the ASPD into the NSDAP, they also ended up in Otto Strasser’s orbit. Both men left the NSDAP in 1930 to follow Otto Strasser into his new ‘Fighting-Community of Revolutionary Nationalist Socialists’, and are listed as signatories on Strasser’s article announcing his resignation.

First section transcribed from Benjamin Lapp’s A ‘National’ Socialism: The Old Socialist Party of Saxony, 1926-32, (Apr. 1995), The Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, No. 2. Second section transcribed from Benjamin Lapp’s Revolution from the Right: Politics, Class, and the Rise of Nazism in Saxony, 1919-1933 (1997), Humanities Press, Inc.

One thought on “The Old Social-Democratic Party of Germany

  1. Bogumil,

    I hope you do not mind, but I had to conduct a bit of digging and fact-finding within the German literature about Saxony prior to writing this comment. Not that I was too preoccupied, but because pre-1945 historical evidence which you had provided here strongly correlates with my own post-1945 research into that same region when it was a part of East Germany.

    To begin, it is very intriguing to learn that the ASPD rejected Marxism and its Internationalist tendencies by touting a more Nationalistic form of Socialism derived from Ferdinand Lasselle. This “Nationalism,” from my understanding, resonates more with Pan-Germanism. You are correct in noting that the ASPD touted Social Democracy, but ‘Social Democracy’ would not be the term I would use to describe this particular Party. Its Völkisch orientation which would have me qualifying it as being an example of “De-Hitlerized National Socialism” since it was opposed to Hitlerism. This is can be discerned from the Hitlerists criticizing the ASPD for not supporting their Antisemitic worldview in “Völkischer Beobachtung.” In addition, the presence of Ernst Niekisch also gives it a National Bolshevik strain as well, which further enhances the Anti-Hitlerist tendencies as evidenced in an earlier ARPLAN Blog Post (

    We are looking at the hallmarks of a Volkspartei: a Partei of the Volksgemeinschaft, by the Volksgemeinschaft, for the Volksgemeinschaft. The implications of such a party existing in Weimar Germany, especially given its ultimate political fate, is forcing me to ask a very important question, Bogumil: Is there another way for us to comprehend why the ASPD did not expand beyond the region of Saxony?

    I say this, because I know the answer pertains to a tragic irony upon reading Vladimir Lenin’s 1915 review of Lasselle’s Magnum Opus on the Political Philosophy of Heraclitus, a Philosopher whom neither Plato nor Aristotle understood and appreciate concepts like the “Unity of the Opposites.” Even now, I still find it tragic that Lenin was struggling to comprehend the fact that Lasselle was describing not only aspects of my Socialist Monetary Policy, but also important clues into why Benjamin Lapp wrote: “As a political experiment, the Old Social-Democratic Party had failed; it had alienated a traditional Socialist constituency without succeeding in mobilizing working-class voters potentially sympathetic to the Party’s program.”

    Here are the links to Lenin’s book review and his personal notes that were written separately from the review itself.

    Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book The Philosophy of Heraclitus the Obscure of Ephesus: (

    On the Question of Dialectics:

    In the review, Lenin wrote: “Lassalle quotes Plutarch, who says with regard to Heraclitus: ‘in the same way as everything is created by transformation out of fire, so also fire out of everything, just as we obtain things for gold and gold for things….’ […] In this connection, Lassalle writes about Value (Wert) and about Function des Geldes [Read: Purpose of Money], expounding it in the Hegelian manner (as “separated abstract unity”) and adding: …‘that this unity, money, is not something actual, but something merely ideal (Lassalle’s italics) is evident from the fact,’ etc.”

    “Lassalle speaks in still greater detail about money, saying that Heraclitus was no ‘political economist,” that money is ((only(??))) a Wertzeichen, [a Token of Value] etc., etc. (“all money is merely the ideal unity or expression of Value of all real products in circulation”).”

    However, in “Question of Dialectics,” Lenin wrote: “The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts (see the quotation from Philo on Heraclitus at the beginning of Section III, “On Cognition,” in Lasalle’s book on Heraclitus[1]) is the essence (one of the “essentials,” one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter (Aristotle in his Metaphysics continually grapples with it and combats Heraclitus and Heraclitean ideas).
    The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science. This aspect of dialectics (e.g. in Plekhanov) usually receives inadequate attention: the identity of opposites is taken as the sum-total of examples [“for example, a seed,” “for example, primitive communism.” The same is true of Engels. But it is “in the interests of popularization…”] and not as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world).

    In mathematics: + and —. Differential and integral.
    In mechanics: action and reaction.
    In physics: positive and negative electricity.
    In chemistry: the combination and dissociation of atoms.
    In social science: the Class Struggle.”

    Thus, what is the polar opposite of the Marxist “Class Struggle?” Is it really “Class Collaboration” in the Fascist sense as Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascists had claimed?

    I know “Class Collaboration” seems like the most obvious answer, but there another, more counter-intuitive approach from my own research, as evidenced in the preceding ARPLAN Post (

    Case in point, I am thinking back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence” from Also Sprach Zarathustra, which also reminds me of Oswald Spengler’s “Second Religiousness” and Carl Gustav Jung’s “Quaternity.”


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