Art to the People

Despite severe repression, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) built a working-class culture that can inspire us today.

Winning a socialist future has never been an easy proposition, but German socialists in the late 19- and early 20th centuries had a steeper uphill climb than most. Faced with severe repression and a political regime that was one of the most autocratic in Europe, the German socialist movement–represented by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)–could count on little besides hard knocks. But socialism has a way of growing like a plant in the most barren places. By the 1910s, the SPD had become the largest socialist party in the world, the largest party in the German parliament, and the organization to which socialists the world over looked for inspiration.

The SPD was successful in spite of the adversity it faced, but also because of it: the continual repression German socialists experienced under the Empire forced them to be resilient and, above all, inventive. When heavy-handed opposition from the state rendered more conventional organizing tactics out of reach, SPD activists simply devised new ones. And of all the innovations of that difficult period, one stood out as unique and unrivalled: the way in which German socialists turned culture into a weapon in the class struggle. In a truly organic and bottom-up process that began during the toughest period of the SPD’s history, the party’s members built an incredible array of cultural institutions–from workers’ theaters to hiking clubs, from choirs to gymnastic teams–which gave German workers more than just a good time: they gained a sense of community, a feeling of empowerment, access to experiences heretofore restricted to the wealthy and the wellborn. The story of how and why it happened is worth remembering.

A Gilded Age 

The German Empire was a living compromise between the old European order and an increasingly alien modern world. In a time when most European nations had granted at least some concessions to parliamentarism, Germany stubbornly rejected even bourgeois democracy; the ancient Prussian dynasty still demanded absolute obedience. The imperial parliament, the Reichstag, could not appoint or dismiss the chancellor and his ministers; only the Emperor could do that. Government policy depended more or less on the whims of the monarch.

Economically, the country was divided. The east, the old Prussian lands on the far side of the River Elbe, was still heavily agrarian and semi-feudal; the junkers, the fiercely reactionary Prussian nobility, controlled the vast agricultural estates on which peasants toiled for nearly nothing. The west was rapidly industrializing, a new urban bourgeoisie asserting itself as a rival to the aristocracy for social power and prestige. Germany was changing, caught between the interests of competing forces, but the fact was that the contest was merely between different models of exploitation. This did not sit right with many of Germany’s workers, who began to wonder if another way was possible–if perhaps the argument shouldn’t be about whether the boss should have a hereditary title or not, but rather about whether there should even be a boss at all.

In the middle of the 19th century, it was two Germans–Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels–who gave a new framework to these radical ideals. To Marx and Engels, their homeland was the perfect breeding ground for a revolution that would create a new kind of society: a socialist one, in which that which was needed to sustain life would be jointly owned by all.

In 1869, a group of Marx’s ideological disciples came together in the German city of Eisenach to found the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP). Six years later, the SDAP merged with another socialist organization, the German General Workers’ Association, to form a new party–the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the SPD. For the near-half century until the rise of communism, the SPD would be the uncontested representative of the German workers’ movement. And this fact made Germany’s ruling class very anxious.

In the Reichstag elections of 1877, the first which the SPD contested, the party received 400,000 votes and won 13 seats. Over the preceding years, Germany’s upper classes had watched the rise of socialism with growing alarm: the formation of the First International, the creation of the Paris Commune, and now, socialists winning hundreds of thousands of votes and taking seats in Germany’s parliament. Socialists were not yet on the brink of power, but everyone knew that something had to be done to arrest their progress–or else the sort of cataclysm imagined by all of Europe’s nobility and bourgeoisie might be much closer than anyone cared to imagine.

Germany’s rabidly conservative Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, swung into action, and promulgated the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1878. Under the new law, the SPD was made illegal. All public activities by the party were banned, and anyone whose affiliation with it became known was liable to be arrested as a member of an illegal organization. It was actually during this time that the now-famous red rose first became a symbol of the socialist movement. Members of the underground SPD originally decided to show their affiliation by wearing red ribbons on their clothes; the police soon caught on and began arresting the ribbon-wearers. SPD members then decided to wear red roses as their identifying sign, figuring that it would be ludicrous for the police to arrest everyone who went outside wearing a flower on their lapel. The symbol stuck.

Those years of illegality were difficult for the SPD. What could one do to advance the cause when one could not hold rallies or even contest elections under the party banner? It was out of this era of hardship that the SPD’s innovations in organizing sprung.


German is not a language known for expressing complex ideas concisely. But there are exceptions; I think the word bildung is one of them. In modern everyday speech, the word “bildung” simply means “education.” But in the more old-fashioned or philosophical sense, the word refers to a much bigger concept: namely, the process by which education and culture can be used to help a person gain self-actualization. This idea figured prominently in the works of Hegel and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and bildung was on the minds of many nineteenth-century Germans. To take in great art, to use culture and learning to develop a philosophy of life, and to use that philosophy to live the way one wished to live; that is bildung.

Bildung was an important concept to Germany’s nineteenth century socialists. To them, workers attaining bildung was an integral part of giving them the agency to transform society–if workers were not the fully self-actualized individuals with a life philosophy for which they were willing to struggle, socialism could not be won. Bringing great art and culture within reach of working people–not just the wealthy and privileged–would be a sparkling reminder that there could be more to life than just a harsh, degrading struggle to survive. A socialist world was one in which bildung was accessible to everyone.

And there were more practical reasons for the SPD to employ cultural activities as a means of organizing. During the 12 long years in which the SPD was illegal, most of its typical activities–political rallies, labor organizing, etc.–were prohibited and subject to violent crackdowns by the Imperial German state. Socialists had to find alternative means of building working class community. And as a result of this difficult situation, combined with a philosophical emphasis on bildung, came the SPD’s efforts to build working-class cultural institutions.

This was a truly bottom-up process. No SPD leader awoke one morning and said, “today I shall turn culture into a weapon in the class struggle, aha!” Rather, everyday men and women, rank-and-file socialist activists, responded to the pressures and opportunities of the times in which they lived.

Socialists music groups formed, performing folk songs and workers’ anthems; German socialists understood the unique power of music to stir the soul and impel people to action. When workers grew fed up with spending their days toiling away in grimy mills and factories, they formed hiking clubs to bring the restorative powers of the outdoors within their reach. One socialist hiking club, The Friends of Nature, used the slogan “Free Mountains, Free World, Free Peoples” to convey how nature could fortify the spirit and give workers the strength to continue the fight for socialism. When socialists–who were some of the earliest proponents of women’s equality in Germany–grew frustrated with the strict gender segregation of existing choir organizations (as well as their general militaristic or ultra-religious bent), they formed their own choirs. Dr. Kurt Singer, the music correspondent for the SPD’s main newspaper Vorwärts, formed the Doctors’ Chorus in the imperial capital Berlin; the choir drew its membership from the city’s medical professionals, and the majority of its singers were women. Turnverein, gymnastics associations, were very popular in nineteenth century Germany; but they were generally nationalistic and militaristic in character, which was incompatible with the socialist ethos. Nonetheless, socialists recognised sports like gymnastics to be a valuable thing for working people to be able to participate in, and so they formed their own socialist turnverein. 

A working-class, avowedly socialist cultural sphere had emerged. Workers could experience a fully vibrant cultural life, with all the artistic and leisure activities they could dream of, all without ever having to go outside the socialist movement. And it had happened exclusively through the efforts of rank-and-file activists, responding in their own way to a challenging situation. They sowed the seeds of change in a hostile field, and thrived.

The People’s Stage 

During the years of persecution, a discussion group of socialist activists formed in Berlin. They called themselves “The Old Aunt” to disguise their radical leanings from the police, who were always ready to arrest suspected members of the banned SPD. The group talked about theater, the most popular entertainment of the day, and how they could use theater to further radical ends. The concept they developed would be the most impressive out of all of the German socialist movement’s cultural achievements.

As socialist interest in theater expanded, the ideas and discussions propagated by the Old Aunt became honed into a radical new theory of how theater should be created and performed: it would become known as “the people’s stage.” In the gilded age of the German Empire, the theater was a gaudy scene of bourgeois decadence. Aristocrats and business magnates watched elaborate productions from luxurious boxes, and the working class was often priced out of experiencing great theatrical works altogether. The basic premise of the people’s stage was to take this bourgeois medium and give it a more egalitarian spin, as well as performing the same great works the upper classes were used to experiencing–but at prices workers could afford.

Socialists all across Germany founded theaters which operated along the lines of the people’s stage. The most prominent was in Berlin, where the Freie Volksbühne (“Free People’s Theater”) quickly became one of the city’s leading theatrical establishments. The Freie Volksbühne occupied a grand building on the Bülowplatz–the Berlin square now known as Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, after the Polish-born socialist revolutionary. The theater’s edifice was inscribed with the words “die kunst dem volke”–“art to the people,” indeed a fitting motto for the whole vibrant cultural life which the SPD’s members had created. In the Freie Volksbühne and other theaters which followed the people’s stage model, all tickets were the same price, set at an amount which even struggling workers could afford. Seats were assigned at random, to ensure that one couldn’t get a better seat by paying more. However, workers with hearing- or sight-related disabilities could sit closer to the stage; an idea which differed considerably from the disdainful way bourgeois society treated disabled people. At people’s stage theaters, lectures and reading materials came included with the cost of tickets.  And the theaters performed an eclectic range of pieces, designed to ensure that art of all kinds was accessible to working people, from modernist dramas by Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptman to leftist pieces denouncing exploitation and police brutality, as well as the classic works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Everything could be seen on the people’s stage, and anyone could afford to come and see it.

A Socialist Success Story

As the nineteenth century ended and the new twentieth century began, the SPD had gone from being the western world’s most persecuted socialist party to being its most successful. The Anti-Socialist Laws had failed utterly in their goal to crush the SPD. Socialists had found new ways of organizing and adapted their tactics to their new status as an underground organization, and they had continued gaining new converts to their movement. Working people found a community in the SPD–thanks in large part to its cultural activities–and labor militancy had increased; strikes rolled across Germany as workers stood up for higher wages, shorter work days, and better treatment. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck recognized that the repressive laws had done nothing to halt the SPD’s growth, and he allowed them to expire in 1890.After 12 long years, the SPD was a legal organization again.

In the Reichstag elections of 1890, the first since the SPD’s legalization, the socialists came roaring back to win the most votes of any party. The SPD did not win the most seats, however, because of the unequal distribution of parliamentary constituencies which gave more conservative rural areas an outsized number of representatives. On May Day 1891, thousands of workers gathered in Berlin for the newly-legal SPD’s celebration of the workers’ holiday; attendees were treated to an allegorical theater production titled Through the Struggle to Freedom, and then ventured out into the countryside for a nighttime waldfest (forest celebration). In spite of everything, the SPD had only grown–and was still growing. Its vote shares increased as the turn of the century came and went, and in the elections of 1912 it scored a huge victory. That year, the SPD won 110 seats (an increase of 67) to become the largest party in the Reichstag for the first time. And the party’s membership had grown to over one million by that same year, making the SPD the largest socialist party in the world by far.

There were dark times ahead for the SPD: the catastrophe of the First World War, the chaos and instability of the Weimar Republic, and finally the long nightmare of the Third Reich. But this could not erase the fact that, in the era of the empire, Germany’s socialists had built something truly unique. They had created what they called a lebensgemeinschaft, a “life community”–a place where workers could come together not just for political work, but to experience great art, the wonders of the outdoors, and what Eugene Debs called “the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade.” They had opened the doors of culture to working people, allowing them immeasurably enriching experiences which had previously been available only to the wealthy. They had given workers the chance to escape the day-to-day grind of the capitalist economy, and to become the fullest possible versions of themselves; to become self-actualized individuals ready to pursue the change they wished to see in the world. They had created a brief glimpse of what a new society could be like, a world based on socialistic principles in which people met each other as equals and in which the richness of one’s experiences were not contingent on wealth. And it all came from the initiative and ingenuity of everyday people, working in the most difficult conditions.

Learning From the Past 

The world of today is plenty different from that of the German Empire. How people experience culture has changed substantially since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The repression we face is less severe than what the SPD had to endure; I don’t think anyone expects DSA to be made illegal anytime soon. But there are undeniably certain elements of the SPD’s fascinating experiment in socialist culture which are applicable to our fight today. As always, the past and the present do not have to be identical for us to draw lessons from the pages of history.

It’s no secret that American society is atomized. The things which used to bring people together are being slowly eroded by neoliberal fixation on individualism and the increasing dominance of technology over human life. A stunning 61% of survey respondents reported feeling lonely in a study from January of 2020–and that was before the Covid-19 pandemic drove everyone further apart. Social media–the thing that was supposed to bring everyone together–has really only pushed us away from each other, substituting synthetic online interactions for real-world experiences. Companies encourage people to live more and more of their lives through the prism of work, exemplified rather ghoulishly by the new Silicon Valley fad for putting everything from daycares to restaurants within the confines of corporate office buildings. Opportunities to connect with people outside of the capitalist marketplace are growing fewer and farther between. Big tech attempts to commodify as much human interaction as it can.  Arts and cultural programs are chronically underfunded, neglected because they don’t have money-making at their hearts. The simple explanation for this state of things is that, in an America which has fully absorbed the logic of neoliberalism, something which is not profitable is dismissed as not worthwhile. The neoliberal dictum articulated by Margaret Thatcher–that “there is no such thing as society”–encapsulates the ways in which social bonds have dissolved. The soulless greed at the core of our economic and social system is rendering us ever more distant from one another.

And this is why building a working class community–in the way the SPD did–is so critically important. The more atomized a society is, the more lonely and disillusioned its members, the more it cries out for some sort of lebensgemeinschaft. If we, as socialists, can build a place for people to simply connect with one another on a human level, we would be giving everyday Americans a taste of something that is increasingly unobtainable in this isolating world of ours.

There are already green shoots of this type of cultural organizing within DSA. One only needs to look at the incredible work done by the Sing in Solidarity choir to know that we’ve got many artistically talented comrades in our midst. Lately there’s even been discussion about starting a NYC DSA theater troupe–discussion which, in a very lovely coincidence, began right when I was starting to work on this article. Additionally, members of NYC DSA are currently working on adding language to the chapter constitution which officially recognizes cultural organizations as a unique and distinct part of DSA’s organizing work, and promotes further efforts in this regard. As a mass movement with (give or take) 100,000 members–and all the diversity of perspectives and talents inherent in an organization of that size–we in DSA have the chance to really create something special. We don’t have the numbers of the Imperial-era SPD (yet!), but we are a growing organization with a committed and creative membership–and that is enough to make serious waves.

There are both practical and ideological reasons to look to the cultural sphere as a new space for socialist organizing. On a basic base-building level, it’s good for recruitment–nothing convinces people to join an organization like a feeling that they will not only be fighting for a better world, but that they’ll also be having fun along the way. The example of the SPD in the German Empire proves to us that a joyful socialist movement is a successful socialist movement. And on an ideological level, we have an obligation as socialists to build community and solidarity among working people; in an era of great loneliness, such community-building is an act of revolt against a system which feeds on atomization.

Likewise, while a great many forms of culture have become more widely accessible thanks to TV and the internet, there are still many cultural experiences that are open only to the wealthy. Tickets for performances at the best theaters–in New York for example–run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars for experiences that only last a couple of hours. No working-class person can reasonably afford these prices. Prices for concert tickets are often similarly exorbitant. Many art galleries are confined to gentrified neighborhoods or charge ridiculous admission fees. We don’t have unlimited organizational capabilities or reach, but we can still make a real impact in the lives of everyday people by–to whatever degree we can sustain–creating forms of cultural delivery that are accessible to everyone. A free or low-price concert at a public park, or a theatrical production in an affordable venue, would be a means of really making a difference in people’s lives. It wouldn’t just be providing a distraction from the real issues of life, or engaging in a fun but ultimately useless bit of frivolity. As the experience of the SPD showed, cultural and leisure activities are a way of convincing people that a better world is possible, that a humdrum life in the capitalist labor market is not the only thing we can hope for.

The story of the SPD’s cultural achievements in the time of the German Empire is worth telling, not just because it’s a fascinating case study in what successful socialist movement-building looks like, but also because it is relevant to our struggle today. Even though the times have changed and we are separated from the people who built the SPD by a gap of more than a century, their message still rings true. Culture can indeed be a weapon in our fight to make a better world. By looking to the past, we can draw the inspiration to build the future we wish for.