Kurt Eisner answers the call of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

On 1 December 1898, Wilhelm Liebknecht, a member of the Party Executive and editor-in-chief of “Vorwärts”, the party newspaper, recruits 31-year-old Eisner to its editorial team. Upon Liebknecht’s death in 1900, Eisner becomes the newspaper’s guiding intellectual force.

As a journalist, Eisner has always been an independent political thinker, and when he returns to Berlin he realizes it is time to act – he can no longer support the SPD as a mere outsider.

As a journalist on the editorial team of the party organ, “Vorwärts”, Kurt Eisner sought to influence issues under debate. This led him to write series of articles on topics such as the penal system and school education in a bid to stimulate public debate. The aim was to encourage people to demand an end to social injustices and to press for the creation of a responsive political system. From 1902 on, he extended this approach to his articles on the 1903 Reichstag election campaign and his contributions both before and after the SPD’s party conventions. He made a series of proposals for items to be included in party conference agendas regarding practical challenges that he thought the party should address. He wanted this to be viewed as a contribution to internal democracy within the party.


Eisner wants to use the party’s leading newspaper to reach out to an enlightened left-leaning bourgeois readership and this proves rather controversial. He wants to break free from the straitjacket imposed by the SPD leadership, turn the party into a constructive parliamentary opposition and show it how it can actively redraw the political landscape.

Eisner’s approach is firmly based on the Erfurt Program of 1891, with an “entirely coherent system of action” that does not “shy away from immediate work, nor does it spurn any means, whether compromise or revolution”. However, as a neo-Kantian and non-Marxist, he is now completely out on his own.

On his own against the main political strands of thought within the SPD at the time:

– Standing alone against historical materialism as espoused by orthodox Marxists, who view revolutionary transformation into a socialist society as the inevitable and logical consequence of capitalism;
– Standing alone against revisionists who reject Marxism and are prepared to abandon the idea of revolution in the belief that socialism can gradually and peacefully replace current social and political structures.

Kurt Eisner’s political ideas, his brand of ethical socialism exasperates his fellow party members. He is shunned and decried as a “man of letters”, a “dreamer” and an “arts-loving idealist” – labels that all too easily stick. His social background is devoid of any authentic proletarian “pedigree”, whatever that might have meant within the SPD at the turn of the 20th century.

Eisner’s “politics of action” attracts little ideological support. He calls for supporters to keep up constant pressure by publicly pushing their arguments to the very limits of what the system allows. Yet this approach is rejected in the “Debatten über Wenn und Aber” (Debates on Ifs and Buts) series. Ad hominem hostility also stands in the way of his attempts to make a change.

However, Eisner’s belief in his own views and his commitment to what he sees as the SPD’s historic mission leave him no choice other than to take the party in his favored direction.


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