Social Democracy

From William A. Percy
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This term has acquired various meanings in the course of the past century and a half. Late nineteenth-century Europe saw the formation of Marxian working-class parties that called themselves Social Democrats. These gained in numbers and influence, but were beset by the unresolved problem of whether to limit themselves to parliamentary maneuvering, or else to resort to such extra-parliamentary means as general strikes and working-class violence to achieve power.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 triggered a major crisis within the left, in which the parliamentary and reformist elements sided with Social Democracy, while those committed to violent revolution joined Communist Parties organized on the Leninist model. This splitting of the left provoked internecine struggles that weakened it in the face of the emerging fascist and National Socialist movements in the years of the Great Depression. Social Democracy tended to become the party of the petty bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, while the working class proper rallied to its Communist rivals.

Germany. The first party to welcome the new homosexual emancipation movement was German Social Democracy. In January 1898 August Bebel, the leader of the party in the Reichstag, took the floor in defense of the first petition submitted by the newly founded Scientific- Humanitarian Committee, whilewith the exception of a single National Liberal-the representatives of the other parties expressed outrage and disgust at the subject of the petition. In the wake of this intervention, Magnus Hirschfeld was personally received by Secretary Nieberding, the head of the Imperial Office of Justice, who cautioned him that the government could do nothing until the public had been reeducated as to the justice of abolishing the antihomosexual Paragraph 175. The Social Democrat–with a few exceptions in their own ranks–continued to be the only party that supported the demands of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, while the opposition was spearheaded by the Catholic Centrist Party. At first the whole issue was limited to Germany, as the Social Democratic parties in other nations, for a variety of reasons, had no "homosexual question" to debate.

As happened elsewhere, German progressives took notice–often uncritically–of Soviet Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 not only swept away the old order in a cataclysm of blood and violence, it gave the appearance of turning the new soviet Russia into a huge experimental laboratory in which official support was accorded all kinds of pioneering social innovations. The penal codes of the RSFSR in 1922 and 1926 omitted all reference to voluntary homosexual acts committed in private, and among reformers in the West the myth arose that the Soviet Union was the "country of the future" in which the injustices and inequalities of the past were being overcome. This stance naturally affected the leftist parties abroad.

In 1922 a highly progressive penal code was drafted by the German Minister of Justice, Gustav Radbruch, who had been the teacher of Kurt Hiller at theuniversity of Heidelberg, but Radbruch did not succeed in bringing his draft before the Reichstag. The Communist Party, with its principle of strict intraparty discipline, made support for law reform part of its platform. The Communist lawyer Felix Halle formulated its approach to the issue by writing: "The class-conscious proletariat, uninfluenced by the ideology of property and freed from theideology of the churches, approaches the question of sexual life and also the problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice afforded by an understanding of the overall structure of society."

On October 16, 1929, decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults was voted by a committee of the Reichstag 15 to 13, with the Communists, Social Democrats, and German People's Party (classical liberal) supporting the change. However, the American stock market crash a week later–heralding a world-wide depression–provoked a crisis in which law reform was shelved as the Reichstag struggled with the deteriorating economic situation and the mounting polarization of political forces within the country.

The Social Democratic Party supported the demands of the homosexual organizations less out of any principled commitment than because of its devotion to the principle of individual liberty which it had taken over from the classical liberal parties of the nineteenth century, but for just this reason it countenanced defection within its own ranks.

Other Countries. In countries other than Germany the Social Democratic parties and their equivalents often had no clearly defined "sexual politics," suffered embarrassment by the issues which sexual reform raised, and were intimidated by the negative response of the uneducated and religious strata of the population. The only country where law reform was realized under Social Demo- 11 I:::':': 4 SOCIAL DEMOCRACY cratic leadership in this period was Denmark, which repealed its sodomy law in 1930 (followed by Sweden in 1944 and Norway in 1948). In the Soviet Union, Stalin set about repudiating all concessions to liberalism as he consolidated his power in a one-party state. A law dated March 7, 1934--a year after the National Socialist seizure of power-restored criminal sanctions against male but not female homosexuality. Various contradictory pretexts were offered for the change, but in practice it meant that-even as the myth of the "humanist Stalin" was propagated abroad in the interest of the Popular Front formed to halt the risingtide of reaction in Central and Western Europe-the Communist parties lost all interest in sexual reform, and Social Democracy had to cany the ball alone. The World League for Sexual Reform on a Scientific Basis itself collapsed after Hirschfeld's death on May 14, 1935, as the two wings-one desiring a centrist approach with the cooperation of the bourgeois parties and the other seeking an open alliance with the Communist Party, even at that late date--could not work together. The movement of the preceding twenty-five years had pursued a number of different goals which now proved ideologically incompatible. The sexual reform aspect tended to become the province of the left, while the birth control movement and sex education were anchored in the center and the eugenics movement became identified with the right, particularly after the Nazi accession to power in Germany, where Hitler forced upon his cabinet a series of negative eugenic measures, including compulsory sterilization. The Soviet Union rdentlessly dismantled progressive social laws, prohibited homosexuality, forbade abortion and the sale of birth control materials, and conformed to the model of the clericalfascist states with their pronatalist policies. Some leftist scholars have argued that such retrograde policies were a temporary aberration under Stalin. Yet long after his death, the Communist regimes of China, Cuba, and Vietnam-not to mention that of the Soviet Union itself-have continued to adhere rigidly to these policies, with antihomosexuality prominent among them. In Western Europe after 1945 the Social Democratic parties sympathized with the homosexualliberationmovement but were often timid in defending it, while the conservative parties were solid in their opposition to law reform and quite willing to use homosexuals as scapegoats in the anti-Communist furor of the 1950s. It was only in 1969 that Paragraph 175 was finally repealed under a Social Democratic government in Bonn. In Britain a special situation prevailed. Much of the Labour Party's rank and file persisted in regarding homosexuality as a product of the elite public schools, as (in effect] an aristocratic vice. Initially it was easier to obtain support for the work of the Wolfenden Committee from Liberals and even Conservatives than from Labour stalwarts. When GeorgeBrinham, who had been chairman of the Labour Party from 1959 to 1960, was murdered by a hustler in 1962, the party offered no sympathy, only silence. Nonetheless, in Parliament the chief support for the AbseBill(19671, which decriminalized homosexual conduct among consenting adults in England and Wales, came from Labour Party members. Yet this step was taken in the form of a private mcmber's bill not officially supported by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Subsequently, homosexuality emerged as an issue in dispute between the "modern" sector of the party, consisting of intellectuals and elements of the upper middle class, as against the old-line trade unionists. The latter remained deeply suspicious of the championing of gay rights and other progressive social issues by the modem faction. In the 1980s Thatcherite electoral successes caused frustration that SOCIALWORK O heightened cleavages over social questions. In theBermondsey by-election of February 1983, when openly gay Peter Tatchell sought to be returned to Parliament as the official Labour candidate, his campaign suffered to systematic vilification at the hands of party stalwarts. In 1988 many Labour M.P.s voted for Clause 28, the notorious measure banning "promotion" of homosexuality.

Despite the checkered record in some countries, on the whole the growth of Social Democracy promoted a climate of liberalism in which, other factors permitting, a visible gay movement could flourish. In the early 1980s the French Socialist Party of Fran~ois Mitterand proved receptive to a number of requests from the homosexual movement, eliminating the last vestiges of the Vichy restrictions on homosexual conduct. The Spanish Socialists under Felipe GonzPlez enormously increased the whole sphere of sexual freedom. In Greece, however, the Socialist regime of Andreas Papandreou continued to repress homosexuality.

Conclusion. On the whole, the ideology of Social Democratic parties has been eclectic rather than doctrinaire, absorbing traits of nineteenth-century liberalism repudiated by the conservatives. At the same time they have been gingerly about offending lower middle-class deference to sexual "respectability," and they loathe to engage in a vigorous defense of gay rights in crucial electoral contests where the right (and sometimes the left) openly appeals to anti-homosexual prejudice. Despite these reservations, the progress achieved by the gay movement in Western and Central Europe would have been unimaginable without the intervention and support of the Social Democracy, however qualified in particular situations it may have been. BIBLIOGRAPHY.
Bob Cant and Susan Hemmings, eds., Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Goy History, London: Routledge, 1988; W. U. Eissler, Arbeiterparteien und Homosexuellenfrage: Zur Sexualpolitik von SPD und KPD in der Weimarer Republik, Hamburg: Verlag Rosa Winkel [recte: Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel], 1980; Hany Oosterhuis, "The Guilty Conscience of the Left," European Gay Review, 4 (19891, 72-80; James D. Steakley, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany, New York: Arno Press, 1975; Peter Tatchell, The Battle for Bermondsey, second ed., London: GMP Heretic Books, 1984.
William A. Percy

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