Eduard Bernstein

Socialism in the German Reichstag
and on the German Throne

(March 1890)

Source: Time, March 1890, p.276-283.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The anti-socialist law, or the Law against the dangerous movement of the Social Democracy in its present form holds until September 30, 1890. As the Reichstag was to dissolve on February 20, and a new Reichstag was to be elected before the end of March, there was no immediate reason to submit the prolongation of that law to the old Reichstag.

But there were many political reasons for the government of Prince Bismarck to settle this matter in conjunction with the old Reichstag. In this he had a strong Government majority, and there was and is no hope of getting that majority again. It raised the taxes on the most necessary commodities enormously; it misused the power obtained by the false rumour of an imminent war to diminish the political rights of the people; it prolonged the duration of the Reichstag from three years to five. As the Reichstag has only a limited influence in legislation, and none in administrative matters, this means a considerable weakening of the influence of the electorate. Public opinion in Germany is agreed that at the election of February 20, the Government parties will lose many seats. Sixteen seats lost by the Government destroy its majority, which would be reduced to 198 votes against 109 votes of the opposition, who have declared against the anti-socialist law. Of course, there is no absolute reliance upon the middle-class opposition. In spite of their declarations and declamations against the law, they have often by means of concerted temporary desertions helped to prolong it, but it is always uncertain how far they would go, and what compensation, e.g., the Catholic centre would require for their help. Moreover, the opposition would not and could not prolong the law except for short terms, whilst Prince Bismarck is anxious to get it voted for a very long term, or, if possible, for ever.

So it is easy to understand why he brought before the dying “Cartell Reichstag” the question of the prolongation of the exceptiona1 law. The bill he proposed contained some very slight and unimportant mitigations of the present law, but demanded to leave the law indefinitely prolonged. This has quite another bearing in Germany from that which it would have in England. The German Reichstag has the power to refuse a bill the Government proposes, but it has no power to enforce a bill the Government refuses, Thus in the early years of the Empire, the Reichstag voted, session after session, by an overwhelming majority, a bill concerning the payment of its members, and, session after session, the Government dropped it into its waste paper-basket until the Socialist deputies declared that as the leading parties of the Reichstag had neither the power nor the will to carry out their proposals, they, the Socialists, refused to take further part in the farce. Thereupon, the majority shamefastly resolved never to bring in that bill again.

This example, which could be paralleled by many others, will show that once voted sine die the anti-socialist law cannot be abolished by the popular will, save by a revolution. By legislation the slightest alteration of the law cannot be obtained if the Government opposes.

It is a significant fact that the liberal wing of the Government, the so-called National Liberals, did not oppose the important clause which implies a reduction of the influence of parliament, as it would perpetuate a law which they have themselves always declared a pis-aller that ought to be abolished as soon as possible. But they had consolation. They always had argued for the desirability of doing away, one day – which never came – with the exceptional law and returning to the ordinary law. This clause however, meant not a return to the ordinary law, but that the law would become a special law, and thus the exceptional law be got rid of.

At the same time that the National Liberal party declared for the perpetuation of the anti-socialist laws, it declared against the clause which gives the authorities in places where the minor state of siege exists, power to expel every individual whom they believe dangerous to “public order and security” (sec. 28, III).

Now, that paragraph has of late years become the most innocent one in the whole law. Why, it is easy to explain. Its effect has been exactly the contrary of what was expected. It revolted public opinion to see people expelled from their homes, their friends and family; and instead of restraining the spread of Socialism the expulsions helped to forward it. So, too, in places where there was the minor state of siege, they did not at all weaken the Socialist movement. The police authorities of Berlin may expel thousands of Socialists, but what use is that in a town where a hundred thousand workers belong to the Socialist party?

At last the authorities understood that they could not do more than drive the most active members of the Social Democracy from the large towns into the provinces. For more than three years no Socialist has been expelled from Berlin, and very few from other places. Further, Socialists expelled from Leipzig, Hamburg, etc., allowed to live in Berlin, are as politically active there as if no state of siege existed at all.

These failures led two years ago to the proposal authorizing the authorities to expatriate Socialists for certain political offences. A general cry of indignation rose. Except a few Conservative members, all parties in the Reichstag voted against it. The bill fell through, but the name of its author should never be forgotten. It is Herr von Puttkammer, then minister of state in Prussia.

In its actual form the expulsion paragraph is of no use to the Government and does no harm to Socialism. Yet this was the very paragraph the National Liberal party declared absolutely impossible. They would swallow the suppression of all political rights, but that useless paragraph – never. It was notable that the chief speakers of the party kept in the background.

The Conservative party was for all the Government demanded and more. The leader of that party, Herr von Helldorf-Bedra, declared that in his opinion and that of his friends the proposed bill was too mild, and Herr von Kardorf, a member of the so-called Liberal, or Free Conservative party, that should the law in its new form not prove efficient, it would be necessary to return to the idea of expatriation. The middle class opposition parties voted unanimously against the whole law. The speakers of the Catholic centre, however, took care not to engage their party for the future, and declared themselves prepared to render yet more severe certain articles of the penal code (e.g., those dealing with blasphemy, etc.).

Spokesmen of the Social Democratic Party either refuted the arguments of the advocates of repression, as the cases of Herr Liebknecht’s powerful speech, or they criticised the application of the law and the officials who applied it. Very serious were the accusations Herren Bebel, Dietz, Frohme, Grillenberger and Singer brought before the house. “You may ruin us individually,” was the burden of their speeches, “but you are impotent against the movement we represent.”

Perhaps the most important speech was that of Herr Bebel on the third reading of the bill. Even the most hostile papers, even the Kölnishe Zeitung, recognize the great impression made by it. There is not much art in Bebel’s speeches. They are in no way rhetorical. Yet, in the Reichstag, no speaker is listened to more attentively than he. His frankness, his common sense, his sharp conception of the striking points of a question, his wonderful command of facts, his simple manner of explaining them are admired by every one. And recently at the great Elberfeld Trial of 87 Socialists, as members of a secret society whose aim is to distribute the Sozial Demokrat, Bebel was one of the accused, but he, with forty-six others, was acquitted. This trial was the outcome of the anti-socialist law, and Bebel showed the Reichstag what corruption that law has brought into political life in Germany; what corruption of the police was laid bare before the tribunal of Elberfeld.

So deep was the impression made by the revelations of the Socialist speakers upon the Reichstag, that even a Conservative member, the prince Carolath Schönaich, was bound to declare against the proceedings of the police authorities. His speech caused a great sensation, but on the whole, its significance has been much exaggerated, especially by the foreign press. It contains nothing but common-places. The prince was ready to vote permanency for the whole law, with the exception of the expulsion clause. How little that clause meant practically, has already been shown.

The real significance of Prince Carolath’s speech was that it showed once more the uncertainty and confusion in the ranks of the ruling circles in Germany. The prince is a high official in Prussia, he is nearly connected with the Berlin Court, and the first to congratulate him on his speech was the Duke of Ratibor, one of the richest and most influential members of the Prussian aristocracy.

The attitude of the Government was not less uncertain. Prince Bismarck, during the whole three readings of the prolongation bill, did not appear. Minister Herrfurth, hitherto known as an adherent of the more moderate employment of the coercion law, struggled desperately to save the very paragraphs he has hitherto ignored as useless. Poor Herrfurth is wronged by the Daily News, which called him for his “imbecile speech of the 27th of January, a grotesque wiseacre.” The imbeci1ity of that and other speeches of Herr Herrfinth was principally due to his very imbecile position. The less you are convinced of a position you have to defend, the less will your arguments contain “anything to admire,” (see Daily News, 25th of January).

Why did the Government refuse to have the bill without the expulsion clause? The advantage of having the other coercive measures assured for ever, is so great that there was no reason for not accepting them, and leaving the expulsion question open, to be settled at a moment more favourable to the Government. Either the whole fight between the Government and the National Liberals was from beginning to end an election manoeuvre, a comedy in which Herr Herrfurth was to play the part of villain, in order to give the Governmental Liberals a chance of playing popular heroes; or the fight in the Reichstag was only the reflex of a still fiercer fight behind the scenes, perhaps within the Government itself. Be this as it may, in the dropping of the whole bill on the final division by the stalwart arch-conservatives voting with the opposition took place with the consent of the Government, there is no reason to speak of a parliamentary defeat for the latter. It is more, it is a moral defeat.

The rulers in Germany are in a great dilemma. They feel the necessity of regaining the confidence of the working classes, or, at least, of preventing them from strengthening the army of Social Democracy. All they have done so far has had exactly the opposite result. From day to day Social Democracy grows stronger and stronger in Germany, and especially since William II. began to reign. Brought up after the war of 1870, in the era of national inebriation and jingoism, this young man was full of the stupid prejudices of the time, and believed his flatterers, who told him that he could stamp his own mind upon the whole nation. But he was soon disenchanted. His addresses to the German workers had an effect exactly the reverse of what he expected. When, e.g., in January 1889, he was in Breslau, the capital of Silesia, some servile employers of that town arranged a torchlight procession of workers in his honour. By means of pressure and bribery they succeeded in making it rather a large one. A deputation was formed with the so-called Christian workers’ candidate at its head, and the young Kaiser was very pleased to welcome them. He expressed to them his delight, promised the workers many things, and at the end warned them against the Social Democrats, who were enemies to the empire. The official press was full of the bond between the Emperor and the workers. Some days after, a bye-election took place in Breslau. Six thousand workers were said to have been in the procession; but at the poll the Christian workers’ candidate, for whom also the Catholics and the small masters voted, polled only 1,481 votes; whilst the Social Democrat polled 7,799 votes, and in a second ballot with the Progressist, was elected. What happened with the Westphalian miners is well known. Not only the three members of the deputation they sent to the Emperor, declared later in favour of Social Democracy, but in all tine miners’ districts of the empire, the workers are showing more and more their adherence to the Social Democratic party. And that in spite of the fact, that the leaders of the party had in the beginning refused to interfere in the miners’ movement, in order to avoid getting then into difficulties.

During the last days of the Reichstag’s sittings it was shown how great is the influence of the leader of the Social Democratic party upon the German workers. Exasperated by the bad faith of their employers, the Westphalian miners intended to recommence the strike. Circumstances were very unfavourable, and so some leaders of the Social Democratic party wrote urging them to abstain for the moment from striking. This was done. No political party enjoys such confidence on the part of the rank and file as the outlawed party of Bebel and Liebknecht. Herr Herrfurth has in vain tried to deny it; in Germany Social Democracy is really the party of the working classes.

There is no hope of succeeding by coercion in weakening the influence of the party upon the workers. On the contrary, the workers regard every blow against the party as directed against themselves. Hence the indecision in Government circles. Is it more useful to have the coercion law prorogued before the elections and so give the Socialist and the Working Class agitation a stronger impetus, whilst the middle classes feel perfectly protected, or to let the question remain unsettled and so appeal to the cowardice of the middle-class Philistines? The latter course has been chosen, but it was easy to see that it would not suffice to guarantee a Government majority at the elections. Something had to be done in that direction. Hence the Rescripts of the Emperor to the Chancellor and to the ministers of Commerce and Public Works about the willingness of the former to bring about something important in the way of factory legislation. It is impossible to deny that their publication just now is intended to get up an election cry.

Certainly there is some sort of rivalry between the Emperor and the Chancellor. The former is very ambitious, the latter very obstinate. At first he was sensible enough to allow the young Emperor to go his own way, and compromise himself. In this he was not mistaken. William II became in the first year of his reign immensely unpopular, and Bismarck hoped to play with him too the part of saviour from the red spectre. For years past William has been fed with awful tales about the dark purposes of Social Democracy. For instance, in the year 1885, riding by train from Berlin to Potsdam, he saw at the station outside that town some lads, of whom the first had his handkerchief, which happened to be red, fixed to his stick as a banner. The then Prince of Prussia, on his arrival, went immediately to the police and denounced a very dangerous Socialist demonstration. The lads had to undergo an enquiry, but, of course, were acquitted. William’s feelings in that way have not much altered, but he seems to have grown doubtful as to the saving grace of Prince Bismarck. One need be no phenomenon of sagacity to come to this conclusion, for so far as Social Democracy is concerned, Prince Bismarck’s policy has only been a series of failures.

On the other hand, the Chancellor is an old sceptic, the Emperor an enterprising young fellow full of the desire to do something very stupendous. The Chancellor, besides his official position, is a big employer and factory owner, and a very greedy one at that. The Emperor is surrounded by military men and people who are not directly interested in industrial enterprises. So he has not Prince Bismarck’s hatred for factory legislation and factory inspection, and no direct interest opposes itself to his desire to allow the State and its officials to play at being public benefactors.

Such are the reasons for the imperial Rescripts which have caused such a sensation. To criticise them is not my object. I would only point out that it is a mistake to suppose they will help to take the wind out of the sails of Social Democracy, as some English middle-class papers have prophesied they will. On the contrary. German Social Democracy is far too strong for this, and the workers too intelligent. They are not taken in by rescripts and good intentions. But even it some advantage should be gained, they would never forget that it is due to the agitation of Social Democracy. Before this article is published, the elections will have shown that no manoeuvre can stop the growth of this party. It will come out of the fight stronger than ever, and no success will divert it from the line of conduct it has determined upon: – To have no interests separate from those of the workers; never to force upon the workers tactics which are not their own; to have no policy of hazard, but one of energy and steadfastness. Thus it has become a power in Germany; thus it has overcome all persecution; thus it has now succeeded in forcing its greatest adversary to work for one of its own proposals, a proposal he only a few years ago derided; and thus it hopes to attain its final aim: the social and political emancipation of the Working Class.


E. Bernstein

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