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The lessons of the German elections

The most important lesson to be derived from the results of the recent elections in Germany is the fact that where the workers once attain full class-consciousness they can no longer be misled by the juggling and somersaults of the capitalist class. We therefore value election campaigns and political representation only in so far as they are a means for rousing the workers to full class consciousness. The organised forces of labour cannot gain permanent economic or social advantages unless they are prepared to seize the political machinery with the view to socialising the means of production and will back such effort by force to the degree of capitalist resistance. We also know that with the development of capitalism economic pressure is continually increasing and class-consciousness is forced  on ever wider circles of the proletariat.

Looking at things from the above standpoint we are neither discouraged by the loss of 38 Parliamentary seats to the German Socialist Party, nor are we unduly elated by the increase of close upon 250,000 votes gained by the Socialist candidates. We are merely concerned with the extent to which class-consciousness has grown among the working class of Germany, and while we deem it our duty to condemn in Germany, as at home, the policy of compromise and reform, we are ever ready to recognise the value of propaganda work from the uncompromising standpoint wherever such is persistently and unflinchingly pursued, and to note the pleasant fact that a small but steadily growing faction of the German Party has for some years put forward a tremendous effort to induce the Party to abandon its policy of reform and compromise. We are, however, compelled to state after considering all the circumstances, that the German Socialist Party have pursued and are still pursuing a policy that has resulted in conveying a false impression as to the real extent of class-consciousness among the German proletariat.

When the results of these elections became known, the capitalist class and their reptile Press in Germany and abroad naturally announced for the benefit of the many still class-unconscious wage-slaves that Socialism has been hopelessly shattered, although the increase of nearly a quarter-of-million votes for the Socialist candidates did not exactly furnish proofs for such a sweeping allegation. On the other hand the Socialist papers in Germany brought explanations for the Socialist reverses, showing exhaustively the influences traceable to ignorant hangers-on and factions of the capitalist class, but omitting, almost without exception, any allusion to the most important reason of all, viz., the influence of mistaken policy and tactics, in which compromise and reform played so significant a part. Being unable to accept these inadequate explanations which were in most cases put forth with dignity and caution, we naturally scorn the childish abuse levelled by some of the would-be Socialist organs at the “blatant bourgeoisie of Germany”. H.M. Hyndman, for instance, in Justice of February 2nd, 1907 says: “The Radicals in Germany, as elsewhere, are a cowardly set, physically and morally, but they may be compelled to join with the Social-Democrats and the Centre in opposing the Kaiser’s efforts to turn the world upside down”. When we mention that the same author has stated that the workers will be emancipated by a class above them, and that not so very long ago he appealed to the Radicals through the columns of Reynolds to join with the S.D.F. in promoting measures of reform, our readers will feel more amused than surprised at the above.

Insisting upon the truth that the working-class must emancipate itself from wage-slavery, we must confess that to us the most pleasing feature of these last elections is that all factions of the capitalist class without exception have at last thrown over the pretence of compromise with the Socialist Party and have actually compelled the latter to look for support to themselves alone. In face of this fact are the German Socialists prepared to tell us that they could not of their own accord long ago have taken up the position now practically forced upon them? Or, are they ready to solicit capitalist compromise as heretofore?

When soon after the last General Election in this country we were constrained to protest against Comrade Bebel’s action in sending a compromising telegram to Reynolds, on the grounds that it interfered with our propaganda, the Socialist, of S.L.P. renown, in its ardent desire to make us appear ridiculous, took up the defence of Bebel and said that the German Socialist Party were bound to compromise with the capitalist class, owing to the backwardness of the economic development in Germany. How strange that within twelve months of this incident the economic development in Germany has experienced such marvellous impetus that all the factions of the capitalist class, including even the Radicals, can afford to renounce all compromise with the Socialist Party! Some such for the wise-acres of the Socialist.

The German Socialist Party itself admits the necessity and immediate possibility of relying solely upon the support of the proletariat. In Vorwaerts of February 9th, 1907, an editorial article entitled, “The lessons of the Reichstag Elections” concludes with the following: –

“Whether the stage of social development in Germany of to-day is such as to already make possible the Socialist ‘aim’, is a futile question. This aim cannot be reached by one stroke; it presupposes transition stages. But that the division of classes created by the social development has progressed to that extent that the non-possessing class by virtue of their majority in numbers could conquer political power and produce the democratic and social preliminary conditions for the transition to Socialism, would be denied only by those who have not the least inkling of the statistics relating to occupations and incomes. For the Socialist Party it is only a question of making the majority of the non-possessing class conscious of their class position, of awakening the proletariat to class consciousness! That, however, can only be accomplished by the class struggle itself, by incessant warfare against the capitalist system, and not by concessions to capitalism”.

After this frank admission on the part of the German Socialist Party the Editor of the Socialist should take a back seat. The aforementioned excerpt, however, not only, as far as the German Socialist Party is concerned, demonstrates to the full a discrepancy between its practical pursuance of the class struggle and the admittedly only correct attitude, but it also gives more concisely the gist of the awkward and flimsy arguments used persistently by the S.D.F. and I.L.P. in defence of their advocacy of capitalist palliatives and reforms. It is certainly most ingenious on the part of Vorwaerts to make the need of transition stages the excuse for the advocacy of reforms and palliatives. What the workers (and that means the whole of Society) will do after the proletariat have seized control of the political machinery is a totally different question to what the wage-slave class must do to be emancipated.

If in 1903 the German Socialist Party succeeded in winning 81 seats in the Reichstag, it was merely due to the fact that many thousands of Radical bourgeois voted for Socialist candidates because they judged from the great stir the Revisionists were then making that the Socialist Party would at its Congress in Dresden in August embrace Revisionism and abjure the Social Revolution for ever. And on being rudely disappointed in their expectations these former allies of Bernstein, Calwer, and Co. returned to their own flock at the recent election; hence the loss of all the seats, which were formerly obtained by a mere snatch-vote among Radicals.

The first great blunder of the German Party is in retaining the revisionists, men who were, and still are, working for the fusion of bourgeois democrats with Socialist wage-workers. Then the false attitude on the colonial question of opposing colonisation in South West Africa on the grounds that it would not be profitable, instead of showing that the colonial policy meant nothing but an extension of the sphere of exploitation abroad, to the detriment of the wage-slaves at home. It was solely because the Centre Party succeeded in getting the Socialists to take up the same position as the Clericals regarding the colonial policy that the Centre was able to precipitate the Dissolution which suited its ends admirably. Helped by the false attitude of the Socialists, the Centre Party was triumphant all along the line and increased its number of members in the Reichstag as well as its number of votes.

Another source of weakness was the items of purely bourgeoisie reform on the program of the German Party. This attracted pro-capitalist voters and unreliable supporters, whereas a straightforward declaration of their revolutionary principles would have kept away those who could only be a cause of confusion and weakness. The contradictory tactics pursued at the second ballot as compared with the first were unworthy of a great worker’s party. At the first ballot the order was hostility  to all capitalist factions, but at the second ballot those Clerical and Radical candidates who gave an undertaking not to support interference with the franchise or right of combination of the workers, were officially recommended as deserving of Socialist support. And last, but by no means least, we have to condemn the efforts of the German Socialist Press for threatening the workers with a possible increase in rates and taxes, if they supported certain factions of the capitalist class. Seeing that rates and taxes form part of the surplus value robbed from the workers, that the workers during the most prosperous periods can obtain only a subsistence, it is nothing short of a crime to make the wage-workers believe that the question of rates and taxes can have any bearing on their position as wage-slaves. And it may perhaps interest our readers if we inform them that a few days before the election, Vorwaerts published a series of articles entitled: “The burden of taxation of the German and English workers”, wherein the position of the English workers was described as comparatively much better off than the German workers, “because of the greater burdens of taxation borne by the latter.” What wonder that the more cunning of the capitalist class, especially the Clericals and the Radicals, joyfully seized upon this declaration of the Socialists, and, promising the workers immediate relief in respect of the pressure of rates and taxes supposed to be endured by them, succeeded in obtaining in that way a great number of working-class votes.

Considering the  confusion caused in the minds of the German workers by the many false issues raised even by the Socialist Party, it is, of course, not possible to speak precisely regarding the number of workers who would be prepared to back the social revolution all the time. But there is every reason to believe that in at least twelve constituencies where the Socialist vote in 1903 was between 52 to 58 per cent of the electorate, and where at the recent elections there had been throughout an increase of 2 to 3 per cent, that there are many who thoroughly understand the working-class position. 18 other constituencies were also won on the first ballot, in which the Socialist vote was about half the total. Among the 21 constituencies lost at the second ballot there were 14 which had been won in 1903 at the first ballot with between 40 and 50 percent of the poll. Two constituencies, Breslau West, hitherto represented by Edward Bernstein; and Zschopau-Gekenan, until a few months ago represented by Schippel, who resigned, were plainly lost because the Revisionist Radicals were disgusted with the attitude taken up by the Party at their Dresden Congress and also because a number abstained from voting in order to shake off Bernstein.

It is true that the German Socialist Party has nothing to grumble at from the truly Socialist, that is the propaganda standpoint, seeing that of the 662,323 votes recorded in excess of the number given in 1903, the Socialist Party received 248,197. And if we consider that the Party vote has become much more proletarian and less weak-kneed owing to the thousands of Radicals leaving the Socialist ranks, we are justified in saying that the result of the recent election is by far sounder and more hopeful than that of 1903.

We should only be able to gauge the extent of class consciousness among the German workers if the Party would throw overboard all reforms and compromise and, organising the workers in the political and economic field on the lines of the class struggle alone, would offer a united front of revolutionary hostility to the possessing class.

There is no gainsaying that the German Party possess the material needful for such a fight; many good speakers, writers and organisers, 60 daily, 15 weekly, and 27 trades’ papers and ammunition galore in other directions. Let us hope that the criticism given in a fair, comrade-like spirit, will be of some assistance in bringing the oldest section of the international labour movement to the reconsideration of their tactics and their adopting in the near future a position of “no compromise”, and of hostility to capitalism every time and all the time.

H.J.N.
(Socialist Standard, March 1907)