1920s >> 1925 >> no-251-july-1925

The Road to Power. An exposure of the Social Democats


In the June “Labour Monthly,” Mr. M. Philips Price, writing under the title “The Great Retreat,” gives a useful account of the position of the German working class since 1918, dealing in particular with the impotence of the Social Democratic Party and the treachery of its leaders. He quotes from a recent book, “Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik” (From Empire to Republic) by Richard Mueller, a Social Democrat who, in 1919 was chairman of the Berlin Workers’ Council. Mueller states (Vol. II., page 112) that when his council after the armistice drew up plans for the immediate workers’ control of industry in Berlin, the “Social Democratic Trade Union leaders protested ; they had already signed an agreement with the employers which was neither known to us nor to the public.” This agreement, it appears, bound the Trade Unions not to demand “any kind of workers’ control over the employers or insight into their financial transactions, in return for which the workers should get the eight-hour day.” (Price.) The ensuing years have shown, as might be expected, that even the eight-hour day was not to be safe when it suited the employers to attack it.

To excuse their refusal to attack the employers, at so opportune a moment, these leaders argued that if such an attack were made the allies would at once stop the supply of food for the starving. This was officially denied by the American Government, and the “Temps” (November 16th, 1918) declared that “The conditions which President Wilson put for the supply of food to Germany did not come from him, but were suggested to him by the German Chancellor himself.” (The Chancellor was the Social Democrat Ebert.) Again, the capitalist paper the “Frankfurter Zeitung” announced, “In actual fact, M. Clemenceau is quite indifferent to what form of government there is in Germany, whether it is Capitalistic or Socialistic, if Liebknecht is crowned Kaiser in Prussia or Prince Henry is elected President of the Republic in Kiel.”

What really happened was that “Vorwaerts” (Social Democrat Official Organ) got someone to telegraph to it from Holland that “the food which has been obtained abroad for Germany is being held back by the American Government because it is not certain if Germany can guarantee that she will have a free constitution . . .”

Ebert, when asking the U.S.A. for food for Germany, worded his telegram “provided that public order prevails there.” (Vol. II., page 118.)

This treachery was engineered, of course, to please the employing class, and to dissuade the workers from listening to the minority, who urged an attack on their class enemies.

The disclosure of these actions is useful, chiefly because it emphasises what we have always taught, that the workers can never afford to place uncontrolled power in the hands of leaders, no matter what their record and views may be. It is, however, no less essential to view these actions against the background provided by the general conditions and our knowledge of the rank and file. We must avoid the groundless assumption that different leadership could have altered the result materially.

The Socialist knows that there must be a majority of the working class understanding and determined on achieving Socialism before the real tasks of the socialistic revolution can even be begun. Given such a majority in possession of the machinery of government, with the powers and in the position of a ruling class, nothing but a possible capitalist revolt can stand between the workers and their object. Such a revolt would, in the nature of things, be foredoomed to failure, and need cause anxiety only to those who may be misguided enough to resist the forces of the State when the workers control those forces. We do not seek a majority out of any merely sentimental attachment to the idea of democracy. We need a majority because our aim is Socialism, and Socialism is democratic or it is nothing at all; only self-deception allows the belief that Capitalism is any the less Capitalism because in Russia it is administered by a Communist bureaucracy. Indeed, we do not have to look so far ahead to see the uselessness of minority action. Vain hopes to the contrary notwithstanding, there are not in existence any means by the use of which a minority can seize and keep the powers of government in modern democracies. Those who govern us on behalf of the Capitalist class do so with the active support or passive consent of the great majority of the workers. To oust them the minority which aspires to power would need to overwhelm not just the Capitalist few, but the mass of the workers as well. Merely to state this is to expose it for a wild and dangerous dream.

And, if further argument be necessary, what one minority could do, another minority could and would endeavour to undo. The knowledge of the numerical weakness of the revolutionary forces would naturally encourage the defeated Capitalists to a new trial of strength. Prolonged civil war may sound fine to young Communists, but Socialism does not from choice select such difficult beginnings.

The German Communists have signally failed to achieve anything tangible and lasting. Anxious for quick results and impatient of educational work to win the support of the workers, they have relied alternately on intrigue with Capitalist parties and on futile violence. They played with extreme nationalism and urged the workers to defend the interests of German Capitalists in the Ruhr against the French and British. They are now reaping their reward.

In the May, 1924, elections they polled over 12 per cent. of the votes cast; in December, 9 per cent.; in March, 1925, 7 per cent. ; and in April, 6.4 per cent. The Communist “short cut” does not lead to Socialism.

But while the Communist Party is no longer the danger that it was, those who believe that salvation for the workers lies along the road which is followed by the British Labour Party and the German Social Democratic Party, are more numerous than ever. The Communist does not appreciate the nature or the magnitude of the task of overthrowing Capitalism, and wants to set enthusiasm and pea-shooters against the organised might of the State. The Labour Party aims at organising a majority of the electorate, but does not seek the overthrow of Capitalism at all. It is a party not of Socialism but of reform; not of knowledge but of discontent. It lacks a definite and primary object on which to enforce unity among its self-centred and often hostile elements. Only on one issue is general unanimity possible; that is the search for some ground on which the exploited and the exploiters can live amicably together. Believing such amity to be pos-sible it rejects the Socialist solution of the abolition of private ownership in the means of life. The Labour Party view is that expressed by Mr. Clynes (“Daily Herald,” April 3, 1925) :

“If all classes can preserve the spirit that carried us through five years of terrible war, we can go forward in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill which will benefit the whole community.”

We believe on the contrary that the Capitalist class alone have an interest in promoting such co-operation. We want for society the property now owned by the employers, and we do not anticipate that they will yield it up with goodwill. We recall not with pride but with regret, the years when the workers of each nation willingly hated and fought the enemies of their respective sections of the ruling class. We urge not co-operation but the acceptance of the truth of our peacetime and wartime slogan “The enemy of the working class is the master class.”

And because the Labour Parties are not fighting for any fundamental change their method of organising is quite unlike that which is required to win Socialism. The Labour Parties command millions of votes and the support of thousands of active and devoted workers. They have highly-organised and richly-financed political machines for winning elections, and a press of growing power with which they endeavour to mould opinion. The Socialist Party lacks these things because its aim is Socialism, and there are as yet too few Socialists to make such widespread organisation possible. But of what use to the working: class are these millions of votes cast for Labour candidates and these electoral victories leading as they do merely to “colossal” parliamentary battles about taxes on silk stockings and such trivialities? Germany developed such a party well nigh to perfection and next to Germany, England. And what is there to show for it all?

They boast of the reforms, old age pensions, insurance schemes which have been initiated or at least amended through the influence they are able to exercise on the various governments; yet in spite of all, the condition of the workers gets worse year by year, and was getting worse for a decade before the war. This is true of Germany, England and America and of “our” colonies. It is the worsening conditions imposed by Capitalism which make reforms necessary to the Capitalists, and it is the vague discontent bred of worsening conditions which builds up these huge Labour Parties. The reforms are not the effect of the growing power of the Labour Parties. As George Washington learned by hard experience, “Influence is not Power.” The entry of Labour Leaders into Capitalist Cabinets and to their social functions merely shows how easily the non-Socialist rank and file are deceived by the gift of the shadow of power by those who keep tight hold on the substance.

Advising the ruling class what to do to stave off revolutionary discontent is not winning power for the working class. When Capitalism had its time of crisis the leaders and the machinery of the Labour Parties of the warring nations were openly employed to help the master class wage their war. This was the end in England, Germany, France, and in fact In every country the workers of which had followed the same unsound policy. Many have now realised the disastrous failure but have quite misunderstood the underlying causes.

Philips Price is one of these. He knows well the black record of the Social Democrats during the war. He knows how fully they deserved the epithet “the Kaiser’s Socialists,” and he must see that their policy after the armistice could not become suddenly and completely different from that which they had pursued before. But what he fails to see is that long years before the war the ground was being prepared and the harvest could be no other than it was and is. For him as for most of those who criticise the Social Democrats, 1914 was the year when what he calls “the pillar of the old International, the party of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht” threw over its Socialism and betrayed the workers of Germany. Thus he writes, for instance, that “an aristocracy has risen up during the last ten years in the party” (italics mine). This simply is not true. To the Socialist Party of Great Britain the internal rottenness and anti-Socialist outlook of the German S.D.P. were apparent long before the war, and consistently with our knowledge, we declined to share the current foolish confidence in the Second International. Neither it nor its affiliated societies were Socialist; how then could it or they take up a Socialist attitude to the war? Years of war were needed to teach this simple lesson to the founders of the Third International.

Yet as long ago as 1896 Bertrand Russell was able to see what was to prove the fatal defect of the S.D.P., although at the time he seems to have anticipated that the weakness would be overcome. In his “German Social Democracy” (1896, Longmans, page 131), he wrote as follows :—

” . . the elite of the Party acquire a dominion over their less intelligent and less definite companions; these are often very vague as to what Social Democracy is, and may even retain a liking for the military or a disbelief in Communism, totally inconsistent with the Party Programme.”

Russell quoted Paul Gohre, whose conclusions on the outlook of the party membership coincided with what he himself observed.

He goes on (page 132) :—

“The final alms of the Party, in particular, appear for the most part rather unpopular, so great a change as the abolition of private property was unintelligible to the average working man. The opposition to militarism, too . . was not shared, if Gohre may be believed, by any but the official members.”

He concludes :

“As, however, the official members alone are clear as to the aims to be pursued, and alone decide the choice of candidates, their views alone are represented in Parliament . . . the views of the rank and file, however different from those which find expression in party literature, do not seem to me to have any great political importance.”

Events have shown Bertrand Russell’s hope to be ill-founded. The views and lack of views of the rank and file proved to be all-important. Not being Socialists they were as easily led into war as they had been led before the war. Sheep do not at the cry of danger suddenly become lions. It would be absurd to expect those who looked with favour on peace-time militarism to turn against it when their own leaders ranted about the danger to the “Fatherland.”

Naturally too, years of wartime propaganda left the Social Democrats, war-weary though they were, still less ready to take a Socialist course of action. Philips Price charges the leaders with giving a wrong lead in 1919, but what else could he expect? Were the members who supported the German Capitalists in the war the kind of body to carry on a fight against the Capitalists and for Socialism immediately the war ended?

The party did not even command a majority in Germany. In 1919, they polled 45 per cent. of the votes, but that 45 per cent. did not represent Socialist convictions. It was a combination of all kinds of discontent, natural in a war-weary and defeated country, and it rapidly disappeared as the immediate and pressing causes receded. Lack of success soon turned uninstructed enthusiasm into apathy and even hostility, leading eventually to a revival of patriotism.

By 1920 the vote of the S.D.P. had fallen to 42 per cent. ; and by 1924 to 20 per cent. Although it rose again this year it reached only 30 per cent., and the issue of recent elections has never been Socialism or anything which plainly challenged the position or privilege of the ruling class.

All the efforts of all the years of S.D.P. activity have led up to the Presidential election of May, 1925, when S.D.P. members had to vote for one avowed Capitalist in order to defeat another avowed Capitalist candidate. They had not even the gratification of selling out to the winning opponent of the working class.

In the meantime our own Labour Party, superior to the lessons of past or contemporary history, gaily treads the same path to the same slaughter.


(Socialist Standard, July 1925)

Leave a Reply