Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII: The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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VII: The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany
Knowledge concerning Germany and the evolution and present-day actions of Nazism is obscured by the legends about the German Social Democrats.
The older legend, developed before 1914, runs like this: The German bourgeoisie have betrayed freedom to German militarism. They have taken refuge with the imperial government in order to preserve, through the protection of the Prussian Army, their position as an exploiting class, which was menaced by the fair claims of labor. But the cause of democracy and freedom, which the bourgeois have deserted, has found new advocates in the proletarians. The Social Democrats are gallantly fighting Prussian militarism. The Emperor and his aristocratic officers are eager to preserve feudalism. The bankers and industrialists, who profit from armaments, have hired corrupt writers in order to spread a nationalist ideology and to make the world believe that Germany is united in nationalism. But the proletarians cannot be deceived by the nationalist hirelings of big business. Thanks to the education that they got from the Social Democrats they see through this fraud. Millions vote the socialist ticket and return to Parliament members fearlessly opposing militarism. The Kaiser and his generals arm for war, but they fail to take account of the people’s strength and resolution. There are the 110 socialist members of Parliament.* Behind them are millions of workers organized in the trade-unions who vote for the Social Democrats, in addition to other voters, who—although not registered members of the party—also vote its ticket. They all combat nationalism. They stand with the (second) International Working Men’s Association, and are firmly resolved to oppose war at all costs. These truly democratic and pacifist men can be relied upon without hesitation. They, the workers, are the deciding factor, not the exploiters and parasites, the industrialists and Junkers.
The personalities of the Social Democratic leaders were well known all over the world. The public listened whenever they addressed the Reichstag or party congresses. Their books were translated into nearly every language and read everywhere. Led by such men, mankind seemed to be marching toward a better future.
Legends die hard. They blind the eyes and close the mind against criticism or experience. It was in vain that Robert Michels* and Charles Andler† tried to give a more realistic picture of the German Social Democrats. Not even the later events of the first World War shattered these illusions. To the old legend, instead, a new one was added.
This new legend goes: Before the outbreak of the first World War the party’s great old men, Bebel and Liebknecht, unfortunately died. Their successors, mainly intellectuals and other professional politicians of nonproletarian background, betrayed the party’s principles. They coöperated with the Kaiser’s policy of aggression. But the workers, who in their capacity as proletarians naturally and necessarily were socialist, democratic, revolutionary, and internationally minded, deserted these traitors and replaced them by new leaders, old Liebknecht’s son Karl and Rosa Luxemburg. The workers, not their old dishonest leaders, made the Revolution of 1918 and dethroned the Kaiser and other German princes. But the capitalists and the Junkers did not give up the game. The treacherous party leaders Noske, Ebert, and Scheidemann aided them. For fourteen long years the workers fought a life-and-death struggle for democracy and freedom. But, again and again betrayed by their own leaders, they were doomed to fail. The capitalists concocted a satanic scheme which finally brought them victory. Their armed gangs seized power, and now Adolf Hitler, the puppet of big business and finance, rules the country. But the masses despise this wretched hireling. They yield unwillingly to the terrorism which has overpowered them, and they gallantly prepare the new decisive rebellion. The day of victory for genuine proletarian communism, the day of liberation, is already dawning.
Every word of these legends distorts the truth.
Marxism and the Labor Movement
Karl Marx turned to socialism at a time when he did not yet know economics and because he did not know it. Later, when the failure of the Revolution of 1848 and 1849 forced him to flee Germany, he went to London. There, in the reading room of the British Museum, he discovered in the ’fifties not, as he boasted, the laws of capitalist evolution, but the writings of British political economy, the reports published by the British Government, and the pamphlets in which earlier British socialists used the theory of value as expounded by classical economics for a moral justification of labor’s claims. These were the materials out of which Marx built his “economic foundations” of socialism.
Before he moved to London Marx had quite naïvely advocated a program of interventionism. In the Communist Manifesto in 1848 he expounded ten measures for imminent action. These points, which are described as “pretty generally applicable in the most advanced countries,” are defined as “despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois methods of production.” Marx and Engels characterize them as “measures, economically unsatisfactory and untenable, but which in the course of events outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order and are indispensable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the whole mode of production.”* Eight of these ten points have been executed by the German Nazis with a radicalism that would have delighted Marx. The two remaining suggestions (namely, expropriation of private property in land and dedication of all rents of land to public expenditure, and abolition of all right of inheritance) have not yet been fully adopted by the Nazis. However, their methods of taxation, their agricultural planning, and their policies concerning rent restriction are daily approaching the goals determined by Marx. The authors of the Communist Manifesto aimed at a step-by-step realization of socialism by measures of social reform. They were thus recommending procedures which Marx and the Marxians in later years branded as socio-reformist fraud.
In London, in the ’fifties, Marx learned very different ideas. The study of British political economy taught him that such acts of intervention in the operation of the market would not serve their purpose. From then on he dismissed such acts as “petty-bourgeois nonsense” which stemmed from ignorance of the laws of capitalist evolution. Class-conscious proletarians are not to base their hopes on such reforms. They are not to hinder the evolution of capitalism as the narrow-minded petty bourgeois want to. The proletarians, on the contrary, should hail every step of progress in the capitalist system of production. For socialism will not replace capitalism until capitalism has reached its full maturity, the highest stage of its own evolution. “No social system ever disappears before all the productive forces are developed for the development of which it is broad enough, and new higher methods of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have been hatched out in the womb of the previous society.”* Therefore there is but one road toward the collapse of capitalism—i.e., the progressive evolution of capitalism itself. Socialization through the expropriation of capitalists is a process “which executes itself through the operation of the inherent laws of capitalist production.” Then “the knell of capitalistic private property sounds.”† Socialism dawns and “ends . . . the primeval history of human society.”‡
From this viewpoint it is not only the endeavors of social reformers eager to restrain, to regulate, and to improve capitalism that must be deemed vain. No less contrary to purpose appear the plans of the workers themselves to raise wage rates and their standard of living, through unionization and through strikes, within the framework of capitalism. “The very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scales in favor of the capitalist against the workingman,” and “consequently the general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise but to sink the average standard of wages.” Such being the tendency of things within the capitalist system, the most that trade-unionism can attempt is to make “the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement.” Trade-unions ought to understand that and to change their policies entirely. “Instead of the conservative motto: A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work, they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: Abolition of the wages system!”*
These Marxian ideas might impress some Hegelians steeped in dialectics. Such doctrinaires were prepared to believe that capitalist production begets “with the inexorability of a law of nature its own negation” as “negation of negation,”† and to wait until, “with the change of the economic basis,” the “whole immense superstructure will have, more or less rapidly, accomplished its revolution.”‡ A political movement for the seizure of power, as Marx envisaged it, could not be built up on such beliefs. Workers could not be made supporters of them. It was hopeless to look for coöperation on the ground of such views from the labor movement, which did not have to be inaugurated but was already in existence. This labor movement was essentially a trade-union movement. Fully impregnated with ideas branded as petty bourgeois by Marx, unionized labor sought higher wage rates and fewer hours of work; it demanded labor legislation, price control of consumer’s goods, and rent restriction. The workers sympathized not with Marxian teachings and the recipes derived from them but with the program of the interventionists and the social reformers. They were not prepared to renounce their plans and wait quietly for the far-distant day when capitalism was bound to turn into socialism. These workers were pleased when the Marxian propagandists explained to them that the inevitable laws of social evolution had destined them for greater things, that they were chosen to replace the rotten parasites of capitalist society, that the future was theirs. But they wanted to live for their own day, not for a distant future, and they asked for an immediate payment on account of their future inheritance.
The Marxians had to choose between a rigid uncompromising adherence to their master’s teachings and an accommodating adaptation to the point of view of the workers, who could provide them with honors, power, influence and, last but not least, with a nice income. They could not resist the latter temptation, and yielded. They kept on discussing Marxian dialectics in the midst of their own circles; Marxism, moreover, had an esoteric character. But out in the open they talked and wrote in a different way. They headed the labor movement for which wage raises, labor legislation, and social insurance provisions were of greater importance than sophisticated discussions concerning “the riddle of the average rate of profit.” They organized consumer’s coöperatives and housing societies; they backed all the anticapitalist policies which they stigmatized in their Marxian writings as petty-bourgeois issues. They did everything that their Marxian theories denounced as nonsense, and they were prepared to sacrifice all their principles and convictions if some gain at the next election campaign could be expected from such a sacrifice. They were implacable doctrinaires in their esoteric books and un-principled opportunists in their political activities.
The German Social Democrats developed this double-dealing into a perfect system. There was on the one side the very narrow circle of initiated Marxians, whose task it was to watch over the purity of the orthodox creed and to justify the party’s political actions, incompatible with these creeds, by some paralogisms and fallacious inferences. After the death of Marx, Engels was the authentic interpreter of Marxian thought. With the death of Engels, Kautsky inherited this authority. He who deviated an inch from the correct dogma had to recant submissively or face pitiless exclusion from the party’s ranks. For all those who did not live on their own funds such an exclusion meant the loss of the source of income. On the other hand, there was the huge, daily increasing body of party bureaucrats, busy with the political activities of the labor movement. For these men the Marxian phraseology was only an adornment to their propaganda. They did not care a whit for historical materialism or for the theory of value. They were interventionists and reformers. They did whatever would make them popular with the masses, their employers. This opportunism was extremely successful. Membership figures and contributions to the party, its trade unions, coöperatives, and other associations increased steadily. The party became a powerful body with a large budget and thousands of employees. It controlled newspapers, publishing houses, printing offices, assembly halls, boarding houses, coöperatives, and plants to supply the needs of the coöperatives. It ran a school for the education of the rising generation of party executives. It was the most important agency in the Reich’s political structure, and was paramount in the Second International Working Men’s Association.
It was a serious mistake not to perceive this dualism, which housed under the same roof two radically different principles and tendencies, incompatible and incapable of being welded together. For it was the most characteristic feature of the German Social Democratic party and of all parties formed abroad after its model. The very small groups of zealous Marxians—probably never more than a few hundred persons in the whole Reich—were completely segregated from the rest of the party membership. They communicated with their foreign friends, especially with the Austrian Marxians (the “Austro-Marxian doctrinaires”), the exiled Russian revolutionaries, and with some Italian groups. In the Anglo-Saxon countries Marxism in those days was practically unknown. With the daily political activities of the party these orthodox Marxians had little in common. Their points of view and their feelings were strange, even disgusting, not only to the masses but also to many party bureaucrats. The millions voting the Social Democratic ticket paid no attention to these endless theoretical discussions concerning the concentration of capital, the collapse of capitalism, finance capital and imperialism, and the relations between Marxian materialism and Kantian criticism. They tolerated this pedantic clan because they saw that they impressed and frightened the “bourgeois” world of statesmen, entrepreneurs, and clergymen, and that the government-appointed university professors, that German Brahmin caste, took them seriously and wrote voluminous works about Marxism. But they went their own way and let the learned doctors go theirs.
Much has been said concerning the alleged fundamental difference between the German labor movement and the British. But it is not recognized that a great many of these differences were of an accidental and external character only. Both labor parties desired socialism; both wanted to attain socialism gradually by reforms within the framework of capitalist society. Both labor movements were essentially trade-union movements. For German labor in the imperial Reich Marxism was only an ornament. The Marxians were a small group of literati.
The antagonism between the Marxian philosophy and that of labor organized in the Social Democratic party and its affiliated trade-unions became crucial the instant the party had to face new problems. The artificial compromise between Marxism and labor interventionism broke down when the conflict between doctrine and policies spread into fields which up to that moment had had no practical significance. The war put the party’s alleged internationalism to the test, as the events of the postwar period did its alleged democratic tendencies and its program of socialization.
The German Workers and the German State
For an understanding of the role played by the Social Democratic labor movement within imperial Germany, a correct conception of the essential features of trade-unionism and its methods is indispensable. The problem is usually dealt with from the viewpoint of the right of workers to associate with one another. But this is not at all the question. No liberal government has ever denied anybody the right to form associations. Furthermore, it does not matter whether the laws grant or do not grant the employees and wage earners the right to break contracts ad libitum. For even if the workers are legally liable to indemnify the employer concerned, practical expediency renders the claims of the employer worthless.
The chief method which trade-unions can and do apply for the attainment of their aims—more favorable terms for labor—is the strike. At this point of our inquiry we do not need to discuss again whether trade-unions can ever succeed in raising wages, lastingly and for all workers, above the rates fixed by the unhampered market; we need merely mention the fact that economic theory—both the old classic theory, including its Marxian wing, and the modern, including its socialist wing—categorically answers this question in the negative.* We are here concerned only with the problem of what kind of weapon trade-unions employ in their dealings with employers. The fact is that all their collective bargaining is conducted under the threat of a suspension of labor. Union spokesmen argue that a yellow or company union is a spurious union, because it objects to recourse to strike. If the labor unions were not to threaten the employer with a strike, their collective bargaining would succeed no better than the individual bargaining of each worker. But a strike may be frustrated by the refusal of some of the workers to join it, or the entrepreneur’s employing strikebreakers. The trade-unions use intimidation and coercion against everyone who tries to oppose the strikers. They resort to acts of violence against the persons and property of both strikebreakers and entrepreneurs or executives who try to employ strikebreakers. In the course of the nineteenth century the workers of all countries achieved this privilege, not so much by explicit legislative sanction as by the accommodating attitudes of the police and the courts. Public opinion has espoused the unions’ cause. It has approved strikes, stigmatized strikebreakers as treacherous scoundrels, approved the punishment inflicted by organized labor on reluctant employers and on strikebreakers, and reacted strongly when the authorities tried to interfere to protect the assaulted. A man who ventures to oppose trade-unions has been practically an outlaw, to whom the protection of the government is denied. A law of custom has been firmly established that entitles trade-unions to resort to coercion and violence.
This resignation on the part of the governments has been less conspicuous in the Anglo-Saxon countries, where custom always allowed a wider field for the individual’s redress of his private grievances, than in Prussia and the rest of Germany, where the police were almighty and accustomed to interfere in every sphere of life. Woe to anybody who in the realm of the Hohenzollerns was found guilty of the slightest in-fraction of one of the innumerable decrees and “verboten”! The police were busy interfering, and the courts pronounced draconic sentences. Only three kinds of infringements were tolerated. Dueling, although prohibited by the penal code, was practically free, within certain limits, to commissioned officers, university students, and men of that social rank. The police also connived when drunken members of smart university students’ clubs kicked up a row, disturbed quiet people, and took their pleasures in other kinds of disorderly conduct. Of incomparably greater importance, however, was the indulgence granted to the excesses usually connected with strikes. Within a certain sphere the violent action of strikers was tolerated.
It is in the nature of every application of violence that it tends toward a transgression of the limit within which it is tolerated and viewed as legitimate. Even the best discipline cannot always prevent police officers from striking harder than circumstances require, or prison wardens from inflicting brutalities on inmates. Only formalists, cut off from reality, fall into the illusion that fighting soldiers can be induced to observe the rules of warfare strictly. Even if the field customarily assigned for the violent action of trade unions had been limited in a more precise manner, transgressions would have occurred. The attempt to put boundaries around this special privilege has led again and again to conflicts between officials and strikers. And because the authorities time and again could not help interfering, sometimes even with the use of weapons, the illusions spread that the government was assisting the employers. For that reason the public’s attention has been diverted from the fact that employers and strikebreakers were within broad limits at the mercy of the strikers. Wherever there was a strike, there was within certain limits no longer any government protection for the opponents of the trade unions. Thus the unions became in effect a public agency entitled to use violence to enforce their ends, as were later the pogrom gangs in Czarist Russia and the Storm Troopers in Nazi Germany.
That the German Government granted these privileges to the trade unions became of the highest importance in the course of German affairs. Thus from the 1870’s on successful strikes became possible. There had been some strikes, it is true, before then in Prussia. But at that time conditions were different. The employers could not find strikebreakers in the neighborhood of plants located in small places; and the backward state of transportation facilities, the laws restricting freedom of migration within the country, and lack of information about labor market conditions in other districts prevented them from hiring workers from distant points. When these circumstances changed, strikes could only be successful when supported by threats, violence, and intimidation.
The imperial government never seriously considered altering its pro-union policy. In 1899, seemingly yielding to the demands of the employers and nonunionized workers, it brought up in the Reichstag a bill for the protection of nonstrikers. This was merely a deception. For the lack of protection of those ready to work was not due to the inadequacy or defectiveness of the existing penal code but to the purposeful neglect of the valid laws on the part of the police and other authorities. Neither the laws nor the rulings of the courts played any real role in this matter. As the police did not interfere and the state’s attorneys did not prosecute, the laws were not enforced and the tribunals had no opportunity to pass judgment. Only when the trade unions transgressed the actual limits drawn by the police could a case be brought to the tribunals. The government was firmly resolved not to change this state of affairs. It was not eager to induce Parliament to agree to the proposed bill; and Parliament in fact rejected it. If the government had taken the bill seriously, Parliament would have proceeded quite differently. The German Government knew very well how to make the Reichstag yield to its wishes.
The outstanding fact in modern German history was the imperial government’s entering into a virtual alliance and factual political coöperation with all groups hostile to capitalism, free trade, and an unhampered market economy. Hohenzollern militarism tried to fight “bourgeois” liberalism and “plutocratic” parliamentarism by associating with the pressure groups of labor, farming, and small business. It aimed at substituting, for what it called a system of unfair exploitation, government interference with business and, at a later stage, all-round national planning.
The ideological and speculative foundations of this system were laid down by the socialists of the chair,1 a group of professors monopolizing the departments of the social sciences at the German universities. These men, whose tenets were almost identical with those later held by the British Fabians and the American Institutionalists, acted, as it were, as the brain trust of the government. The system itself was called by its supporters Sozialpolitik, or das soziale Königtum der Hohenzollern. Neither expression lends itself to a literal translation. Perhaps they should be translated as New Deal; for their main features—labor legislation, social security, endeavors to raise the price of agricultural products, encouragement of coöperatives, a sympathetic attitude toward trade-unionism, restrictions imposed on stock exchange transactions, heavy taxation of corporations—corresponded to the American policy inaugurated in 1933.*
The new policy was inaugurated at the end of the ’seventies and was solemnly advertised in an imperial message of November 17, 1881. It was Bismarck’s aim to outdo the Social Democrats in measures beneficial to labor interests. His old-fashioned autocratic inclinations pushed him into a hopeless fight against the Social Democratic leaders. His successors dropped the antisocialist laws but unswervingly continued the Sozialpolitik. It was with regard to British policies that Sidney Webb said, as early as in 1889: “It may now fairly be claimed that the socialist philosophy of today is but the conscious and explicit assertion of principles of social organization which have been already in great part unconsciously adopted. The economic history of the century is an almost continuous record of the progress of socialism.”† However, in those years German Sozialpolitik was far ahead of contemporary British reformism.
The German socialists of the chair gloried in the achievements of their country’s social progress. They prided themselves on the fact that Germany was paramount in pro-labor policies. It escaped their notice that Germany could eclipse Great Britain in matters of social legislation and trade-unionism only because its protective tariff and its cartels raised domestic prices above world market prices, while the English still clung to free trade. German real wages did not rise more than the productivity of labor. Neither the government’s Sozialpolitik nor trade-union activities but the evolution of capitalist enterprise caused the improvement in the general standard of living. It was no merit of the government or of trade unions that the entrepreneurs perfected the methods of production and filled the market with more and better goods. The German worker could consume more goods than his father and grandfather, because, thanks to the new methods of production, his work was more efficient and produced more and better commodities. But in the eyes of the professors the fall of mortality figures and the rise in per capita consumption were a proof of the blessings of the Hohenzollern system. They attributed the increase of exports to the fact that Germany was now one of the most powerful nations, and that the imperial navy and army made other nations tremble before it. Public opinion was fully convinced that but for the government’s interference the workers would be no better off than they had been fifty or a hundred years earlier.
Of course, the workers were prepared to believe that the government was slow to act and that its pro-labor policy could proceed much more quickly. They found in every new measure only an incentive to ask for more. Yet while criticizing the government for its tardiness they did not disapprove of the attitude of the Social Democrat members of the Reichstag who voted against all bills proposed by the government and supported by the “bourgeois” members. The workers agreed both with the Social Democrats, who called every new pro-labor measure an insolent fraud imposed by the bourgeoisie on labor, and with the government-appointed professors, who lauded the same measures as the most beneficial achievements of German Kultur. They were delighted with the steady rise in their standard of living, which they too attributed not to the working of capitalism but to the activities both of trade unions and of the government. They ventured no attempts at upheaval. They liked the revolutionary phraseology of the Social Democrats because it frightened the capitalists. But the glory and the splendor of the Reich fascinated them. They were loyal citizens of the Reich, his Majesty’s loyal opposition.
This allegiance was so firm and unshakable that it stood the test of the laws against the Social Democrats. These laws were but one link in the long series of blunders committed by Bismarck in his domestic policies. Like Metternich, Bismarck was fully convinced that ideas could be successfully defeated by policemen. But the results obtained were contrary to his intentions. The Social Democrats emerged from the trial of these years no less invigorated than in the ’seventies the Center party and the Catholic Church had emerged from the Kulturkampf, the great anti-Catholic campaign. In the twelve years the antisocialist laws were in force (1878–90) the socialist votes increased considerably. The laws touched only those socialists who took an active part in politics. They did not seriously discommode the trade unions and the masses voting for the socialists. Precisely in those years the government’s pro-labor policy made its greatest steps forward; the government wanted to surpass the socialists. The workers realized that the state was becoming more and more their own state and that it was increasingly backing their fight against the employers; the government-appointed factory inspectors were the living personification of this coöperation. The workers had no reason to be hostile to this state merely because it annoyed the party leaders.* The individual party member in the years of the antisocialist laws punctually and regularly received newspapers and pamphlets smuggled in from Switzerland, and read the Reichstag speeches of the socialist deputies. He was a loyal “revolutionary” and a—somewhat critical and sophisticated—monarchist. Marx and the Kaiser both were mistaken in their belief that these quiet fellows thirsted for the princes’ blood. But Lassalle had been right when he delineated the future coöperation of the Hohenzollern state and the socialist proletarians.
The unconditional loyalty of the proletarians made the army an accommodating tool in the hands of its commanders. Liberalism had shaken the foundations of Prussian absolutism. In the days of its supremacy the king and his aides no longer trusted the bulk of their army; they knew that this army could not be used against the domestic foe or for wars of undisguised aggression. Socialism and interventionism, the Kaiser’s New Deal, had restored the loyalty of the armed forces; now they could be used for any purpose. The men responsible for the new trend in politics, the statesmen and professors, were fully aware of this. It was just because they strove toward this end that they supported the inauguration of the Sozialpolitik and asked for its intensification. The officers of the army were convinced that the Social Democratic soldiers were completely reliable men. The officers disapproved, therefore, of the Kaiser’s contemptuous disparagement of the Social Democrats just as in earlier years they had disapproved of Bismarck’s measures against them (as well as of his anti-Catholic policy). They detested the defiant speeches of the socialist deputies but trusted the Social Democratic soldier. They themselves hated the wealthy entrepreneurs no less than the workers did. In the days of the antisocialist campaign, in 1889, their lyrical spokesman, Detlev von Liliencron, admitted it frankly.* Junkers and officers were firmly welded into a virtual coalition with labor by the instrument that forges the most solid unions, deadly hatred. When the Social Democrats paraded in the streets, the officers—in plain clothes—looked upon the marching columns and smilingly commented: “We ourselves have taught these boys how to march properly; they will do a very good job under our orders when Mobilization day comes.” Later events proved the correctness of these expectations.
On August 3, 1914, Reich’s Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg received the chairmen of all parliamentary party groups at a conference. Comrade Scheidemann reports: “The Chancellor shook hands with each of us. It seemed to me that he shook my hand in a surprising way, firmly and long, and when he then said, How do you do, Mr. Scheidemann, I felt as if he were giving me to understand: Well, now I hope our traditional squabble is finished for some time.”† Such were the views of the party’s great popular leader on the fifty years of antagonism. Not a historical struggle of the class-conscious proletariat against exploiters and imperialistic warmongers, as the official speakers at party meetings used to declare, but merely a squabble that could be ended by a handshake.
The Social Democrats within the German Caste System
Capitalism improved the social and economic position of hired labor. From year to year the number of hands employed in German industries increased. From year to year the incomes and living standard of labor went up. The workers were more or less contented. Of course, they envied the wealth of the upper middle classes (but not that of the princes and the aristocrats) and they were eager to get more. But looking back to the conditions under which their parents had lived and remembering the experiences of their own childhood, they had to confess that things were after all not so bad. Germany was prosperous and the working masses shared its prosperity.
There was still much poverty left in Germany. It could hardly be otherwise in a country in which public opinion, government, and almost all political parties were eager to put obstacles in the way of capitalism. The standards of living were unsatisfactory in eastern agriculture, in coal mining, and in some branches of production which failed to adjust their methods to changed conditions. But those workers who were not themselves involved were not much concerned about the lot of their less fortunate fellow workers. The concept of class solidarity was one of the Marxian illusions.
Yet one thing vexed the more prosperous workers just because they were prosperous. In their capacity as wage earners they had no definite standing in German society. Their new caste lacked recognition by the old established castes. The petty bourgeois, the small traders, shopkeepers, and craftsmen, and the numerous class of people holding minor offices in the service of the Reich, of the individual states, and of the municipalities turned up their noses at them. The incomes of these petty bourgeois were no higher than the workers’; their jobs indeed were often more tedious than the average worker’s; but they were haughty and priggish and disdained the wage earners. They were not prepared to admit workers to their bowling circles, to permit them to dance with their daughters, or to meet them socially. Worst of all, the burghers would not let the workers join their ex-warriors’ associations.* On Sundays and on state occasions these ex-warriors, clad in correct black frock coats, with tall silk hats and black ties, paraded gravely through the main streets, strictly observing the rules of military marching. It distressed the workers very much that they could not participate. They felt ashamed and humiliated.
For such grievances the Social Democratic organization provided an efficacious remedy. The Social Democrats gave the workers bowling clubs, dances, and outdoor gatherings of their own. There were associations of class-conscious proletarian canary breeders, philatelists, chess-players, friends of Esperanto, and so on. There were independent workers’ athletics, with labor championships. And there were proletarian parades with bands and flags. There were countless committees and conferences; there were chairmen and deputy chairmen, honorary secretaries, honorary treasurers, committee members, shop stewards, wardens, and other party officers. The workers lost their feeling of inferiority and sense of loneliness. They were no longer society’s stepchildren; they were firmly integrated into a large community; they were important people burdened with responsibilities and duties. And their official speakers, spectacled scholars with academic degrees, convinced them that they were not only as good but better than the petty bourgeois, a class that was in any event doomed to disappear.
What the Social Democrats really achieved was not to implant a revolutionary spirit in the masses but on the contrary to reconcile them to the German caste system. The workers got a status within the established order of the German clan system; they became a caste by themselves, with all the narrow-mindedness and all the prejudices of a social set. They did not cease to fight for higher wages, shorter hours of work, and lower prices for cereals, but they were no less loyal citizens than the members of those other pressure groups, the farmers and the artisans.
It was one of the paradoxical phenomena of imperial Germany that the Social Democratic workers used to talk sedition in public while remaining in their hearts perfectly loyal, and that the upper middle class and the professions, although flamboyantly advertising their loyalty to king and fatherland, grumbled in private. One of the main objects of their worry was their relation to the army.
The Marxian legends, which have misrepresented every angle of German life, have distorted this too. The bourgeoisie, they say, surrendered to militarism because they were anxious to obtain commissions in the reserve of the armed forces. Not to be an officer in the reserve, it is true, was a serious blow to the honor and reputation of a man of the upper middle class. The civil servants, the professional men, the entrepreneurs, and the business executives who did not achieve this were seriously handicapped in their careers and business activities. But the attainment and maintenance of a commission in the reserve also brought their troubles. It was not the fact that an officer of the reserve was forbidden to be connected in any way with opposition parties that made them complain. The judges and the civil servants were in any case members of the parties backing the government; if they had not been they would never have received their appointments. The entrepreneurs and the business executives were, by the working of the interventionist system, forced to be politically neutral or to join one of the pro-government parties. But there were other difficulties.
Governed by Junker prejudices, the army required that in his private life and business an officer of the reserve should strictly comply with its own code of gentlemanly conduct. It was not officer-like for an entrepreneur or an executive to do any manual work in his plant, even merely to show a worker how he should perform his task. The son of an entrepreneur who worked for some time at a machine, in order to become familiar with the business, was not eligible for a commission. Neither was the owner of a big store who occasionally looked after a customer. A lieutenant of the reserve who happened to be an architect of world-wide fame was once reprimanded by his colonel because one day, when supervising the redecoration of the reception room in the town hall of a large city, he had taken off his jacket and personally hung an old painting on the wall. There were men who were distressed because they did not obtain commissions in the reserve, and there were officers who secretly boiled with rage because of the attitude of their superiors. It was, in brief, not a pleasure for a commoner to be an officer of the reserve in the Prussian Army.
The lower classes, of course, were not familiar with these tribulations of the officers of the reserve. They saw only the insolence with which these men overcompensated their feelings of inferiority. But they observed too that the officers—both commissioned and non-commissioned—were eager to harass the so-called one-year men, i.e., the high-school graduates who had only one year to serve. They exulted when the officers called the son of their boss names and shouted that in the ranks of the army neither education nor wealth nor one’s father’s big business made any difference.
The social life of the upper middle class was poisoned by the continuous friction between the pretensions of the noble officers and the bourgeoisie. But the civilians were helpless. They had been defeated in their struggle for a reorganization of Germany.2
The Social Democrats and War
Marx was not a pacifist. He was a revolutionary. He scorned the wars of emperors and kings, but he worked for the great civil war, in which the united proletarians of the world should fight the exploiters. Like all other utopians of the same brand, he was convinced that this war would be the last one. When the proletarians had conquered and established their everlasting regime, nobody would be in a position to deprive them of the fruits of their victory. In this last war Engels assigned to himself the role of commander in chief. He studied strategy in order to be equal to his task when the day should dawn.
This idea of the coöperation of all proletarians in the last struggle for liberation led to the foundation of the First International Working Men’s Association in 1864. This association was hardly more than a round table of doctrinaires. It never entered the field of political action. Its disappearance from the scene attracted as little notice as had its previous existence.
In 1870 two of the five Social Democratic members of the North German Parliament, Bebel and Liebknecht, opposed the war with France. Their attitudes, as the French socialist Hervé observed, were “personal gestures which had no consequences and did not meet with any response.” The two nations, the Germans and the French, says Hervé, “were heart and soul on the battlefields. The Internationalists of Paris were the most fanatical supporters of the war to the knife. . . . The Franco-German War was the moral failure of the International.”*
The Second International, founded in Paris in 1889, was an achievement of one of the many international congresses held in cities blessed by a world’s fair. In the twenty-five years which had passed since the foundation of the First International the concept of a great world revolution had lost a good deal of its attraction. The new organization’s purpose could no longer be presented as coördinating the military operations of the proletarian armies of various countries. Another object had to be found for its activities. This was rather difficult. The labor parties had begun to play a very important role in the domestic policies of their countries. They were dealing with innumerable problems of interventionism and economic nationalism, and were not prepared to submit their own political tactics to the supervision of foreigners. There were many serious problems in which the conflict of interests between the proletarians of different countries became apparent. It was not always feasible to evade discussion of such annoying matters. Sometimes even immigration barriers had to be discussed; the result was a violent clash of dissenting views and a scandalous exposure of the Marxian dogma that there is an unshakable solidarity among proletarian interests all over the world. The Marxian pundits had some difficulty in tolerably concealing the fissures that had become visible.
But one neutral and innocuous subject could be found for the agenda of the International’s meetings: peace. The discussion soon made plain how vain the Marxian catchwords were. At the Paris congress Frederick Engels declared that it was the duty of the proletarians to prevent war at all costs until they themselves had seized power in the most important countries.* The International discussed various measures in the light of this principle: the general strike, general refusal of military service, railroad sabotage, and so on. But it was impossible not to touch on the problem of whether destroying one’s own country’s defense system would really serve the interests of the workers. The worker has no fatherland, says the Marxian; he has nothing to lose but his chains. Very well. But is it really of no consequence to the German worker whether he exchanges his German chains for Russian ones? Should the French workingman let the republic fall prey to Prussian militarism? This Third Republic, said the German Social Democrats, is only a plutodemocracy and a counterfeit republic; it is not the French proletarian’s business to fight for it. But the French could not be persuaded by such reasoning. They clung to their prejudice against the Hohenzollerns. The Germans took offense at what they called French stubbornness and petty bourgeois sentiments, although they themselves made it plain that the Social Democrats would unconditionally defend Germany against Russia. Even Bebel had boasted that in a war with Russia he himself, old fellow as he was, would shoulder a rifle.* Engels, in a contribution to the almanac of the French workers’ party for 1892, declared: “If the French Republic aids his Majesty the Czar and Autocrat of all the Russias, the German Social Democrats will be sorry to fight them but they will fight them nevertheless.”† The request which Engels put in these words to the French was in full agreement with the naïve demands of the German nationalists. They, too, considered it the duty of France to isolate itself diplomatically and either remain neutral in a war between the Triple Alliance3 and Russia or find itself without allies in a war against Germany.
The amount of delusion and insincerity in the dealings of the Second International was really amazing. It is still more astonishing that people followed these loquacious discussions with eager attention and were convinced that the speeches and resolutions were of the highest importance. Only the pro-socialist and pro-Marxian bias of public opinion can explain this phenomenon. Whoever was free from this could easily understand that it was mere idle talk. The oratory of these labor congresses meant no more than the toasts proposed by monarchs at their meetings. The Kaiser and the Czar too used to speak on such occasions of the comradeship and traditional friendship which linked them and to assure each other that their only concern was the maintenance of peace.
Within the Second International the German Social Democratic party was paramount. It was the best organized and largest of all socialist parties. Thus the congresses were an exact replica of conditions within the German party. The delegates were Marxians who interlarded their speeches with quotations from Marx. But the parties which they represented were parties of trade unions, for which internationalism was an empty concept. They profited from economic nationalism. The German workers were biased not only against Russia but also against France and Great Britain, the countries of Western capitalism. Like all other Germans they were convinced that Germany had a fair title to claim British and French colonies. They found no fault with the German Morocco policy but its lack of success.* They criticized the administration of military and naval affairs; but their concern was the armed forces’ readiness for war. Like all other Germans they too viewed the sword as the main tool of foreign policy. And they too were sure that Great Britain and France envied Germany’s prosperity and planned aggression.
It was a serious mistake not to recognize this militarist mentality of the German masses. On the other hand, too much attention has been paid to the writings of some socialists who, like Schippel, Hildebrand, and others, proposed that the Social Democrats should openly support the Kaiser’s aggressive policy. After all, the Social Democrats were a party of opposition; it was not their job to vote for the government. Their accommodating attitude, however, was effective enough to encourage the nationalist trend of foreign policy.
The government was fully aware that the Social Democratic workers would back it in the event of war. About the few orthodox Marxians the administration leaders were less assured; but they knew very well that a wide gulf separated these doctrinaires from the masses, and they were convinced that the bulk of the party would condone precaution-ary measures against the Marxian extremists. They ventured, therefore, to imprison several party leaders at the outbreak of the war; later they realized that this was needless. But the party’s executive committee, badly informed as it had always been, did not even learn that the authorities had changed their minds and that there was nothing to fear from them. Thus on August 3, 1914, the party chairman, Ebert, and the treasurer, Braun, fled to Switzerland with the party funds.†
It is nonsense to say that the socialist leaders in voting for war credits betrayed the masses. The masses unanimously approved the Kaiser’s war. Even those few members of Parliament and editors who dissented were bound to respect the will of the voters. The Social Democratic soldiers were the most enthusiastic fighters in this war for conquest and hegemony.
Later, of course, things changed. The hoped-for victories did not come. Millions of Germans were sacrificed in unsuccessful attacks against the enemy’s trenches. Women and children were starving. Then even the trade-union members discovered they had been mistaken in considering the war a favorable opportunity to improve their standard of living. The nation became ripe for the propaganda of radicalism. But these radicals did not advocate peace; they wanted to substitute class war—civil war—for the war against the external foe.
[* ]Elected in 1912, the last election in the imperial Reich.
[* ]See the bibliography of Michels’s writings in Studi in Memoria di Roberto Michels, “Annali della Facoltà di Giurisprudenza delle R. Università di Perugia” (Padova, 1937), Vol. XLIX.
[† ]Andler, Le Socialisme impérialiste dans l’Allemagne contemporaine, Dossier d’une polémique avec Jean Jaurès (1912–13) (Paris, 1918).
[* ]Communist Manifesto, end of the second section. In their preface to a new edition of the Manifesto, dated June 24, 1872, Marx and Engels declare that because of changed circumstances “stress is no longer laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of the second section.”
[* ]Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, edited by Kautsky (Stuttgart, 1897), p. xii.
[† ]Marx, Das Kapital (7th ed. Hamburg, 1914), I, p. 728.
[‡ ]Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, p. xii.
[* ]Marx, Value, Price and Profit, edited by Eleanor Marx Aveling (New York, 1901), pp. 72–74.
[† ]Marx, Das Kapital, op. cit., p. 729.
[‡ ]Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, p. xi.
[* ]See above, pp. 74–75.
[1. ][See the note on p. 149.—Ed.]
[* ]Elmer Roberts used the term “monarchical socialism.” See his book Monarchical Socialism in Germany (New York, 1913).
[† ]Sidney Webb in Fabian Essays in Socialism (American ed. New York, 1891), p. 4.
[* ]In those days in the happy 1880’s people used to speak of “persecutions.” But compared with what the Bolsheviks and the Nazis have since done to their opponents, these persecutions were little more than a nuisance.
[* ]See his letter of September 17, 1889, published in Deutsche Rundschau, XXI (Berlin, 1910), p. 663.
[† ]Scheidemann, Der Zusammenbruch (Berlin, 1921), p. 9.
[* ]The official name of these clubs was Warriors’ Associations (Kriegervereine). The members were men who had served in the Reich’s armed forces.
[2. ][The Revolution of 1848.—Ed.]
[* ]Hervé, L’Internationalisme (Paris, 1910), pp. 129 ff.
[* ]Kautsky, Sozialisten und Krieg (Prague, 1937), p. 300.
[* ]Kautsky, op. cit., p. 307.
[† ]Ibid., p. 352.
[3. ][The Triple Alliance (1882) allied Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy against Russia. —Ed.]
[* ]Andler, op. cit., p. 107.
[† ]Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutsche Kaiserreichs, III, p. 385.