E. Belfort Bax

The St Gallen Congress

(January 1888)

E. Belfort Bax, The St Gallen Congress, To-day, January 1888, pp.12-18.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The fact that the German Socialist party were intending to hold a Congress had become known to the press at least two months before the time when the Congress was actually held. The great secrecy observed in regard to place and time may be judged from the fact that Bismarck and all his host of spies were unable to discover its date or whereabouts. Special means to ensure this were taken. Thus various places were hinted at in public with a view to throwing a false scent. Until about a week before the Congress, the exact place of the meeting was in fact known to only three persons: the standing committee in Zürich for the management of party affairs. Toward the end of September I received information to meet the deputies, Bebel and Singer, who had just arrived in Zürich on important party business. Then for the first time, the time and place were made known to a few “comrades” under strict injunctions of secrecy.

On Saturday and Sunday, the 2nd and 3rd of October, from all parts of Germany, delegates converged towards St. Gallen. Great circumspection was still deemed necessary in the matter, taking of tickets and so forth, not to awaken the suspicions of the spies. However, evening came, and as the various trains drew up at the station of the little Swiss town, parties of men might have been seen alighting, who were as unobtrusively as possible greeted by persons evidently expecting them. The watchword “Zur Schönen Weg” was passed and the groups disappeared into the darkness. After trudging some time along a country road we arrived, with one of these groups at the beer establishment of the “Schönen Weg,” a not unpleasant-looking new building, supported on wooden pillars, and faced with small tiles, architecturally known as “shingles.” Ascending a staircase from the outside we reached a large upper room, where already a considerable number of persons were assembled. About an hour later, when the last contingent had arrived, lists were circulated for the purpose of identification. But it must be noted that although I have used the word “delegates” no delegation was officially recognised as this would have been illegal, and rendered those present liable to prosecution on their return to Germany for belonging to a secret political association. The “Parteitag” was avowedly convened at the private invitation of certain deputies of the Reichstag, all that was required was the identification, the names and addresses of the “visitors.” The result was that myself and one or two other foreign guests occupied an identical position with regard to the Congress, with the delegates themselves, as to speaking, voting, &c., though good taste of course forbade the general exercise of this privilege. All present were supposed to take part in the proceedings.

The real business of the Congress began on the Monday morning with the discussion of the administration of the funds for the relief of distressed members of the party, etc. Of the subjects debated I need not say much, as I have already noticed them elsewhere. Suffice it to state that among other topics were discussed the influence of direct and indirect taxation on the working-classes, the burning questions of opportunism in Parliament, of Anarchism etc., etc. The two last questions mentioned are those of most interest to us here. There is a tendency, I should premise, in the Parliamentary group, i.e., the twenty-five Socialist members of the last Reichstag, to crystallise into a right and a left wing. I say a tendency, since such an important personage as Herr Liebknecht strenuously denies the actual existence of such a division. But whatever may be the correct view of the mater, there is no doubt of the fact that certain members of the group or “fraction” as it is termed, have shown a disposition to assist in the ordinary working of the Parliamentary machine by compromise with other parties, and by voting measures of a questionable character, while another section has as certainly opposed this policy. The crucial case upon which the debate largely turned was what is known as the “Steamship convention” which took place in April 1885. The German Government had proposed to subsidize a commercial company for running a line of fast sailing steamers to Eastern Asia. Under the pretext that this would in some way temporarily benefit the working-classes by indirectly increasing German trade, besides directly promoting the employment of a certain number of workmen in the ship-building industry, etc., the so-called right wing of the “fraction,” which constituted a small majority, insisted on voting for the Bismarckian measure. The minority, backed by the official organ of the party, the Sozial Demokrat, of Zurich, vigorously attacked the attitude of their colleagues, feeling ran so high at the crisis that a “split” in the party seemed inevitable and imminent. The danger was notwithstanding tided over, chiefly owing to the mediation of Herr Liebknecht, one of the oldest leaders of German Socialism, a man enjoying the respect of both sides. The “majority” however, still insisted that they had the party at their back in spite of the numerous hostile resolutions passed by bodies of members in various important centres. The matter could obviously only be decided so far as the general party was concerned by a Congress, more especially in Germany, where the right of public meeting and of the press is abolished. Hence the great interest with which the Congress of last autumn was looked forward too among all German Socialists. Herr Hasenclever, who belonged to the right section and who is one, of the oldest members of the party [1], occupied the chair, and in a speech which opened the discussion on the attitude of the “fraction” during the sessions of the late Reichstag, energetically defended the conduct of the parliamentary representation. The attack which followed from all sides showed plainly enough the tone of the Congress. Scarcely a voice, except from among the deputies themselves, was raised in favour of the “steamer-convention.” The “Baltic canal” scheme which, as a kind of relief works, had been also supported by the fraction, also did not escape without severe criticism. The debate was continued for some hours, with animation, on a motion to the effect that the delegates be instructed to confine themelves as far as possible to criticising the measures of the Bourgeois parties and to the enunciation of principles. Polizei-stunde (11 o’clock) came, and it was still unfinished. On its resumption next morning Liebknecht sought to reconcile parties by showing that there was no real distinction between right and left, that the whole question resolved itself into one of detail about which there might be allowable differences of opinion. All agreed that parliamentary action was a necessity, and all agreed that principle should not be compromised. As to when the necessity for immediate action ended and the compromise began there could and would be divergent views. This resolution, slightly modified, was carried. The chief significance of the proceedings lay, however, in the debate, which proved conclusively that, to say the least, as little as possible of temporising action was deemed desirable by the bulk of the party; otherwise expressed, that there was the greatest possible jealousy as to the maintenance of principle and corresponding opposition to anything that seemed to countenance Bourgeois measures, and which apparently tended to help to carry on government and “social order” as at present understood.

This point of the limits of admissable action by Socialists in conjunction with bourgeois parties is, I fancy, likely to become a knotty one in this country as soon as we get a parliamentary party. Let us not blink the fact that in practical action it is very difficult to steer between the common rut of political intrigue and the refusal to take any part in current legislation. Yet this difficulty must assuredly be faced. To adopt the short and easy method of shirking it, as some of our friends advise, is hardly likely to further our cause. As August Bebel remarked to me, the explanation of the tendency of certain persons to fall into the beaten track of political life, is a doubt or disbelief in the near advent to power of the working classes, and therewith the definitive victory of the Socialist principle. Much foolish cry of force, force, when there is no force, has led some persons in the English party to sneer at the idea of a popular upheaval altogether. But it is worthy of notice that (with the exception of Herr Kayser, of Dresden), there is probably not a single member of the German party who believes in the possibility of the establishment of Socialism without a forcible upheaval. The German party is practically unanimous as to the necessity of parliamentary action, and, within certain limits, of the advocacy of “palliative measures,” but the conviction of the advent, sooner or later, of revolution (in the popular sense of the word) is none the less strong. Now the distinction between right and left in the “fraction,” as August Bebel observed, largely turns upon this sooner or later. Those who would plump the party into the whole maelstrom of parliamentary chicane, doubt, as I have said, the nearness of the great battle, those who would steer clear of it, believe in its nearness. That the latter is the view taken by the great bulk of German Socialists, was proved by the Congress. The opinion is indeed expressed by one or two influential members of the party, that the outbreak of a European war would be the signal for a general rising of the proletariat, at least throughout central Europe; Bismarck, it is added, is aware of this, hence his efforts to maintain peace at almost any price.

With respect to the second great subject of discussion, that of Anarchism, Liebknecht moved the resolution in an admirable speech, in which he pointed out how the Anarchist doctrine was anti-socialistic in so far as it based itself on the autonomy of the individual, and how when it ceased to do this it ceased to be Anarchism properly speaking, and became a mere illogical form of Socialism. He also dealt at length with the Anarchist cultus of “violence,” showing that this divinity has no more special claim to the adoration of Revolutionists than of Reactionists, since in the natural course of things it is used by the one side as much as by the other. He further showed that individual acts of violence only produced their effect when they were the overt expression of a widespread sentiment in the masses. The case of John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry, was adduced as an instance of the latter. A long discussion followed, in which Bebel took part. The latter, while agreeing with the resolution in substance, deprecated the tendency among Socialists of a moderate shade, to dub everyone Anarchist who refused to attach the same importance to constitutional matters or to immediate action that they themselves did. He stated that Herr Kayser had on more than one occasion accused him of Anarchism, because he disapproved of certain parliamentary tactics pursued by the latter. The best means of combating Anarchism were then discussed, and the resolution was finally adopted as follows: – “The Anarchistic theory of society, in so far as it aims at the autonomy of the Individual, is anti-socialistic, and nothing more than a one-sided development of the fundamental conception of bourgeois Liberalism, and this, even though in its critique of the modern social order it may adopt the Socialistic point of view. Above all, it is incompatible with the socialization of the means of production, and the social regulation of production, and (unless we are prepared to return to hand-labour) issues in an insoluble contradiction. The Anarchist cultus and exclusive admission of a policy of violence rests on a crude misunderstanding of the rôle of physical force in universal history. Force is just as much a reactionary as a revolutionary factor; the former, in fact, more frequently than the latter. The tactics of the individual application of force do not conduce to the desired end, and in so far as they wound the moral feelings of the masses, are positively injurious, and therefore reprehensible. For these acts of individual violence, however, even for those which are most persecuted and proscribed, we hold the persecutors and proscribers directly responsible, and regard the tendency to such acts, as a phenomenon which has at all times manifested itself under similar circumstances, and which in Germany to-day is made use of by certain police-organs, by paid agents-provocateurs à la Ihring Marlow, against the working-classes, for the purposes of reaction.”

I have given this resolution in full, as it puts the whole Socialist case against Anarchism succinctly. In Germany, the number of Anarchists is extremely small, all the better Anarchists having passed into the Socialist camp. The same thing has occurred in Italy, where, for instance, the ex-Anarchist, Corta, is now doing useful work in the Italian Parliament. The fact evinces itself everywhere that Anarchism is the spurious growth of a young Socialist movement. It is then that what the hot youth of the movement term “stalwart Socialism,” but to which the cooler and irreverent heads give a grosser name, most luxuriantly flourishes.

The concluding work of the Congress was the expulsion of two members, Herren Vierick and Geiser, the late deputies from the movement, on account of their having declined to sign the circular convoking the Congress, without giving sufficient reasons. They are both persons of great moderation of view. On the Thursday afternoon the proceedings closed, the Congress having lasted four days.

What struck one in the whole conduct of the German “Congress” was the perfect orderliness of the arrangements and the freedom from personalities which characterised the proceedings throughout. There was almost an entire absence of applause. Had such knotty points as that of the conduct of the “fraction” in the Reichstag been discussed in one of our own Socialist bodies, the mind stands aghast at the opprobrious epithets which would have been heard to hiss from all sides. The English language would have scarcely furnished materials adequate for the invective struggling for utterance in the breasts of the assembled delegates. At St. Gallen, though I am far from saying that there was no warmth displayed, yet I can say there was no mere uproarious clamour, nor was there any more flinging about of epithets. The “head-washing,” as it is termed in Germany, of the delinquent ex-deputies was carried out effectually, but in a manner to avoid all unnecessary personal rancour. Altogether the irresistible impression produced on any one by a comparison of the bulk of the German and English representatives of Socialism, is certainly not favourable to the latter. In the delegates present at St. Gallen we have typical representatives of the German working-man. With very few exceptions the whole of the delegates present (about 80) were themselves working-men sent by constituencies of working-men (I italicise the word constituencies, for it must not be forgotten that the Socialist party in German towns does not consist of a mere band or group of some fifty or less persons; but in all cases numbers many hundreds, and in not a few, many thousands). Here, then, we have a body of representative working men displaying a reasonable and natural self-control in the discussion of “burning” questions, and in culture and real refinement, yielding in no respect to the so-called “educated” classes, with all their advantages. Would we could say as much in this country.

The result of the Congress is naturally viewed with intense satisfaction by the advanced section of the party. A more complete discomfiture for the “moderates” could not have been wished for. So complete a victory, indeed, was hardly expected. The German Socialist party henceforward pursues its course as a definitively revolutionary body, but which, nevertheless, makes use of all existing means toward the forthcoming of its great end, the emancipation of labour, no matter whether those means consist in pacific propaganda, within or outside of parliament; in legislative action, with a view to curbing the immediate action of capital; or whether they take their ultimate form of an organised and forcible struggle for the overthrow of the current order of Society.

E. Belfort Bax



1. Since the Congress Herr Hasenclever has become insane, and is now in an asylum.


Last updated on 19.5.2005