August Bebel 1903

Features of the Electoral Battle

Source: The International Socialist Review, Vol. IV, No. 3 (August 1903), pp. 65-71;
First published: in Die neue Zeit. Translated by A. M. Simons;
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido.

The battle of the ballots is past. The 25th of June brought what the 16th promised. The fear of the gigantic growth of the social democracy has united all the bourgeois parties, with a few honorable exceptions, into a solid phalanx against us in order to save what was left to be saved.

In 1898 we won 24 out of 96 seats at the second election; in 1903 we won only 26 out of 119.

This is an advance backwards which the coalition of the bourgeois parties made against us.

Illusionists hoped that the capitalist parties of the left would sacrifice everything in the second election in order to secure as strong a left wing as possible in the Reichstag, even if this could only be secured through a strengthening of the social democracy which had so painfully curtailed liberalism in the first election. But they forget that we were dealing with a bourgeoisie which had been lashed into terror, and which would rather throw itself head over heels into the arms of the reactionaries and surrender everything for which it had previously stood.

This is not the first time that German liberalism has abandoned its principles. Its history is the history of its defeats which it has always owed to its indecision, lack of leadership and cowardice, which have sentenced it to play that sorrowful role by which it is distinguished from the liberalism of the other states of Western Europe. But even if this is not the first time that it has surrendered, it has never done so before in such a bare-faced, absolutely shameless manner as at this time.

If there were still those in our own ranks who had built their hopes upon this liberalism and looked upon it as still capable of life and creative action, the 25th of June should have thoroughly cured them, even if the 16th of June and its results had not already completed the cure.

In the beginning it appeared as if the campaign would pass without great interest being aroused. But in just the degree that the Social Democracy threw itself with all its energy into the battle and pushed aggressively forward did the picture change.

Week by week the electoral battle became warmer until finally the bourgeois parties took up a platform after they had so long, like helpless children, beseeched the government in vain.

This programme was not formulated by the imperial government, it developed spontaneously out of the battle and suited all who were bourgeois inclined from Eugen Richter to von Normann and Kardorff. This programme was simply: “Fight the Social Democracy!” This phrase was presently on all tongues and pens and a campaign of slander began such as we have scarcely ever experienced.

In all the campaigns that have taken place during six and thirty years for the North German and German Reichstag, the problems of the incoming Reichstag have never played so subordinate a role as in the campaign just past. The only point which was generally discussed in the opposing speeches and leaflets was the formation of commercial treaties. As to the new military and naval policy, new colonial and taxation measures, foreign and internal policy, the great majority of the bourgeois candidates had nothing to say. These candidates were chosen without the great majority of the voters knowing what position they took in regard to these questions, so there cannot fail to be great disappointments. On the other hand, from the very first day in which the bourgeois parties went into the campaign the battle against the Social Democracy was as violent as if the founding of the future State was immediately at hand, and as if they were called upon, cost what it might, to save themselves from it.

This phase of the struggle corresponds thoroughly to the situation in which the bourgeois parties found themselves. They are without ideals and weary of opposition. They no longer have any program, and never can have. But one must have a goal if he is to draw the masses to him and not be left defenseless. So it was that they clung to that upon which they had always depended for success with the unintelligent masses who follow, sheep-like, and above all with the great mass of Philistines. The cry was also raised to rally against a violent “uprising,” and to make sure of the effectiveness of this alarm the memorandum books of such holy priests as Schuster, Eugen Richter, Lorenz and Burger were searched and lies and slanders drawn therefrom until, as the saying goes, the “rafters bent and the good tailors’ and shoemakers’ hair began to stand on end.”

They declared the Social Democracy to be fatherlandless and treasonable, that it destroyed marriage and the family, would overthrow the throne and rob the people of their holy religion – something that sounded especially good when it appeared in the National Liberal leaflets – it would destroy property, overthrow the middle class and the handworkers, in short, that it would not leave one stone upon another of the present state or order of society. So against this whoever can must help. And many helped who had nothing to lose but their poverty and their debts.

But even this was not enough. Actual or alleged quotations which had been torn from their connection were sent out against one party member after another; the party was denounced as the enemy of labor because it was alleged that its representatives voted against all social reform laws, and was branded as an overthrower because its representatives refused to indorse the budget. In short, everything that could be done was done to picture the Social Democracy as a moral and political monster. After listening to all this the question might well have arisen if such a party could even receive a thousand votes and elect one of its representatives? But the result? The opposite from that which our opponents hoped occurred; 56 representatives and over three million votes at the first throw! A more overwhelming victory for Social Democracy and annihilating defeat of its opponents was not possible.

The same game was repeated even with greater violence at the second election. That we obtained only 25 seats out of 119 at the second election, however, was not the result of this manner of fighting, but the result of the despairing coalition of all our opponents.

Frankfurter Zeitung, Freisinnige Zeitung and tutti quanti lamented: The Social Democracy owed their victory only to the circumstance that they stuck their own programme in their pocket and sought to catch votes with the liberal democratic programme. I do not know if any such thing was done in the campaign. I have not noticed anything of the kind; but even if it was done, our opponents saw to it that the Social Democratic candidate appeared in the most horrible and frightful form possible, and still such a result? Wherefore did not the bourgeois parties with whose programme the Social Democratic party, it is claimed, went fishing, secure at least one representative in the main election? It will be rather difficult for the knights of Liberalism to answer this.

This is simply a repetition of the old allegation that we hear so loud after every election and always with the accompanying result that the parties with whose programme it is alleged we fought become ever weaker and we ever stronger. Our opponents fail to grasp the true causes of their downfall. These are the increasing proletarization of the masses and the ever sharper class antagonisms arising therefrom. There is the growing discontent in ever-widening circles with the dominating economic and political condition, the military and naval policy, and a comparison of all the beautiful phrases with the sorrowful reality. And it is the Social Democracy which makes itself the mouthpiece of all these aspirations of the discontented and which binds all these elements firmer and firmer to itself.

But then it is only the “transients” which, according to our opponents, make Social Democracy so large. But it is not simply that the number of these “transients” is ever larger; they remain permanently with the party, and from the “transients” of today come the good party members of tomorrow.

Notwithstanding all this we have to reckon with our losses. But losses have never been lacking with us at any election, sometimes large and sometimes small. That we should hold all of the 58 districts which we possessed during the last legislative period no thinking person could expect. Among these 58 districts there were a number which we had conquered for the first time only by the narrowest majorities. They were more or less accidental victories. I am only surprised that such losses were not more numerous. That Offenbach and Hanau, which from their economic structure should be considered as securely in the possession of the party, were among such districts is to be regretted. But we may console ourselves with the reflection that the enemy have conquered for the last time, and when we compare the defeats of our opponents and our own many victories we can endure our losses without sorrow. We cannot continuously maintain a district exposed to the assault of the enemies, if the natural conditions for Social Democracy are lacking there, i.e., the necessary industrial development and the class antagonism proceeding therefrom. Where these are lacking any victory must always be looked upon as one of ephemeral value. And districts which we secure only through the momentary allegiance of certain classes we can also lose again.

Our permanent victory rests upon the fact that capitalist development creates the essential conditions therefor. This is proven by the large and growing number of electoral districts which we conquered at once in the main election or in which we lacked so very few votes for victory, that we can surely conquer them the next time without the help of outsiders.

If the numerous victories and the great number of votes which came to the Social Democrats was the main characteristic of the last election, the development which the different bourgeois parties went through deserves some consideration.

The annihilating overthrow which the leader of the agrarian league received at the first election and which the secondary election completed is especially gratifying. Hahn, Roesicke, Oertel, Schrempf, Lucke are no more. Their role is played out.

These defeats show that the struggle with the agrarian forces was not without result, and that the effect of the agrarian agitation was destroyed when we exposed its weakness on the decisive field of battle.

No less gratifying than the overthrow of the leader of the agrarian league was the overthrow of the National liberal leader, Bassermann, who acted as assistant to the tariff makers of the last session and who did midwife service for the infamous measures of Groeber and Von Kardorff in the last session of the Reichstag. Nemesis has done her work quickly with Herr Bassermann. Along with him fell Vice President Büsing, whose followers in the second election helped the representative of the Mecklenburg Junkers into the saddle in opposition to our party comrade, Grothe. Herr Hasse, the head of the Pan-Germans, whose electoral district in Leipsic had belonged to him for six and thirty years, was now given over to our Comrade Mottler, “the red postmaster.” In addition we find that in this, as in previous Reichstags, the great majority of the National electorals who were chosen in the second election are once more the slaves of the agrarians.

The tower of the Centre also shows breaks. It is standing upon shattered foundations. The election in the industrial districts of the Rhineland and Westphalia, the losses to us in Mainz and Reichenbach-Neurode are for the Centre a mene tekel.[1] Its two-faced and wavering policy is recognized by its followers among the laborers and they are leaving its ranks in swarms to enter the Social Democracy. The fighting methods of the Centre against the Social Democracy were especially violent and disreputable in this campaign. It feels the enemy at its throat. But even the wildest lies and slanders cannot continuously find believers, even among the voters of the Centre. We have placed our feet firmly upon the territory of the Centre and push further on. The Social Democracy is accomplishing what no other party was able to do. It will finally be the victor in the battle with the Centre.

Anti-Semitism also, this most senseless of all party organizations, has seen its possessions melt away fully one-fourth. If it disappeared completely from the picture no one would shed any tears.

The National Social party presents a peculiar picture, since this party was called into life particularly to draw the laborers away from Social Democracy and to attract them to the “social Imperialism” and inspire them with enthusiasm for army, fleet and imperial politics. Herr Naumann, the founder of this party, has never comprehended that a “social Imperialism” is a contradiction in itself and that armies, fleets and imperial politics can only be maintained at the cost of the laborer. Therefore he with his party have gone down. To be sure, they have succeeded with great effort in electing Herr von Gerlach in the second election. But the head of the party, Herr Naumann, in spite of the unspeakable efforts which he and his friends made, is now outside the Reichstag, and he is himself singing the swan song of the party which he founded.

Herr Naumann complains that the “stronger brother” of the National Socialism, the Social Democracy, has strangled his party. What the outlook is for this weak “brother” of the Social Democracy is shown for the second time in the Jena electoral district. Five years ago the National Social party helped Herr Bassermann to victory, and this time they did the same for his successor. Herr Bassermann would have been cleverer had he this time also stood as a candidate in Jena instead of in Karlsruhe, where he would have been certain of victory with National Social help.

That things would happen in the Jena electoral district once more as they have happened was evident. When Herr Damaschke, the candidate of the National Socials in Jena, was asked before the main election if he would eventually support the Social Democratic candidate, he replied that the Social Democracy was the last party for which in the second election he would vote. This same Damaschke told the farmers in the Jena electoral district: “If you wish to have your last cow taken out of the stable, then vote for Social Democracy.”

This is the way “National Socialism” showed up in the light of the Reichstag election.

It is not the least gain that we have received from the last Reichstag election that we got rid of a whole mass of illusions. Here Social Democracy, there bourgeoisie! will hereafter be the battle cry.

The new Reichstag shows, so far as the bourgeois parties are concerned, not simply a quantitative but much more a qualitative loss. Barth, Schrader, Broemel, Bassermann, Busing, Oertel will not be easily replaced by new strength. This is but an illustration on this point of the downfall of the bourgeois world. Yes, the evening of their day draws nigh.

There, downfall; with us, the upward growth! The result of the election is the most striking vote of confidence that the present tactics and method of fighting of the Social Democracy could have received. The voters have expressed their opinion of the tactics and manner of fighting adopted by our opponents. All the accusations, all the calumnies that the whole bourgeoisie has so vehemently heaped upon us in a manner never before attempted have been splintered upon the Social Democracy like glass on granite.

This should be to us a lesson and a guide in the coming battle.

As Social Democracy has until now grown in all situations and conquered all opponents, so it will and should do in the future.

In the name of the class-conscious proletariat and all those idealists who with us strive for the progress of humanity in every sphere, “Forward!”

1. “The writing on the wall” (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, in the Bible, the mysterious riddle written by a hand on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast), an idiom, is a portent of doom or misfortune. It originates in the Biblical book of Daniel-where supernatural writing foretells the demise of the Babylonian Empire.