August Bebel 1905

For Union and Unity

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 9 no. 2, 15 Feb. 1905, pp. 91-99;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Grave divergences of opinion which often lead to scissions appear to be, in all civilised countries, the indelible mark of the Socialist movement. Sometimes the scission commences from the formation of the party, or in the first moments of its life; sometimes it develops when, at a stage more advanced in its evolution, the party, already powerful, seeks to intervene practically in the politics of the country.

It is never any differences as to the final objects of Socialism which provoke scissions, but rather a disagreement as to the best ways and means for attaining the end, the conduct to be adopted in face of the enemy. It is, then, questions of tactics which create divergences and the scissions which result therefrom. We separate when we appreciate the character of our enemy, his strength, his desire to conciliate the proletariat, and the influence that his attitude must exercise on the Socialist Party itself and on its evolution. Briefly, we separate on all which relates to the conditions of the struggle and of the development of the party, and as these divergences of opinion find their expression in persons, as they are translated with the greatest vivacity and preciseness by the chiefs of the movement, it is in the nature of things that these conflicts of opinion should assume a personal character. This is often so acute that there no longer appears to be a struggle between opposing ideas, but merely a quarrel between certain individuals. And as every prolonged conflict enervates and exasperates the combatants, as the leaders often forget that it is a question of a conflict of ideas in which the personalities should always be relegated to the background, the chiefs become the principal obstacle to an understanding and a reconciliation. They identify the cause with their persons. Every concession made is for them a personal insult and detraction, and all their influence is employed to avoid it.

I am dealing here neither with particular facts nor individuals. I speak from personal observations of general circumstances where Socialism has experienced scission and wide divergences of opinion.

In themselves divergences of opinion are not a sign of weakness in a party; on the contrary, they are the essential condition of all normal development. They spring, whether we will or not, from our diverse fashions of judging persons and facts, from the conception and knowledge of each, and not solely from the temperament and the passion with which we judge things.

But when the divergences of view become enlarged into scissions, then, inevitably, to the personal opinions are added objective reasons, due to the fact that each one judges in his own fashion the situation of the party in face of the bourgeois State or of bourgeois society. And if we would bring about an understanding between the conflicting sections, it is necessary first of all to ask this question: Up to what point can the bourgeois parties go together with a Socialist Party? Where is the limit of their good intentions; that is to say, how far will their class interest permit them to go? At what moment are they transformed from friends into enemies, and from tolerant men into persecutors?

To suppose, in any rapprochement, the blindness or the goodwill of the bourgeois parties, is the greatest fault that a Socialist Party can commit. The Socialist who thinks to manipulate and deceive any bourgeois party by a studied moderation is a poor sort of politician. That is impossible, as the sagacity of every bourgeois party which retains any particle of political and economic power is exceedingly alert. The danger of losing what they possess renders men more sensitive and more alert than does the ardent desire to conquer property and power.

From this point of view, it is not doubtful that the co-operation of a bourgeois party or a Socialist Party has for condition, not that the bourgeois party should become more radical, but that the Socialist Part), should become more moderate than accords with its character. The latter must round off its angles, level down its protuberances – that is to say dissimulate its true character – in order to avoid wounding an adversary who is now its ally. Such tactics create difficulties, even when applied momentarily, because the masses, outside of which any Socialist movement is inconceivable, do not understand them and are easily inducted in error.

But it becomes eminently dangerous if the understanding with the bourgeois adversary is transformed into a complete and durable alliance. By that the true character of the movement is corrupted and called in question. All the ability and all the address of the leaders cannot suffice to ward off this danger; and these same leaders, finally, find themselves in the position of the soldier who cried to his captain:-

“Captain, I have a prisoner."
"Bring him along,” said the captain.
"I would, but he will not let me.”

They are no longer the masters, they become insensibly the instruments. They no longer direct, they are directed. They are no longer the hammer, but the anvil. We will and we must energetically push at the wheel, but it is necessary, at the same time, not to tighten the bridle. In any case no doubt must ever arise in the masses as to the final end. They must always remember that the ally of to-day will be the natural enemy of to-morrow.

In the conflict which divides our French comrades it is, therefore, indispensable that the ground of the conflict itself should be cleared, that the positions of the enemy should be recognised; it is necessary to know where he is going and where we are going, and if, on the route that he follows, and which, in a certain measure, is also ours, we ought to accompany him a moment.

If the two contending Socialist fractions have the same object – and to doubt it for either of them would be unjust – with reciprocal goodwill they will certainly arrive at an understanding for establishing the rules of tactics which should guide them in the great political conflict which animates France at the present time.

The internal situation in France is not so complicated that it needs a specially keen penetration to comprehend it. On the contrary, the questions which immediately concern public opinion are very clear and simple, although vast. It is the same with the character of the bourgeois parties which play a part in this conflict. No informed Socialist can have any doubt about the character of existing parties. We know the limits of their power; to push them right to these limits, that is our duty. Can it be so difficult to find a route along which our forces can proceed unitedly in a common action?

At one time the task for us German Socialists was much more severe. In the second half of the last century not only were German Socialists divided into two camps, but they were constantly engaged in the most violent fratricidal struggles with each other. Germany was then in a state of absolute political division; it comprised no less than 36 States of widely different extent.

There was not the least cohesion. The nation sighed for national unity, which would find its expression in a Parliament, similar to that which the Revolution of 1848 had created, but which the reaction had afterwards overthrown. Should we have a Liberal Constitutional Monarchy, or a Democratic Republic? Such was the question over which the bourgeoisie quarrelled furiously.

The Socialist Party of Germany, organised by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863, had to take up a position. It would seem that logically it ought to rally to the Democratic Republic.

It did nothing of the kind, however; Lassalle was dead in 1864. One of his successors, Dr. von Schweitzer, was a man of great intelligence and an agitator of consummate ability. He possessed to a marvellous extent the art of inspiring and exciting the masses; at the head of a young party, and of its only journal, the Social-Demokrat, he sought to bring the movement into line with the projects of Bismarck. When Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and others perceived this, they turned their backs on the young party and refused their collaboration to the Social-Demokrat. This was at the beginning of 1865.

A most furious struggle arose between the two tendencies of the Socialist movement. During some years Schweitzer had the majority on his side; he was master of the single Socialist journal then existing. But, little by little, the situation changed. Slowly, but continually, his adversaries gained ground in the course of the most heated struggles. All the most abusive insults for a politician in the German language were hurled at each other’s heads. On both sides the animosity of the masses knew no bounds, The meetings on one side or the other were so violent as to be almost veritable battles.

The end of it was that in many places inn-keepers refused to let their rooms for meetings; they were afraid of having their windows broken and their furniture demolished. The only people who heartily rejoiced at these events, and who exploited them against us, were our common enemies.

At last, in 1869, an important section separated from the party of von Schweitzer, and formed the Social-Democratic Labour Party. From this moment the star of von Schweitzer paled rapidly.

This conflict between the two Socialist parties was even transported into the Reichstag of North Germany, united in 1867 to 1870, and found an echo there in the Parliamentary struggles. At the General Election for the first German Reichstag in 1871 von Schweitzer was beaten; the opposition to him in his own party had grown stronger and stronger.

In the meantime, the internal political situation had become radically modified; Bismarck regarded the Socialist movement with another eye than formerly. At first he had essayed, “a la Napoleon III.,” to use it as a bogey to terrify the bourgeoisie, the immense majority of which, up to 1866, offered to him the most furious opposition; but, after 1870, he recognised that he no longer needed it against the bourgeoisie, which he then had in his hands. On the contrary, the Commune of Paris and the sympathy it had found in the German Social-Democracy had shown him that it might be dangerous to play with fire. The mission of Schweitzer was ended; he retired into private life. But the anger and hatred excited during some years lasted for a long time yet. The fratricidal struggles continued, although attenuated, between those who succeeded Schweitzer in the leadership of his party. But then the masses revolted. On the one side as on the other, they recognised that this scission profited no one but the common enemy, and that they were exhausting in a fratricidal struggle the best of their forces and of their means. At last, in 1874, commenced the attempts towards union, which had a brilliant result in 1875.

After a duration of more than eight years, this war between brothers was terminated, and from that moment the united party increased every day in power, and acquired an influence hitherto impossible.

Already, since 1872, police and judges had undertaken a persecution of increasing severity against the party. Now that Socialist unity was realised the persecution became so much more energetic. Bismarck replied to the Congress of Unity, which met at Gotha in May, 1875, by submitting to the Reichstag an addition to the German penal code. He proposed that all criticism of property, of marriage, and of the family should be punished by many years of imprisonment. But these measures appearing too draconic, even to the servile majority of the Reichstag, they were rejected, almost unanimously, in the winter of 1875-76.

On January 10, 1877, the General Election for the Reichstag took place. The Socialist Party saw its votes and the number of its delegates again increased. Bismarck was beside himself. Then in May and June, 1878, came the attempts on the Emperor of Hoedel and Nobiling. These attempts provoked immense indignation, of which Bismarck at once took advantage. By the journals at his command – and his influence with the Press was at that time enormous – he worked up the public feeling against the Social-Democracy to a white heat.

Then he dissolved the Reichstag and proceeded to a new election in the hope of crushing the party. Although we lost some votes, and also some seats, the party brilliantly resisted this furious assault. It would certainly have succumbed, however, if it had still been divided in two camps.

Bismarck succeeded in getting passed, and in maintaining for twelve years, an exceptional law, the famous law against the subversive doctrines of Social-Democracy. But by his persecutions he only welded the Party more solidly together. Its resistance became more invincible; and at the last General Elections for the Reichstag which took place under the exceptional law, on February 20, 1890, the candidates of the party received 1,427,000 votes. Social-Democracy had become the most powerful political party in Germany.

The law against the Socialists, crushed, crumbled to the ground; its author, Prince Bismarck, followed it!

Some weeks after these elections he was constrained to hand in his resignation. From then the party has grown continually. On June 16, 1903, it grouped around its candidates more than 3,000,000 electors, and to-day it forms an invincible army in face of its enemies.

Certainly there are in the German Social-Democracy great differences of opinion on the subject of the tactics necessary to adopt in face of the State and of the bourgeois parties. That fact is sufficiently well known. But a new scission is impossible. He or those who essayed to provoke it would be followed only by an infinitesimal minority, the butt of general ridicule and of profound disgust. His rôle would be for ever terminated. The Social-Democracy has learned too well, in the struggle of the last thirty years, how to appreciate the price of unity of the party ever to permit a new scission. This scission, it is true, is ardently awaited by our adversaries; they hail, with cries of joy, every little dissension between us, and with all their forces they apply themselves to aggravate it. But the latest recruit to the party knows that a scission would profit only our enemies, and he will make any sacrifice to render it impossible.

We Socialists can have in our midst wide differences of opinion, but we can, nevertheless, remain firmly united in face of the enemy, the bourgeois parties.

After loyal discussion, it is for the majority to decide the tactic to follow, that is the majority of the Socialist group in the Reichstag; in the last resort, the majority of the delegates of the party.

That is the position of a party which has the principles of democracy in its blood.

That which was and which is possible in Germany should be possible in France. Certainly the situation there is different from ours, and the tactic may vary here and there. That is not what the Amsterdam resolution on tactics would prohibit. That resolution only exacts that no permanent alliance should exist between Socialists and the bourgeois parties, that none of our declarations should be abandoned, even momentarily, that no effacement of the class antagonism should be attempted.

The contrary tactic causes in our ranks uncertainty and irresolution; it weakens the combative ardour and enthusiasm for our ideal, without which the party can secure no durable advantage.

The conscious international proletariat has its eyes fixed on our French comrades with an anxious attention. On all lips is this simple question: The promises made at the International Congress at Amsterdam, in a solemn hour, by citizens Renaudel and Vaillant, will they be realised? If they are, it will be the most significant event at which the Socialist world has assisted for some years and will provoke everywhere immense joy.

Socialists of France! do not disappoint the hopes we have all founded on you!


[We have taken the liberty of reproducing the above article from La Vie Socialiste, as we feel that its reminiscences will be not less interesting, nor its lessons less important – nor should its appeal be less effective – for us than for our French comrades to whom it was addressed. – Ed. SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT.]