Articles by Engels in the Labour Standard 1881

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Bismarck and the German Working Men’s Party

Source: Reproduced from the newspaper;
Written: mid-July 1881;
Published: No. 12, July 23, 1881, as a leading article;
Transcribed:, Labor Day 1996.

The English middle-class Press has lately been very silent about the atrocities committed by Bismarck and his understrappers against the members of the Social-Democratic Working Men’s Party in Germany. The only exception, to some extent, has been the Daily News. Formerly, when despotic Governments abroad indulged in such vagaries at the expense of their subjects, the outcry was great indeed in the English dailies and weeklies. But here the oppressed parties are working men, and proud of the name, and the Press representatives of “Society,” of the “Upper Ten," suppress the facts and almost seem, by the obstinacy of their silence, to approve of them. What business, indeed, have working men with politics? Leave that to their “betters!” And then there is this other reason for the silence of the English Press: It is very hard to attack Bismarck’s Coercion Act [1] and the way he carries it out, and in the same breath to defend Mr. Forster’s coercion proceedings in Ireland. [2] This is a very sore point, and must not be touched. The middle-class Press can scarcely be expected to point out itself how much the moral position of England in Europe and America has been lowered by the present Government’s action in Ireland.

At every general election the German Working Men’s party turned up with rapidly-increasing numbers; at the last but one above 500,000; at the last one more than 600,000 votes fell to their candidates. [3] Berlin elected two, Elberfeld-Barmen, one Breslau, Dresden, one each; ten seats were conquered in the face of the coalition of the Government with the whole of the Liberal, Conservative, and Catholic parties, in the face of the outcry created by the two attempts at shooting the Emperor, [4] which all other parties agreed to make the Working Men’s party responsible for. Then Bismarck succeeded in passing an Act by which Social-Democracy was outlawed. The Working Men’s newspapers more than fifty, were suppressed, their societies and clubs broken up, their funds seized, their meetings dissolved by the police, and, to crown all, it was enacted that whole towns and districts might be “proclaimed", just as in Ireland. But what even English Coercion Bills [5] have never ventured upon in Ireland Bismarck did in Germany. In every “proclaimed” district the police received the right to expel any man whom it might “reasonably suspect" of Socialistic propaganda. Berlin was, of course, at once proclaimed, and hundreds (with their families, thousands) of people were expelled. For the Prussian police always expel men with families; the young unmarried men are generally let alone; to them expulsion would be no great punishment, but to the heads of families it means, in most cases, a long career of misery if not absolute ruin. Then Hamburg elected a working man member of Parliament, [6] and was immediately proclaimed. The first batch of men expelled from Hamburg was about a hundred, with families amounting, besides, to more than three hundred. The Working Men’s party, within two days, found the means to provide for their travelling expenses and other immediate wants. Now Leipzig has also been proclaimed, [7] and without any other pretext but that otherwise the Government cannot break up the organisation of the party. The expulsions of the very first day number thirty-three, mostly married men with families. Three members of the German Parliament head the list; perhaps Mr. Dillon will send them a letter of congratulation, considering that they are not yet quite so badly off as himself. [8]

But this is not all. The Working Men’s party once being outlawed in due form, and deprived of all those political rights which other Germans are supposed to enjoy, the police can do with the individual members of that party just as they like. Under the pretext of searching for forbidden publications, their wives and daughters are subjected to the most indecent and brutal treatment. They themselves are arrested whenever it pleases the police, are remanded from week to week, and discharged only after having passed some months in prison. New offences, unknown to the criminal code, are invented by the police, and that code stretched beyond all possibility. And often enough the police finds magistrates and judges corrupt or fanatical enough to aid and abet them; promotion is at this price! What this all comes to the following astounding figures will show. In the year from October, 1879, to October, 1880, there were in Prussia alone imprisoned for high treason, treason felony, insulting the Emperor, etc., not less than 1,108 persons; and for political libels, insulting Bismarck, or defiling the Government, etc., not less than 10,094 persons. Eleven thousand two hundred and two political prisoners, that beats even Mr. Forster’s Irish exploits!

And what has Bismarck attained with all his coercion? Just as much as Mr. Forster in Ireland. The Social-Democratic party is in as blooming a condition, and possesses as firm an organisation, as the Irish Land League. [9] A few days ago there were elections for the Town Council of Mannheim. The working-class party nominated sixteen candidates, and carried them all by a majority of nearly three to one. Again, Bebel, member of the German Parliament for Dresden, stood for the representation of the Leipzig district in the Saxon Parliament. Bebel is himself a working man (a turner), and one of the best, if not the best speaker in Germany. To frustrate his being elected, the Government expelled all his committee. What was the result? That even with a limited suffrage, Bebel was carried by a strong majority. Thus, Bismarck’s coercion avails him nothing; on the contrary, it exasperates the people. Those to whom all legal means of asserting themselves are cut off, will one fine morning take to illegal ones, and no one can blame them. How often have Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Forster proclaimed that doctrine? And how do they act now in Ireland?

From the MECW

1 The Exceptional Law against the Socialists (Gezetz gegen die gemeinefährlichen Bestrebungen der Sozialdemokratie – The Law against the Harmful and Dangerous Aspirations of Social-Democracy) was introduced by the Bismarck government, supported by the majority in the Reichstag, on October 21 1878 to counter the socialist and workers’ movement. This law, better known as the Anti-Socialist Law, made the Social-Democratic Party of Germany illegal, banned all party and mass workers’ organizations, and the socialist and workers’ press; on the basis of this law, socialist literature was confiscated and Social-Democrats subjected to reprisals. However, during its operation, the Social-Democratic Party, assisted by Marx and Engels, uprooted both opportunist and “ultra-Left” elements and managed to substantially strengthen and widen its influence among the people by skilfully combining illegal and legal methods of work. Under pressure from the mass workers’ movement, the Anti-Socialist Law was abrogated on October 1 1890.

2 The introduction of the Land Bill met with resistance on the part of the Irish tenants. Using the Coercion Act passed in March 1881, Chief Secretary for Ireland Forster applied extraordinary measures by sending troops to Ireland to evict the tenants who refused to pay the rent.

3 The reference is to the elections to the Reichstag of January 10, 1877 and July 30, 1878.

4 The reference is to the assassination attempt on William I made on May 11 1878 by tinner Emil Hödel, who had been earlier expelled from the Leipzig Social-Democratic Association, and to that of June 2 made by the German anarchist Karl Eduard Nobiling, who had never been a member of the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. These events gave rise to a vicious campaign against the socialists and were an excuse for the promulgation of the Anti-Socialist Law in October 1878.

5 Coercion Bills were passed by the British Parliament several times throughout the 19th century with a view to suppressing the revolutionary and national liberation movement in Ireland. Under them a state of siege was declared on Irish territory, and the English authorities were granted extraordinary powers.

6 On April 27, 1880 Georg Wilhelm Hartmann won the mandate at the supplementary elections to the Reichstag in the second district of Hamburg. From September 9, 1879 to June 15, 1881, the deputies to the Reichstag from the Social-Democratic faction were: August Bebel, Wilhelm Bracke, Friedrich Wilhelm Fritzsche, Wilhelm Hasselmann, Max Kayser, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Klaus Peter Reinders, Julius Vahlteich and Philipp Wiemer. After the death of Bracke and Reinders, their seats were filled by Ignaz Auer and Wilhelm Hasenclever.

7 A minor state of siege was declared in Leipzig on June 27, 1881. Earlier, it had been introduced in Berlin and on October 28, 1880, in Hamburg-Altona and the environs.

8 Using the Coercion Act, in May-October 1881 the English authorities arrested prominent Irish deputies, members of the Irish National Land League headed by Charles Parnell, who opposed the introduction of the Land Bill of 1881. Among the prisoners was John Dillon, an Irish political leader, member of the British Parliament, one of the League’s leaders.

9 The Irish National Land League – a mass organisation founded in 1879 by the petty-bourgeois democrat Michael Davitt. The League united large sections of the Irish peasantry and the urban poor, and was supported by the progressive section of the Irish bourgeoisie. Its agrarian demands mirrored the spontaneous protest of the Irish masses against the landlords’ and national oppression. However, some of the League’s leaders adopted an inconsistent stand, and this was used by bourgeois nationalists (Parnell and others), who sought to reduce the activity of the League to the campaign for Home Rule, i.e. for the granting to Ireland of limited self-government within the framework of the British Empire. They did not advocate the abolition of English landlordism, a demand advanced by the revolutionary democrats. In 1881 the Land League was banned, but in actual fact it continued its activity until the late 1880s.