Thomas Rothstein February 1907

Defeat Better than a Victory

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 2 February, 1907, pp. 76-87;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Seldom, if ever, has a political event belied the expectations of literally “tout le monde” than the result of the Reichstag elections in Germany. Whether in Germany itself or abroad there was not a sane person, either in the ranks of reaction or of Social-Democracy, who, on the day after the Reichstag was dissolved, doubted that Social-Democracy would prove the winner. It was only on the eve of the elections that comrade Mehring, the leader writer of the “Neue Zeit,” wrote in that journal pointing out that the reactionary parties may, with the assistance of the “party of non-voters,” succeed in wringing from the Social-Democrats a few seats. But even that sober estimate, as the same writer subsequently confessed, was far surpassed by the actual result. The Social-Democrats have lost not “a few,” but 36 seats, and return to the Reichstag not, as in the last, the second Parliamentary group but the fourth or even the fifth in strength. It is quite true that they have increased their aggregate vote from 3,010,771 to 3,258,968, that is, by 248,197; but so, and more, have the Catholic Centre increased (from 1,875,292 to 2,183,381, that is, by 308,089), the National Liberals (from 1,313,051 to 1,654,738, that is, by 341,687), and even the Radicals, if the two sections are reckoned together. As a matter of fact, the electorate itself has increased from 12,531,248 in 1903 to 13,193,571 in 1907, that is, by 662,323, while the number of voters has proportionately increased still more, having risen by 1,766,987 from 9,495,587 in 1903 to 11,262,574 in 1907. No wonder that every party, with the exception of a small group of the South German Peasant League, has increased its votes. There remains only this consolation that the Social-Democrats are still the largest party in the Empire; but it is easy to see that, if at the succeeding elections, the several parties exhibit the same relative growth as in this, Social-Democracy will, at no distant future, lose even that predominant position. Taken all in all, it would be idle to pretend that the Social-Democrats have not sustained a defeat. It is a defeat, so far as figures are concerned.

We all know the machinery by which it was brought about. First, there was the “party of non-voters,” that mass of electors who are politically too indifferent to record their opinions at the ballot box, except when dragged out by force or by fraud. It is this mass upon which, in the last instance, reaction always reckons when contemplating a “tour de force.” It was known to the Athenian Republic, it put Napoleon III, by a series of plebiscites, on the throne, it gave the enormous majority to Chamberlain in 1900, it turned the scale in the recent Borough Council elections in London, and it may yet smash up the Progressives at the forthcoming L.C.C. elections in March. It is a mass which can only be mobilised by unscrupulous agitators on some false patriotic cry, or by means of bribery. In Germany, as the figures of the elections of 1903 have shown, it amounted to about three million voters, and Herr Dernburg, the Colonial Secretary, who is quite an up-to-date man, not caring a fig for aristocratic decencies, and imbued with the American spirit of carrying on politics by commercial methods, openly declared before the elections that he would this time drag in this nameless mass of electors. That he has to a large extent succeeded in this is shown by the fact that though the number of electors has within the last four years only increased by 662,323, the actual number of voters has increased by 1,776,987. In fact, while in 1903 only 75.8 per cent. of the electors recorded their votes, that percentage rose in 1907 to 85.4.

This election manoeuvre was supplemented by another, no less important. Having set out to fight the Catholic Centre, the bourgeois parties soon discovered their universal community of interests and combined – against the Social-Democrats. Never before did the words of Marx about the “one reactionary mass” come so true as during these elections. “All the party differences” – says the most influential Radical paper in the North of Germany, the “Weser Zeitung,” shortly before the second ballots – “all the party differences have paled before the common feeling that one is face to face with a great problem, whose solution, though just begun, will, as the Imperial Chancellor rightly said, mark the turning point in our history. It would be a mistake to seek the explanation of the success (of the bourgeois parties) in the indignation which the rejection of the supplies for South-West Africa has called forth. This colonial question has not excited the masses to any great degree .... No, it was the indignation at the ever more and more reckless tactics of the Social-Democrats, at their pernicious misleading of the working class, which has induced the Liberals and the Conservatives, the Free Traders and the Agrarian, and – in our constituency also the Centre – to join hands with a view to throwing down the yoke of the Social-Democracy.” Indeed, with but a few exceptions during the second ballots, in which the Centre voted for Social-Democratic candidates against the Conservatives or National Liberals, in all other cases the bourgeois parties supported each other in preference to Social-Democrats, the Radicals (whose ranks are filled with Jews) voting for Anti-Semites, Free-Traders for rabid Protectionists, Constitutionalists for reactionary Junkers, and so on.

These two circumstances are sufficient to explain the means whereby the Socialist defeat was brought about. Yet only the means, not the reasons. We are still in the dark as to the reasons why the Radicals and intellectuals, and numerous other sections of the community preferred to vote rather for Absolutism and Protection and Anti-Semitism, and Clericalism, than for the Social-Democrats, and why the latter, during a period of four years, which was distinguished by such features as a meat famine, colonial misadventures, a suicidal foreign policy, police terrorism at Hamburg, Breslau, Dresden and elsewhere; why at such a time Socialists were only able to gain a quarter of a million of new adherents – too few to enable them to withstand the combined onslaught of the bourgeois parties? To understand this is to understand the grave lesson of the elections – and something else besides.

“Grievances both personal and political against the Social-Democracy have been multiplying. For years the Social-Democracy had openly expressed not only its antipathy to all the non-Socialist classes, but also its contempt for them. In the constituencies which the Socialists captured they indulged in the offensive behaviour of a parvenu and bragged of the number of their votes as the ‘nouveau riche’ bragged of his money-bags. At their party Congresses and in their press the Socialists indulged in orgies of political passion, and gloried in their rudeness. In the Reichstag the Social-Democracy, with its 80 seats, performed no appreciable service, but distinguished itself by its hoarse rage and its endless speeches upon theories of the universe. The practice of depending upon constant agitation prevented the Socialists from ever being able to transform their fervour into power or their enthusiasm into productive energy.”

Thus, according to the summary in the “Times,” writes, in the periodical “Matz,” the leader of the South German Radicals, Konrad Haussmann. It is as complete a statement of the case against the German Socialists as could be desired. Incitement of class against class, contempt for the bourgeois parties, class war “shibboleths,” constructive sterility – these are the charges, stripped of the exaggeration of abuse, levelled against German Social-Democracy in various forms, in various tones, in various languages, and in various quarters, from the reactionary bourgeois to the opportunist Socialist. It is these offences which have rendered Social-Democracy odious to the electors, and recoiled on its head in the shape of the present electoral defeat.

We may say at once that we perfectly agree with this explanation, only it wants a little comment.

For a number of years previous to 1903 the so-called bourgeois democracy had been led, by certain symptoms, to believe that German Social-Democracy was undergoing a radical change of character. First, the opportunist policy of Vollmar and his Bavarian followers on the agrarian question; then the agitation of Schippel in favour of voting the military and naval budgets; and, lastly and chiefly, the conversion to Opportunism of Bernstein, which opened the sluices of “revisionism,” with its negation of the class war tactics and the advocacy of an alliance with the democratic bourgeoisie under the common flag of a “German Reform Party” – all this had created the impression among the bourgeois parties that the days of revolutionary Social-Democracy were numbered. Innumerable volumes of various sizes greeted this “Crisis of Marxism,” and a great number of “intellectuals” in the party itself declared war against the old shibboleths and old tactics. At the same time, the orthodox Radical parties, by their reactionary conduct and antiquated Manchester doctrines, were spreading disappointment far and wide, so that when the elections of 1903 came hundreds of thousands of bourgeois Radicals voted on the Social-Democratic ticket. The excitement reached the boiling point. Now, everyone said, is the time for translating words into deeds. Now is the time for the Socialists to proclaim themselves what they really are – a “German Reform Party,” and do away once and for all with the revolutionary phrases. And a band of stalwarts, headed by Heinrich Braun and Heine, and assisted by Bernstein and his Revisionist followers, decided, with the aid of Maximilian Harden, the old Bismarkian hack and editor of the “Zukunft,” to deliver at the forthcoming party Congress at Dresden a frontal attack against the revolutionary section so as to purify the party of their baneful influence. What was their amazement when it turned out that the masses were overwhelmingly revolutionary and that they themselves were merely dreaming an idle dream! This attack was not only repulsed, but the assailants themselves were thrown to the ground and ignominiously kicked for their dirty manoeuvres. That was a bitter and humiliating disappointment, and at the very next two by-elections the Socialists were deserted by their “allies” and defeated.

What followed afterwards only tended to deepen the impression gained at the Dresden Congress, viz., that Social-Democracy is and will remain the revolutionary party of the proletariat; its tactics will remain, as heretofore, the tactics dictated by the principle of the class war, and that all those who were entertaining hopes to the contrary were simply living in a fool’s paradise. At the Jena Congress the party deliberately included in its, armoury the General Strike, that specifically proletarian and anti-capitalist weapon, and at Mannheim it once more defeated the revisionist section, which, seeing its helplessness in the party, had tried to rouse against it the trade unions. That was the final shipwreck of the bourgeois-radical hopes, and on January 25 these elements took their vengeance.

This, then, is the inward meaning of the above quoted words of Haussmann. Social-Democracy has disappointed the expectations, raised by the opportunist section previous to 1903, that it may cease to be a class-war party, and smarting under their disappointment the glorious bourgeois-democracy turned round and voted for reaction. “With dishevelled hair,” Herr Haussmann proceeds after the above words (the “Times” correspondent very properly did not continue further), “with dishevelled hair Social-Democracy strangled, like Medea her children, its own revisionists, because it hates their father the bourgeois spirit. It fed the broad masses on promises and on the superstition that everything was going to the worse, it drove the laughter away and introduced the sneering smile. It called out at Dresden in party spirit, ‘More venom and gall!’ at Hamburg, Down with the bourgeois classes!’ and at Berlin on January 24, The 25th is the day of the people’s judgment!’ This gives the point to what we said above.

But it will be argued – as it is argued – that these tactics were wrong, that instead of frightening away the bourgeois followers the Social-Democrats should have tempered their revolutionary “phrases and class war doctrine, and gone in, in co-operation with the progressive parties, for practical “constructive” work. That would have been something more tangible than mere “theories of the universe,” and would have kept the large following intact.

Nothing could be more disingenuous than this argument. Everyone who knows the political conditions of Germany at all, knows that there is no parliamentary government there, and that the Government not being responsible to the Reichstag it cannot be compelled, by fear of overthrow, to do this or to do that, and that the only way of obtaining “constructive” reforms is to bargain with the Government on the principle of give-and-take. The German Government, however, as everybody knows, is thoroughly reactionary, and consequently, every bargain concluded with it must, in its main part, be in the interest of political and economic reaction. The Catholic Centre, for instance, likes to boast of its “constructive” work on behalf of the working class. It points with pride, for instance, to the fact that it succeeded, at the time of the Tariff struggle in 1902, in obtaining from the Government, in exchange for the support of the Tariff Bill, the concession that 1,000,000 out of the proceeds of the new customs should go towards the assistance of the widows and orphans. This means that having sanctioned the levying of a tribute on the working class (including those very same widows and orphans) for the benefit of the landed aristocracy, amounting to tens of millions of pounds yearly, the Centre succeeded in getting a tenth or twentieth part of it back. Is this “constructive” reform? Or is it simply a demagogical swindle? Methinks it is the latter. Likewise in all other matters. If the Social-Democrats were prepared to vote tens of millions of pounds yearly for the increase of the army and navy, for colonial adventures, for a policy of aggression against France and England, for the support of trusts and the agrarians, they would, no doubt, get some “reforms” for the working class. But will they really be reforms or mere prestidigitatory tricks? It is clear that if an opportunist policy, even in democratic countries, spells, in the long run, disaster, both for the party and the working class, it is base treason from the very start in an absolutist country like Germany.

But it will again be said there is no need to go such lengths as that, – co-operate with the Liberal and Radical Parties, and you, in combination with them, will present such a force that the Government will be brought to its knees. After all, the Government cannot raise supplies without the consent of the Reichstag and if the Radical and Socialist opposition refuses them, there will be no escape for the Government but to yield.

This is a perfectly plausible argument, but alas, inapplicable in practice. Ever since the days of Lassalle, the Socialists, doctrinaires as they are, never ceased to urge the Liberal and Radical parties to make a bold stand against reaction. Let us go together, they cried, and we shall soon put an end to the powers of absolutism and the Junkers. Alas! it was a voice crying in the wilderness. Afraid of the proletariat, German Liberalism turned at an early date to Absolutism for protection, and the National Liberals are now one of the main props of the German Government. It was, in fact, this betrayal of Liberal principles which drove the German popular masses to embrace Socialism. The Radicals were more progressive, but they, too, as time went on, became so cowardly and reactionary, that, as we have seen, the younger spirit turned also towards Social-Democracy for salvation. With whom, then, could the Social-Democrats co-operate so as to form a strong opposition? At the time of the Tariff struggle the Radicals basely deserted them, trampling under foot every constitutional principle, and when last year the Social-Democrats raised an agitation in favour of universal suffrage for the Prussian Landtag (where, by the way, the Radical members never lifted a finger to get the shameful Landtag franchise altered), the Radicals refused to support them. Is that a party with whom the Socialists could enter into a bloc for fighting reaction? Indeed, if we wanted to know what the Radicals were, the present elections gave us a splendid exhibition of it; rather than vote for the sole party of opposition, Radicals voted for the most bitter reactionists in order to revenge their disappointment.

No, the whole argument about the doctrinarianism, etc., of the German Social-Democracy is, to speak bluntly, rot. It cannot co-operate with the Government because that Government is brutally reactionary, and it cannot co-operate with the bourgeois parties because those parties are cowardly and treacherous. And left to itself the Social-Democracy can only do “destructive” work, having constantly to repel the attempts of the reactionary Government to cripple and to maim the working class, and to expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois parties in their dealings with the Government.

We see, then, that by no manner of means could the German Social-Democracy become what is termed a Parliamentary “constructive” party, and that even if it had been inclined to moderate its tone and to talk of the “co-operation of classes” the bourgeois parties themselves did not permit it. Therein lies the total miscalculation of the Revisionists and their allies of the bourgeois democracy. The German Social Democracy is fatally bound to be the revolutionary party of the proletariat, and the sooner it recognises the fact, the better for it and the German proletariat.

But is it better? some will ask. What is the good of a party which can do no constructive work and is always isolated? Is it not a fatality which may be inevitable, but is nevertheless deplorable, and by no means enviable? Well, we reply: that depends upon the view taken of the mission of Social-Democracy. Those who believe that there is no fundamental antagonism of classes which prevents the gradual and peaceful abolition of capitalism and the substitution of the Socialist order of things, will naturally deplore the lot of the German Social-Democrats. To them “constructive” Parliamentary work is of supreme importance as it constitutes in their eyes the gradual introduction of Socialism. A reform here and a reform there, and the Socialist State has become perceptibly nearer than it was. They do not perceive that the reforms have not even touched the basic interests of capitalists, and even as palliatives their value, in comparison with the needs, is frequently infinitesimal. Nor do they see that the yielding attitude of the ruling classes is itself an elastic thing which develops a power of resistance proportionate to the pressure brought upon it; the more you squeeze out of the bourgeoisie, the more restive it becomes, and when the pressure reaches a certain limit it throws you back with a terrific force. It is a pleasure to live in a fool’s paradise, and those who like it will deplore the “sterility” of the German Social-Democrats. Not so those who do not give themselves up to pleasant utopias and know that the issue between capitalism and Socialism will be decided not by diplomacy and compromise, but by the force of the strong arm – actual or potential – of the proletariat. To them the chief aim of Social-Democracy consists in the enlightenment and the organisation of the working class, and parliamentary work is merely one of the means to that. This is not to say that Social-Democracy attaches no importance to practical reform work. Quite the reverse, it values reform both per se and as a means of strengthening, materially and morally, the proletariat. In fact, with all its attachment to formulae and theories of the universe, Social-Democracy, both in Germany and elsewhere, is the greatest and most implacable champion of reforms, since it is precisely when fighting for reforms that it is best able to expose the reactionary tendencies of the bourgeois class, and, consequently, to educate the proletariat in class consciousness. But whether in this or in any other branch of parliamentary activity Social-Democracy knows full well the limits of the power of the legislative machinery, and uses it mainly for the organisation of the masses outside.

From this standpoint is it correct to say that it does no “constructive” work and that its lot is not to be envied? Here comes in the true moral of the recent elections. If, as we have seen, the Social-Democracy was deserted by its bourgeois followers, how comes it that its aggregate vote has not only not decreased, but has actually grown by a quarter of a million? The answer to this seeming paradox is perfectly simple: What it lost in bourgeois followers it gained, and more than gained, in proletarian adherents. It has shed a numerous body of parasites – a sort of white corpuscles which were sapping its very life blood by forming the feeding ground of Revisionism, and has acquired a still larger amount of live tissue – a sort of red corpuscles – which will add to it new and healthy blood. Is it to be deplored, or is it to be rejoiced at? Is it a loss, or is it an acquisition? There can be no two opinions about it. German Social-Democracy has again become a purely proletarian party, and stronger and richer than ever, which will now grow together with the working class. For the sake of such a prize it was well worth paying with the loss of 36 seats in the Reichstag.

It thus turns out that the defeat was better than a victory, and that what our enemies and false friends called “destructive” and “sterile” tactics were in the highest sense constructive and productive. Social-Democracy has considerably increased its grip over the proletariat, and succeeded in consolidating it at a moment of the greatest crisis. This is a glorious justification of its revolutionary tactics, and as such it is a crushing refutation of the Revisionist doctrines. The parties in Germany are now ranged according to their natural order – those of the combined bourgeoisie on one side and that of the proletariat on the other. What could be better for the future development of the Social-Democracy? Not without reason do the Radicals, both in Germany and here, now that the first intoxication of their doubtful victory has passed, woefully look back to the mistaken zeal with which they combatted the “Reds.” They themselves have assisted the Social-Democrats in laying bare the dividing line between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and in rendering the issue between them straight and single. Now we may say to our German comrades: Well done, a few more such defeats and you will take the whole reactionary bourgeoisie to the burial-ground