Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975

Chapter IV: The Heroic Age of German Labour

Thus far we have focused on those social, economic and political factors, international as well as national, which contributed to the formation and development of the political consciousness of the propertied classes in Germany. We have also sought to show how these forms of consciousness comprised an alloy of many elements, which in turn were the complex outcome of a whole series of interwoven historical processes and events dating back, in effect, to the very dawn of the modern era. Finally, the trajectory of these developments was projected towards the future rise of fascism, and some of the constituent elements of its programme and ideology located, even if in an embryonic form, in post-1848, Bismarckian Germany. [1] Now it is necessary to analyse and synthesise developments at the other pole, that of the German proletariat. For here too we shall discover that tradition played its full part in the shaping of the present and the future, and that the life and death struggles of the infant German labour movement against its Junker, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois enemies came to overshadow so many of the class battles under the Weimar Republic. And here it must be said without any reservations that the reaction, personified by Adolf Hitler, absorbed the lessons of this period far more tellingly than any leader of German Social Democracy.

Initial attempts to found a stable working-class movement in Germany proved short lived. The defeat of 1848 cast its long shadow over the working class. Its most radical elements found refuge in the camp of bourgeois left-liberalism, while others, temporarily disillusioned with politics, emigrated to the New World. [2] But these workers, who had lived and fought in the crucible of revolution, and had witnessed at first hand the fruits of the bourgeoisie’s cowardice, could never be reconciled to a long sojourn in the parties of petit-bourgeois democracy. Unlike England, where the working class underwent a protracted and convoluted experience of supporting two openly bourgeois parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, before striking out along an independent political path, the German working class was driven to a split from Liberalism in little more than a decade. And the manner in which this was done was very different from the route taken by workers in England. There, the impetus to form a class party came from an attack on the trade unions, whose leaders had traditionally given their electoral support to the Liberals. And these unions had a history in some cases reaching back to the middle of the nineteenth century and even earlier. How different from Germany, where it was workers and intellectuals influenced by various schools of socialist thought who broke from Liberalism to found first an independent political party, and only then a trade union movement. The contrasting series of steps whereby the German and English working classes established their organisational and political independence [3] from all other classes and parties is of enormous importance for comprehending the subsequent histories of both nations. And precisely because the German labour movement originated in the development of diffuse and divergent schools of socialism, and not in the economic organisations of the class, which by their very nature embrace workers of all political views, it was from its very inception confronted by profound theoretical problems. Contrary to what the dictates of ‘common sense’ might suggest, this gave the movement its one great strength, and even though compromises over principle and programme were sometimes effected to achieve organisational unity, the German working class of necessity became drawn into these doctrinal disputes, and, as a result, underwent a political education unrivalled by any other proletariat. And here too, just as was the case with their class enemies, the development of the German working class was profoundly influenced by the combined and uneven development of capitalism. Engels observed that the German workers enjoyed two enormous advantages over their class brothers in the rest of Europe:

Firstly they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe and they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called ‘educated classes’ have almost completely lost. Without German philosophy, which proceeded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism... would never have come into being. [4] Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. [5]

This instinctive feel for theory Engels contrasted with ‘the indifference towards all theory’ which he had encountered at first hand in the English labour movement. It was a powerful retarding factor in its development, ‘in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions’. [6] And the second advantage was that:

Chronologically speaking, the Germans were about the last to come into the workers’ movement and for this reason were able to climb to the political heights attained by German Social Democracy by resting on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen... it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements... it was able to utilise their dearly-bought experience... Without the precedent of the English trade unions and French workers’ political struggles, without the gigantic impulse given especially by the Paris Commune, where would we be now? [7]

The modern German workers’ movement dates from the year of 1863. The brilliant but erratic dramatist and Hegelian philosopher Ferdinand Lassalle attracted a small group of workers around him after they had been denied full membership of the Progressive Party’s National Association. Later, that year, on 23 May 1863, these workers founded, under the rigidly-centralised personal leadership of Lassalle, the General German Workers Union. Based on the Saxon city of Leipzig, its declared aim was the achievement of universal suffrage and the establishment of socialism through direct action by the state. [8] Lassalle’s idealisation of the state, his view of it as an organisation above classes and existing purely for purposes of rational government and ‘cultural progress’, he undoubtedly owed to his uncritical assimilation of the Hegelian heritage. This was the central issue dividing Lassalle from Marx. It was not, as some biographers of the latter suggest, a clash of personalities or a question of political rivalry and prestige. Both men were constructed on too grand a scale for such petty concerns. Lassalle’s Hegelian theory of the state was destined to lead him astray also in the field of political tactics and strategy. Burning with hatred for the German bourgeoisie, which he saw as not just the principal but the only enemy of the working class, Lassalle allowed himself to be trapped into making an alliance with Bismarck on the questions of national unity and universal suffrage. When the affair become known after Lassalle’s death, it did great harm to the young workers’ movement in Germany, for it enabled its bourgeois and petit-bourgeois opponents to portray Social Democracy as an agent of feudal reaction. All the biting invective hurled against Lassalle by Marx and Engels was therefore fully justified, as the essence of all their theoretical work was directed towards establishing the political premise of the socialist revolution – the complete independence of the working class from all other classes, together with an intransigent opposition to all the state machinery of class oppression. [9] The other wing of the movement was founded by Wilhelm Liebknecht, a revolutionary student of 1848, and August Bebel, a wood-turner by trade. Their organisation, the League of German Workers’ Clubs, also dates from 1863, but did not sever its umbilical cord with liberalism until 1866, when Liebknecht and Bebel broke their loose association with the German People’s Party to create their working-class-based Saxon People’s Party. And it took another two years of fierce internal struggles with the more backward political elements in the party finally to launch the Social Democratic Labour Party in the south German town of Eisenach, from which they derived their popular soubriquet of ‘Eisenachers’ to distinguish them from Lassalle’s movement, which was now under the leadership of Johann von Schweitzer. The new party, though it differed on many important points from the Lassalleans, was also far from complete agreement with Marx and Engels, a state of affairs which became glaringly obvious when merger moves between the two movements were consummated by the unity congress at Gotha in 1875. The criticisms made by Marx of the Gotha Programme have more than an historical interest, as they underlined theoretical and political weaknesses in the new German party which were never truly mastered, and which played a central part in its degeneration in the years immediately preceding the First World War. If we have to single out two issues around which the capitulation of German Social Democracy in 1914 revolved, then they would be the attitude of its leadership to working-class internationalism and the capitalist state – precisely those questions which Marx considered to be either watered down or distorted in the unification programme. [10] Thus Marx took issue with the fifth point of the Gotha Programme, which couched its internationalism in all too feeble terms:

Lassalle, in opposition to the Communist Manifesto and to all earlier socialism, conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint. It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to fight at all, the working class must organise itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle. In so far its class struggle is national, not in substance, but, as the Communist Manifesto says, ‘in form’. But the ‘framework of the present day national state’, for instance, the German Empire, is itself in its turn economically ‘within the framework of the world market... of the [world] system of states'... [11]

What Marx is insisting here, against the Lassalleans especially, is that there can be no ‘socialism in one country’, that the very international nature of capitalist economy and world political relations presupposes an international struggle by the working class to take state power and begin the construction of socialism. By implicitly rejecting thoroughgoing internationalism, the programme was placing at risk the fighting unity of the entire European working class:

And to what does the German workers’ party reduce its internationalism? To the consciousness that the result of its efforts will be ‘the international brotherhood of peoples’ – a phrase borrowed from the bourgeois League of Peace and Freedom, which is intended to pass as equivalent to the international brotherhood of the working classes in the joint struggle against the ruling classes and their governments. Not a word, therefore, about the international functions of the German working class! [12]

And these functions were, and remained, onerous indeed. It was the German proletariat, whose first struggles for political and social emancipation had pumped blood into the Hegelian schemas of the youthful Marx and Engels, which gave the initial impetus for the writing of the landmark in socialist literature, the Communist Manifesto. Also it was the German working class, whose best elements were brought together in the Lassallean and Eisenacher movements, which comprised the politically most strategic and theoretically advanced detachment of the First (Workingmen’s) International. And when the International went into decline and liquidation after the defeat of the Paris Commune, it was the German movement which stood firmest against the anarchist attack on Marxism. Neither was it an accident that the Social Democratic Party later provided the biggest and theoretically most weighty battalions of the Second International after its foundation in 1889. The dominant position of German industry and arms in the period of the Second International’s prime compelled the German working class to take up a position of leadership within the international movement, and this it held right up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Strategically speaking, there could be no successful socialist revolution anywhere in Europe without the active solidarity of the German working class. This Marx understood only too well, having still fresh in his memory the recent tragic defeat of the Paris Commune, drowned in the blood of thousands of Paris workers under the protective and approving gaze of Bismarck’s Prussian general staff.

Therefore to fulfil its international obligation, the German working class had to be broken from all forms of nationalism, however refined and however much dressed up in the language of democracy and even socialism. This was a task only a small minority of the SPD leadership took up in earnest, as the drift towards chauvinism in the imperialist epoch was to testify. Marx was equally biting in his criticism of the programme’s section devoted to democratic demands. He poured scorn on the notion, derived as much from the Eisenach as the Lassallean wing of the party, of a ‘free state’. Such a vague, non-class formulation in effect served to obscure the repressive functions of any state, be it feudal, capitalist or the state power established after a victorious workers’ revolution:

The German workers’ party – at least if it adopts the programme – shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state... it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical and libertarian basis. [13]

Thus, far from idealising the state, the task of German socialists was to prepare for its overthrow, and the creation of the new state power based on socialist, and not capitalist property relations:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. [14]

Marx and Engels, while being frank to the point of bluntness with the leaders responsible for the adoption of the Gotha programme, never abused their position of political and theoretical authority to bludgeon Bebel, Liebknecht and Bracke into unthinkingly and uncritically accepting their proposed revisions of the draft. The German movement was an autonomous one, and both Marx and Engels saw their role in relation to it as one of comradely critics and advisers. Their greatest concern was that in their desire to abolish the 12-year-old organisational cleavage in the German workers’ movement the Eisenachers would conclude a rotten compromise with the Lassalleans over vital programmatic issues. Far better, wrote Engels to Wilhelm Bracke, that the Eisenachers ‘should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy’. But by trading programmatic points with the Lassalleans:

... one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the party movement... One knows that the mere fact of unification is satisfying to the workers, but it is a mistake to believe that this momentary success is not bought at too high a price. [15]

Engels made the same point even more forcefully in a letter to Bebel. After reiterating Marx’s criticism of the ‘free people’s state’, which he called ‘pure nonsense’, [16] Engels warned what the adoption of such a programme would mean:

Marx and I can never give our adherence to the new party established on this basis, and shall have very seriously to consider what our attitude towards it – in public as well – should be... you will realise... that this programme marks a turning point which may very easily compel us to refuse any and every responsibility for the party which recognises it. [17]

In the event, Marx and Engels were not driven to a public break from the new German party. Not because they were reconciled to its programme, but because within three years, the course of the class struggle in Germany took such a sharp turn that a whole new set of problems and disputes was created both inside the SPD and between the newly-founded party and Marx and Engels in England. The new situation was, of course, Bismarck’s determined bid to crush the German labour movement. Bismarck’s decision to outlaw the SPD and its allied organisations, although implemented in 1878, had been made much earlier. The first serious repressions began in the wake of Prussia’s victorious war against France, when Bebel, Liebknecht and other leaders of the infant workers’ movement were jailed on the Chancellor’s orders for opposing his annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. Every other party, from the Progressives through the National Liberals to the Conservatives, unleashed an unprecedented barrage of chauvinist invective against the Social Democrats, and both Liebknecht and Bebel were subsequently re-arrested after serving their four-month jail term, and tried for treason at Leipzig in March 1872. This time, the sentence was two years, for intervening between the two verdicts was not only the Reichstag elections of 1871, where the party of Bebel and Liebknecht succeeded in returning them as deputies, but also the Paris Commune. Its impact on the propertied classes in Germany was truly traumatic, far more so even than the Paris June uprising of 1848. What made the Commune even more horrific in the eyes of Germany’s rulers was the unequivocal support given to the heroic Parisian proletariat by the leaders of the German workers’ movement. Bismarck himself subsequently recalled that he saw the Commune as ‘a flash of light: from that moment I saw the Social Democrats as an enemy against whom state and society must arm themselves’. All the old fears of a possible working-class revolution now surfaced again after lying dormant since the defeat of 1848. The years of political reaction had masked the emergence of a powerful industrial working class in the main cities of west and central Germany, and both Junkers and bourgeoisie suddenly realised that here, in Berlin, Leipzig and Essen, they stood on alien soil. [18] The coming together of the two wings of the socialist movement in 1875, together with their respective trade union organisations, heightened apprehensions that the revolution was drawing near. It is easy to see now that these fears were unfounded, and that the development of the German proletariat into a class numerically and politically capable of seizing state power had barely begun. In this sense, the class consciousness of both bourgeoisie and Junkers was false. But this is hardly the point, since propertied, exploiting classes are always, to one degree or another, motivated by false consciousness, and are organically incapable of seeing things and relations as they really are. Their false consciousness is indeed one of the most powerful factors in sustaining their rule in defiance of all but the most powerful and correctly-led challenges from the working class. The conviction that the bourgeoisie (and even more so, the Junkers) represented doomed modes of production was hardly calculated to give it the class confidence required to combat the threat of expropriation! Instead the German ruling classes saw every movement of the proletariat towards its emancipation, however modest, through counter-revolutionary spectacles. The experiences of 1525, 1789, 1815 and 1848 had become so fully absorbed into the consciousness of the bourgeoisie, and had so sapped the political confidence and skill necessary to undertake an ‘English’ policy of compromise and manoeuvre with the leaders of the working class, that it demanded and supported measures which were from a ‘rational’ point of view quite excessive. [19] But the class struggle does not proceed according to the dictates of Kantian pure reason, but through the clash of material forces as they are mediated through the consciousness of those who participate in the conflict. As Engels expressed it:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real forces impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces. Because it is a process of thought he derives its form as well as its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessor. He works with mere thought material, which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of thought: indeed, this is a matter of course to him, because, as all action is mediated by thought, it appears to him to be ultimately based on thought. [20]

Thus individuals and even entire classes can be driven into actions not as a direct reflex of a real and clearly comprehended economic, social or political stimulus, but at varying degrees of a tangent to these material forces. To say otherwise is to believe that all human beings act at all times with a total consciousness of what they are doing. ‘Over-reaction’ to an imagined or exaggerated threat is as much a part of history as the ‘under-reaction’ by classes or individuals to warnings of dangers that were all too real. [21] All are moments in a total process of class struggle, in which between its polar opposites there are ranged out an infinite series of shadings in constant motion and conflict. Bismarck’s war on the German labour movement can be understood in no other way, for though it ended in humiliating defeat and resignation for the Junker of iron and blood, it established a precedent on which others were later to build with devastating success.

Evidence that Bismarck had been preparing his blow against the Social Democrats ever since the Commune is to be found in a letter written to him by his old Conservative friend and political adviser, Hermann Wagener. Warning against any hasty attempts to outlaw the socialists, he said:

... it seems to me to be an exceedingly dangerous undertaking to wish to combat the Ultramontane [22] and the Socialist parties at the same time and thereby to drive the Socialists even more irrevocably into the clerical camp. Even though it may be justified and necessary to enforce existing laws energetically and thereby to keep away from the Socialist movement foreign elements and all others who are pursuing anti-national goals, nevertheless I regard it as definitely a political mistake to subject the Socialist leaders to exceptional laws solely on account of their social aspirations, particularly if one does not, at the same time, do anything to satisfy the justified demands of their supporters.

The debate raged inside both the bourgeoisie and the Junker landowners for several years before a decision was finally arrived at, with both classes being split on the issue from top to bottom. Ironically (but very much in keeping with the German tradition), some of the most vehement opponents of anti-socialist legislation were to be found amongst Bismarck’s fellow Junkers. They instinctively (and in some cases quite consciously) felt that too harsh a repression of the workers’ movement would destroy the delicate balance between the classes which, under Bismarck, had become a central factor in Junker political strategy and tactics. They also believed that persecution would only strengthen the most radical elements in the movement, and render any compromise between it and the government impossible. This was a view expressed by the monarchist historian and economist Gustav Schmoller, who in 1874 wrote his highly polemical The Social Question and the Prussian State, setting out his programme for a ‘social monarchy’; and the case for a policy of tolerating, and not provoking, the Social Democrats:

Social Democracy represents merely the youthful exuberance of the great social movement which we are entering. Our Social Democracy is a little different but it is hardly worse than English Chartism was in its time and I hope that like the latter it will prove to be merely a transitional phase of development... The social dangers of the future can only be averted by one means, by the monarchy and the civil service..., the only neutral elements in the social class war, reconciling themselves to the idea of the liberal state, absorbing into their midst the best elements of parliamentary government and taking a resolute initiative towards a great venture in social reform...

This represented what was quite an advanced view for the German bourgeoisie, and it was immediately countered by the highly influential nationalist historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, who in his Socialism and its Sympathisers (1874) denounced those who advocated political reform and toleration of socialism as traitors to their own class:

Envy and greed are the two mighty forces that it [socialism] employs to lift the old world from its hinges; it thrives on the destruction of all ideals... The very foundation stones of all community life are endangered by Social Democracy... The doctrine of the injustice of society destroys the firm instincts that the worker has about honour, so that fraud and bad and dishonest work are scarcely held to be reprehensible any longer...

And in a direct riposte to the ‘liberal’ Gustav Schmoller, von Treitschke went on:

The learned friends of socialism are in the habit of pointing to the Chartists, [23] who also began with cosmopolitan dreams but nevertheless in the end learned to accommodate themselves to their country. This overlooks the fact that the English island people possessed an age-old resistance which is lacking in our unfinished country open to all foreign influences. It also overlooks the fact that Chartism was in its origins English, whereas German Social Democracy is led by a mob of homeless conspirators. With every passing year Social Democracy has become more antagonistic toward the idea of the national state...

The political consequences of Germany’s long-delayed national unification were now assuming malignant forms which the bourgeoisie and Junkers employed skilfully to whip up chauvinist hatred against the ‘anti-national’ leaders of the German working class. As was later the case with the Nazis, Marxism was not attacked before the masses on the grounds that it sought to better the conditions of the workers – quite the contrary, lip service was always paid to this principle – but because of its ‘foreign’ origin, even though both Marx and Engels were Germans. [24] Thus von Treitschke, like the counter-revolutionaries of 1848 and before, detected a French element in German Social Democracy:

Socialism, therefore, alienates its adherents from the state and from the fatherland and in place of community of love and respect which it destroys it offers them the community of class hatred amongst the lowest classes... powerful agitators seek to encourage a boastful class pride... No Persian Prince was ever so flattered and fawned upon as ‘the real people’ of Social Democracy. All the contemptible devices of French radicalism in the 1840s are called upon in order to awaken among the masses an arrogance that knows no bounds.

These extracts – and we could provide many more – illustrate perfectly Engels’ contention that class interests and actions are mediated through modes of consciousness which the present is constantly inheriting and adapting from the past. The class struggle is therefore fought out under all manner of strange banners and devices – individual liberty, the divine right of kings, the right of ‘freeborn men’ to choose their own government, the right to work and the rights of property. In Germany, both bourgeoisie and Junkers waged war on the proletariat in the name of the ‘nation’ and this became, from very early on, the rallying point of all those forces who sought to crush Marxism. It even became the accepted convention to refer to the bourgeoisie, petit-bourgeoisie and Junkers as Germany’s ‘national classes’, and the proletariat as ‘the international class’. [25]

Von Treitschke rounded off his diatribe against Marxism with a warning. The Social Democrats would be suppressed unless they ‘submitted themselves to the traditional order of society... this demand means, first you must become the opposite of what you are today!’ And then he gave an even graver warning to the rulers of Germany. If they ‘allowed the masses to become too powerful’, and ‘if the masses succeed in taking power directly for themselves, then the whole world is turned upside down, state and society are dissolved and rule by force sets in’. Publicists like von Treitschke, who enjoyed an enormous standing amongst bourgeois intellectuals, were closer to the pulse of political life than the moderates. The election returns of 1877 confirmed Bismarck’s worst fears. The SPD’s vote not only held up against this ferocious anti-socialist barrage, but actually increased from 351 000 to 493 000. Now there were 12 Social Democratic deputies, ‘aliens’, in the Imperial parliament. This electoral success was largely the outcome of the newly united movement’s tremendous strides forward in organisation and its dissemination of socialist propaganda and agitation. Before the anti-socialist laws banned all left-wing literature, the SPD published no fewer than 24 journals with some 100 000 regular subscribers, and was now beginning to develop a powerful trade union movement under direct Social Democratic leadership and control. [26] It too had a flourishing press, with 16 union journals. The most far-sighted members of the ruling classes could see that this, the education of the most advanced layers of the workers in the basic principles of socialism, was the most serious and permanent challenge to their rule, even though it was a work which could only begin to reap its rewards after long years of patient toil. Bismarck now decided to act before it was too late. Early in 1878, he wrote to a National Liberal Reichstag deputy: ‘If I don’t want any chickens, then I must smash the eggs.’ But first a suitable climate had to be created before the Chancellor could begin to wield his sledge-hammer. And it seemed that fate was determined to assist him. On 11 May, an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of William I whilst he was riding in an open carriage along the fashionable Berlin Street, Unter den Linden. The would-be assassin turned out to be a plumber, one Max Hoedel, who had only the previous month been expelled from the Leipzig branch of the SPD for embezzling its funds. Bismarck gleefully seized on this coincidence – for that was all it proved to be – to press home his attack in the Reichstag, where he was battling against an obdurate majority which would not endorse his carte blanche for repressions against the SPD. [27] On 20 May, Bismarck’s draft bill outlawing the SPD was presented to the Reichstag, and on the 24th, was rejected by a crushing vote of 251 to 57, with the bourgeois National Liberals split. It seemed as if Bismarck had run into a brick wall. Then, one week after his Reichstag reverse, another gunman fired at the Emperor in the Unter den Linden, inflicting serious wounds. Now Bismarck acted. With patriotic and monarchist sentiment outraged by the two assassination attempts, Bismarck found it a simple matter to direct it against the Social Democrats, whose views on royalty were only too well known. The shrewd Bismarck also exploited the new political situation to put fresh pressure on the recalcitrant National Liberals, who now ran the risk of being branded with the SPD as ‘anti-national’. The new elections, called for 30 July, were conducted in an atmosphere of reactionary frenzy. The ‘Progressives’ made haste to separate themselves from any supposed connection with the despised socialists, while all the major parties vied with one another to appear the most patriotic and loyal to the throne. This was truly a baptism of fire for the young workers’ party. It spoke volumes for the heroism, devotion and political consciousness of its activists and supporters that the SPD withstood the assault, kicking Bismarck and his ‘liberal’ allies in the teeth by returning only three fewer deputies to the new Reichstag. The popular vote for the party fell by 10 per cent – a matter of 56 000 votes. In the circumstances, it was an inspiring political victory. [28] Bismarck smarted for revenge, and he was soon to have it. On 19 October 1878, the new Reichstag, with the far right now greatly strengthened, [29] passed Bismarck’s anti-socialist bill by 221 votes to 149, although the Centre Party and the National Liberals succeeded in weakening it somewhat by declining to endorse Bismarck’s demand for a total ban on all activity of the SPD, including its participation in elections. This single loophole enabled the SPD to maintain a legal foothold in the Reichstag, where their deputies were protected by parliamentary immunity, and at election times, when the SPD was permitted to campaign for votes along with Germany’s legal parties. At this stage, it will be fruitful to compare Bismarck’s anti-Marxist strategy with that adopted by Hitler nearly six decades later. Firstly one is struck by the uncanny similarity – indeed, almost identity – between the highly fortuitous assassination attempts on the Kaiser and the Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933, which the Nazis exploited to mobilise the middle-class masses against the ‘red peril’ in the elections of 5 March. True, in the former case, no links have as yet been established between the two assassination attempts and Bismarck, whereas with the Reichstag fire, the evidence pointing towards Nazi complicity is weighty. But it cannot be denied that both Bismarck and Hitler proved themselves master tacticians in exploiting these incidents to create the political atmosphere in the more backward masses and small propertied classes necessary for an all-out war against the workers’ movement. And it is only at this point – the methods employed to destroy the organisations of the proletariat – that the great divide opens up between Bismarck and Hitler. While Bismarck sought and secured a national mandate to destroy Social Democracy, from the moment his bill became law, the task of making it effective rested solely in the hands of the police, the judiciary and the organs of government rule. Hitler had grasped from quite early on in his political career, and not only from his own experiences, but from examining the history of Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation, that the modern workers’ movement, especially in a country like Germany where the proletariat had developed such powerful and disciplined organisations, and where Marxism had become flesh of their flesh, could never be destroyed by pure police methods, or even by the use of the armed forces. And it is possible to see how Hitler evolved his conception of a mass counter-revolutionary, intensely nationalistic and at the same time ‘socially'-oriented movement, from the negative example of Bismarck’s 12-year war to extirpate Marxism from the consciousness of the German working class. On paper, Bismarck’s new law was truly formidable. Apart from the already referred to loophole of parliamentary and electoral immunity, the SPD and all its allied organisations had quite literally been rendered seditious overnight. Here there was complete identity of purpose with Hitler’s repression of the German workers’ movement. The sweep of Bismarck’s legislation can be appreciated from the following extracts. Entitled Law Against the Publicly Dangerous Endeavours of Social Democracy, its clauses were directed against ‘societies which aim at the overthrow of the existing political or social order through Social Democratic, socialistic or communistic endeavours...’. Clause four gave to the government and its agents the right:

... to attend all sessions and meetings [of the organisations in question], to call and conduct membership assemblies, to inspect the books, papers and cash assets, as well as to demand information about the affairs of the society, to forbid the carrying out of resolutions which are apt to further the endeavours [of the said organisations], to transfer to qualified persons the duties of the officers or other leading organs of the society, to take charge of and manage the funds.

And in the case of the officers or membership of such a society resisting such measures, ‘the society may be prohibited’. Authority to implement these clauses of the law was vested in the State Police. If the State Police Authority prohibited any society, its ‘cash assets, as well as the objects intended for the purposes of the society are to be confiscated’.

Those aspects of the law dealing with freedoms of speech, press and assembly were equally harsh:

Meetings in which Social Democratic, socialist or communistic endeavours which aim at the overthrow of the existing political or social order are manifested are to be dissolved... Public festivities and processions shall be treated the same as meetings...

And as for the thriving socialist press:

Publications in which Social Democratic... endeavours aimed at the overthrow of the existing political and social order are manifested in a manner calculated to endanger the public peace, and particularly the harmony among all classes of the population, are to be prohibited.

The State Police were also responsible for the implementation of these aspects of the law, which, in effect, imposed a total censorship on all socialist and trade union publications in Germany. And the law went even further than censorship:

... the publications concerned are to be confiscated wherever found for the purpose of distribution. The confiscation may include the plates and forms used for reproduction, in the case of printed publications in the proper sense, a withdrawal of the set types from circulation is to be substituted for their seizure, upon the request of the interested parties. After the prohibition is final, the publication, plates and forms are to be made unusable.

So it was also a question of the physical destruction, as well as seizure of the assets of the workers’ movement. Here too, Bismarck was blazing a trail later to be followed with far greater success by the Nazis. Finally the act laid down penalties for breaches of the anti-socialist laws:

Whoever participates as a member in a prohibited society, or carries on an activity in its interest, is to be punished by a fine of not more than 500 marks or with imprisonment not exceeding three months. The same punishment is to be inflicted on anyone who participates in a prohibited meeting, or who does not depart immediately after the dissolution of a meeting by the police. Imprisonment of not less than one month and not more than one year is to be inflicted on those who participate in a society or assembly as chairman, leaders, monitors, agents, speakers or treasurers, or who issue invitations to attend the meeting... Whoever distributes, continues or reprints a prohibited publication is to be punished with a fine not exceeding 1000 marks or with imprisonment not exceeding six months.

All appeals against the infliction of these penalties were to be heard before a special Commission of five members, whose chairman was to be appointed by the Emperor, along with one other member. There was no appeal from this body to a higher court. Such was Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation, the most draconian body of repressive law enacted against the working class by a European state since the English Combination Acts of 1799. Under them, every single independent workers’ organisation from the SPD to the trade unions and numerous cultural and educational societies were placed outside the law. One hundred and twenty-seven periodicals were compelled by the police to cease publication, along with 278 less regular publications. Even seemingly ‘innocent’ bodies such as workers’ singing clubs and theatrical societies were deemed subversive of the social and political order, and forced to close down. Nothing except the party’s nine lonely Reichstag deputies remained above the legal surface of German political life. At first, the party was stunned by the sheer suddenness and severity of Bismarck’s law. The trade unions either collapsed or dissolved themselves, the SPD press wound itself up or was banned, and, under one of the act’s clauses, entire groups of militants were banished from their hometowns. [30] There is considerable evidence to suggest that the vast majority of party members, from the highest to the lowest levels, entered their 12-year period of illegality under the illusion that any ban on their activities would be largely formal. So disoriented were they by the ruthless efficiency of Bismarck’s police under the leadership of his Minister of the Interior, Robert von Puttkamer, that an official year book for 1878 jubilantly announced that ‘the execution of the Socialist Law is taking a completely successful course’. The enemies of the SPD, its editor reported, were already beginning ‘to breathe easier...’. The next year – 1879 – saw the party begin to pull itself together. A centre was established in Zurich, conveniently close to the German frontier, where leading Social Democrats could edit and publish the party’s clandestine press and direct the underground movement in Germany itself. Enormously encouraged by the creation of this new centre of resistance to the Bismarck regime, the party’s staunchest members and supporters quickly began to reorganise their activities on an illegal basis. These largely revolved around the smuggling of the party press across the Swiss frontier and its distribution throughout the industrial centres of Germany. By 1884, around 9000 copies of each number of the new party weekly, Sozialdemokrat, were reaching workers in Germany by one means or another. Apart from the sheer technical feat of maintaining this circulation under such adverse conditions, the Zurich leadership were able, by means of their regular weekly contact with their comrades in Germany, to sustain the morale and political consciousness of a movement which in the early months of Bismarck’s repressions had seemed on the point of disintegration. Neither should all the credit for this achievement be awarded to the Zurich-based exile leadership. Marx and Engels were both highly critical of some of its members, notably Karl Hoechberg, whose own private journal, the Jahrbuch, published an article calling for a policy of conciliation towards the ‘upper strata of society’. This brought forth the Circular Letter of Marx and Engels to the leaders of the SPD, attacking the ‘manifesto of the three Zurichers’. [31] They warned that such views were a direct result of the party’s revolutionary perspectives and proletarian basis becoming undermined by the growing influence of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois intellectuals in its ranks. And they issued a warning to Bebel, Liebknecht and Bracke:

For almost 40 years we have stressed the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history... it is therefore impossible for us to cooperate with people who wish to expunge this class struggle from the movement... The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore cooperate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petit-bourgeois.

And they concluded on this sombre note; one which they had had caused to strike on the occasion of the Gotha unity congress:

If the new party organ adopts a line that corresponds to the views of these gentlemen... then nothing remains for us... but publicly to declare our opposition to it, and to dissolve the bonds of solidarity with which we have hitherto represented the German party abroad. [32]

The SPD leadership were halted in their tracks, such was the theoretical authority of Marx and Engels within the German movement. But neither had they given the party any ‘orders’ – that was neither their right, nor their political method. Their shafts struck home, and stung the sound core of the SPD leadership into action against the opportunists. Bebel visited Marx in London, bringing the erring Bernstein with him. After a series of searching discussions, it was agreed that Bernstein should take over the editorship of the party organ, and should work in the closest possible liaison with Bebel and Liebknecht inside Germany. [33] There, the movement was experiencing a true rebirth. The Hamburg organisation, traditionally a stronghold of German labour, raised its membership to 6000, while Berlin was not far behind. The first national trial of strength came in 1881, with new elections to the Reichstag. The result was an overwhelming reverse for those parties which had voted for the anti-socialist law three years previously. The returns were:

Free Conservatives2857
National Liberals4799

Viewed in purely parliamentary terms, Bismarck’s position had become untenable. His majority for the anti-socialist law, based on a combined right-wing vote of 215, had now dwindled to a minority of 125. And even if Bismarck rarely, if ever, concerned himself with the preservation of parliamentary majorities, he could scarcely afford to ignore the voting returns for the imperial capital, where the Progressives captured all six seats. And he could draw precious little comfort from the decline in the SPD vote, [34] for this could be put down entirely to the cumulative effect of three years’ unremitting government persecution.

And at the next Reichstag elections of 1884, this trend was not only halted but reversed. The SPD vote now leapt to a record high of 550 000, doubling its quota of deputies. It was becoming glaringly obvious to Bismarck’s Junker and bourgeois supporters that unless far sterner measures were taken, the Social Democratic ‘eggs’ would shortly be hatching out all over industrial Germany. Even more disturbing from their point of view was that this sudden electoral upsurge was immediately followed by an unprecedented wave of purely spontaneous strikes. The year of 1886 saw this movement reach its highest point, [35] and the government decided that the time had now come to legislate directly against strikes, which had, as a comparatively rare occurrence in the German labour movement, been ignored in the laws of 1878. On 11 April, less than two weeks before the scheduled renewal of the anti-socialist laws, Puttkamer promulgated a decree outlawing all strikes, linking them directly to the activity of the already banned SPD. Police were authorised to expel strike leaders from the area of the dispute, and to intervene in any stoppage which allegedly contained ‘tendencies serving upheaval’. And, in the now immortal words of Puttkamer himself, this could mean any and every strike:

Behind the large labour movement, which at the present time calculates by means of force and agitation, namely through work stoppages, to bring about an increase in wages, and which draws many branch trades into the same misery, behind every such labour movement lurks the Hydra of violence and anarchy. [Shouts of ‘absolutely correct!’ from the Right.] [36]

But this measure, like its predecessors, was powerless to halt the advance of German labour. The 1887 Reichstag results told their own story. While the pro-Bismarck Right regained much of its former support (the Conservative – National Liberal bloc, or ‘cartel’ as it became known, held 220 seats), the SPD also gained, at the expense of the mushy liberal centre, epitomised by the Progressives. Its vote had now passed the three-quarters of a million mark, and the tempo of its increase revealed no signs of diminishing. What could Bismarck do? He had tried the demagogic manoeuvre of ‘State Socialism’, which entailed little more than the most moderate programme of social reforms coupled with purely verbal recognition of the ‘rights’ of labour to minimum standards of living and working conditions. As we have already seen, powerful leaders of German industry, together with several important employers’ organisations, utterly repudiated these principles in practice. After a brief period of success, candidates claiming to stand for various breeds of ‘state’ or ‘Monarchial Socialism’ failed to woo significant sections of the socialist-oriented working class away from their allegiance to Social Democracy. The final act in this drama opened with a new strike wave in 1889, whose most violent expression was a near-complete stoppage of Ruhr miners for shorter hours in the May of that year. In a bid to prevent the miners’ movement turning towards the SPD for leadership, [37] the new Emperor Wilhelm II agreed to receive a deputation from the strikers, whose organisational affiliations were entirely Catholic.

The new king was anxious, in the best Bonapartist traditions, to win a reputation for himself as protector of the workers from a rapacious bourgeoisie, and saw himself, at least in the early years of his reign, as ‘king of the beggars’. But this policy explicitly ruled out any toleration of Social Democracy, a fact which he made abundantly clear to the miners’ delegation:

If... any excess be committed against public order and tranquillity, or if it should become evident that Social Democrats are connected with the agitation, I shall not be able to take into consideration your wishes with my royal favour; for to me the word Social Democrat is synonymous with enemy of empire and fatherland. If, therefore, I observe that Social Democratic opinions are concerned in the agitation and incitement to unlawful resistance, I will intervene with unrelenting vigour and bring to bear the full power which I possess and which is great indeed.

The strike ultimately failed to gain any of its objectives, but Wilhelm was shrewd enough to see that unless some of the wind was taken out of the Social Democrats’ sails, events would move towards a nationwide and not localised confrontation between capital and labour, and it would be one which the cautious SPD leaders would scarcely be able to ignore. The tactical conflict between Bismarck and his new king therefore dates from the miners’ strike, as, very rapidly, the chancellor found himself at odds with Wilhelm’s proposals for legislation to mitigate the incredible harshness of conditions in German industry. Bismarck, while agreeing the ways had to be found to counter the seemingly unstoppable rise of socialist influence among the masses, favoured even stronger repression. The failure of his own attempts to buy proletarian support for the government undoubtedly turned his thoughts in such a direction, and as the date for the new Reichstag elections approached (20 February 1890), he reached the momentous decision for a convinced monarchist that he must defy his king. Backed only by his die-hard Conservative allies, Bismarck refused to accept amendments to the anti-socialist law which would have had the effect of weakening it. When the amended bill was finally presented to the full Reichstag, Bismarck’s Conservatives joined with the centre and left deputies in voting it down, with only the National Liberals voting for. This, according to the best informed sources of the period, was just what the wily old Bismarck wanted. Now he hoped the SPD leaders would be tempted to stage a militant action against the obviously divided ruling classes and government, perhaps even an insurrection. This would then provide Bismarck with the long-awaited opportunity to drown the Marxist ‘hydra’ in its own blood. Here Bismarck’s own distorted view of Social Democracy played an important role in his own downfall. Nothing was further from the minds of Bebel, Liebknecht and the other SPD leaders than a revolutionary uprising against the Bismarck regime, and not only for subjective reasons, but because the relationship of forces rendered such a development impossible. The German proletariat was concentrating all its forces towards two goals, the steady and unspectacular rebuilding of its own organisations, and the maximum mobilisation of support for its party candidates at elections. And on 20 February, the results in this sphere can only be described as spectacular! After nearly 12 years of illegality, police persecution, arrests and jailings of its leaders and activists, banning of its publications, confiscation of its funds and the daily vilification of its principles from pulpit, university professorial chair, officers’ mess and company boardroom, the despised ‘vagabonds without a country’ emerged from the election as Germany’s largest party, with an incredible 1 427 298 votes. [38] The magnitude of the party’s victory and of Bismarck’s humiliation, was so great that no one – not Bebel, Liebknecht nor even Engels – knew either precisely what to do with it or what this triumph implied for the future of the class struggle in Germany. It became an accepted canon of party doctrine that Social Democracy was invincible, that since the SPD had parried all the blows hurled at it by the formidable Iron Chancellor, then the movement would inevitably arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of any future period of persecution. This utopian theory was soon to become intertwined with several other integral strands of what eventually became the SPD’s opportunist adaptation to German imperialism. It flowed from the failure of German Social Democracy to grasp what was implied historically by Bismarck’s attempt to destroy the party and trade unions. He failed, not because the task itself was impossible (as the SPD leaders fondly believed), but because the attempt was undertaken at the wrong time and with the wrong methods. Furthermore, German Social Democracy made the fatal error of presuming that the reforms undertaken after the fall of Bismarck represented the beginnings of a change of heart on the part of the ruling classes and their government, this false estimation being reflected in a growing willingness of the SPD Reichstag fraction to amend, rather than oppose outright, proposed government legislation. Electoral combinations with radical bourgeois politicians necessarily flowed from this perspective, and were well under way before the lapsing of the anti-socialist legislation in 1890. We have said that Engels too cannot be regarded as blameless in this regard, and the evidence to uphold this contention is formidable. [39] In his still controversial introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, Engels devotes a passage to the successful struggle of German Social Democracy against the anti-socialist laws. Correctly pointing out that since the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, the centre of gravity of the European workers’ movement had shifted to Germany, he then draws political lessons from the defeat of Bismarck which are utterly mistaken:

There is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces to Germany could be temporarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a big scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris. In the long run that would also be overcome. To shoot a party which numbers millions out of existence is too much even for all the magazine rifles of Europe and America. [40]

Yet Hitler did precisely that! And furthermore, he too studied closely the experience of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws [41] and drew political conclusions that not only differed greatly from those of Engels, but which proved to be closer to historical reality. One might argue that Engels could not possibly have anticipated the political treachery which would make Hitler’s victory possible, or that Engels died in 1895 (the year he wrote these lines), two full decades before the birth of fascism. But that is no real answer. Firstly Engels did indeed foresee possible political errors which could be committed by the SPD leadership on the threshold of a revolutionary situation, and secondly, Hitler drew his own lesson from Bismarck’s struggle against socialism at least 10 years before applying them in practice. We should not be astonished when we see a leader of the counter-revolution grasping, however distortedly, or however reactionary his motives, a fundamental political truth more quickly and effectively than a leader of the revolution. Instead this should alert us to the immense perils which can be obscured from the working class and its leadership by the rigid employment and repetition of formulas and slogans which while correct in a certain period and for a certain country, are, by the emergence of new forces and class relationships, rendered not only powerless to grasp and change reality, but even transformed into their opposite, becoming vehicles for disorienting the most advanced elements of the proletariat. Such was the ‘Old Bolshevism’ of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry’, pitilessly discarded by Lenin in the spring of 1917 in the teeth of determined opposition from, among others, Stalin. In the case of post-Bismarckian Germany, this qualitative leap in Marxist theory was not carried through with anything like the same severity and clarity, with devastating results for not only the SPD, but the entire German, and indeed, European proletariat. But how did the young Hitler, as an ardent chauvinist, fanatical anti-Marxist and vehement Jew-baiter, assess the failure of Bismarck’s anti-socialist crusade? We know, chiefly from his own testimony in Mein Kampf, but also from other evidence, that Hitler first seriously studied past attempts to destroy Marxism when he arrived in Munich from Vienna in May 1913. What he says about this period of his life is so important that we reproduce it here in its near entirety:

For the second time I dug into this doctrine of destruction – this time no longer led by the impressions and effects of my daily associations, but directed by the observation of general processes of political life. I again immersed myself in the theoretical literature of this new world [that is, of Marxism – RB] attempting to achieve clarity concerning its possible effects, and then compared it with the actual phenomena and events it brings about in political, cultural and economic life. Now for the first time I turned my attention to the attempts to master this world plague. I studied Bismarck’s Socialist Legislation in its intention, struggle and success. Gradually I obtained a positively granite foundation for my own conviction, so that since that time I have never been forced to undertake a shift in my own inner views on this question. Likewise the relation of Marxism to the Jews was submitted to further thorough examination. Though previously in Vienna, Germany above all had seemed to me an unshakable colossus, now anxious misgivings sometimes entered my mind. I was filled with wrath at German foreign policy and likewise with what seemed to me the incredibly frivolous way in which the most important problem then existing for Germany, Marxism, was treated. It was really beyond me how people could rush so blindly into a danger whose effects, pursuant to the Marxists’ own intention, were bound some day to be monstrous... In the years 1913 and 1914 I for the first time in various circles which today in part faithfully support the National Socialist movement expressed the conviction that the question of the future of the German nation was the question of destroying Marxism. [42]

What we should note here is not only the very obvious fact that Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation became a component part of Hitler’s counter-revolutionary ‘granite foundation’ but his perception from quite early on that the survival of German imperialism was, in the long term, incompatible with the existence of a thriving German labour movement. The number of SPD leaders who shared this view – from the other side of the class trenches – could at this time be counted on the fingers of one hand! Hitler’s respect for Bismarck was by no means a show of reverence staged to impress the ‘national classes’ who still idolised him – far from it. The anti-socialist legislation was a recurring and central theme in a series of important speeches which he delivered to leaders of German industry and finance at various times during the life of the Weimar Republic. Thus in his speech to the Hamburg ‘1919 National Club’, made on 28 February 1926 before leading right-wing politicians and businessmen of the city, Hitler outlined his view of the causes of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the most important being the existence of the SPD:

On that day when a Marxist movement was allowed to exist alongside the other political parties the death sentence was passed on the Reich... Already in 1870-71 there was put forward the Marxist opposition to the national preservation of the Reich at the end of the then war. [43] This opposition was ignored as only three men were involved. Nobody grasped the greater significance that it was in fact possible for these representatives of a movement to dare to come out against national defence... It appeared to be overcome without danger... the success of the war led to the belief that the ideas of these three men had been defeated... Then there were the so-called election victories of the bourgeois parties, often resulting in a loss of votes by the left, but never a reduction in their support. There was perhaps an exception in the period of the socialist legislation, which was later dismantled. They had cut down the number of Social Democratic supporters, or so it seemed. Then as soon as the anti-socialist laws were repealed as impracticable, these numbers automatically grew again... [44]

In other words, Bismarck had driven the Marxists underground, but he had not broken their will to fight, or severed their links with the masses. Neither had he succeeded in counterposing an alternative and combative ‘social’ ideology to the programme, principles and theory of the banned party. Hitler was determined not to make the same mistake. And here again we must quote at length from Hitler’s autobiography, written, it should always be remembered, a full eight years before his movement seized power:

Any attempt to combat a philosophy with methods of violence will fail in the end, unless the fight takes the form of an attack for a new spiritual attitude. Only in the struggle between two philosophies can the weapon of brutal force, persistently and ruthlessly applied, lead to a decision for the side it supports. This remains the reason for the failure of the struggle against Marxism. This was why Bismarck’s socialist legislation finally failed and had to fail, in spite of everything. Lacking was the platform of a new philosophy for whose rise the fight could have been waged. For only the proverbial wisdom of high government officials will succeed in believing that drivel about so-called ‘state authority’ or ‘law and order’ could form a suitable basis for the spiritual impetus of a life and death struggle. Such a real spiritual basis for this struggle was lacking. Bismarck had to entrust the execution of his socialist legislation to the judgement and desires of that institution which itself was a product of Marxist thinking. By entrusting the fate of his war on the Marxists to the well-wishing of bourgeois democracy, the Iron Chancellor set the wolf to mind the sheep. All this was only the necessary consequence of the absence of a basic new anti-Marxist philosophy endowed with a stormy will to conquer... [45]

Thus, arising out of the negative as well as positive experiences of Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation was the lesson drawn by Hitler that the masses can never be mobilised on behalf of reaction under the banner of defending the status quo. Hence the unavoidable need for slogans and programmes of a ‘socialist’ and even, when the situation demanded it, ‘revolutionary’ hue. Not that Bismarck had considered such a strategy, and then rejected it in favour of his police-parliamentary methods. The option had not even arisen, save in the appearance of a handful of anti-Semitic agitators during the middle period of Bismarck’s rule. And these he treated with a truly patrician scorn as contemptible plebeian rabble rousers, little better than the Marxists they claimed to be fighting. Hitler therefore set out three main desiderata of a successful counter-revolutionary movement. It must set out to win broad layers of the masses to its side by employing social demagogy on the broadest and most uninhibited scale; it must not shrink from using the most extreme methods of violence to cow its opponents, and finally, it trust spurn the pussy-footing methods of bourgeois parliamentary democracy like the plague. These were the three lessons which Hitler drew from the failure of Bismarck’s war against German socialism. They also comprise, when allied to an all-pervading nationalism, the main components of Nazi political strategy. To use an Hegelian construction, the German Social Democrats ‘negated’ Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, and for the next 14 years experienced a period of almost continuous organisational and electoral growth. But since the political and theoretical implications of this ‘negation’, with all its contradictory elements, were not plumbed to their depths by the leaders of the victorious party, a process set in which began to undermine it. In turn, the betrayal of German Social Democracy in 1914 and 1918-19 enabled reaction to regroup its forces under a new banner, a movement which based itself on the lessons of the Bismarck period, finally ‘negated’ German Social Democracy, and with it, the flower of the entire proletariat. This proves the philosophical truth that dialectical development proceeds by regression as well as progression, and that the degree of regression is in its turn not an automatic reflex of social-economic conditions, but also bound up with how deeply the leadership of the workers’ movement is able to extract from its own experiences and those of others the dangers as well as the revolutionary possibilities created by a defeat of the class enemy. Bismarck’s law of 1878 ended up in the Reichstag dustbin, [46] but so, 55 years later, did the SPD. And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all.


1. Fascism is, of course, first and foremost a movement of imperialist reaction and counter-revolution, and can only rise to maturity in an epoch where the threat of proletarian revolution has become an actuality. The movements led by Hitler and Mussolini were unthinkable in the Germany of Bismarck or William II. But this by no means negates the fact that even at this early date the deep-going shifts in petit-bourgeois consciousness, partly reflected in the activities of anti-Semitic and pseudo-socialist demagogues, were the first stages of a process which culminated in the formation and development of the Nazi Party. Even more important were the parallel developments among the leaders of heavy industry, which were discussed in the previous chapter. What makes fascism so potent, and therefore so dangerous, is that it is not simply an artificial creation of a clique of reactionary businessmen, but the product of a long historical process. Only when this is understood can it be effectively combated.

2. Many were destined in later years to play a significant part in pioneering the American socialist movement.

3. This is not to say that the vast majority of workers in England and Germany had broken free from the grip of bourgeois ideology. As Lenin pointed out in his famous polemic against the Russian ‘Economist’ school, which advanced a schema of spontaneous working-class development towards and into socialist consciousness, ‘trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness’. And, as first conceived by its founders, the Labour Party was little else but the political party of the trade unions. This is not to deny that it also contained another element pregnant with revolutionary implications – the groping of the working class towards political power.

4. Hegelian philosophy was itself a product of the uneven, or one-sided, development of the German bourgeoisie (see Chapter One).

5. F Engels, ‘Preface’, The Peasant War in Germany (Moscow, 1956), p 32.

6. Engels, ‘Preface’, The Peasant War in Germany, pp 32-33.

7. Engels, ‘Preface’, The Peasant War in Germany, p 33.

8. This emphasis on ‘State Socialism’, as opposed to the achievement of socialism by the independent revolutionary action of the working class itself, was enshrined in the Lassallean Workers’ Programme, which declared: ‘Thus the purpose of the state is to bring about the positive unfolding and progressive development of man’s nature, in other words, to realise the human purpose.’ Elsewhere he wrote that ‘the task and purpose of the state consists exactly in its facilitating and mediating the great cultural progress of humanity... That is why it exists; it has always served, and always had to serve, this very purpose.’

9. Yet Lassalle’s futile death in a duel deeply grieved Marx and Engels. The bitter words they had exchanged were exclusively about how best to fight and defeat the class enemy. Marx and Engels now saluted him as a fallen comrade: ‘No matter what Lassalle may have been personally, and from a literary and scientific standpoint, politically he was certainly one of the finest brains in Germany... it hits one hard to see how Germany is destroying all the more or less capable men of the extreme party. What joy there will be amongst the manufacturers and the Progressive swine after all. Lassalle was the only man in Germany of whom they were afraid.’ (Engels to Marx, 3 September 1864) To which Marx replied: ‘Lassalle’s misfortune has been worrying me damnably during the last few days. After all, he was one of the old guard and an enemy of our enemies.’ (Marx to Engels, 7 September 1864) Perhaps it is significant that neither of these letters, which bring out the warm, human side of their authors, is in the current Moscow edition of the Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. These qualities, and not the cynical ersatz version presented in pictures of Stalin hugging little children at the height of his blood-purge, have been rare commodities in the Soviet Union for many decades.

10. Marx challenged cloudy and false formulations on the nature and difference between bourgeois and communist conceptions of ‘right’ in relation to the distribution of the produce of labour. Here the Lassallean heritage made itself felt most strongly, as it did with the well-known formulation in the programme that in relation to the proletariat, ‘all other classes are only one reactionary mass’.

11. K Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ (1875), Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2 (Moscow, 1962), p 27.

12. Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, p 27.

13. Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, p 32.

14. Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, pp 32-33.

15. F Engels, Letter to W Bracke, London, 5 May 1875, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, p 16.

16. This notion of the ‘free people’s state’ is by no means a Lassallean or Eisenacher preserve. It has been resurrected by Soviet Stalinism in the guise of Khrushchev’s celebrated ‘state of the whole people’. No Stalinist ever succeeded in explaining away the all-too-obvious contradiction between the state as an instrument of class rule and its survival in a country where all the people allegedly ruled.

17. F Engels, Letter to A Bebel, London, 18-28 March 1875, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 2, pp 42-43.

18. This had been instinctively understood by Bismarck from very early on in his political career. In 1852, he vehemently denied ‘that the true Prussian people’ lived in the cities. If the city were ever to revolt again, the true Prussians would know how to make them obey, even though it had to erase them from the earth. This revealing remark also gives us an insight into the political and historical pedigree of Nazi ruralism. And in the year of this anti-socialist legislation, Bismarck described the working class as ‘that menacing band of robbers with whom we share our largest towns...’.

19. There is a certain parallel between Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws and the anti-trade-union Combination Acts passed by the English Parliament in 1799. Both were responses by the ruling classes to the rise of organised labour, and both were related indirectly to revolutionary events in France. But the German labour movement was already being influenced by Marxism, and was largely based on a modern industrial proletariat.

20. F Engels, Letter to F Mehring, London, 14 July 1893, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (Moscow, nd), p 497.

21. Thus a rationalist could argue that the massacre of the Communards was unnecessary and therefore illogical since the Paris workers had no hope of extending their revolution to the remainder of France.

22. A reference to the Catholic Centre Party, founded in 1870 and strongly opposed to Bismarck’s Prussian and Protestant-based regime. It drew most of its support from the Catholic regions of the Rhine and Bavaria. Led by the hierarchy and the Catholic bourgeoisie, it drew in its tow the overwhelming majority of Catholic workers, peasants and petit-bourgeoisie, for many years serving as a strong bulwark against the spread of socialist ideas and genuine trade unionism among the Catholic proletariat of the Ruhr.

23. Like Schmoller, and indeed many other bourgeois and Junkers, von Treitschke followed the development of the international workers’ movement with an eagle eye.

24. Naturally, the most extreme anti-socialist resorted to anti-Semitism, claiming that Marx’s Jewish origins were proof that German socialism was the product of an alien ‘race’. This too became a central theme of Nazi agitation against Marxism.

25. Hitler followed this usage, especially when addressing meetings of industrialists.

26. In the two brief years since their own unity conference at Gotha (25 May 1875) the trade unions had drawn more than 50 000 workers into their ranks, with the ubiquitous printers well to the fore with 5500 members.

27. The 1877 elections had distributed the 397 seats thus: Conservatives 40; Reichspartei 38; National Liberals 128; Progressives 52; Centre 93; Social Democrats 12; others (based on national minorities, and thus opposed to Bismarck) 34. Thus the hard-core pro-Bismarck vote was a mere 78 mandates.

28. In fact the party had gained ground in its industrial strongholds. In the city districts, the SPD rose from 220 000 to 240 000 on the 1877 elections, while in Berlin, Social Democracy scored an amazing victory over all its opponents, increasing its vote from 31 500 to more than 56 000. This was evidence that while the middle classes gravitated away from the party to the right, the hard-core socialist proletariat clung more than ever to the party which defended them against their bourgeois and Junker enemies. Such traditions of loyalty die hard. In the Reichstag terror elections of 5 March 1933, the SPD, already on the verge of a new and far more crushing illegality, polled 7 181 000 votes, a fall of less than 66 000 on the previous elections, held in November 1932, when there was no state-organised anti-socialist terror. The great tragedy lay in that this truly heroic class loyalty was utterly perverted and betrayed by the leaders of the SPD, whose capitulationist policies contrasted so miserably with the courageous example of those who pioneered the party in the teeth of Bismarck’s repression.

29. Election returns gave both the Conservatives and the Reichspartei, or ‘free Conservatives’, an extra 19 seats, while the National Liberals and Progressives, who had been branded by Bismarck and his supporters as allies of Social Democracy, lost heavily, the former dropping 29 deputies, and the latter, 13. Obviously a large section of the middle class had swung over sharply to the far right under the impact of Bismarck’s carefully stage-managed anti-socialist crusade.

30. These were the three co-authors of the article in question: Hoechberg, Carl Schramm and Eduard Bernstein, the last named being destined to earn eternal notoriety as the pioneer of revisionism.

31. In the first two months of the Law’s operation, the police closed down 17 central trade union committees and 22 local union branches. The SPD avoided this fate only by voluntarily liquidating itself two days before the anti-socialist bill became law.

32. K Marx and F Engels, ‘Circular Letter’, London, 17-18 September 1879, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, p 395.

33. As Reichstag deputies enjoying parliamentary immunity, Bebel and Liebknecht were able to operate far more openly than other party members.

34. It fell by 125 000 to an all-time low of 312 000.

35. Bismarck’s surveillance of the international workers’ movement was greatly intensified and systematised in this period of continent-wide industrial and political unrest. For example, the German ambassador in London sent regular reports on the activities of the English labour movement, then engaged in a bitter struggle for universal suffrage and basic trade union rights. Reports were also received in Berlin of a nationwide strike movement in Belgium in March 1886. The intensity and scope of these strike movements beyond Germany’s frontiers did much to exacerbate political tensions in the Reichstag, and certainly played a part in bringing forth Puttkamer’s anti-strike decrees. For all the strident nationalism of its rulers, imperial Germany could never escape the disintegrating effect of the international class struggle.

36. Speech in Reichstag debate on the Strike Decree, 21 May 1886.

37. Government fears were, as it turned out, groundless. Approaches had been made by miners to the SPD for financial support, but had been shamefully snubbed on the dogmatic grounds that trade union struggle was of little significance when compared with the political activity of Social Democracy. Much to his discredit, Bebel turned down the request for aid, and advised the miners’ leaders to seek an ‘acceptable compromise’. He seemed to overlook the fact that the raw Ruhr miners were striking powerful blows against the same enemy.

38. By combining against the SPD in run-off ballots, the right-wing parties managed to hold down the number of Social Democratic Reichstag deputies to 35.

39. And not only after 1890. Thus in a dispute within the SPD Reichstag fraction over whether to call for the creation of state-assisted farm cooperatives in East Prussia, Engels wrote to Bebel on 30 December 1884, that with guaranteed trade union and political freedoms, such a policy would ‘lead gradually to a transition of the total production into cooperative production’. On this occasion, Bebel found himself defending Marxist orthodoxy against one of its two creators, for he replied a year later that ‘with this proposal you make a regrettable concession to Lassalleianism’.

40. F Engels, ‘Introduction’ to The Class Struggles in France (London, 6 March 1895), Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1962), p 136.

41. So much for the theory that Hitler was a power-hungry madman.

42. A Hitler, Mein Kampf (London, 1943), pp 154-55.

43. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870, opposed by the SPD after the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine.

44. Translated from Werner Jochman, Im Kampf um die Macht. Hitlers Rede vor dem Hamburger Nationalklub von 1919 (Frankfurt, 1960).

45. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp 172-73.

46. Attempts to crush German labour did not end with the fall of Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation. In 1894, Kirdorf and Stumm headed an industrial alliance to secure the passing of their so-called ‘Umsturzorlage’ or ‘anti-revolution’ bill. They even succeeded in deposing Chancellor Count Caprivi, whom industry regarded as being too soft on labour, and installing in his place Prince Hohenloe, who supported the bill. And although it failed to win a majority in the Reichstag, the Ruhr barons continued to press for legislation restricting the right to strike. They returned to the offensive three years later, when with the support of the Kaiser, they introduced a new bill, the ‘Penal Servitude Bill’ which, in the words of Count Possadowksy, the German Home Secretary, sought to ‘give those who are willing to work better protection against the terrorism of strikers and agitators’. Earlier in 1897, none other than the Kaiser, that self-proclaimed ‘king of the beggars’, declared in a speech that ‘the heaviest punishment should be meted out to the man who is audacious enough to hinder his fellow man from working when he desires to do so’. Shortly after the bill was defeated in the Reichstag, it came to light that the government had accepted a secret donation of 12 000 marks from industry to publish printed propaganda against the trade unions and the right to strike. Only a massive nationwide counter-offensive by the SPD and the trade unions compelled wavering elements in the Reichstag to vote the bill down on its second reading.