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 German Social Democracy  (1896)*

By Bertrand Russell

Lecture VI

The Present Position of Social Democracy

I. Programmes and Strength of the various Parties.

[p.144] The success of Marxian Socialism in Germany is largely to be explained by the political milieu in which it has grown up. For the growth of Social Democracy, which has been nearly continuous and of unparalleled rapidity, has been enormously assisted by the mistakes or the cowardice of the other political parties. In the last elections, those of 1893, Socialism obtained, in the first polls, 23.3 percent of all the votes given. Since that time its growth has, to judge by by-elections, continued at an undiminished rate. Its strength in the Reichstag, however, has never come up to its voting power: thus it obtained, in 1893, 44 seats, while proportional representation would have given a membership of 96. The Centrum, or Catholic Party, obtained, as a matter of fact, 96 members for only 19.1 percent of the total vote. The reason for this under-representation lies in the fact that Social Democracy has hitherto flourished almost exclusively in the large towns and industrial centres, which, owing to their rapid growth in population, have at present much fewer members than they are entitled to by their numbers. The present [p.145] constituencies were determined by the constitution of 1871, and contained at that time a population of 100,000 each. The average population of an electoral district at the census of 1890 had, however, risen to 124,454, and this increase was almost wholly confined to the towns, the agricultural population, especially in the east, having in general declined. It follows that agriculture is over-represented, and industry under -represented to an enormous extent. Many constituencies have more than 250,000 inhabitants, some more than half a million, and these large constituencies are the strongest centres of Social Democracy. Thus Berlin, with a population of nearly 2,000,000, has only six members, of whom five are Social Democrats; in one of its divisions, represented by Liebknecht, 51,000 Social Democratic votes were given, while no other party obtained more than 15,000, and the aggregate adverse vote was under 30,000. By one of the articles of the constitution, a periodical redistribution is to be made; but this article — owing, I suppose, to the support thus obtained for the Crown and the loyal aristocracy — has hitherto remained, and is likely long to remain, a perfectly dead letter.

We will return to this question later, but first it will be well to take a brief review of the parties, their programmes and geographical distribution. To an English mind, accustomed to the single division into Liberal and Conservative, and to the tactical necessity of supporting one or other of the great parties, the confusion of German politics is at first very bewildering. Of the Alsatians, Guelfs, Poles, Danes, Particularists, and even Anti-Semites, [p.146] I will say nothing; these may be safely overlooked in a general review. But even the great parties are far from few. They are as follows: —

(1) The Deutschkonservative Partei
(2) The Deutsche Reichspartei
(3) The Centrumspartei
(4) The Nationalliberale Partei
(5) The Freisinnige Vereinigung
(6) The Freisinnige Volkspartei
(7) The Süddeutsche Volkspartei or Demokratische Partei
(8) The Sozialdemokraten

These are arranged from right to left, and as the differences between some of the contiguous groups are small, we need not consider them all separately. Thus the Deutschkonservative Partei and Deutsche Reichspartei may be taken together, and so may the Nationalliberale Partei and the Freisinnige Vereinigung, as also the Freisinnige Volkspartei and the Süddeutsche Volkspartei. Most of the parties as they at present exist are traditional descendants of parties constituted either in the democratic struggles of 1848 or in the pursuit of German unity. With the exception of the Centrum, which is merely Catholic,1 they are classified by the Social Democrats according to the economic interests they advocate. To Social Democracy, every political party is wholly constituted by economic motives, and without rigidly adhering to this view, it may be well, in considering their [p.147] relation to Social Democracy, to adopt this principle of classification.

The Conservative-parties, then, represent the interests of the feudal aristocracy: they are essentially an agrarian party, and their chief stronghold is East Prussia, among the large domains of the Junker, or landed aristocracy. Their motto is ironically said to be, “Der Konig absolut, so lang er unseren Willen thut.” They know that monarchy is their only defence against the democracy, but they have all the turbulence of a feudal oligarchy; and when agriculture is not sufficiently protected to please them, they can use language for which any Social Democrat would get years of imprisonment. Their programme is pretty much that of George III, a minimum of constitutional government and religious freedom, and a maximum of agricultural protection. They come from the poorest part of the country, and are pecuniarily little better off, as a rule, than our Irish landlords, to whom they have also a great political similarity. The Deutsche Reichspartei votes with the Conservatives, but is not so purely aristocratic: it contains some rich merchants and bankers. It always sides with the Government, and, during the reign of Bismarck, was called the party of “Bismarck sans phrase.” The two parties together obtained at the last election 100 members and 19.2 percent of the votes.

The Centrum usually holds the balance of power between Liberals and Conservatives, and is thus an important party in Parliamentary tactics. Its vote is in general Conservative, but it opposed Bismarck [p.148] in the seventies, during the Kulturkampf (when its religious freedom was attacked), and on some critical divisions it has opposed extreme measures, e.g., the first introduction of the Socialist Law, and the Umsturzvorlage in the spring of 1895. It is generally favourable to the policy of State-Socialism inaugurated by Bismarck, and in spite of its Ultramontanism, it is strictly patriotic. In the elections of 1893 it obtained 96 members and 19.1 percent of the votes.

The Liberal parties represent the interests of industry and commerce, as opposed to those of agriculture, which are advocated by the Conservatives. The two moderate Liberal parties, the Nationalliberale Partei and the Freisinnige Vereinigung, represent chiefly industry and manufacture, while the more democratic Freisinnige Volkspartei stands, in the eyes of Social Democracy, for banking and the Stock Exchange. The latter view can, however, be hardly maintained; the Freisinnige Volkspartei is rather to be viewed as the remnant of doctrinaire laissez-faire, favourable at once to free-trade and — in theory at least — to the free right of Coalition, but opposed to State-Socialism. The Demokratische Partei is a small but growing South German party, which is more genuinely democratic than any of the other parties. Historically, the National Liberals derive their name and existence from the fight for German unity, but with that reform their energy was spent, and since 1871 they have, at the most, opposed a few retrograde measures proposed by Government. The Nationalliberale Partei and the Freisinnige Vereinigung together obtained in 1893, [p.149] 65 members and about 15 percent of the votes, while the Freisinnige Volkspartei and the Süddeutsche Volkspartei or Demokratische Partei got 35 members and about 11 percent of the votes.

It is to. be observed that all the parties promise to be “ceaselessly active in furthering the welfare of the working-man,” but all, except the two extreme Liberal parties, are in favour of the present law of Coalition, and unfavourable to redistribution of seats or to abolition of the Prussian Dreiklassenwahlsystem.2 They are determined to force reforms from above, and to thwart all efforts at self-help on the part of labour.

The following table gives the constitution of the Reichstag, after the last General Election in 1893, as regards the chief parties, and the constitution which would result from proportional representation: —


[p.150] If out of the first eight parties we reckon the first four to the right, the last four to the left, we get an actual majority for the right of 184, while proportional representation would give a majority of only 69. This, with the fact that Social Democracy obtained less than half its proper number of members, helps to explain why proportional representation forms part of the official Socialist Programme.

It must be borne in mind, also, that the German constitution is in fact, what the English constitution is in theory, a monarchy which appoints its own ministers, and requires its Parliament for legislation alone. An adverse vote does not cause the Ministry to resign, but only brings about the dissolution of the Reichstag. This leads, of course, to the education of a subservient spirit on the part of members, for a dissolution is always a powerful threat, and where the appeal to the country cannot cause the Ministry to resign, a general election seems as useless as it is irksome. Moreover, the real and pressing danger of war keeps alive the bellicose patriotism engendered by the Franco-Prussian War. This makes a convenient bugbear with which to frighten the country, and an almost certain means of securing the electoral victory to militarism. The Government of Germany is therefore very far indeed from true Democracy, in spite of universal suffrage above the age of twenty-five. It must be confessed, moreover, that the extreme demands of Social Democracy have terrified the nation, and led it to withhold much of the freedom which it might have granted. This terror has had a double [p.151] effect. While forcing Bismarck and the nation into extensive measures of State-Socialism, e.g., compulsory insurance against sickness and old age, factory acts and nationalisation of railways, it has caused a serious check in the progress of Democracy. The system of property voting by three classes, which prevails in all Prussian elections for municipal and State bodies, would probably have fallen long ago but for Social Democracy. A redistribution of seats, by which industry would have gained an advantage over agriculture, would doubtless also have taken place, and it is not impossible, that the Coalition Laws might have been mitigated by laissez-faire Liberalism, whereas now they are being made even more stringent than before. All these possibilities are, of course, merely speculative; but they have had to determine the policy of Social Democracy, and have given rise to the two tendencies, that of moderation and compromise, and that of revolutionary Democracy before all else. It is a questionable wisdom to show one’s hand to the extent to which Social Democracy has done so, and it has made its battle a battle for all or nothing, a battle in which no step can be taken until the power is wholly in Socialist hands. Thus nothing can be done until Social Democracy gets the support of the agricultural labourer, and this it has hitherto completely failed to accomplish. This brings us to the Agrarian question, and its discussion at the last Annual Congress. How far will Social Democracy be able to solve this question? How far will its programme be found adaptable to agriculture? That is the great question on which its future depends.

II. The Agrarian Difficulty.

[p.152] The discussion of the Agrarian question at the two successive Party Congresses of 1894 and 1895 affords an admirable illustration of the manners of thought prevalent among its members, and contains important indications of future difficulties. I shall therefore deal with it pretty fully.

So long as the towns were, for the most part, still held by hostile parties, there was little purpose in agrarian agitation; the frequent intercourse of towns, the palpable working of economic facts in urban industry, and the great intelligence of the town workers, made these a much more fertile soil for the seeds of Socialism. But when it became obvious that the town workers, except in the Catholic districts, were being rapidly won over, and yet, owing to the shameful preponderance of agricultural representation in Parliament, the number of Socialist members remained comparatively small; when it was seen that anything approaching a parliamentary victory could only be obtained by the help of agriculture, then it became necessary to devote more serious attention to the construction of an agrarian programme. This might seem, to one educated in the opportunist tradition of English politics, no very difficult task; but to the dogmatic German, logic comes before political success, and no programme whose parts contradict each other can be tolerated. Now Germany is chiefly cultivated by peasant proprietors, or by feudal dependents of a feudal lord, who feel an immemorial right to their ancestral holdings. But it is a fundamental [p.153] principle with Marx — a principle accepted in its extremest form by most of his followers — that, in all branches of production, large businesses tend to replace small ones. William Whiteley and Huntley and Palmer are, for Marx, the necessary consummation of all capitalistic industry. Wherever production on a large scale involves economies, such a tendency naturally exists, and it is undoubtedly a merit in Marx to have pointed it out. But it is absolutely essential, for his theory of economic development, that this tendency should be unlimited, and should realise itself in all branches of economic development, for, he says, as the number of capitalists decreases, the number of the proletariat increases; the latter will still be kept at starvation wages, while a few capitalists grow continually richer. At last, the proletariat majority becomes so overwhelming, the contrast of misery and opulence becomes so glaring, that a revolution is inevitable. The expropriators are expropriated, and the proletariat society takes over the means of production for itself. For it, the wish of Caligula becomes fulfilled; its enemies come, in time, to have only a single head, which it can strike off at one blow. It is obvious that the whole necessity of the advent of the Socialistic State, as set forth in this argument, vanishes with the refutation of the supposed tendency to production on a large scale. It was impossible, therefore, for the Congress to declare, with any consistency, that it would support the peasant proprietor, and avert his impending ruin. In fact, that ruin was part of the inevitable process out of which the Socialistic age was to arise.

[p.154] Every case of bankruptcy on the part of a small cultivator is, for the followers of Marx, so much confirmation of his doctrines; only when the cultivator has sunk into the proletariat, i.e., has been separated from the means of production, and no longer owns his land, only then can he be enlisted in the proletariat army, and begin the fight for collective ownership.3 This irrefutable logic, strange as it may seem, was accepted at the Congress of 1895 by a large majority of the Party, with what consequences for the agrarian agitation one can as yet only surmise.

Let us now see, more in detail, the process by which this strange decision was reached. There are among Social Democrats, as in all religious bodies, two opposite camps, a Broad Church and an Orthodox Church. The former leans to State-Socialism and compromise; the latter rigidly adheres to the Marxian doctrine that Democracy must be won before all else. The party of State-Socialism is headed by Vollmar, one of the members for Munich; he is an aristocratic Southern German, and has not, like most of the leaders, spent his life almost exclusively in towns and industrial centres. On the contrary, he has devoted much time to the Bavarian peasant, with whose economic condition he is thoroughly familiar. In a speech at the Congress of Erfurt in 1891 he urged a more friendly and conciliatory attitude towards the Government. Bismarck is gone, he said; if we show that wise measures will moderate our [p.155] opposition, more will be done for the working-man, and, without abandoning our ultimate demands, wo can obtain much to mitigate the present hardships of labour.

For this speech he received a severe reproof from Liebknecht and Bebel. “No compromise is possible,” said Liebknecht, “between Capitalism and Socialism; and all other parties stand on the basis of Capitalism.” 4 “Vollmar would place our ultimate goals and the energetic battle for them,” said another leader. Singer, “in the plate cupboard, as a sort of family relic, to be produced only on particularly solemn occasions.” 5 The party decided that such a policy was unworthy and timeserving; State-Socialism and compromise were for a time set aside.

Again, at the next Party Congress in 1892, Liebknecht emphatically declared, as against Vollmar, that the last fight of Social Democracy would be a fight with State-Socialism. But in 1894, at the Frankfurt Congress, when the question of agrarian policy came up, Vollmar made a masterly speech, setting forth the love of the peasant for his holding, the different nature of town and country, and. the untruth, in agriculture, of the tendency to production on a large scale. This Tendency, he said, so far as it existed at all, existed only for extensive, not for intensive cultivation: the examples from North American farms, perpetually invoked by Social Democrats, were therefore inapplicable. So far as such a tendency existed in Germany, it was not due to economic motives.6 We [p.156] must, therefore, he said, promise the peasant something which will make it worth his while to vote for us, and that we can never do if we tell him that his plot of ground is to be taken from him by the community.

Of the methods hitherto employed in agrarian agitation he gave an amusing and instructive account: 7 “On Sundays, workmen from the town would pour over the country like a swarm of locusts; they distributed leaflets, often of a very questionable character, and what was worse, old newspapers, full of party squabbles, and often in language not easy for the town workman, but wholly unintelligible to the peasant. Young people, full of zeal for the cause, but ignorant of their task, talked down to the peasants with an air that seemed to say, ‘Look here, you blockhead, don’t you understand?’ When the visitors had left the village, you may imagine what the peasants said to one another! Others, again, went and spoke before the peasants of the materialistic view of history, of the Marxian theory of value, of statistics and other sciences. Afterwards you could read in the Party papers of the great results which had been achieved. But when the fresh laurels of that agitation had begun to wither, exaggerated hopes gave place to mournings and lamentation (Katzenjammer)!” Vollmar persuaded the Congress that a more sensible method must be adopted in future, and it was decided, by an overwhelming majority, to appoint a commission of agrarian investigation, which should present to [p.157] the next Congress proposals, based on the maintenance of the peasant, so far as the immediate future was concerned, in the ownership of his land. His lot was to be lightened by State action, but Nationalisation was not to be part of the programme.

The Commission, which contained Bebel and Liebknecht and other important members of the Party, sat for a year, and drew up, finally, three proposals, one for North and East Germany, one for Middle, and one for South Germany. These proposals advocated nationalisation of mortgages — the land is mortgaged, on an average, to at least one-half of its value, and the mortgages are held by Jews, often the local corn-merchants, who not infrequently get the people completely in their power; they advocated the maintenance of all sorts of manorial and semi-feudal rights, nationalisation of all ecclesiastical property, abolition of the land-tax. State-schools of agriculture, and in North Germany compulsory associations of peasants, supported by State-credit, as in Lassalle’s scheme, for works of drainage, irrigation, etc. Many more proposals of minor importance, but of a similar tendency, were contained in the report of the Agrarian Commission. Their spirit was, on the whole a conservative spirit, since they were intended to prop up a decaying branch of production; but they seemed eminently suited to please the peasants, and one can hardly doubt that they would have alleviated their extremely miserable condition. At any rate, they were the result of a careful study of the agrarian question, and did not advocate the pessimist laissez-faire, which [p.158] had so naturally failed to win the peasants to the side of reform.

The proposals of the Commission were published some time before the Congress of October 1895, and their publication produced a hot discussion in the press. Vorwärts, the official organ of the party, preserved a neutral attitude, but the other Socialist papers became more and more fiery, and for the most part adopted a hostile tone. Thus by the time the Congress came on, people were no longer in an academic frame of mind, and many were very strongly hostile. “We are the party of the unpropertied workmen,” said an opponent, who expressed the general view: “we wish to win over the small owner as well, it is true, but only by persuading him that as owner he has no future, that his future is that of the proletariat.” 8

Kautsky, the Party theorist, put this view even more plainly: “We must go to the despairing peasant,” he said, “and show him that his situation is no transitory one, but arises, by a natural necessity, out of the capitalistic method of production, and that only the transformation of society into the socialistic form can help him.” 9 This pessimistic view was based on the Marxian dogma that “everything points to the downfall of small properties, in the country as in the towns.” 10 The Party pamphlets, designed to prove this contention, so far as I have been able to get hold of them, confine themselves, as regards agriculture, to rhetoric or vague dogmatism; but the contention itself is, as I remarked before, an essential element in Marxian doctrine, and very [p.159] rigid proofs are, therefore, not demanded by most members of the party. Although Vollmar had ventured on a qualified denial of it in 1894, by denying that Marx has really maintained it, no one ventured, in 1895, to call it in question; we know, said the supporters of the agrarian programme, that the necessary development of capitalistic production cannot be hindered, but we wish to make the transition as painless as possible for the small owners.

“I have tested our proposals,” said Bebel, “by the following requirements: first, that the capitalistic development of society is not hindered by them; secondly, that they do not contradict the principles of our party; and thirdly, that no burdens are laid on the working classes for the benefit of the owners of land.” 11 The Commission were thus forced into an illogical position. While they set forth the practical utility of their scheme they were unanswerable, but when they tried to reconcile it with Marxian doctrines which they dared not deny, nay, which they themselves — with the possible exception of Vollmar — most ardently adhered to, their case was weak, and they were easily demolished by the logicians. “The revolutionising of the masses,” said one of the supporters of the Commission, “proceeds not from the head but from the stomach.” 12

This, however, was not the view of the majority, and in spite of earnest appeals from Bebel and Liebknecht, the proposals were rejected by 158 to 63. The purely dogmatic nature of this rejection, on the part of most of the opponents at any rate, was well illustrated by a speech on the subject which I heard in a [p.160] Berlin meeting, by an important member of the Party, in which he said: “We know that small holders of land are doomed to ruin, and cannot, as owners, have any economic future; for, as our programme tells us, ‘the economic development of bourgeois society leads, by a natural necessity, to the destruction of small businesses, whose basis is the workman’s private ownership of the means of production.’ ” This sentence he regarded as sufficient proof of his contention, for which no further evidence was offered.

By the rejection of the agrarian programme the Party have lost for the present, so far as such a prediction can be hazarded, all reasonable hope of winning over the peasant proprietors. The day-labourers, of whom in some parts of Germany there are considerable numbers, might still be won; they are proletariat within the party meaning of the term; in the words of the Communist Manifesto, “they have nothing to lose but their chains.” These, however, nowhere suffice to win a constituency, particularly as they are, for the most part, fearfully ignorant, and in terror of their employers. Many of them, also, are Catholics, and vote for the Centre, the Catholic party. Owing to the great inequality of agrarian and urban representation, the ruin of agriculture and the growth of the towns cannot give many more seats to Social Democracy, which must, therefore, win over the country if it is to hope for a Parliamentary victory. A forcible revolution would only be adopted in the last resort, as it does not accord at all with the spirit of Social Democracy, which is peaceable and orderly in the extreme. At the same time, Marx’s doctrines, derived, as they [p.161] were, from the contemplation of English industry in its days of extreme individualism, are completely inapplicable to an agriculture carried on either under feudal lords or by peasant proprietors. Neither the leaders nor their followers are willing to abandon Marx, whose theories explain the injustice and misery to which they have now to submit, and promise, at no immeasurably distant date, a kingdom of heaven on earth, in which labour shall no longer be exploited, and all human beings shall be free, equal, and prosperous. This is the dilemma before which the Party stands, and on its decision its whole future depends.

Those who have seen the daily support, in the midst of the most wretched conditions, which the more intelligent working men and women derive from their fervent and religious belief in the advent of the Socialist State, and from their conviction that, historical development is controlled by irresistible forces, in whose hands men are only puppets, and by whose action the diminution and final extinction of the capitalist class is an inevitable decree of fate — those who have seen the strength, compactness, and fervour which this religion gives to those who hold it, will hardly regard its decay as likely to help the progress of the Party. No, not in a formal and critical abandonment of any part of Marxian doctrine lies a tactical solution of their dilemma; rather it is to be hoped that, like other religious bodies, like the two chief leaders at the last Congress, they will lose something in logical acumen, and adopt, in their political activity, maxims really inconsistent with their fundamental principles, but [p.162] necessitated by practical exigences, and reconciled by some more or less fallacious line of reasoning. The two leaders, so hostile to it in 1891, have now been won over to this attitude of mind, and it is perhaps not too bold to hope that, in time, they may carry the bulk of the Party with them.

There seems, then, at least a possibility of peaceful reform and gradual development. If the Social Democrats can abandon their uncompromising attitude, without losing their strength; if other parties, perceiving this change, adopt a more conciliatory tone; and if an emperor or a chancellor should arise, less uncompromisingly hostile to every advance in civilisation or freedom than Bismarck or William II — if all these fortunate possibilities should concur, then Germany may develop peacefully, like England, into a free and civilised Democracy. But if not, if the Government and the other parties continue their present bigoted persecution, then there seems no power which can stop the growth of Social Democracy, or modify its uncompromising opposition. Sooner or later it is sure to obtain a majority of the whole population, and of a very considerable section of the army. In that case, if it is still repressed, there seem only two possibilities; either an unsuccessful foreign war, by which the military government might be weakened or destroyed; or, if this does not take place, an internal civil war. If Germany could retain its national existence, in spite of such a struggle, we might live to see another French Revolution, perhaps even more glorious than the first, leaving Social Democracy to try one of the greatest and [p.163] most crucial experiments in political history. But to all who believe in peace and gradual development, to all who wish the present tense hostility between rich and poor in Germany to be peacefully diminished, there can be but one hope; that the governing classes will, at last, show some small measure of political insight, of courage, and of generosity. They have shown none in the past, and they show little at present; but terror may make them wise, or new men with a better spirit may grow up. Cessation of persecution, complete and entire democracy, absolute freedom of coalition, of speech, and of the press — these alone can save Germany, and these, we most fervently hope, the German rulers will grant before it is too late. If they do not, war and extinction of the national life are the almost inevitable doom of the German Empire.

III. Conclusion

Now that our criticism of Social Democracy, point by point, has come to an end, let us ask ourselves, lest the final impression should be one of too severe opposition, what parts of its programme seem essential, and what parts seem chiefly due to the struggling and persecuted condition of its adherents.

German critics of Social Democracy have, in general, paid very little attention to the history or general public opinion of the party, but have confined themselves almost entirely to the programme, or to chance pictures of the future state. A complete Utopia is, to the German economist, a logically [p.164] indispensable part of any Socialistic program but however much metaphysics may logically justify this demand in general, every particular Utopia of course, is more or less of an impossible fairyland, and every particular Utopia, therefore, is triumphantly and gravely shown to be impossible by orthodox economists.13

To my mind, however, the really important question is quite a different one. Utopias change from year to year, with the passing fancy of the moment, and in any case the reality is not likely ever to resemble them. The important questions to my mind are these: —

1. What is the essential kernel of the Social Democratic programme, which it could not lose without losing its whole political and historical identity?

2. Are the demands, contained in this inner core of Socialism, in themselves possible or desirable; and are they such as economic and political development is likely to bring about?

The second question involves the whole controversy as to Socialism or Individualism, and as I have no wish to enter on a controversial question, for whose discussion I have not the necessary knowledge, I will only treat of the first of these questions, leaving the second, as to which every reader would in any case, retain his former opinion, to be decided by each for himself, according to his convictions.

[p.165] Even the first question, as to the “quintessence of Socialism,” as Schaeffle calls it, is one which cannot, obviously, be answered by a mere study of the programme. To answer it duly, requires, on the contrary, an extensive acquaintance with the ephemeral literature, the speeches, even the daily talk, of Social Democrats, and above all, it requires a sense of the rounded logic of their system, so that mountains and excrescences may not be taken for the regular surface of the world of their ideas. For only by these means can we discover what parts of the programme are believed with most fervour, and what parts could, when events had changed their emotional weight, be altered without serious change of principle or theory.

Under these circumstances, it becomes impossible to prove thoroughly, that this or that item is essential — one must, to an immense extent, rely on mere general impressions. I will, therefore, at once state my own view, and then give what grounds I can to make it seem plausible.

There are, in my opinion, only two items which the Party could not abandon without political suicide, namely: — Political Democracy and Economic Collectivism — the latter to be brought about by the natural growth of firms, until monopoly becomes the cheapest, and State-monopoly the socially most beneficial, form of every business. Around these two essential items, a great undergrowth of minor demands has grown up, especially from carrying the ideals of political democracy into the economic sphere. That these minor demands are now held, in part at least, with great fervour, I should be the [p.166] last to deny. But they all spring, as I shall endeavour to show, from an excessive passion for Democracy, and are therefore likely, as soon as this passion has been satiated by experience, to fall away of themselves, and leave the essentials to undisputed power.

We in England have all become convinced, by mere brute experience, that Democracy is the only desirable, or at least the only possible, form of Government for a civilised state. But we have also become convinced, and largely by the same brute experience, that the theoretic basis on which the battle for Democracy was fought and won, the extreme individualist doctrine of the Rights of Man, is totally false in theory, and in practice destructive, when logically carried out, of all possibility of social life. In Germany, on the contrary, where Democracy has never existed, political theory is still in the pre-democratic stage: the Conservatives hold a democratic government to be radically bad, or even impossible,14 while the Socialists advocate it on the old basis of Equality and Natural Rights.

It is interesting to observe that the English Socialists of 1820-1840, to whom Marx, and hence the present German party, owe so much, make precisely the same transition, from the extreme Individualism of Natural Right, to Socialism as the only polity in which this ideal can be realised. Thus the Communist Bray says: “Equality of rights is the very soul of society.… If a man compel his fellows to give him double allowance of produce for no labour whatsoever, every shadow of equality and justice vanishes [p.167] at once.” 15 It is one of Marx’s chief merits that he eliminated from his theory all trace of this doctrine, that he developed his communism as the necessary result of the desires of the proletariat and the wealth of the capitalists; but his followers, except in controversy with opponents who have misunderstood Marx, usually forget this advance, and lapse into arguments from Justice and Natural Rights.

A great confusion thus arises, between Marx’s wholly unmoral fatalism, and the purely moral demand for justice and equality on the part of his followers. This confusion could not fail to arise, for Marx’s fatalism is based on the moral ideals of the proletariat and their necessary victory; proletariat disciples of Marx, therefore, as soon as they work for the realisation of his theories, are forced to rest their claims on those very moral ideals which formed Marx’s facts. Thus it is noticeable that the first thoroughly Marxian party programme, the Eisenach Programme of 1869, states, as the first principle to which members of the Party must adhere, that “the existing political and social conditions are in the highest degree unjust, and hence are to be fought with the utmost energy.”

I will illustrate this confused reappearance of the Rights of Man from one of Marx’s earliest popularisers,16 who, after saying of the Communist State,17 “This is no plan which some one sets up, no purpose to be followed — it is a pitiless insight [p.168] into the nature of things” 18 proceeds:19 “What is essential, is to establish clearly the principle, on which the new state of things will be built up. This principle is, socially, a new conception of property; politically, the complete rule of the people. The conception of property in the socialistic society is quite other, but infinitely juster, than that proper to capitalistic production. To-day a man earns the more, the more others he can get to work for him. The produce of others’ labour accrues to him, becomes his own, makes him rich and independent. That is the basis of the capitalistic conception of property: Property in the labour of others. In future, everyone will have to work for himself if he wishes to enjoy. No one who does not work will possess anything, unless indeed he is altogether unfit to work. All property in the produce of others’ labour will be abolished; for the helpless and for general purposes, however, sacrifices will be willingly made. Property in one’s own work will be established, and with it, the holiest, most unimpeachable right of property which can exist. Nothing belongs to me by right, but the produce of my own work. As, however, production is in common, everyone must receive his due share of the common produce. To be completely just in this, may have its difficulties. But the socialistic society will always strive to become just towards everyone. Hence a principle will soon be adopted, which Baboeuf already set up in 1795; the principle: ‘To every man according to his needs.’

[p.169] This passage is important, not only as showing the part played by conceptions of justice in current Socialist literature, but also as showing the confusion between reward according to produce, and reward according to needs. Some critics have made very much of the distinction between these two, and have censured German Socialism severely for its supposed advocacy of the latter.20 The fact is, however, as the above passage and innumerable others clearly prove, that the whole distinction is obliterated, in the minds of Social Democrats, by their principle that all men are equal. For it follows, from this principle, that all would produce equal amounts, and all would require equal amounts. Except for the exceptional cases of invalids, cripples, etc., the distinction would, therefore, be non-existent.

Since Marx is silent on this subject, since Social Democrats themselves are by no means clear about it, and since what they and Marx are clear about is the collective ownership of all means of production, it is surely the merest justice to assume, that if ever they were in a position to put collectivism into practice, they would adopt the wisest and most efficient form of collectivism, without dogmatic scruples as to perfect equality of reward. This is the more probable, as Democratic Collectivism, such as they desire, could hardly be put into force except after a considerable period of Democracy, during which period the opposition to practical Democracy would probably cease, and the consequent need to defend it by extreme theories of equality and natural [p.170] rights would also cease. Where men or women are hampered, in the pursuit of their most elementary desires, by artificial restrictions and fictitious class inequalities, it seems to them, naturally, the one supremely desirable thing to abolish legal restrictions and recognise the equality of all. Thus we had the Rights of Man, and we have the Rights of Woman. But as soon as artificial inequalities are removed, and a man can no longer acquire superior power but by the consent of others, natural inequalities can be recognised without any galling interference with liberty. There is reason to suppose, therefore, if Social Democracy should ever be in a position to carry out its programme, that it will, by that time, have grown beyond its present crude democracy, and be willing to reward the real benefactors of society in any way which may be required by the public good.

Political Democracy and Economic Collectivism, then, are the only demands, if the above discussion be correct, which the Social Democrats are likely to retain if they ever, by a gradual and peaceful development, acquire the supreme power. But if they come into power by a sudden revolution — as they are almost certain to do, unless the ruling classes show a more conciliatory spirit in future — if Social Democrats acquire the government with all their ideals intact, and without a previous and gradual training in affairs, then they may, no doubt, like the Jacobins in France, make all manner of foolish and disastrous experiments. For this reason, again, as for so many others, it is to be hoped, that the principle of class-warfare will find less [p.171] acceptance, and less ground in the conduct of rulers, than it has found hitherto. A wiser attitude on the part of the Government might lead to the victory of Vollmar’s less uncompromising policy within the Party, and thus produce a rapprochement at both ends. Friendliness to the working classes, or rather common justice and common humanity, on the part of rulers, seem, to me at least, the great and pressing necessity for Germany’s welfare. I would wish, in conclusion, to emphasise the immense importance, for the internal peace of the nation, of every spark of generosity and emancipation from class-consciousness in the governing and propertied classes. This, more than anything else, is to me the lesson of German Politics.

*  Bertrand Russell, Lecture 6, German Social Democracy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896)  Pagination is to the original 1896 text, downloadable on the website as a pdf

1 Even for this party, Bebel succeeded in inventing an economic motive in his speech on Antisemitism at the Party Congress of 1893 (Protokoll, p. 231)

2 Practically this is true of all but the small South German Democratic Party; for the Freisinnige Volkspartei, in spite of its professions, has never, even where it had the power, made any effort at reform in these directions

3 See Bebel’s excellent statement of this argument in Unsere Ziele

4 Protokoll for 1891, p. 209

5 Ibid., p. 198

6 It is, in fact, caused mainly by feudal and sentimental motives and necessitated by the fact that in East Prussia, for example, the poverty of the land makes it impossible for any but rich men to hold it.

7 IProtokoll 1894, pp. 144-5

8 Protokoll, 1895, p.110

9 Ibid., p. 125

10 Ibid.

11 Protokoll, 1895, p. 117

12 Ibid., p. 137

13 Cf. Adolf Wagner, Die akademische Nationalökonomie und der Socialismus, 1895; Anton Menger, Das Recht auf den vollen Arbeitsertrag, p. 109; Schaeffle, “Impossibility of Social Democracy”; Eugen Richter, Irrlehren der Sozialdemokratie

14 Cf. Schaeffle, passim

15 “Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy,” 1839, p. 22. Cf. also Bray’s “Three First Principles,” p. 28

16 W. Bracke, Jr., Der Lassalle’sche Vorschlag, Braunschweig, 1873

17 p. 63

18 Italics in the original

19 p. 74

20 Vide Schaeffle, “Impossibility of Social Democracy,” Eng. trans., p. 51