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 German Social Democracy  (1896)*


Social Democracy and the Woman Question in Germany

By Alys Russell

[p.175] The attitude of German Social Democracy towards the woman movement is well illustrated by its criticism of the form which that movement has taken in England. It regrets that the working-women, owing to the activity of women in the upper classes, have failed to acquire any feeling of class-consciousness, of solidarity, and of confidence in their own powers.1 Perhaps nowhere so much as in their attitude towards this question are we made to realise the Social-Democratic doctrine of Klassenkampf, or class-warfare, the doctrine according to which every political party is the party of a class, and every political movement the exclusive movement of a class. What in England and America has been the movement of a whole sex, has, in German Social Democracy, been merged in the movement of the working class. Women are to have their rights not as a sex, but as workers. Just as Marxianism proposes to abolish by communism the relation of exploiter and exploited in the general labour market, so it proposes in particular to overcome this relation between man and [p.176] woman in a communistic State, where all alike, irrespective of sex, shall be treated as labourers for the community. The woman question, they say, is not a question of sex, but merely an outcome of the economic problem.

This deduction from the general principle was stated as early as 1848 by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. “Communists do not need,” it runs, “to introduce community of women: it has almost always existed.… The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited by society, and he cannot think otherwise than that this is to be the fate of women also. He does not guess that the very problem is to abolish the position of women as mere instruments of production.” This, like much of the Communist Manifesto, was a prophecy of what the problem would be, rather than the actual account of the form it had assumed at the time. The movement in France had only been to secure for women equal rights with men, and Mary Wollstonecraft, in her “Vindication of the Rights of Women,” sketched the problem as one of sex warfare, with a democratic rather than a socialistic solution. This individualistic view dominated, as it still dominates to a certain extent, the leaders of the woman’s movement in England; but even then, there was a small group of English Socialists, very obscure, however, who regarded the question as one that could not be settled in a society regulated by free competition. They felt that women must always be handicapped in competition with men by child-bearing, and that [p.177] they were more likely to be fairly compensated by the State for the loss of time and the pain thus incurred, than by individual men out of the fruits of their individual exertions.

In a book published in 1825, William Thompson, the best exponent of this little school, says that “nothing could he more easy than to put the rights of women, political and civil, on a perfect equality with those of men. It is only to abolish all prohibitory and exclusive laws,… the remnants of the barbarous customs of our ignorant ancestors,… But this would not raise women to an equality of happiness with men; their rights might be equal, but not their happiness, because unequal powers under free competition must produce unequal effects.” 2 Women at present, he says, must remain inferior to men “in point of independence arising from wealth,” 3 yet if paid out of the common funds of the community, they will not need to labour as much in point of strength of muscle as men, but will contribute what they can. In an earlier work, he practically suggests the payment of motherhood. Where there are large families in the new society, he thinks “the parents, particularly the mother, should be assisted and relieved under such circumstances; their means should be increased, not diminished.” 4

[p.178] Thompson also held entirely the Social-Democratic view as to the cause of prostitution. He says that under the present social order “sexual enjoyment becomes, like everything else in society, a matter of trade, of exchange, just like every other commodity.…” 5 He speaks of “mutual, unbought, uncommanded affection,” 6 and says of his new society, “The vile trade of prostitution … could not here exist. Man has, here, no individual wealth more than woman, with which to buy her person for the animal use of a few years. Man, like woman, if he wish to be beloved, must learn the art of pleasing, of benevolence, of deserving love.” 7

In Thompson’s works we find, then, the same views about the economic exploitation of women that are expressed in the Communist Manifesto, although these were views not commonly held at that time. But Marx was acquainted with Thompson’s works, and he cannot, therefore, claim originality for this part of the Manifesto. His remedies, which were much less practical than Thompson’s even, were, however, purely academic, and designed only to show that his gospel applied universally. It was left to a follower of his, August Bebel, to develop and elaborate these views in his book on “Woman” 8 — a book which has been translated into eleven languages, having gone through twenty-five editions in [p.179] Germany alone since its first publication in 1879. In accordance with the Marxian tradition, this book is more important as a work of Socialist propaganda than as a scientific treatise on “Woman.” All the facts have a didactic tendency, and all prove equally that the only solution of the “woman problem” lies in a complete change of the existing social and political institutions. But, nevertheless, it is very important as being the most complete, indeed, the only thorough, statement of the Party views about woman, and for that reason it will be necessary to discuss it very fully in the present paper. On this question, in fact, Bebel’s book occupies the same authoritative position in the Party that is occupied on questions of general economics by Marx’s “Capital.”

After a popular account of the position of women in the past, in which he quotes the histories of the subject (preferably histories by Social Democrats) rather than the original sources, and in which he certainly misinterprets the meaning of the so-called ‘Matriarchate,’ 9 Bebel goes on to a full discussion of woman’s position in the present, his point being to prove that the inferiority of her position is due to her [p.180] situation of economic dependence on man in a bourgeois society. First of all, he insists that it is necessary for women, as well as for men, to satisfy their natural impulses, a necessity not only for their happiness, but also for their health, and in proof of this he cites the statistics of suicide and lunacy among the married and unmarried. Some form of marriage, then, may be considered the basis of social development, and shall this, he asks, be marriage founded on the bourgeois idea of property, or marriage founded on the free untrammeled choice of love? This latter form of marriage, which involves mental affinity and an advantageous intermingling of physical and mental qualities, is only possible, he maintains, in a socialistic society. For, he says, marriage in the present social order is almost purely an object of speculation and exchange, competition being as keen here as everywhere else, and it is realty hardly more than a legalised prostitution. The struggle for existence is so great that many calculations enter into poor marriages, as well as rich, destroying all ideals of domestic happiness. Women, fearing that they cannot support large families, have recourse to Neo-Malthusianism, or ruin their health by practising abortion. As it is, women generally receive such bad physical training that they are unfitted for marriage; and yet, if we are to believe Bebel, marriage, as a means of support, is becoming more and more indispensable, and women compete for husbands more violently than ever before. And yet, he says, because many men can- not afford to marry, because many emigrate and many are absorbed in the army, we find 40 percent [p.181] of German women unmarried, and prostitution becomes an inevitable social institution to supplement marriage. According to Bebel, prostitution, more than any other evil, is the result of our present economic conditions. He admits that the love of a seemingly free and dazzling life is one cause in part, but the chief cause, he maintains, is to be found in economic necessity, sudden economic panics and low wages driving women to prostitution. And yet, with little or no improvement in their social condition, women are increasingly employed in the field of industry, so that, according to the census returns of 1882, more than five and a half million German women were self-supporting. But under the German law, women are still in the condition of minors. They have neither civil nor political rights; they are not even allowed, in Prussia, to join political associations, or to attend meetings of such associations, and they have very little recognised position in the family. A husband is legally his wife’s guardian, and has, in some states, the right to chastise her. He has complete control over her fortune and her children, and he can appoint, by will, a guardian who will have equal control with the mother over the children after his death. A woman who has an illegitimate child has no claim for support, if she has accepted any present from the father at the time of their intimacy.

And yet in the industrial world, women are neither treated as minors, nor as wards requiring guardianship. It is true that a law passed in 189110 limits [p.182] the employment of women in factories to eleven hours, and forbids their employment at night, but it has so many exceptions, and is watched by so few inspectors, that it has not as yet done much to protect even the 639,866 women employed in factories. And for those employed in small businesses and house industries, there is as yet no protection, while many women still work in trades injurious to their health.

The law, then, is utterly inconsistent, for it neither recognises woman as a parent nor as an industrial worker. It nowhere admits that a woman who brings children into the world does a great service to the community, entitling her to a claim to the support of the community. Bebel points this out at the end of his section on “The Legal Position of Woman,” with a great number of suggested reforms; and then he follows with two sections of Socialist propaganda, pure Marxianism, that have little direct bearing on the woman question.

The underlying ideas of this whole chapter on “Woman in the Present” seem to be, first, that the recognition of woman’s equality with man is only a question of time, since women have already advanced so far and won so much for themselves; but, secondly, that they cannot attain this equality under existing social conditions. It would seem that the first assertion rather destroys the second, and that Bebel, in his desire to prove the capabilities of women, has stated their success in attaining their ends so emphatically, that the need of the socialistic community is but slightly felt. And certainly Bebel’s main demands are capable of being satisfied [p.183] under the present order of society. He really asks for no more than is demanded in other countries by those advanced women who are not followers of Marx, and whose suggestions are more practical than Bebel’s.

There is no reason why women should not attain to a very fair degree of economic independence, for instance, through Trade Unions for the unmarried, and through payment of motherhood for the married.11 This latter, though a Socialistic measure, is theoretically compatible with private property. And the equal mental and physical training of the sexes, one of Bebel’s chief demands, is certainly possible in an individualistic state of society, while equal laws for men and women are more and more taking the place of the old unjust laws.

But even Bebel does not say how a communistic society will reconcile the contradiction that must occasionally arise between natural instincts and duty as a citizen, especially if, as Bebel seems to think, scientific breeding is to be the means of improving the race. Bebel’s is the psychology of the proletariat, and when he insists on the necessity of the satisfaction of natural wants, he has in mind the man of few pleasures and little imagination.12 Moreover, the statistics that he uses to prove that a bad marriage is better for the health than no marriage at all are by no means [p.184] unimpeachable. In giving the statistics of lunacy among the married and unmarried, for instance, when the unmarried insane largely predominate, he admits that no small number have been insane from early youth and therefore did not marry, but he does not state what proportion.13 Without such a statement, it is quite as justifiable to infer that they were unmarried because they were lunatics, as to infer that they were lunatics because they were unmarried. From another statement further on in his book “that the larger number of married women, particularly in towns, are in a more or less abnormal (physical) condition,” 14 Bebel might equally well infer that marriage is unhealthy.

He is constantly making one-sided inferences of this sort, and statements which he does not prove by sufficient statistics, or by statistics up to date. For instance, to prove that women are forced by necessity to prostitution, he states that 203 out of the registered prostitutes in Munich in 1887 were women of the working classes, though he does not say what proportion to the whole.15 And when he quotes the statistics about the causes of prostitution of the French doctor, Parent du Chatelet, he does not say that they were published as long ago as 1836.16

Again, like all other Social Democrats, he quotes facts about England from Marx instead of from the original sources,17 and uses passages from Marx to complete his own reasoning, as if they were indisputable truths.18 This implicit faith in Marx, [p.185] as in an inspired orator, seems especially childish at the opening of his chapter on “Population and Over-population.” He twice 19 quotes Marx’s characterisation of Malthus’s work as “an immature, superficial, pompous, and priestly plagiarism … not containing a single sentence thought out by himself,” as if that satisfactorily disposed of Malthus, and obviated all necessity of answering his “brutal” doctrine 20 seriously. And then he states, without a vestige of proof, that the assertions of Malthus apply only to the capitalistic mode of production. This chapter is the weakest in the book, because it does not honestly face any of the problems discussed, and is thoroughly illogical, popular, and sentimental. After proving that superfluity of nourishment exists in the world, only needing to be properly distributed, he concludes that the message of civilisation to man is to increase the population, not to diminish it. And yet, in the perfect Socialistic State, when people are more highly organised, they will not have large families, he says, but will produce children of a better quality. The greater independence of women, he believes, will be the guarantee that population will increase less quickly than in a bourgeois state of society. If this is true, it should be an argument against Socialism in Bebel’s mind, if he really believes that the message of civilisation is to increase the population.

Either or both of these statements may well be true, but it is singularly inconsistent to found an optimism on their combination. Again, if it is a good thing, as Bebel seems to think, that women [p.186] should desire to enjoy their freedom and independence, and not spend half or three-quarters of the best years of their lives in the bearing and rearing of children, it is difficult to see how they can combine this desire with marriage, of which Bebel is such an advocate, unless they resort to measures of which he does not approve.

This brings us to the fundamental fallacy in Bebel’s book, as indeed in the whole gospel of Marxian communism. Followers of Marx believe that the Communistic State, when once established, would forever overcome the antagonism between the interest of the individual and the interest of society, and would forever make superfluous any motive for action other than self-interest. As applied to women, this doctrine is peculiarly fallacious. To the average woman, self-interest is perfectly compatible with spending a large part of her life in bearing and bringing up children; she is presumably fond of children, and has no other absorbing interest. But many women have interests and pursuits outside their homes, and to them child-bearing may be a great sacrifice of self-development and freedom. And yet they, from the very reason that they have keen outside interests, are presumably above the average of intelligence, and are therefore likely to be the very women to hand on a good heredity to their children, and to bring them up in the most reasonable way.

Even supposing that they might wish to have one child to satisfy their maternal instincts, it is hardly likely that they will want to interrupt their careers by having more than one, and less than two or three children would not be [p.187] sufficient for the interests of a stable State. Unless educated women are made to feel that child-bearing is a duty they owe to the State, to which they must, if necessary, make some sacrifice of independence and even happiness, it is difficult to conceive how even the “perfect Socialist State” will be continued in the future without deterioration of the race. Bebel certainly does not insist sufficiently on this,21 nor does he emphasise the importance and dignity of motherhood. As is natural to a person who views the world entirely from the standpoint of the wage-earner, he regards woman much more as an industrial worker than as a child-bearer, and treats the “woman question” as only one side of the labour question.

But this proletarian’s view of the question, when Bebel first propounded it, was distinctly ahead of his party, for the working-men of Germany were slow to recognise that their own labour was not the only labour subject to exploitation. Although they saw that women were largely employed, they believed that such employment could be effectually restricted, and that their own wages would thus be raised, and their authority in the house as the only wage-earner would be restored. But in spite of all efforts at restriction, and much as it was to be regretted, the employment of women increased constantly, until five and a half millions (according to the census of 1882) were wage-earners, and out of these over four millions belonged to the proletariat. Then only did working-men realise that women [p.188] workers were no longer a factor to be neglected, and that equal duties towards society gave them equal rights. At their Parteitag or Annual Congress, held at Halle in 1890, the Social Democrats therefore passed a resolution demanding the full equality of the sexes in State and society; and the next year, at Brussels, the International Socialists’ Congress adopted the same resolution unanimously. After 1892 women were permitted to choose delegates to the Annual Congress, and now the members of the working-women’s associations are an integral factor of the Social Democratic Party, and their demands for equal rights with men are the necessary and logical completion of the Democratic Programme of the working-men.

It would perhaps be more correct to say that theoretically women are an integral factor of the Social Democratic Party, for practically their active importance has as yet been very little. This is, of course, largely owing to the restrictions imposed on them by law. If it is hard for middle-class women to find a legal means of carrying on agitation, it is doubly hard for the women of the proletariat.

Magistrates and police are always combined to give unjust interpretations of the Coalition Law where Social Democrats are concerned, and they are especially active in seizing every possible pretext for closing women’s associations and meetings. In Berlin, for instance, a number of different associations having been dissolved one after the other, the women formed a small committee of five for purposes of agitation, hoping that a committee could not be interpreted as an association; but [p.189] the police thought differently, and after searching the houses of the members of the committee for compromising documents, they had them all brought up and fined in court last May for belonging to a political association.22 Even a children’s Christmas party, only the other day, during the present very severe persecutions of Social Democrats, was forbidden because it was given by Social Democrats, and might be considered a meeting of a political association. The agitation is therefore obliged to restrict itself now to the distribution of literature, and to the organisation of public meetings. These must always be called by a single person, and the police, one or two of whom are always present on the platform, may limit the discussions which follow the speeches according to their discretion. If anything is said which they consider illegal, they can, by standing up and putting on their helmets, dissolve the meeting.

But the law cannot be made altogether responsible for the small number of women who, as yet, take an active interest in the political and labour movements.

In Hamburg, for instance, where the law is much less strict, though we do indeed find a certain group of women as members of the political associations, yet the number of those who take a part in public life is very small, and they do not, as might have [p.190] been expected, form a centre of eager interest and agitation, nor even of trade unionism, which is particularly powerful in Hamburg. As a matter of fact, and as the numbers show, it seems almost impossible to rouse the women in Hamburg or in other parts of Germany to take a real interest in trade unionism. Only 5,251 women are members of trade unions, and these figures are very discouraging to the leaders who have been working since the early eighties to rouse the women of their class from the apathy bred of a feeling of helplessness. The leaders themselves are lamentably few, and most of them, being obliged to work long hours to support themselves, are not able to concentrate all their energies on agitation. And though their personal character and hard-working enthusiasm cannot be too highly estimated, their lack of education hinders them from taking the large sympathetic view of the movement on which a leader’s inspiration depends. It is a great pity that the idea of Klassenkampf, a principle held rigidly by every Social Democrat, rather to the bewilderment of an English person, makes it impossible for them to work with the thoughtful earnest leaders of the middle-class women’s movement, many of whom would be only too glad to co-operate with the working- women to bring about certain reforms desired by all women. For instance, there is at present under discussion before the Reichstag a draft for a New Code of Civil Law for the Empire, which has been compiled by legal experts with a view to unifying the laws of the different states. In adopting the form most widely prevalent and [p.191] involving the least alteration of existing conditions, they have not realised, that reactionary laws are not in accordance with the modern spirit, and they have made the position of woman in some points worse than hitherto. The women of the middle classes and the women of the proletariat have organised meetings of protest, and have sent in petition after petition begging that the new laws might be drafted on new principles, but the lack of unity between them has deprived the movement of that strength which only absolutely solid organisation can give. Again, in the question of factory laws and factory inspection, the middle-class women have done all that lay in their power to promote the extension of the Factory Acts, and to have women appointed as factory inspectors. All Social Democrats are anxious to promote these laws, believing them to be necessary for the health and for the moral improvement of the working people, and their programme demands a maximum eight hours’ day, also prohibition of night-work and of the employment of children under fourteen.

Social Democratic women, therefore, preferring the interests of labour to their own narrower interests, are willing, though it may to some extent injure their unrestricted competition with men, that the laws should be made for themselves first, believing that in time they will be extended to men also. Their immediate wish is that the present maximum work-day of eleven hours for women should be reduced to ten, and that women should not be employed in trades injurious to their health; already women are not allowed to work for four [p.192] weeks after confinement, nor for the fifth and sixth weeks unless approved by a doctor. But even in the matter of these laws they are not willing to work with the middle-class women. They feel that though they may both agitate for the same practical reforms in the laws regarding women, yet their own expectations are founded on changes for which the middle-class women do not wish, far more sweeping and fundamental than can be affected by any such surface alterations. They believe that there is and must be war between the classes of society, that so long as these classes subsist their interests must remain antagonistic, and that the position of working-women, as well as of working-men, can only be radically improved when private ownership of capital is abolished, and the means of production are owned collectively.

To sum up the main outlines of their position, Social Democrats hold that the subjection of women, like that of labour, is wholly due to economic causes, and that these causes must continue to operate so long as all capital is not held in common. The proof of this thesis may be boldly stated as follows: —

A woman may be married or unmarried, working for wages or staying at home, but in any of these cases her position is hopeless. If she is unmarried and works for wages, her wages are lowered by the possibility of prostitution; poverty is, in fact (so, at least, the Socialists maintain), the cause of the greatest part of German, prostitution. If she is married and works for wages, her wages are lowered by the fact that her husband earns money; moreover, she is [p.193] compelled to neglect her children, and often to ruin their health by working during pregnancy and nursing. If she is married and stays at home, she is the absolute slave of her husband, since without him her children cannot be supported.

But now let us suppose, the Social Democrats say, that all capital is held in common, and that women receive their due share, independently of sex. They would not be forced into prostitution by economic necessity, nor would they be forced to marry for support. A woman who had made a mistaken marriage would be enabled to leave her husband without losing her support, and if she were a suitable person to educate them for the State, to take her children with her. The Social Democrats do not mean in this way to introduce unrestricted free love. They only hold that prostitution and the evils of marriage, wherever they exist, are due to women’s economic dependence, and that they will cease when women are economically free. Where a marriage is happy, they say, change will be made, because a woman is no longer dependent on her husband for support; but when a marriage is unhappy, a woman ought to be able to withstand her husband’s tyranny without losing her only means of livelihood, and without being deprived of all share in the education of her children.

In marriage as in everything else, Social Democrats hold that perfect freedom is the social ideal, and that this ideal can only he reached by economic independence. But as regards the private ideal, for individual conduct in a free state, they are so far from advocating complete licence, that they aim [p.194] only at the abolition of prostitution, and at the economic possibility of divorce without loss of subsistence. It is to be regretted that no Social Democrat, as far as I am aware, has ever made a thorough study of the causes of prostitution, so that their oft-repeated statement as to its economic cause is necessarily a mere dogma.23 Nor do they prove satisfactorily that women cannot be bought in a communistic society. While stating that there will be no money and wares in the new state, they admit that there will be objects of necessity and use, and even objects to satisfy higher needs, and that there is no reason why some of these should not be bargained away. And even if people do not wish to exchange their superfluities, they may certainly do work for each other, by means of which favours might be bought.

These two aims — the abolition of prostitution, and the economic possibility of divorce without loss of subsistence — may also be said to be two of the principal aims of thoughtful women in other countries, but they do not think, as the Social Democrats do, that the subjection of women is entirely due to a single cause, or that the removal of this one cause is a sufficient condition of the solution of the woman question. German Social Democrats have [p.195] emphasised an important — perhaps the most important — aspect of the woman question, but they lay too little stress on all the other aspects. They seem especially unable to recognise the need of those changes in individual standards and individual morals over which the State has, and can have, no control.

*  Alys Russell, Appendix, German Social Democracy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896)  All pagination is to the original 1896 edition, downloadable as a pdf from this website

1 Zur Beurteilung der Frauenbewegung in England und Deutschland, von Lili von Gizycki, p. 43. Carl Heymanns Verlag, Berlin, 1896

2 “Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the other Half, Men, to retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery,” p. 13. By William Thompson. London, 1825

3 Ibid., p. xi

4 “An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth most Conducive to Human Happiness,” p. 553. By William Thompson. London, 1824

5 “Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth,” p. 556

6 “Appeal of One Half,” etc., p. xii

7 Ibid., p. 200

8 Die Frau und der Sozialismus, von August Bebel. Verlag von J. Dietz, Stuttgart, 1895; “Woman,” in the English edition, no. 15 of the Bellamy Library. W. Reeves, London

9 Compare the “Evolution of Marriage,” by Ch. Letourneau, published in the Contemporary Science Series (Walter Scott, London). See particularly chapter xviii on “The Maternal Family,” in which Letourneau shows that maternal filiation was generally an evidence of promiscuity, and did not in any way hinder masculine despotism. Maternal filiation that prevailed because of the doubt as to the father, gave no real liberty and equality to the women. When the husband was not known, discretionary power over the wife and children was exercised by her brother or by some other of her male relatives. These facts hardly coincide with Bebel’s statement that “the mother-right meant communism, the equality of all” (p. 34). See also article on “The Matriarchal Family System,” by Dr. E. B. Tylor, in the Nineteenth Century for July 1896

10 Gewerbe-Ordnung fur das Deutsche Reich, p. 202. Verlag dew Vorwärts. Berlin, 1895

11 See Karl Pearson’s Article on “Woman and Labour” (Fortnightly Review). London, May 1894

12 For an author who is full of so many practical suggestions and so much sensible advice, Bebel has shirked an obvious duty in not speaking at greater length against the evils of excess. He only alludes once to the subject, and then very briefly, as if he feared it would not be popular with his working-class readers

13 Die Frau und der Sozialismus, p. 98

14 Ibid., p 149

15 Ibid., p. 128

16 Ibid., p. 194

17 Ibid., pp. 108, 220, 445, etc

18 Ibid., p. 344

19 Die Frau und der Sozialismus, pp. 441, 444

20 Ibid., p. 444

21 Die Frau und der Sozialismus, p. 283, is practically the only reference

22 For an account of these persecutions see an article entitled “Scharf gemacht,” in No. I. (6th year, Jan. 1896) of the Social Democratic women’s paper Die Gleiechheit, a spirited little paper appearing fortnightly in the interests of working-women, and edited by Frau Klara Zetkin at Stuttgart.

23 Dr. H. Lux of Magdeburg, in a little pamphlet entitled Die Prostitution, ihre Ursachen, ihre Folgen und ihre Bekämpfung (printed in 1894 in the Berliner Arbeiter Bibliothek), states that it is impossible for any working-woman to live on wages of less than 6.50 marks per week, and yet that 42 percent of the population only earn on an average 400 marks a year. He infers à priorí from this that women are forced into prostitution by necessity, but he does not attempt to prove it from ascertained facts.