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 Review of Schmöle (1897)*

By Bertrand Russell

Review of Die Sozialdemokratischen Gewerkschaften in Deutschland seit dem Erlasse des Sozialisten Gesetzes. Von Dr. Phil. Josef Schmöle. Erster, vorbereitender Teil (Jena: Fischer. 1896. Pp. xviii, 211)

GERMAN Trade Unions differ, in their origin, from those of England, in much the same way as the origin of the German constitution differs from that of the English. The English constitution has arisen, bit by bit, out of the needs of the moment. The German constitution was decreed ready-made by the Court at Versailles in 1871. Similarly, English Trade Unions have been obscure in their beginnings and variable in their aims. German Trade Unions, on the contrary, have been almost unchanging in their aims, and sprang into existence by the fiat of the labour leaders in 1868. This difference of origin was rendered possible by the fundamental difference which, as Dr. Schmöle points out in his Introduction, gives the key to the peculiarities of the German labour movement. This difference is that Trade Unions in Germany have been throughout subsidiary to political parties, and regarded mainly as means of political agitation. To supplant Social Democracy, Dr. Max Hirsch, a prominent Liberal, decided, in 1868, to found unions in Germany “on the English model,” i.e., on the assumption that the interests of labour and capital are really the same. To supplant Dr. Hirsch, Schweitzer, the successor of Lassalle, obtained, in August of the same year – while Dr. Hirsch was still making preliminary studies in England – the support of the Universal German Working Men’s Association for the foundation of socialistic Trade Unions. Dr. Hirsch, on his return, thus found himself anticipated, and his friendly societies – for such they virtually are – have ever since dragged on in obscure and unimportant existence.

It is, accordingly, the Social Democratic Unions alone with which the present volume deals. It is a pity that Dr. Schmöle, in spite of the emphasis which he lays on the pre-eminence of the political movement, has not gone more deeply into the manifold reactions of this movement on German Trade Unionism. For example, much of his space is devoted to the efforts of the police to apply the Coalition Laws to the destruction of Trade Unions, and the counter-efforts of Trade Unionists to evade the laws. The singular fact that none of their energies were devoted to the repeal of these laws, which he leaves unexplained, can only be explained by their adherence to Social Democracy. For Social Democracy is too lofty in its aims to concentrate on any single practicable reform, and has never instituted any special agitation for freedom of combination.

At first the Trade Unions were frankly political. But this frankness cost them their life, for it led to the dissolution of almost all of them at the passing of the Socialist Law (1878). New societies were soon founded, however, which endeavoured to appear non-political; but the slightest appearance of Socialism, even a petition to the Reichstag for regulation of the hours of labour, would usually afford the police a pretext for their dissolution. The laws under which dissolutions took place were two: First, the Coalition Law by which, in most German states, no two political associations may combine in any way for any common purpose; and, second, the Insurance Law, by which insurance societies can only exist with the permission and under the inspection of the police. The best part of Dr. Schmöle’s book is the section devoted to the legal chicaneries by which the police endeavoured to make these two laws applicable to Trade Unions, and the ingenuity with which Trade Unionists sought to evade them. The Courts would appear to have frequently differed from the police in their interpretation of the law, but Dr. Schmöle shows clearly the vacillating and inconsistent character of the various judgments delivered in these matters. This led the Socialists, not unnaturally, to infer that the law depended entirely on the bias of particular judges, a view for which, though our author rejects it, there seem to be excellent grounds.

On the whole, German Trade Unionism impresses one as a very half-hearted movement, and the present work does nothing to alter this impression. The most energetic members, being Social Democrats, have in general but little faith in the efficacy of movements within the capitalistic state – even the organisers often urge men not to expect of the unions what only a Socialist State can give. Almost all the energy and self-sacrifice which in England would have gone to the unions, goes in Germany to Social Democracy. Dr. Schmöle concludes with a hope that this state of things may change as the status of German labour improves, but for such a hope there seem, at, present, only the slenderest grounds.

The book is learned and sympathetic, but not sufficiently critical or scientific in its attitude; although its task is a far easier one than the history of English Trade Unionism, it accomplishes hardly any of the objects which Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb’s book so successfully attains. It abounds in generalities, but contains few useful generalisations. The style is prolix and lacking in concrete detail. In this respect, at any rate, we may hope for an improvement in the treatment of separate trades, which Dr. Schmöle promises in a second part of the present work.


*  Bertrand Russell, Review of J. Schmöle, Die Sozialdemokratischen Gewerkschafen in Deutschland seit dem Sozialisten-Gesetzes [“Social Democratic Unions in Germany Since the Passing of the Socialist Law”], The Economic Journal 7 (Mar 1897), 94-5