Chapter 153: The Abdication Crisis, Part IX: Bernsteinian Heresy
“Only in a State whose citizens are accustomed to discipline, who have learned in the army unconditional obedience, who feel daily and hourly the stern pressure of the apparatus of administration, could a party organization so large and coherent as German Social Democracy originate.”
- Chancellor Eulenburg in 1905
While the Progressive People’s Party was largely formed to advocate the cause of parliamentarism, the Social Democrats were divided on the matter. On the one hand promoting the cause of parliamentarization would help their agenda of a complete democratization of the state. On the other hand that would require cooperation with bourgeois parties, an anathema to many dedicated Marxists who insisted that SPD was at heart a revolutionary organization.
Their opponents inside the party quoted late Engels who had regarded direct suffrage as a revolutionary achievement that would allow the worker’s movement to wage class struggle in new and more civil forms, proclaiming an end to the era of surprise attacks, revolutions made by a small, conscious minority at the head of unconscious masses.
Such Bernsteinian revisionism was very close of the views of the German trade unionists. The German Free Trade Unions tented to ignore politicians and theoreticians of all stripes, and gradually built up their organization while the main party patronizingly stated that unions were schools of socialism, not central for achieving it. By 1906 they suddenly had nearly five times as many registered members as the SPD (1 700 000 to 385 000), and as a result the union leaders were self-confident enough to preserve their own organization, demanding equality as partners, not as pupils of the party. May 1905 congress at Cologne the SPD thus formally stated that it was: “reprehensible...to attempt to prescribe a particular tactic by agitating for political mass strikes. General strikes were only endorsed by people with no experience in the business of economic warfare, such as anarchists."
The internal schism continued in September 1905 at the Jena party congress. Here the final line adopted by the party that it was the duty of the entire working class to employ any means that seem appropriate for their defence in cases of an attack on the general, equal, direct and secret suffrage law. Comprehensive mass walkout was one of the most effective weapons to secure important basic rights for the liberation of the workers. But in order to be used, the greatest possible extension of the political and trade union organization of the working class is absolutely necessary, in conjunction with agitation. SPD thus de facto opted out of the general strike strategy while maintaining the possibility to change tactics if necessary, and the party leadership agreed not to call for a strike without the assent of the general commissions of the Free Trade Unions.
Bebel and Kaytsky finalized this internal shift within the SPD and infuriated the radical wing of the party by granting equal status to the unions in the Mannheim Agreement of 1906. Bernstein and his followers rejoiced, but neither they or the majority of the unionist leaders supported the syndical view that all-powerful unions should run the country. Unions were gaining power in the party, pushing intellectual debates about Marxist dogma to the background as irrelevant and boring.
Bebel led the party through this turbulent era from the centre, with fiery rhetorics combined with cautious and moderately practical actual policy. Material circumstances were improving, the party remained unified, and it gained support in elections. But this also made the party leadership unable to really solve the central debate within the party. An open call for either outright revolution or an open change of interpretation of Marx towards reformism would have split the party.
Trade unions were also a problem for Zentrum. Was the party an interconfessional political grouping as the trade union and reformist wanted and thus independent of the clergy, or a Catholic-clerical party as the integralists wanted? The status quo was enforced by a formal compromise: Zentrum was “basically a non-confessional political party”, but it was an important “fact that almost all of its voters and delegates belong to the Catholic Church...a sufficient pledge that the Zentrum will vigorously represent the just interests of German Catholics in all areas of public life.”
Similar competitions and challenges of dogmatic purity locked the whole political field down, and all party coalitions remained fragile and fleeting. The core problem was that the whole system lacked integrative power. The parties defended their interest groups regardless of the public interest, out of fear that many lobbies and interest groups would otherwise opt to negotiate directly with the government authorities instead. Eulenburg had made this problem worse by cultivating complacency at home to cement the ruling political coalition he had created. This has made things seem less bad than they really were, until his downfall took the old Bloc down alongside him.
When the market liberal industrial magnates of Ruhr formed their own organization, the Hansa-Bund für Handel, Gewerbe und Industrie, to lobby and promote their cause against the conservative Agrarian BdL, the realignment of German politics was soon complete. The Conservatives were becoming increasingly isolated.