Anton Pannekoek

The Elections in Germany


Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 12, no. 9, March 1912.
Translation: William E. Bohn.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2017.


The elections to the German Reichstag have resulted in a great victory for the Social Democratic Party. In 1907 the Socialists entered the national assembly with 43 members, and by means of victories at by-elections this number was raised to 53. The great electoral battle of 1912, however, gives us quite a different story to tell. The first ballot, on January 12, gave the Socialists 67 seats, of which 25 represent newly conquered districts. The party of the working-class was, moreover, left as contestant in 121 reballotings. The second elections have netted 43 seats. Thus the Social Democratic group numbers 110 members in the new chamber.

Even more important than the number of seats is the number of votes registered. The popular vote of the Social Democratic Party has increased by a million since 1907; it has grown from three and a quarter millions to four and a quarter. At the present moment more than a third of all voters (34.8 per cent) support this party. If the German electoral law were a really just and democratic one, giving the same influence to every vote cast, a third of the representatives would now be Socialists. But this is not the case. The electoral districts have not been altered since 1871. Since this date the great cities and the industrial regions, in which Socialism is strongest, have developed tremendously, while the rural districts have become partly depopulated. A simple comparison will show the injustice of the system which has resulted: Comrades Ledebour and Zubeil were elected in Berlin by 142,502 and 162,717 votes, respectively, while in the rural districts representatives of the Conservative and Centrist parties were elected by fewer than 10,000 votes.

The enormous increase in the number of Socialist votes was universally expected. The last Reichstag had done all in its power to embitter the masses of the people. In 1907 Premier Bülow promised a liberal regime and thereby gathered about his standard the majority of the small bourgeoisie, the government employes [sic], the middle-class, the intellectuals, all those who really cared little or nothing about the outcome of the election. All of these joined themselves with the Conservatives and, although the number of Socialist votes increased from three to three and a quarter millions, the Socialist group in the Reichstag was cut down from 81 to 43. There was great rejoicing throughout the bourgeois world. The Kaiser himself, speaking in poetic phrases from the balcony of his palace, referred to the Social Democracy as a power which had been "trampled underfoot." The government and the parliamentary majority thought now that they could be as arbitrarily reactionary as they pleased. In the beginning Bülow governed with the support of a majority made up of Conservatives and Liberals. The Conservatives represented, of course, the landed aristocracy. The Liberals included the National Liberals, representatives of "big business," and the Free-Thinkers (Freisinnigen), who represented commerce and the solely financial, stock-exchange interests, which in the past had opposed militarism and the whole reactionary policy of the government. The new government was, naturally enough, anything but liberal. A new law to regulate organizations and public meetings was passed, but it left intact nearly all the police restrictions for which Prussia is famous. In fact, it cut off some of the liberties previously enjoyed; the Poles were forbidden to employ their mother tongue in public meetings and persons under eighteen years of age were denied the privilege of taking part in political organizations or gatherings. All this was openly designed to hinder the labor movement. The Liberals of all shades of opinion supported this law.

Then came the new tax laws. There were constantly increasing demands upon the national treasury. In 1908 the cost of maintaining the army amounted to 854,000,000 marks, that of maintaining the navy to 339,000,000, while military pensions reached the figure of 146,000,000. During the two years from 1908 to 1910 the imperial debt increased from 4,000,000,000 marks to 5,000,000,000. The income of the nation was not keeping pace with the expenditures. If the constant increase in the imperial debt was to be stopped a greatly increased revenue would have to be provided. In 1908 the government introduced a new revenue law. Under its provisions 400,000,000 marks were to be raised annually from a tax on such articles of consumption as beer, tobacco, whiskey, gas, and electricity, and 100,000,000 from an income tax. The Liberals were willing to vote for these provisions despite the fact that, contrary to the Liberal program, the money was to be raised from the poverty-stricken masses of the people. But the Conservatives would not agree to the income tax provision. They joined themselves to the Centrum (the Catholic party), cut loose from the Liberals, and brought about the downfall of Bülow. The new government bloc dropped the income tax, added to the law provisions for revenue on matches, gas mantles, coffee, and tea, and finally forced it through the Reichtstag. Needless to say, it aroused the greatest discontent. The Liberals now made the most strenuous opposition to the "Blue-Black" bloc, thinking thereby to win back the favor of the electorate. When, however, in 1910-11 the revision of the sickness and accident insurance law was undertaken all the bourgeois found themselves in accord. The changes were made in the direction of depriving the working-class of the large share it had previously had in the administration of the law. And the Liberals as well as the Conservatives and Centrists were in favor of these changes.

So the last Reichstag has produced nothing but increase of burdens and decrease of rights. Naturally enough the German workers looked forward to the election as a grand opportunity to settle accounts with their rules. They knew that a large proportion of the people who had been deceived in 1907 would now vote the Socialist ticket. And in the bourgeois parties there was everywhere in evidence the apprehensive fear of the sinner approaching his punishment.

This sketch of the political conditions which determined the result of the election throws little light, however, on the real meaning of what has happened. Anyone who supposes that the policies of the last Reichstag have been finally eliminated deceives himself. On the contrary, the bourgeois parties will keep to their old course. For this course is not the result of passing temporary impulse, but rather an inevitable result of the development of German capitalism in the direction of imperialism.

Imperialism is the modern form of capitalism. It has appeared during the past ten or twenty years in all nations. Capital knows no country. The capitalist is not content to exploit the workers of his own land and merely export products to foreign shores. He does not find adequate conditions for development in his country. Therefore capital is exported to foreign parts, especially to regions still agrarian in character, to build railways, harbors, or irrigation plants, to lay out plantations, to open mines or factories — in short, to exploit the natives in any way possible. To this end it is necessary to conquer the natives or to make the native government dependent on the enterprising capitalists. This process necessarily involves competition among the various capitalist governments. Imperialist politics is the politics of force, of conquest, of colonial war. It results, therefore, in growing danger of war between civilized nations and the necessity of increased armaments. During the last ten years all the great nations have increased their armies, and especially their navies, at a tremendous rate. The budgets devoted to this increase are being rapidly swelled by hundreds of millions, and constantly growing burdens of taxation are laid upon the shoulders of the masses of the people. There is no money left for social reforms. On the other hand, the spirit of violence and intolerance which is developed toward the people of other countries leads to high-handed brutality at home. Thus the capitalist mind in time reaches a point at which it will hear of no concessions to the working-class. Moreover, the fear of a revolution is diminished. The participation of the entire world in capitalist production gives new life to industry. Prosperity rules, and the capitalists fancy their mastery of the situation firmer than ever. Individual business men combine in trusts and associations which are able to resist any demands of the workers for increased wages. At the same time prices mount higher, in part because of the combination of capitalists, in part because of the gradual introduction of modern industry into lands which had hitherto furnished raw materials and a market for manufactured products. This is, then, the sum total of the result of imperialism: colonial wars, increased armaments, danger of war, taxes, high cost of living, reaction and suppression of the workers, neglect of social reform.

Since 1890 Germany has been on this downward road. Kaiser Wilhelm II, as the trusted representative of big business, has been the most energetic advocate of the imperialist policy. In numerous public addresses he has urged the necessity of a strong navy. But in German bourgeois circles there has long been little understanding of this policy. There has been dissatisfaction with the burdens, disgust at the horrors revealed in the colonial administration, and exasperation at the tyranny and reaction at home. The demands of big business were, of course, ruthlessly asserted. Members of the Reichstag scolded at the shameless demands of the government and thought with fear and trembling of the moment when they would have to face their constituents, but after all did not dare to vote against the military and naval appropriations. The Kaiser was held up to ridicule when he visited Jerusalem and called on Abdul Hamid in order to secure for German capital entrance into Asia and, more especially, to gain for it the Bagdad railway concession. University professors scolded the government and, occasionally, even gave a word of praise to the Social Democracy for its proud and consistent opposition to all this. The theories, ideals, and party programs of the older, undeveloped, home-keeping capitalism still dominate the thinking of the German bourgeoisie and the German intellectual classes. In the meantime the government and the great bank-capitalists have already put in practice the imperialist policy.

This state of affairs could not go on indefinitely. Imperialism is a necessity for the possessing and ruling class. Without it this class would be suffocated in its own surplus product and go down in a great crisis. Imperialism affords the only barrier against the rising tide of Socialism. Colonies promise the business man new markets in foreign parts. Colonial mines and railways offer the landholder and money-capitalist new avenues for investment and speculation. Scholars, for their part, are given the opportunity to explore and study hitherto unknown regions. People of intelligence and conscience have pointed out to them the study of bearing "the white man's burden" — that is, of carrying "civilization," or capitalism, to the barbarians of Asia or Africa. And to the bourgeoisie as a whole is given a new world ideal, the vision of its own nation standing dominant among all the peoples of the earth. And this vision, it is hoped, will do something to inspire those who have found themselves powerless in the path of the overpowering ideals of humanity and world brotherhood represented by the Social Democracy.

All of this, naturally, was bound to take definite political form. Herein lies the significance of the election of 1907. An intelligent, experienced financier, Dernburg by name, was placed at the head of the colonial office. In the course of a discussion of the appropriations for a colonial war he came into collision with the Centrists. The liberal bourgeoisie, inspired by its long standing hatred for the clericals, supported Dernburg, had its interest in colonization aroused, and suddenly became conscious of the surpassing beauty and glory of world-politics. As a result, all the wise professors entered the campaign against the blacks and the reds. A wave of enthusiasm carried all the philistines along in the imperialist flood, and the advance of Socialism was checked for the moment. The election of 1907 was a victory of the newly aroused, youthful spirit of imperialism, a victory of the imperialist illusion.

The five years which followed were sufficient to dispel this illusion so far as the mass of the German people were concerned. The great body of the citizens came to know what imperialism really is. They have discovered that for them it has nothing to offer but oppression and heavy burdens. With this knowledge has come the beginning of a rebellion against it. Not only the working-class, but also the small business people, the farmers, and government officials have suffered. Thus it has come about that this new form of capitalism tends much more strongly than the old to drive these sections of the middle-class into the Socialist movement, and thereby to undermine capitalism itself. For since the last shreds of Liberal opposition went down with the Bülow bloc the only party that consistently opposes the imperialist tendency is the Social Democracy. The election of 1912 is, therefore, the answer to the election of 1907. The result is the defeat of imperialism unmasked, the beginning of the revolt of the masses against it, the natural result of the imperialist disillusionment.

Naturally this does not mean a change in the policy of the German government. The only change in the aspect of affairs lies in the fact that the Social Democracy has grown so strong that it is no longer possible to have two capitalist parties, one Conservative-Liberal and the other Conservative-Clerical. Supporting all governmental action there must now stand one Conservative-Liberal-Clerical majority. All capitalist parties must co-operate in order to furnish to the big business interests the cannons, dreadnoughts, taxes, and laws against the working-class. If any one of these parties deserts the bloc, the opposition will have a majority and the government's game will be up. But the imperialist policy is firmer in the saddle than ever. The Social Democracy is a powerless minority in the Reichstag. It can do nothing but protest. Capital can safely rely on the capitalist majority to grant all that is demanded. Appropriations for increases in the army and navy and limitation of the right to strike were promised by the government before the election; it is, then, to be taken for granted that those who voted against Socialism were in favor of these things. With firm step German imperialism goes on to fasten its hold on Africa, China, and Turkey and to prepare for the great conflicts of the future, especially for a possible conflict with England. But the further it pursues this policy the more it will rouse the opposition of the masses. Stronger resolutions on the part of the ruling capitalist power, constantly rising rebellion in the working-class — this means a fiercer class-struggle. Harder battles than have yet been fought are what the immediate future has in store for the German working-class.

Imperialism has not only changed the policies of the ruling capitalist class; it has also transformed the tactics of the working-class. It intensifies the parliamentary struggles; but parliamentarianism is inadequate to the gigantic conflict which has been entered upon by bourgeoisie and proletariat. Twenty years ago it seemed that parliamentarianism offered a straight and regular road to revolution. The increasing strength of the Socialist group in the Reichstag forced the bourgeoisie to grant a number of reforms; and wherever universal male suffrage prevailed there was a basis for believing that in the course of time education and organization of the masses would secure a majority in parliament. But these expectations have been transformed into dreams by the growth of imperialism. The method of electing the members of the Reichstag has become so undemocratic that a Socialist majority is unthinkable. If the proletariat is ever to achieve a political conquest of the state and thus overthrow the capitalist regime, it must first achieve more political rights by means of nonparliamentary means, by the action of the masses themselves.

Under imperialism the working-class cannot win in parliament any further reforms, any greater rights, any diminution of oppression or want. On the other hand, the proletariat has to defend itself against increased burdens and tyranny. The miseries under which it suffers at present cannot be abolished by parliament, for they result only in part from the actions of parliament. In reality the real power of parliament is decreasing at the present time. The policies of the state are more and more shaped behind closed doors by a small group of magnates and ministers. The will of this small group cannot be successfully opposed with parliamentary resolutions; the only force that can make them sit up and take notice is the demonstrated power of the masses themselves. The dissatisfaction with the tax measures passed by the Reichstag was expressed in the election. In fact, the election was chiefly useful as a demonstration of four and a quarter millions of people against the capitalist parties. But against the high cost of living nothing can be done with the ballot. Spontaneous uprisings like those which occurred in France and Austria must voice the feeling of discontent in cases like this.

Above all does the constantly increasing danger of war spur the people on to action. Wars are not instituted by parliament, but by the government and the capitalists who stand behind it. The growing opposition of interests of the various governments constantly increases the international tension; again and again new reasons for fighting are discovered, as recently in Morocco, and there is danger of an immediate declaration of war. But a war resulting from such a cause would be the greatest calamity which could overtake the world, and especially the working-class. The transportation of all able-bodied men to the borders to butcher one another by millions, complete demoralization of industry, crises and starvation everywhere, the destruction of all civilization, degeneration into barbarism — only a world revolution could put a stop to the horrors of a world war. For the workers, for all the population beyond a small number of great capitalists, war would be the most terrible misfortune, and they stand ready to risk everything to prevent it. But this is impossible by means of parliamentary methods. The only adequate means lies in the action of the masses themselves.

Thus it comes about that imperialism forces the working-class to rise in its might, either to force from the ruling class new political rights or to fight against war. It is no wonder that during the past five years mass actions have become more and more common in Germany. "Mass action is the legitimate offspring of imperialism," said recently the Leipziger Zeitung, a paper which formerly led in the warfare of the principles of capitalism and now leads no less in the revolutionary fight against imperialism. Mass actions begin with mere meetings and demonstrations, developing sometimes into huge street demonstrations, like those which played a part two years ago in the fight for a new electoral law in Prussia; and as the last, and most powerful, weapon the working-class has at its disposal the general strike.

The German working-class has shown the workers of the world how parliamentarianism can be made a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Parliamentary activity still serves to carry the truth about capitalism and its tyranny into the smallest villages and to weld the workers into powerful united body. But parliamentary activity is no longer viewed in Germany as the cure-all of the Socialist movement. During the past ten years there has come about a great change in the thinking of the German working-class. This fact has not been universally observed because it is not evident in the speeches of the Socialist parliamentarians, who are mostly reformists. It is much more evident in the press; in numerous Socialist papers of the more radical sort it is being remarked with increased frequency that the conquest of power is not to be brought about by the use of the ballot alone, but that the masses themselves must enter into the conflict. And among the workers of the great cities one can see developing, slowly but none the less certainly, the readiness to employ new methods in the great conflict. Naturally enough, this has brought about internal struggles within the party. The heated discussions at the last party congress grew out of the fact that the executive committee had not been sufficiently prompt in calling upon the masses of the people to demonstrate against the threatened war. Since 1905 the party has recognized in the general strike an important weapon to be used in warding off attacks on the imperial electoral law and in winning new political rights. As to its use in other cases, nothing has as yet been formally decided. The party leaders fear that an official recognition of it as a weapon against war would expose the party to legal persecution and turn one of the strongest national prejudices against us. But it is clear that in time of actual danger of war, when it is a matter of life or death, of destruction or victory, the action of the masses will be determined, not by party resolutions, but by the deepest impulses of the people. And among the people there is dawning, especially since the Morocco affair, the determination not to be led to the field of slaughter, but rather to resist with any means which offer. When recently Rosa Luxemburg declared in a mass meeting in Berlin that in case of a threatened war the workers must employ all means to prevent it, even the mass strike, her words were greeted by a demonstration which lasted several minutes. But the central organ of the party, Vorwaerts, omitted just these words from its report of the meeting. This fact reflects in a strong light the tendencies of German Socialism.

Thus it is evident that the tactics and thinking of the German workers are adapting themselves to the new forms of capitalism. Here the tremendous power of international Socialism stands opposed to a capitalism which is inferior only to that of America in strength, in unity of organization, in degree of development, and in ruthlessness. Imperialism will continue to control our national policies; the elections have served to strengthen its grip. We face new and terrible struggles. But they will not take place exclusively in parliament; the masses themselves will act directly to oppose the oppressions and dangers of imperialism until it is finally and completely defeated, until the proletariat is victorious, until we have the revolution.

— Translated by William E. Bohn.