Lidtke's The Outlawed Party
By Bryan Caplan
After learning the basics of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws, I turned to Vernon Lidtke’s The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany, 1878-1890, published in 1966. Despite Lidtke’s obvious sympathy for this proto-totalitarian movement, I really enjoyed it. I take inordinate pleasure in obscure doctrinal disputes and outrageous double standards, and German socialism has plenty of both to offer.
Early in the book, Lidtke explains the controversy over Bebel’s notion of the “People’s state”:
German workers were still under the illusion, he believed, that once they had gained political liberty [a parliamentary republic with universal suffrage] all their other needs would be satisfied. To counter this error, Bebel leaned to the other side, insisting that “mere political liberty” was in no way sufficient for the emancipation of the working class. If political liberty were sufficient, he argued, then workers in the United States and Switzerland (where they enjoyed such political benefits) would have nothing more to work for. That was obviously not the case, since the workers in these countries also suffered economic and social exploitation.
Later there’s an entertaining aside on how market forces shielded socialists from Bismarck’s legal harassment:
In almost every locality there were a few safe beerhalls, either because the owners were silently affiliated with the movement, or because they could not afford to offend their working-class clientele.
A more substantial issue: How the SPD responded to Bismarck’s conservative socialist agenda. For social insurance, they couldn’t bear to join forces with their hated Junker enemy, so they deliberately proposed politically impossible alternatives as an excuse for voting no. They were more sympathetic, though, to Bismarck’s monopolization program:
In the summer of 1880, two lead articles in the Sozialdemokrat unconditionally endorsed the tobacco monopoly… The writer called upon the Social Democrats to campaign for the tobacco monopoly because of its threat to the bourgeoisie. “For the monopoly,” went the second installment, “because it brings harm to the bourgeoisie; for the monopoly, because it improves the position of the workers; for the monopoly, because it smooths the road economically and morally for Social Democracy; for the monopoly, in one word, because it is part of the overthrow of the existing social order, which we have inscribed upon our Banner!”
To see the most striking fact about the 19th-century Social Democrats, though, you have to read between the lines. It’s this: In the midst of historically unprecedented economic growth in Germany and the capitalist world, all these deluded zealots could do was hysterically demand redistribution. None of the socialists showed any real curiosity about why the pie was getting bigger at such a rapid rate. Most of them barely seemed to realize that the pie was getting bigger. These people wanted to rule Germany – and eventually did. Yet they didn’t have a clue about the Wirtschaftswunder right before their eyes.