‘Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914’ by Andrew G Bonnell reviewed by Daniel Gaido

Reviewed by Daniel Gaido

About the reviewer

Daniel Gaido is a researcher at the National Research Council (CONICET), Argentina. He is author of …


This collection of essays by a Marxist historian who specializes in the history of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is composed of eight essays. The first is on the Lassalle cult in the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), which was partly carried over into the SPD. It will remind many Trotskyist militants of their own experiences with certain “personality cults” in their own organizations – sadly the Trotskyist organizations after Trotsky have had a tendency to inherit all the bad qualities of Social Democracy and none of its positive aspects, beginning with its ability to become a mass political organization of the working class. By 1912, the SPD had 34 per cent of the national vote. Despite the undemocratic representation system, this equated to 110 Reichstag seats out of 397, making the Social Democrats the largest group in parliament. By 1914, the party counted over a million members, 175,000 of whom were women in a country in which women had only been allowed to organise politically, in most of the country, since 1908 (199). It also controlled Germany’s cooperative and trade-union movements: the Catholic Christian trade unions reached 350,000 by 1912 compared with the Social Democrat-aligned Free Trade Unions’ 2.5 million (197).

The second essay provides a useful summary of the attitude of the then two socialist organizations in Germany towards the three wars of German unification, and particularly towards the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which resulted in prison sentences for August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht for their uncompromising internationalist stand. It is important to highlight this militant internationalist ideology of the SPD to avoid anachronistic interpretations based on its capitulation to chauvinism in August 1914, when it voted for war credits in the Reichstag. In one exchange noted by the police, in February 1905, against the background of revolution in Russia, a Polish worker apparently long resident in Hamburg lamented that the Polish nobility showed too little solidarity with the oppressed Polish people. He was angrily reproved by a German comrade for nourishing the nationalistic illusion that the nobility could be anything but an exploiter of the people, whether in Germany or Poland. The German Social Democrat concluded emphatically: “I shit on all nationality and stand with Social Democracy, which is international” (52).

The third essay, dealing with attitudes to labour in the SPD, offers of good example of the way in which the Party connected Marxist theory with the everyday experience of its working-class members and readers of its periodicals. In Capital, Marx spoke of the statistical summaries of workplace accidents and resultant deaths and injuries as “despatches from the battlefront, which add up the wounded and killed of the industrial army”. Social Democratic papers ran regular rubrics with titles like “from the battlefield of labour”, to stress the senseless waste of human life that resulted from inadequate regulation of workplace safety. Bonnell mentions as an example the article “Vom Schlachtfelde der Arbeit”, from the Frankfurt Social-Democratic newspaper Volksstimme of 30 November 1906, which offered a description of the scene after an explosion in a chemical factory in Dortmund (70).

The fourth essay shows how the SPD was able to convey to the workers in its agitation the connection between issues that affected them directly, such as the price of bread and foodstuffs, and more “abstract” political issues such as the tariff and agrarian policies of the Kaiserreich, where the monarchical state had a special connection with the landowning Junker class of Prussia. Chapter five deals with the fate of the Social Democrats in the Imperial army, where abuse of recruits was rife, and the special precautions that the SPD had to take in its anti-militaristic agitation, not just in order to avoid persecution but also the mishandling of conscripted youth.

The sixth essay, entitled “reading Marx,” shows how Marx’s teachings percolated among the party rank-and-file through a variety of channels, from theoretical organs like Kautsky’s Die neue Zeit to study groups, party and trade-union libraries, book series like the Internationale Bibliothek, and particularly the mass edition of brochures synthetizing the main points under discussion. By way of example, the protocol of the SPD congress held at Erfurt in 1891, at which the party adopted its Marxist programme (the previous year, just emerging from the illegality of the Anti-Socialist Laws, it had adopted democratic Statutes at the Halle congress), was distributed in 30,000 copies. The programme itself was printed in half a million copies, and 120,000 copies of the brochure explaining the programme were distributed (132). Bebel’s best-selling book, Woman under Socialism, which incorporated into its successive editions material from Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, reached its 50th edition in 1909, by which time 197,000 copies had been printed (130).

Chapter seven on “Workers and Cultural Activities” summarizes some of the main ways in which the party combined cultural, political and social activities in pubs, lectures, festivals and by other means, under the watchful eye of the censor and the police. The final essay on “Socialism and Republicanism in Imperial Germany” explains why the SPD had to tone down the agitation around the republic due to censorship and political persecution, though it was widely understood that the Social Democrats were republicans and that the republic hid behind confused slogans such as the “free people’s state” (freier Volksataat), a formulation understandably condemned by Marx as vacuous in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. It is interesting that, despite the fact Marxists did not attribute major significance to the difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy, Rosa Luxemburg considered it timely after 1910 to carry out agitation on the mass strike around the demand for the republic, not as an end in itself but as a means of mass mobilization – thus turning a purely democratic demand into a transitional one, much like the women’s organization of the SPD centred its agitation around the question of universal female suffrage as a means for the mobilization and organization of a proletarian women’s movement led by a socialist party.

Since the quality of the essays is uniformly good, rather than singling any of them out we will point out some of the facts that the author mentions, in order to stress why it is important for Marxists today to study closely the experience of the SPD.

For instance, Bonnell points out that, despite Robert Michels’ famous criticism of the supposedly oligarchic tendencies of the SPD, the democratic structure of the party was revealed by the fact that local party organizations held assemblies in order to send delegates to the party’s annual congresses and to debate the resolutions that would be discussed at those congresses, and that the party press reported on these assemblies and on the debates that took place in them. It is hard to imagine today, given the miserable state of the Marxist left all over the world, the extent of the workers’ press in Germany before the First World War. By 1914, there were over 90 Social Democratic daily newspapers in Germany, with a total circulation approaching half a million, including such important city-based papers as the Hamburger Echo (circulation of 76,000 by 1913) and the Leipziger Volkszeitung (53,000 by 1913). From 1911, the party’s central organ, Vorwärts, which doubled as the Berlin party paper, fluctuated around 150-160,000 subscribers. Not far behind Vorwärts was the socialist women’s paper, Die Gleichheit, which had 125,000 subscribers by 1914. Vorwärts was outdone by the illustrated humorous-satirical weekly magazine, Der Wahre Jakob, which enjoyed a mass circulation of some 371,000 (140-141, 152).

Being an editor of a Social Democratic newspaper was a hazardous job. Bonnell points out that throughout the 1890s, Vorwärts carried a monthly register of party members’ convictions, prison sentences and fines, with Social Democratic newspaper editors being especially at risk, and that in the 1890s there was scarcely a trade union or party editor who did not spend several months in gaol for libel and slander (Beleidigung) against the Kaiser, the sovereign of the particular state, state officials or employers. Given these facts, it is not surprising that in the 1890s it was sometimes suggested that the position of legally responsible editor of a Social Democratic newspaper be rotated amongst younger, unmarried comrades, without families to support, who could afford to spend a few months in gaol (179-180).

The proceedings of the SPD’s annual congress, which were published in book form and are available online as Protokolle über die Verhandlungen der Parteitage der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands, regularly sold 30-40,000 copies, and eventually even 50,000 (144-5). Note that the Protokolle included not just the resolutions adopted by the party congresses but also the different motions as well as the actual debates; the right of party members to form tendencies  was recognised as a matter of course.

Another good habit of the SPD was to present an annual balance sheet of its finances to the party congress for its approval, and that this balance sheet was then published together with the congress’ proceedings. For example, the Report on the Income and Expenditure of the Party Treasury (Bericht über die Einnahmen und Ausgaben der Parteikasse) of the congress held in Essen in September 1907 appears on pp. 66-89 of the Proceedings of that particular congress). This good habit has been completely abandoned by contemporary “vanguard parties,” which inevitably strengthens the development of an unaccountable bureaucratic apparatus, even in relatively minuscule political organizations. This is a particularly serious deviation from Marxist practice because, instead of jailing Marxist editors and political leaders as the Second German Empire did, contemporary bourgeois states with a democratic political system tend to hand over money to parties that take part in the election process, thus multiplying the dangers of co-optation.

Given the fact that Bonnell’s book is probably the best introduction to the subject, though for a chronological narrative the readers may want to start with the classic studies of Vernon Lidtke and Carl Schorske, what criticism that can be levelled against it? Basically, this can be no more than a wish-list of what the reader would have liked to see included in the volume – such as, in the case of this particular reviewer, the organization of a mass socialist working-class women’s movement under the leadership of Clara Zetkin and the journal Die Gleicheit (a movement that held six bi-annual Frauenkonferenzen immediately before the party congresses, whose proceedings were published together with the party congresses’ Protokolle), the SPD’s championing of homosexual liberation through its support in the Reichstag for the petition demanding the elimination of Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (drafted by Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), and so on and so forth. Perhaps most important would have been to add a final essay on the bureaucratization of the party and trade union apparatuses, which finally resulted in the betrayal of internationalism and the collapse of the Second International in 1914, and ultimately in the failure of the German revolution in the aftermath the First World War (readers interested in this issue may want to consult Zinoviev’s series of essays “The Social Roots of Opportunism,” written under Lenin’s supervision in 1916). But rather than indulging in the easy pleasures of criticism, we should thank Bonnell for bringing to light such important and relevant lessons from the history of socialism in Germany, which should be carefully studied by all those interested in applying Marxist theory to actual revolutionary political practice. It should be added that a much cheaper paperback edition will be available from Haymarket Books in the course of the year 2021.

21 January 2021

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