German Social Democracy

Review: Patch on Berger

Stefan Berger. Social Democracy and the Working Class in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany. Themes in Modern German History. London and New York: Longman, 2000. xiii + 280 pp. Notes, bibliographical essay, maps, index. $95.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-582-29814-8.

Reviewed by William Patch, Department of History, Grinnell College.
Published by H-German (July, 2003).

This book will be welcomed by teachers of German history who are frustrated by the lack of interest in the socialist labor movement among students today. Berger's introduction displays a fine grasp of the pedagogical obstacles here, for example the tendency to think of the movement as a dismal failure because it could not prevent the disasters of 1914 and 1933, or to believe that issues of social class are no longer relevant to politics. Berger also sets himself three praiseworthy goals: to write a history of the socialist labor movement which always bears in mind that this was only one of several competing political identities that could be chosen by blue-collar workers (alongside communist, Catholic, or anarcho-syndicalist options), to compare developments in the German movement at every stage with those in neighboring European countries, and to write an "unheroic" history that transcends the political pressures on labor historians in both West and East Germany during the Cold War.

The book's first chapter, dealing with the period from 1789 to 1875, is the weakest. The opening section on working-class formation lacks grounding in quantitative data or local studies, relying on a few published workers' autobiographies. It then describes clearly the foundation of two rival socialist parties in the 1860s and their merger in 1875, to become the forerunner of today's Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Regarding the crucial issue of why a chasm opened between liberals and social democrats in Germany, Berger adopts the line that German liberals were at least as sympathetic to the material problems of workers as were their British counterparts, but that they suffered from an unlucky conjuncture of social, national, and constitutional problems in the 1860s; their willingness to compromise with Bismarck on constitutional principles destroyed their credibility among workers in the social question (pp. 46-48). This argument does not specify what features of Bismarck's federal constitution (which did provide for universal manhood suffrage) proved especially offensive to workers.

Fortunately, this book improves significantly thereafter. Berger offers useful statistics on the spread of factory industry in the German Empire, and a clear explanation of why the movement secured a foundation in particular among male, Protestant, urban, skilled, blue-collar industrial workers. The book skillfully incorporates the latest research findings on the tension between the movement's theoretical commitment to equality between the sexes and the influence of patriarchal values on working-class families, between internationalism and xenophobic responses to the arrival of Polish and Italian workers in the Ruhr Valley, and between the "official" Marxism propagated by Karl Kautsky and the often idiosyncratic wishes attached by ordinary party members to the ideal state of the future. The author pays less attention to ideological debates within the SPD and is curiously silent on the famous hypothesis proposed by Robert Michels a century ago, that there was a tragic contradiction between its ideal of participatory democracy and the "iron law of oligarchy" associated with the development of an efficient network of full-time, salaried party functionaries and labor organizers. The issue of bureaucratization is only mentioned later, to help explain the SPD's passivity in face of the Nazi seizure of power (pp. 130-31).

Berger offers a scrupulously even-handed account of the schism within the socialist labor movement during the First World War, the decision by SPD leaders to ally with the officer corps to crush all uprisings by the radical Left, and the subsequent blood feud between Social Democrats and Communists in the Weimar Republic. The SPD and socialist trade unions converged in practice with the Catholic Center Party and Christian trade unions in the 1920s, and the author notes that many historians have chided the Social Democrats for being so slow to abandon their Marxist rhetoric and broaden their appeal to the middle classes. Berger argues vigorously, however, that "the material and psychological reality of class society in the 1920s did not allow for any genuine transformation of the SPD into a catch-all party." He concludes that "the retention of Marxism [...] was more a symptom than a cause of social and political isolation" (pp. 117-19). To strengthen this case, unfortunately, the book leaves an exaggerated impression of the spread of assembly-line methods in the 1920s, and the distress caused among workers by the "rationalization" of industrial production (pp. 124-27). This decade actually witnessed dangerously low levels of investment in technological innovation.

Berger writes a single chapter on the experiences of Social Democrats "under conditions of illegality" during both the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. This unconventional organization of material brings out a fascinating contrast. Both dictatorships succeeded in short order at crushing all cells of active resistance among Social Democrats. Somehow the old political traditions survived the Third Reich, however, kept alive within families or small groups of friends, so that the SPD quickly sprang to life again in 1945-46. In East Germany, on the other hand, the Social Democratic tradition died out almost completely, and hardly anyone joined up when the SPD was revived in 1990 (see pp. 173-175). Berger criticizes the SPD's denial of democratic legitimacy to the ex-communists grouped today in the "Party of Democratic Socialism" and suggests that the labor movement has no chance to revive in eastern Germany until these two groups work together.

When summing up the role of the SPD in the Federal Republic of Germany, Berger effectively analyzes the weakening of old forms of working-class consciousness and the break-up of the homogeneous blue-collar neighborhoods on which the movement was long based. The party succeeded in the 1960s and 1970s at broadening its appeal among educated youth, women, white-collar workers, and civil servants, but its emergence as a "catch-all party" led to a decline of inner cohesion. Berger views the record of the cabinets led by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt with a somewhat jaundiced eye (pp. 199-205) and is most impressed with the historic role played by Social Democrats as an oppositional movement protesting against the policies of Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Hitler, and Adenauer. "In the longe durée, it is striking how little positive influence Social Democratic governments have had and how much more impact Social Democracy has had as a party of opposition" (p. 224). The author notes that many commentators now speculate about "the end of social democracy" but suggests that the SPD has made progress in the 1990s toward redefining itself in ways congenial to feminists, environmentalists, and younger voters. Despite some flaws, this book seems better suited than anything else available to stimulating a lively discussion of the history of the socialist labor movement in Germany among advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students.

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