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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: August 2018

6 - No Idle Dreamer: At the Helm of Vorwärts (1900–1902)


THE MONTH OF SEPTEMBER 1900 saw Eisner transported from the sleepy seaside village back to Berlin and then on to Mainz for the annual party congress and the renewal of debate, as Liebknecht had brokered a year earlier, on participation in Landtag elections. The second pressing topic was Germany's colonial policy. “After the nerve-racking discussions in Hanover,” Eisner readied readers of Vorwärts on 16 September, “the congress in Mainz will be of no less significance.” By its end the reformists would hold sway on one debate and suffer short-term defeat on the other, and the cracks in Social Democracy's ideological pedestal would widen. Providing a brief history and overview of the coming electoral debate, Eisner recounted that the party's traditional tactic against Prussian three-class suffrage had been the boycott. As party ranks swelled, though, some members determined that the Conservatives could be trumped in the House of Deputies despite the stacked deck if Social Democracy backed Left Liberal candidates or even put forward candidates of its own.

Bebel supported the boycott, as had Liebknecht. The party radicals generally had no use for either the Reichstag or the Landtag, both of which they regarded as trappings of the ruling-class state and as such fundamentally incompatible with the interests of the worker: collaboration and eventually power sharing would inevitably vitiate the party's raison d’être. The radicals’ weapon of choice for advancing the revolutionary cause was the general, or political, strike. Historian Peter Gay writes: “To them proletarian mass-action was an end in itself and was to serve as a substitute for parliamentarism.” The general strike to achieve political concessions rather than economic benefits or improved working conditions was opposed particularly by the trade unionists as counterproductive, playing havoc with the lives of the rank and file. The theorists who advocated the strike as a political tool were too removed, they charged, from the workers’ real needs. The trade unionists were skilled labor, and it was they who drove reformism. Their representatives considered participation in Landtag elections an effective means of expanding the party's influence and broadening its base of support. Once again Eisner took it upon himself to plaster the cracks: “Today many of our best fighters still consider this beginning extremely questionable…. If, though, the congress decides for general electoral participation, the minority is prepared to enter the fray as well….