August Bebel

Bebel's Great Speech on the Political General Strike
Delivered at the Social Democratic Congress in Jena

Comments and translation by Henry Bergen of Munich

Source/Published: Wilshire's Magazine, Justice, November 1905, pp 4 & 20
Translated by: Henry Bergen of Munich
Online Version: August Bebel Internet Archive, November 2004
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mike B.
Proofread: Nik McDonald (September 2005)

The Sixteenth Annual Congress of the German Social Democratic Party was opened on Monday morning, September 18th, 1905, and continued until the evening of Saturday, September 23rd. The chief questions discussed were the organization of the party, the First of May holiday, and the political general strike. Inasmuch as the revision of the organization statutes and the First of May controversy are mainly of local interest, little need be said of them here, beyond that the tendency of the party organization is toward greater centralization, and that the revised statutes were accepted by the majority vote of the delegates. From the very first, the interest of the Congress centred on the question of the political general strike, and since this question, together with that of the trade unions, is one of great importance to the international Socialist movement, we cannot do better than confine our attention to Bebel's resolution and speech, and this all the more so for the reason that the speech was not only one of the most eloquent and effective that has ever been delivered at a Social Democratic congress, but presents us with a vivid picture of contemporary German politics in its relations to Social Democracy.

The resolution in regard to the political general strike brought forward by Bebel was as follows:

"I. In view of the endeavor of the ruling classes and authorities to deprive the working class of the exercise of its legitimate influence on the regulation of public affairs, and to rob the workers of such political rights as they are already able to exercise through their parliamentary representatives, and thus to render them destitute of all political and economic influence.

"The Congress holds it to be necessary to proclaim that the imperative duty of the united working class is to oppose, with every means at its disposal, all invasions of its prerogatives as men and citizens, and ceaselessly to demand full equality of rights.

"In special, it has been shown by experience that the ruling classes, down to the most extreme bourgeois radicals, are opponents of universal, equal and direct suffrage and the secret ballot, that although universal suffrage is tolerated by them, the moment they have reason to believe that their supremacy is endangered by universal suffrage, they immediately endeavor either to abolish or deprive it of all practical value. Consequently they oppose the extension of universal, equal and direct suffrage and the secret ballot in various of the federated states (Prussia and others), and, for fear that the working class may obtain the smallest influence in the parliamentary representative bodies, even go so far as to render the antiquated suffrage laws that are already in existence still more reactionary.

"Examples are the disenfranchisement of the working class by a tyrannical and boundlessly cowardly bourgeoisie and a bigoted lower middle class in Saxony and the so-called republics of Hamburg and Lubeck, and the restrictions placed upon the municipal suffrage in various of the German states (Baden, Saxony, Saxon-Meiningen) and cities (Kiel, Dresden, Fürth, Chemnitz, etc.) by the representatives of the different bourgeois parties.

"In view, however, of the fact that especially universal, equal and direct suffrage and the secret ballot are the preliminary condition for the normal political development of the State, in the same manner that the unrestricted right of coalition is the prerequisite of the economic progress of the working class.

"And further, in view of the fact that because of its steadily increasing numbers, its intelligence, and its labor for the economic and social life of the entire nation, and also by reason of the material and physical sacrifices which it must make for the military defence of the country, the working class is the main factor in modern society, it must demand not only the preservation but the extension of universal, equal and direct suffrage and the secret ballot for all representative bodies, as is laid down in the Social Democratic programme, and also the guarantee of the unrestricted right of coalition.

"Therefore, the Congress declares that particularly in case of a conspiracy against universal suffrage, or the right of coalition, it is the duty of the united working class to employ with the utmost energy every means of defense that may prove expedient. The Congress considers that in case of an emergency, one of the most effective means of defending the working class against the political crime of disenfranchisement, or of conquering an important fundamental right for its emancipation, is the employment on the most extensive scale of the general strike.

"In order, however, that the use of this means of carrying on the struggle may be rendered practicable and of the greatest effect, the widest possible extension of the political organization of the working class and the trade unions, together with the uninterrupted education and enlightenment of the masses through the labor press and oral and written propaganda, are imperative necessities.

"This propaganda must explain the importance and necessity of the political rights of the working class, especially universal, equal and direct suffrage and the unrestricted right of coalition, in view of the class-character of the State and society and the daily wrong to which the ruling classes and authorities subject the working class as a result of their exclusive possession of political power.

"It is the duty of every comrade, in case the members of his particular trade are organized, or the possibility of forming such an organization are presented, to join that organization and to support the aims and endeavors of the trade unions. It is likewise the duty of every class-conscious member of a trade union to join the political organization of his class: the Social Democratic Party - and to co-operate toward extending the circulation of the Social Democratic press.

"The Congress commissions the national committee to issue a pamphlet in which the reasons for the demands embodied in the above resolution shall be fully explained. Arrangements are also to be made for the wholesale circulation of this pamphlet among the German working class."

Then followed Bebel's address on the general strike:


"It is beyond doubt our unanimous opinion that this question is a most important one, no less for the present Congress than for the entire Party. It has been discussed in detail for months, and the majority of our comrades have already formed their opinions in regard to it. How does it happen that we are now compelled to face this issue? What is the present attitude of the Social Democratic Party toward the ruling powers? In order to answer these questions it will be necessary for us once more to make a thorough survey of German political conditions; for only then can we be in a position to decide whether the means of defense already at our disposal, and of which we have hitherto made use, will prove a sufficient safeguard against fresh invasions of the rights of the workers.

"Since 1903, a great transformation in German political conditions has certainly taken place. Although the increase in the Social Democratic vote awakened the enthusiasm of our own comrades, it aroused the very opposite feeling in our opponents. The first question we had then to answer was, what are we to do? The question of tactics long busied us in Dresden, and many comrades were of the opinion that such discussions had only an injurious effect both within and without the Party. But what was it that we accomplished in Dresden? The Dresden Congress settled once and for all, and with the greatest clearness, both for friend and foe, our future policy. This was its great historical action. And the Dresden Congress also demonstrated that in case a resolution was passed against his wishes, no comrade thought otherwise than of forgetting all differences and joining hands with the majority. Prince Bülow, the Chancellor of the Empire, was naturally disappointed to find that his hope that a portion of the Party might swing over to Liberalism and separate from the majority was not realized. His attitude toward us has been different ever since. In his vexation he loses no opportunity of referring to us as a party of the past; but, however absurd this may be, there is no reason why we should cherish any illusions as to our influence in the Reichstag. It is true, 80 seats is a large number; but the balance of power still lies in the hands of the Centrum (Catholic Party). As for the Liberals, ask Naumann, Barth and von Gerlach what they now think of the 'Great Liberal Party'! Their answer will be that there is nothing whatever to hope from it. The class contradictions have become so acute since 1903, that in case of necessity the Liberals are invariably ready to unite with the Conservatives against us. Another characteristic of the bourgeois parties is their endeavor to win the votes of the working class. Never before have so many acts relating to labor and social questions come up before the Reichstag. The Centrum is even willing to coquette with modern science and the emancipation of women. But what it most desires, is to get a firm grasp on the souls of the younger generation. For this reason it has the sympathy of the ruling classes. Even the highest officer of the State talks as if he were inclined to turn Catholic. Should bayonets fail, the Church at any rate will remain a bulwark of defense.

"But the antagonisms in the Reichstag itself have become more acute. In former days the floor of the Reichstag was smoother even than the parquetry at court. At that time we were constantly obliged to guard against the loss of our good old revolutionary tactics. Today the wind in the Reichstag blows from a different direction. Since the struggle over the tariff all personal relations between us and our opponents in the Reichstag have come to an end. The disinclination of the government toward the work of social and political reform is steadily increasing. The economic contradiction has also become greater. One need only call to mind the attitude of the Prussian legislature toward the suffrage for the Reichstag and the right of coalition, the growth of employers' associations, the increase of lockouts. The class-consciousness of the capitalists often shows itself to be more penetrating and more deeply seated than that of the working class. The development of capitalism is hastening with giant strides towards its culminating point. It is only the stupidity and gross ignorance inculcated in school, church, press and state, and by which too many of the workers are still dominated, that prevents them from showing their true power. And the power of the enlightened working class would be far greater than the entire material force of the bourgeoisie. The tremendous strength of the workers is not sufficiently done justice to; our work of propaganda is still frequently misdirected. Situations are approaching which must of physical necessity lead to catastrophes, unless the working class develops so rapidly in power, number, culture and insight that the bourgeoisie loses its desire for catastrophes. We are not seeking for a catastrophe - of what use would it be to us? Catastrophes are brought about by the ruling classes. Perhaps an attempt may be made to suppress us by means of special legislation. But I know many a comrade in our ranks who is longing for the day when a new discriminative law is passed and catastrophes arrive; for then they will be able to show what stuff they are made of. And I hope I will be with you when the struggle breaks out afresh.

The capitalist class cannot imagine their fate - the fate of the `noblest and the best' - can be placed in the hands the great boorish masses. Yet in the West, these `noblest and best' squander, as in the days of the declining Roman Empire, thirty, forty, fifty marks on a single dinner. They buy ministers and high officials of state, and, together with the Krupps and Baltins(1), have more influence at court than families of the nobility of six or eight centuries standing. When I once said in the Reichstag that the government was a mere committee of administration, `quite true,' was the answer of von Bötticher, the Secretary of State. And although there may be no reason why the policy in the interest of the ruling classes need be so stupid and irresponsible as it now is, agrarian and capitalistic it must remain so long as they are at the helm. It is for this reason that universal suffrage is a thorn in the side of the bourgeoisie. Hence their continual complaints and attacks on it and the Reichstag.

"Once, it is true, the Liberal Party stood up for universal suffrage for the various local houses of representatives as well as for the Reichstag. But ever since that time it has gladly assisted in restricting the franchise, and has welcomed every invasion of the suffrage of the working class in the very strongholds of the Social Democratic movement. As for the Centrum, it has no political principles. In Bavaria and Baden it is for, in Würtemberg and Prussia against, universal suffrage. And now the Roman Catholic Cologne Volkszeitung declares that if Social Democracy should threaten to clog the wheels of the machine of state, care must be taken to be ready in time with preventive measures. But, in the meanwhile, the proletariat is becoming more and more numerous and more and more the foundation of our national wealth and powers of defence. And if our opponents now begin to attack this foundation of the state pyramid, the result will be such a violent wrench as to cause the pyramid to collapse altogether. We may shudder at the prospect, but it is there, to be viewed clearly - there is little use in trying to conceal facts or to put on the brakes.

"Consider the strange alliances that our opponents are obliged to enter into in order to defeat us, and the imperial association for combating Social Democracy - that political praetorian horde to which all parties contribute. No one has reason to undervalue the influence of our party - the `Social Democratic danger,' as the bourgeoisie put it. In the Reichstag they did not dare to deceive the victorious miners, and so the government turned to the corrupt Prussian legislature with its projected law. That was owing to the pressure of universal suffrage. And yet some comrades say that, considering the injustice we receive at the hands of the State, it would be better to dispense entirely with parliamentary activity. And they say this at the very moment when our comrades in Russia are fighting as the proletariat has never fought before. And for what? - For a modern parliamentary State! You do not know how nervous recent events in Russia have made our ruling classes. They fear that the fire may leap across to us. They say that in Russia the workers are unorganized; in Germany they are firmly united. They are aware that here we have entire regiments of Socialists, and that if the reserves and territorial troops were called out, the whole army would be Social Democratic. One of our Major Generals has declared that a war against the will of Social Democracy would be an impossibility. The entire foreign policy of the nation must be adjusted with regard to us.


"Yet, in spite of all, in political life we are more on the defensive than on the offensive; in spite of all, our means of agitation for security against invasions of the rights of the people are not sufficient. For this reason we must not ignore the discussion of the political general strike, especially considering that such strikes are constantly increasing in extent. The trade union congress at Cologne has, unfortunately, only succeeded in obscuring the question by its excess of caution. It almost looked as if the trade unions desired to forbid the general strike entirely. Von Elm is right in saying that it would have been better had the trade union congress spoken up energetically to the effect that the unions will exert their entire economic power in order to repel a criminal invasion of the right of universal suffrage. For in case the universal suffrage is lost, the trade unions, too, will lose their rights of coalition and association.

"Ever since 1889, the International Socialist Congresses have been continually busied with the general strike, and their attitude has by no means always been one of opposition. They have invariably admitted the possibility of a political general strike in case a strong enough organization is behind it. Wolfgang Heine has described to us the dangers of the general strike. Every great strike contains within itself the same elements of danger; and if the coal miners succeeded in avoiding them, we will be able to do the same. Above all, there are times when one does not stop to inquire into possible dangers. 'Contemptible the nation that does not risk all for its honor,' and miserable the class that allows itself to be treated infamously without resisting to the last breath!

"Since the first general strike in Belgium, in 1893, such strikes have been constant, especially within the last three years. It is true that we consider sympathetic and demonstrative strikes to be impossible. We have never recommended unprepared and unorganized general strikes. And we must consider well before we enter a severe struggle that may lead to results of the most serious nature. We must agitate and organize, and make it clear to the workers that when a vital issue is at stake - an issue which is to decide their fate as men, as fathers of families, and as citizens - they must be ready to risk all. We have no desire to rush blindly into a general strike; it is not our intention to egg on the unorganized masses. But the necessary organization can and must be created; and if the press, not only of the party, but also of the trade unions, does its duty in enlightening the working class, all this can be accomplished.

"Some people have objected, in regard to the general strike, that we must not permit the knowledge of our plan of campaign to leak out. A party numbering millions cannot form its ranks of battle in secret. We are not fighting for utopias or demands of the `Future State,' but for actual rights, which are the very life-nerve of the working class if it expects to have a voice in political affairs. And in case of a decisive struggle, a portion of the bourgeoisie will come over to our side. Besides, it is easier to defend than to conquer rights; for in the former case our enemies appear only as brutal opponents of justice, and their actions cannot but awaken the indignation of the masses.

"Is it not an unheard-of scandal that the strongest political party in Prussia has not one single representative of all the 432 members of the legislature? It is for us to consider if we are permanently to bow down before feudal lord, capitalist and priest. Perhaps it will not be until they attempt some coup d'etat and arouse the anger of the entire nation, that we will make use of this weapon. The Prussian bourgeoisie of before 1848 stood up more energetically for their rights than we do. We receive one blow after another from the Prussian government, and always in silence, silence.

"We must work harder for enlightenment in regard to the theory of Socialism and for the education of the members of the party. Although the trade unions must seek to enlarge their membership rolls, they cannot afford to neglect the politics of the working class. And in case our party press gives us still greater assistance than heretofore towards the work of organization, we will be able to double the number of members of the Social Democratic local branches, increase the number of trade union members by 25 per cent, and the readers of our organs 50 per cent. In that event we will have the means at our disposal and such good preliminary work for the coming struggles accomplished, that better could not be wished for. It is from this standpoint that I ask you to vote for my resolution. And it is from this standpoint that we will fight our way onwards and labor until the victory is wholly ours."

* * * * * * *

A scene of great enthusiasm followed, many of the delegates rushing forward to congratulate the speaker. Nineteen comrades took part in the debate; and, on being put to the vote, the resolution was passed by the overwhelming majority of 288 to 14.

The revival of the idea of the general strike means that a new phase has arrived in German political conditions. The Social Democratic Party has not altered its tactics; it is merely endeavoring to adapt itself to new circumstances. Four or five years ago there was a hope that something might be accomplished in legislation by the aid of the bourgeois Radicals and the more advanced Liberals. This was the expectation of many of the Revisionists. But matters have turned out differently. Since the increase of the Socialist vote to over three millions in 1903, the Liberals have cast away the last vestige of democracy, and their whole endeavor is now to save themselves from what they are pleased to term the Socialist peril. Nor is this anything else than one would be led to expect from the representatives of the capitalist bourgeoisie. In the Reichstag, the Clericals (Centrum) have the largest number of seats and hold the balance of power. Their policy is that of the Roman Catholic Church. Occasionally they vote for some insignificant social reform, in order not to fall into discredit with their working-class supporters; but this is all. They are shrewd politicians with an eye exclusively to their own welfare. The Conservatives and other agrarian-feudal parties are still more embittered in their opposition to the progress of the working class, and are only waiting for a pretext to continue the work of disenfranchisement.

This being the case, and considering that, in spite of the three million votes, only 80 of the 379 deputies in the Reichstag are Socialists, it is evident that the workers have a comparatively small influence in shaping the domestic policy of the empire. It is no wonder that the party is exercised over the helplessness of its parliamentary group. No wonder that profound dissatisfaction should be felt in Saxony, where all but one of the Reichstag members elected in 1903 by universal suffrage are Social Democrats, but where, owing to the three-class system of voting for the legislature, not one of the members of the latter is a Socialist! In Prussia the 2,000,000 votes of the Social Democratic Party were insufficient to elect a single member of the lower house of 432 deputies. And this again was due to the indirect suffrage and class system of voting. Still, it would be a mistake to say that Social Democracy is wholly without influence in the German parliaments. The moral pressure of the working class is alone sufficient to cause many a change of policy by the government; nevertheless, the direct influence in legislation of Social Democracy is entirely out of proportion to the number of Socialist votes. And this calls for a remedy.

First Democracy, and then Socialism. The German Empire, although nominally a constitutional monarchy, is to all intents and purposes an autocracy. Consequently, it is along the lines of universal suffrage that the battle must be fought. Where there is no equality of voters, it must be won, and where equality does exist, it must be defended. Hence, the present discussion of the political general strike as a possible weapon in the struggle.

The general strike of the German Socialists is not the ordinary sympathetic strike for economic improvement, such as is of frequent occurrence in all capitalistic countries, nor is it the unorganized universal strike in all branches of industry and all employments dreamed of by the Anarchists, as a preface to the final catastrophe. It is an organized strike for political as distinguished from economic ends, in which the organized workers of as many trades as may prove expedient will take part; the larger the mass of organized workers, the more far-reaching its effects. It presupposes a highly developed trade-union movement, a powerful Socialist Party, and, what is of still greater importance, harmony between the two and the consciousness of a common aim. These elements are not lacking in Germany, and every effort is being made to strengthen the feeling of solidarity between the unions and the Social Democratic Party, as well as to increase the membership of each by means of effective propaganda.


The influence of men like Samuel Gompers, which serves to demoralize rather than to further the cause of the working class, or of men like John Mitchell, who have apparently not yet grasped the fact that in neglecting class-conscious political action the workers are deliberately throwing away their most powerful weapon in the struggle for their emancipation, is less in Germany than in America. The members of the independent trade unions are Socialists, and no Socialist Democrat fails to join the organization (so long as it is free from bourgeois influence) of his fellow workers. That differences of opinion occasionally arise is but natural, considering that the duty of the trade union is, primarily, to guard the immediate economic interests of the workers and of Social Democracy to perform the additional labor of political action and organization. But by strengthening the economic influence of the working class, the trade unions indirectly contribute toward the realization of the Socialist programme, and by rendering it possible for the workers to become a powerful factor in political life, Socialism secures to the trade union a firm foundation on which to stand in its struggle against the capitalist class. For the latter, in Germany as in America, although willing to recognize the right of coalition is strenuously endeavoring, by fair means or foul, to prevent the workers from putting that right into effective use. It is only through political organization and solidarity that the workers can hope successfully to resist these encroachments upon their rights.

The Social Democratic Party has no desire to rush blindly into the general strike; its object is energetically to push on the work of organization and enlightenment to the end that when the time comes for action, a new and effective weapon will be ready to the hand of the working class in its struggle against an autocratic and corrupt plutocracy.

Munich, Sept. 27, 1905.

1. President of the Hamburg-American Steam-ship Company.