Socialists and how the vote was won

November 19, 2014
7% of voters in Britain had more than one vote during the 1910 election.

The word “socialist” first appeared in print in Italy in 1803. In the early 19th century there appeared to be two alternative roads to socialism: violent revolution or establishing cooperative communities separate from the state and capitalist social relations.

Towards the latter part of the century, a third possibility opened up: the working class could take control of the state through the ballot-box and reconstruct it on a socialist basis.

This was the approach pioneered in the rapidly industrialising Germany, where the colourful Ferdinand Lassalle formed the General German Workers Association in 1863.

The organisation’s principal demand was equal male suffrage. Lassalle’s fundamental belief was that the right to vote would bring with it the power for workers to make the state subservient to their wants and needs.

In 1866, August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht founded the Saxon People’s Party in Chemnitz on a democratic program that saw Bebel elected to the Reichstag. In 1869, the party adopted a more radical socialist program when it became the Social Democratic Workers' Party whose aim was “the emancipation of the working class”.

Lassalle’s Association continued on after his death and his supporters merged the organisation with that of Bebel and Liebknecht at Gotha in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers Party of Germany.

Although Marx and Engels criticised the Gotha Unity Program, the German social democrats were strongly influenced by Marxism and formally declared themselves to be a Marxist party in 1891.

Their electoral success was soon apparent. In Berlin in 1874 the socialists polled 27.4% of the vote. In the Reichstag elections three years later, their support had reached 39.2%, with almost 500,000 men voting for them nationally.

The initial response of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was to introduce an Anti-Socialist Law in 1878 repressing their activities, although the law did not extend to prohibiting them from standing in elections.

In the same year, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, which denounced “that sect of men, under the motley and all but barbarous terms and titles of socialists, communists, and nihilists [are spreading] the deadly plague which is tainting society to its very core and bringing it to a state of extreme peril … no longer looking for strong support in secret meetings held in darksome places, but standing forth openly and boldly in the light of day, [they] strive to carry out the purpose, long resolved upon, of uprooting the foundations of civilised society at large.”

Neither Bismarck nor the Pope saw much immediate benefit from their anti-socialist laws and denunciations. In the first German election under the Anti-Socialist Law in 1881, the social democrats increased the number of seats they held. In the 1884 election almost 10% of the electorate voted for them, sending 24 deputies to the Reichstag, double the previous number.

The Anti-Socialist Law of 1878 was extended on four occasions, continuing in force until October 1890. Without a party press, a legal organisation or the legal right to association and assembly, the party increased its vote from 550,000 in 1884 to 1,427,000 in 1890.In 1895 1,787,000 men voted for party candidates, more than a quarter of all votes cast.

In the decades leading up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, there were mass socialist parties adhering to Marxist principles founded all over Europe.

A Spanish Social Democratic Party was established in 1879 and a Danish party in the same year. A Social Democratic Federation was in place in Britain by 1884, as was a Workers’ Party in France and the Emancipation of Labour group in Russia, which later formed the core of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Between 1887 and 1889, social democratic parties were founded in Austria, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland together with a Social Democratic League in Holland. In Italy, a Labour Party with a Marxist program was constituted in 1892 and in the same year party organisations were established in Finland and Poland. The German Social Democrats grew into an organisation with more than one million members that had almost 4000 full-time employees. In Belgium, Labour Party membership reached a quarter of a million.

Even in the United States, socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was able to increase the socialist vote from less than 100,000 in 1900 to almost one million in 1912. In Argentina in 1914, the socialists had 10% of the vote.

With Marxist social democracy taking the parliamentary road to socialism, prohibition was unlikely to be effective in halting its advance. Different tactics were called for.

Addressing the Reichstag in 1884, Bismarck proffered a view of how parliaments should function and how elected representatives should behave that was unlikely to have been too much out of step with the views of the old ruling class of Europe.

“The parliament should be able to prevent harm … it should be able to prevent bad laws from being passed: it should be able to prevent the waste of public money; but gentlemen, it cannot govern.”

Even Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man was instrumental in popularising the idea of human rights that was unleashed by the French Revolution, had misgivings about majority rule. Before the publication of his book in 1791, he argued that the lower ratio of men of sense to the ignorant meant that the majority of mankind was prone to error which could only be remedied by government exercising a “civilising” function in the transmission from despotism to civilised society.

In order to protect the interests of the feudal residue and the new industrial capitalists, Bismarck had a dual solution — social reform and police repression. The reforms he instituted, sometimes referred to as “conservative” or "state" socialism — and denounced by Frederick Engels as “spurious socialism” — had far-reaching consequences for workers beyond Germany.

Between 1883 and 1889 Bismarck introduced medical insurance, accident insurance and old-age and disability insurance schemes. These led to the introduction of similar reforms in other countries, to the old-age pensions that Paine had first proposed 100 years earlier, and ultimately to today’s superannuation schemes.

However, for Bismarck and other defenders of privilege, a crucial line of defence was the electoral system itself. If mass workers' parties were intent on capturing and then transforming the state, the contest would be on the way to, rather than at, the ballot-box. The popular vote was anathema to conservatives, and 19th century liberalism, while committed in theory to political democracy, was content to see it replaced in practice by political manipulation.

This debasement of democracy included two-chambered parliaments with a restricted upper-house franchise. Under the German Imperial Constitution of 1871, sovereignty and executive power resided in an autocratic body, the Bundesrat, which was nominated by individual German states. Responsible government had to wait until after World War II.

There was also the blunt instrument of the lower-house gerrymander. In 1907, an alliance of conservatives and liberals managed to hold 47% of the Reichstag seats with just 29% of the vote. German electorates, initially roughly equal in size, ranged from 13,407 to 338,796 voters by 1912. In East Prussia, 7,941 votes were enough to elect a conservative, but in the industrial Ruhr 64,833 votes were insufficient to elect a social democrat. In the Prussian Diet in 1908, 418,000 votes entitled the conservatives to 212 seats while the social democrats with 600,000 votes held a mere six seats.

Devising ways to widen the franchise was no easy matter. It took a series of political general strikes to expand voting rights in Belgium in 1894, which had previously been limited to 3.9% of the adult male population. The election that followed presented the socialists with the new experience of sitting in parliament, when thirty of them were elected.

In Britain in 1911, there were at least seven categories of franchise, which nevertheless represented less than 30% of the total adult population.

This denial of votes to most was accompanied by plural votes for a few. In the 1910 election, at least half a million voters, or 7% of the electorate, had more than one vote, mainly as a result of the property franchise. University graduates were also given an extra vote, a franchise that survived until 1948.

In Russia, parliamentary politics were not even an option until 1906. Even then the franchise excluded students, those serving in the armed forces and all males under 24. Representation was further restricted by the application of a weighting in favour of the nobility and the bourgeoisie. The upper house was completely unelected and the Tsar retained total control over all military affairs, maintained the title of autocrat and reserved the right to veto any legislation.

For all the limitations on the male franchise, half the population, that is all women, were totally excluded from voting.

In this three-part series John Rainford looks at the role socialists played in winning the vote. In this first part he explores the role of socialists in expanding the voting base from a wealthy few to almost half the adult population of Europe.

The second article in this series examines the struggle for women’s suffrage.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.