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Wilhelm Liebknecht on Elections to Parliament as a Means of Agitation (May 31, 1869)

On May 31, 1869, a new electoral law for the North German Reichstag was passed. It introduced universal, equal, direct, and secret suffrage for all male residents. This law, in fact, endorsed voting rights that had already been granted and exercised (twice) for Reichstag elections in 1867. It was subsequently adopted by the German Reich after unification in 1871. The speech excerpted below was given on precisely the same day in 1869 that the electoral law was passed. It was delivered at a public meeting of the Democratic Workers’ Association of Berlin. The speaker is Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900), who, together with August Bebel (1840-1913), founded the Saxon People’s Party (1866) and, in August 1869, the Eisenach wing of the Social Democratic movement. Although Karl Marx often complained that Liebknecht did not fully understand his teachings, Liebknecht explains why, and how, speeches delivered on the floor of the Reichstag could serve the revolutionary cause. Previously, Liebknecht himself had expressed skepticism about participating in a constitutional monarchy whose parliament lay far from the fulcrum of power. He had also opposed another early socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), for making a fetish of universal suffrage. Thus, he notes in the following speech that the ballot box on its own “can never be the cradle of the democratic state.” But Liebknecht considers the pros and cons of the matter and concludes that elections serve an important function in the dawning age of mass politics.

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Since it was made impossible for me to take the floor at all during the Reichstag in this session, it is doubly pleasing to me now to be given this opportunity to present my social-political point of view.

[ . . . ]

The new society is in irreconcilable contradiction with the ancient state. This new society cannot develop in the feudal state, in the police state, in the military state. Any one desiring the new society must aim above all things at the destruction of the ancient state.

[ . . . ]

This is a sufficient indication of the attitude of the Social-Democracy on the “rebirth of Germany”. The “great deed” of the year 1866 is for German history what the coup d’état of December 2, 1851, is for French history. Bismarck’s coup d’état, like that of Louis Bonaparte, was aimed against democracy. These coups d’état are not reprehensible in our eyes because of their use of force – for the ultimate resort of nations, like that of kings, is force – but because of the fact that in the case of France, the coup d’état was practiced to the advantage of a host of disreputable adventurers, and in the case of Germany to the advantage of a class no longer having any right to exist, namely, the class of the junkers.

The so-called “Prussian Constitution struggle” was an attempt on the part of the people, particularly of the bourgeoisie, to attain the state power by means of parliamentary methods. The year 1866 lowered the parliamentary struggle to the status of a feat of stage prestidigitation, and transferred the true theater of war to another field. The North German “Reichstag” has absolutely no power in spite of the universal suffrage; it has not a decisive vote, only an advisory vote; and, being powerless, it cannot be used by the democracy as a battlefield for the attainment of power.

As, in the case of France, the French democracy opposed the Emperor with every means at its disposal, so, in the case of Germany, the German democracy has opposed the North German Alliance, with all its appurtenances, in a negative and hostile manner. If we should leave this purely negative position, we should not only be relinquishing our principle and the very essence of democracy, but we should also be violating the most fundamental rule of practice.

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