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5.4: Culture Struggles

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    As demonstrated by the conservative appropriation of nationalism in the cases of Italy and Germany, the stakes of political and cultural identity had changed significantly over the course of the nineteenth century. Within the nations of Europe - and for the first time in history it was appropriate to speak of nations instead of just “states” - major struggles erupted centering on national identity. After all, liberal and nationalistic legal frameworks had triumphed almost everywhere in Europe by turn of the twentieth century, but in significant ways the enfranchisement of each nation’s citizens was still limited. Most obviously, nowhere did women have the right to vote, and women’s legal rights in general were severely curtailed everywhere. Likewise, while voting rights existed for some male citizens in most nations by 1900 (generally, universal manhood suffrage came about only in the aftermath of World War I), conflicts remained concerning citizenship itself.

    These struggles over national identity and legal rights occurred across Europe. The term “culture struggle” itself comes from Germany. Following German unification, Otto von Bismarck led an officially-declared culture struggle – a Kulturkampf – against Roman Catholicism, and later, against socialism. The term lends itself, however, to a number of conflicts that occurred in Europe (and America) around the turn of the century, most significantly those having to do with feminism and with the legal and cultural status of European Jews.

    The Kulturkampf was in part a product of Germany’s unique form of government. The political structure of the newly-united nation of Germany set it apart from the far more liberal regimes in Britain and France. While there was an elected parliament, the Reichstag, it did not exercise the same degree of political power as did the British parliament or the French Chamber of Deputies and Senate. The German chancellor and the cabinet answered not to the Reichstag but to the Kaiser (the emperor), and while the regional governments had considerable control locally, the federal structure was highly authoritarian. In turn, there was a comparatively weak liberal movement in Germany because most German liberals saw the unification of Germany as a triumph and held Bismarck in high regard, despite his arch-conservative character. Likewise, most liberals detested socialism, especially as the German socialist party, the SPD, emerged in the 1870s as one of the most powerful political parties.

    Bismarck represented the old Lutheran Prussian nobility, the Junkers, and he not only loathed socialism but also Catholicism. He (along with many other northern Germans) regarded Catholicism as alien to German culture and an existential threat to German unity. Since the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the majority of northern Germans had been Lutherans, and many were very hostile to the Catholic church. Still, 35% of Germans were Catholic, mostly in the south, and the Catholic Center Party emerged in 1870 to represent their interests. The same year the Catholic church issued the doctrine of papal infallibility - the claim that the Pope literally could not be wrong in manners of faith and doctrine - and Bismarck feared that a future pope might someday order German Catholics not to obey the state.

    Thus, in 1873 he began an official state campaign against Catholics. Priests in Germany had to endure indoctrination from the state in order to be openly ordained, and the state would henceforth only recognize civil marriages. More laws followed, including the right of the state to expel priests who refused to abide by anti-Catholic measures. A young German Catholic tried to assassinate Bismarck in 1874, which only made him more intent on carrying forward with his campaign.

    Soon, however, Bismarck realized that the state might need the alliance of the Catholic Center Party against the socialists, as the SPD continued to grow. Thus, he relaxed the anti-Catholic measures (although Catholics were still kept out of important state offices, as were Jews) and instead focused on measures against the SPD. Two assassination attempts against the Kaiser, despite being carried out by men who had nothing to do with socialism, gave Bismarck the pretext, and the Reichstag immediately passed laws that amounted to a ban on the SPD itself.

    The SPD itself represented a major shift in the identity of socialism following the Revolutions of 1848. Whereas early socialists rarely organized into formal political parties - not least because most states in Europe before 1848 were not democracies of any kind - socialists in post-1848 era became increasingly militant and organized. In September of 1864, a congress of socialists from across Europe and the United States gathered in London and founded the International Workingmen’s Association - the “First International” - in order to better coordinate their efforts. Within the nations of Europe, socialist parties soon acquired mass followings among the industrial working class, with the SPD joined by sister parties in France, Britain (where it was known as the Labour Party), Italy, and elsewhere.

    The SPD was founded in 1875 out of various other socialist unions and parties that united in a single socialist movement. Bismarck was utterly opposed to socialism, and after mostly abandoning the anti-Catholic focus of the Kulturkampf, he pushed laws through the Reichstag in 1878 that banned the SPD and trade unions entirely. Ironically, however, individual socialists could still run for office and campaign for socialism. Bismarck’s response was typically pragmatic: he supported social legislation, including pensions for workers, in a bid to keep the socialists from attracting new members and growing even more militant. Thus, in an ironic historical paradox, some of the first “welfare state” provisions in the world were passed by a conservative government to weaken socialism.

    The SPD was legalized again in 1890 (following the new Kaiser’s firing of Bismarck himself) and it issued a new manifesto for its goals. Like many of the other European socialist parties at the time, its ideological stance was explicitly Marxist. The party’s leaders asserted that Marx had been right in all of his major analyses, that capitalism would inevitably collapse, and that the party’s primary goal was thus to prepare the working class to rise up and take over in the midst of the coming crisis. Its secondary goals, the “in the meantime” activities, were focused on securing universal suffrage and trying to shore up the quality of life of workers. This amounted to an uncomfortable hybrid of a revolutionary waiting game and a very routine pursuit of legislative benefits for workers.

    This tension culminated in a fierce debate between two of the leaders of the SPD in the late 1890s: Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. Kautsky, the party leader who had written most of its theoretical manifestos, continued to insist that the real function of the party was to reject parliamentary alliances and to agitate for revolution. Bernstein, however, claimed that history had already proven that what the party should be doing was to improve the lives of workers in the present, not wait for a revolution that may or may not ever happen in the future. Bernstein was still a socialist, but he wanted the SPD to build socialism gradually; he called his theory “revisionism.” Ironically, the SPD rejected Bernstein's revisionism, but what the party actually did was indeed “revisionist”: fighting for legal protection of workers, wages, and conditions of labor.

    Comparable cases of historical irony marked many of the other socialist parties (Britain’s Labour Party was a noteworthy exception in that it never adopted Marxism). On the one hand, there were increasingly democratic parliaments and mass parties, and at least in some cases the beginning of social welfare laws. On the other hand, rather than the state socialist doctrines of a Louis Blanc, the revolutionary, “scientific” socialism of Marxism became the official ideology of the majority of these parties. This practical split between socialism as social welfare and socialism as the revolutionary rejection of capitalism was to have serious consequences for the next hundred years of world history.

    This page titled 5.4: Culture Struggles is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.