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Social Democrats Discuss the State’s Social Insurance Policy (1890)

Paul Göhre (1864-1928) was a Protestant pastor and social reformer who spent three months undercover as a factory worker in the industrial city of Chemnitz in order to study the experiences and attitudes of working-class men and women. He published his observations in the book Three Months in a Workshop [Dreieinhalb Monate Fabrikarbeiter und Handwerksbursche]. In the section excerpted here, Göhre describes his workmates’ reactions to Bismarck’s social welfare policy. Many workers believed that only a small proportion of workers would benefit from old age and invalid insurance. Others were strongly supportive of the new scheme. In contrast to those who believed that Social Democracy was heretical and had to be snuffed out by force, Göhre notes that employer-employee relations were not always marked by conflict and that rank-and-file Social Democrats could discuss the pros and cons of state-supported assistance in a rational manner.

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From the great mass of average social democrats whom I have described I think one especially important group detaches itself, whose members, I have good reasons to believe, are everywhere steadily on the increase. This group was composed of practical, prudent, sensible, earnest and enlightened men in middle life who had intelligently studied the fundamental, economic and political problems of social democracy, and who gave their adherence to its teachings firmly if not unreservedly. But in the purely political labour agitation of the party, these men took little or no share, and as a consequence, energetic as they were, they threw themselves into work which lay close at hand and promised immediate practical result and satisfaction, in Trade Unions, in committees for the sick and liability insurance funds, in free benefit societies, and, above all, into active work in their local politics, naturally with the firm intention of acting in accordance with social-democratic principles, and in the interests of social democracy, that is, of the working men. Meanwhile, however much they meant to realise social-democratic ideas, they were compelled to deal with concrete facts, to learn to seek actual ends. These actual ends and facts begin to be interesting in themselves, they become more important than the theoretic and distant aims of the party, and they educate these men, who still remain sincere social democrats, into really practical, political, and social, activity. Thus there is created an effectual counter-agent to the Utopian dreams to which they gave themselves wholly over in first entering on politics, and thus, let us hope, will be averted all danger that social democracy may become a visionary and childish party, effecting no actual reforms and making itself a laughing-stock.

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