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Baron Hans Hermann von Berlepsch, "Why We Advocate Social Reform" (1903)

The growing conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie represented the most important political challenge since national unification in 1871. Here, Baron Hans Herrman von Berlepsch (1843-1926), the former Prussian Minister of Commerce and Trade (1890-1896), outlines for the Society for Social Reform [Gesellschaft für Soziale Reform] his own reasons for advocating policies that would improve the lives of workers and legitimize the role of the Social Democratic Party as a vehicle for political mobilization. His policies were met with criticism, and in 1896 he resigned from his post on account of political pressure.

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The development of cultural and social conditions in this country of equal voting rights, mandatory schooling, and obligatory military service led the worker to a point where he no longer wanted only to follow and obey but wanted to have a voice in shaping working conditions, which for him translate into living conditions; and he laid claim to the equality that is the subject of the Imperial Edict of February 4, 1890. Who can disapprove of these strivings and still maintain even the slightest appearance of fairness? With what justification should workers be refused that which all other classes of citizens are granted: the right to assemble in order to maintain or raise the price of their wares (with their wares being their “work”), the right to improve their working conditions and, with them, their quality of life? To do, in fact, exactly what businessmen freely do through their countless cartels and trusts, their umbrella organizations, and associations of all kinds? Whoever heard of these people or the propertied classes encountering any difficulties with respect to the laws governing political associations when their organizations, having been established to insure their own professional interests, take advantage of the laws of the state?

And yet this happens continuously to workers’ associations and unions in Germany [ . . . ]: workers are constantly confronted with court judgments and actions taken by governmental authorities that generate in them the bitter feeling that they are being denied pertinent rights, expressly guaranteed to them, and that a different measure is being applied to them than is used for other German citizens.

There has never been a justifiable answer to the question of why citizens are treated in such different ways. Likewise, it has never been claimed that the very answer lies in the existing laws. Furthermore, it has never been contested that the application of laws governing political associations has left workers’ and other vocational organizations constricted by judgments from which the associations of other professional classes have been spared. This cannot be disputed; indeed, there does not seem to be anyone who wants to dispute this fact, and at the same time a reason is given for this obvious injustice – namely, that because the unions reportedly consist (either primarily or exclusively) of social democratic members, that because they are supposedly political organizations of the Social Democratic Party (even if their statutes facilitate only the pursuit of professional interests), the unchecked expansion of the organizational activities of the unions would lead only to a strengthening of the Social Democratic Party. [ . . . ]

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