Conservative Socialism.

BismarckThis is Otto von Bismarck. Hardly a screaming liberal, yet he was responsible for social programs implemented between 1884 to 1889 as remedial measures to appease the working class and detract support for socialism and the Social Democratic Party of Germany which were known as State Socialism.  These Social Welfare programmes made Germany the first “welfare state”.

The first programmes introduced by Von Bismarck were:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889
None of these existed at the time Bismarck proposed adopting them.
Bismarck’s idea was to implement the minimum aspects of these programmes that were acceptable to the German government without any of the overtly socialistic aspects.  Bismarck opened debate on the subject on 17 November 1881 in the Imperial Message to the Reichstag, using the term “practical Christianity” to describe these programmes: aligning them with the Christian Socialist tradition.
“the actual complaint of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is unsure if he will always have work, he is unsure if he will always be healthy and he can predict that he will reach old age and be unable to work. If he falls into poverty, and be that only through prolonged illness, he will find himself totally helpless being on his own, and society currently does not accept any responsibility towards him beyond the usual provisions for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so diligently and faithfully. The ordinary provisions for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired […].“
— Otto von Bismarck, 20.03.1884

Bismarck’s social legislation sought to preserve the existing economic order and state in Germany. This was in stark contrast to socialists, who sought to subvert the power of the existing state and eventually replace the capitalist order with a socialist economy.

Von Bismarck may not have been a socialist, but he was a practical man who had united Germany.  He saw these social safety net as something which would allow Germany to remain stable.  Von Bismarck’s primary motivation for social legislation was the government’s desire to erode support for socialism among workers and to establish the superiority of the Prussian state over the churches.

The second phase of the German social welfare system spanned the period from 1890, the year of Bismarck’s resignation, to 1918. During this period, improvements were made in the initial programs.The National Insurance Code of 1911 integrated the three separate insurance programs into a unified social security system, and compulsory coverage and benefits were extended to white-collar workers. Survivors’ pensions for widows were also introduced in 1911. (The many amendments to the National Insurance Code of 1911 were later integrated into the Social Insurance Code of 1988.) In 1916 survivors’ benefits were increased, and the retirement age for workers was reduced from seventy to sixty-five. Because its cooperation was needed to maintain production during World War I, the working class acquired more political influence and won greater social protection and representation during this period. Efforts were also made to develop mechanisms for settling labor disputes and organizing voluntary employee committees, issues taken up by new labor legislation and decrees.

The Social Welfare system which is denounced as being “Socialist” has highly pragmatic roots.  The forces of reaction on the right dislike them, but they should be careful in trying to dismantle the social welfare safety nets within their countries for the reason they were initially introduced:

To prevent rebellion and the formation of a system which is much worse.

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