Lidtke, Vernon L. The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
This book is about the creation and maintenance of a Socialist sub-culture in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918). As such, it is a work of cultural history that highlights the importance of symbols, festivals, and other events in the formation of a Social Democrat identity. Lidtke’s book argues that the Social Democratic labor movement “presented German society with a radical alternative to existing norms and arrangements” (7). This ‘alternative culture’ was not radical in that it wanted to overthrow the imperial government in a swift revolution. Instead, it was radical in the sense that it “embodied in its principles a conception of production, social relations, and political institutions that rejected existing structures, practices, and values at almost every point” (7).
This book focuses on socialist culture rather than socialist politics, and as a result, we get a feel for what it was like “on the ground” for the members of the Social Democratic party and free trade unions. Lidtke is careful to emphasize that even though he is talking about an alternative culture, this “social-cultural milieu” was not a single, uniform mass with a clearly defined ideology. Instead, “diversity held its own against total uniformity” (191). So, inside the social labor culture there was diversity and contradiction; this was an unavoidable result of the many different individuals that made up its ranks. In order to appeal to this variety of people, the Party, unions, and voluntary associations hosted a variety of types of events.
It is in exploring these many different internal facets of this social-cultural milieu that Lidtke’s book is at its strongest. Lidtke argues that while Party and free trade union events were at the center of fostering a larger social labor identity, other more “peripheral” events, like those hosted by voluntary Vereine, had more of a direct impact on the rank-and-file members of the SPD (21). At these events, workers (and to a lesser extent, their wives) could socialize at taverns, the work floor, picnics, choirs, gymnastic clubs, chess clubs, public lectures, book readings, etc. These social events shouldn’t be seen as frivolous, Litdke argues. These were important sites of cultural negotiation where members helped construct what being a Social Democrat meant. “Sociability, and all frivolities that implied, could not be cast aside without undermining the whole structure. Personal attachment, familiarity, and fellowship among acquaintances created emotional bonds that were just as important for the vitality of the cultural world of the labor movement as party loyalty and ideological commitment” (74).
But this level of internal diversity had to be kept under a common umbrella of ideology, or else there wouldn’t be a movement. In this light, larger festivals that brought all of the diverse Social clubs together fused individual experiences into a coherent whole (101). Through Arbeiterbildung, the Party was able to help frame the larger ideological framework of the ‘alternative culture.’ The Party hosted lectures, courses, and readings for its members, but ultimately, “socialist ideas spread among workers far more effectively by word of mouth…than through individual readings” (191). So, the Party ideologues had to be careful when presenting specific ideologies for fear of alienating some of their members. As a result, the ideological symbols “of labor movement clubs, as with all symbols, were appropriately broad and even ambiguous. They had to be” (74).
Lidtke’s work shows that internal diversity was not a sign of weakness, but of vitality. While it first seems that this milieu lacked tight cohesiveness, internal diversity becomes less important when you compare it to the larger Germany society and the differences from the rest of imperial Germany become apparent.
For more books on German history, see my list of book reviews, here.