Was Bismarck a Socialist?

After the Industrial Revolution, people began to wonder if there wasn’t something that could be done about all the poor working people around. Some people thought it was cruel that humans should suffer so; other people thought it ruined the look of things for all the non-poor people. But the point is that people decided that perhaps something ought to be done about all this poverty–usually something in the way of redistributing wealth somehow. Most of these people ended up being called “Socialists”. These Socialists then organized to try to take political power.

Take the case of Germany. In the late 1800s, Otto von Bismarck was facing a political threat from the socialists. So, what did he do? According to Wikipedia—which is, of course, not a valid source, but I shall use it anyway—he “introduced old age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance.”

He did this to thwart the Socialists, and it seems he succeeded. Nevertheless, if the point of socialism really is to improve life for the poor workers, it would appear that this was actually a victory for socialism. Maybe it wasn’t everything they had hoped for, but it was better than what they had had before. 

Does this make Bismarck a socialist? Before answering, notice the similarity to the case of Theodore Roosevelt recently under discussion on this blog. In broad strokes, it seems to me that both the circumstances and the policies of Roosevelt and Bismarck are practically identical. 

The Socialists were against Bismarck the whole time, and this is certainly a major piece of evidence against his Socialism. Indeed, the fact that the Socialists and T.R. disliked one another was how the John Nichols Nation article exonerated him of Socialism.

Bismarck and Roosevelt both professed to be totally against the Socialists. But of course, they could have been lying. Politicians often say things like “I am not a crook!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” when these things are not true.

And unlike those lies, where some actual objective evidence can prove them to be lying, in this case the question is purely a matter of what is in their minds. No one but Bismarck and Roosevelt can tell for sure what they really thought of socialism.

Of course, even if they both secretly thought that socialism was the best thing that could happen to the world, they probably didn’t secretly belong to a Socialist party. Thus, there can be no smoking gun to prove that they were Socialists.

All that they can be judged on are their actions. In both cases, their actions served to weaken the political faction called “Socialists”. However, they might also be said to have advanced the political philosophy called “socialism”. The only way to prevent the Socialists from getting power was to give them some of what they wanted. Bismarck himself is supposed to have said “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Actually, that isn’t the only way to prevent socialists getting power. There is also the General Pinochet way, which is to kill them. Pinochet may have been the most anti-socialist politician in the history of the world, because he took his economic policy from the Libertarians and his police policy from the Fascists. 

Pinochet is useful because he is the very model of an anti-Socialist. Bismarck and Roosevelt clearly both fall short of the Pinochet standard. True, they frowned upon–even regarded as illegal–the actions of August Bebel and Eugene Debs, respectively, but unlike Pinochet did with his Socialists, they did not actively work to eradicate their policies. They did not implement them either, but rather they compromised with them.

If you deal in absolutes, like American Icons Darth Vader and Ayn Rand did, then Bismarck and Roosevelt are both socialists, because they compromised with socialism and thus must be forever designated “Socialists”. Any compromise is evil, in this view.

On the other hand, if you don’t do that, you’d have to conclude that they were at most moderate socialists, and maybe that they weren’t socialists at all, but were just put in a difficult position. And you’d probably say they handled it fairly well, all things considered.

The conclusion I reach is that they both were moderately friendly towards the socialist philosophy, but not the Socialist party. What does this ultimately mean? Well, to begin with, it suggests the possibility, horrifying to some, that there may have been something in that socialism stuff.

Socialists would say that this is so, and that things would have turned out even better for Bismarck and Roosevelt if they had only had the guts to go “Full Socialist”, instead of these puny half-measures. Others would say instead that this proves the triumph of “centrism” and compromise.

In the end it’s difficult to really people under terms like “socialist” or “capitalist”. As the character Kreia says in the game Knights of the Old Republic II, when asked if she is a Jedi or a Sith: “such titles allow you to break the galaxy into light and dark. Categorize it. Perhaps I am neither, and I hold both as what they are: pieces of a whole.”


Much of the information in this post concerning Pinochet and Bismarck is based on my reading of Niall Ferguson’s book The Ascent of Money.

Apologies for the fonts being messed up on this post. I’m not sure what happened there.


  1. One confusion in language/mistake. Pinochet methods may have been a fascist but the world’s worst fascists, to date were Socialististic, if not socialist. Mussolini and Hitler.

    1. Good point. That word confuses the issue–it might be more accurate to say that he used the police state tactics pioneered by socialists against the socialists.

      Frankly, I would even go so far as to say that it is impossible to be a fascist without also being a socialist. Fascism really should just be called “nationalistic socialism”, in my opinion.

  2. Hi Berthold, I was reading the review on Fifth Element under Action Movies and thought ‘I just have to read this!’

    The main attraction is that I am an unashamed UK Socialist, albeit of that rare sub-section one, with a sense of humour about the movement. In the UK socialists gather in one of the most quarrel tribes – The Labour Party.
    Here are some observations on how the movement views the world, and then a summary of how the movement views Bismarck.

    1. Whereas it is normal for a leader of a political party to have to put up with a critical section in their party, UK Labour elevates this to levels of ecstatic frenzy. For one section the new leader is at once ‘A Traitor’ to socialism, no matter how far Left Wing they might be, someone will find a reason (In the case of Jeremy Corbyn- I am guilty as charged).
    2. If there is one thing a Labour follower hates more than a Conservative (Right-Wing) it is another Labour Follower who doesn’t agree with them.
    3. Taking into account 1 & 2 it is likely should an American find five socialists who can bear to be in the same room together and ask them to explain Socialism, the following will happen:
    a. The visitor will have to break up one fist-fight.
    b. Replace the chairs when another socialist storm out denouncing the other four as ‘Traitors’ ‘Fools’ or ‘The Reason why The Party is in its current state’
    c. After listening to the other two, will conclude there are at least six different definitions of Socialism.
    This is one of the summaries as to why there are very few Labour Governments.

    What is funny is listening to some over-heated dime-as-dozen American politician decrying something as ‘Socialist ‘ when actually the measure would be condemned in the UK as…guess what… ‘A betrayal of Socialism’.

    Basically one facet is a tendency to more state intervention (but never enough according to some). And ‘let’s treat everyone equal’ (except for certain folk suspected for profiteering or not supporting what you want).

    Thus Bismarck was focused, ruthless fellow, with a pragmatic streak when the circumstances suited.

    And the lesson of today…..
    Don’t try and figure out Socialism – you’ll only be told by someone you’ve got it wrong.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I had to go back and read the post to remember what I said, it had been so long…

      I really like your take on the subject! 😀

      1. Glad to be of assistance… A UK Facebook page dealing with Socialism / Labour Party is a site / sight to behold 😀 (if you thought trying to get your head around ‘Folding Space’ as in ‘Dune’ was complicated….)

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