The political movements in Switzerland and their significance for the development of direct democracy (Part 3)

Early socialism and direct democracy

by Dr phil. René Roca, Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie (Research Institute for Direct Democracy,

Over the past 200 years, the citizens of Switzerland have developed democracy into a model that is unique in the world. Direct democracy is an integral part of the political culture and the decisive foundation for the country’s economic success. The article “Historical research and direct democracy” (see Current Concerns, No 16 of 8 August 2020) summarised the research to date. This was followed by a succession of articles that explored the research findings in greater depth on individual topics. This began with an article on the topic of Catholicism and its significance for the history of democracy in Switzerland (see Current Concerns, No 2 of 5 February 2021). This was followed by an article on the significance of liberalism for the emergence and development of direct democracy in Switzerland (see Current Concerns, No  18 of 17 August 2021). The series examining political movements will now conclude with an article on the significance of early socialism. Later on, articles on the theory of direct democracy will be published, specifically examining the cooperative principle and natural law.

Early socialism in Switzerland

The Swiss federal state from 1848 onwards was not only the fruit of the liberals; the Catholic conservatives also contributed a great deal to this constructive decentralised solution after the Sonderbund War, particularly with their insistence on cantonal sovereignty. It is significant, for example, that in Switzerland the expansion of the popular veto into a modern mandatory referendum was promoted in 1844 in the conservative canton of Valais (see Part 1) and later adopted in modified form by other cantons.
  Early socialists in Switzerland also made decisive contributions to anchoring direct democracy in the political culture and developing it further. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for example, they increasingly brought Switzerland’s federalist model into the European debate. Direct democracy was also a recurring theme. Early socialist ideas in connection with direct democracy were first introduced in the Vaud revolution of 1845. Henri Druey (1799–1855) postulated the obligatory referendum, which had already been introduced in conservative Valais in 1844. Although he did not succeed with this, he was able to push through two further important democratic innovations for the constitution in the canton of Vaud. On the one hand, Druey placed residents (Niedergelassene) and long-established inhabitants (Eingesessene) on an equal footing in terms of voting rights – a first in Swiss history – and, as a further pioneering act, enshrined the legislative initiative in a cantonal constitution for the first time.
  In addition to federalism and direct democracy, the early socialists in Switzerland also promoted the cooperative movement, which was based on the cooperative principle of the Ancien Régime. In doing so, they created an important basis for linking the political instruments of direct democracy with the cooperative idea and for strengthening democratic culture in Switzerland. Various early socialist theoretical approaches were important here.
  The ideas of the early French socialists Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837) were relatively widespread in Switzerland. There are less explicit references to Robert Owen (1771–1858), but his cooperative approaches flowed into the trade union movement and later into the Social Democratic Party. The only important early socialist who was active in Switzerland for some time was the German journeyman tailor Wilhelm Weitling (1808–1871). His “The Gospel of the Poor Sinners”, which combined early communist ideas with the New Testament, was printed and propagated in Bern from 1845. Weitling fell out with Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in 1846, as he wanted to use other methods to put communism into political practice. Weitling was one of the first socialists to call on workers to become active themselves and fight for a fairer social order.
  After 1848, the ideas of Marx and Engels also gained increasing support in socialist circles in Switzerland. Marx and Engels brought the experiences of the English labour movement into the discussion and, in contrast to many early socialists, explicitly supported strikes and other political actions. Marxist theory was initially only selectively accepted in Switzerland and was unable to gain acceptance for a long time.
  Contrary to Marx’s assertion, the early socialist movement with its ideas was an important prerequisite for the later Marxist doctrine in the first half of the 19th
 century. However, Marxist and some Western historiography adopted Marx’s defamatory dictum that the early socialists were merely “utopians” and “petty bourgeois” and that only they – Marx and Engels – had founded “scientific socialism”.

Grütli Association
and Democratic Movement

In Switzerland, in contrast to Marxism, the “Grütli Association” was more important for the workers’ movement and, above all, for the social and national integration of the working population. According to the founders, the name “Grütli Association” was chosen with the perspective “that something great could one day emerge from this association of Swiss people without distinction of cantons, just as Switzerland once emerged from the Grütli [Rütli]”. As the first permanent organisation of the Swiss labour movement, the Grütli Association was founded in Geneva in 1838 as a patriotic association, which adopted national structures in 1843. The central concern of the organised journeymen – more and more workers joined over time – was the idea of education in addition to sociability and mutual help. The establishment of common funds was intended to support the education and further training of craftsmen and workers and to secure and improve their profession. The Grütli associations were the “pioneers of socialism” in Switzerland and formed an important basis for the later founding of trade unions and the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SPS). They also played a central role in the democratic movement of the 1860s and 1870s with their concept of solving the social question on the national basis of the Swiss republic with the help of direct democracy.
  The two early socialists, Karl Bürkli (1823–1901) from Zurich and Emil Remigius Frey (1803–1889) from Basel, supported the democratic movement and ensured the expansion of direct democracy in their cantons (Frey for Baselland). In Switzerland, they also promoted the introduction of the optional referendum (1874) and the constitutional initiative (1891) at federal level and ultimately made independent contributions to the international debate on questions of democracy and the rule of law. In this sense, there were no actual early socialist schools in Switzerland; the Swiss were too much “doers” and not theorists or ideologues.
  The transitions between radicalism and socialism were fluid in Switzerland (see Part 2). Wherever popular rights were extended in the cantonal constitutional revisions that rapidly followed from 1830 onwards, the radicals and early socialists always focused on the idea of a cross-class national community rather than a class-struggle attitude.

Anarchism in
French-speaking Switzerland

As a French early socialist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) advocated a libertarian approach and campaigned for federalist structures that would distribute political power in a decentralised form. In Switzerland, he found such structures in the federal state of 1848, which he used as a model to discuss with other early socialists in Switzerland and the rest of Europe. The consequence of Proudhon’s theory of federalism, in addition to his approach of cooperative socialism, was the principle of direct democracy, even if Proudhon did not explicitly refer to the Swiss model of democracy, but to an anarchist-influenced council model. He saw political organisations in the form of federations (“federation of communes”) as the basis, which would make state powers and laws superfluous, wanted to promote the “progressive federation” as an interweaving of politics with the economy in Europe and ultimately transform the whole world into “confederations”. For Proudhon, the Swiss federal state was the practical proof that his idea of federation could be implemented.
  Despite the fact that Marxism was also gaining popularity in Switzerland, Proudhon’s ideas fell on fertile ground here. The Swiss anarchist and writer James Guillaume (1844–1916) was strongly influenced by Proudhon and his ideas. When the International Labour Association (ILO), founded in London, issued a call for all workers to unite in 1864, support committees were also established in French-speaking Switzerland, mainly by watchmakers from the Bernese and Neuchâtel Jura. Guillaume laid the basis for a section in Le Locle together with like-minded people in 1866 and promoted the merging of individual sections to form the so-called “Jura Federation” (Fédération jurassienne) in 1871. The members of this federation initially saw themselves as radicals and free thinkers, and in the years that followed they moved ever closer to collectivist and anarchist positions. However, this also resulted in a growing opposition to the authoritarian ideas advocated by Karl Marx in the IAA. Finally, in 1872, Guillaume was expelled from the IAA along with other like-minded people. He then founded the anti-authoritarian International in St.
 Imier together with other national federations, which from then on had its centre in the Jura. Yet, the International soon disintegrated into individual sections and was unable to achieve much impact.

Swiss Social Democratic Party (SPS)
and direct democracy

One reason for this disintegration was that the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SPS) was founded in 1888. It initially sought reforms and only later committed itself to Marxist principles, such as the “class struggle” in the second party programme of 1904 and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the third of 1920. However, the programmes always took into account the Swiss conditions of direct democracy and contradicted Marxist doctrine on this point. For example, point 1 of the working programme, an appendix to the second party programme of 1904, states: “Expansion of democracy: Proportional electoral procedure. Election of legislative, administrative and judicial authorities by the people. Compulsory referendum. Legislative initiative. Decentralisation of the federal administration. Autonomy of the municipality.” The working programme as being part of the third-party programme of 1920 was then titled only “Development of Democracy” under point 1 and significantly omitted the “Mandatory Referendum” and the “Autonomy of the Commune”. In 1921, the party left split from the SPS and founded the Communist Party of Switzerland (KPS). The SPS subsequently developed more into a reform-oriented party and supported the continuation and further expansion of direct democracy. The current party programme states: “We consider direct democracy to be the appropriate form of government for Switzerland. We defend it against those who characterise it as inefficient, too slow or even unsuitable for the future.”  •

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