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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Die Naturfreunde: “Free Mountains, Free World, Free Peoples”

  Today, in an effort to learn more about "The Friends of Nature"—of which Otto and Luise Bauer were avid members—I came across this revealing article by one Paul Hampton:
Classical German social democracy and ecology (Workers’ Liberty, 8/5/10. This publication is put out by The Alliance for Workers' Liberty.)
     Workers' Liberty is pretty left-wing. I briefly reviewed Hampton’s output, and he seems to be a serious person. The article appears to be well documented. Its second half is most relevant to our concerns:

     Classical German Marxism had a decent record of socialist ecology in the years after its founding in 1870s until it was smashed by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s. Besides publishing the works of Marx and Engels, central leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) [Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands], August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky all produced significant works with strong ecological overtones.
     Bebel’s best-selling Women and Socialism, first published in 1879 and republished in fifty editions contained a rounded picture of working class self-liberation, with powerful arguments for socialism and for women’s liberation. The book also contained passages on deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, the effects of pollution and on renewable energy. Wilhelm Liebknecht wrote on the land question and translated William Morris’ utopia[n] News from Nowhere into German. For his part, Kautsky wrote a very detailed study of the agrarian question, on population and on anthropology, with a strong emphasis on ecology.
     In his book, The environmental movement in Germany: prophets and pioneers, 1871-1971, Raymond Dominick described how socialists used their position in local and national politics to press environmental questions. Socialists also made water pollution a class issue. When a cholera epidemic hit Hamburg in 1892, SPD speakers pilloried the local council. Dominick reports an open air meeting of two thousand workers, where one socialist speaker stressed how the rich had escaped this tragic epidemic by drinking expensive, bottled water. Socialists agitated about how that the local government had found plenty of money for projects that served the material interests of the capitalists, such as the expansion of the port and had found plenty of money for schemes that flattered the pride of the rulers, like the renovation of the Town Hall. But projects that served the common good, like a sand filtration bed for the city water supply, the city officials pleaded insufficient funds. (1992 p.63-64)
     In the Reichstag (parliament) a few years later, one Social Democratic deputy lambasted the chemical industry in Magdeburg, which he claimed was extracting enormous profits from a process that poisoned the common supply of drinking water in the river Elbe. Similarly, in 1904 another SPD deputy chastised the “purse-proud men” who “sported through the countryside in their luxury automobiles, spraying stench and dust at the poor, pedestrian, working class Friends of Nature”. Their environmentalism meant some strange alliances, in this case seconding objections to cars that were first raised by Prince zu Schönach-Carolach. The prince had urged the Ministry of the Interior to present legislation that would protect life, health and property of citizenry from speeding and careless drivers. (Dominick 1992 p.63, p.64)

[Die Naturfreunde]

     But socialist ecological agitation was not confined to the upper echelons of the SPD alone. Die Naturfreunde [Friends of Nature] was formed as a socialist tourist club in Vienna in 1895. The club was composed of walking enthusiasts and so-called ‘Walzbrüder’, iterant skilled workers following the old tradition of walking to where the work was. It spread to Switzerland in 1900 and to Germany in 1905. By 1914 it claimed over 30,000 members, almost exclusively workers, in 320 groups in Europe affiliated to socialist parties. Membership peaked at 116,124 in 1923, and the organisation owned over 230 way stations for members to stay at.
     Dominick described the basic outlook of the Naturfreunde.
“It advocated contact with the outdoor world as a way to rejuvenate and even ennoble the working class. Social hiking in the countryside was not just a return to nature; it was also a means to enhance class consciousness and solidarity. The group’s central slogan, ‘Free Mountains, Free World, Free Peoples’ encapsulated the radical inspiration its members drew from Nature.” (1992 p.61)
     One of its early pamphlets stated:
“Every human should... [recognise that] a thousand threads bind us to the living world. We are but a miniscule part of the matter that has been constantly in motion for millions of years and for which nothing changes but the form. Whoever lives with such thoughts cannot doubt the final victory of enlightenment and truth, he cannot doubt that freedom and equality will be achieved through great effort by working people on behalf of all producers. A proletarian arrives at such thoughts as a result of wandering in the open air [and] observing what takes place in Nature.” (1992 p.61)
     According to Colin Riordan (Green thought in German culture), the Naturfreunde also engaged in direct action on a whole range of environmentally damaging projects from deforestation and industrial development to quarrying and peat-moor plundering. In 1906 the Naturfreunde began a campaign for free access to the countryside, large tracts of which lay in private hands. They published a journal, Der Naturfreund [The Nature Lover] that urged the association’s members to take part in an escalating series of protests ranging from legitimate lobbying of parliament to civil disobedience in the form of mass trespass. Their protests were directed at The Naturfreunde were also ahead of their time in making an explicit connection between capitalism and the exploitation of natural resources. ‘It’s incredible how brazenly capitalism tries to get its claws into everything’, thundered Der Naturfreund in 1912, when it was revealed that a new quarry was to be dug and a river dredged in order to transport the resulting gravel. (1997 p.19)
     According to John WilliamsTurning to nature in Germany: hiking, nudism, and conservation, 1900-1940, the activities of the SPD and the Naturfreunde (and socialist nudity!) were part of a broader workers’ cultural movement to develop a Neuer Mensch (new person) fitted for socialism. Williams also identifies two other reasons why the movement succeeded. The Naturfreunde officially expected its members to belong to a working class party; because of the splits in the SPD as a result of WWI and the Russian revolution, members could chose to belong to the whatever workers’ party they liked. Thus a significant number of functionaries and members were Communists or Independent Socialists in the 1920s. In addition, after the war the Naturfreunde allowed people under the age of twenty to become members of new youth sections for a discounted annual fee, and adolescents entered the organisation en masse. (2007 p.74)
     Of course this movement had its limitations. Apart from the worker protection and housing reform planks of the SPD programme, ecological demands were not in its platform. Although the SPD support laws such as Bird Protection legislation in 1888 and 1908 so did bourgeois deputies. The Naturfreunde followed the majority of the SPD into support for the German government in WWI. This did not prevent tensions between the party and the socialist green movement, including attempts by the SPD to purge the Naturfreunde of Communists in the 1920s. However the experience was an important precedent for socialist ecology with some important lessons for reconstruction such a current in today’s conditions. Of particular importance was the grounding of the environmental action in the labour movement, whilst at the same time being prepared to push beyond its conventional boundaries.

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