E. Belfort Bax

An Old War Horse

(October 1898)

E. Belfort Bax, An Old War Horse, Social Democrat, Vol.II no.10, October 1898, pp.291-92.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the spring of the present year the Deutsche Norte published an autobiography of one who is probably the oldest living member of the International Socialist party. The series of articles in question, entitled “Before 1848 and After,” we imagine will be re-issued in pamphlet form in Germany, and we should be glad to see an English translation of such a really valuable contribution to the history of the Socialist movement, for, from this point of view, the articles in question are no less interesting than as containing details concerning the career of an honoured comrade. The history of the rise, decline, and fall of the old International, is given in detail. Meanwhile it may interest the readers of the Social-Democrat to have a general idea of the subject matter. Friedrich Lessner (for it is of none other that we speak) was born February 27, 1825, at Blankenhain, a village of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, his father, whom he never knew, being a non-commissioned officer in the Grand Ducal army. At fourteen, having had next to no general education, he was apprenticed to a tailor in Weimar, and at seventeen, having finished his apprenticeship, entered on the series of wanderings, with bundle on back, which was at that time still incumbent upon every well-constituted German workman to perform, as the completion of his technical education. During this period he visited the greater part of Northern Germany, finally settling down in Hamburg, where he remained over two years. To escape military service he came to London in 1847. In the great revolutionary year he returned to Germany under a false name and passport, co-operating with Marx, Engels and Freiligrath, the poet, whom he had met in London, in the agitation they were carrying on in Cologne. On the collapse of the movement in 1850, after the party had been scattered, Lessner was deputed to go in the place of Freiligrath to Wiesbaden on a party mission, but he was soon compelled to leave this town. He subsequently resided for a time in Mainz. Here, on the 18th of June, 1851, Lessner was arrested for the distribution of seditious literature, and belonging to a “secret society” – the “Communist League.” After a severe preliminary imprisonment in Mainz, lasting a year (during which he was kept alive almost solely by the assiduous attentions of a devoted woman, later unhappily drowned in a shipwreck on her way to America), Lessner was compelled to make a journey on foot, lasting ten days, from Mainz to Cologne, chained and manacled to a gang of convicts. His sufferings during this journey were horrible. At Cologne he was tried, along with six others, including the subsequently highly respectable Becker, who eventually became burgomaster. Sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in a fortress, he did his full time, not coming out till early in 1856, when, finding Germany still too hot for him, he returned to London after a few months. London has since been Lessner’s permanent residence. Of the part he has taken in all recent English movements, it is unnecessary to say anything. His venerable face, recalling the earth-spirit or gnome of old German folk-lore, is familiar to most English, and probably all London, comrades. In order, however, to furnish the readers of the Social-Democrat with a specimen of the subject-matter of the autobiographical articles in question, we quote Lessner’s description of the celebrated morning of the 10th of April, 1848, on which the last great historic act of the old Chartist movement took place:

“On the morning of the 10th of April,” writes Lessner, “London offered a remarkable spectacle. All factories and shops were shut. The London bourgeoisie were under arms, for the purpose of maintaining ‘order.’ Among these bourgeois was ‘Napoleon the Little,’ afterwards citizen of Wilhelmshöhe. The members of the Communist League had decided to take part in the demonstration. We armed ourselves with any weapons that came to hand. I can vividly remember the comical impression which George Eccarius made upon me, as he showed me a well-ground pair of enormous tailor’s scissors, with which he hoped to defend himself against the attacks of the special constables. The workmen massed on Kennington Common with the object of proceeding thence in procession to the Houses of Parliament. But what was our surprise when we suddenly heard that Feargus O’Connor, the leader of the demonstration, counselled abstention from the projected procession en masse, since the Government was preparing to oppose us with an armed force. Many followed the advice of O’Connor, others pushed forward, the result being bloody conflicts between Chartists and police. Since, owing to the knuckling-down of O’Connor, the demonstrators were divided, it was now impossible to count on success. In single combat the workmen could not win. That was soon clear to us. Bitterly disappointed we left the mustering place where we had arrived so full of hope an hour before.”

We conclude this notice in repeating the hope that these interesting articles of the old war-horse Lessner will before long see the light in English.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.5.2005