E. Belfort Bax

A Few Reminiscences of August Bebel

(October 1913)

Bax, A Few Reminiscences of August Bebel (Obit), British Socialist, October 1913, pp.447-450.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

It was in the autumn of the year 1887 that I first met August Bebel in the flesh. The occasion was the German Party Congress of that year. The Coercion Act of Bismarck was still in force throughout Germany, so the Congress had to be held in Switzerland. The place selected was St. Gallen. The delegates, as I well remember, arriving by train from various parts of Germany, were met at the railway station by stewards of the Party, and conducted to the Gasthaus Zum schönen Weg, some two miles from the town. One of the chief features of this Congress was a discussion of the action of certain members of the Party in the Reichstag in voting the money for a Government job in the Baltic. It was called the Baltic subvention. There were one or two other acts of opportunism in the Reichstag in which the Party had been guilty which also came in for severe criticism from the Radical wing, of which Bebel made himself the spokesman. I well remember the energy of his attack on the moderates and trimmers of the party, prominent among whom was the late Hasenclever. Bebel at this time was at the height of his powers, overflowing with life and vigour.

After this occasion I saw a good deal of Bebel at different times, especially in Zürich, where his daughter Frieda was studying, and where she subsequently settled down as the wife of Dr. Simon, whose tragic death in his physiological laboratory occurred some two years ago. Bebel himself, shortly after the marriage of his daughter, bought a house called the Villa Julia, after his wife, at Küssnacht, about three miles from Zürich on the lake. Here I often visited him and had many a discussion with him on principles and tactics. A few years before his death, he sold his house at Küssnacht and returned to Zürich, where in the intervals of the Reichstag sessions he resided with his daughter. It was here that I saw him for the last time, shortly before the death of Dr. Simon. He was then already weak and uncertain in his health, and expressed great anxiety that he might be able to bring his Autobiography to a close before his death. He came in from his bedroom, where he lead been indulging in an afternoon sleep which, he told me, was now a necessity with him every day. Notwithstanding the increasing signs of physical weakness one noticed in him, his conversation seemed as brisk and his interest in Party matters as keen as ever. As already said, this was the last time I saw him, although I heard from him subsequently by letter. The death of Dr. Simon brought to an end the old ménage in the Gessnerallee in Zürich. Moreover, within the last two years I have not had occasion to visit Zürich for any length of time and the few days, once or twice a year, when I have been in the town happened to coincide with the session of the Reichstag when Bebel was in Berlin.

Bebel was a man who held decided views, not only on questions of general principles or tactics in the larger sense, but he was also at times a somewhat severe critic of personal conduct from a Party point of view. Thus I well remember one evening crossing the lake from the other side to Küssnacht with a small party of mutual friends, and boarding a Zürich steamer where we unexpectedly met Bebel accompanied by several comrades. I should premise that among my own party was a comrade, a barrister from the Rhine district, who had fled from a threatened prosecution in Germany under the Anti-Socialist Coercion Law which was then operative. It is true that he did not make himself a burden on the Party in any way, but lived on his own means. Nevertheless, Bebel held strongly that, under the circumstances, he ought to have remained in Germany and stood the racket of a prosecution. This view of the matter he thought to impress upon the fugitive Rhinelander in his usual well-set terms. I still have the picture before me of Bebel standing in the middle of a circle of his friends, recruited by a few of the ship’s other passengers, admonishing this unfortunate man, who was standing there with bent head like a poor sinner, of his defection from the true path of Party duty. The object of Bebel’s pastoral admonitions was so hurt by the proceeding that he refused to come to a dinner party given a few days later by a mutual friend at which Bebel was present. I thought myself the time and place were not, perhaps, quite suited to exhortation of the nature described, and I often used to chaff Bebel afterwards on the rôle he played on this occasion as the good shepherd admonishing an erring member of his flock. Bebel always excused himself by pleading his anxiety lest the comrade in question, who was a young man, should become demoralised by idling away his time in the Swiss town when there was so much to be done in Germany.

It may be interesting to mention as an item of Bebel reminiscences that he, together with Liebknecht, during a visit to London in the nineties, was present at a full-dress debate of the Hardwick Society held in the Middle Temple on the subject of Woman Suffrage. For Bebel, of course, not knowing English, the proceedings were, more or less, dumb show. He was interested, nevertheless, in studying the ways and the manners of the British barrister in his native haunts.

The somewhat chauvinistic – or, shall we say, German patriotic? – utterances which were occasionally to be found in Bebel’s speeches of later years have been much commented on. As regards the first of these, his speech in the Reichstag in February 1907, it may be interesting to state that his wife, who died a year or two later, regarded it as regrettable and told me that she had remonstrated with him afterwards about it, pointing out, she said, how liable his words were to a jingoistic interpretation which he had never intended. Subsequently to this, however, notably the discussion on the Moroccan question at the German Party Congress in 1911 at Jena, he gave utterance to sentiments which, as our dear comrade Quelch, who was present, remarked at the time, seemed hardly compatible with Socialist principle. My friend Hermann Greulich, of Zürich, expressed to me the opinion that August Bebel always had a strain of the German patriot in him. Be this as it may, it is scarcely discernible in his earlier writings and speeches.

But, however much we may regret any ill-judged expressions, or even any slight defections now and again from principle, in his old age, these weigh but as a feather in the scale as against the general consistency and unswerving devotion of a lifetime to the cause of Social-Democracy. The last occasion on which Bebel came out as the uncompromising champion of the principles and tactics of undiluted Socialism was at the Dresden Party Congress of 1903, when he took the field against the Revisionists, and helped to formulate the famous Dresden resolution, which was adopted in substance by the International Congress in Amsterdam of 1904. Bebel was present at the Stuttgart International Congress in 1907, but took no very important part in the discussions. He was absent from the Congress at Copenhagen in 1910, owing to the state of his health. Although his direct influence was necessarily weakened within the last few years, there can be no two opinions but that the German Social-Democratic Party and International Socialism have alike sustained a momentous loss in the death of that old field-marshal of the Cause, August Bebel.


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