August Bebel

Reminiscences


Lassalle’s Rise and Its Results

In the beginning of March, 1863, appeared Lassalle’s, “Open Letter to the Central Committee for the calling of a general congress of German laborers in Leipsic.” A few days previous to this publication, I had made the speech of the day at the celebration of the second anniversary of the Industrial Educational Club, in which I argued against universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage, because the workingmen were not yet ripe for it. I offended even some of my friends of the club with this view of mine. On the other hand, my speech pleased my future wife immensely, who participated in the celebration with her brother. But I have goo dreasons for believing that it was more the person of the speaker that pleased her than the contents of his speech, which at that time was no doubt rather immaterial to her.

The open letter of Lassalle did not make at all such apt impression upon the world of labor as had been expected, in the first place, by Lassalle himself; in the second place, by the small circle of his followers. For my part, I distributed about two dozen copies in the Industrial Educational Club, in order to give the other side a chance. That the letter should have made so little impression upon the majority of the laborers in the movement of that time, may seem inexplicable to-day to some people. But it was quite natural. Not merely the economic, but also the political conditions were still very backward. Professional freedom, free migration, liberty to settle down, exemption from passports, liberty to wander, freedom of association and assembly, such were the demands that appealed more closely to the laborer of that time than productive associations subsidized by the state, of which he had no clear conception. The idea of association or of co-operation was justs prouting. Even universal suffrage did not seem an indispensable right to the majority. On the one hand, as I have emphasized several times, political intelligence was still low; on the other hand, the fight of the Prussian House of Representatives against Bismarck’s ministry appeared to the great majority as a brave deed, which deserved support and praise, but no censure or derogation. A man who was politically active, like myself, devoured the reports of the proceedings in parliament and regarded them as the outpour of political wisdom. The liberal press, which then ruled public opinion far more than it does to-day, also took care to preserve this belief. So it was the liberal press that now greeted Lassalle’s appearance with cries or, rage and sneers, in a way that had, perhaps, been unheard of until then. Personal insinuations and defamations poured down upon him, and that the chief conservative organs, for instance, the “Kreuzzeitung,” treated Lassalle objectively, because his attack on the liberals was very welcome to them, did not increase Lassalle’s credit or that of his followers in our eyes. And if we realize, finally, that even to-day, after more than forty-five years of intense labors of enlightenment, there are still millions of laborers who run after the different bourgeois parties, it is no wonder that the vast majority of the workers in the sixties of the nineteenth century were skeptical against the new movement. And at that time no success had been obtained in social legislation, such as was secured later by the Socialist movement. Pioneers are always scarce.

In Leipsic, Lassalle’s appearance had the effect that our committee split, and so did the club “Vorwaerts,” which was the main support of this committee. Professor Rossmaessler, iron foundry proprietor Goetz, a brother of turner Goetz, of Lindenau-Leipsic, Dolge and a large number of workers in the club declared against Lassalle. Fritzsche, Vahlteich and Dr. Dammer, with a minority behind them, became the actual bearers of the new movement. In Leipsic, it found the largest following. Berlin failed to respond for a long time. It gradually found a footing in Hamburg-Altona, whence it extended to Slesvig-Holstein, then in Hannover, Kassel, Barmen-Elberfeld, Solingen, Ronsdorf, Dusseldorf, Frankfort-on-Main, Mayence, in a few towns of Thuringia, such as Erfurt and Apolda, in Saxony, aside from Leipsic, in Dresden, where the president of the Dresden Workingmen’s Educational Society, Foersterling, joined Lassalle with a small crowd of his followers in 1864; finally,in Augsburg.

But this expansion was, as I have said, a gradual and weak one, and agreed very little with the hopes entertained by Lassalle and his followers. The hundred thousand members, which, in his open letter, he regarded as a great political power, when organized in the General Union of German Workingmen which he proposed, he had hoped to see in a short time. It is well known that it required a long time before the Socialist movement was in a position to count on this number of organized followers.

Toward the close of March, the Leipsic committee resigned in a large labor meeting, and moved that a new committee be elected, which should devote itself to the foundation of the general union of German workingmen suggested by Lassalle. After a very heated debate the majority of the meeting declared in favor of the plan. Dr. Dammer, Fritzsche and Vahlteich were delegated to take hold of this new task.

On April 16th, finally, Lassalle himself came to Leipsic for the purpose of speaking in a large meeting, which, like most large meetings of that period, was held in the Odeon on Elster street. This speech was published under the title of “The Labor Question.” This meeting was attended by about 4,000 people, but a considerable portion of them left the hall before the close of the meeting. The liberals, under the leadership of merchant Kohner, had taken a position in the gallery opposite the speaker’s platform, and frequently interrupted the speaker. The preparations for the speaker were somewhat peculiar. The edge of the speaker’s desk, behind which Lassalle stood, had been packed with books, some of them heavy volumes, as tho there were going to be a debate like that of Luther versus Eck.

Lassalle seems to have thought that he would find a strong opposition which he would have to refute. This was not the case. His personal comportment was not sympathetic to everybody. Tall, slender and strong of stature, Lassalle stood on the platformas tho boldly challenging his adversaries, and while he spoke he stuck alternately one or both hands into the arm-holes of his vest. He spoke fluently, at times pathetically, but it seemed as tho he had a slight lisp. He closed amid the stormy applause of a part of the audience, while the other part answered by hissing.

After Lassalle, Professor Rossmaessler took the floor and read a long declaration, in which he stated that he was aware that he could not get a majority in this hall for his views, but he hoped that a better understanding would come to them later. He protested against the attacks which Lassalle had aimed at the German progressive party. He also protested against the attempts to separate the workers from that party and from a distinct labor party. Lassalle replied briefly and rather amiably. He said that, in his opinion, the differences between himself and Rossmaessler seemed to be a matter of tactics rather than of principle. Evidently there was some hope left, in the Lassallean camp, of bringing Rossmaessler over to their side. Besides, Fritzsche and Vahlteich were warm admirers of Rossmaessler on account of the fight which he carried on against the church and the priests. Both of them, as well as Rossmaessler, belonged to the German-Catholic congregation in Leipsic, and both of them were hurt by their separation from him.

Lassalle was not satisfied with the applause of the crowd. He rather laid great store by the support of men of prominence and influence in the bourgeois camp, and he took great pains to win some of them. It is true that Professor Wuttke took sides with him in Leipsic, but this gentleman’s other political affiliations were not easily reconciled with this support. Wuttke was a Greater German, who had strong leanings for Austria. In this capacity he had also been a member of parliament in Frankfort-on-Main. He and Rossmaessler were political and personal adversaries. In addition to this, Wuttke was a grim enemy of the little German progressive party and of the National Club - two organizations, whose members formed almost the same circle of persons. Since Lassalle assailed the progressive party, he was loudly applauded by Wuttke. But Wuttke did not have any deeper social understanding. He was, by the way, a brilliant speaker and had a beautiful voice. His small, bent black-haired figure had something of a gnome about it. The letter of Wuttke to Lassalle, which was read in the above mentioned meeting at Leipsic, confirms my conception of Wuttke’s position. No doubt Lassalle had also estimated Wuttke correctly, but he was satisfied to have him apparently on his side.

Let me remark at this point, that I am not writing the history of the entire movement. I am merely describing my personal experiences and my relations to this movement. If any one wishes to familiarize himself with the history of the movement as a whole, I would refer him to Mehring’s “History of the German Social Democracy” and Bernstein’s “History of the Berlin Labor Movement.”

The appearance of Lassalle and the foundation of the General Association of German Workingmen, which took place on May 23, 1863, in Chicago, were the signal for bitter fights within the labor world, which now ran their course during many years, and led to scenes that defy all description. With the years, the bitterness increased on both sides, and since laborers are not accustomed to fine language - which, by the way, fails also among those who pride themselves upon it, whenever strong differences of opinion arise between them - the coarsest invectives and charges were hurled back and forth. Not infrequently rough and tumble fights and violence were precipitated in the meetings, in which the adversaries clashed, and this often caused hall owners to refuse the use of their halls for such meetings. One of the principal aims of each side in these meetings was to get control; so the struggle used to start in with the fight for the chairmanship. One day I discovered, in a labor meeting in Chemnitz, that the Lassallean lifted both hands for the purpose of obtaining the majority. I demanded that both parties should lift both hands. Amid great merriment the suggestion was followed. This led to the defeat of the Lassalleans.

The only advantage of this conflict of opinions was that both sides made the greatest efforts to increase their following. This took place all the more when my side also adopted Socialism a few years later, but at the same time created its own organization, and carried on its fight against the General Association of German Workingmen, which split up into two unequal sections in 1867. But strength, money and time were incredibly wasted, to the joy of our enemies, during these fights of more than a decade’s duration.

In Leipsic, the rise of Lassalleanism had the effect of doing away with the old differences between the Industrial Educational Club and the Vorwaerts Club. In February, 1865, these two clubs united under the name “Workingmen’s Educational Club.” The Polytechnic Society had long ceased to attempt a guardianship of the Industrial Educational Society, which had proved to be a labor of Sisyphus. Besides, even the Saxon government realized that the old federal decision of 1856 would not do any longer. The government was compelled to let things go. The General Association of German Workingmen had even chosen Leipsic as its headquarters, in plain violation of that old federal decision. The government finally drew the obvious conclusions and repealed the decision on March 20, 1864.

It is an experience which we have often had since that time that all laws and oppressive measures aimed against a certain movement fail and are practically annulled, as soon as that movement becomes a natural necessity, and thus proves to be irrepressible. The authorities themselves finally lose the belief in their power and give up the hopeless struggle. So it was also in those days with the ordinances concerning the right of association, and so it turned out to be soon after that with the ordinances forbidding labor unions in Prussia and other states, which were simply ignored.

The wage struggles, by means of cessation of labor, began in spite of all ordinances against coalition, while the wise gentlemen of the government were still debating whether they should entirely repeal those ordinances or revoke them only to a certain degree. The German Social Democracy later on had the same experience under the sway of the anti-Socialist laws, under which the authorities finally had to realize that it was impossible for them to carry thru their ordinances against meetings, organization and the printing and distribution of literature in the same way in which they had done it during the first years of this legislation. The same experience was again made later by the women’s movement in those German states, in which women were enjoined from organizing political meetings or attending meetings of political organizations. Practically such ordinances had long been dead letters, before the government decided to sanction by law what had long existed in violation of a previous law. Laws always limp behind wants; they never anticipate them.

In the Leipsic Workingmen Educational Club I was elected second president on the occasion of the necessary reorganization, a position which I had already held during the last period in the Industrial Educational Club. And when the first president, Dr. med. Reyher, a disciple of Rock, resigned a little later, I stepped into his place and held it until 1872, when I had to begin my prison term, to which I had been sentenced on account of my alleged preparations for committing high treason against the German empire.

The Workingmen’s Educational Club received an annual subsidy of 500 dollars from the city beginning 1865. This was granted mainly for rent of better accommodations and for maintenance ofinstruction. But when, during the succeeding years, the club followed the political transformation of its president, and turned more and more to the left, the city administration reduced the subsidy to 200 dollars. And when the club declared, in 1869, for the program of the Social-Democratic Labor Party, which had been newly founded in Eisenach, which declaration was adopted by a large majority after three evenings of verbal battles, the remainder of the subsidy was lost altogether in the following year. Liberalism supports only politically good and obedient children, for the educational aims of the club had not suffered in the least from its political transformation.


Next: The Convention of the German Workingmen’s Clubs