August Bebel


Wilhelm Liebknecht

Liebknecht and Bernhard Becker were driven out of Prussia in 1865. Liebknecht had returned to Berlin in the Summer of 1862, after an exile of thirteen years. The amnesty of 1860 made this possible for him. He followed the call of the old revolutionist, August Brass, with whom he became acquainted, like Engels, in Switzerland, and who had founded a Greater German democratic newspaper, the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,” in the summer of 1862, in Berlin. Liebknecht had been won, together with Robert Schweichel; for the editorship, the former for foreign politics. But when Bismarck assumed the ministry at the end of September, 1862, both of them soon discovered that something was wrong. Their suspicions were confirmed, when one day an accident would have it that Schweichel received a letter for Brass from a messenger of the ministry, who said that the contents of the letter were to be published at once. Both of them gave notice and resigned from the editorship. As Liebknecht declared publicly, later on, Lassalle upbraided him, even one year after his resignation, for leaving left his position on the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.” Liebknecht, who then had a wife and two children, whom he had summoned from London to Berlin, meanwhile earned a living as a correspondent for various papers. When I became acquainted with him, he wrote, among others, for the “Oberrheinischen Kurier,” in Freiburg, Baden, for Rechbauer’s democratic “Tagespost,” in Graz, and for the “Deutsche Wochenblatt,” in Mannheim, from which last named, however, he could not have received very much. Later he wrote for several years for the “Frankfurter Zeitung.” He gave public lectures in Berlin, particularly in the printers’ and tailors’ unions, also in public labor meetings and other popular meetings, in which he combatted Bismarck’s policies. He regarded JB von Schweitzer, the editor of the “Social-democrat,” as the stool pigeon of those policies.

After his expulsion, he went first to Hanover, where Schweichel had found a position as editor of the “Anzeiger.” But, since nothing could be found for him there he came to Leipsic, where, one day in August, he was introduced to me by Dr. Eras, who was then the editor of the “Mitteldeutsche Volkszeitung.” Liebknecht, whose work and expulsion I was familiar with thru the newspapers, naturally interested me greatly. I was then forty years old, but possessed the fire and vivacity of a young man of twenty. Immediately after our introduction, we engaged in a political conversation, in which he attacked the Progressive Party and its leaders vehemently and ruthlessly, and gave them a bad character, so that I, who myself did not regard them any longer as saints, was quite dumbfounded. However, he was a first-class man, and his aggressive manners did not prevent us from becoming good friends.

Liebknecht was very welcome to us in Saxony. In July, at the state convention in Glauchau, we had decided to send agitators out on a tour. But it was easier to decide than to carry this out, for we lacked suitable personalities whose existence permitted such an activity. Liebknecht readily placed himself at our disposal for lecture tours. He was also welcome in the Workingmen’s Educational Club as a speaker, and soon his lectures were the best attended. He also undertook to teach English and French in this club. In this way he gradually worked up a modest living. Nevertheless, as I learned later, he was compelled to carry many a good book to the second hand dealer. His condition was still more deteriorated by the fact that his (first) wife was ailing with lung trouble, and needed stronger food. Liebknecht’s exterior did not show that he had any cares. Whoever saw him, and heard him, would have thought that he lived in contentment.

His first agitation tour led him into the Iron Mountains, especially into the workingmen’s villages of the Muelsen Ground, whereby he paved his way to his subsequent candidacy for the North German Reichstag. As I also undertook frequent agitation tours, and the two of us generally acted together in all political questions, our names were mentioned more and more in public, until we were regarded as two inseparables. This went so far that when a party comrade became my business associate in the second half of the seventies, sometimes business letters would arrive which were addressed to Liebknecht & Bebe1, instead of Issleib & Bebel. This always created merriment among us.

I shall have to mention Liebknecht more frequently in these pages, but I cannot give a description of his life here. Those who are interested in that, will find more details in the book on “The Leipsic Process for High Treason against Liebknecht, Bebel and Hepner,” and in the work of Kurt Eisner, on “Wilhelm Liebknecht.” Both works are published by the Vorwaerts Publishing House.

Liebknecht’s genuine fighter’s nature was keyed up by an impregnable optimism, without which no great aim can be accomplished. No blow that struck him, personally or the party, could rob him for a minute of his courage or of his composure. Nothing took him unawares; he always knew a way out. Against the attacks of his antagonists his watchword was: Meet one rascal by one and a half. He was harsh and ruthless against our opponents, but always a good comrade to his friends and associates, ever trying to smooth over existing difficulties.

In his private life, Liebknecht was a considerate husband and father, and was greatly attached to his family. He was also a great nature lover. A few beautiful trees, in an otherwise charmless landscape, could make him enthusiastic, and induce him to consider this place fine. In his wants, he was simple and unpretentious. An excellent soup, which my young wife placed before him shortly after our marriage, in the spring of 1866, pleased him so much that he never forgot it. A good glass of beer or a good glass of wine and a good cigar were agreeable to him, but he did not spend much for them. If he had donned some new garment, which did not happen very often, and if I had not noticed it immediately and appreciated it, I could be sure that before many minutes, he would call my attention to it, and ask my opinion of it. He was a man of iron, with the mind of a child. When Liebknecht died, on August 7, 1900, it was exactly thirty-five years since we had first met.

In his party activity, Liebknecht liked to force matters, whenever he expected that one of his plans would meet with opposition. I suffered considerably in the beginning under this peculiarity of his, for, as a rule, I had to eat the soup which he had stirred. On account of his lack of practical ability, others had to carry out the measures inaugurated by him. But, finally, I gathered the courage to free myself from the influence of his dictatory manners, and after that we sometimes clashed vigorously, without showing it in public, and without permanently disturbing our friendship.

Much has been written about the influence which Liebknecht is supposed to have had over me. For instance, it has been said that my becoming a Socialist was due only to his influence. In a pamphlet, published by Lange, in Munich, in 1908, the writer says that Liebknecht made a Marxian of me, and that I had avowed myself as such in September, 1868, at the national convention of Nuremberg. Accordingly, Liebknecht would have worked for three years in turning Saul into a Paul.

Liebknecht was fourteen years older than I, so that he had the advantage of a long political experience when we met. He was a scientifically trained man, who had studied diligently. I lacked this scientific training. Besides, Liebknecht had been intimately associated with men like Marx and Engels during his stay of twelve years in England and had learned much thereby, while I had no such intercourse. That Liebknecht should exert considerable influence over me under such circumstances was a matter of course. It would have cast a sad reflection on him not to have known how to exert this influence, or on me for not profiting anything from such intimacy. One of my acquaintances wrote some time ago in the Leipsic “Volkszeitung” that he had heard me telling of my intimacy with Liebknecht in 1865, to a small circle of friends, and that I had said: “Thunder, from that man we can learn something!” That was no doubt true. But I should have become a Socialist even without Liebknecht, for I was on the way when I became acquainted with him. In the continuous struggle with the Lassalleans, I had to read Lassalle’s writings, in order to know what they wanted, and this soon wrought a change in me. The attitude of the Liberal spokesmen in parliament, and outside of it, had gradually made us dissatisfied, their glory was fading away. It was especially the attitude of the Liberal spokesman on the labor question that created ill feeling. My intimacy with Liebknecht hastened my transformation into a Socialist. This was his real merit. It is about the same with the assertion that Liebknecht made a Marxian of me. In those years I heard many excellent lectures and speeches from him. He spoke on English trade unionism, on the English and French revolutions, on the German popular movement, on political questions of the day, etc. When he touched upon Marx and Lassalle, he always did so in a controversial way. So far as I remember, I never heard any long theoretical discussions from him. Neither he nor I had time for any private instruction, the struggles of the day and their concomitants did not leave us any opportunity for private theoretical discussions. By all his aptitudes, Liebknecht was far more a farseeing politician than a theoretician. Great politics was his favorite occupation.

Like most of those who became Socialists at that time, I came to Marx by way of Lassalle. Lassalle’s writings were in our hands before we knew any work by Marx and Engels. Lassalle’s influence is still plainly visible in my first pamphlet, “Our Aims,” which appeared at the close of 1869. Toward the end of 1869, I first found sufficient time and leisure to read carefully the first volume of Marx’s “Capital,” published late in the summer of 1867, and it was my imprisonment that gave me this leisure. Five years previously I had tried to study the work of Marx entitled, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” which had appeared in 1859, but I did not get beyond the attempt. Overwork and the struggle for existence did not leave me the necessary leisure to digest this heavy work intellectually. The “Communist Manifesto,” and the other writings of Marx and Engels, did not become known in our party until the end of the sixties or the beginning of the seventies. The first work of Marx that I came across and enjoyed was his “Inaugural Address,” at the foundation of the International Workingmen’s Association. I became familiar with this work in the beginning of 1865. Toward the close of 1866, I joined the International.

Next: Increasing Dissatisfaction of Workingmen’s Clubs