August Bebel

Reminiscences


Increasing Dissatisfaction of Workingmen’s Clubs

The disagreeable public conditions, which impressed themselves more and more on the consciousness of the workingmen, naturally affected their sentiments. All of them were longing for a change. But in the absence of any clear and farseeing leadership that inspired confidence, without any powerful organization that could have united their strength, this sentiment came to nothing: Never did a movement, which was good in its kernel, run its course with so little results. All the meetings were crowded, and whoever made the sharpest speech was the man of the hour. This sentiment prevailed especially in the Leipsic Workingmen’s Educational Club. Toward the end of October, I induced Professor Eckhardt, who was one of the most brilliant speakers of that time, after a speech made by him in a public meeting in Leipsic, to give a lecture also in the Leipsic Workingmen’s Educational Club. In this lecture he dealt with the position of the workingman under the prevailing situation, particularly referring to his social demands. In this respect, he favored decidedly the assistance of the state. He had no objection to Lassalle’s idea of state help, so long as it came from a democratic state. The speaker evoked stormy applause, and did not meet with any opposition.

In spite of repeated refusals, we had once more addressed ourselves, at the end of 1865, to the Saxon government with a request to permit the formation of a district federation. A frequent exchange of opinions had become a need. The ministry again imposed conditions which we could not accept. But we decided, in the committee of the club for the promotion of the intellectual and material welfare of workingmen’s clubs, to leave the decision to the clubs and so we called a state convention, on January 28, 1806, at Zwickau, and fixed its order of business as tho no legal obstacles existed. According to this order of business, the reply of the ministry was to be discussed after the report of organization. Other points for discussion were: Petitions for a full professional liberty and unhampered freedom of movement, for the promotion of a liberal law on associations, for the abolition of work books, servants’ books and all passport limitations. Then the motions of the clubs and the election of the executive committee were to follow. In the matter of securing universal suffrage, we wanted to come to an agreement privately.

Our order of business was too much for the Leipsic chief of police. Our secretary, Germann and myself, were summoned and asked to change it, otherwise the conference would be prohibited, and the clubs declared to be political which would make their federation impossible. The police chief of Leipsic, at that time, was Dr. Hueder, a former democrat of 1848, who, however, handled the law on clubs and associations in such a way that no Conservative could have been more severe. Consequently we placed only the discussion of the ministerial ordinance on the order of business, but sent, secretly, word to the clubs to send good representatives, because we were going to try to push thru the conference all we could. Thirty-one delegates, from twenty-four clubs, were present. The proceedings began on Sunday forenoon. When a delegate from Werdau moved to place the legal reduction of the working time on the order of business, the police commissioner, who watched the meeting, objected. I advised the convention to declare in reply to the ordinance of the ministry (Beust):

“In view of the fact that the ordinance of the Minister of the Interior permits to the workingmen’s clubs of Saxony the foundation of a district federation only on condition that these clubs shall not occupy themselves with political, social or public affairs, and in view of the further fact that this limitation reduces the activity of the clubs to zero, the convention resolves to dispense with the formation of a district federation, and to let the individual clubs fulfill their duties according to their own choice.”

The consequence of those events in Zwickau was that the Leipsic police chief placed the Workingmen’s Educational Club under the law of associations, in other words, regarded it as a political club from then on.

Much dissatisfaction had long been felt in the Leipsic Workingmen’s Educational Club over the attitude of the “Berliner Volkszeitung,” which was on file in the reading room. It was not merely the undemocratic attitude of the paper, but also the animosity with which it combatted the more far-reaching demands of the laborers, that gave cause for resentment. In the general meeting of the club, in March, 1866, I moved, in conformity with the instructions of the board of directors, that the “Berliner Volkszeitung” be discontinued, and in its place the “Rheinische Zeitung” of Cologne be placed on the subscription list. This motion gave rise to an excited debate, but was finally adopted, by a vote of 160 against 17. This decision called forth vicious attacks of the Liberal press against our club, and myself personally. I was regarded as the originator of the motion.

The professional liberty introduced into Saxony in 1863 required that those who wished to start in business for themselves must first acquire the right of citizenship in a commune. But this cost a good deal of money in the larger towns. In the Winter of 1865-66, a movement arose in Leipsic aiming at the abolition, or, at least, the reduction of the citizenship dues, and at a radical reorganization of the Saxon city constitution. Liberal leaders were then at the head of the movement. I also attended these meetings and made speeches, which some people later assured me had been the best. After a program had been formulated, a committee was nominated, to which I also belonged, which was instructed to inaugurate an agitation of this question thruout Saxony. But our work soon proved to be useless. When we were ready to begin the agitation, in the spring of 1866, the accentuation of the antagonisms between Prussia and Austria, and the discussions of the German question, had arrived at a point where they pushed every other interest into the background. The same fate overtook our agitation for a reorganization of the Saxon trade ordinance. On the other hand, the political demands now came to the front.

On March 25th and 26th, several meetings took place in Dresden for political purposes. I was sent to them as a delegate from Leipsic, the question of unity being one of the points on the order of business. As a delegate from Leipsic, I spoke in favor of united action, but Vahlteich made the mistake of sharply attacking the members of the General Association of German Workingmen and overwhelming them with reproaches, thereby calling forth a storm of resentment. Vahlteich could not forget the treatment which he had received in his former capacity as Lassalle’s secretary at the hands of the General Association of German Workingmen. He had been expelled from it on a motion of Lassalle, who could not bear any contradiction. So he slammed the Association whenever an opportunity offered. Nevertheless, the close of those meetings led to a joint conference, in which the workingmen’s clubs of Leipsic, Dresden, Chemnitz, Glauchau and Goerlitz, the members of the General Association of German Workingmen of Dresden, Plauenscher Grund, Chemnitz and Glauchau, the old journeyman’s club and the Typographia of Dresden, were represented by twenty delegates. It was decided to begin a joint agitation for universal suffrage, for a democratic right of association and assembly, for the right of free locomotion, for professional freedom, for the abolition of passport limitations, for the introduction of school reform, for maintenance of schools by the state, regulation of wages, of sick and death benefit funds, and of associations. The delegates present constituted themselves into a committee. Foersterling became chairman.

When the meetings were called, all the labor organizations in Dresden, including the book printers’ helpers, participated in them. They acted as tho no Saxon law on association existed any longer which forbade the co-operation of clubs for political purposes. On all sides, a permanent co-operation of labor organizations was being demanded. The parliamentarian question became, from now on, the object of vigorous agitation in labor circles. We demanded a constitutional parliament for all of Germany, and the introduction of universal popular armament for the protection of this parliament. This last demand was considered a matter of course in the democratic circles of that day, because without such a protection, the parliament might become the victim of a diplomatic surprise.

On the other hand, a meeting, held in Dresden, on May 7th, and attended by 2000 people, adopted resolutions that were in part rather strange. Among them was the following:

“(1) We condemn every policy that paralyzes the strength of the people, and does not guarantee their liberty and welfare. (2) We declare the cession of even one foot of German country to be high treason to the fatherland. (3) We demand that His Majesty, the King, and the government, fulfill their duties to the fatherland and the people, and that, therefore, those men, who, contrary to these duties, paralyze the energy of the country’s resistance, be replaced by others who will act energetically and in keeping with the people’s will. (4) We demand that the rule of interests, whose injurious results to the country are now becoming apparent, be replaced by the restitution of universal, equal and direct suffrage, with secret ballots and unrestricted eligibility. (5) We demand that the government of His Majesty proclaim its intention of calling parliament, in conformity with the federal decisions of March 30th and April 9, 1848, and begin the solution of the German constitutional question in pursuance of its willingness expressed to the German national assembly in February, 1849. (6) We demand the immediate restitution of the fundamental German rights and a universal armament of the people.”

A delegation was then elected, to which belonged Foersterling, Knoefel and Lawyer Schraps, who were instructed to lay the wishes of the meeting before the king. As a matter of course, this delegation was not received.

At last, however, the Saxon government was compelled to yield willy-nilly to the sentiment of the country and to the state legislature, which had been called in the meantime, and take a position on the question of federal reform. Mr. von Beust, who had so far been an advocate of the impossible Austrian reform project, and had also spoken warmly in favor of the trias-idea, now got into a tight place. When asked by a delegation of the second chamber of the state legislature what position the government now took on the Austrian reform project, he declared that it was not the intention of the government to revert to the subject of delegates; the government was ready, on the contrary, to work for federal reform and for a parliament, which should be elected pursuant to the election law of 1849. With reference to the Prussian reform project, he made various confused reservations. The delegation of the second chamber moved, jointly with the delegation of the first chamber, to address the following resolution to the government:

“The government should work with all energy to the end of promoting an order that the elections for the German parliament by means of universal and direct suffrage take place in all of Germany in the course of this month (June), preferably in conformity with the national election laws of March 27, 1849, and that parliament be called within short order.”

But the ball was already rolling and ran in another direction than had been expected.


Next: The Catastrophe of 1866