August Bebel

Reminiscences


The Continued Development of the Federation of German Workingmen’s Clubs

In the session of the permanent committee, which was held in Cassel, at the end of March, 1867, but was attended by only a few members, we ascertained that the political events of the last year had exerted a positively destructive influence on the clubs. The treasury was empty, the organ of the clubs, the “Allgemeine Arbeiterzeitung,” had been abandoned; a monthly, “Die Arbeit,” published by Dr. Pfeiffer, Stuttgart, and printed by Sonnemann, had also succumbed after a short period of existence. In addition to this, the management of the club was not in the right hands. The committee decided to issue a new club organ, which was to be edited by Eichelsdoerfer, under the title of “Arbeiterhalle,” and to appear once every fourteen days. I became his most regular co-worker. The paper appeared from June 1, 1867, to December 4, 1868, when it was suspended in favor of the “Demokratisches Wochenblatt,” founded by us in Leipsic in the beginning of January, 1869, and edited by Liebknecht. Finally, it was decided to call a national convention once more in the fall.

The foundation of the “Demokratisches Wochenblatt” filled a want long felt for all of us. Until then we had not had at our disposal any organ in which we could voice our views, and so we had lacked the opportunity to carry on the effective political and social enlightenment of our followers, a thing that was needed very much. Thus we had been without weapons to defend ourselves against the attacks of our opponents. Of course, the paper laid heavy burdens upon us, but we carried them gladly, for it was the most important instrument of warfare which we had.The laxity in the management of the federation of workingmen’s clubs induced me to push Staudinger ahead by means of frequent letters. At the end of May, 1867, I wrote him that, in my estimate, the greatest advantage, which the North German Federation had brought to us so far, and would bring to us in the future, was that it stirred the masses in a way that had no parallel since 1848, and that on this account we had acquired many new connections which we ought to utilize in the interest of the movement. He ought to establish connections with the International. I protested against the continued attempts to keep the workingmen away from politics. We should also consider the advisability of a new organization, for there was something in the air which indicated that the North German Federation would proceed against the workingmen’s clubs.

In Saxony, the political life of the clubs was particularly active: we agitated uninterruptedly, in order to win the masses. On Pentecost, we had again called a workingmen’s convention at Frankenberg. I presided, and the convention occupied itself principally with a petition for a reform of the Saxon laws on occupations. We demanded a normal ten-hour day, abolition of Sunday work, abolition of the prohibition of coalitions, abolition of child labor in factories and shops, representation of the workingmen in boards of trade and boards of arbitration, autonomy of workingmen’s treasuries, agreement concerning the management of factories and shops between employees and employers. Vahlteich, reporting on the question: “What attitude should the workingmen’s clubs take toward political parties, and what attitude toward the Saxon government?” offered the following resolution: “Resolved, that the convention declines the measures suggested by Schulze-Delitzsch, as insufficient for the solution of the social question, and declares that this question can be solved only in a democratic state by the intervention of the collectivity.”

He also recommended the reading of Socialist writings and newspapers. The resolution caused quite an excitement among the minority, and so I thought I ought to pacify the excited minds by a compromise resolution. In this I was mistaken. Vahlteich’s resolution was adopted against 7 votes, mine against 9 votes. Gera was selected as the meeting place for the next German convention, and the permanent committee sanctioned this choice.

This convention, the fourth, was held on October 6th and 7th. In it 37 clubs and three district federations were represented by 36 delegates. A newcomer among them was the free-religious pastor, Uhlig of Magdeburg, a man of more than medium size, with long white hair. Unfortunately, nature had placed upon his otherwise sympathetic face an immense nose, which disturbed the symmetry. Among the three candidates for president of the convention, who had received the same number of votes, the author, Wartenburg of Gera, was elected by lot. In the course of its proceedings, the convention honored the memory of Bandow of Berlin, who had died in the middle of the Summer of 1866, and of Professor Rossmaessler, who had died in April, 1867. Uhlig reported on the school question in a somewhat mushy lecture, which wound up in sixteen demands. The convention disposed of it by declaring, in a resolution, that it agreed “in a general way.” On the question of organization, upon which Hochberger and Motteler reported, the views at last enforced themselves which I had advocated for years. According to Art. IV, the convention elected a president, who was to be the head of an executive consisting of six other members. This executive was elected by the club to which the president belonged. The seat of this club was the headquarters of the federation. It was, furthermore, decided that the executive of the headquarters should be allowed $300.00 per year for its trouble. In addition to the federal executive, 16 trustees, who would be distributed all over Germany were to be elected, who should act as a control over the management of the executive, and as advisers in important matters. The balloting on the president resulted to my election by a vote of 19 out of 33, while Dr. Max Hirsch received 13 and Krebs of Berlin, 1. This made Leipsic headquarters. The new tendency had won out. We had accomplished what I had long aimed at. The federation now became somewhat capable of action.

Another point of the order of business was a report by myself on the condition of the miners. This report had been suggested by a great calamity in the Lugau coal region, in the Summer of 1867, when 101 workers had been killed, leaving 50 widows and about 150 children. Pursuant to instructions of the workingmen’s club, I had taken up a collection, which netted $1,400.00. We agreed to adopt the following resolution:

“The accidents which have of late occurred in the mining industry make it the duty of every workingman to demand that the governments of the states draw up law, by which every employer or owner of an industrial establishment is made liable for every injury incurred by his employees during the work and caused by the negligence of the former. Particularly are the following measures regarded as necessary for the protection of the miners: (1) Strictest supervision by the state of mining companies. (2) Legal introduction of the system of two shafts, consisting of one working shaft and one safety shaft. (3) Introduction of the principle of compensation to victims of accidents or their families on the basis of a law that shall be passed, and strictest enforcement of the ordinances concerning death or injury thru negligence. (4) Determined opposition to the one-sided introduction of so-called miners’ ordinances (fines, shift rules, miners’ banks), issued by mine owners and mine owners’ organizations, without any consultation, and without the agreement of the workers. (5) Administration of miners’ banks by the workers.”

This was the first time that a German workingmen’s convention demanded the passing of an employers’ liability law, a demand which was fulfilled in 1872 by national legislation, altho in an inadequate manner.

A report on the military question was dispensed with on account of lack of time, but it was agreed to adopt a resolution, which represented a weak compromise, owing to the prevailing divergence of opinions. For this reason, this question was discussed once more at the next national convention in Nuremberg.

With the new organization, a new spirit entered the federation. It was necessary, above all, to stir the majority of the clubs out of their indifference and bring them into effective action. This could be done only by giving them work to perform, and demanding that it be performed. From now on, hardly any issue of the “Arbeiterhalle” appeared that did not bang at its head an appeal of the executive, engaging the activity of the clubs in different matters. The success gradually became apparent. The clubs took on more life. Now the moderate dues of the federation were also paid more regularly than ever before. But in the administration of executive business matters, things took such a course that almost the whole burden fell on me, my having been its president, secretary and treasurer. The elected secretary kept only the minutes of the executive’s sessions, and took care of the files. Among the members of the executive were also Otto Freytag, a lawyer, who soon resigned, Ch. Hadlich and P. Ulrich. The business and the resulting correspondence with the clubs soon grew to gigantic proportions. At the close of the first business year, including August, 1868, the incoming business correspondence amounted only to 253, the outgoing to 543, which was, nevertheless, considerably more than formerly. But from the Nuremberg convention, beginning September 1868, to the Eisenach congress, beginning August, 1869, the number of incoming mail pieces amounted to 907, that of the outgoing to 4484, the greater half of them second class matter. All the rest were letters, and often long letters, by myself.

In addition to this work, there were the sessions of the executive, the management of the Workingmen’s Educational Club, the activity of the North German Reichstag and revenue parliament, numerous agitation tours, and, beginning with the Fall of 1869, the permanent collaboration with the “Demokratisches Wochenblatt,” to which I contributed the entire labor department. Of course, this activity compelled me to neglect my young wife and my small business in an excessive way, and so it was but natural that in financial matters the water reached up to my mouth, so that I did not know what to do.

Since I demanded a similar activity as my own also from others, I had written repeatedly to Vahlteich, and urged him to be more active. In reply, he came back at me in a letter of May 25, 1869, in which he wrote:

“Dear Friend! - Some months ago you wrote me a similar letter of encouragement as that of the day before yesterday. My reply to that former letter made a ‘pitiful’ impression on you. I believe you, but I want to ask you to grant the value of truth to my letters, in view of the fact that I, in a similar situation as yourself, have also worked feverishly and with self-sacrificing impatience.

“From this point of view, I must speak frankly: I fear that you are ruining yourself in more than one way. If I am mistaken, it is very well in the interest of the cause, and I shall be glad of it; but so far as I can judge of matters, I do not understand how you can keep up your activity as an agitator, or your public activity in general, in the long run....”

Then he concluded with the statement that he was in a position where he would have to give up either his position in business or his activity as an agitator.

I must say with reference to this last remark that a large number of party comrades found themselves in the same position as Vahlteich, in the course of years. Our opponents still like to point out to-day that no real laborer is a member of the Socialist representation in the Reichstag. But the simple reason for this is that every workingman, who publicly champions the Social Democracy, is discharged immediately: Either he keeps his mouth shut, or the party that needs agitators, editors, managers, gives him a position. Independent business men in our party were treated even worse, from the early days. At the same time, our opponents denounce the so-called terrorism of the Social Democracy. O these hypocrites! No one exerts a worse terrorism than they. Many and many a brave party comrade have I seen bled to death in the course of decades by the terrorism of our opponents.

For instance, there was Julius Motteler, a man of high idealism, who took part in our agitation in 1867, and for this reason was discharged from his position as business manager of a factory. In order not to give in, and not to clear the field for his opponents, he founded a co-operative spinning and weaving association in Crimmitschau. For a few years it really thrived. But when the war of 1870-71 came, and the Liberals were angry over our attitude, the bank withdrew its credit from the co-operative, and compelled Motteler to go into bankruptcy. He sacrificed his entire fortune, in order to satisfy the creditors as much as possible. Then he took charge of the Leipsic Co-operative Printing Association. Similar proceedings also explain how it is that there are so many tobacco and cigar dealers, saloon keepers, etc., among the leading Socialist and Socialist representatives. They had to take refuge in these lines of business, because these are about the only lines in which the persecuted members can be supported by the comrades. I have also suffered much in twenty-five years of business activity from withdrawals of customers, and the clash of interests between a public activity and business.

Very often friends of mine in bourgeois positions, who could not understand my activity in the labor movement, told me that I was a fool to sacrifice myself for the laborers. They told me to get busy for the capitalist class, and take an interest in municipal affairs, and then I would do a brilliant business, and would soon become city councilor. That seemed the highest attainment to them. I laughed and told them that my ambitions did not aim in that direction.

That I managed to carry the burden of my work - and the years from 1867 to 1872 were the busiest of my life, altho I have never lacked something to do until today - puzzled a good many: To a certain extent it was a wonder even to myself, for I had to struggle several times against disease. In those days, I was a man of small stature with hollow cheeks and a pale face, so that some friends of my wife, who attended our wedding, ventured the prophecy: “Poor girl, she won’t have him long.” Fortunately, it turned out differently.


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