Hermann Duncker 1925

Ferdinand Lassalle's Centenary

(April 11th, 1825)

Sources: International Press Correspondence, Vol 5, No. 30, April 9, 1925, pp. 400-401; Daily Worker, Vol. 2, No. 98, May 7, 1925, p. 6.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
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Does Ferdinand Lassalle belong to the ranks of great Communists from Marx to Lenin? It is true that Lassalle who was by seven years the younger, called himself Marx' disciple, looked up to Marx as the leader of the party and earnestly sought his friendship; nevertheless Lassalle was never a Marxist, either in his fundamental philosophical attitude or in his political tactics.

This became glaringly evident on various occasions, and only Lassalle's early death prevented Marx and Engels from publicly disowning him during his lifetime, and meting out political justice to him as to a Proudhon or a Bakunin. Later on, Marx, in a pitiless way, ran down Lassalle in a letter to Kugelmann (1865) and, in the marginal notes to the Gotha program, the program for an alliance between the Bebel-Liebknecht group at Eisenach and Lassalle's partisans (1875), he smashed the essential points of Lassalle's theory into smithereens.

The leaders of social democracy, which pretend to be Marxist, indeed concealed both condemnations from the mass of their members for many years. The marginal notes were only published 16 years later, the letter to Kugelmann 17 years after the other letters had been printed.

Even in the Marx-Engels correspondence certain very harsh expressions against Lassalle seem to have been suppressed by the publisher. This is how the socialist party of Germany guards against any wrong being done to its party saint Lassalle. As a matter of fact, the socialist party of Germany has much more in common with Lassalle than with Marx, although now it is far behind Lassalle in "practical politics" and can no longer claim to be heir to his views, for he was at least always a bitter opponent of the bourgeois party.

Lassalle was no doubt an eminent personality, a man of genius. Possessed of titanic ambition, of an extraordinary passion for work, of quick intellectual grasp, a clever and witty writer, one of the greatest orators of history - all qualities which made Lassalle prominent in the barren field of the intellectual life of the day in Germany, it is easy to understand how he must have struck all around hint, how such extraordinary homage and admiration was paid him. The greater men with whom he might have been compared, Marx and Engels, had been abroad since 1849, and were thus remote from Lassalle. Lassalle had remained in Germany as the last of the Mohicans of the Communist revolutionaries. No wonder that the self-consciousness which characterized him even in his youth gradually assumed dimensions which led to painful conflicts and thus modified even his view of life in a way which made it still more difficult for him to accept the materialistic conception of history. An idealistic conception of history was more in keeping with his mental attitude, one that regards the great personality as the bearer and manifestation of the spirit of his time and, in a certain sense, "makes history."

"You see here the remarkable spectacle of an agitation which has seized hold of the masses, which has roused a whole nation to take a stand passionately on one side or the other - all this emanating from the conscience of a single man." (Speech at the Dusseldorff trial, 1864.)

Thus Lassalle could, on one occasion (1860) write to Marx: "Hatred in the masses can accomplish anything. If only there are five people in the whole country who possess understanding also." This is a Nietzscheanism which defies all socialism and shows a complete want of understanding of the significance and the nature of a revolutionary "party." Lassalle is possessed by an "ideologism" - as Marx once called it - which constantly limits his social discernment. This had the most serious consequences in his idealistic worship of the state, and in this connection led to the worst derailments in practical politics.

Lassalle cannot boast of a completely uniform philosophical and political view of life. He was an eclectic in the grand style, who today was under the spell of Marx, tomorrow under that of Rodbertus, but was never free from that of Hegel . . . In a letter to Marx, Lassalle refers to Hegel's conception of history, "to which I subscribe in all essentials." The spirit, the spirit of the people, expresses itself in history, embodies itself in the moral community, the state. On one occasion, Lassalle refers to science as "a neutral territory, a sanctuary which must on no account be devastated by the storm of political hatred." It seems that the state is to Lassalle almost another such "neutral territory."

This does not indeed prevent Lassalle on the other hand, in one of his writings, from representing the "actual conditions of power" in a very telling way as the native soil of constitutions. Lassalle believes in revolution, but does not want to bring it about, but to "humanize and civilise it." Lassalle organizes the working class by the formation of the General German Labor Association on May 22, 1863, but emphatically declines the thought of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In his speech "The Worker's Reader" (1863) he protests against

"the enormity of having called upon the working classes to aim at a class supremacy over the other classes."

The liberation of the working clams can only be effected by the working class itself. Lassalle repeatedly violates even this essential Marxist doctrine of the later First international. Besides his passionate appeal to the working class, hope for help from above, for the help of the possessing classes, finally even for the help of "social monarchy," is constantly cropping up. This places Lassalle as a utopian socialist, back into pre-Marxist socialism.

"The fetters must be struck off your feet; but only in peace, thru the initiative of the intelligenzia and with the sympathetic help of the possessing class," exclaims Lassalle in his "Speech on the Labor Question" (1863) to the German proletariat.

How did Lassalle imagine the realization of socialism? Universal suffrage is to him the great instrument of peace which will make the state accessible to the wishes of the proletariat, without any necessity for the undesirable "wild proletarian revolution." The workers form productive associations, and the democratic state - possibly even the reactionary Prussian state will make the start! - contributes the capital. In this way, private capital will gradually be ousted by competition in a perfectly peaceful manner, and there will be no need for a brutal expropriation of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary:

"The worker will never forget that all property which has once been acquired is inviolable and lawful." (Labor Programme" 1862.)

This being Lassalle's fundamental attitude, it is easy to understand his so-called "tactical evolution." Lassalle wanted action, he wanted most of all to see universal suffrage established as the political foundation. The General German Labor Association developed too slowly for him. Bismark was already coquetting with the idea of universal suffrage. At this juncture Lassalle intervened personally in order to stimulate Bismarck, the junker, to quicker action in this direction, in order to make history! Lassalle had a series of private political discussions with Bismarck in the winter of 1863-64. And in the agitation of the last year of his life - Lassalle died on August 31, 1864 - he made more and more definite references to this help from above, in other words, from the extreme right.

"All extreme parties have a natural affinity for one another," he said is his speech at the trial for high treason in 1864. Lassalle for instance, addressed a telegraphic complaint to Bismarck with regard to the limitation of the right of assembly on the part of a progressive mayor, as he had also, as early as 1858, approached the "cartridge prince" with a personal petition - all actions which to a revolutionary like Marx would have seemed absolutely impossible. Marx indeed jeered, with bitter justification, at the "practical politician" Lassalle, who "wanted to play the part of the Marquis of Posa of the proletariat with the Philipp II of the Uckermark." (Letter to Kugelmann 1865.)

That which Lassalle with his own hand wrote in 1865 in his great letter to Marx and Engels about his Sickingen drama, came to pass in a terrible way on Lassalle himself:

"For in the final analysis, Sickingen's diplomatic amalgamation of his insurrection with his non-revolutionary action, and the failure of the former, arose just from the fact that he was unable in his heart to make a final break with the past, with which he himself was still connected and which he represented."

Lassalle's political legacy had further disastrous effects on German social democracy. It euphemized that attitude towards the bourgeois state which was finally, but in a more cynical way, expressed by revisionism and, since 1914, has been sanctioned before the whole world as the supreme political practical policy of the socialist party of Germany within the peaceful precincts of the coalition policy. Lassalle's nationalism and Bernstein's reformism form the theoretical points of support of opportunism against Marxism. It is thus no mere coincidence that is the present-day socialist party of Germany a new Lassalleism has been spreading for some time and that from that side the slogan is heard: Back to Lassalle! - whereas the class conscious proletariat of the Third international cries: Forward to Marx and Lenin!