Karl Kautsky

Ferdinand Lassalle: A 25-year memorial

(August 1889)

Source: Karl Kautsky, Ferdinand Lassalle: A 25-year memorial, Cosmonaut, 31. August 2020.
Translated by Emma Anderson.
Copied with thanks from the Cosmonaut Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On the 31st of August, a quarter of a century will have passed since the guardian of the German proletariat closed his eyes for the last time. Everywhere there are German workers, or even, everywhere there is a labor movement who have been influenced by German socialism, will on this day gratefully remember the late Lassalle, who with both large success and courage stood up for rights of the proletariat as one of the few who understood the power, endurance and heroism that the working-class can show while for others it seemed hopeless, desperate really, to spend time on this class.

To try and give a sketch of Ferdinand Lassalle’s life and actions for the working-class here would be a waste of time. There are few who have become so popular and whose life story has become so known to the masses. Maybe there is no other socialist whose greatness is admitted by both sides, by enemies as well as friends.

It is not without its issues that the enemy praises Lassalle. They do it to mark him with tendencies to make him out to be a nationalist, royalist state-socialist as opposed to the international, republican social-democracy; they want to play Marx and Lassalle against each other.

This is of course only possible by using false facts. Lassalle never showed any opposition against internationalism and never hid his republican convictions. The spirit that carried his agitation was the same spirit that permeated the Communist Manifesto and dominated the International.

His demands for universal suffrage and for state-supported worker-owned production associations, his struggle against the Progressive Party and Manchester Liberalism, these are all aligned with the essence of modern socialism as they proceed from the fundamental understanding that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself, through class-struggle, which is by necessity also a political struggle that must have to goal of seizing state power to use it in the interest of the working class for the socialist transformation of society.

But if Lassalle’s agitation and demands were filled with the same thought as the Communist Manifesto it follows that it was adjusted to the period that he was active; it corresponds to Germany during the 1860s, more specifically the turbulent time in Prussia. Alongside the genius and fiery passion of Lassalle it was not the least of all the adjustment of his agitation that produced such surprising and great results that gave rise to a real legend that still distorts the image of the great agitator.

But this adjustment to a specific time and place was only meant to be provisional; Lassalle’s program was as half-baked as the country he wanted to change. To the misfortune of both his work and our party he died right before the great upheavals in Germany started, which would surely have led him to develop and expand his program. Modern Germany first came to be in the political revolutions in 1866 and 1870, alongside the industrial revolution, and which is still developing.

Lassalle’s primary political demand, universal suffrage, has long since been carried out. The Manchester rule is dead, the Progressive Party has shrunk and become marginalized, and the production associations of one-off workers, which Lassalle never put too much emphasis on, in the age of international production no longer make up a transitional form to a higher mode of production but instead the last elements of a dying mode of production. But the economic workers’ organizations, which were in Lassalle’s time not known by name in Germany or anywhere on the continent for that matter, but Marx advocated their importance for the class-struggle already in 1847 – we mean of course the trade unions.

That all these revolutions must firstly benefit the most revolutionary of all parties, social-democracy, is a simple fact. They did not simply expand the number of members but also the goal. It became more than Lassallieanism.

It is no wonder that the opposition against Social-Democracy, weary in the face of its success, long for the time of Lassalle’s beautiful agitation. These fools don’t understand that that the course of events is always stronger than its largest genius, they also forget that Lassalle stood on the same groundings as modern Social-Democracy when he started his agitation; he would have been the first to develop his program after the changing conditions; that his work for a free and united Germany would never have brought him to see the modern Bismarckian as the realization of his goals; and his ideas for state cooperatives would have made him a resolute enemy to the “social-kingdom” of Wilhelm the First and Second, who without a doubt would have taken up the demands of Lassalle but changed its meaning to something else entirely.

But the state-socialists don’t have a real reason to wish that Lassalle was still alive, or even a real reason to appeal to the dead Lassalle against modern and living social-Democracy, differences of opinions notwithstanding in their expressions. Even if Lassalle’s agitation was made for a specific time and place they are still to this day the best propaganda texts that Social-Democracy has. Here we can see the real greatness of the man. It pulls every reader in, regardless if one is a worker, scientist, an experienced politician or an illusion filled young one. The clarity and depth of his thinking, expressed with sharp and certitude, the proud superiority and fiery passion – all work together to make for inspiring and overwhelming agitation.

As a politician, and no less a theoretician, Lassalle already belongs to history and has been tried through its critique. But as an agitator he still lives in his youth among all German-speaking workers, still brings fire to the heart of the working-class struggle for emancipation, and still hardens one’s character against persecution and oppression. When we remember Lassalle we should not only remember the fallen hero, who fought for our cause and has been a role model, let us also remember the immortal Lassalle – “the fighter and the thinker”, as is written on his gravestone – that which lives inside and with us: the spirit which is communicated through his texts. And what better way to celebrate his memory than to occupy ourselves fully with his spirit and spreading it among the proletariat, “the rock on which the future church will be built.”

Last updated on 9 May 2021