Sixty Years in the Social-Democratic Movement
I never had any intention of writing my recollections, but when I attended the Cologne Congress, in October, 1893, I was requested by so many comrades to publish my reminiscences of the many phases of the working-class movement in which I had taken part, that I at last consented to do so. The sorrow caused by the death of Frederick Engels (my friend for so many years) and continued ill-health have retarded me in my task.
Born on February 27th, 1825, in Saxe-Weimar, Germany, I was apprenticed to the tailoring trade, in which I have been employed for nearly seventy years. At the age of seventeen, having finished my apprenticeship, I went on my travels, according to German custom. During this period I passed all over the northern part of Germany, and finally settled down to work at Hamburg, where I became a member of the Working Men’s Education Society. Here, at Hamburg, I became acquainted with Democrats and even Socialists. In March, 1847, in order to escape from compulsory military service, I came to London, where I at once joined the Arbeiter-Verein (Workmen’s Educational Society), which is now the Communist Workmen’s Club, 107, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, W.
It is not easy to describe one’s own life; moreover, a life full of sorrow and distress, full of struggling and suffering, which unfortunately so often falls to revolutionary proletarians, is not always a pleasant one. Out of the eighty years of my life, sixty belong to the revolutionary Labour movement.
I witnessed the storms of the second half of the forties of the last century, being then a convinced Communist and a passionate champion of Socialism. Then came years of exile from Germany, followed by bitter persecutions, caused by the agitation of the “Association of the Communists.” Later came the “International Workingmen’s Association,” the Paris Commune, the German Socialist Coercion Law, the inauguration of the international celebration of May-Day—all helping to form the history of Socialism, making the future more and more promising and hopeful.
One of the first works dealing with the social question which attracted my attention was the famous booklet of Weitling’s, called “Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom.” This excited my imagination, and when in 1846, as a young journeyman tailor, I heard a very pronounced Communistic speech in Hamburg, it caused me to imagine that Communism would be realised in a few years. If anybody then had told me that in the next century we should be under the domination of capitalism I should have considered him stupid. The first flash of the idea of Communism dazzled me.
When, however, in 1847, I had the opportunity of hearing Karl Marx and had read and understood the “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” it became clear to me that the enthusiasm and good intentions of individuals were not sufficient to effect a transformation of human society. I had to acknowledge economic development as the decisive factor in the history of human society.
What I lost in enthusiasm and sentiment, however, I gained in clear thinking; much to my joy, for, coming into contact with men of great understanding, my deficiencies soon became apparent to me. At this time I was only 22.
My father died early, and I only remember my stepfather, who treated me with such severity that I avoided him as much as possible. My mother was not allowed to keep me for long, she having to send me to distant relations in the country, where I grew up. In this new home I had to start work at an early age, and went to school very seldom. I still remember very vividly, though, a lesson in natural science, which was characteristic of the whole teaching at that time. “Why is it,” asked the teacher, “that Almighty God lets day and night only come on slowly?” Answer: “In order that people shall not get blind.” That was what we had to answer; and woe to the boy that could not answer quickly.
Religion governed the whole teaching in the schools. The explanation of natural phenomena was only a continuation of the catechism. My education at home and at school was throughout a uniformly religious one. My first experiences in the world soon led me to see that there was a conflict between religion and knowledge which was only removed when later on in life I became a Socialist and then a Materialist.
After having left school I was apprenticed to a master-tailor at Weimar, where I remained as apprentice for four years. It is not necessary to describe in detail the pleasures and sufferings of the life of an apprentice; most of my readers will know them from their own experience. I passed the examination then necessary to qualify as a journeyman and started tramping, as was then the custom with a German journeyman. My first stop was at Jena, the birth-place of my parents. Here I was offered work, which I did not accept, because my ardour for travelling was too strong. I stayed, however, at Jena for some months, and went tramping again in the summer. I rambled about Saxony, Silesia, and the Riesengebirge, the natural beauty of which often prompted me to utter cries of admiration, and arrived at Breslau, where I would have liked to have stayed, but I could not find work. Then I started for Berlin, where I was again unsuccessful in getting work. Only in Mecklenburg did I succeed, and when my job ended I went to Hamburg. This was in the autumn of 1843. Hamburg was still in ruins, caused by the great fire which had been raging there the year before. Here I found good and profitable work, and remained for three years. In the autumn of 1846 I had to leave Hamburg to fulfil my compulsory military service in my own little “fatherland.” At Weimar I presented myself to the military authorities, and was found fit for service; but as I had not presented myself the year before, according to law, double service was imposed upon me as punishment. However, they gave me leave till the spring of 1847, which induced me to go back to Hamburg for the time. It was here that a crisis in my life took place—instead of becoming a soldier of “Absolutism” I became a soldier of Freedom.
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