Franz Mehring

Obituary of Friedrich Sorge [1]


Franz Mehring, F.A. Sorge † , Die Neue Zeit, Vol.25 No.1 (1906-07), pp.145-47.
Reprinted in Mehring, Aufsätze zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung [Essays on the History of the Working Class Movement], Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1963, pp.487-89.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A few weeks ago we wrote about the precious gift, that our contributor and comrade, Friedrich Adolph Sorge, made to the international working class movement with the publication of his correspondence with Marx and Engels [2], and today we must already write the obituary of the loyal man.

The loyal man, because loyalty was his innermost essence. Inseparably united to this loyalty was an absolute sincerity. As the first contact between Marx and Engels was unfriendly, so was the first contact between Marx and Sorge. Even during his last weeks Sorge remembered a sharp judgment, which Marx in a letter to other American comrade had brought down on him. When he sent us that letter together with others, he added: “Publish all that seems valuable to you, but what Marx wrote about me, should not be suppressed. I wouldn’t like that.” He never for a moment allowed himself to be suspected of being motivated by petty vanity, though he knew that Marx, through a friendship of many years, had corrected his initial mistake.

Thus was Sorge in everything: loyal and sincere, and of an inflexible rectitude. But he was completely free from what so often goes together with inflexibility: narrowness. The son of a German vicar’s family, he knew none of the usual prejudices which, for instance, confused the judgment of the vicar’s son Albert Lange, for all his often excellent qualities. Sorge’s father was a free thinking parson, one of those Saxon “friends of the enlightenment” which played a most respectable role in the liberalism of the days before May [1848]. The house of Sorge’s father was a station in the underground railroad that led from France and Belgium to Poland. Polish revolutionaries frequently spent the night there, from where they were transported five or six miles further to the next station. That was the time in which Robert Blum, the first revolutionary hero of the boy Sorge, in the quiet nights filed the key, which during the Polish insurrection would open the gates of Krakow’s citadel.

Sorge’s home was blessed with the proverbial abundance of children of the protestant parsons. For that reason the father educated his numerous children himself, giving them a considerable grounding in the classical languages, history and literature. He bequeathed to the young Sorge those teaching abilities that would later enable him to survive the miseries of exile. When Robert Blum was being murdered in Vienna and the counterrevolution triumphed in Berlin, he could no longer remain in his father’s house. He set out to Switzerland, from where he was called back by the news of the uprising in Baden. He took part in the armed insurrection and fought together with Ubstadt. Sentenced to death in his fatherland, he was compelled to flee to Genf and Lüttich, and finally forced by police harassment to cross the ocean.

The United States became his second fatherland. At first he regarded the country with antipathy, because of the slavery in the Southern states and the infamous Fugitive Slave Law. His original intention was to migrate to Australia, and it was only by chance that he boarded the ship that took him to America. But in that way he reached the land which enabled him to carry out a historically significant activity. True, at first he had to dedicate all his forces to the crude struggle for survival. When the German Kaiser and the President of the Union exchanged, a few days ago, sonorous words about the blessed influence of German immigrants on the historical development of the United States, the statement made a rare impression. But it should not be forgotten, that those carriers of culture were thrown out of their country by violence and hunger, and were received as importunate beggars. As Sorge didn’t like to make any fuss about his person, he didn’t speak about the time of want. Only once did he mention it. When we reached the magnificent view from the banks of the battery over the New York harbor, he remarked dryly: “Yes, in those banks I have spent many hungry and freezing nights.”

But the miseries of exile cannot have lasted for long. As teacher of music and singing, Sorge secured for himself a comfortable existence, and a few years after his arrival to America married a young German woman, with whom he shared more than fifty years of the happiest marriage, until his death. His household life was certainly not spared bitter suffering due to the loss of children in their prime of life. When he began to take part in public life, he became the most successful pioneer of the [First] International in America, and towards the end its last standard-bearer. From his correspondence with Marx and Engels, which deals in a detailed fashion with our splits, we can see that towards the end of the International he was united to them by the deepest bounds of friendship and intellectual communion.

Sorge spent the last years of his life in peaceful contemplation, living on the rich treasures of his remembrances and enjoying the loyal friendship of his comrades, especially Julie Romm and Hermann Schlüter. They used to visit him alternately every Sunday at his quiet home in West Hoboken, where he finally retired. Those visits were always a great joy to him; he was particularly fond of comrade Romm. He also had a close relationship with the children of his friend Joseph Dietzgen, which were like his own children for him.

But his foremost interest always continued to be the fate of the working class movement, and especially of its German branch. When we visited him last summer, he received us with truly touching hospitality. We spent unforgettable hours in his modest house, where Marx and Engels greeted us from the walls of the library and Beethoven and Wagner from the music room. He had always been a jolly drinker, and when, as a farewell, we had a last bottle of wine, which he received as a present for his golden wedding celebration, he drank to an early reunion.

Like all people who can look back to a fertile daily task, he was fond of life and didn’t think about death. But because he had a bad winter behind him and was approaching his eightieth birthday, comrade Room, his medical adviser, feared for the coming winter. For that reason his German friends, to whom he had entrusted the honorable task of publishing the manuscript of his correspondence, edited by himself, made haste as far as possible to bring it out. But death proved to be faster than them, and Sorge couldn’t see the finished book.

But his name will live on in that book and in the history of the International, as well as in his precious contributions to Die Neue Zeit, which mourns him as one of its most loyal friends, readers and contributors.




1. Sorge wrote a history of the American working class movement from its origins to 1896, which first appeared as a series of articles in Die Neue Zeit. It was published in English in two volumes, the first of which was unfortunately edited by the arch-Stalinist historian Philip Foner. See Friedrich A. Sorge’s Labor Movement in the United States: A History of the American Working Class from Colonial Times to 1890, edited by Philip S. Foner and Brewster Chamberlin, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977, and Friedrich A. Sorge’s Labor Movement in the United States: A History of the American Working Class from 1890 to 1896, translated by Kai Schoenhals, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. See also Sorge’s memoirs of his participation in the 1848 revolutions: Erinnerungen eines Achtundvierzigers [Remembrances of a Forty-Eighter], Die Neue Zeit, Vol.17 No.2 (1898-99) 150-60, 189-92, 252-56, 284-88, 317-20, 381-84, 414-16, 445-48. – Translator’s Note

2. Franz Mehring, Der Sorgesche Briefwechsel [The Sorge Correspondence], Die Neue Zeit, Vol.25 No.1 (1906-07) pp. 10-19, 50-57. Reprinted in Mehring, Aufsätze zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, Berlin: Dietz, 1963, pp.50-72.


Last updated on 12.4.2004