Franz Mehring

Our Old Masters and
Their Modern Substitutes


Translator: Eric Nirl.
Source: The Class Struggle, Vol.I, No. 3, Sept-Oct, 1917
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, June 2002.

The course pursued from the outset of the world war by the party leadership (parliamentary group, National Committee, National Executive Committee, etc.), based on the well meant but nevertheless gratuitous assumption that it was supported by the majority of the rank and file, is characterized by obvious simplicity. War is war; war is a question of national existence; the working class must waive independent action in favor of national existence and without a will of its own must sacrifice class interests to be taken in tow by the ruling class.

But there is one point on which the advocates of this policy are not agreed. Some, like Cunow, etc., set up the claim that they are THE Marxians in contradistinction to us poor souls with our petrified lifeless formalism. The others, however, such as Scheidemann, are quite emphatic in denying the importance of scientific research, thus conveniently disposing of Lassalle, Marx, Engels, etc.

The latter were deluded into believing that learning and knowledge are fundamental to political management. Lassalle said that political conviction was possible only on the rock-solid foundation of scientific realization. Mere sentimental inclination was not sufficient, being by its nature a product of circumstances, temperament, moods, and therefore transitory. Marx wrote in 1850, when the “practical” persons in the Communist Union ridiculed his unpractical system of study: “I usually spend from 9 in the morning to 7 in the evening in the British Museum. Naturally, the democratic simps don’t have to go to that much trouble. Why should they worry their heads about this historical and economic material, these favored sons? It is all so self-evident, they always tell me. Simple as can be! in these simple-minded heads.” Which shows clearly that whoever considers study and research a waste of time has disposed of any further relations with Marx and his kind.

But Scheidemann is absolutely consistent in the position he has taken. The. “practical” system of politics really has nothing in common with our Old Masters. But the practical politicians have no business to hide this difference in order to be lionized under false colors.

In denying to them this right, we hope no one will consider us guilty of playing unfair, for we merely emphasize thereby the brilliant virtuosity of Scheidemann.

Our Old Masters had historical minds, and therefore never took the unhistorical stand: War is war, and every war is to be measured by the same conventional hand-rule.

To them every war was the outgrowth of certain conditions and purposes, on which depended the stand that the working class was to take. In respect to these concrete circumstances, they may have differed more or less, but always subject to the deciding qualification that the war was to be exploited as thoroughly as possible in the interest of proletarian emancipation. According to their class theory, there was no difference between peace and war unless it be that in war time the working class must look after its interests even more sharply, and must be even more uncompromising in support of them.

In the year 1859 Lassalle had quite a dispute with Marx and Engels on the war that France was then waging with the assistance of Russia against Austria, which, as the controlling power of the German Bund, tried also to drag in the German states into the conflict. The fact is that there developed, particularly in South Germany, a strong sentiment against France which Engels and Marx believed to be a truly national, instinctive expression, and therefore a source of revolutionary action to be used according to their wish, in a war against the Bonapartist regime. Lassalle on the other hand was of the opinion that the sentiment against France was an inherited prejudice of former days and was therefore essentially reactionary; if the German government wants to tackle France let them try their luck, but such a war must be made repulsive to the masses as a reactionary manufacture of cabinets, so that inevitable eventualities and changes may then be made to serve Revolutionary progress.

This one instance is cited here – there were others as well – because it shows how easily different opinions can arise on the basis of the actual conditions preceding a war, and also how it can lead to opposite deductions. But, as Marx himself affirmed, it was a question only of “contrary conclusions from the same premises”; in their aims and purposes they were entirely agreed, that it was solely and only a question of the revolutionary interests, which, in their estimation, were at the same time national interests. Engels wrote to Lassalle: “Long live war, if the French and Russians attack us both at the same time; if we are nearly drowning, then in such a desperate situation all parties from the ruling class down must exhaust their efforts to the last man, and the Nation to save itself, must finally turn to the most efficient group.” Lassalle remarked in this connection: “Very true; and for the last two months I have been wearing myself out to show that if the government goes to war it is simply playing into our hands, and just on that account is hastening the Revolution enormously.” “But,” he added, “the war sought by the Prince Regent must be made unpopular among the masses in order to be thus converted into a great revolutionary blessing.”

The Prince Regent did not risk declaring war on France in 1859, and so this test never materialized. Neither did the Prince earn any diplomatic laurels by not going to war, which didn’t make Lassalle feel bad either. “I believe in the principle of nationality as sincerely as anyone,” he wrote to Marx, “but what the devil do you and I care for the honor of the Prince of Prussia? As all his aims and interests run directly contrary to the aims and interests of the German people, it is far more in the interest of the people that the power of the Prince in the outside world should be as small as possible. The power of the German people will develop of its own accord. But it can only and will only be achieved when we have a popular government, and not under our dynasties. The greatness of the German people and the greatness of the German dynasties are two things that to me are as far apart as the north and the south pole.”

Neither was this simply stated in the heat of controversy, for it was a fundamental, not to say the fundamental, principle of Lassalle’s national political views. In his carefully studied speech entitled What Next? in which he urges the progressive elements to wage an energetic fight against the Bismarck ministry, he calls attention to the need of undermining Bismarck’s foreign policy. “Let no one think that this is merely unpatriotic reasoning. Political students like naturalists must take into account all existing forces; there is no telling in what stage of barbarism the world might still be were it not for the fact that the jealousy and antagonism between the governments has been an effective means of making internal progress compulsory. The German nation is not built on sand, so that a defeat of the government would endanger the national existence. If therefore we get into war it might involve the collapse of our various governments, the Saxon, Prussian, Bavarian, etc., but from out of the ashes would arise, like a phoenix, indestructible, the only thing we really care about – the German people.”

The petty bourgeois to whom Lassalle explained this relation, greeted it with applause, but permitted themselves a couple of years afterward to be converted by Bismarck to the system of government domination, as a result of which they were the subject of endless ridicule in the party press. To-day, however, they are avenged, and the political management of the Social Patriots reflects clarifying rays on the deserted spheres of former activities. It recalls the motto of the National-Liberals of 1867. If you fail to recognize the psychological moment to discard old values for new ones you betray, as Haenisch puts it, a lack of brains or, as Scheidemann says, an excess of learning.

As in the war of 1859, so in those of 1866 and 1870, there were differences of opinion within the Social Democracy, but they were always limited to the “specific conditions leading up to the war” – there was never any question concerning the fundamental canon, that the working class in each and every war must follow its own independent political course.

After the revolution of 1848 had failed to create a united Germany the German government tried to utilize the growing need of economic unity, for dynastic purposes, to create, not a united Germany, but as the then King William put it, an elongated Prussia. Lassalle and Schweitzer, Marx and Engels, Liebknecht and Bebel agreed absolutely that the German unity which the German proletariat needed could be attained only through national revolution, and they therefore fought uncompromisingly all dynastic aspirations based on a greater Prussia. But they had to concede subsequently on account of the cowardice of the Bourgeoisie and the weakness of the proletariat that a national revolution was utterly impossible, and that the Prussia “of blood and iron” offered more favorable prospects for the proletarian struggle than any futile efforts to put the Bourgeoisie back into power. After Sedan they accepted the Prussian-German Empire, such as it was, as an accomplished fact, furnishing a better basis for the struggle for emancipation than the preceding wretched regime.

There were still traces of a split in the Social Democracy when it came to voting the war credits in July, 1870; all the Social Democratic deputies voted favorably except Liebknecht and Bebel, who abstained from voting. When in December of the same year the second war credit was to be granted, all differences had disappeared, and every single parliamentary deputy voted “No.” All the groups of the Social Democracy of that time lined up as a unit against the militarism of the class-controlled government, a stand to which the party has adhered ever since, until the 4th of August, 1914.

Emphatically as Marx and Engels supported the war of 1870 up to Sedan, because the downfall of Napoleon was the supreme interest of the European working class movement, just as decidedly did they oppose the war from that point onward, because it was being waged solely for the annexation of Alsace Lorraine; in other words, for a purpose, whose accomplishment, as they foresaw and foretold, threatened the greatest danger to the working class.

Notwithstanding the severity with which Marx and Engels condemned the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, they never supported the French agitation for revenge, after the annexation had become an accomplished fact. Always and ever, they were guided by the principle: “We must collaborate in securing the freedom of the proletariat of western Europe, and everything else is secondary.” Thus, too, they answered the complaints of the oppressed people of Alsace-Lorraine: “If on the eve of Revolution that is visibly approaching, they provoke war between France and Germany by reviving the excitement of the people, so that the Revolution is thereby postponed, I cry: ‘Halt! You can afford to be as patient as the European proletariat; if it frees itself, you are freed automatically at the same time; until then you have no right to interfere with the struggling proletariat, so as to divert its efforts into false channels.’” Thus spoke Engels in 1882.

And he was never able to rid himself of a feeling of uneasiness that the French sentiment for Revenge would be the starting point of a new European war. Subsequently he wrote an article in the Neue Zeit on this subject, and as the present party leadership has made innumerable references to the statements therein contained for the benefit of the German workers, it will be necessary to spend a little extra time on the matter here.

In the article in question, Engels outlines briefly the history of the German party. He shows the irresistible growth of the German Social Democracy, and predicted victory in about ten years. While revolutionary policy and tactics can never, and will never, be waived, the progress for the Rime being within legal limits is excellent. If any blood is spilt, and that is entirely up to the Bourgeoisie, then the force of such a counterrevolution might delay the triumph of Socialism a few years, but it would be all the more complete in the end.

However, all this is true, Engels continues, only if Germany can pursue its economic and political development peacefully. A war would alter everything. And war might break out from one day to the next. France and Russia on one side, Germany and Austria and perhaps Italy on the other. The Socialists of all these countries, pressed into service against their will, would have to fight each other. So Engels asks: In a case like this what would the German Social Democracy do, and what would become of it7

He states, in so many words, what would become of it as follows:

This much is certain: Neither the Czar nor the French Bourgeois republicans, nor the German government itself would let such a grand opportunity pass to smother the only party that is their common enemy. We have seen how Thiers and Bismarck joined hands over the ruins of the Paris Commune; we would also live to see how the Czar, Constans and Caprivi or their respective successors would fall into each other’s arms over the corpse of Socialism.

Engels then continues: Over against such a prospect, what is the duty of the German Socialists? Shall they remain passive in the face of developments which threaten them with annihilation, shall they, by a policy of non-resistance, give up their position as pioneers of the international proletariat? To which Engels replies, and we cite verbatim, in view of the circumstance that the present leadership has so often and endlessly referred to this passage, although they always distort it, for good reasons:

By no means. In the interest of the European revolution they are in duty bound to maintain their ground, not to capitulate neither to the enemy within nor without. And this they can do only by fighting Russia to the last inch and all her allies, whoever they may be. Should the French Republic become the servant of his Majesty the Czar and Autocrat of all the Russias, the German Socialists would fight France, regretfully but inevitably. French republicanism may possibly stand for bourgeois political liberty over against imperial Germany. But alongside the republic of Constans, Rouvier and Clemenceau, and particularly a republic which is the servant of the Czar, German Socialism unquestionably is the carrier of the proletarian Revolution.

A war in which Russians and Frenchmen invaded Germany would be to the latter a life and death struggle, in which its national existence could be assured only by the application of the most revolutionary measures. The present government will surely not open up the way to revolution, if not driven by compulsion. But we have a powerful party which can either force the hand of government or can if necessary take its place, the Social-Democratic party.

And we have not forgotten the wonderful example that France set us in 1793. The anniversary of 1793 approaches. If the Czar’s lust for conquest and the chauvinistic restlessness of the French bourgeoisie should interrupt the victorious but peaceful advance of the German Socialists, then you may be sure that they are ready to prove to the world that the German proletarian of to-day is not unworthy of the French sans-culottes and that 1893 may be placed alongside of 1793. And if the soldiers of Monsieur Constans set foot on German territory, we will greet them with the refrain from the Marseillaise:

Quoi, ces cohortes étrangeres
Feraient la ioi dans nos foyers?

In short: Peace insures the victory of the Social Democratic Party in about ten years. War either brings victory in two or three years or total ruin for at least fifteen to twenty years. In the face of this, the German Socialists would have to be crazy to want war, thereby placing everything in jeopardy, instead of waiting for a sure peaceful triumph. What is more, no Socialist, whatever his nationality, can desire the triumph either of the present German government or of the French bourgeois republicans or, least of all, of the Czar, which would mean the oppression of Europe. And therefore the Socialists of all countries are for peace.

Thus spoke Engels.

Strange, how the present leadership, whose representatives, as a rule, could not condemn Engels severely enough “for playing with revolutionary fire” and for his “hasty prophesying” have taken such a fancy to this article of our master. The riddle can be solved, however, by taking into account that isolated sentences taken disconnectedly are well suited to blind the worker. Sentences, mind you, which are to show, not that the Germans must fight the Russians and Frenchmen when attacked – for the workers will do that without the aid of quoted authority – but sentences which, through the reverence for the writer that attaches to them, shall serve to drive the workers instinctively and blindly into the arms of the ruling class.

The political policy of the present leadership means a complete break with the mental heritage of our old masters, and with the history and principles heretofore, of the Social Democracy. The logical consequence of such a course would be a national social-reform workingmen’s party, in harmony with militarism and the monarchy, contenting itself with reforms attainable within the sphere of capitalist society. On the other hand, if the abyss that divides the present from the past were to be covered over by phrases and fine words, it will undermine the vitality of the deluded toiling masses for an indefinite future period.


Last updated on 2020-01-21