David Riazanov

Lassalle and Bismarck

(July 1928)

Originally published in Pravda, 14 July 1928
Translation in Labour Monthly, February and March 1929.
Transcribed by Adam Buick.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Back to Lassalle”. Such was the slogan uttered by Struve [1] in 1900 when he put forward the “undying idealism” and “realpolitik” of Lassalle as against the dialectical materialism and “idealistic” tactics of Marx.

“Marx was unjust to Lassalle, Marx underestimated Lassalle,” so the Russian followers of Struve repeated in various tones.

During Lassalle’s life, Marx did not once express himself either against his agitation or his literary activity. In Capital he devoted to Lassalle a single remark in which he emphasised that the economic views of the author of Capital and Labour were not identical with his own. Only in 1891 did Engels publish Marx’ famous letter on the Gotha programme in which the theoretical views and political tactics of Lassalle were subjected to sharp criticism.

The views of Marx and Engels on the political activity of Lassalle were appropriated by Bernstein who, however, in places gave them almost the form of a caricature in the biography written for the collection which he edited of selected works of Lassalle. When, freed from Engels’ supervision, in 1896 he began to move away from Marx, he “revised” also his views on Lassalle. Just at this time Mehring came to meet him. Considering the rehabilitation of Schweitzer [2] as one of his most important tasks, the most talented follower and pupil of Lassalle, the author of the History of German Social Democracy, was compelled also to undertake the rehabilitation of Lassalle.

It was a very difficult task. It was necessary to prove that the opportunist policy against which Mehring was declaring himself at that time was the sole correct policy in the past. To defend and justify the tactics of Lassalle and Schweitzer meant to attack those of Marx and Engels. Mehring came out in defence of Lassalle against Marx especially definitely in the fourth volume of the Literary Remains of Marx, Engels and Lassalle.

The comments which Mehring furnished for the letters of Lassalle to Marx which he published represented an apologia for the tactics of Lassalle in the ’fifties, and prepared the way also for an apologia for his actions in the early ’sixties. Whoever says A must say B also. When Mehring took part in the publication of the correspondence of Marx and Engels, he perceived to his astonishment that they occupied a completely independent position in the disputes of Liebknecht and Bebel (the Eisenachers) with Schweitzer (Lassallist), that they criticised the views and tactics of Liebknecht much more sharply than anyone else dared to do, defending Schweitzer against the attacks of Liebknecht and Bebel, as Mehring himself does in his History of German Social Democracy.

But is it true that the tactics of Schweitzer were only a continuation of Lassalle’s tactics? How to explain the stubborn hostility of Marx to Lassalle? Mehring, quite unperceived by himself, slid down to the point of view of “personalities” in history. The attitude of Marx and Engels was explained only by their personal antipathy to Lassalle. Mehring took on himself the thankless task of “defending” Lassalle – as he did also in relation to Bakunin – against the “unjust” attacks of Marx.

Mehring began to repair the “injustice”. In a well-known article entitled On the Antagonism between Lassalle and Marx (Neue Zeit, Vol.III, June 27, 1913) Mehring came out sharply against the “fanatical” worshippers of Marx, among whom Kautsky was at that time still included. Mehring’s point of view, which he continued to maintain even in his biography of Marx, published in 1918, was given clear expression in the following tirade:–

“As long as Marx’ sun shone in the heavens in solitary splendour, it was still possible, in strict agreement with the ‘greatest scientific seriousness and the most fervent interest in our common cause’, to make the most gross accusations against the presumably eclipsed Lassalle. But from the time when only an insignificant portion of the party continues to believe in the mythical stories about various deals of Lassalle and Schweitzer with Bismarck, from the time when the mists began to remove themselves from the image of Lassalle and to threaten to concentrate themselves in the form of clouds about the sun of Marx, from that time the threatening song of the high priests [Mehring intends those who bowed down to Marx] is converted into a soft, conciliatory melody.”

In Mehring’s opinion, after the publication of Marx’ letter on the Gotha programme, it was no longer possible to deny the “unpleasant” fact that Marx “had an unfair judgment of the personality of Lassalle and completely failed to understand the significance of his activity.” The correspondence between Marx and Engels only strengthened Mehring in this conviction.

Unfortunately, Mehring’s viewpoint found adherents in the Left group of German Social Democracy and afterwards also among the Communists. Not wishing to be “unjust” to Lassalle, Mehring and his disciples became “unjust” to Marx. Accusing the latter of failing to understand the significance of Lassalle’s activity, they thereby only proved that they had a poor conception of the opposition existing between the views of Lassalle and Marx.

On what grounds did Marx and Engels reprove Lassalle, and why did they condemn his political tactics? In the first place, Lassalle completely denied any succession from the old party, the Communist League, and the whole previous German Revolutionary Labour Movement. Of course, this was done partly because Lassalle did not want to “compromise” the new Labour Movement. But in whose eyes? In the eyes of the enemies of the working class Lassalle appeared as a “liquidator” of the old party.

In the second place, Lassalle in his struggle against the Progressists [3], against the Liberal bourgeoisie, sought a union with the feudal and absolutist elements. This was not merely a temporary enthusiasm, an exigency arising from the heat of political struggle, it was a definite system, for Lassalle succeeded in obtaining immediate practical success. This also explains his relations to Bismarck, the apostle of Prussian junkerdom.

A series of public declarations made by Lassalle in 1863-64, caused Marx, and more especially Engels, to regard with increasing suspicion the agitation of Lassalle. The well-known Ronsdorf [4] speech showed that Lassalle, in the interests of his “realpolitik,” did not hesitate to adopt any kind of flattery towards the King of Prussia, the proverbial “cardboard prince.” Even Bernstein, who has radically changed his old views on Lassalle, was compelled in 1922 to write with regard to this speech that “it is impossible to serve two masters,” that the endeavour to modulate one’s language so as to produce the desired effect on the “heads” led, in fact, to the adoption of a completely Caesarist tone. “This speech,” continues Bernstein, “was a two-fold proclamation of Caesarism: Caesarism in the ranks of the party and Caesarism in the policy of the party.”

In a letter to Kugelmann, on February 23, 1865, Marx wrote that it was only after the death of Lassalle that it was revealed to him that Lassalle in fact betrayed the party. Lassalle

“concluded a formal treaty with Bismarck (of course, without there being any kind of guarantee that the agreement would be adhered to by Bismarck). At the end of September, 1864, he was to travel to Hamburg in order to ‘force’ Bismarck to annex Schleswig-Holstein, i.e. to proclaim it to be a re-union in the name of the ‘workers.’ Bismarck, for his part, promised universal suffrage and certain charlatan measures of a quasi-socialist character.

“Lassalle [writes Marx further] could go astray in this way because he was a believer in ‘realpolitik’ after the manner of Mr. Miquel, only of greater calibre and with wider aims. Just as Miquel and his latest friends took up the ‘new era’ proclaimed by the Prussian Prince-regent in order to begin his national-union tinsel and to make use of the idea of ‘Prussian supremacy’; just as they all in general began to develop their ‘civil pride’ under Prussian protection, so exactly did Lassalle wish to play the role of a proletarian Marquis Posa in relation to the Ukkermarck Philip II. Bismarck had to take on himself the role of a pimp between him and the Prussian King. He only imitated the gentlemen of the National Union. But while they invoked Prussian ‘reaction’ in the interests of the middle class, he exchanged hand-clasps with Bismarck in the interests of the proletariat. They had so much greater justification than Lassalle, inasmuch as the bourgeoisie is accustomed to regard as ‘reality’ what lies immediately in front of its nose, and inasmuch as this class everywhere made compromises even with feudalism. The working class, however, in the very nature of things has to be honestly ‘revolutionary.’ For a theatrically ostentatious nature like Lassalle’s (which, however, could not be bought by such trifles as lucrative posts, &c.) what was seductive was the perspective of important achievements, immediately in the interests of the working class, for which the latter would be indebted to Ferdinand Lassalle.”

A happy chance – it is true, a chance which could not have “happened” if it had not been for the German revolution of 1918 – gives us now the possibility of verifying the judgment made by Marx and Engels. Some months ago, in the cabinet of the Prussian prime minister, Otto Braun, the same cabinet wherein was once seated the Iron Chancellor, an old chest which had been there from unremembered times fell to pieces simply from excessive decrepitude. It appeared that it contained various official papers. Among them was discovered a correspondence between Lassalle and Bismarck. Otto Braun gave them for publication to Gustave Mayer, the well-known biographer of Schweitzer and Engels, and also to the publishers of Lassalle’s literary remains.

It is difficult to establish in what way letters of Bismarck to Lassalle also got into this chest. It is true that they are very few, and their contents also are of no kind of interest. It is clear that Bismarck did not wish to compromise himself in any way. He preferred to “listen,” and if he uttered his opinion, it was only orally, face to face, without witnesses. Lassalle, on the contrary, both spoke a lot and wrote a lot. Until this time only two letters of Lassalle to Bismarck were known. In any case, Bismarck for some reason considered it important for himself to get back even his shortest notes.

First of all, the new-found letters of Lassalle enable a fact of the utmost importance to be established, a fact so far completely unknown. Even Oncken, who investigated this question with especial care, makes the supposition, in the last edition of his biography of Lassalle, that the first meeting of Lassalle and Bismarck took place in May following the foundation of the Universal German Workingmen’s Association [5], that is after May 23, 1863. There could not have been many such meetings, for Lassalle left Berlin at the end of June and only returned in October. Bebel, who always pointed out that the initiative in these meetings proceeded from Bismarck, considered that they took place in the autumn and winter of 1863-64.

Now we know that Bismarck met Lassalle for the first time already before the foundation of the Universal German Workingmen’s Association. Of course, Bismarck was already acquainted with Lassalle’s utterances against the Progressists and with his Open letter to the Leipzig Committee.

What exactly was the subject of the conversations of May 12-13, 1863, we do not exactly know. The tone adopted by Lassalle is best of all shown by his first letter, together with which he sends to Bismarck “the constitution of my State, with regard to which you may, perhaps, be a little envious of me.”

The member of the Communist League, the revolutionary, republican and democrat, writes as follows to the most evil representative of Prussian junkerdom who, in the beginning of June, 1863, had only just published his savage regulations against the Press:–

“This miniature will serve you as a convincing proof that the workers do in fact instinctively feel themselves drawn towards a dictatorship, if it were only possible to convince them in a suitable manner that this dictatorship will be realised in their interests, and show you the extent to which therefore they would be inclined, in spite of republican convictions, or rather owing to the latter, to see in the crown the natural bearer of a social dictatorship, in opposition to the egoism of bourgeois society, if the crown for its part could at some time decide to take the naturally rather improbable step, viz., of genuinely proceeding along the revolutionary and national path, and of converting itself from a monarchy of the privileged strata into a social and revolutionary monarchy.”

Already, in the first conversation, Bismarck declared to Lassalle that he “intended to persuade the king to change his policy, to introduce universal suffrage and to conclude an alliance with the people”!

Lassalle endeavoured to convince Bismarck that such measures as the savage persecution of the Press could “make it impossible for you to achieve your own aims and make absolutely impossible any union between the king and the people.”

As “an enemy, but an open and honest enemy of the existing system,” Lassalle desired that the ideas defended by him should triumph “along the peaceful lines, beneficial to all society, which your Excellency recently pointed out to me.”

A careful study of this letter shows that Lassalle already, in the middle of May, had built up his whole tactics on the basis of an alliance with Bismarck, that the so-called “tactical change,” described by Mehring and other, began even before the foundation of the Universal German Workingmen’s Association, and that every step undertaken by him from this time, every speech, every declaration, was weighed by him from the point of view of the impression which it would produce on his chief allies, Bismarck and the crown.

In view of this letter it is possible to understand Lassalle’s well-known telegram to Bismarck of September 27, 1863, in which he begged the Minister-President to take measures immediately against the Progressist Mayor of Solingen who had dispersed a meeting organised by Lassalle.

“This telegram,” wrote Mehring previously, “was a grievous mistake on the part of Lassalle: as the German proverb says, it is no use complaining of the devil to his grandmother. To turn to the standard bearer of feudal reaction, who for many years had been denying the right of association and meeting and still continued to do so, with a request that he should punish an infringement of this right, whether the person to blame was a Progressist or any other, is behaviour least of all fitting in a revolutionary.”

Mehring sees in this fact the beginning of that “tactical change” after which the time quickly came when Lassalle’s “spiritual fire crackled and smoked rather than flashed and blazed.” He refers Lassalle’s tactical change of front to the autumn of 1863.

“Was it not really worth while to make Bismarck move forward, to extort from him the right of universal suffrage, which could never be obtained from the Progressist party, and thus win for the proletariat a powerful weapon for the satisfaction of their class interests?”

Unfortunately, it was not Lassalle who “shifted” Bismarck, but, on the contrary, it was the latter who from the first meeting had Lassalle in his grip. The correspondence now published proves how, having made the first false step, Lassalle became more and more entangled in contradictions. While attempting to achieve immediate successes on behalf of and in the name of the workers, he antagonised the leading sections of the working class in Berlin and in Saxony. The belated attempts of Mehring and Laufenberg to show that Lassalle’s tactics were more in correspondence with the existing situation, because the German workers at that time had still not sufficiently developed to appreciate the revolutionary tactics of Marx and Engels, suffer from an excessive desire of “justifying facts.” On the contrary, all the attempts of Lassalle to attract to his side the most revolutionary elements of the working class – and without their co-operation he could not convert the Universal German Workmen’s Association into a political force – ended in failure. These workers were antagonised by Lassalle’s intrigues with the junkers and the monarchy. It is unfortunately true that the so-called insinuations and slanders of the bourgeois Progressists, as we now learn from Lassalle’s letters, were essentially an expression of what actually happened.

After the telegram from Solingen, there followed a series of letters (October 23 to November 17) addressed immediately to Bismarck and copies of letters sent in the first place formally to the police-president of Berlin but really intended also for Bismarck. All these letters depict in a very characteristic light the “revolutionary” tactics of Lassalle. Any one of these letters would be sufficient to compromise for ever any “leader” not merely of the workers but even of any democratic party, who had the slightest self-respect.

On November 22, 1863, when Lassalle organised a public meeting in Berlin, the police broke into the hall and, dispersing the meeting, arrested Lassalle on a charge of treachery to the State. After three days Lassalle was released on bail amounting to 3,000 thalers.

It appears now – and in this respect there is a curious letter of Lassalle’s to Bismarck of November 19, 1863, that the intention of the police-president Schelling to bring a charge against Lassalle of treachery to the State, and to demand his arrest, was well known to the latter. He accordingly turned to Bismarck with a request that it should be prevented, since it would strike “much too deadly a blow to all those interests of which he was the representative.”

“Of course,” Lassalle adds, “a serious and strict administration of the Ministry of Justice would put an end, to the attempts of the police-president who is so passionately desirous that I should be arrested.”

Finally, Lassalle concludes by remarking that there was “not an hour to lose” in intervening in the matter, and he gives, in an indirect but very clear form, his advice to Bismarck that the police-president Schelling should be transferred to another place, otherwise he, Lassalle, would not be allowed to remain in peace in Berlin. It was necessary by personal interviews to convince Bismarck thoroughly of his “loyalty” in order to be able to address such requests to him!

The conversations of Lassalle with Bismarck in January, 1864, became known thanks to the exposures by Bebel in the Reichstag in September, 1878. Bismarck only contested details, but did not think it necessary to add that Lassalle’s relations with him had begun at a considerably earlier date. Now we know that in January, 1864, the initiative actually came from Lassalle, as Bismarck maintained, though at the same time, contrary to the truth, the latter asserted that in these conversations of his with Lassalle there was no thought of discussing the granting of universal direct suffrage.

Now that we have at our disposal not only Lassalle’s letters of January 13 and 16, but also the others, we can see how far Lassalle’s “game” had proceeded.

Bismarck this time also deceived Lassalle. In spite of all the proof of the latter that the granting, from above, of universal direct suffrage ought to take place before the war, Bismarck in alliance with Austria entered into war against Denmark on February 1, 1864. The tactics recommended to him by Lassalle, he put into operation in April, 1866, previous to declaration of the Austrian war.

But Lassalle’s correspondence with Bismarck continued even after the declaration of war. The letters of 5 and 7 February, 1864, are of no less unexpected a character than the others which have so far remained unknown.

Who would ever have thought that even before the publication of this book against Schulze-Delitsch, Lassalle was already taking all measures, through the intervention of Bismarck, in order that the police-president should not arrest him?

“It would not be pleasant for me,” he writes to Bismarck, “if your Excellency were to suspect me of literary vanity. Nevertheless. I must say to your Excellency, that this work of mine will result in the complete annihilation of the Progressist party and of the whole Liberal bourgeoisie, because it is with them I deal in the book and not with the personality of Herr Schulze who is of importance only as a type. It will produce a tremendous impression in the working class, and not only there: it will raise against the Progressists every intelligent element in the nation. In a word it is precisely what is required in the character of a prologue to universal suffrage.”

Lassalle does not forget to add to this servile tirade that he is –

in a position, independently of the sensation which this book will evoke by itself and of its general distribution, to secure by writing a recommendation that the book will be read at all workers’ meetings throughout Germany.”

Lassalle clearly had in mind what Marx wrote in an article on Proudhon, intended for the Social Democrat, the organ of the Lassallians:–

“Only one motive will remain in force – the love of honour of the subject. and the question for him amounts only to the achievement of the paramount aim of every lover of honour – successes of the moment, the ephemeral attention of the world. Thus, there is necessarily extinguished even that elementary moral tact which, for example, did not allow Rousseau even to enter into apparent compromises with the prevailing powers.”

The new letters of Lassalle, now published by Mayer, compel us to review afresh the question of the relations of Lassalle with Bismarck, and, along with that, also the question of the significance of his whole political activity.We once again have the opportunity of witnessing Marx’s uncommon perspicacity. It is true, he did not have at his disposal all these facts. If he had, his judgment would have been still more sharp and severe. The legend which has been woven around Lassalle in Germany, and also in, Russia, has prevented even the most orthodox Marxists from doing full justice, not to Lassalle, but to Marx and Engels. The young German and Russian Marxists frequently came to Marx after first going through the school of Lassalle. It was necessary to carry through a great critical work. in order to free them from the spiritual influence of the author of Ideas of the Contemporary Working Class.

While Lassalle was, in the words of the old Bekker, “a bold, adventurous acrobat in his tactics, who with a firm conviction in his strength and agility could without any danger risk a leap to the extreme edge of the abyss” – he was only saved from political destruction by his premature death – his talented pupil Schweitzer was indeed swallowed up in the abyss. In the old dispute between Bebel and Mehring, the former proved to be right. If Lassalle could request Bismarck to adopt measures against impending arrest for his book, if he could counsel the workers to proffer to the king a request for mercy, then Schweitzer, without the least compunction could make use of the benevolent neutrality of Bismarck’s policy. While it was impossible to buy Lassalle, Schweitzer and his associate Gofstettin took money from the secret funds of the Prussian State for their newspapers in which they supported the policy of Bismarck.

The “sun of Marx” continues “to shine in the heavens.” Lassalle is not only “apparently” but in reality eclipsed. And whether Mehring is correct or not in saying that Marx and Engels frequently erred, no one will now agree with Mehring in his declaration that “the greatest mistake of their lives was that they proved themselves completely incapable of judging the historical activity of Lassalle.”


1. Struve was the leader of so-called “legal Marxism” in Russia in the ’nineties. He drafted the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Party. After 1900 he quickly broke with Marxism, went over to the Liberals and later became an extreme reactionary.

2. Schweitzer was a follower of Lassalle and became the leader of the organisation built up by Lassalle shortly after the death of the latter until the fusion with Liebknecht’s party in 1875.

3. The Progressist Party was formed in Germany in 1861 advocating Liberal ideas. In 1862 it had a firm hold in most of the large cities in Germany.

4. Lassalle’s speech on May 22, 1864, in Ronsdorf, where he receive an enormous ovation, was the climax of his campaign for the building up of his “Workingmen’s Association.”

5. The Universal German Workingmen’s Association was the political party founded by Lassalle. Its Statutes, adopted on May 23, 1863, declare “the real removal of class antagonism in society can only be secured by universal, equal and direct suffrage.”


Last updated on 15.2.2006