Clara Zetkin 1913

August Bebel

Source: British Socialist, August 1913, pp. 385-390, Clara Zetkin, “August Bebel” Obituary;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

“Many are brave whose sword
Is not stained with their enemies’ blood,”

August Bebel! The name is in itself a portion of history; the name bears witness of the man. For, when we turn the leaves of the story of Bebel’s life, is not the history of the militant German proletariat .itself, and especially of the Social-Democracy, opened out to us?- a history whose waves, describing circles, have reached over also into the Labour movement of other countries. There is not an important chapter of this history, not a decided turning-point, not a milestone of irrevocable progress in the historic life of the German proletariat, which does not bear the firm and ineradicable mark of Bebel’s creating and directing hand. That has been the case for nearly half a century -from the time of its first confused and halting steps, when the German proletariat began to realise its historic existence and the task that was allotted to it; when it started, politically and economically, on its forward march as an independent class, till to-day, when it is advancing from all directions to storm the citadels of bourgeois society. As Bebel was one of the first to sound the call-to-arms, so, after decades of unresting labour and manifold experiences, he still was numbered among the most indefatigable of the advanced guard of the proletarian army.

We find him at the front among the stalwarts to whom the German Social-Democracy owes its firm organisation and who found themselves faced by an extremely difficult task. An organisation had to be created which took into consideration the historic formation of each of the Federated States, which had to deal, with varying political situations and tactics on the part of the authorities, and which would combine the necessary unity and cohesion with the equally necessary freedom of action. Other considerations, too, claimed attention. In view of the spreading and deepening activity of the Social-Democracy, it was necessary to provide for the possibility of incorporating new elements into the organism and to insure that it should be able at any time rapidly to develop its utmost impetus. And no one has done more than Bebel to fill the Party organisation with the fullest conception of proletarian life and to make it serviceable to the purposes of the working class.

A clear-sighted steersman, he guided the ship of Social-Democracy through storms and heavy seas, between the cliffs and reefs of the Anti-Socialist Law; guided it into the calms that precede great storms, and past the shallows of bourgeois Parliamentarism. With the unerring instinct of the born fighter, and the clear vision of the responsible leader, from conceptions and principles firmly anchored in science he drew the right conclusions regarding the often, apparently insoluble confusion of daily events. Thus, at all tunes he recognised how necessary is mobility of tactics in the political struggle, the variability and renewal of methods and weapons. At a time when the importance of the suffrage was still unrecognised by distinguished leaders of Germany’s young Labour movement, when it was denounced by whole brother-parties abroad as a means of cheating the masses, it was Bebel who, with strong arms, bore among the “obtuse,” “unripe,” “unorganised “ masses the banner raised by Lassalle, led by the sure insight that history is its own instructor, and that the masses themselves would learn by practice to decide in questions of mass action. And he was at the front likewise when it was a case of proclaiming – with cool consideration of the actual circumstances, leaving calmly on one side all judicial formulas – the same historic justification for the illegal as for the legal means of warfare. He remained equally free on the one hand from will-o’-the-wisp revolutionary romanticism, which loses the solid earth beneath its feet, and on the other from an easily-satisfied “statesmanism,” which slips on the smooth parquet floor of Parliamentarism. Therefore, he knew how to make use of Parliamentary action for all the everyday needs of the suffering and struggling proletariat, thus attracting the masses, while using it none the less for that inexorable criticism, based on principle, of the capitalist order, which welds the masses together and schools them for the struggle towards the Socialist goal. Finally, it was Bebel’s influence which weighed heavily in the scale when the German Social-Democracy adopted the mass strike as one of the weapons which may – indeed, must – be used in certain circumstances.

The development of Social-Democratic tactics rests in the last instance upon the theory which is applied to and verified by practical experience. Consequently, we find Bebel each time in the thick of the fight of opinions, whether regarding theoretical generalisations or the kernel of Socialist conception and principle. Since the Nurnberg Conference of the Workers’ Associations, where the bold avowal of the principles of the International Working Men’s Association was made, up to the Dresden Conference, which emphasised the principles of revolutionary Socialism, Bebel took the most active part possible in all phases of the theoretical ripening of Social-Democracy. They faithfully reflected his own step-by-step development; for Bebel has developed and grown with the Party and with the proletarian class struggle. But he did not face the problems raised by this struggle in the spirit of an academician, whose desk is stuffed full of finished solutions; he faced them as a man of action who would move the masses, who, working and fighting, wrestles hotly for new insight, at the same time having to understand that frequently “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Thus he was able to march at the head of the masses without the cold reflection falling upon him that he was dogmatic or tried to play the pedagogue; thus he was able to be a pioneer without losing touch with them or isolating himself. We have only to think in this respect of his incomparable work for the liberation of women, especially in his book, “Women and Socialism,” from which streams of life poured forth; thus it was that his great firmness in principles and tactics did not appear as dry, rigid dogmatism, but seemed, on the contrary, to breathe forth the natural freshness of life itself.

Indeed, Bebel’s life and activity are more than a mere reflection of the contemporary history of the proletarian fight for freedom. They are the incarnation of proletarian class-life, the irrepressible expression of whose being forms that history. Therefore Bebel became more than a pillar of history; he helped to make it. Thus it was that he was able to be the agitator as well as the finest type of Parliamentarian, the fiery leader of mass-action throughout the country, and the clever, cool tactician in the Reichstag. So, too, it was that he always found the right relations between the indispensable, dull, every-day political work, and the elevating struggle towards the final goal of Socialism-the end in view which elevates workaday action, by never losing sight of that goal, and looking upon all action only in its relation thereto; and he had the courage to seek even the smallest alleviation of the proletariat’s present-day conditions with as much eagerness as though the great historic day of freedom were itself at stake; and to bear aloft this sublime goal of the masses as though it were to be reached immediately. Bebel was the personal incarnation of the highest historic existence of the contemporary working class; he was the living expression of the realisation, the will, the action of those nameless, numberless ones who fight the decisive battles of the proletarian struggle for emancipation. This oneness with the historic life of the masses was the last and deepest root of his power over them, and made him at the same time their most influential and their best-beloved leader; it was from this source that Bebel’s eloquence drew its burning force, and his conviction its inflexible firmness and its youthful fire. “The breath of humanity, which pants ceaselessly for freedom,” wafted from his being and his actions. It therefore necessarily followed that Bebel’s being and actions were animated to the full by the spirit of Socialism.

But the manner in which this historic necessity was carried out in person made manifest the inexhaustible treasury of valuable forces which slumber in the still untilled and uncultivated soil of the masses. These personal forces did their part in raising Bebel, personally and politically, to the highest standard of humanity. In the closest touch with the “herd” of nameless ones, he himself forged the fulness and weight of his life. That which aesthetic dwarfs, despisers of the masses, seek to acquire by the unnatural means of withdrawing themselves, as superior persons, from the common life-the originality of a strong, historic personality – came to him through life with and for the masses.

A man and a work stand before us in Bebel; a man who is quite embodied in his work, and a work which possesses the man. In earlier times, the historic conditions forced the masses to erect thrones for those who led them in the conquest of new lands. The proletarian masses of our day, whose function it is to overthrow the last tyrannies by which human beings are enslaved, give their leaders their gratitude and love. No one received a richer or warmer share of these than Bebel, In him the masses loved and honoured a great man who, without bargaining and haggling for personal happiness, consecrated himself, with burning enthusiasm and selfless devotion, entirely to their great cause – the Moses, who, on the march through the wilderness of capitalist order, ever refreshed anew the parched souls with the vision of the promised land of freedom – the bold assailant, who, with revolutionary defiance, shook the foundations of bourgeois society. With him one of the most prominent warriors of the first heroic age of the German Socialist proletariat has fallen just at the moment when the rapid, remorseless steps of development are forcing that proletariat to concentrate all its forces to overcome, during a second and more potent heroic age, the barbarism that is being unchained by capitalism. But this time the masses themselves will be the hero and the leader. To have given his strength till his last breath to unite and make ready the masses for this historic moment is alike Bebel’s happiness and his immortality.