Garrett Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

August Bebel
(Feb. 22, 1840–Aug. 13, 1913)

(21 February 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 9, 21 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

There was a time, and not so long ago, when the name of August Bebel was among the best-known of the international socialist movement. Today, time, the sweep of tremendous events since his death, and above all the degeneration of the party which he helped create and build, have contributed to the shrouding of his one-time prominence in the gallery of socialist giants.

Bebel was the rather unusual leader, especially for the pre-war days – a proletarian who without formal education, but with intensive reading and study added to a brilliant capacity, became one of the first-rank leaders of German socialism, “the father of the Social Democratic Party.”

Guided Workers’ First Strides in Organization

He was not a creative theorist, and his main and lasting contributions to socialism lie not in his books and tracts (Women and Socialism, etc.). They lie in the magnificent ability which stirred the German proletariat to organization – in trade unions, and above all in a party which expressed their social hopes.

The first gigantic strides towards mobilizing the workers of Germany to express in political activity the interests of their own class were guided by Bebel. By Bebel who began his adult life as a journeyman, turner, working in Leipzig, and who remained the worker, acutely conscious of the needs of his class; so that, where other, and later, leaders of the German socialist movement sought to dilute the stream of socialism with class-collaboration, he, the “simple” worker, remained steadfast.

While already an active and leading figure in the German working-class movements (the Worker’s Improvement Society, the Congress of Workmen’s Societies, the Association of German Workers, of which he was president), which were then only beginning to feel their way, to spread, Bebel studied the doctrines of socialism, the works of Marx. Sometime about 1865 he met Wilhelm Liebknecht, father of our great martyr, Karl. Well on the road towards socialism he was further influenced by his contact with the elder Liebknecht. Together they founded the German Social Democratic Party in 1869.

As a representative of this party, Bebel served in the Reichstag with few interruptions for the remainder of his life. And it was from the tribune of the Reichstag that some of his most inr spiring speeches were delivered. A forthright representative of the workers he reviled the in-betweeners, the “Swamp” – “the ‘Wise Guys’ who always prick up their ears as if to say ‘which way is the wind blowing now?’”

It was on this tribune that he rose on May 25, 1871 to defend the Paris Commune, the defeat of which was being celebrated by bourgeois Germany:

“Even though Paris may now have been put down, I must tell you that the struggle in Paris is only a small outpost skirmish, that the main affair in Europe is still ahead of us, and that before a few decades have passed the battle cry of the Paris proletariat: ‘War on the palaces, peace to the cottages, death to poverty and idleness!’ will become the battle cry of the entire European proletariat.”

Bismarck who heard the speech, called it the “ray of light” which showed him that socialism was an enemy to be crushed. He eventually saw to it that Bebel was incarcerated for two years for “high treason,” and nine months for “lèse majeste.”

Workers Flocked to Hear Him Speak

Bebel’s two outstanding abilities were as organizer and as orator. When Bebel spoke, there was a packed auditorium – of workers come to hear his relentless denunciations of Junker tyranny, his impassioned words. There was even an occasion when, the auditorium packed beyond stuffing, workers lifted the tiles off the roof so that they might hear him. The splendid vigor, the surge of his speeches did more than attract listeners – they were the eloquent instruments for proletarian organization.

The span of his life encompassed the first and feeble beginnings of the world’s workers toward international organization (the First International) and the lusty, self-confident strides into mass organization (the Social Democratic party, the Second International). Under his guidance, the socialist movement grew, workers learned the importance and strength of organization.

Bebel did not live to see the organization he had created yield its life into the hands of German imperialism. He, whose proletarian firmness, whose hatred of German militarism stood out, did not live to deny and condemn the social-patriotic calumny which impudently sought to justify its own vile course by an appeal to his name. The Second International, one might say, died when he did. A whole period in the development of international socialism was at an end.

Emanuel Garrett Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 28 November 2015