John B. Askew

Franz Mehring

Source: The Communist Review, January-February 1923, Vol. 3, Nos. 9 & 10.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

FRANZ MEHRING, who was perhaps the most famous in Germany of that little body of brave spirits who founded the Spartacus League during the war, is less known in England than either Karl Liebhnecht, Rosa Luxemburg, or Klara Zetkin, and who with him signed the first message that was sent to England from those German Socialists who had not bowed their knees to the Moloch of Militarism. The reason why Mehring’s name was not prominent outside of Germany was because he was no orator and hardly, ever—I doubt if ever—spoke on a public platform, and was practically unknown at Congresses. I don’t think he was ever present at a Congress of the Second International; for their proceedings he had no great respect—a contempt which I am sorry to add has been more than justified by the subsequent course of events.

Mehring’s strong point was undoubtedly his command of the pen. As a reviewer and a journalist he had no superior—he was universally admitted to be among the first two or three writers of his time in Germany. He had a most extensive knowledge of German history—and few people had their scholarship so much at their command. That made him a most formidable opponent in discussion as well as an invaluable fighter in the ranks of the Party—since no matter what the opponents might bring forward he could always effectively counter it with some damaging facts often from the history of the Prussian Government. His knowledge of literature was very extensive, and by no means confined to German. He wrote, among other things, works on Lessing and Schiller—and a series of articles by him, Aesthetische Streifzuegé (Aesthetic musings) in which he applied the Marxian methods to the study of literary and aesthetic questions aroused much attention. Mehring was much too clever a man to judge aesthetic work, or indeed anything else, by cut and dried standards, and he always insisted that what is known as the Materialist Conception of History was to be regarded as a key to solve questions and not as a procustean bed into which the facts had to be fitted. Above all, he was against any mechanical application of the method. With Engels he felt that the best defence of Historical Materialism was to be found in its application to the solution of actual problems rather than in abstract discussions on the subject; thus the most brilliant achievement in applied Marxism has been the work of the Russian Communists. Mehring’s works are certainly brilliant examples of what the Marxian historical method may be made to achieve in the hands of a competent workman, and however little men might agree with his writings, they were never dull, or prosey.

No one, indeed, had a greater scorn that he for the long-winded works of the German Professors. Their servility to the powers that be, their pompous arrogance as well as their great parade of learning—to say nothing of their ponderous dullness—roused no less his righteous ire than his savage humour. Writing of those people who consider that in order to be scientific, history must necessarily be dull—he remarked in the preface to his Life of Marx: “I confess to my shame that I do not hate bourgeois society so thoroughly as those more rigid thinkers, who, in order to revenge themselves on Voltaire, consider a tedious style of writing the only permissible one. Marx was himself in this respect not above suspicion; together with the ancient Greeks he counted Clio among the Nine Muses. Of a truth only he neglects the muses who has himself been neglected by them.” To sum up, history must be both art and science, and in the best sense of these words.

Despite his brilliant gifts there was no one more deeply mistrusted than Mehring in the Socialist Party. For many years he had to struggle with this prejudice till finally it culminated in a series of most dramatic scenes at the Party Congress at Dresden in 1903—when a set attack was made on him from the members of the Right Wing. They hailed him, not without reason, as the most formidable of their opponents. Even within the ranks of the Left Wing itself he had few real friends and not a few who heartily disliked and mistrusted him. The reason was that having joined the party as a very young man, towards the end of the Sixties, he wrote a work in answer to an attack by Treitschke on the movement. Some three or four years later he came into conflict with certain elements in the Party and, with all the impulsiveness of youth, left the organisation and published some bitter attacks against them. These attacks appeared about a year before the Anti-Socialist Law, and did some little damage to the Party and were never forgotten by the old leaders. The true nature of Franz Mehring was revealed during the cruel Anti-Socialist laws introduced by Bismark. He set aside his grievance with the opportunists and rejoined the Party at the moment when it was dangerous to do so, but when it needed assistance. This was a bold course to take, because at that time Mehring was editor of one of the most important Berlin newspapers. Needless to say he lost his job. A feeling of mistrust survived, and was skilfully played upon by the wirepullers of the Right Wing till when 25 years later, they nearly succeeded, at the Congress in Dresden, 1903, in getting him expelled from the Party.

Whatever attacks Mehring may have made against certain tendences in the Party when he was a young man, the manner in which he rejoined, and the critical moment at which he decided to do so should have been sufficient to have shielded him after the lapse of so many years. But gossip had so poisoned the minds of comrades, and the fact that Mehring had lost a good position because of his championship of the Party would seem to have been forgotten. Still, however, when that gossip came into the open in 1903 so that Mehring had something to reply to, he did so most effectively, and nothing more was heard of the matter. Nevertheless, on the occasion of his death, 16 years later, a well known writer quoted, with approval, Bebel’s description of him as a psychological riddle—though whether Bebel would have repeated that after Mehring’s statement is more than doubtful. In any case, however, it is absolutely certain that Bebel spoke in an atmosphere which was full of suspicion regarding Mehring. At that time comrades, even belonging to the Left Wing, could be heard saying, “What if Mehring now loses his job—will he not turn and rend us once more?” And a certain apprehension as to what his brilliant talents were capable of was undoubtedly fairly universal. That was the atmosphere. No one really trusted Mehring; he was felt to be a brilliant writer, but one who could write on both sides—if one side did not or would not pay, he would go to the other. As a matter of fact, during the next few years he voluntarily “threw up” more than one job and faced the uncertainties of existence without thinking of changing his coat. And when in 1914 the acid test came—which Bebel was never to witness—this “psychological riddle,” the presumptive “turncoat” of 1903, dauntlessly stood with Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Klara Zetkin in the attempt to raise the red flag out of the mire into which Mehring’s traducers allowed it to fall. Where were they? With a few exceptions—the Intellectuals and other leaders were either silent, or like Kautsky, they contended that the International was not dead—none of its members had denied their princiciples; they argued that the International was and is in the main an instrument of peace, not for war time; and during such a war period the Labour leaders could go on leave from their principles and beat the war drum—which, indeed, the majority did, and that very vigorously, to the applause of the bourgeoisie and the military authorities.

There was another important matter in which Mehring’s strength of character was revealed. In his monumental work on the history of the German Social Democratic Party he had to choose between writing, what he felt was the truth and the possibility of conciliating or not offending powerful personages in the party by slurring over or avoiding expressing an opinion on the historical controversies between Marx and Lassalle, the Eisenacher and Lassalleaner, etc., Mehring never hesitated to say what he thought—however damaging that might be to his personal prospects—and I am fairly certain that neither Bebel nor the elder Liebknecht—Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Karl Liebknecht, who died in 1900—ever forgave him for what he said about Schweizer or Lassalle. It was, I cannot help feeling, the prejudice born of Mehring’s attitude on this question, which, unbeknown possibly to Bebel himself, influenced his judgment and caused him to look on Mehring as a “psychological riddle,” much more than reckless charges of an impulsive young man—who, after all, had only done in his twenties what many others have done in their forties and fifties, with this exception—that the older fools have, as a rule, not the strength to recognise their folly as folly and to reverse engines!

It might have been better for Mehring’s relationships with the old leaders had he, in his History, spared their feelings and sacrificed the truth. The prejudice against Mehring came once more to the front when the chief editor of Vorwaerts, Wm. Liebknecht, died. Everyone in the Party knew that the ablest man for the job was Mehring, and yet he was passed over. The important post was handed over to a committee of editors, with most disastrous results.

Certainly, Liebknecht’s editorship was a standing joke, as he was only a figurehead. His editorship, despite an army of subordinates, satisfied no one. Wm. Liebknecht had too many tasks to accomplish to make a good editor, and his death afforded an opportunity of placing the paper upon a new editorial basis. This step was not taken. Mehring was declared to be impossible, though no one disputed his pre-eminent qualifications for effecting an improvement. Shortly after this the editor of Leipzig Volkszeitung died. The Leipzig comrades, who then formed the advance guard of the Left Wing, desired their organ to continue to be what it had been from the beginning, the best-edited Socialist paper in Germany; even today it might be used as a model for any Labour Press. As the Leipzig comrades realised that the best way to control their paper was not by a committee, but by appointing a good chief editor and giving him a free hand, they offered the job to Mehring. He accepted conditionally on being allowed to continue to live in Berlin, and to visit Leipzig from time to time when necessary. The Leipzig comrades accepted this, so anxious were they to get Mehring, and the high traditions of the Leipziger Volkszeitung were certainly quite maintained under his editorship. After a few years he felt that the task of editing a daily paper at a distance equal to that of, say, from London to Manchester, was too great for him, and he gave it up. I have no doubt that he was not what is called an easy man to get on with, but, after all, you don’t get brilliant men in a party without having to pay your price for them; so long as they stand for the principles and conform to the party discipline there must be room for all kinds of temperaments—even the hot-headed ones. There is no doubt in my mind that the Party would have enormously gained had Mehring been appointed the editor of their central organ in Berlin. That by the way. Mehring’s scrupulous attitude as a historian, to which I have referred above, was that in regard to the historical disputes of the Party—the historian had to approach these from an historical point of view. While in general pointing out the correctness of the Marxist policy, Mehring shows how often Marx and Engels were unjust to Lassalle: He also points out that both Lassalle and Schweizer had on many occasions shown a more correct appreciation of the tactical needs of the situation in Germany than did Marx and Engels, who were living in London; the latter had themselves been forced to recognise, on several occasions, that William Liebknecht had misled them. He also shows how completely the latter had misunderstood the general situation in Germany at that time. Bebel’s attack on Schweizer, in his Memoirs as a Police Agent, Mehring dismisses as completely unfounded. He also endeavoured to do justice to Proudhon, Weitling and Bakunin, while showing a complete appreciation of the theoretical weaknesses of their position—as also of those of Lassalle’s. Bakunin he clears from the charges which were made against him, and he shows how Marx came to believe them. In regard to the famous letter written by Marx to the German Party, at the time of the Gotha Congress, he shows very conclusively that it was based on a misconception of the real state of affairs in the Party. The legend which has found a place in the introduction to the English translation of that letter, that, had the German comrades then listened to Marx, the spirit of reformism would not have found an entrance to the Party, is shown to be completely fallacious. There was not that dividing line between the Lassalleaner and the Eisenacher—the Eisenacher were not so far advanced as Marx thought they were, nor were the Lassalleaner as far back. In respect of the knowledge of Marxist principles, there was at that time not much to choose between them—which certainly did not prevent a bitter fight between the “Sects,“ and Marxist principles had, I gather, not much to do with that.

When the question came forward regarding the editing the literary remains of Marx and Engels, as well at the letters of Lassalle to Marx, Madame Lafargue, Marx’s only surviving daughter, entrusted Mehring with the task, although she knew very well that he had criticised the action of her father in regard to Lassalle. The various explanatory articles and notes contributed by Mehring to those volumes are admittedly the best introduction that could be found. All the same, when Mehring announced his intention of writing Marx’s Biography, every possible obstacle was put in his way by Kautsky, and others, on the ground that he had calumniated Marx. Mehring, so far from calumniating him, considered that Marx owed his greatness not to being a sort of plaster saint without human weaknesses, or, shall we say, the possession of an infallible judgment which guided him on every occasion—even in letters written on the spur of the moment and without a thought of publication—against the possibility of error. On the contrary, Mehring tried to explain Marx both in his strength and weakness. Marx was, above all things, a man who, despite colossal obstacles, despite long years of exile, persecution, poverty, illness and misfortune; despite the boycott which was extended to all that he wrote by the bourgeois Press and public, who contrived to do an enormous work and to found a system against which all the weapons of bourgeois critics for fifty years have been tried in vain, and which now, after all those years, at length begins to win recognition, even in bourgeois academic circles. In setting forth this conception of Marx, Mehring certainly succeeded as no one else could have done. Mehring’s Life of Marx is one of the finest works which has appeared in the last few years, and is certainly the life of Marx par excellence.

Mehring’s great brilliance and scholarship may be seen in the weekly leading articles which he wrote for the Neue Zeit. Short, pithy, and to the point; topical and couched in everyday language without being vulgar, clear and easily to be understood without remaining merely superficial, they rarely failed to hit the nail on the head, and, without being pompous or pedantic, to point out the deeper significance of the events of the week. Above all, they were eminently readable, however little the reader might share the writer’s point of view. I well remember his article at a time when war had been brought very near on account of Morocco. Mehring, in masterly fashion, referred to an old world legend of a knight who has fallen asleep on horseback and who suddenly awakes to find that he has just passed, on a narrow plank, over a deep and fathomless abyss. As applied to the then position in which the Workers of the World found themselves, the illustration was a splendid one. In 1914, however, the frail bridge broke and hurled the masses into the abyss.

Mehring’s courage was again tested and not found wanting during the war, particularly in his heroic work as a leading Sparticist. When one reads the daring “Letters of Spartacus,” one is compelled to admire the superb courage of that little band inspired by Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg, Klara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht. Their fight was not only directed against the brutality of imperialism it was also aimed at the Second International and its leaders, who treacherously betrayed the masses during the war. Neither in Britain nor in France was there anything published to compare with the outspokenness of the Spartacus Letters. In these, no less than in the “Junius pamphlet,” as it was called, written by Rosa Luxemburg, and the even more daring pronouncements of Karl Liebknecht in the pamphlet, The Class Struggle against War, the attitude of the leaders of the Second International was trounced without mercy, and the policy of the government described in language which, though it was equally necessary in this country, was, so far as I know, attempted by no one. During the war our literature was all “legal,” and the Spartacists did not bother about a legality which they knew they had no chance of getting.

In Mehring, as in Marx, we have one of those rare combinations of intellect, will power, and moral courage, which enables a man to resist all temptation to turn away from his path under the influence of those tempting generalisations which have enabled so many to cover up the betrayal of their principles, and we have in Germany to-day the melancholy spectacle of intellectuals abandoning the struggle and appealing to the historical materialism of Marx to justify their betrayal. Certain Russian Marxists were, I believe, the first who made the discovery that Marx could also be used to defend capitalism. The war has shown us, especially among the German Marxists, how it is possible to misuse Marx, and that in a way which was enough to make the old man turn in his Highgate grave. We have good reason to congratulate ourselves that those sturdy henchmen of British capitalism, The Times and the Morning Post, are both so utterly blinded by their hatred of Marx and his teachings that this idea of falsifying them, in the manner now popular with the intellectuals of the Second International, has not occurred to these journals. After the revolution Marxism was further applied to justify the resetting up of capitalism in Germany on the ground that as capitalism had brought everything, to ruin, so capitalism must be forced to rebuild ere it could be taken over. “We cannot socialise bankruptcy” was said to have been the sage utterance of Kautsky, who cherished the idea that it would be possible to arrange matters so, that the capitalists would hand over their concerns in full working order and without any attempt at sabotage. Till then we are not ripe for Socialism. This idiotic idea is also the plea of the MacDonalds and Snowmens. Small wonder that Kautsky is now so popular with these ignorant traducers of Marx!

With a Marxism of the Kautsky brand Mehring would have nothing to do. While it is true, I believe, that he did not share in the sanguine expectations of his friends, Rosa Luxemburg, Klara Zetkin, and Karl Liebknecht, regarding the immediate prospects of Socialism, he felt that the fight for Socialism was going to be a much longer one than they thought; but that would have been no ground for him to work for the re-establishment of capitalism. Those who are inclined to despair of the Russian revolution would do well to compare it with the revolution in Germany and Austria. The Russian comrades have fought a superb fight against difficulties which would have overwhelmed any other group. The German Party, at one time the pattern for the whole Socialist and Labour Movement, threw up the sponge before they had even begun the fight. When at the beginning of their revolution the Russian comrades offered to make an international alliance with them, the German Socialist leaders, including the Independents, declined, because they looked for the help of the Western Democracies. The Western Democracies, and in particular the British Labour Party, let them down badly. Since then the German Social Democratic Press has grossly maligned the Russians who had offered them genuine revolutionary assistance. This same Press was positively unable to hide its indecent glee when it rashly assumed that the Soviet government had had to capitulate to the capitalists. As if that would have been a cause for rejoicing for any conscientious Socialist, even were it true. Apart from that, it would be well for the German leaders to leave off preaching to the Russians, and consider the crushing defeat they have suffered, unfortunately, at the hands of Hugo Stinnes.

Mehring did not live to see the failure and fruits of the Scheidemann-Haase-Kautsky policy. He died, as Fuchs says, on the funeral-bier of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The indignation caused by that brutal act of cowardly murder, plotted and carried out at the instigation of the Noske-Ebert regime, compelled him to leave his bed, when he was ill with influenza, and wildly pace his room—presumably in a more or less state of mad anger. The consequence for him, with his body weakened by his imprisonment and general privations, was an attack of pneumonia, to which he succumbed.

That the German reactionaries and the Socialist renegades who helped them were well advised from their point of view in murdering Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg—of that, unfortunately, there can be no doubt—but not even they could dream that they were to be so lucky as to strike down Mehring at the same time. Fortunately for us, that dauntless old fighter, Klara Zetkin, escaped the fate of her three great comrades. The loss that was inflicted, not only on the Communist Party of Germany, but on the whole Labour Movement of the world, by the death of the dauntless three, cannot be estimated. Apart from Russia, there is certainly no one in the entire Labour movement of to-day who can be compared, in the realm of intellect, with Mehring and Rosa Luxemburg. Their death was our common loss.