The International Workingmen's Association, 1868

On the Dissolution of the Lassallean Workers' Association

Written: by Engels at the end of September 1868;
First published: Demokratisches Wochenblatt, October 3, 1868;
Translated: Barrie Selman;
Transcribed: by

Engels wrote this article on learning about the police ban (Sept 16 1868) on the General Association of German Workers centred in Leipzig and on its local branches in Berlin. On Oct 10, a group of Lassalleans headed by Schweitzer restored the Association under the same name and transferred its seat to Berlin. The new Rules of the Association (published Oct 11) said the Association would abide by Prussian laws and, thus, dissolve its local branches. Marx and Engels sharply criticized Schweitzer's maneuvers.

"The government knows, and the bourgeoisie knows too, that the whole German workers' movement today is only tolerated, only survives, for as long as the government chooses. For as long as it serves the government's purpose for this movement to exist and for the bourgeois opposition to be faced with new, independent opponents, thus long will it tolerate this movement. From the moment that this movement turns the workers into an independent force, and thereby becomes a danger to the government, there will be an abrupt end to it all. The whole manner in which the men-of-Progress agitation in the press, associations and assemblies has been put down, should serve as a warning to the workers. The same laws, edicts and measures which were applied in that case, can be applied against them at any time and deal a lethal blow to their agitation; and they will be so applied as soon as this agitation becomes dangerous. It is of the greatest importance that the workers should be clear about this point, and do not fall prey to the same illusion as the bourgeoisie in the New Era, when it was similarly only tolerated but imagined it was already in the saddle. And if anyone should imagine the present government would free the press, the right of association and the right of assembly from their present fetters, he is clearly among those to whom there is no point in talking. And unless there is freedom of the press, the right of association and the right of assembly, no workers' movement is possible."

These words may be found on pages 50 and 51 of a pamphlet, Die preussische Militärfrage und die deutsche Arbeiterpartei, by Frederick Engels, Hamburg, 1865. At that time the attempt was made to bring the General Association of German Workers -- in its time the only organised association of social-democratic workers in Germany -- under the wing of the Bismarck ministry by presenting the workers with the prospect of the government granting universal suffrage. "Universal, equal and direct suffrage" was of course preached by Lassalle as the sole and infallible means for the working class to win political power; is it any wonder that under these circumstances such subordinate things as freedom of the press and the right of association and assembly, which even the bourgeoisie stood for, or at least claimed to stand for, should be looked down upon? If the bourgeoisie took an interest in such things was that not a good reason for the workers to steer clear of the agitation for them? This view was opposed by the pamphlet mentioned above. The leaders of the General Association of German Workers knew better, and the author only had the satisfaction that the Lassalleans of his hometown Barmen declared him and his friends outlawed and excommunicated.

And what is the state of affairs today? "Universal, direct and equal suffrage" has existed for two years. Two parliaments have already been voted in. The workers, instead of sitting at the helm of state and decreeing "state aid" according to Lassalle's directions, manage with the utmost difficulty to get half a dozen deputies elected into parliament. Bismarck is Federal Chancellor and the General Association of German Workers has been dissolved.

But why universal suffrage failed to bring the workers the promised millennium, they were already able to find out from Engels. In the above pamphlet it says on page 48:

"And regarding universal direct suffrage itself, one has only to go to France to realise what tame elections it can give rise to, if one has only a large and ignorant rural population, a well-organised bureaucracy, a well-regimented press, associations sufficiently kept down by the police and no political meetings at all. How many workers' representatives does universal suffrage send to the French chamber, then? And yet the French proletariat has the advantage over the German of far greater concentration and longer experience of struggle and organisation.

"Which brings us to yet another point. In Germany the rural population is twice the size of the urban population, i.e., 2/3 earn their living from agriculture and 1/3 from industry. And since in Germany the big landowner is the rule and the small peasant with his strips the exception, put another way that means: if 1/3 of the workers are at the beck and call of the capitalists, 2/3 are at the beck and call of the feudal lords. Let those who never stop railing at the capitalists but never utter a word in anger against the feudalists take that to heart! The feudalists exploit twice as many workers in Germany as the bourgeoisie.... But that is by no means all. The patriarchal economic system on the old feudal estates generates a hereditary dependence of the rural day labourer or cottager on 'his lordship', which makes it far more difficult for the agricultural proletarian to enter the urban workers' movement. The clergy, the systematic obscurantism in the country, the bad schooling and the remoteness of the people from the world at large do the rest. The agricultural proletariat is the section of the working class which has most difficulty in understanding its own interests and its own social situation and is the last to do so, in other words, it is the section which remains the longest an unconscious tool in the hands of the privileged class which is exploiting it. And which class is that? Not the bourgeoisie, in Germany, but the feudal aristocracy. Now even in France, where after all virtually all the peasants are free and own their land, and where the feudal aristocracy has long been deprived of all political power, universal suffrage has not put workers into the Chamber but has almost totally excluded them from it. What would be the consequence of universal suffrage in Germany, where the feudal aristocracy is still a real social and political power and where there are two agricultural day labourers for every industrial worker? The battle against feudal and bureaucratic reaction -- for the two are inseparable in our country -- is in Germany identical with the struggle for the intellectual and political emancipation of the rural proletariat -- and until such time as the rural proletariat is also swept along into the movement, the urban proletariat cannot and will not achieve anything at all in Germany and universal suffrage will not be a weapon for the proletariat but a snare.

"Perhaps this exceptionally candid but necessary analysis will encourage the feudalists to espouse the cause of universal direct suffrage. So much the better."

The General Association of German Workers has been dissolved not merely under the rule of universal suffrage but also precisely because universal suffrage rules. Engels had predicted that it would be suppressed as soon as it became dangerous. At its last general assembly the Association had decided: 1. to work for full political liberty and 2. to cooperate with the International Working Men's Association. These two resolutions comprise a complete break with the entire past of the Association. With them, it emerged from its previous sectarian position into the broad field of the workers' movement. But in higher places they seem to have imagined that this was to a certain extent a breach of agreement. At other times it would not have mattered so much; but since the introduction of universal suffrage, when they have to be careful to shield their rural and provincial proletariat from such subversive tendencies! Universal suffrage was the last nail in the coffin of the General Association of German Workers.

It does the Association credit that it foundered precisely on this breach with narrow-minded Lassalleanism. Whatever may take its place will consequently be built on a far more general, principled basis than the few incessantly reiterated Lassallean phrases about state aid could offer. The moment the members of the dissolved Association started thinking instead of believing, the last obstacle in the way of an amalgamation of all German social-democratic workers into one big party disappeared.


Written: at the beginning of October 1868;
First published: in Demokratisches Wochenblatt, No. 41, October 10, 1868;
Translated: Barrie Selman;
Transcribed: by

In the article which appeared under the above heading (in the previous issue), the following note should be added at the end of the quotation from the pamphlet by Engels on universal suffrage:

At that time the "President of Mankind", Bernhard Becker, bequeathed by Lassalle to the Association, was heaping the vilest insults on "the Marx Party", i.e. Marx, Engels and Liebknecht. (This pretty business is now being continued by Countess Hatzfeldt, the "mother" of the Försterling-Mende caricature of the General Association of German Workers.) Now, in his obscene screed Enthüllungen über das tragische Lebensende Ferdinand Lassalle's, which lays bare his own piteous soul and is only of interest because of the suppressed documents it reproduces, the very same Becker bowdlerises Engels in the following way:

"Yet, why is there no agitation for unconditional freedom of association and assembly and freedom of the press? Why do the workers not seek to remove the fetters placed on them in the period of reaction?" (P. 133.) "...0nly by further development of the democratic basis can Lassalleanism be renewed and fed over into pure socialism. To this end it is necessary among other things that the interests of the Junkers or wealthy landowners should no longer be spared but that socialist theory should be supplemented and completed by applying it to the great mass of agricultural labourers who in Prussia outnumber by far the population of the towns." (P. 134.)

It can be seen that the author of the pamphlet (F. Engels) may be content with its effect on his opponents.