Eduard Bernstein

Ferdinand Lassalle


THE short account of Lassalle here submitted to the English reader is, with some slight alterations, a translation of my Introduction to the complete edition of Lassalle’s Speeches and Works. I was asked to edit these by the executive of the German Social-Democratic Party of Germany in the spring of 1891. In the German this Introduction bears the title Ferdinand Lassalle and his Significance in the History of Social-Democracy. I did not adopt the same title for the English edition in order to avoid confusion between my own and other works already published in England under similar titles. Indeed, this sketch is not intended to compete with elaborate works like that of Mr. W.H. Dawson. It is intended rather to act as a complement to Mr. Dawson’s book and other works dealing with Lassalle and German Social-Democracy. For a full treatment of the subject it is far too incomplete, and its constituent parts are of purpose unequally balanced. Thus many important statements and criticisms were in the original reserved for the special introductions to the various works of Lassalle, and these I have not incorporated in the English volume. But, on the other hand, it deals with questions almost ignored by other writers, and after I have had access to documents hitherto unknown to them. Further, it is written at the same time from a Social-Democratic and a critical standpoint, whilst other critics of Lassalle have mostly been more or less opposed to Social-Democracy, or, in the case of Socialists who have written about him, they either did not criticise him at all, or criticised only his acts, and did not enter into any analysis of his theories. But such treatment of the subject is indispensable now that Lassalle is being exploited by the enemies of Socialism against Social-Democracy.

It is undeniable that Socialism in Germany to-day has no resemblance to the special characteristics of Ferdinand Lassalle’s Socialism. The more this became evident, the more Lassalle became the hero of the middle-class littérateur, and was held up as the “good” Socialist, as opposed by the middle-class politician to the “bad” Social-Democrats of to-day. Was he not a national patriot, in contrast to the unpatriotic internationalists, destitute of “fatherland” – the followers of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels? Was he not a real statesman, as compared with these mere demagogues or abstract theorists? Had he not, at least, a scheme, even though it may have been wrong, for bringing about the peaceful socialisation of society, whilst these men do nothing but draw bills on a future revolution ?

With all this cant we have had to deal in Germany, and that it has been imported into England is only too evident. This is why I have allowed passages dealing with this point to remain unabridged in the translation.

The reader will at once see that my standpoint is that of Karl Marx and Fr. Engels, whose doctrines are to-day accepted by the Socialist Parties – with some few exceptions – all over the world. Many misrepresentations and misunderstandings have been circulated as to the relation of Ferdinand Lassalle’s Socialism to these doctrines, and as to his personal relations with the author of Das Kaptal. To some Lassalle is a disciple of Marx and Engels, who only differed from them on the question of productive co-operative associations; to others he is an original Socialist thinker, who merely took a few details of his criticism of capitalist production from Marx. Neither view holds good on closer examination. Lassalle was much more indebted to Marx than he admitted in his writings; but he was a disciple of Marx only in a restricted sense. As to the former point, even in the book in which he speaks of Marx – Herr Bastiat-Schulze Lassalle takes much more than he acknowledges from the book of Marx to which he refers. Very important deductions and even quotations from this book are made use of without any allusion to the original. In his speeches and pamphlets, again, in which he never refers to any of his Socialist predecessors, the influence of these must strike the reader acquainted with Socialist literature. This does not apply to Marx and Engels only, but also to Louis Blanc and other French Socialists.

The points in which Lassalle – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – differed from Marx and Engels I have dealt with explicitly in this book, and therefore I need not recapitulate them here. But upon one point a few words should be said, as it bears upon a question much discussed recently on this side of the channel.

Marx has been reproached – and this even by a section of English Socialists – with basing his Socialism upon the Ricardian theory of value adopted, and but slightly modified by him. In his History of Socialism, written, on the whole, in the fairest spirit, Mr. Thomas Kirkup, e.g., says that when the Economists did not follow the Ricardian principle to its obvious conclusion – “that if labour is the source of wealth, the labourer should enjoy it all” it was “otherwise with the Socialists,” and “as posited by the Economists, and applied by the Socialists, Marx accepted the principle.” It “was made and continues to be, the foundation-stone of the system of Marx, and is really its weakest point.” (Page 147.)

Now, already in the treatise which Mr. Kirkup quotes on this occasion, the Misère de la Philosophie, written and published in 1847, Marx says – “All the egalitarian conclusions which Mr. Proudhon draws from Ricardo’s theory are based upon a fundamental error, for he confuses the value of commodities measured by the quantity of labour embodied in them with the value of commodities incurred by the value of labour” (p.31 of the French, and p.30 of the first German editions). After showing why and how this is inadmissible, Marx gives the names of the English Socialists who before Proudhon – who posed as the inventor of the idea – had made an “egalitarian” application of Ricardo’s formula, and gives as examples passages from Bray’s Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedies, London, 1839. And afterwards he proves that Bray’s ideal of improving society by following out Ricardo’s theory “to its obvious conclusion” is nothing but the reflex of society as it is.

This was written, as I have said, in 1847, i.e., at a time when Marx had not yet completely worked out his own theory. Even then he saw clearly that what Mr. Kirkup, in accordance with, or may I say, misled by, many other writers, calls “the foundation-stone of the system of Marx” was a theoretical impossibility. In his Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, published in 1859, Marx refers again to the egalitarian application of Ricardo’s formula by English Socialists, and again makes it clear that he does not agree with them. He states four objections to the Ricardian theory of value (the second of which is the one taken up by these Socialists), and lays them down as so many problems to be solved by a closer analysis of the society from which the Ricardian theory is drawn, viz., modern capitalist society. A little further on he quotes John Gray, another English Socialist, earlier in date than Bray, who attempted an egalitarian application of Ricardo’s formula, and again proves its fallacies and intrinsic contradictions (c.i., p.40, and pp.61-64.). [1]

In Das Kapital Mr. Kirkup could have read, firstly, that “labour is not the only source of material wealth” (p.18 of the second edition of the German edition, and p.10 of the English). Wealth and exchange value are two very different things. Secondly, although Marx lays bare all the tricks of capitalist exploitation of the workers, he does not by a single word claim for the workers “the full value of their labour.” Why not? Because, as he shows, “value,” in an economic sense, is a quality belonging to commodities only, and which, therefore, can only occur in a society where products are exchanged as commodities, the value of a commodity being measured by the socially necessary labour embodied in it. Labour being, therefore, the measure of value, can have no value of its own. But it is quite different with the labour-power of the workers. This labour-power in our actual state of society is a commodity, is recognised as such by all political economists, and, therefore, not only can have, but actually has, a value. And this value is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour required for its production, maintenance, and reproduction, that is to say, required for the production, maintenance, and reproduction of the actually living labourer. The price of this labour-power or the rate of wages may at a given time be higher, and at another lower than the actual value of labour-power, as the same thing occurs with the prices of commodities; but whatever form the wages take, whether that of time-wages or piece-wages, under our system of capitalist production, based upon competition, they are but the price of labour-power. Now, if in the assertion that the workers are entitled to the full value of their labour, by labour is meant labour-power, that would mean no change in the present conditions; but if it is to mean the full value of the product of their labour, that would mean the abolition of capitalistic production, and, with it, of the category of “value” altogether.

To put it in the words of Frederick Engels: “The conclusion drawn from the Ricardian theory, that to the workers, the only real producers, belongs the sum total of the product of society, their product, this conclusion leads directly into communism. But from a purely economical point of view, it is no argument at all, for it is but an application of moral rules to political economy. According to the laws of political economy, the larger share of the product does not go to the workers who have produced it. If, now, we say: this is wrong, this ought not to be, we assert something which prima facie does not concern political economy at all. We merely state that this economical fact is in contradiction with our moral sentiments. Marx, therefore, never based his communistic demands upon this argument, but upon the inevitable breakdown of capitalist production, a breakdown the evidences of which are becoming more palpably apparent every day. He only says that surplus value consists of unpaid labour, which is simply stating a fact.

But a statement may be economically wrong in form, and yet right historically. If the moral conscience of the masses declares an economical fact to be unjust, as it did in former epochs declare slavery or corvee labour to be unjust, this is a proof that this same fact has outlived itself, that other economical facts have come into being, in consequence of which the former has become unbearable and untenable. Such an application of economical theory, though formally wrong, may therefore hide an economical truth of undoubted reality.” (Preface to the German translation of the Misère de la Philosophie, first edition, pp.10, 11.)

And Marx sums up the result of his researches in the first volume of Das Kapital by saying that the impending expropriation of the expropriators will establish individual property, based on the acquisition of the capitalist era, i.e., on co-operation and possession in common of the land and of the means of production. There is nothing said here of the mode of distribution of wealth corresponding to that new state of society. But this reconstructed society will not come into being all at once, ready-made like Minerva; it will be subject to evolution as well as society in the past, and therefore the mode of the distribution of wealth will vary with the different phases of its evolution. It will depend upon the degree in which the economical, intellectual, and moral emancipation from capitalism shall have been accomplished. It will depend also upon the mass of wealth at the command of society, and upon many other questions. In a letter written in 1875, criticising the programme of the newly united Socialist party in Germany, and published in Die Neue Zeit (vol.i., p.565, 1890-1891), Marx has fully explained his views on this point.

But if Marx did not base his Socialism on the Ricardian theory of value, this cannot be asserted of Lassalle. He took his economic criticism of capitalist society from the then published works of Marx and Engels, but for his remedy he had recourse to the French and earlier English Socialists. To counteract the Ricardian law of wages, which he accepted in full, even along with its Malthusian foundation, he proposed as a remedy co-operative productive associations, subventioned by the State. I have shown in Chapter VII, of this book why, in my opinion, his remedy was wrong.

A few words upon another question – the question of political tactics. In reading over this book again, it strikes me that in some respects the situation it describes resembles the situation in England at the present time. In England also we see a young Socialist party striving to secure a position independent of the existing political parties. Thus the criticisms upon the tactics of Lassalle might also betaken as applying to the tactics of my English comrades. I therefore ask the reader to keep in mind that in Prussia at the time of Lassalle there existed only a sham constitutionalism. Parliament did not rule, but the King and his Ministers, Parliament possessing only a very restricted veto. All the powers of government were in the hands of the Crown and the classes behind it: the aristocracy, the small but influential party of landlords and Church bigots, the military, and bureaucracy. In Prussia, least of all, therefore, was it good policy to let oneself be seduced by the cry of “no political but economic reforms.” It meant, as this mostly means, neither the one nor the other. The battle-cry of the workers, as long as they have not secured the political rights necessary to make them the rulers of society, must always be: “political and economic reforms.” When in 1866 the North German Confederation was founded, manhood suffrage was granted for the Reichstag, while certain restrictive laws affecting working-men’s trade societies and strikes were abolished. The foundation of the German Empire in 1871 wrought no change in this respect. In Prussia and other German States the “three class” electoral system (see page 7), or rather high census franchises, still exists, and neither the Reichstag nor the State diets have the power to enforce Bills of their own. A Bill agreed to by five-sixths of the Reichstag is useless, or worse than useless, if the Federal Government will not consider it. And there is no likelihood that this degrading state will be altered by our German middle-classes, or that any serious steps in this direction will be taken by them.

But if little progress has been made with regard to political rights in Germany since the days of Lassalle, economical and social progress has proceeded by leaps and bounds. A few facts to illustrate this.

In 1860, the value of yearly manufacture was in millions of pounds sterling, 310 in Germany, 380 in France, 577 in the United Kingdom. In 1888 it was 583 in Germany, 485 in France, 820 in the United Kingdom. The steam. power used was (expressed in thousands of horse-power):–


United Kingdom















And if we take only the steam-power of fixed engines, i.e., that used for manufacturing purposes, we have this result:–


United Kingdom













695,500 [2]


(Mulhall’s Dictionary of Statistics, 1892, pp.365, 545, etc.)

If the German middle-class have not fulfilled their political mission as the British and the French middle-classes did in their time, they are the more eager to fulfil their economic mission. The frequent statement that the wonderful growth of Social-Democracy in Germany is only the result of the backward condition of economical and political conditions in Germany is based on very little knowledge of actual facts. It is true that the defective political institutions of the empire account, to a certain extent, for the growth of the “subversive” party; but that growth is still more accounted for by the economical development – one might almost say the economic revolution – of the last twenty or thirty years. Industrially, Germany is already too advanced for our middle-classes to be inclined to seriously fight the Monarchy. Having regard to the immense numbers of the proletariat in the many rapidly growing towns, they think it better to do as monarchs do elsewhere – to reign, but not to govern. There have been, and there will be, between semi-absolutist monarchs and the German bourgeoisie, only little family disagreements, which have been, and may again be noisy wrangles, but will never lead to any serious struggle. Both know too well that they have need of each other. Social-Democracy, besides its own historical mission, has to complete the unfulfilled missions of its predecessors.

In a few passages I refer to England. In respect to them, the reader will kindly remember that they were originally addressed to, and intended for, a German public.




1. Here, too, as in La Misère de la Philosophie, Marx refers to W. Thompson’s Inquiry into the Distribution of Wealth, etc., as a book which went wrong on the same question. This alone should have warned readers against accepting the assertion of Dr. A. Menger, repeated by English critics, that Marx took his theory of surplus value from Thompson, an assertion based upon nothing but the fact that the words surplus value are occasionally used by Thompson; but anyone who takes the trouble to read Thompson’s book will at once find that surplus value with him is quite another thing than surplus value as defined by Marx. Cf. the article Juristen Sozialismus in the Neue Zeit, year 1887, pp.49 seq.

2. These figures (for France) apply to the year 1885


Last updated on 16.3.2003