Eduard Bernstein

Ferdinand Lassalle

The political position in Germany at the beginning of Lassalle’s agitation

So long as there have been ruling and oppressed, exploiting and exploited classes, there have also been revolts of the latter against the former; there have been statesmen and philosophers, self-seekers and enthusiasts, who have proposed certain social reforms for the mending or for the ending of these conditions of exploitation. If all these efforts are to be summed up under the head of Socialism, then Socialism is as old as civilisation. But if we keep to more definite characteristics than the mere desire for a harmonious state of society and universal well-being, the Socialism of to-day has only this much in common with that of any former epoch, that it, like these, is the reflex of the special conditions of the class-struggle of its time. In all cases the structure of the society upon whose soil it has growl), sets its stamp upon the Socialism of the particular epoch.

Modern Socialists is the product of the class-war in capitalist Society; it has its root in the class-antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the modern proletariat, an antagonism that finds expression, in actual struggle, comparatively early in history, although, it is true, the combatants themselves did not at first grasp its exact bearing, In its revolt against the privileged classes of Feudal Society, as in its struggle against State absolutism, the middle-class is induced to assume the part of advocate of the interests of all the non-privileged, and it is always in the name of the whole people that it demands the abolition of institutions unfavourable, and the creation of institutions necessary, to the development of its own forces. And in this the middle-class acts, for a long time, in good faith, since only the ideas which it itself connects with these demands appear to it rational and commendable to the sound common-sense of humanity. The rising proletariat, however, so far as it has freed itself from the prejudices of the guild burghers, takes the promises of the middle-class spokesmen for sterling coin, so long as that middle-class is exclusively in opposition to the representatives of existing institutions. But once it has conquered the latter, or has, at least, so far beaten them, that it can set about realizing its own aspirations, it becomes evident that the plebeians behind it have an altogether different conception of the promised Kingdom of Heaven upon earth from that of their quondam friends and protectors, and the result is strife, the more violent the greater have been the former illusions. But the proletariat is not yet powerful enough to keep up its resistance; it is forced into silence by ruthless violence, and disappears again, for a long time, from the scene of action.

This was the case in all the middle-class risings of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth, and even in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The rapid development in the revolution of the conditions of production, during the century, have, however, changed the relation of the proletariat vis-à-vis of the bourgeoisie. Exceptional circumstances were no longer needed to make manifest the antagonism between the interests and aims of these two, and without these that antagonism found expression in the more advanced countries. Workers began to organise for resistance against the capitalist clans; bourgeois conditions of society were subjected to criticism from the proletarian standpoint; an anti-bourgeois, Socialist literature arose. Relatively unimportant dissensions within the bosom of the bourgeoisie itself, the simple conflict of one of its wings with another, sufficed to allow the more active elements of the proletariat to enter the lists as an independent party, with demands of its own. The Reform movement of middle-class liberalism in England was the signal for the Chartist movement; the July Revolution in France inaugurated first a purely Republican, but then a Socialist and revolutionary proletarian propaganda, which, in importance, scarcely fell short of the Chartist agitation.

In the forties the movement – literary and propagandist – passes to Germany. Writers and politicians, who had been abroad, either as exiles, or in order, for a while at least, to escape the smell of the police at home – become proselytes of Socialism, and seek to transplant it to Germany. German artizans, who, during their “Wanderschaft,” [1] had worked in Paris or London, bring the Socialist teaching picked up there back to their homes, and carry it from one house of call to the next. Secret revolutionary propagandist societies are started, and finally, on the eve of the year of Revolution, 1848, the Communist League comes into existence with a programme that proclaims with unsurpassable revolutionary keenness and clearness the antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But it also declares that the peculiar conditions in Germany made it necessary for the proletariat to fight, for the time; being, alongside of the bourgeoisie against absolute monarchy, feudal squirearchy, and petty bourgeoisie. [2]

The February Revolution in France, and the March Revolution in Germany, found the former, in its chief centres, absolutely honeycombed with Socialism, and found the latter permeated by a relatively large number of socialistic, and socialistically-inclined workers. In Germany, as in France, the workers already supplied, though possibly not in the same proportion, the most active elements of the Revolution. But the conditions in France, despite her political and economic superiority, were not much more propitious for the realising of Socialism than were those of Germany. In the country small peasant proprietorship predominated, while in the town and industrial centres, although the Grand Industry had made great strides, it had not conquered a complete monopoly. By the side of it there existed – and this chiefly in Paris, the main centre of the trade in articles de luxe – handicraft on a smaller and larger scale, which, if it had lost its old guild-like character, and was worked mostly for large employers, still played a relatively important part, more especially in the so-called “artistic” handicrafts. Consequently, French Socialism, even where it had freed itself from mere Utopianism, was only of the petty bourgeois type. Nor did even the February Revolution, and the terrible lesson of the June massacre make any difference. They gave the death-blow to Utopian Socialism among the French workers, but in its stead there appeared for many a year – Proudhonism.

In this relative unripeness of the economic conditions lies the explanation of the otherwise incomprehensible fact, that while the France of this period swarmed with Socialists, while over two hundred members of the Chamber of Deputies called themselves “Social Democrats,” the Bonapartist tyranny was able to put the workers off with empty phrases.

In Germany the unripeness was, of course, even greater. The great mass of the workers was not merely imbued with the petty bourgeois spirit, but to some extent actually with that of the mediaeval guilds. At the various working-men’s congresses which 1848 called into existence, the most reactionary propositions were discussed. Only a comparatively small minority of the German workers had grasped the revolutionary mission of the working-class. If they everywhere fought in the front rank of the advanced parties; if, wherever they could, they tried to urge on the middle-class democracy, they paid the cost of all this in their own person. The Communists of 1848 fell on the barricades, on the battle-field of Baden; they filled the prisons, or they were obliged, when the reaction triumphed all along line to go into exile, where a large number of them died in misery. The young working-men’s organisations, which the spring of 1845 had called into existence, were indiscriminately dissolved by the Government, or worried literally to death.

Such Socialists as still remained in the country either entirely withdrew from public life, in the hope of better times, or became Philistine, and joined whatever seemed to them the most likely faction of bourgeois liberalism. This applies more especially to the spokesmen of the “semi-cultured,” “semi-sans-culotte,” “true” Socialism, who had made their appearance with such great éclat. But the workers themselves, more or less intimidated, gave up all thought of their organisation as a class with independent aims, and fell under the tutelage of the radical bourgeois parties, or the protection of well-meaning bourgeois philanthropists. A development came about which, in all essentials, agreed with that which had preceded it in England and France under similar conditions. The failure of the renewed agitation of the Chartists, in the year 1848, had the effect in England of forcing to the front the Christian Socialism of the Maurices, Kingsleys, Ludlows, and induced a portion of the workers to seek their emancipation in self-help co-operative associations – not only their economic but their “moral” emancipation from “egotism,” “class-hatred,” etc. And if these Christian Socialists did not combine with their efforts selfish, personal aims, and if they did not help to grind the axes of any one of the parties of the possessing classes, the result of their propaganda among the workers – so far as its influence went – was none the less to divert them from the general interest of their class, i.e., was one of political emasculation. So far as they succeeded in getting rid of “class-egotism,” this was, in most cases, replaced by a disgusting egotism of co-operation, and a not less disgusting cant of “culture.” The Trades Union movement, on its side, was almost wholly absorbed in the pursuit of only its most immediate interests, while most of the Owenites threw in their lot with the so-called Free-thought movement.

In France it was the defeat of the June Insurrection that forced the working-class into the background of the revolutionary arena. At first, however, only into the background. Not even that colossal blood-letting had been able to kill the strong political spirit of the Parisian proletariat, which, as Marx says in the Achtzehnter Brumaire, always tries to press forward again whenever the movement appears to make a fresh start.

Nevertheless, its strength was broken; it could no longer obtain even a momentary triumph. “As soon as one of the upper strata of Society is stirred by a revolutionary ferment, the proletariat enters into a union with it, and so shares all the defeats which the different parties experience one after another. But these retroactive blows grow weaker and weaker, the more they are spread over the whole surface of Society. Its more notable leaders in public assemblies and in the press, one after the other, fall victims to the Law, and figures more and more equivocal appear at its head. In fact, it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations, into a movement, therefore, in which it gives up revolutionising the old world with its great collective means, but rather seeks, behind the back of Society, by individual effort, within its own narrow conditions of existence, to bring about its redemption, and, therefore, of necessity fails.” (18 Brumaire, 3rd ed., pp.14 and 15.)

Finally, in Germany also, where there can be no question of an actual defeat of the workers, since they had not yet even sought to take any considerable action as a class, all attempts worth speaking of, on the part of the workers at independent action, remained for a long time in abeyance. While middle-class philanthropy was busying itself in clubs “for the benefit of the working-classes,” with questions of the housing of the working classes, sick funds, and other harmless matters, a democrat of the petty bourgeois class, the Prussian Member of Parliament, Schulze of Delitzsch, started solving the social question by founding self-help co-operative societies, in which praiseworthy undertaking the economic backwardness of Germany stood him in especially good stead.

From the very outset, Herr Schulze-Delitzsch had intended his co-operative societies not only for the workers, but also for the small handicraft mastery; these were, by means of credit and raw material clubs, to be enabled to compete with modern industry. And as modern industry was but little developed in Germany, and as, on the other hand, there were large numbers of small masters, who had not yet, like the small masters in France and in England, adapted themselves to the conditions of modern industry, but were rather on the look-out for some sort of protection against it, his idea way bound, so far as they were concerned, to fall on fruitful soil, since these co-operative associations, in so far as modern industry had nut appropriated their particular branches of production, really were of some use to them. So the credit and raw material associations blossomed forth gaily, and together with them distributive associations also, while in the background – as crown of the whole – loomed the productive co-operative associations that were to be the realisation of the freeing of labour from capital. Just as little as the English Christian Socialists, did Herr Schulze-Delitzsch wish to further the interests of any political party by his self-help co-operative propaganda; like them he was simply practising a philanthropy in harmony with his class instincts. At the time when he started this movement, the party to which he belonged – the left of the Prussian National Assembly – had withdrawn from active political life. After this party had let the Government and its beloved squirearchy lead it by the nose after the most approved fashion, it had, when the Prussian Government insisted upon introducing the “three-class” [3] electoral system, done the wisest thing it could do it had clenched its fists in its pockets, and left the reaction to settle their own hash.

Petty bourgeois from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot – but petty bourgeois with liberal views, and well-meaning in his way, Schulze-Delitzsch, after he had been prosecuted by the reaction, took up an idea which was then in the air. “Association” had been the cry of the Socialists in the thirties and forties; “association” now cried the bourgeois philanthropists; “association” dogmatised the Conservative writer, B.A. Huber. Why should not the Liberal district Judge Schulze also plead for association”?

As we shall have to consider the association question later on, we here only quote a few passages froth a work of Schulze-Delitzsch, published in 1858, in which he tells us the effect he expects his co-operative associations to have upon the condition of the workers.

And as regards those workers who are still wage workers, the competition of the co-operative associations with the employers has, for them also, the most beneficial results. For must not the increased demand, on the part of the employer, tend to raise the wages of the workers! Are not the proprietors of large works thus obliged to offer their employees the very best conditions of labour, because they otherwise risk their men going over to already existing co-operative associations, or indeed, of themselves starting one, a proceeding to which, of course, the ablest and most energetic workers would most incline? Assuredly, only by these means – by the workers themselves competing with the employers – can wages be permanently raised, and the conditions of labour generally improved, and never, as we have seen, can this be permanently accomplished by compulsory laws or by appeals to humanity ...

When once a number of such co-operative establishments have been started by working-men, and the existing monopoly of the large employers has thus been broken down, it is inevitable that the enormous profits formerly reaped by them alone will diminish, because they will be obliged to let the workers have their share of them. Thus, while wealth on the one haul will assume rather more modest dimensions, poverty will, on the other, disappear more and more, and conditions will begin to tend towards a universal level of well-being. With this also a bound is set both to plutocracy and to pauperism, those unholy outgrowths of our industrial system, in which we see two powers equally hostile to true culture ...

Only, we must constantly insist upon this: that until the workers of their own strength and impulse venture to start such undertakings, and to practically demonstrate that they can carry them on alone without the participation of the other classes, these in turn will probably take good care not to come to their assistance, since it is far too much to their interest to maintain the workers in their former state of dependency. Only when this proof has been given, and so given that their competition has made itself felt, only when they have at last met the employers as employers themselves, will their wishes be considered, and will the public support them, more especially the capitalists, who will only then begin to regard them as people who have also to be reckoned with, and who, until then, will regard them as mere ciphers, that, standing alone, count for nothing in the calculation. In the domain of commerce, self-interest, after all, rules supreme, and aims and aspirations, however just and fair in themselves, only then command attention when they lave become so powerful that they can force themselves to the front in some irresistibly effective and vigorous form. [4]

Meanwhile, at the Congress of Political Economists in the summer of 1862, Herr Schulze had to admit that so far there were scarcely any productive co-operative societies, and that there were only a very small number of distributive ones. Only the credit and loan societies, composed of manufacturers, small masters, and small business men, flourished, and with these, although in smaller numbers, the raw material co-operative societies.

We have here somewhat anticipated the course of events from 1848 to the beginning of the Lassalle agitation, and now we pick up again the dropped threads.

The Crimean War had already dealt the European reaction a severe blow by seriously shaking that “solidarity of the Powers” which was one of its conditions of existence. The rivalry between Prussia and Austria again became manifest in the different attitudes of their Berlin and Vienna cabinets towards Russia, while the death of Nicolas I, and the position in which the Empire of the Tzar was at the end of the war, deprived the reactionary parties in Europe of their strongest bulwark. The hands of Russia were for the time being so full with its own internal affairs that for years to come it was not in the position to take up the cause of law and order “on principle” in any other country, and for the time being was no longer a factor in the internal policy of the neighbour states. The rivalry between Prussia and Austria was, however, still confined to petty cabinet intrigues, while, so far as their people were concerned, both governments still maintained their “solidarity.”

A second blow was dealt the reaction by the general stagnation of trade that began in 1857 or 1858. Just as the general prosperity of 1850 bolstered up the tottering thrones, so the industrial crisis of 1857 – greater in extent and intensity than any of its forerunners – again set the thrones tottering. All circles of society suffering through the crisis were in a state of ferment; everywhere the Opposition found fresh strength in this discontent of the masses; everywhere the “subversive elements” again reared their head, and most menacingly in France, where, it is true, the throne was least stable. Once more Napoleon III. had recourse to draconic prosecutions, the pretext for them being afforded by the Orsini attempt. But when he found that he was thereby rather weakening than strengthening his position, he had recourse to other methods, and by means of a popular foreign war sought to again consolidate his régime at home, and to protect his life against the daggers of the Carbonari. Those had, through Orsini, given their quondam fellow-conspirator to understand that if he did not keep his word to them, avengers would again and again arise against him. It was thus the Italian war was inaugurated. Almost at the same time the “new era” began in Prussia with the regency of William I. [5] Dominated by the desire – still kept secret however – of breaking the supremacy of Austria in Germany, William I, then Prince Regent, sought to win over the liberal middle-class, and appointed a ministry agreeable to them.

At first, all went well. Touched at once again having the chance of making themselves heard, and that altogether without effort on its part, middle-class Liberalism surpassed itself in all sorts of protestations of loyalty. The National Union was founded with the programme: Unification of Germany, with Prussia at her head. To Prussia was assigned the honourable part of realising the political and national aspirations of the liberal bourgeoisie. A new spring-time for the people seemed at hand, and a far more beautiful one than that of 1848, for it promised the rose without the thorns. In a revolutionary rising one can never be sure where things are going to stop, or what elements may be let loose in its course. But now there was no need to stir up the unknown masses; everything promised to come off after the most approved Parliamentary fashion. But if, against all probability, the worst should come to the worst – why, had not the example of the Schulze-Delitzsch provident and distributive societies, his loan and raw material co-operative associations cured the workers of their socialistic Utopias, and. given them proof positive of the great things they might expect from self-help, convinced them that they wanted nothing, absolutely nothing more than the “liberties” of the Liberals?

Whoever now – thirty years after – re-reads the literature of German Liberalism of those days, is chiefly struck by the colossal naiveté predominating in it with regard to all questions that extend beyond the narrow horizon of the enlightened tallow-chandler. They were all very cultured, and very well-read, and they knew all about the ancient Athenian Constitution and English Parliamentary Government. But the practical application drawn from all this was invariably that the enlightened German tallow-chandler or ironmonger was the normal man, and that what was not to his tastes deserved to perish. It was this self-satisfied naiveté that forced on the constitutional conflict in the Prussian Parliament, even before they were firm in their saddles; with this naiveté they managed to estrange the working-classes, long before any serious class differences gave occasion for the estrangement. They knew a terrible lot of history, but they had “learnt” really nothing at ail from it.

Then began the constitutional conflict in Prussia. The Government in 1860 proposed a reorganisation of the military system, in accord with its “German policy.” The wiseacres of the Landtag, however, instead of either voting or refusing to vote the required supplies, resorted to the expedient of voting them “provisionally” for one year. The Government began the work of reorganisation, and still went on with it, even when a majority of the Landtag, displeased with certain acts and declarations of the king’s of rather too arbitrary a nature, subsequently refused to vote fresh supplies.

Liberalism suddenly found itself, not knowing how, involved in a violent dispute with that same Government which it had cast for the fine part of re-establishing the German Empire, and to which it had promised supremacy in Germany. However, this was provisional only – unlucky, but not a misfortune. The Liberal party had, in the meantime, become so strong, it could afford to hold out for a good while. Thanks to the narrow-minded obstinacy of its opponent, it had well-nigh the whole of the people at its back. All classes of the population were carried away by this national movement; all, with the exception of the little family party of the squirearchy and clericals east of the Elbe, left it to the then recently constituted Progressist party to fight it out with the Prussian Government. Whatever mistakes this party may have made, however heterogeneous its composition, however inadequate its programme, it represented at that moment – as against the coalition of landlordism and police absolutism once again raising its head – a cause whose triumph would be to the interests of all who did not belong to the feudal elements of society.

But to entrust a party temporarily with a political mission is not to give oneself over to it body and soul, not to abjure all independence with regard to it. And this the more advanced German workers felt. The part of supers which the Liberal leaders expected them to fill; the fare set before them at the educational and other clubs patronised by these leaders, could not satisfy them in the long run. The old Communist and revolutionary traditions had not yet completely died out. There was, indeed, still many a working-man who had either himself been a member of one of the Communist Sections, or had been enlightened by other members as to its principles, and had been supplied by them with Communist literature. Among these men, and prompted by them in ever-widening circles of working-men, the question began to be discussed, whether the time had not come for constituting a working-men’s society, with its own working-men’s programme, or, at least, to create a workers’ league, which should be something more than the mere creature of the Liberal party.

If the gentlemen of the Progressist party and the National Unionists had only learnt something from the history of other countries, it would have been an easy matter for them to prevent this movement from becoming one hostile to themselves, so long as they were still fighting the Prussian Government. But they were much – too much – imbued with the conviction that as they represented the people’s cause, “the people,” especially as “the people of thinkers,” were superior to the narrowness – that is to say the class-struggle – of foreign countries; and thus they failed to see that here also they had to reason with a movement which was bound to set in sooner or later, and that all they had to do was to seek some reasonable way of arriving at a common understanding. But so enamoured were they of themselves, that they were utterly incapable of grasping the idea that the workers could actually want anything further than the honour of being represented by them. The workers asked that the conditions of membership of the National Union should be made easier, and the reply: “All workers might consider honorary membership of the Union as their birthright,” i.e., might have the honour to remain outside it – was thoroughly characteristic of the inability of the Schultzes and the rest to understand anything, except the philosophic “shopkeeper,” – their own image, their God.

Thus came about those discussions in the working-men’s meetings at Leipzig, which finally resulted in the sending of three delegates to Berlin, and the opening up of negotiations with Ferdinand Lassalle.




1. The medieval custom of journeymen travelling from place to place, and even country to country, was, and to some extent still is, kept up in Germany. The “Herbergen,” or houses of call, are the inns and hostelries where, on their journeys, they put up.

2. “In Germany, they, [the Communists] fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.” [Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Translated from the German by S. Moore (published in 1847), and published by W. Reeves.]

3. The “three-class” electoral system is roughly this: the whole of the taxes in any given parish, ward, or district, forming a unit of any electoral constituency, are lumped together, and the sum thus obtained is divided into three parts. Those persons paying the highest taxes, i.e., one-third of the whole amount, form the “first class” voters; those paying the second third, the “second class,” and the rest of the tax-payers force the “third class.” Each class elects two “electors” (“Wahlmänner”), and all the “electors” of a constituency elect two members to the diet. The whole of the voting is open. Thus all the voting can be watched by the authorities, employers, etc. Moreover, the votes are restricted to tax-payers, and the wealthy classes can always outvote the mass of the people. It has happened, for example, that a single individual has represented the whole first class electorate, and has alone nominated two “electors.” There are rarely more than a score of “first class” voters; the “second class” number three or four times as many, the “third class” seventeen or eighteen times as many as the “first class.” No wonder Prince Bismarck at one time denounced this system as “the most wretched of all electoral systems.” It is true this was at a time when the Prussian middle-class opposed him. He afterwards opposed every effort to do away with, or even to amend, the system.

4. See Schulze-Delitzsch: Die Arbeitenden Klassen and das Assoziations Recht in Deutschland (The Working-Classes and Co-operation in Germany), Leipzig, 1858, pp.58, 61, and 53.

5. In the autumn of 1858, the illness of King Frederick William IV of Prussia – softening of the brain – which had set in during 1857, or even earlier, became so advanced, that he was unable even to sign a decree. As he had no children, his brother William was proclaimed Regent.


Last updated on 21.1.2003