Eduard Bernstein

Ferdinand Lassalle

Lassalle’s legacy to the German Working-Class Movement

THUS did an early death abruptly end Lassalle’s political career, his plans and hopes. Perhaps it was well so, perhaps in his last hours he himself did not think it a misfortune. The goal that be lead believed lie could take by storm had again receded into the distance, and for the quiet work of organisation he did not believe himself fitted. Thus his immediate future seemed problematical enough, and this may have contributed largely to the almost frantic passion with which he threw himself into the Dönniges affair.

No doubt it is idle to speculate as to what Lassalle might have done if he had not fallen beneath the bullet of Herr von Racowitza. And yet this question has hitherto been, for the most part, answered in such a way as to justify a brief examination of it.

For it is generally contended, that had Lassalle lived, there would have been nothing left for him, as things were, but to follow the example of his friend Bucher, and to accept office in the service of the Prussian State. But this is to judge Lassalle quite wrongly. Certainly, the policy finally adopted by him must, if logically carried out, have led him at last into the Government camp, but it is just this last step which Lassalle would not himself have taken. He would never have donned the Prussian livery. He possessed sufficient means to live as he pleased, and such a post as the Prussian Government could offer him, would have no more satisfied his ambition, than it would have been congenial to his innermost and always unchanged convictions. In this respect he could rather have said to Bismarck than Bismarck to him: “What canst thou, poor devil, give?”

It is far more probable that as soon as the sentences pronounced against him had come into effect, he would have permanently settled down abroad, and there awaited some change in the conditions of things in Prussia and in Germany. For it is self-evident that the Hamburg “coup,” even though the meeting had been held, and the resolution passed, would have had practically no effect upon the actual situation. How poor the outlook was may be seen from the fact that the mere consent of Helene von Dönniges had sufficed to seriously shake Lassalle’s opinion as to the probable effect of the “coup.” On the 27th July, he had written of this project to the Countess Hatzfeld: “I must get to Hamburg first, where I am going to make a great, very great, perhaps really IMPORTANT ‘coup’.” The following day he obtains Helene’s consent to be his wife, and then writes to the Countess that he doesn’t promise himself “anything much” from the Hamburg attempt. The passage referred to in this letter has certainly been quoted very often, but as it is extremely characteristic of Lassalle’s mood at this time, it may again be quoted here. It runs

How you misunderstand me when you write: ‘Cannot, you, for a time, be satisfied with science, friendship, and the beauties of nature?’ You think I must have politics.

Ah! how little you are au fait with me. I desire nothing more ardently than to be quite rid of all politics, in order to devote myself to science, friendship, and nature. I am sick and tired of politics. Truly, I would burn as passionately for them as ever if there were anything serious to be done, or if I had the power, or saw the means to bring it about – such means as should benefit me – FOR WITHOUT SUPREME POWER NOTHING CAN BE DONE. For child’s play, however, I am too old and too great. That is why I very reluctantly undertook the presidentship! I only yielded to you. And that is why it now weighs upon me terribly. If I were but were rid of it, this were the moment when I should decide to go to Naples with you! But how get rid of it?

For events, I fear, will develop slowly, slowly, and my glowing soul finds no joy in these children’s maladies, and chronic processes. Politics mean actual, immediate activity. Everything else can be done as well by science. I shall try to exercise PRESSURE on events in Hamburg. What the effect will be, I cannot say, nor do I promise myself anything much from it!

Ah! could I but get out of it?

In another passage in the same letter, Lassalle writes that he is “in good spirits and full of strength,” and, “well, the old strength is still there, and the old good luck too.” They were, therefore, essentially political considerations which dictated these lines full of resignation.

When, after his stay with Helene von Dönniges at Bern, Lassalle arrived on the 3rd August at Geneva, he appears to have made up his mind as to provisional expatriation. Among the papers of Johann Philipp Becker, there is a permis de sejour of the Geneva Government made out for “M. Ferdinand Lassalle, professeur,” living “ Chez M. Becker,” and upon the wrapper the following remarks in the hand of the old veteran of freedom:

When friend Lassalle, on his arrival in the fatal year 1864, told me that he felt his strength exhausted, and that he must give himself pause; that he had believed he could bring the Socialist movement to a head in about one year, but that he now saw that it would take decades, for which he did not feel his physical strength sufficient, and that, above all, he could never stand the impending imprisonment; thereupon I advised him under these circumstances, to seek a definite residence somewhere, and to this end, at once to settle down in Geneva, and when in conformity with the law, he could prove a two years’ sojourn, to have himself naturalised, which would have caused no difficulty at this time. Meanwhile, he could, of course, travel as much as he liked. Lassalle unhesitatingly agreed, and on the 11th August, 1864, I obtained for him the permis de sejour.

The permit itself is made out for six months.

During the four weeks of his struggle for Helene von Dönniges, the letters that reached Lassalle from the Secretariat of the General German Working-men’s Association, were not even answered by him. It was only on the evening before the duel, when making his will, that he again remembered the Association, and left its Secretary, Willms, 500 thalers a year for five years, for purposes of agitation, and 150 thalers a year for his personal use. He recommended the Frankfort delegate, Bernhard Becker, as his own successor. He was to hold fast to the organisation; “it will lead the working-class to victory.”

Among the members of the Association, the news of Lassalle’s death caused no little consternation. For a long time it was impossible for them to grasp the idea that Lassalle had actually fallen in a mere ordinary love affair. They believed in a premeditated plot hatched by his opponents to get rid of the dangerous agitator, and did homage to the fallen man as the victim of a vile political intrigue. A veritable Lassalle cult now grew up, a kind of Lassalle religion, the propagation of which was, above all, stimulated – for very natural reasons – by the Countess Hatzfeld. The personal attitude which Lassalle had adopted to the workers also contributed largely to this cult. Amiable as he could be in his intercourse with them, he had constantly taken care to impress upon them both by his outward appearance and his manners, his social and mental superiority. Further, he had with the utmost complacency allowed himself to be fêted at Ronsdorf as a kind of founder of a new religion, and had himself taken care that an account exaggerating the actual occurrences should appear in the Nordstern.

In his speeches his own personality had come more and more to the front – to such an extent that when he spoke of himself in connection with others, he had invariably put the I first.

Some persons may have been repelled by this attitude, but upon the masses, especially in the salad days of the movement, it cast a great charm, and the more a legendary halo invested the personality of Lassalle, the greater became the after-effects of that charm.

It would, however, be altogether a mistake to deny the fact that this cult for the personality of Lassalle did, for a long time, greatly help on the movement. When all is said and done most persons like to see a cause, which, the more far-reaching its aims at any given moment, must seem the more abstract, embodied in one individual. This craving to personify a cause is the secret of the success of most founders of religions, whether charlatans or visionaries, and in England and America it is a recognised factor in political party-struggles. This craving is so strong, that at times the bare fact that a certain personality has withdrawn himself from a body of men, his equals or even his superiors, is sufficient to raise him above them, and to procure him a power that has been obstinately refused them. We have only to recall the Boulanger fever in France, which is by no means without its prototypes in the history of other countries. Dozens of members of the French Chamber were Boulanger’s superiors in knowledge, ability, and character, and could point to the must honourable scars gained in the service of the Republic, but they became mere ciphers side by side with him, whilst he became the great One, and his name enkindled hundreds of thousands. Why? Because an idea was suddenly incorporated in him, while the Chamber of Deputies, despite the sum of knowledge and of experience which it represented, was nothing but an anonymous quantity.

The name Lassalle became a standard which created more and more enthusiasm among the masses the more Lassalle’s works spread among the people. Intended to produce immediate effect, written with extraordinary talent, popular, and yet setting forth the theoretical points of view, they had, and to a certain extent still have to-day, a great affect in agitation. The Working-men’s Programme, the Open Reply Letter, the Worker’s Reader, etc., have won over hundreds of thousands to Socialism. The strength of conviction that breathes in these writings has enkindled hundreds of thousands to struggle for the rights of labour. And with this, Lassalle’s writings never degenerate into a jingle of meaningless phrases: they are pervaded by a sensible realism, which certainly at times is mistaken as to means, but always seeks to keep actual facts in sight, qualities which have through his writings been communicated to the movement. That whereof Lassalle in practice had, perhaps, something too much, he has given, in his first and best propagandist works, the right measure which the working-class movement required. If the German Social Democracy has always recognised the value of a strong organisation, if it has been so convinced of the necessity of the concentration of forces, that even without the outer bond of organisation it has yet known how to perform all the functions of one, this is largely a heritage of the, agitation of Lassalle. It is an indisputable fact that in those places where, amongst the workers, the traditions of the Lassallean agitation were strongest, as a rule, most was accomplished in the way of organisation.

However, one cannot have the advantages of a thing without having to accept its disadvantages into the bargain. We have seen what a doubly two-edged weapon the Lassallean agitation was, two-edged in its theoretical foundation, two-edged in its practice. And this continued, of course, long after Lassalle himself was dead. Aye, it became worse. Adhesion to Lassalle’s tactics meant adhesion to the change of front executed by Lassalle during the last months of his agitation, he himself knowing, and making the mental reservation that he should be able to turn back and throw off the mask at any moment. But in his own words: “individuals can dissemble, the masses never.” His policy, if literally carried out, meant misleading the masses. And the masses were misled. The time of the Schweitzer dictatorship came. Whether Herr von Schweitzer was ever, in the literal sense of the word, a Government agent, seems to me very doubtful; but there can be no doubt that his tactics were at times those of a Government agent. Why, under his leadership, it even came to this, that agitators of the “General German Working-men’s Association” declared a republican to be synonymous with a bourgeois, because republics so far have been bourgeois republics. Schweitzer was unquestionably the most gifted of Lassalle’s successors. But if he almost equalled Lassalle in talent, he surpassed him in all his worst faults. He was a real cynic, and he therefore coquetted with the Social demagogues o£ the Prussian Court with even less hesitation than Lassalle had done. But that he should have been able to do this without once failing to find some passage justifying his manoeuvres in Lassalle’s speeches is a reproach from which Lassalle cannot escape. Even Schweitzer has done nothing worse than to designate as a simple “clique” the parties that were fighting for the constitutional rights of the people’s representatives, among whom were men like Jacoby, Waldeck, Ziegler, etc.

Other faults of Lassalle’s also were reproduced in the movement, and it cost long and sharp struggles before they were completely overcome. As to the theoretical errors of Lassalle, which I have dealt with more fully above, I need here only remind my readers what violent struggles it cost before a right appreciation of the Trades Union movement could make headway in the ranks of the German Socialist working-men; how long Trades Unions were opposed by a large portion of the Socialists, on the strength of the “iron law of wages.” The result of the personal colour that Lassalle gave the movement, was that after his death it drifted into the current of sectarianism, and floundered about in it for long years to come.

Persons who have played a prominent part, and developed remarkable qualities, usually beget a large number of imitators. So, too, Lassalle. The semi and semi-demi Lassalles after his death blossomed forth all over the land. But since for want of his ability, they were forced to confine themselves to imitating, “Wie er sich geräuspert, und wie er gespuckt,” [“The way he hawked, and the way he spat.”] and as we have seen, this not being his best side, they formed one of the most obnoxious excrescences of the working-class movement.

To-day all this has been overcome, and we can speak of it quietly, and without bitterness. But there was a time when the movement suffered from it, and that is why it is referred to here.

But enough. Else the impression of what I have said of the heritage which Lassalle left the workers, even to this day, might be weakened, and this is by no means my intention. So long as I had to consider Lassalle’s work in detail, I was bound to be severe; for greater than the fame of the individual is the interest of the great cause for which we are fighting, and that above all else demands the truth. The Social Democracy has no legends, and needs none; it regards its champions not as saints but as men. It does not, on this account, value their services the less, but honours the memory of those who have done well in the work of freeing the working-class.

And this Lassalle did in an eminent degree. Perhaps in a more eminent degree than he himself suspected on the eve of his death. Things came about differently from what he believed they would; but the movement to-day is the same as that for which he raised the standard in the spring of 1863. The ends for which it strives are the same to-day, even though they be striven for in other ways and with other demands. A few years hence it may, perhaps, be fighting in yet other ways, and still it will be the same movement.

No man, even the greatest thinker, can foretell the march of Social Democracy in detail. We know not how many struggles still lie before us, nor how many fighters will have to perish before the goal of the movement is reached; but the grave-stones of our dead tell us of the progress of the movement, and fill us with the certainty of its triumph in the future.

Lassalle no more created German Social Democracy than any other man. We have seen how great were the stir and ferment among the advanced German workers, when Lassalle placed himself at the head of the movement. But even though he cannot be called the creator of the movement, yet to Lassalle belongs the honour of having done great things for it, greater than falls to the lot of most single individuals to achieve. Where at most there was only a vague desire, he gave conscious effort; he trained the German workers to understand their historical mission, he taught them to organise as an independent political party, and in this way at least accelerated by many years the process of development of the movement. His actual undertaking failed, but his struggle for it was not in vain; despite failure, it brought the working-class nearer to the goal. The time for victory was not yet, but in order to conquer, the workers must first learn to fight. And to have trained them for the fight, to have, as the song says, given them swords, this remains the great, the undying merit of Ferdinand Lassalle.



Last updated on 21.1.2003