Eduard Bernstein

My Years of Exile

The life of the people, and the proletarian socialist in England

IN the autumn of 1899, as I was returning to England from Holland, whither I had been making a brief excursion, I had a most amusing experience on board the steamer that brought me over. It was the year in which lively discussions had been excited among the Social Democrats of Germany by certain essays from my pen, and particularly by my volume on Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, so that people were speaking of a “Bernstein question”; and finally the Congress of the Social Democratic Party convened at Hanover in 1899 devoted several days to the discussion of the ideas which I had developed. Since Germany was still forbidden territory for me, I had journeyed to Oldenzaal on the German-Dutch frontier, in order to meet some of those members of the Congress with whom I was most intimately acquainted. I spent two days with them in Holland, and on the evening of the third day I returned, through Vlissengen, to England. The crossing occupied the greater part of the night and the early hours of the morning. I slept for several hours, but waked quite early, and went on deck, where besides myself there was so far only a young man who might at most have been twenty years of age. He was walking up and down; it was not yet quite broad daylight.

We got into conversation, and were soon talking of England, which the young man informed me he was about to see for the first time. He realised from my conversation that I was already acquainted with it and asked me all sorts of questions about the country and the people which I answered to the best of my ability, until finally our conversation turned upon a subject with which I was quite peculiarly familiar – namely, my humble self. The dialogue continued thus

HE: (after a short pause): Tell me, since you know England well, there is one point upon which you will certainly be able to enlighten me. Has the Bernstein question made much of a sensation in England?

I: No, it hasn’t aroused any interest.

HE: (astonished and almost disappointed): None whatever?

I: Not the slightest.

HE: Is that possible?

I: There are very few people in England who know that there is such a person as Bernstein.</<P CLASS="quoteb">>

HE: And they know nothing of his writings?

I: Nothing whatever.

HE: But how is that?

I: Because the questions which Bernstein has raised play no part whatever in the political life of England.

HE : Not even among the Socialists?

I: Not even among the Socialists.

HE (with increasing disappointment) : Well, well!

I: But you are keenly interested in these questions?

HE: Of course.

I: And may I ask what your attitude is?

HE (energetically): Naturally against Bernstein.

I: That goes without saying. In any case, it is proper that you should take an interest in these discussions.

HE: Tell me, am I likely to get a sight of Herr Bernstein in London?

I: That depends. London is very big, and individual persons might live there for ten or twenty years without ever catching the least glimpse of one another. But, of course, if you attend Socialist meetings – for example, the meetings of the Communist Working-men’s Society in Tottenham Street, Tottenham Court Road – you might count with some certainty upon meeting Bernstein there one day, for he lectures there from time to time. Otherwise there is very little prospect of meeting him in London.

HE: Really?

I: Yes, he lives very much to himself, in a rather outlying district in the south-east of London, and hardly ever goes to town, except to work at the British Museum or to call on a few personal friends.

Our conversation turned upon other subjects, and it was only when we were ashore, and rolling along towards London in the railway carriage, that I told the young Socialist to whom he was speaking.

I had told him nothing but the truth concerning my position in England. In the twelve years during which I had been living in London, I had never appeared in public except at Socialist meetings, most of which had their regular public. Although I was the London correspondent of Vorwärts from 1890 onwards, I remained unknown to the great London Press, and to the leading bourgeois politicians. The only leading journalist in a prominent position whose acquaintance I had made was the present editor of the Nation, H.W. Massingham, who at that time, having previously been editor-in-chief of the Radical evening paper, the Star, was on the staff of the Liberal morning paper, the Daily Chronicle, of which he soon became the editor. However, even this acquaintance, as long. as I lived in England, was quite superficial. It was only after Massingham, who resigned his position on the Chronicle as an opponent of the Boer War, had invited me to contribute regularly to the Nation, of which he had in the meantime become the editor, that I became at all known in non-Socialist circles through my political letters to this periodical; for the Nation is read in all the political clubs in England. [1]

It is remarkable that in Germany, where education is almost the first word one hears, no political weekly of a serious nature has ever been able to maintain itself, as in England the Liberal Spectator, the democratic Nation, the Conservative Saturday Review, and the Socialist New Statesman have succeeded in doing. Years ago Theodore Barth, Dr. Paul Nathan, Theodor Mommsen, and others of their way of thinking attempted to run a Free Trade Liberal weekly, which was also called the Nation, but it entailed a considerable yearly loss, until in 1907 Barth lost patience and the journal ceased to appear. It was an ornament to German journalism, but compared with its English namesake its contents were poor. Among other things it lacked those contributions from its circle of readers which are customary in England, and which constitute an effective remedy against a decline into a didactic – ex cathedra manner, giving the periodical something of the character of a debating club.

Of the highly developed club-life of the English I can add little to what is already known. The only middle-class club which I have occasionally visited is the National Liberal Club, whose magnificent building on Westminster Embankment is now taken over by the War Office. As its name denotes, the National Liberal Club, or National Club of the Liberals, to put it in other words, is the central club of the Liberal Party, but among its 6,000 to 7,000 members there are men of many ways of thinking, among them Socialists of every shade, who belong to it merely in order to enjoy its accommodation. Its palatial building contains a splendid library, all sorts of dining-rooms, smoking-rooms, and rooms for political meetings, as well as a terrace overlooking the Thames, which affords a very fine view. Situated in the centre of London, it is a convenient meeting-place for people who have something to discuss together. In the great hall there are sometimes meetings or conferences of members of the Liberal Party, or Liberal Members of Parliament, when their leaders deliver addresses, but as a rule the leaders are not to be seen in the National Liberal Club. It appears to them rather too mixed: many of them prefer the Reform Club, which is of much earlier date – in its rooms, at the end of the eighteenth century, Charles James Fox would surrender himself to his passion for gambling, and lose enormous sums; but to-day it is somewhat less lively there – or they belong to the Devonshire Club, the ancient home of the Whigs. The English Socialists of my days had no club building of their own; the clubs founded by them in order that those of their persuasion might have a regular meeting-place were obliged to make use of hired rooms, and none of them outlived its second year. The enormous distances of the great city, on the one hand, and the social differences between the different partisans of the young movement on the other, were fatal to all such institutions.

Only one Socialist Society, which indeed bore the name of club, though it made no pretensions to rooms of its own, nor did it collect subscriptions, enjoyed a longer life. This was the Socialist Supper Club, which consisted of Socialists who met every fortnight in a private room in some previously appointed locality, in order to take supper together and enjoy unfettered conversation. As a rule the chosen meeting-place was in Soho, where more German, French, and Italian is spoken than English, and where the price of the supper was always such that even a moderately well-paid working man could afford it. However, the working-class element was always very sparsely represented in this Socialist “Club.” Most of the habitués were middle-class “intellectuals.” Men like William Morris, H.M. Hyndman, Belfort Bax, and other well-known personalities constituted the intellectual nucleus of these gatherings, which I attended regularly for a long time. It was a very easygoing affair; a friendly tone prevailed and one made very sympathetic acquaintances. But the short-lived clubs put me more in mind of – Germany; these were founded rather to include Socialists of all shades, without distinctions of class. In them that Socialist element preponderated which to-day constitutes the nucleus of the Independent Labour Party, while at the Socialist Supper Club the Social Democratic Federation was preponderant, and its intellectual chief, H.M. Hyndman, set the tone. Hyndman had a way of his own of getting the better of those who differed from him which I was never able to stomach. One, had to be willing to forgive him many things for the sake of his undoubted honesty and devotion to the cause before one could put up with his company for long.

A member of a well-to-do middle-class family, well read, a gifted writer, and a very effective speaker, Hyndman had been of the greatest service in connection with the resurrection of Socialism in England, but while he knew how to enlist recruits, he was less successful in holding them together. A small body of devoted admirers remained loyal to him; but even before it split in two as a result of the war he had not raised the membership of the organisation of which he was the head to any considerable figure, despite the inestimable propagandist zeal of its members. I once heard Hyndman allude with pride to the number of people who had passed through the books of the Social Democratic Federation. He mentioned an enormous figure, and although in this matter his fertile imagination may have outstripped the reality, yet one might without exaggeration speak of well over a hundred thousand temporary recruits. Nevertheless, Hyndman seemed quite incapable of realising the criticism of his methods that resided in the fact that of the hundred thousand who had entered the organisation over which he presided, only a few thousands had remained in it. The sense of moderation in particular is ill-developed in Hyndman, and his tendency to exaggerate is responsible for the fact that he has so often fallen into ill-repute as a politician. For a long time he was distrusted by his enemies as a secret Tory, which he never was; and those were equally in error who described him as a Socialist Jingo. On the contrary, he has repeatedly opposed England’s foreign wars, and has broken many a lance for the rights of the enemy. If he has behaved otherwise during the present war, and has spoken in favour of continuing hostilities against Germany, he has been influenced by his enmity to institutions and tendencies which in his opinion were more fully represented by Imperial Germany than by any other country, but by no means by national vanity. Like many democratic Englishmen, he has a great affection for France and French culture, which still remained unshaken when, at the close of the last century, there was friction between France and England over various Colonial questions, and the two Western nations appeared to be on the point of collision. That hostility to England was at the bottom of the increasing naval armaments of Germany during more or less the same period, was to him, on the contrary, an axiom which he, a Social Democrat, used to preach even in contributions to papers like the Times and the Morning Post, just as he was never weary, at international Congresses, before a public that understood nothing of such matters, of making immoderate attacks upon his own country in respect of its administration of India. In both cases the effect of his representations was very different from that which he aimed at. But his intentions would have survived the strictest Socialistic criticism.

Hyndman’s counterpart in the world of proletarian Socialists is John Burns, originally, to a certain extent, his pupil, but then, for years, his embittered opponent, represented by him as a traitor. Burns also has the habit of making an unnecessary number of personal enemies, but he compels those whom he has offended by his rudeness to respect and even admire him for his capacity and reliability. As a speaker, no less than as a worker in the most varied spheres of activity, his natural gifts are far above the average, and he has the iron perseverance of genius. Even when he was still working as a mechanic, and was able to devote his leisure only to Socialistic agitation, he surprised the employers with whom he had to negotiate when a strike was afoot by his mastery of all the individual problems of their business as these affected the strikers. And in the same way, as President of the Local Government Board, at Congresses of sanitary engineers, architects, and other trades and professions, he displayed knowledge and experience of their specialities which Caused universal astonishment, and finally won him an honorary degree. The late Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman knew what he was doing when at the end of the year 1905, in forming his Liberal Cabinet, he made a Cabinet Minister of “the man with the red flag,” as Burns was called in the days of the Trafalgar Square riot described in a previous chapter. He showed no lack of ability in the post confided to him.

On the other hand, he disappointed his admirers in some respects. Above all, he was not the man to play the part which it was particularly hoped that he would play, namely, that of mediator between democratic Liberalism and the Socialist Labour movement. If he had previously had many opponents and even enemies among the ranks of the Socialists, their number was considerably increased during the first year of his ministry. In the introduction of reforms in the sphere of municipal politics he made much slower progress than some of his Liberal colleagues in the Ministry. In replying to the inevitable criticism of Socialist members he was lacking in that urbanity which Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, and others observed toward them, being only too apt to assume the tone of a superior, which most people find extremely galling. When I once remarked to Engels, à propos of Ferdinand Lassalle, that his vanity seemed to me to have been so great that it soon ceased to provoke one, he suddenly exclaimed: “That – s precisely what the Lupus said of Lassalle.” (That is, Lassalle – s fellow-countryman, Wilhelm Wolff, known as “Casemate” Wolff.) There is, in fact, a vanity which so often co-exists with a certain childlike quality that the unprejudiced observer is no longer irritated by it. This is the case with John Burns. He has not the faculty of cloaking his defects. He was very neatly characterised soon after he entered Parliament, by the witty author – if I mistake not, the present Lord Haldane – of an anonymous essay on Statesmen, Past and Future, in the following words:

Mr. Chamberlain used to tell a good story of an old Parliamentary hand – not Mr. Gladstone – who advised him that if he broke down in his maiden speech the House would regard it as a compliment. Mr. Chamberlain never broke down; apparently could not, even if he wanted to. A lack of self-confidence was not one of Mr. Burns’s interesting attributes. The House of Commons had no terrors for him, and he would not affect an awe which he did not feel. His maiden speech was delivered with as much cool self-assurance as though he had been standing on the platform at a popular assembly in Battersea. Few people are listened to with greater respect and attention. Mr. Burns never speaks for the sake of speaking. When he addresses the House he has always something to say, and he knows how it to be said.

Three years before Burns was elected to Parliament he became a member of the London County Council, where he soon began to play a leading part, as one of the chief representatives of the Progressive majority, and treated the Conservatives, who were represented on the Council only by mediocrities, in a very disdainful manner. But in the House of Commons, our essayist continues, he soon noted, as a shrewd observer, that such a course would not be practicable there, for the opposition was ably and skillfully led.

Balfour and Mr. Chamberlain, in spite of Mr. Chamberlain’s impetuosity and Mr. Balfour’s indolence, stand very high as Party leaders when they show themselves at their best. Mr. Burns is full of courage and fears no one. But he respects a strong adversary, and recognises a convincing argument. No public speaker excels him in hardiness, and is less addicted to flattering the masses. In the debate on the Featherstone Riot he took a hazardous course indeed when he conceded that dangerous rioters must be fired upon, and even repudiated the employment of less deadly weapons than the Lee-Metford rifle. [2]

That Burns had no fear of telling the workers the unvarnished truth, I have had many opportunities of observing. On one occasion he helped, by his powerful influence, to ensure the triumph of a strike of London cab-drivers. A meeting in Hyde Park, with an address by John Burns, marked the conclusion of the strike. With the Austrian Socialist, Wittelshofer, who was in London just then, and had asked me to accompany him, I went to the Park to hear Burns speak. It was on a week-day; only strikers surrounded the platform from which Burns was to speak. We, as observers, kept in the background. Wittelshofer was almost in an ecstasy over the assured manner in which Burns addressed the cab-drivers. “Now do make a reasonable use of the higher wages which you have fought for,” he shouted. “Don’t drink it, but give the money to the misses.” And as this evoked various interruptions, he continued: “Oh, I know you; you can’t take me in. Your wives are worth more than you are. And this is certain, if I find out that the extra pay is being drunk, the next time you will have me against you, not for you.”

Burns, as I mentioned in a previous chapter, is a strict abstainer. He sees in drink one of the chief hindrances to the cultural improvement of the English people. On all occasions he refers to the tremendous part which the expenditure on drink plays in the budget of the English people. “A nation which spends 180 millions yearly on alcoholic drinks, 70 millions on its armaments, and 50 millions on horse-racing and betting,” he says in a pamphlet on the political dangers of Protection, which he wrote in 1903 as a criticism of Chamberlain’s scheme of Imperial Preference, “does not need to tax the food of the poor, and exclude cheap foreign sugar from its markets, in order to obtain a few millions, or to assist its Colonies.” Before this he had written.

Moreover, the world exists for another purpose than the exploitation of foreign countries by British factory-owners and landlords who keep armies of workers at monotonous labour. England has more than her rightful share in the world’s production, and the pity of it is that so much of the revenue from her industries is wasted upon purposes of armament when it is not squandered on drink and gambling, betting, and luxuries.

The man who wrote this, and makes similar assertions in his speeches, is assuredly no flatterer of the masses. He has often been accused by Socialist opponents of calumniating British Labour, and of prejudicing their fight for their own interests by laying an unfair stress upon their defects. Certainly he cannot be acquitted of a tendency to exaggerate. At the time of the Boer War, I had once some conversation with him on the subject of the war. It was in 1900, when the flood-tide of national excitement was at its highest point. No one could at that time come forward at a public meeting as an advocate of the Boers without risking his limbs but Burns, regardless of consequences, defended their cause, and stigmatised the. proceedings of the British Government with the utmost vehemence, holding it entirely responsible for the war, while I, as correspondent of Vörwarts, regarded it as my duty, in view of the hostility which was springing up in Germany, to treat the question in a more dispassionate manner, and to point out the defects of Krüger’s policy. Meeting Burns one day, towards the end of the year, in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square, I proceeded, after our first words of greeting, to discuss these questions. I congratulated him on his courageous behaviour, but added that it seemed to me that in stigmatising the Home Government he was not paying as much attention to the international aspect of the question as it deserved, with the general situation what it was. He listened to me quietly, interposing a query here and there, and said, when I had concluded:

I see perfectly well that you must do as you are doing, and if I were in your place I should probably do the same. But I have another duty. In this country I must fight with my whole undivided strength to prevent England from shedding blood for a gang of financiers, instead of offering the Boers an honourable peace.

This reply revealed the secret of the great and immediate efficacy of Burns as an agitator, but at the same time it laid bare the Achilles’ heel of his policy as he had hitherto followed it. Since then his concepts appear to have gained breadth in an international sense. At that time he dealt with the problems of foreign, as of domestic politics, from the standpoint of the English anti-capitalist, democratic member of the Opposition. For this reason many of his speeches, in so far as they touched upon international polity, would hardly have stood the test of objective truth, while their effect upon the hearer only gained by this quality of onesidedness.

After Burns had sent in his resignation, which was accepted, in August 1914, when the English Cabinet resolved by a majority to present an ultimatum to Germany, he would have been free, as in 1900, to loose his shafts upon the Government which had entered the war. However, he has refrained from doing so, and has been quite remarkably quiet for a long time. It appears, moreover, from occasional utterances which he has made since then, that the same reason which caused Graham Wallas and so many others, who at first advocated the neutrality of England, to alter their attitude to Germany, has brought him over to the side of his opponents. However, as may be seen from a mention of him in the Daily Chronicle of the 1st of June 1917, he is still far from repudiating the title of “the man who kept out of the war.” The Chronicle describes him as bibliophile, and he has long been celebrated as such. He zealously searches the secondhand booksellers’ shops, and the barrows on which old books are exposed for sale, for buried treasures. His collection of books, which, as has already been mentioned, was by no means inconsiderable, when he still had only the means of a proletarian worker, has grown enormously since he has become a Minister, and contains not a few unique examples.

The writer of the article in the Chronicle met him in Fleet Street, that centre of the newspaper world, with a parcel of books under his arm. Asked what its contents were, Burns replied: “Four editions of Sir Thomas More. I have over a hundred. I got this for tenpence; this cost me four, guineas.” “The great Sir Thomas,” adds the writer, “is one of Mr. Burns’ idols. John Stuart Mill, Carlyle, and Ruskin are a few others.”

It may be by chance that he does not name Marx and Engels. Perhaps the war had something to say to this, although England has not as yet gone to the length of extending the war to science and literature. In any case, Burns has the works of the authors of the Communist Manifesto in the English translation, and also those of Lassalle, and holds them in great esteem. But I doubt if they have made the same impression on him as the writings of Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, and other British thinkers. Not that I should attribute any national prejudice to Burns; he assuredly has no such prejudice in these matters. We have rather to deal with the phenomenon which we may observe everywhere. Let us take a very narrow circle of scholars and lovers of literature, and a very limited number of books of a universal character: even the best writers upon social and political questions produce an immediate intellectual effect only in their own country. The different institutions and different rates of progress to be found in individual nations result in a different manner of looking at things and of conceiving ideas, so that men’s minds are fully susceptible only to such literary creations as are born of the national genius. Indeed, the longer the individual nation has played an independent part in the progress of modern evolution, and the richer its own literature, the more fully does this statement apply. After all, it is only abstract theories that are in the full sense of the word international; any application of them to real life is more or less coloured, in this country or in that, by the national spirit. But where the people is concerned it is application that first gives life to theory.

Not only Burns, but almost all modern English Socialists have received their first decisive impetus towards Socialism from the writings of Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, the Anglo-American land reformer Henry George, and the English Radical Neo-Malthusian, Drysdale, afterwards adapting what they learned of Marx’s doctrines to those of the first-named.

Among others who were converted to Socialism as pupils of Carlyle and Henry George was James Keir Hardie, who died a year ago. For many years the chairman of the Independent Labour Party, he was to the last regarded by the rank and file of the party with an affection which hardly any other member of the party enjoyed. And this affection was not undeserved. Keir Hardie was body and soul a party man; he spent himself in the service of the party and worked for it indefatigably. The restless desire for personal success which John Burns was able to gratify, and which brought him into antagonism with many of his comrades in arms, was unknown to Hardie. A Scot by birth and education, he had in him much of the character of the old Puritan Covenanters – not, indeed, the austerity in personal intercourse, but rather the identity of political thought and behaviour, and the strong sense of impersonal dogma. In the last connection there could hardly be a stronger contrast than that between Burns and Hardie. Burns, too, is of Scottish blood. He somehow traces his descent from the family of the famous Scottish poet, but he was born and grew up in London, and if he had certain natural talents and a certain inner restlessness in common with the author of “A man’s a man for a’ that,” yet many things in him betrayed the Cockney who has grown to manhood within hearing of “Big Ben.” When I made his acquaintance he even spoke English now and then with a trace of the Cockney accent; indeed, he still on occasion betrayed that uncertainty in the use of the aspirate which distinguishes the true Cockney, for whom houses are – ouses, and eggs heggs.

This sort of transgression against the usages of speech, is, for that matter, a thing apart. We are very ready to regard it as the result of ignorance of the rules of orthography or grammar. But it is by no means so in all cases. By no means every Berliner who says mir instead of mich is shaky as regards the precepts of the grammarian, or the uses of the dative and accusative cases. He chooses, consciously or unconsciously, to say mir in certain places because usage makes it sound more correct in that connection – indeed, many who do so would say that to them it sounds more agreeable and more expressive. I have noticed that parents who are of the people are almost offended if their children speak grammatically, and even seem inclined to forbid such an affectation; and in my own boyhood I remember that our family doctor, who was a medical officer in Berlin, shouted roughly to my brother, when he had to open an abscess for him: “Na, bespritz dir man nick!”

To what a degree certain ways of speech may be organically implanted, I was able to observe in the case of certain English boys of the lower classes with whom I was to some extent acquainted in the days of my youth. They belonged to an acrobatic troupe which displayed its skill in a large place of amusement in Berlin. Behind the wings and on the streets they soon picked up the German language. But although as regards the use of the aspirate they heard only the correct German pronunciation, two of them treated the aspirate in German as the Cockney treats it in his mother-tongue, so that they used to say ’Alle for Halle, ge’abt for gehabt, Heier for Eier, Hofen for Ofen, and so forth; a fact of which we then had no explanation. They had evidently been reared in or near London, so that the difficulty with the aspirate was natural to them. It was therefore not wonderful that when I first met Burns in the autumn of 1888, at which time he was still living in wholly proletarian surroundings, he should tell me of his exasperation over Mr. ’Yndman’s attitude towards him, whereas he would certainly not have written the name of the leader of the Social Democratic Federation without an h.

Keir Hardie spoke with a Scottish accent, which one soon learns to distinguish from the English on settling down in England and coming into contact with the inhabitants of the various parts of the United Kingdom. In general, the speech of the Scot is more musical than that of the Englishman, and this again is more musical than that of the German as spoken over the greater part of North Germany. But to my mind the distinctly sounded y and the clipped vowels give the Scottish accent a colouring that readily enables the listener to realise that he is dealing with the descendants of Protestant fanatics. I have had none but friendly relations with Keir Hardie, and have never seen anything in him that could prejudice me against his personality. Yet I have seldom been in his company without experiencing something of the feeling which comes over a cosmopolitan when he finds himself confronted by a religious penitent. One thinks of Heine’s comparison of Nazarene and Hellene. Keir Hardie would undoubtedly have been described by Heine as a Nazarene. Without being sanctimonious, he had nevertheless a great deal of the ecclesiastic in his character.

This is a trait which one discovers in a great many British Socialists, particularly in those who come from the North of England, or from Scotland or Wales. The North and the West of the United Kingdom are Conservative in matters of religion, but as regards politics they are more Radical than the South; a phenomenon is explained by the fact that the North and West are the strongholds of Protestant Dissent, of Nonconformity; that is, of the Churches which are unable to assent to the articles of faith of the Established Church of England. The adherents of the Church of England largely opportunists in spiritual matters. They swim with the current; they are place-hunters, and like to live as comfortably as possible. In politics, therefore, they are Conservatives in fact if not by name. Not so the Dissenters. Historically speaking, the Free Churches of Great Britain, as the Dissenting congregations are called, have from the time of their formation been in opposition to the State, and in several of them this spirit of opposition to the ruling powers has been propagated by inheritance. For generations Nonconformity has been the backbone of the political Liberalism of England, for which reason Liberalism has a deeper religious tincture in England than is elsewhere the case. For the Nonconformists adhere to their churches with the tenacity of one who cherishes a possession which he has won by strenuous fighting.

In his English Sketches Heine says that even the stupidest Englishman can find something sensible if one discusses politics with him, but if the conversation turns upon religion, even the cleverest Englishman can utter nothing but stupidities. As regards the bone of contention which Heine had in mind – namely, the question of Catholic Emancipation – Heine himself cited two speeches made in the English Parliament in which the fear of the Catholics was wittily derided, and a year after this passage was written the Catholic Emancipation Bill became law. Moreover, Heine, who was steeped in the spirit of the more progressive German philosophy, overlooked the fact that for the greater part of the English nation religion did, after its fashion, what in Germany, with her authoritative Churches, was done by philosophy – that is, it provided the ethical justification of the struggle against the powers of authority; and that religion, to a people which has won it for itself, is something very different from what it is to a people to whom it has been dictated from above.

The cohesive power of a Free Church makes greater claims upon its members’ sense of duty than does adherence to a State-imposed Church. This is one of the reasons why the union of political Radicalism with religious austerity is so often met with in England. When in addition one learns that the Free Churches draw their adherents principally from the lower strata of society, one understands why it is that so large a percentage of English Labour leaders have been drawn from the dissenting sects, and have introduced something of their spirit into the Labour movement.

This spirit not seldom appears in their rhetoric. At the meetings which I have attended in England, I have received the impression that the average speaker at these meetings is in various respects superior to our German speakers. This may be partly due to the fact that the English language has remained more colloquial than the German. The direct form of address and the more concise form of the verb consequent thereon gives the language a directness and a natural power of expression the want of which is often felt in German. Moreover, the development of the language from two great root languages, Germanic and Latin, affords the possibility of verbal contrasts and harmonies which are also lacking in German. Further, centuries of Parliamentarism and public agitation have made large sections of the population familiar with the various turns of speech by means of which an address can readily be sustained in a given tone; and lastly, German possesses neither the abundance of historical allusion which even the popular speaker has at his disposal in English, nor the wealth of imagery to which the Puritan movement has contributed to no small degree, with its return to the warlike pages of the Old Testament. The effect of all these factors taken together is that English working-men have a much more plastic and facile means of expression than their German comrades, who are so often so superior to them in the matter of education.

In Germany it has struck me how often even the few words which the chairman needs to utter at the opening and conclusion of a meeting occur to him with evident difficulty, so that he looks like a man redeemed once he has reeled off the stereotyped formulae. In England a chairman seldom opens a meeting without a brief introductory address, in which he tells his audience various things about the importance of the subject under consideration, and makes all sorts of complimentary remarks about the speaker or speakers. Hence it is the custom, when announcing large meetings, to mention the name not only of the prospective speaker, but also that of the chairman. The chairman is regarded, as is the Speaker in the House of Commons, not only as the person in control of the meeting, but as standing in close intellectual relation to it. Hence during the course of the meeting the speaker will occasionally turn to the chairman as though the meeting were concentrated in his person; and this change of address on the part of the speaker enhances the effect of his delivery, and thereby increases his power of influencing his audience.

Indispensable to any popular speaker in England are the gift of humour and the power of repartee. The man who has not a good store of humour at his disposal is lost as a popular speaker. To interrupt the speaker is regarded as the inalienable right of every free-born Briton, and to bowl out the interrupter with a witty rejoinder is almost obligatory upon the speaker. Most people listen to the speeches of the agitators who hold forth at street corners or in the parks in the hope of deriving amusement from the interruptions and rejoinders, and the skill of the agitator is displayed by the manner in which he incites his hearers to take exception to his statements, until he has collected and interested a sufficient number of hearers to enable him to begin his real speech, his heart-to-heart talk, with some prospect of success. In this respect his opponents are not selected by hazard, for the stump agitator not infrequently appoints them himself. Needless to say, the public must not be allowed to guess that they are witnessing a preconcerted game, or the effect- would be ruined. There is a literature of political repartees, many of which are really extremely witty. One which struck me particularly was the reply which Lord George Bentinck, the friend of Disraeli, made to a voter who, when Bentinck observed, in the course of his electoral address: “So I sincerely hope, worthy fellow-citizens, that you will give me your votes,” interrupted him by the exclamation: “Rather to the Devil!” Bentinck, who had his wits about him, retorted: “But I presume your friend is not a candidate?” and the laugh was on his side.

The author of Statesmen Past and Future tells of a passage of arms between John Burns and the influential Conservative member, James Lowther, who was annoyed by the contemptuous manner in which Burns treated his opponents in his first Parliamentary speeches.

“The honourable member is not at the London County Council,” remarked Mr. Lowther, with a greater approach to a dignified bearing. “And the right honourable gentleman is not on Newmarket Heath,” was the prompt reply, which permitted of no rejoinder, or at all events received none. Since then Mr. Burns has not been interrupted. Newmarket Heath is, of course, one of the most important of English race meetings, and Mr. Lowther is a mighty sportsman before the Lord.

Keir Hardie, who was elected to Parliament in 1892, at the same time as John Burns, made his first appearance in the House of Commons something of a demonstration. He drove into the courtyard of the House of Commons, accompanied by a few of his comrades, not in a cab, but in a proletarian cart, and entered the House in an everyday suit, a cloth cap on his head. This was intended for an outward manifestation of the inexorable hostility to all middle-class parties which Keir Hardie, during his election campaign, had inscribed upon his banner. However, this sartorial demonstration did not produce the expected impression, and was not repeated. Nevertheless, it was really symbolical of Keir Hardie’s entrance into Parliament. The class viewpoint of the Socialist Labour representative had never been represented in the House of Commons in a more blunt and direct manner than by Keir Hardie, and his Parliamentary tactics were sharply differentiated from those of John Burns, who had until then been on terms of friendship with him. While Burns, in the various divisions between Liberals and Conservatives, voted on principle with the Liberals, Keir Hardie acted upon the idea that the Socialist must not only refuse to differentiate between bourgeois parties, but must continually vote against the party which is in power, quite indifferent to the fact that he may for the time being stand in dangerous proximity to the Tories. This tactical antithesis gave rise at the time to very violent journalistic feuds, which became markedly personal. In the Labour Leader, edited by Keir Hardie, John Burns was contemned as a sycophant or lackey of the Liberals, and in those newspapers which supported Burns it was pretty plainly hinted that Keir Hardie or those who stood behind him must be secret agents of the Tories. The fall of Rosebery’s Liberal Ministry in 1895 made this quarrel pointless, inasmuch as after the following General Election the Conservative Unionist Coalition took the helm. Keir Hardie lost his own seat to a representative of this coalition, and Burns, who was re-elected, sat at attention on the Opposition benches. The 1900 Election brought Keir Hardie back to Parliament, where, since Conservatives were still at the helm, he was now a political neighbour of John Burns. This assuaged their personal enmity, and when in 1905 the Liberals Party once more took office and Burns entered the Cabinet, so that he looking from the Ministerial benches, saw Keir Hardie opposite to him, the political relations of the two men were so completely changed that they entirely swamped their personal relations.

But the question of political tactics which had risen between them was not of course dependent upon personality, so that it continued to make itself felt. In the last resort it is the eternal conflict between the absolute and the relative method, which reveals itself in its countless modifications throughout the history of the human race, in religion as in politics, a constant source of intellectual estrangement. Absolutism is in this connection only another word for Radicalism – that is, the rejection of compromise, the rigid consideration of questions from a strictly limited point of view, whether they concerned the omnipotence of a dynasty, the rule of an oligarchy or of the multitude, the interests of the different classes, the validity of a dogma, or the principles of ethics. But for relativism one might just as well say Liberalism, inasmuch as this conception does not denote a party, but the tendency to toleration or mediation, which means, if it be abused, vagueness, eagerness to compromise, and opportunism. Important as it is to the champions of the working class, as the lowest and politically and socially the most backward class, to conceive their struggle in an absolute sense, yet throughout the entire history of the English Labour movement there may be noted, together with the stream of Radical tendencies, and even in opposition to them, such of the advocates of a policy of arrangement with the bourgeois parties as have, on the one hand a more or less definite conception of the course of social evolution, or, on the other hand, an estimate of the existing proportion of political forces, or the attitude assumed toward certain considerations arising out of the problems of the moment. Every reader of the German newspapers knows how this opposition, even to-day, during the war, is once more dividing the Labour movement in England.

When I arrived in England the Socialist movement was still opposed to the Labour movement, almost everywhere breaking away from its recognised leaders. The more influential of these leaders were followers or allies of the Liberal Party, and since the Socialists, for reasons which are easily understood, loosed their critical shafts principally against this party, this in itself caused the Labour leaders to regard them with hostile glances. They did not attempt any theoretical refutation of me Socialist doctrine. They rejected it, pointing to the fate of the earlier Socialist movement in England, as an unpractical speculation, which only led the workers astray. And now, by the more hot-blooded of the Socialist propagandists, they were stigmatised in their turn as the representatives of the interests of the middle classes: hence the inference was drawn abroad that they had allowed themselves to be lured away by material profit. Even to me the Trade Union leaders of those days were described as being “bought”; however; a more exact knowledge of the movement and its course of development taught me that the alliance of the Labour leaders with the Liberals was the natural sequence of the failure of earlier Socialist movement on the one hand, and on the other hand of the inherited peculiarities of the English party spirit, as well as those of the English electoral system established by the contest between the two great parties. The great defeats of the earlier movements had destroyed all faith in the political power of the working classes acting by themselves, and in their leaders it begat that scepticism which is the mother of opportunism. Those of them with whom I personally have come into contact impressed me as being by no means unintelligent or lacking in a certain degree of class-consciousness, but they had become accustomed, and even regarded it as their duty as Labour leaders; to keep their eyes fixed upon, whatever could be immediately secured by fighting for it. Their defect was that they had not a large Labour Party at their backs.

Their task, therefore, was to induce English working men to form such a party. How difficult a task this is I have been able to convince myself by occasional conversations with working men. A working man of more than average intelligence with whom I had become acquainted, as he had an allotment near my house, where he. used to work, replied to my question why he did not join the Socialist movement: “I have over and over again heard Socialist lectures, and I don’t deny that there is a great deal in the Socialist doctrine that is good and true. But there’s too much imagination about the Socialists for me: if I join the movement I shall have to take part in all the stupidities they hatch out, and I don’t feel inclined to do so.” That might have been excuse of a Philistine, but it was not; for the man was a member of a Trade Union, and as such, as I convinced myself upon further intercourse with him, he was thoroughly loyal and ready to make sacrifices, and displayed, in connection with the election of Labour candidates to different representative bodies, all the qualities which in Germany are regarded as the prerogative of the class-conscious worker. Undoubtedly many English working men thought as he did. What he lacked was faith in the solidity of the Socialist movement; for to understand the Socialist message is by no means too difficult for a working man of any intelligence.

The intellectual difference between the German and the English workers cannot be attributed to difference of temperament. So far as can be determined it results from a different history and different conditions of life. The English and the German Labour movements have taken different directions. The English movement came into existence earlier than the German, it had no model upon which it could form itself, it had not the advantages which proceed from universal elementary education; but it was also free from the political oppression which has long burdened the German movement, and has forced it into assuming different forms. The relation of the English Labour movement to the German maybe compared with that of a primeval forest to an orderly plantation laid out upon virgin soil. It still lacks many advantages which a preconcerted system would ensure, and is hampered by many excrescences of early development. Yet it is for these reasons less governed by the tendency to standardise mentalities, and it gives free play to personality and creative work. In the English working men with whom I lave had the opportunity of conversing, I have found less inclination to think according to programme than one meets with in the German working-class Socialists, though they certainly have no less ideology. But the ideology of the English worker is not the same as that of his German comrade.

We are too ready to forget – if we have ever thought about the matter – that ideologies do not fly down from heaven; they are historical phenomena which originate in given conditions and alter with these conditions. German writers and speakers are always fond of praising Germany as the land of idealism, and the German nation is represented as surpassing all other nations in idealistic thought and feeling. But the time has gone by when this could justly be said. German idealism, as an individual possession, reached its finest and hardiest growth when there was a German people, but no German Empire. Since the foundation of the new Empire it has, we must unhappily admit, withered from year to year, and is to-day a barren tree in which we shall seek in vain for living sap. Unprejudiced foreigners have long been aware of this. An Englishman who is assuredly no enemy of Germany, but, on the contrary, resigned his office as Minister on the eve of the declaration of war, because he was unwilling to take any part in it – John Morley – in the nineties, in a review of national psychology, had already written on the chilling lack of idealism which constitutes the basis of the more recent German literature. It had always been believed that what the middle classes of Germany had lost had found a home among the working classes. But the war has destroyed this belief. The German worker has shown few signs of loftier idealism than that of the workers of other countries.

The English working man has, as a rule, had less education hitherto than his German comrade. This fact, and the circumstance that he lives, as an islander, without that intercourse with other nations which has such fruitful results in Central Europe, explains much in his behaviour which is apt at first to repel the foreigner. He lacks a certain Continental polish. Although his country enjoyed the culture of the capitalist period earlier than Germany, he is in many respects a barbarian when compared with the German worker. But he has the virtues of a barbarian. “If you ever get into a hand-to-hand fight with any one,” I was told, when I first came to England, by a German friend of the same political views as myself, who had been living a long time in England, and knew the country and its people well “if you ever get into a fight, the best thing to do, if you can’t get the better of your opponent, is to let him knock you down. As long as you keep your feet no one will interfere. But any one who touched a man who was lying on the ground would be set upon by the people.” I never had occasion to test this in my own person, and I have seldom enough been an eye-witness of a fight. But what I have seen of such matters, and what I have observed of the life of the people, has confirmed my friend’s judgment. As an employer of English workers I have always found them reliable and accessible to reasonable treatment. For reasons arising out of my circumstances, I had fairly often to remove from one home to another while in London, and furniture removers are not usually the gentlest of men. But as regards the handling of my things I always had cause to be very well pleased with them in England, and I have never been subsequently overcharged as I have been elsewhere. What was agreed upon was adhered to. Of the English working man as a factory hand or a craftsman, I have no personal knowledge. When the Times once complained of the decreased output in the building trade I asked my landlord, who was a master mason, what he had to say to it. “Bosh!” was his laconic reply. Things may therefore not have been so bad as the Thunderer represented them. As Trade Unionists the English workers have often disappointed their Continental comrades, inasmuch as when they have been appealed to for assistance during a strike their contributions have been so greatly inferior to the expectations founded upon their ability to help. This is however, is almost entirely due to the bureaucratic spirit of their Trade Union rules; personally the English working man is always ready to offer assistance as soon as an appeal is made to his emotional side. What I call his barbarousness, the streak of primordial ingenuousness in his character, displays itself even in his readiness to allow himself to be influenced.

But this is a peculiarity which is not lacking in other classes of the English people: indeed, it may be called a national characteristic of the Englishman. Even in the members of the upper classes we may note a certain lack of balance. Side by side with the characteristics of a very high civilisation we may observe remnants of a primitive stage of culture which form a remarkable contrast to them. The self-discipline of the cultured Englishman has been developed to a degree hardly to be been elsewhere; but it is capable, when once it breaks down, of giving place to an extravagance which is likewise almost unique. A great deal in the novels of Charles Dickens, which to the German reader seems boundless exaggeration, strikes us as less unfamiliar when we have lived for some time in England. Dickens is in most things an excellent interpreter of English life. He scourges its weaknesses with a mastery of his art which won for him even the admiration of Karl Marx and made him the favourite novelist of such a man as William Morris; but he familiarises us with its lovable qualities as well.

The fact that melodrama still plays so great a part on the English stage has been the subject of much derision; and it is certainly not a sign of high requirements in the matter of intellectual entertainment. But the cult of courage in danger and distress, which is almost always the keynote of melodrama, has nevertheless its good side. The talk of English prudery which is so usual in Germany has struck me, so far as my observations go, as greatly exaggerated. In many respects the intercourse of the sexes is subjected to less restraint than with us. But undoubtedly sexual matters play a much more modest part in conversation and on the stage than is the case on the Continent. Whether this is a great disadvantage is as yet not very clear.

In general the Englishman is more reserved as regards personal intercourse than the Frenchman, German, or Italian; for which the different climate, and the almost universal custom of living in detached or at least private houses are to a great extent responsible. This reserve does not necessarily mean coldness and want of sympathy: it is quite compatible with living on good terms with one’s friends and neighbours. For a long time political and personal associations made my exile from home and Fatherland hard to endure, and for these reasons it was years before my wife and I became acclimatised in London. But when one day I was told “You are free to return to Germany” – and owing to the nature of my political situation the permit was in itself a categorical imperative – the first emotion that came over us was less joy than dismay, and the subsequent farewell to London was truly grievous to both of us.

Even in our age of continual traffic the nations are only just beginning to know one another a little. It is only a small minority that pays more than a fleeting visit to foreign countries, and what a small percentage of this minority takes the pains or has the capacity to understand the foreigners in whose country they are travelling! Most of the opinions acquired are based on an insufficient knowledge of the mentality of the people concerned; yet to form a correct estimation of its customs and institutions, a knowledge of its history and its development is almost more important than a knowledge of its language. Every one is liable to be misled, in comparing foreign with domestic manners and customs, by attributing an exaggerated importance to impressions based upon insufficient experience, and by generalising therefrom. Hence the contradictory statements to be found in literature and in the opinions which one nation holds of another. I have tried as far as possible to avoid these defects, and to make remarks which pretend to be more than the mere reproduction of impressions only when they can be supported by diligent observation. The general opinion which I have acquired during my sojourn abroad, which lasted more than twenty years, is that those national characteristics which one is accustomed, in conformity with the traditional phraseology, to represent as national peculiarities, are, in the case of the more advanced nations of civilised Europe, losing force owing to the reaction of their common civilisation upon their social life. There are such distinctive characteristics, but they are national only in so far as they spring from great climatic differences or have their roots in the peculiar historical evolution of the various nations; hence they tend to diminish as the economic foundations of the cultural life of the different nations approximate. Such peculiarities as escape this process of approximation often differ more perceptibly between different provinces of the same country than between nation and nation, and persist most obstinately, as is generally recognised, for reasons which are plainly evident, in the rural populations, while in the industrial proletariat the similarity of work and of the conditions of work almost completely extinguish national distinctions.

Generally speaking, I think I may say that to gain an impartial opinion of a people one should see it at home. Torn away from their home surroundings, many people do not at once develop the best social characteristics, especially if they settle down abroad in separate groups or communities. At home all may have their particular defects, and rub their corners off on one another. But generations of collective life as a nation give all a common conception of rights and duties, a mutual respect and understanding, which protect the life of the community from the defects of the individual and the reaction of individual disputes, and give it its definite character. As far as has been possible I have always endeavoured to inquire into this side of national life, and I can say, with full conviction, that I have never been disenchanted.





1. I made the personal acquaintance of the present Prime Minister, Lloyd-George, about the year 1907, when I was back in Berlin. Lloyd George was then Home Secretary in the Campbell-Bannerman Ministry, and visited Germany in order to inform himself upon the spot as to the nature and operation of the German Labour Insurance legislation. A letter from my friend and political comrade, J. Ramsay Macdonald, led to a meeting between Mr. Lloyd-George and myself at the Bristol Hotel. The conversation which I had with him was interesting enough, but it turned only upon questions of domestic politics and the rapprochement of the German and English nations.

2. In Featherstone, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, there was a strike of miners in 1893, and the strikers were attempting to demolish a coal-pit. They were fired upon after they had met the repeated warning to disperse by resistance, and had already begun to set fire to the buildings about the pit. The matter was taken up in Parliament, and an attack was made upon Mr. Asquith, who was then Home Secretary. At this Burns sprang to his feet and declared that the complaint was unreasonable. If working men give themselves up to rioting they must be well aware that they will be fired upon, and it is childish to expect that in such a case old-fashioned weapons should be employed.


Last updated on 29.1.2003