J. V. Stalin

August Bebel,
Leader of the German Workers

March 23, 1910

Source : Works, Vol. 2, 1907 - 1913
Publisher : Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954
Transcription/Markup : Salil Sen for MIA, 2008
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Who does not know Bebel, the veteran leader of the German workers, once a "mere" turner, but now a famous political leader before whose criticism "crowned heads" and accredited savants have often retreated as from hammer blows, whose words are heeded by the millions of proletarians in Germany like the words of a prophet?

On February 22 of this year Bebel reached the age of seventy.

On that day the militant proletariat of the whole of Germany, the International Socialist Bureau, and the organised workers in all countries all over the globe celebrated old Bebel's seventieth birthday.

How has Bebel earned this veneration? What has he done for the proletariat?

How did Bebel rise from the mass of the workers, how did he, a "mere" turner, become the great champion of the world proletariat?

What is the story of his life?

Bebel spent his childhood amidst poverty and privation. At the age of three he lost his father, the breadwinner of his family, a poor, consumptive non-commissioned officer. To provide the children with another breadwinner Bebel's mother married a second time, this time a prison warder. The mother and children left the army barracks in which they had lived hitherto and moved to the prison building.

But three years later the second husband died. The family was left without a breadwinner, so the mother took the children to her birthplace in the remote provinces, and there they lived in semi-starvation. Bebel, as the child of a poor family, was taken into a "charity school," which he successfully finished at the age of thirteen. But a year before he finished school another misfortune befell him—he lost his mother, his last support. A complete orphan, left to his own devices, and unable to continue his education, Bebel became the apprentice of a turner of his acquaintance.

A life of monotonous and arduous toil began. From five in the morning until seven at night Bebel worked in the workshop. Some variety was introduced in his life by books, to the reading of which he devoted all his spare time. To obtain books he subscribed to the local library, sacrificing the few pence per week he earned by carrying water for his mistress every morning before starting work.

Evidently, far from breaking the spirit of young Bebel, far from killing in him his striving towards the light, poverty and privation still further strengthened his will, increased his thirst for knowledge, raised in his mind questions, the answers to which he zealously sought in books.

And so, in the struggle against poverty, the future tireless fighter for the emancipation of the proletariat was trained.

On reaching the age of seventeen Bebel finished his apprenticeship and started life as a journeyman turner.

At the age of nineteen he attended a meeting of workers in Leipzig and heard the speeches of socialist working men. This was the first meeting at which Bebel came face to face with working-men orators. He was not yet a Socialist, he sympathised with the liberals, but he was sincerely glad to hear the independent speeches of the workers, he envied them—and he was filled with the ambition to become a working-man orator like them.

From that moment a new life opened for Bebel— a definite road stretched before him. He joined workers' organisations and became very active in them. Soon he acquired influence, and he was elected to the committee of the workers' unions. In the course of his activities in the unions he fought the Socialists and went hand in hand with the liberals, but while fighting the Socialists he gradually became convinced that they were right.

In his twenty-sixth year he was already a Social-Democrat. His fame spread so rapidly that a year later (1867) he was elected chairman of the committee of the unions and the first workers' representative in parliament.

Thus, fighting and winning, step by step surmounting the obstacles that surrounded him, Bebel at last rose from the mass of the workers and became the leader of the militant workers of Germany.

From that time onwards Bebel openly supported Social-Democracy. His immediate aim was to wage war against the liberals, to free the workers from their influence, and to unite the workers in their own workers' Social-Democratic Party.

Bebel achieved his aim in the following year, 1868, at the Nuremberg Congress. The skilful and relentless attack he launched at this congress brought about the utter defeat of the liberals, and German Social-Democracy rose up on the ruins of liberalism.

The emancipation of the workers can be the act only of the workers themselves, said Bebel at the congress, and therefore, the workers must break away from the bourgeois liberals and unite in their own workers' party—and in spite of the opposition of the handful of liberals, the overwhelming majority at the congress repeated after him the great words of Karl Marx.

To achieve their complete emancipation the workers of all countries must unite, said Bebel, and therefore, it was necessary to affiliate to the International Work-ingmen's Association—and the majority at the congress unanimously repeated after him the words of the great teacher.

Thus, the Social-Democratic Labour Party of Germany was born, and Bebel was its midwife.

From that time onwards Bebel's life was merged with that of the Party, his sorrows and joys were merged with the Party's sorrows and joys. He became the German workers' beloved leader and inspirer, because, comrades, one cannot help loving a man who has done so much to put the workers on their own feet, to free them from the tutelage of the bourgeois liberals and to give them their own workers' party.

The year 1870 put the young party to its first test. The war against France began, the German government demanded money for the war from parliament, of which Bebel was also a member, and a definite stand had to be taken for or against the war. Bebel realised, of course, that the war benefited only the enemies of the proletariat; but all classes of German society, from the bourgeoisie to the workers, had been swept off their feet by the fever of false patriotism and regarded refusal to vote the government the money it demanded as treachery to the fatherland. But Bebel paid no heed to "patriotic" prejudices and, not fearing to swim against the stream, loudly proclaimed from the floor of parliament: I, as a Socialist and a republican, am in favour not of war but of the fraternity of nations, not of enmity with the French workers but of our German workers' unity with them. Denunciation, ridicule and contempt —such was the response to Bebel's bold pronouncement even on the part of the workers. But, faithful to the principles of scientific socialism, Bebel did not for a moment haul down the flag to suit the prejudices of his fellow-workers; on the contrary, he did all in his power to raise them to the level of clearly understanding the fatal consequences of the war. Subsequently, the workers realised their mistake and loved their staunch and sturdy Bebel all the more. The government, however, rewarded him with two years' imprisonment, but he did not idle away his time in prison. It was in prison that he wrote his famous book Woman and Socialism.

The end of the 'seventies and the 'eighties put the party to further tests. Alarmed by the growth of Social-Democracy, the German government issued the Anti-Socialist Laws, broke up the party and trade union organisations, suppressed all the Social-Democratic newspapers without exception, annulled freedom of assembly and freedom of association, and the Social-Democratic Party, which had been legal only the day before, was driven underground. By these measures the government wanted to provoke Social-Democracy into unsuccessful and fatal actions, and to demoralise and crush it. Exceptional firmness and unexampled foresight were needed to avoid losing one's head, to change tactics in time, and wisely to adjust the movement to the new conditions, Many Social-Democrats yielded to these acts of provocation and swung towards anarchism. Others renounced all their ideals and sank to the level of the liberals. But Bebel staunchly remained at his post, encouraging some, cooling the excessive zeal of others and exposing the phrasemongering of still others, and skilfully guided the Party along the true path, forward, ever forward. Ten years later the government was obliged to yield to the growing strength of the labour movement and repealed the Anti-Socialist Laws. Bebel's line of policy proved to be the only correct line.

The end of the 'nineties and the 1900's put the Party to still another test. Encouraged by the industrial boom and the relatively easy economic victories, the moderate elements in the Social-Democratic movement began to deny the necessity of an uncompromising class struggle and a socialist revolution. We must not be uncompromising, we do not need a revolution, they said; what we need is class collaboration, we need agreements with the bourgeoisie and the government, so that we may jointly with them patch up the existing system. Let us therefore vote for the bourgeois government's budget, let us enter the present bourgeois government.

By these arguments the moderates undermined the principles of scientific socialism and the revolutionary tactics of Social-Democracy. Bebel realised how dangerous the situation was and, together with other leaders of the Party, he proclaimed uncompromising war upon the moderates. At the Dresden Congress (1903) he utterly defeated Bernstein and Vollmar, the German leaders of the moderates, and proclaimed the necessity of revolutionary methods of struggle. In the following year, in Amsterdam, in the presence of Socialists from all countries, he defeated Jean Jaures, the international leader of the moderates, and once again proclaimed the necessity of an uncompromising struggle. From that time onwards he gave the "moderate enemies of the Party" no rest, inflicting defeat after defeat upon them in Jena (1905) and Nuremberg (1908). As a result, the Party emerged from the internal struggle united and strong, astonishingly consolidated and immensely grown, and for all this it was indebted mainly to August Bebel. . . .

But Bebel was not satisfied merely with activity within the Party. His thunderous speeches in the German parliament, in which he lashed out at the musty aristocracy, tore the mask from the liberals and pilloried the "imperial government," and his long years of activity in the trade unions—all show that Bebel, the faithful guardian of the interests of the proletariat, appeared wherever the fight was hottest, wherever his seething proletarian energy was needed.

That is why the German and international Socialists revere Bebel so much.

Of course, Bebel made mistakes—who does not? (Only the dead make no mistakes.) But all small mistakes pale into insignificance when contrasted with the tremendous services he has rendered the Party, which today, after forty-two years of leadership by Bebel, has over 600,000 members, about 2,000,000 workers organised in trade unions, enjoys the confidence of 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 voters, and by a wave of the hand can organise demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Prussia.

It is noteworthy that the celebrations in honour of Bebel's birthday coincided with a striking demonstration of the might of German Social-Democracy, with huge and unprecedentedly well-organised demonstrations in favour of universal suffrage in Prussia.

Bebel has every right to claim that he has not worked in vain.

Such are the life and activities of old Bebel, yes, very old, but ever so young in spirit, standing, as of old, at his post in anticipation of fresh battles and fresh victories.

Only the militant proletariat could have produced a man like Bebel, virile, eternally young and eternally forward looking, as it is itself.

Only the theory of scientific socialism could have given wide scope for Bebel's ebullient nature, for his tireless efforts to destroy the old, decaying capitalist world.

Bebel's life and activities testify to the strength and invincibility of the proletariat, to the inevitable triumph of socialism. . . .

Let us, then, comrades, send greetings to our beloved teacher—the turner August Bebel!

Let him serve as an example to us Russian workers, who are particularly in need of Bebels in the labour movement.

Long Live Bebel!

Long Live International Social-Democracy!

The Baku Committee of the R.S.D.L.P.

Published in leaflet form March 23, 1910