‘Franz Mehring’ by Ludwig Lore from Class Struggle. Vol. 3 No. 1. February, 1919.
Ill-fortune seems to dog the footsteps of the Spartacus movement in Germany. Still bleeding from the fearful wound that it received when Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg died a martyr’s death at the hands of the mob, it has received another blow with the news of the death of Franz Mehring. Klara Zetkin, mortally ill since her release from prison, alone is left of that brilliant galaxy of stars that, for the last four years, led the revolutionary minority of the German Social-Democracy.
When the German Social-Democratic movement, shortly before the outbreak of the war, celebrated his birthday, it honored in him the great historian, the gifted literat, the remarkable journalist. But the services that the writer rendered to the international movement of the proletariat sink into insignificance before the work that Mehring, the tactician and the revolutionist, accomplished during the last five years of his fruitful life. It was left to these last few years to produce the best that Mehring had to give to the cause of the social revolution.
After a checkered political career Mehring joined the Social-Democratic Party of Germany in 1890. He came from a bourgeois family in Pomerania, and as a young student in Berlin became actively connected with the bourgeois liberal movement. At that time there were still honest bourgeois liberals in German political life. Mehring received his first journalistic training in the fearless democratic newspaper “Zukunft,” which was suppressed in 1871 because it opposed the forcible annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. In 1873 his first Socialist brochure, “Herr von Treitschke, the Socialist Killer, and the Aims of Liberalism,” a Socialist reply, was published by the Co-operative Press of Leipzig. But Mehring continued to work as Berlin correspondent to the “Frankfurter Zeitung,” and continued to contribute regular articles to the “Wage,” the weekly edition of the suppressed “Zukunft.” Although not a member, Mehring stood in close touch with the Social-Democratic Party that was organized at Gotha in 1875. But a personal conflict that arose between Mehring and the owner of the “Frankfurter Zeitung” at that time drove him further than ever away from the Socialist movement.
Then followed a period in Mehring’s political career that for years blackened his name in the eyes of the German comrades. In the first edition of his famous “History of the German Social- Democracy” that appeared at this time, and in a series of articles in the “Gartenlaube,” he bitterly attacked, not only the leaders of the movement, but the Social-Democracy itself. This was at a time when the party was writhing under a series of shameful persecutions that culminated in the adoption of the infamous anti-Socialist laws. Later, when Mehring’s opponents in the party used his anti-Socialist activity at this time as a basis for their attacks upon him, Mehring explained his position in a pamphlet entitled “Meine Rechtfertigung” (My Justification), saying that at that time he still believed that a monarchistic government could, with honest intentions, inaugurate a policy of real reform, and could therefore accomplish more in the interests of the working class than the revolutionary movement of the Social-Democracy. The way in which the anti-Socialist laws were carried out, however, quickly disillusioned him, and in a very short time, Mehring became the sharpest and most relentless opponent of all who fought the Socialist movement, trying with all his power to undo the harm he had done. Bebel later asserted that Mehring was worth more to the Socialist movement at this time than a whole regiment of Socialist agitators. “Without him we could not have made use of one-tenth of our weapons.”
Mehring’s defection at that time was not, after all, a betrayal of his own principles. He simply had failed as yet to understand the full import of the Socialist movement. He was not yet a Socialist, and sympathized with the Social-Democracy only inasmuch as it seemed to him to be the expression of the longing of the people for democracy. Even after his change of front, he did not join the party, but tried to found a great democratic party. At this time he became the editor of the progressive “Berliner Volkszeitung,” and in its columns fought the battles of the Social-Democracy, which had been deprived of the possibility of voicing its protest in organs of its own. The bold language of the “Berliner Volkszeitung” made it possible, in time, for the Socialist press to write a little more freely in its own behalf. A heated conflict with the influential author, Paul Lindau, in 1890, finally brought Mehring out of the “Berliner Volkszeitung” into the ranks of the Socialist movement.
He became a regular contributor to the scientific Socialist organ, “Neue Zeit,” and in this capacity he has for many years done some of his most valuable work for the German and the International Socialist movement.
Mehring’s literary works, his famous “Lessing Legende,” and later his books on Schiller and Heine are an application of the materialistic conception of history of Marx and Engels to the works and views of Germany’s most famous poets. His greatest political economic works are an enlarged and thoroughly revised edition of the “History of the German Social-Democracy” and the major portion, of the work of editing and publishing the correspondence between Marx and Engels, as well as the letters written by Lassalle to Marx. He wrote, too, numberless smaller brochures and pamphlets on the most diversified political and literary subjects. Mehring was not only one of the most brilliant, but also one of the most thorough and most productive writers of the Socialist movement.
Like most thinkers in the Socialist movement, Mehring’s position underwent a series of changes and reorientations during his membership in the party. At first an enthusiastic follower of Karl Kautsky, he later became his sharpest critic and opponent. With the typical virility and energy that characterized his every action, Mehring was unsparing in his criticism of those with whom he disagreed. His attacks were masterpieces of argumentation, his philippicas always hit the mark, the arrows of his satire always afforded intense amusement to those who understood the personal references that so often stood behind them, but they left a deep hurt in those against whom they were directed.
It is now about nine years ago since the Socialist movement of Germany broke definitely with the revisionism of Bernstein only to adopt a policy of opportunism that so completely dominated the activity of the German Socialist movement before and during the years of the war. This was the origin of the division between Kautsky and Haase, on one side, and Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Zetkin and Mehring on the other. Kautsky pursued a policy of concessions and compromises. He was unwilling to alienate the sympathies of the Davids, Suedekums and Kolbs, who were steering a direct course toward governmental participation and governmental responsibility of the Socialist movement. In their attempts to bridge over the growing conflict between revolutionary Marxism and government reform-socialist, Kautsky and Haase were forced further and further to the right while Rosa Luxemburg, Klara Zetkin and Mehring, who had still been looked upon as regulars, became more and more firmly allied with the “irresponsible” Karl Liebknecht. In short, the division between the Majority, Independent and Spartacus groups existed within the German Social-Democratic Party years before the war made it an actual fact.
We need not here describe the work done by Mehring since the war began. It is too well known to the readers of the “Class Struggle” to need repetition. Franz Mehring has fought a splendid fight. He, who by birth, training and personal preference would have chosen the path of the literary man who stands aloof from great political conflicts, took his place with the small rebellious group of staunch revolutionists. Franz Mehring’s last fight was well fought, was the crowning achievement of a fruitful life.
The Class Struggle is considered among the first pro-Bolshevik journals in the United States and began in the aftermath of Russia’s February Revolution. A bi-monthly published between May 1917 and November 1919 in New York City by the Socialist Publication Society, its original editors were Ludwig Lore, Louis B. Boudin, and Louis C. Fraina. The Class Struggle became the primary English-language paper of the Socialist Party’s left wing and emerging Communist movement. Its last issue was published by the Communist Labor Party of America.
PDF of full pamphlet: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/class-struggle/v3n1feb1919.pdf