‘Bebel and the Woman’s Movement’ by Richard Perin from New Review. Vol. 1 No. 22. November, 1913.
The name of August Bebel was known and loved in every civilized land. When the news of his sudden death was flashed around the world, the proletariat of every country felt and expressed a sense of personal loss. There had passed away one of those tremendous personalities who by their heroic labors, boundless self-sacrifice and iron strength of character have broken the difficult road over which the proletariat must pass to victory. Those who know the history of the awakening and rise of the German working class know Bebel’s history also, for they are one. And if the proletariat of the world owes honor, respect and love to the German working class as the vanguard of international Socialism, it owes the same honor, love and respect to the memory of August Bebel, as one who could have claimed, but never did, a very large part of the credit for having made possible the marvellous advance of the German workers.
For this Bebel’s name will be immortal. But in this, although it in no way dims his own, he must share the glory with others. It is upon another field that Bebel stands out splendidly unique. It is for his fight in another, although an allied cause, that his name and memory are enshrined in millions of hearts— his championship of women. And it is undoubtedly the women of the proletariat upon whom his loss has fallen most heavily, most personally. Others must and will take up his work in the general proletarian struggle, but where shall the women find another Bebel?
Not alone in Germany or in Austria did his loss cause grief in women’s hearts; all over the world, in many unsuspected corners, the news of his death brought a feeling of personal loss to those of whom he was such a valiant champion.
What his life and his death meant to the women of the proletariat is best expressed by themselves. In her words of farewell at Bebel’s funeral Clara Zetkin gave it strong and tender expression:
“In the name of the Socialist women of all lands I give you, August Bebel, the assurance of our undying gratitude, and I dare to declare here that our deep grief is shared even by those from whom at other times we are separated by the deepest gulfs —the women of the bourgeoisie. For August Bebel was the foremost champion of the rights of the female sex. He made clear to them the many-sided injustice that has been the portion of women in history. He has taught us to struggle upward into the sunlight, he has vivified our hopes like the Star of Bethlehem. August Bebel, you arose as an incomparable defender of our rights, when few. even from the ranks of the women themselves, dared to brave the ridicule and contempt of the public. You made us strong in hope and faith in the unshakable strength of your lofty Socialist ideal of humanity, which calls forth the women’s cry of yearning. None has with holier wrath than you fought all the injustices and disadvantages of our sex. Bebel has thrown a light over the future for us. And hence he has been to us more than a mere path-finder and guide, he has been the awakener of millions of women, whom he taught to remember their humanity, which has constantly renewed the strength of all our hopes. We not only know him as the inspired party leader who with compelling force gathered together the masses of the disinherited; he showed us the most beautiful vision of the future and directed our eyes toward the social revolution. He would not have done this had he not been a pure, good and great-hearted man, as we knew him and loved him; for we women had no honors to bestow nor votes to give. We had no political power, but it was enough for him that he was fighting for us. He represented not what is, but what shall be. Like the great Norwegian poet, he recognized the fact that the workers and the women will be the great world-moving, historic forces of modern social evolution; it is we who are developing the longing of the men of antiquity and of Christianity for a purer humanity into the empire of Socialism. Bebel pointed it out to the women as the land toward which they must aspire. He taught them to hope for this land, to work for it and to fight for it. Thereby he gave our lives a richer meaning and a loftier goal than the mere demand for equal rights for man and woman: equal, free humanity for all! He made the struggle for the emancipation of women one of the strongest weapons of the proletariat. To-day millions of class-conscious, Socialist women of the proletariat are sorrowfully grieving over the loss of their leader and friend, to whom they were accustomed to look up. In you, August Bebel, there passed away a grand pattern of humanity. We are comforted in our grief by the joy of the knowledge that you were ours, the knowledge that the influence of your earthly life will endure for aeons! A free people, men and women, shall stand upon a free earth, and that will be your work! You are immortal in the records of history, and you shall be immortal indeed, for you will live on in the inflexible wills of the men and women who remain your followers as deadly enemies of the capitalist order. The greatest and most enduring memorial of your life and deeds will be the Socialist order of society, the home of freed humanity. August Bebel, leader, counselor and friend of us women—farewell!”
And the Austrian, Adelheid Popp, writing in the Gleichheit (the great Socialist women’s weekly published in Stuttgart and edited by Clara Zetkin), says of August Bebel:
“In the hearts of the thoughtful women of the proletariat, struggling for their emancipation, no name is so deeply rooted as is that of August Bebel. In comparison with his, what signify the brilliant names of the history of the women’s movement, the names of all those who were the first and most famous standard bearers of the demand for the emancipation of women? A John Stuart Mill, a Mary Wollstonecraft, the immortal figures of the women of the great French Revolution? The woman of the proletariat names them over, she is full of admiration when she hears of these pioneers of women’s rights, reads of their work and their deeds, but they are not close to her. But they all know August Bebel almost personally. They mention his name as they do that of a close friend, even when they have never seen him. We often hear working women say “Unser Bebel” (Our Bebel) when they have read his book. Nor has any other book done as much to arouse women to the consciousness of their humanity as has Bebel’s book “Woman and Socialism.” The German comrades call August Bebel “their Bebel,” but we with no less right regard him as “our Bebel.” For we have all learned from him, even those who have never read his splendid book.
“When we wish to tell of Bebel’s influence upon the movement of the working women of Austria, we have, perhaps, said too little when we state that he has given us impulse, knowledge and enthusiasm. His book had an instructive and clarifying influence upon us. In the early nineties, when our agitation was still very young and our army was hardly more than a few hundred in number, how often we used to declare, afire with enthusiasm: ‘August Bebel says.’ We cited portions of his book, we read from it, every woman comrade in training to become a speaker studied it. And it is still so to-day. The working women’s movement is still learning from the most prominent pioneer of the women’s movement. Longingly, we have often said: ‘Oh, if all men would speak so!’ We have always felt that it was necessary, not only that women should read what August Bebel has said about women, but that men should also read to learn how feelingly he has pictured the slavish existence of woman as wage worker and housewife, how convincingly he points out the road to her emancipation in common with the struggling proletariat. We have always wished that the many men who admired August Bebel as an agitator, parliamentarian and party leader might also learn to know him as the champion of the enslaved women possessing no rights. The words of one who enjoyed so much respect and honor as the champion of the proletariat must find respect on any field, must bear fruit…
“When the news of Bebel’s death reached us in Vienna, the women comrades gathered of their own initiative in our headquarters, because they instinctively had the feeling that they must be represented at the funeral of their champion; they wished to give expression to their grief and sorrow among those of congenial minds. And in the most remote localities of Austria the women comrades gathered together to listen to some other woman, who, perhaps, had first found the gift of speech in her grief over Bebel.
“And so we are justified in saying that Bebel was ours also, that we too have lost him. With the working class of the whole world, the proletarian women of every land may well grieve for the most valiant champion of their rights. May the feeling of gratitude be so deep in all that each individual will find strength in his example to bring it about that his spirit shall live in every place where the suffering of the proletariat drives it to fight for emancipation from the evils of capitalism. The flames have consumed Bebel’s body, but the world must feel and must proclaim that his work is immortal, that it lives on and becomes ever mightier. To have a part in that is the best thanks that we can render him.”
Such was Bebel’s influence upon women of the proletariat. Such was the love and veneration which they bestowed upon him. His influence and their love are the most convincing proof that Bebel had a marvellously clear insight into the hearts of women, their needs and their aspirations. It is but a natural question to ask: “Whence came this deep insight?” Was it due solely to his mentality and his character? Or was there still another source?
Bebel’s own words supply the answer. In his memoirs he writes of his wife Julie Bebel, who died on November 22, 1910:
“To a man who in public life is fighting with a world of opponents, it is not a matter of indifference what the woman who stands at his side may be intellectually. According to her intellect she can either be a support to his efforts or a leaden weight and a hindrance to them. I am happy to be able to say that my wife belongs to the former class…I have never had to regret my marriage. I could not have found a more loving, devoted and constantly self-sacrificing wife. If I accomplished what I have accomplished, it was, to begin with, only possible because of her untiring care and readiness to help. And she had to live through many difficult days, months and years before at last the sun of happier times shone upon her.”
Indeed it is only necessary to study Bebel’s whole life and work to realize how much was drawn from the strength and courage of this unassuming woman.
Comrade Greulich, of Switzerland, who delivered the funeral oration at Julie Bebel’s funeral, said at that time that Bebel’s life-work, but above all his book, “Woman and Socialism,” is also her work and that in these her memory will live.
Women, at least, will not regard these facts as detracting in the slightest degree from the honor and affection due from them to Bebel on account of his comprehension of them, their needs and aspirations. On the contrary, it will add to the honor due him and increase their respect for him. In their undying gratitude to “Unser Bebel” they will not forget to revere the memory of that one of their sex who held up his hands.
The New Review: A Critical Survey of International Socialism was a New York-based, explicitly Marxist, sometimes weekly/sometimes monthly theoretical journal begun in 1913 and was an important vehicle for left discussion in the period before World War One. Bases in New York it declared in its aim the first issue: “The intellectual achievements of Marx and his successors have become the guiding star of the awakened, self-conscious proletariat on the toilsome road that leads to its emancipation. And it will be one of the principal tasks of The NEW REVIEW to make known these achievements,to the Socialists of America, so that we may attain to that fundamental unity of thought without which unity of action is impossible.” In the world of the East Coast Socialist Party, it included Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Herman Simpson, Louis Boudin, William English Walling, Moses Oppenheimer, Robert Rives La Monte, Walter Lippmann, William Bohn, Frank Bohn, John Spargo, Austin Lewis, WEB DuBois, Arturo Giovannitti, Harry W. Laidler, Austin Lewis, and Isaac Hourwich as editors. Louis Fraina played an increasing role from 1914 and lead the journal in a leftward direction as New Review addressed many of the leading international questions facing Marxists. International writers in New Review included Rosa Luxemburg, James Connolly, Karl Kautsky, Anton Pannekoek, Lajpat Rai, Alexandra Kollontai, Tom Quelch, S.J. Rutgers, Edward Bernstein, and H.M. Hyndman, The journal folded in June, 1916 for financial reasons. Its issues are a formidable and invaluable archive of Marxist and Socialist discussion of the time.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/newreview/1913/v1n22-nov-1913.pdf