Frank Bohn, German-American son of a immigrant Red 48er and in 1913 a leading figure in the left wing of the Socialist movement, provides this wonderful look at the life of the great August Bebel, a historic leader of the German workers’ movement, on his death at age 73.
‘August Bebel’ by Frank Bohn from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 14 No. 3. September, 1913.
In the autobiography of August Bebel we find the following paragraph:
“It is my personal conviction that even the most remarkable and influential of men is more often the thing driven than the driving power; that he can do little more than help into being that which in a given state of society is pressing onward to the realization and recognition which are essentially its due. This being my belief, I have been saved from regarding my own activities as anything more than those of a willing helper at a birth, of whose origin he is entirely innocent.” (p. 5).
This fundamental Bebel not only held as truth in theory, but he lived by it in action during more than fifty years of fighting—fighting marked by bitter poverty and the crown of distinguished leadership, by years of self-sacrifice, suffering and imprisonment, and also by the love and admiration accorded in full measure by tens of millions of the world’s working people. The international Socialist movement has produced at least its quota of selfish careerists and conceited prigs. When it produces a MAN, a real one, whose life is great with service to his class and to civilization, Socialists yield to none in giving praise. Bebel has said how little the individual can do. Looking at his labors with a calmness which time and distance permit, it is for us now to testify how much he as an individual did.
The international movement has produced during sixty-five years only three men whose services compare with those of August Bebel—Marx, Engels and Liebknecht. These four worked in pairs, Marx and Engels as secluded scholars in London, doing work without which later progress would have been unthinkable; Liebknecht and Bebel, accepting fully the intellectual heritage of their predecessors, organized and led the movement which the scholarship of Marx and Engels had proven to be necessary to the emancipation of the working class.
Not only has the movement in no other nation given us a quartet comparable to this, it has not produced another man whose services can be compared in value to those of any one of these four. The fault, of course, lies not with the individual men of France, Italy, England and America, but with the inherent nature of the movement in those countries.
Why this movement and this leadership in Germany? The answer lies deep in the history of Germany during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Germany which produced the minds of Marx and Engels in 1848 had produced the minds of Kant and Hegel, of Goethe and Schiller in 1800. Germany came upon the field of later nineteenth century history equipped with an intellectual life which put her in a class by herself. An English or American Marx or Engels in 1848 is absolutely unthinkable. Likewise an English or American Bebel or Liebknecht in 1870.
The second underlying cause of movement and men was 1848. The English Revolution with its life-giving originality and boundless enthusiasms came to a sad ending in the ancient times of the seventeenth century. England went to sleep in 1660 and until the last five years she has given forth only drowsy murmurings. France exhausted herself during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. So, until nearly the close of the nineteenth century, economically undeveloped and mentally inert, the working class of France was forced to await the example of Germany before laying hold of the situation at home. In America there could be no revolutionary proletarian movement until, near the close of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution was accomplished and all the available free land was occupied.
But in Germany we see at an early period a harmonious convergence of the necessary social forces: (1) The economic development of the Rhenish provinces and Saxony; (2) the heritage of German intellectual idealism, which was the inspiration of 1848; (3) political liberalism in the Rhenish provinces and southern Germany following the Napoleonic era in those sections; (4) from out this milieu came the aforementioned group of men who were aided by thousands like-minded, but not as large-minded, or forceful.
For forty-five years, day and night, in season and out, August Bebel stood in the public life of Germany and before the whole international movement as the incarnation of a complete system of social philosophy and of a definite, organized, practical movement for the realization of the ideal of that system. This system rests upon four pillars: (1) The slavery and degradation of the working class as a brutal fact; (2) the class struggle as the only method by which the workers are to obtain freedom and provide for the evolution instead of the degeneration of civilized society; (3) political action as a means, and only a means, to the goal; (4) a never ceasing emphasis upon that goal—a free international industrial society, without classes, exploitation or political oppression whatsoever.
Bebel never for a single moment took his eyes from the greater to fill his mind with the husks of a lesser hope.
In “My Life” (published in English by the University of Chicago press), Bebel has given us a life story comparable in fascinating interest to those of Benjamin Franklin and Rousseau. It should serve as a text-book of personal conduct to every one engaged in the service of the working class movement. In every chapter one constantly turns back to reread this simple story of what has been perhaps the most useful human life of the last half century.
His mother was the daughter of a baker and peasant farmer; his father was a poverty-stricken soldier in the Prussian army.
“For years my highest ambition was just once to get my fill of bread and butter.” (p. 33.)
The father finally died of consumption, leaving the family in utter poverty. His mother then married his father’s brother in order to have the children provided with food. There followed two years of parental cruelty and then his step-father died. His mother became a seamstress, earning “not enough to live on, yet too much to die on.” She, too, finally contracted consumption and at the age of eight August went to work earning pitiable wages as a kitchen scullion. When he was thirteen his mother died.
Here is a typical story from the working class. Childhood and youth aches in every joint from poverty and all the miseries that poverty alone can bring.
Bebel was fortunate in being enabled to master a trade which later permitted him to secure a decent living. His uncle asked him what he would like to be.
“I should like to be a mining engineer.”
“What! Have you the money for your studies?”
“This question dispelled my dream.”
And so Bebel became a wood-turner and an engineer of the institutions of men instead of mines.
At that time the apprentices still completed their training by wandering about Germany, working here and there. Most happily did young August wander on foot from the Rhine to the Tyrol and back to the Rhine.
“I repeatedly got wet to the skin and chilled to the bone. I have often wondered that I was never seriously ill. I never possessed any woolen underclothing, an overcoat remained an unknown luxury. Often of a morning I would don my clothes, still wet from the day before and fated to get still wetter during the day.”
During this period he confiscated fruit from the garden of a Bishop, basing his action upon that passage of St. Ambrose which states that “Nature has given all goods to all men in common; for God has created all things so that all men may enjoy them in common.” While working in the city of Weimar he organized among his companions a strike against poor food. He had never heard of such a thing before. The strike was successful.
When, his years of wandering ended, Bebel finally settled in 1860 in Leipsic, there was no labor movement of any kind in Germany. The bourgeois Liberal or Democratic Party had organized, as a sort of crutch upon which to hobble into power, a group of workingmen’s societies. These were presumably for educational and social purposes. One of them Bebel joined and thus gained his first experience in organization and public speaking. Apparently, no one in Leipsic then knew of the theories of Marx and Engels. But the workers finally found their feet and took charge of these societies. Bebel does not fail to give Lassalle credit for first awakening him to a knowledge of Socialism.
The German movement no more so than any other sprang forth full-armed from the head of leadership. In the later sixties, according to Bebel’s lucid description, it seems to have been as broken by factions, as susceptible to charlatanism and as much given to vain conceits as our American movement at the present time. It will come as a surprise to many that, during the first period of his struggle with the Lassalleans, Bebel was not a Socialist. A study of the brilliant writings of his distinguished opponent was making one of him when there came upon the scene—Liebknecht. And Liebknecht soon aided in making a sounder Socialist of Bebel than Lassalle could ever have been. This was in 1865. Liebknecht was fourteen years the elder, better educated, a man of travel and experience. “He was a man of iron, but his heart was the heart of a child,” says Bebel.
Lassalle is criticised by Bebel in a most guarded manner, but still with enough acerbity to leave the Impression that Bebel agrees with those who think that the most fortunate event that ever happened to the reputation of Lassalle was his early death. We now know from the autobiography of Helene von Rackawitza what a fool Lassalle could make of himself when he discussed his own career with indulgent friends. But even with the death of Lassalle and the conversion to Socialism of the group to which Bebel adhered, the way was not clear for unity, for there lived and wrought in the German Socialist movement of that day a curious character, Jean Baptist von Schweitzer, whose intrigues kept the movement divided for ten years. Bebel considers the work of this man of enough importance to devote to it a complete chapter.
Bebel and Political Action.
During the past six years there has raged throughout the whole movement one of the severest controversies of its history. Shall the working class take part in political action, and if so to what extent and to what end? Some of the ablest and most active members of the movement in France, Italy, England and America are declaring that political action of any kind is futile. The argument which seems to be most effective is that, in England, France and Italy, when Socialists have been elected to Parliament they have gradually lost their spirit and have often become actual traitors to the cause. That there has been practically no anti-parliamentary movement in Germany seems to have been overlooked. In Germany almost no one has argued that the workers are inherently such weak- lings as to make confidence in a parliamentary group impossible under any condition.
In 1867, when Bebel first took his place in the Reichstag, he and his colleagues assumed a position which served as a precedent to German Socialism unto the day of the Revolution. In those early times there existed a difference of opinion between Bebel and Liebknecht regarding this matter. Bebel says:
“To take part in its Assembly otherwise than by protest and absolute negation, was in his (Liebknecht’s) eyes a betrayal of the revolutionary ideal. No truckling, therefore, no com- promise and arrangement; no attempts to influence legislation in our favor.
“I did not share this conception of the revolutionary ideal. I was for protest and denial whenever they were necessary.”
So the question in that heroic time was not, Shall we compromise with other parties or not? but, Shall we remain absolutely silent or rise from our seats and fight them?
Liebknecht then believed that there would soon be a civil war, hence political action could be nothing more than protest. After 1870 and the Empire he came over to Bebel’s view.
And what a war they waged upon their enemies! Today all classes the world over are becoming international in spirit. But when Bebel took his Reichstag seat in 1867, it was the heyday of nationalist patriotism. The United States had just re-cemented its union with such terrible sacrifices. In Italy the aristocracy and the capitalists had taken up the work begun by Mazzini and Garibaldi and were within three years of their triumph. In Germany national unity had been the cherished dream of all classes, with the exception of a few regnant particularists, for centuries. Never has there been a greater outburst of patriotic pride and fervor than that which followed Sedan. The political Democrats of 1848 joined the Monarchists in acclaiming the Empire. Against this tidal wave the handful of Socialists raised their arms. The executive committee of the party was dragged in chains to a fortress prison. In the Reichstag the Socialists mustered five votes against three hundred and ninety-two. Bebel, fresh from his turner’s bench, declared to Junkers and Major-Generals and intellectuals that the war on the French Republic must cease and protested against the vote of funds for war purposes. “A large part of the house were seized with a kind of frenzy,” he writes. “Dozens of members rushed at us with clenched fists.” (p. 215.)
A political conflict of this kind requires men—men like Bebel. Mice and rats will fight on no field. So long as a Samuel Gompers or a Ramsey McDonald are in the leadership of an ignorant following, a movement is worthless, either as a labor union or a political party. A coward and a traitor in Parliament will be a coward and, a traitor at a strike conference.
Harmless politicians are not sent to jail by the powers that be. Bebel was working at his bench in December, 1870, when he was arrested and imprisoned on the charge of high treason. Again and again did he make the acquaintance of the jailer—now for three months, again for two years. But the time thus spent was not lost. He utilized this time for studies both wide and profound, laying the foundation for his great work on “Woman” and other writings.
Unity of the German Movement.
Bebel stood first for “No Compromise”, second, for unity on that basis. Either of these policies is a broken reed without the other. As the former demanded great firmness and an abiding faith in the deepest forces, so the latter required infinite patience and much consideration for the views of others. In 1875 Marx and Engels failed to perceive the necessity for unity with the Lassalleans. Bebel refers to them rather sarcastically as “the two old gentlemen in London,” who looked upon their “clever tactical move” as “mere weakness.” The revolutionary theorist, apart from the practical work of the movement, naturally becomes hopelessly “pure.” With Bebel the “holier than thou” attitude never overcame his sense of the inestimable strength which unity alone can develop. The Gotha Program established a unity lasting even beyond the dreams of those who witnessed its accomplishment. How many times the universal confidence in Bebel has maintained this solidarity would be hard to say. His bitterest opponents have never once questioned his motives. A glance at his face either in the quiet dignity of repose, or in action, as he pleads for things ultimate, make clear wherein this power lay. A movement so permeated with the spirit of solidarity could laugh either at the exceptional laws of a Bismarck or the revisionist schemes of a Bernstein.
The German movement now most surely faces, it is said, a stormy and dangerous period. So it does. But the work cone cannot be undone. Its gigantic and strongly-wrought machine of organization is not given to fantastical by-plays. The coming ten years are to witness the crisis. Of course, there is much discussion and hesitancy before the storm.
Other aspects of Bebel’s remarkably fruitful life we can hardly touch upon here. “Woman,” his masterpiece, has been for a generation the arsenal from which the working-class woman’s movement has drawn its weapons. That his literary fame rests so largely upon this single work proves how far-visioned was his intellectual grasp of the socializing forces. To misunderstand or underestimate the nature and scope of the movement for sex freedom is to fathom one’s Socialism as only skin-deep. Bebel took this piece rejected of the greater builders and made of it the cornerstone.
The time for such as Bebel has now passed. The sword which falls from the grasp of this giant is wielded by a thousand weaker arms. Individuals can play such conspicuous parts only at the birth of great philosophies and during the foundation of world movements. When the movement has transformed its plastic materials of ideas and men into a smoothly functioning institution, the work of a Gregory I or of a Hildebrand become quite superfluous. But it is something to have lived in a period raised to eminence not only by its wide acceptance of a saving philosophy, but urged, also, to life by the living brains of a Marx and an Engels; a period not only moved to a mighty reorganization through the toil and struggle of a hundred millions, but quickened, likewise, to the very heart, by the voice and touch of a Liebknecht and of an August Bebel.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v14n03-sep-1913-ISR-gog-ocr.pdf