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August Bebel

V. I. Lenin

With the death of Bebel we lost not only the German Social-Democratic leader who had the greatest influence among the working class, and was most popular with the masses; in the course of his development and his political activity, Bebel was the embodiment of a whole historical period in the life of international as well as German Social-Democracy.

Two big periods are to be distinguished in the history of international Social-Democracy. The first period was that of the birth of socialist ideas and the embryonic class struggle of the proletariat; a long and stubborn struggle between extremely numerous socialist theories and sects. Socialism was feeling its way, was seeking its true self. The class struggle of the proletariat, which was only just be ginning to emerge as something different from the common mass of the petty-bourgeois "people", took the shape of isolated outbursts, like the uprising of the Lyons weavers. The working class was at that time also only feeling its way.

This was the period of preparation and of the birth of Marxism, the only socialist doctrine that has stood the test of history. The period occupied approximately the first two-thirds of the last century and ended with the complete victory of Marxism, the collapse (especially after the Revolution of 1848) of all pre-Marxian forms of socialism, and the separation of the working class from petty-bourgeois democracy and its entry upon an independent historical path.

The second period is that of the formation, growth and maturing of mass socialist parties with a proletarian class composition. This period is characterised by the tremendous spread of socialism, the unprecedented growth of all kinds of organisations of the proletariat, and the all-round preparation of the proletariat in the most varied fields for the fulfilment of its great historic mission. In recent years a third period has been making its appearance, a period in which the forces that have been prepared will achieve their goal in a series of crises.

Himself a worker, Bebel developed a socialist world outlook at the cost of stubborn struggle; he devoted his wealth of energy entirely, withholding nothing, to the cause of socialism; for several decades he marched shoulder to shoulder with the growing and developing German proletariat and became the most gifted parliamentarian in Europe, the most talented organiser and tactician, the most influential leader of international Social-Democracy, Social-Democracy hostile to reformism and opportunism.

Bebel was born in Cologne on the Rhine on February 22, 1840, in the poor family of a Prussian sergeant. He imbibed many barbarous prejudices with his mother's milk and later slowly but surely rid himself of them. The population of the Rhineland was republican in temper in 1848–49, the period of the bourgeois revolution in Germany. In the elementary school only two boys, one of them Bebel, expressed monarchist sympathies and were beaten up for it by their schoolfellows. "One beaten is worth two unbeaten" is a Russian saying that freely translates the "moral" Bebel him self drew when relating this episode of his childhood years in his memoirs.

The sixties of the last century brought a liberal "spring tide" to Germany after long, weary years of counter-revolution, and there was a new awakening of the mass working-class movement. Lassalle began his brilliant but short-lived agitation. Bebel, by now a young turner's apprentice, hungrily devoured the liberal newspapers published by the old people who had been active in the 1848 Revolution, and became an ardent participant in workers' educational associations. Having got rid of the prejudices of the Prussian barracks, he had adopted liberal views and was struggling against socialism.

Life, however, took its course and the young worker, through reading Lassalle's pamphlets, gradually found his way to Marx despite the difficulties involved in getting to know Marx's writings in a Germany that had suffered the oppression of the counter-revolution for more than ten years. The conditions of working-class life, the serious and conscientious study of the social sciences, pushed Bebel towards socialism. He would have arrived at socialism himself, but Liebknecht, who was fourteen years older than Bebel and had just returned from exile in London, helped to accelerate his development.

Evil tongues among Marx's opponents were saying at that time that Marx's party consisted of three people—Marx, the head of the party, his secretary Engels, and his "agent" Liebknecht. The unintelligent shunned Liebknecht as the "agent" of exiles or foreigners, but Bebel found in Liebknecht just what he wanted—living contact with the great work done by Marx in 1848, contact with the party formed at that time, which, though small, was genuinely proletarian, a living representative of Marxist views and Marxist traditions. "There is something to be learnt from that man, damn it!" the young turner Bebel is said to have remarked, speaking of Liebknecht.

In the later sixties Bebel broke with the liberals, separated the socialist section of the workers' unions from the bourgeois-democratic section and, together with Liebknecht, took his place in the front ranks of the Eisenacher party, the party of Marxists that was to struggle for many long years against the Lassalleans, the other working-class party.

To put it briefly, the historical reason for the split in the German socialist movement amounts to this. The question of the day was the unification of Germany. Given the class relationships then obtaining, it could have been effected in either of two ways—through a revolution, led by the proletariat, to establish an all-German republic, or through Prussian dynastic wars to strengthen the hegemony of the Prussian landowners in a united Germany.

Lassale and his followers, in view of the poor chances for the proletarian and democratic way, pursued unstable tactics and adapted themselves to the leadership of the Junker Bismarck. Their mistake lay in diverting the workers' party on to the Bonapartist-state-socialist path. Bebel and Liebknecht, on the other hand, consistently supported the democratic and proletarian path and struggled against any concessions to Prussianism, Bismarckism or nationalism.

History showed that Bebel and Liebknecht were right, despite Germany's having been united in the Bismarckian way. It was only the consistently democratic and revolutionary tactics of Bebel and Liebknecht, only their "unyielding" attitude towards nationalism, only their "intractability" in respect of the unification of Germany and her renovation "from above", that helped provide a sound basis for a genuinely Social-Democratic workers' party. And in those days the essential thing was the basis of the party.

That the Lassalleans' flirting with Bismarckism, or their "accommodations" to it, did not harm the German working-class movement was due only to the very energetic, ruthlessly sharp rebuff dealt to their intrigues by Bebel and Liebknecht.

When the question was settled historically, five years after the foundation of the German Empire, Bebel and Liebknecht were able to unite the two workers' parties and ensure the hegemony of Marxism in the united party.

As soon as the German parliament was set up, Bebel was elected to it, although at the time he was still quite young—only twenty-seven years old. The fundamentals of parliamentary tactics for German (and international) Social-Democracy, tactics that never yield an inch to the enemy, never miss the slightest opportunity to achieve even small improvements for the workers and are at the same time implacable on questions of principle and always directed to the accomplishment of the final aim—the fundamentals of these tactics were elaborated by Bebel himself or under his direct leadership and with his participation.

Germany, united in the Bismarckian way, renovated in the Prussian, Junker way, responded to the successes of the workers' party with the Anti-Socialist Law. The legal conditions for the existence of the working-class party were destroyed and the party was outlawed. Difficult times were at hand. To persecution by the party's enemies was added an inner-party crisis—vacillation on the basic questions of tactics. At first the opportunists came to the fore; they allowed themselves to be frightened by the loss of the party's legality, and the mournful song they sang was that of rejecting full-blooded slogans and accusing themselves of having gone much too far, etc. Incidentally, one of the representatives of this opportunist trend, Höchberg, rendered financial aid to the party, which was still weak and could not immediately find its feet.

Marx and Engels launched a fierce attack from London against disgraceful opportunist shilly-shallying. Bebel showed himself to be a real party leader. He recognised the danger in good time, understood the correctness of the criticism by Marx and Engels and was able to direct the party on to the path of implacable struggle. The illegal newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat was established and was published first in Zurich and then in London; It was delivered weekly in Germany and had as many as 10,000 subscribers.[1] Opportunist waverings were firmly stopped.

Another form of wavering was due to infatuation with D\"uhring at the end of the seventies of the last century. For a short time Bebel also shared that infatuation. D\"uhring's supporters, the most outstanding of which was Most, toyed with "Leftism" and very soon slid into anarchism. Engels's sharp, annihilating criticism of D\"uhring's theories met with disapproval in many party circles and at one congress it was even proposed to close the columns of the central newspaper to that criticism.

All the viable socialist elements—headed, of course, by Bebel—soon realised that the "new" theories were rotten to the core and broke away from them and from all anarchist trends. Under the leadership of Bebel and Liebknecht the party learned to combine illegal and legal work. When the majority of the legally-existing Social-Democratic group in parliament adopted an opportunist position on the famous question of voting for the shipping subsidy, the illegal Sozialdemokrat opposed the group and, after a battle four weeks long, proved victorious.

The Anti-Socialist Law was defeated in 1890 after having been in operation for twelve years. A party crisis, very similar to that of the mid-seventies, again occurred. The opportunists under Vollmar, on the one hand, were prepared to take advantage of legality to reject full-blooded slogans and implacable tactics. The so-called "young ones", on the other hand, were toying with "Leftism", drifting towards anarchism. Considerable credit is due to Bebel and Liebknecht for offering the most resolute resistance to these waverings and making the party crisis a short-lived and not very serious one.

A period of rapid growth set in for the party, growth in both breadth and depth, in the development of the trade union, co-operative, educational and other forms of organisation of the forces of the proletariat, as well as their political organisation. It is impossible to assess the gigantic practical work carried out in all these spheres by Bebel as a parliamentarian, agitator and organiser. It was by this work that Bebel earned his position as the undisputed and generally accepted leader of the party, the one who was closest to the working-class masses and most popular among them.

The last crisis in the German party in which Bebel took an active part was that of the so-called Bernsteinism. At the very end of the last century, Bernstein, formerly an orthodox Marxist, adopted purely reformist, opportunist views. Attempts were made to turn the working-class party into a petty-bourgeois party of social reforms. This new opportunism found many supporters among the functionaries of the working-class movement and among the intelligentsia.

Bebel expressed the mood of the working-class masses and their firm conviction that a fight should be put up for full-blooded slogans, when he revolted with great vigour against this new opportunism. His speeches against the opportunists at the congresses in Hanover and Dresden will long remain as a model of the defence of Marxist views and of the struggle for the truly socialist character of the workers' party.[2] The period of preparation and the mustering of working-class forces is in all countries a necessary stage in the development of the world emancipation struggle of the proletariat, and nobody can compare with August Bebel as a brilliant personification of the peculiarities and tasks of that period. Himself a worker, he proved able to break his own road to sound socialist convictions and be came a model workers' leader, a representative and participant in the mass struggle of the wage-slaves of capital for a better social system.


[1] Der Sozialdemokrat (Social-Democrat)—the illegal organ of the German Social-Democratic Party published from 1879 to 1890.

[2] The speeches referred to are "The Attack on the Fundamental Views and Tactics of the Party" delivered at the Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party in Hanover (October 9-14, 1899); "The Tactics of the Party" and "Collaboration with the Bourgeois Press" delivered at the Dresden Congress (September 13-20, 1903).

Published: Severnaya Pravda No. 6, August 8, 1913.
Signed: V. I..
Published according to the Severnaya Pravda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 295-301.
Translated: The Late George Hanna

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