August Bebel

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August Bebel, the son of a noncommissioned officer in the Prussian Army was born in Deutz on 22nd February, 1840. He later recalled: "The family of a Prussian petty-officer in those days lived in very penurious circumstances. The salary was more than scanty, and altogether the military and official world of Prussia lived poorly at that time.... My mother obtained permission to keep a sort of a canteen, in other words, she had license to sell sundry articles of daily use to the garrison. This was done in the only room at our disposal. I can still see mother before me as she stood in the light of a lamp fed by rape-oil and filled the earthen bowls of the soldiers with steaming potatoes in their jackets, at the rate of 6 Prussian pennies per bowl."

After leaving school he worked as a carpenter in Leipzig, Salzburg and Tyrol. In 1859 he attempted to join the army but was rejected as being physically unfit. Bebel became interested in politics and took part in trade union activities. He became a socialist after reading the work of Ferdinand Lassalle, which popularized the ideas of Karl Marx.

Bebel distributed copies of Lassalle's pamphlets to fellow workers. He admitted in his autobiography, Reminiscences (1911): "The open letter of Lassalle did not make at all such apt impression upon the world of labor as had been expected, in the first place, by Lassalle himself; in the second place, by the small circle of his followers. For my part, I distributed about two dozen copies in the Industrial Educational Club, in order to give the other side a chance. That the letter should have made so little impression upon the majority of the laborers in the movement of that time, may seem inexplicable today to some people. But it was quite natural. Not merely the economic, but also the political conditions were still very backward. Professional freedom, free migration, liberty to settle down, exemption from passports, liberty to wander, freedom of association and assembly, such were the demands that appealed more closely to the laborer of that time than productive associations subsidized by the state, of which he had no clear conception."

In 1865 he met Wilhelm Liebknecht. Bebel later recalled: "Liebknecht’s genuine fighter’s nature was keyed up by an impregnable optimism, without which no great aim can be accomplished. No blow that struck him, personally or the party, could rob him for a minute of his courage or of his composure. Nothing took him unawares; he always knew a way out. Against the attacks of his antagonists his watchword was: Meet one rascal by one and a half. He was harsh and ruthless against our opponents, but always a good comrade to his friends and associates, ever trying to smooth over existing difficulties."

Over the next few years the worked together in an effort to spread the ideas of Karl Marx. In 1868 he won a seat in the Reichstag. The following year Bebel and Liebknecht formed the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (SDAP) together. Bebel and Liebknecht also established a newspaper, Der Volksstaat. In 1870 the two men used the newspaper to promote the idea that Otto von Bismarck had provoked France into war and called on workers from both countries to unite in overthrowing the ruling class. As a result, Bebel and Liebknecht were arrested and charged with high treason. In 1872, both men were convicted and sentenced to two years in the Königstein Fortress.

On his release in 1874 Bebel was elected to the Reichstag. The following year he helped the SDAP merge with the General German Workers' Association (ADAV), an organisation led by Ferdinand Lassalle, to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the 1877 General Election in Germany the SDP won 12 seats. This worried Otto von Bismarck, and in 1878 he introduced an anti-socialist law which banned Social Democratic Party meetings and publications.

In 1879 August Bebel published Woman and Socialism. In the book Bebel argued that it was the goal of socialists "not only to achieve equality of men and women under the present social order, which constitutes the sole aim of the bourgeois women's movement, but to go far beyond this and to remove all barriers that make one human being dependent upon another, which includes the dependence of one sex upon another."

The book had a tremendous influence on fellow members of the Social Democratic Party. This included Karl Schmidt who gave it to his daughter, Käthe Kollwitz to read. She was particularly impressed with one passage of the book that stated: "In the new society women will be entirely independent, both socially and economically... The development of our social life demands the release of woman from her narrow sphere of domestic life, and her full participation in public life and the missions of civilisation." Bebel also predicted the dissolution of marriage, believing that socialism would free women from their second-class status.

After the anti-socialist law ceased to operate in 1890, the SDP grew rapidly. However, Bebel had problems with divisions in the party. Eduard Bernstein, a member of the SDP, who had been living in London, became convinced that the best way to obtain socialism in an industrialized country was through trade union activity and parliamentary politics. He published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands. Bernstein's revisionist views appeared in his extremely influential book Evolutionary Socialism (1899). His analysis of modern capitalism undermined the claims that Marxism was a science and upset leading revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

In 1901 Bernstein returned to Germany. This brought him into conflict with left-wing of the Social Democrat Party that rejected his revisionist views on how socialism could be achieved. This included those like Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who still believed that a Marxist revolution was still possible.

During the 1905 Revolution Luxemburg and Leo Jogichesreturned to Warsaw where they were soon arrested. Luxemburg's experiences during the failed revolution changed her views on international politics. Until then, Luxemburgbelieved that a socialist revolution was most likely to take place in an advanced industrialized country such as Germany or France. She now argued it could happen in an underdeveloped country like Russia.

At the Social Democratic Party Congress in September 1905, Rosa Luxemburg called for party members to be inspired by the attempted revolution in Russia. "Previous revolutions, especially the one in 1848, have shown that in revolutionary situations it is not the masses who have to be held in check, but the parliamentarians and lawyers, so that they do not betray the masses and the revolution." She then went onto quote from The Communist Manifesto: "The workers have nothing to lose but their chains; they had a world to win."

Bebel did not share Luxemburg's views that now was the right time for revolution. He later recalled: "Listening to all that, I could not help glancing a couple of times at the toes of my boots to see if they weren't already wading in blood." However, he preferred Luxemburg to Eduard Bernstein and he appointed her to the editorial board of the SPD newspaper, Vorwarts (Forward). In a letter to Leo Jogiches she wrote: "The editorial board will consist of mediocre writers, but at least they'll be kosher... Now the Leftists have got to show that they are capable of governing."

In 1906 Rosa Luxemburgpublished her thoughts on revolution in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. She argued that a general strike had the power to radicalize the workers and bring about a socialist revolution. "The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and the more highly developed the antagonism is between capital and labour, the more effective and decisive must mass strikes become. The chief form of previous bourgeois revolutions, the fight at the barricades, the open conflict with the armed power of the state, is in the revolution today only the culminating point, only a moment on the process of the proletarian mass struggle."

These views were not well received by Bebel and other party leaders. Luxemburg wrote to Clara Zetkin: "The situation is simply this: August Bebel, and still more so the others, have completely spent themselves on behalf of parliamentarism and in parliamentary struggles. Whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentarism, they are completely hopeless - no, even worse than that, they try their best to force everything back into the parliamentary mould, and they will furiously attack as an enemy of the people anyone who wants to go beyond these limits."

Despite these conflicts between the left, headed by Rosa Luxemburg, and right led by Eduard Bernstein, the S won 110 seats in the Reichstag in the election of 1912. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was now the largest political party in Germany.

August Bebel died following a heart attack on 13th August, 1913 during a visit to a sanatorium in Graubünden, Switzerland. He was 73 years old at the time of his death. His body was buried in Zürich.

Primary Sources

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(1) August Bebel, Reminiscences (1911)

The family of a Prussian petty-officer in those days lived in very penurious circumstances. The salary was more than scanty, and altogether the military and official world of Prussia lived poorly at that time. Most of them had to pull in their belts and starve for God, King and Country. My mother obtained permission to keep a sort of a canteen, in other words, she had license to sell sundry articles of daily use to the garrison. This was done in the only room at our disposal. I can still see mother before me as she stood in the light of a lamp fed by rape-oil and filled the earthen bowls of the soldiers with steaming potatoes in their jackets, at the rate of 6 Prussian pennies per bowl. For us children - my first brother came in April, 1841, and a second followed to the summer of 1842 - life in the casemate was full of delights. We rambled thru the rooms, petted or teased by the petty-officers and soldiers. When the rooms were vacant, while the men were out for drill, I would go to one of the rooms and get the guitar of petty-officer Wintermann, who was also my god-father, and I would carry on my musical exercises till there was not a whole string left on the instrument. In order to sidetrack me from these destructive musical exercises and escape their dire results, he whittled a guitar-like contrivance from a piece of board for me, and stretched some gut-strings across it. From then on, I would sit for hours on the doorstep facing a yard on the main street of Deutz, with this “instrument,” and with my brother, maltreating these strings so much that I “charmed” the two daughters of a captain of dragoons, who lived opposite us. They often regaled me for my musical accomplishments with cake or candy. Of course, the military exercises did not suffer from these musical practices. The incentive for the military exercises came from the entire environment; it was literally in the air. So as soon as I put on my first coat and my first trousers, which, of course, had been manufactured from an old military overcoat of father’s, I took a position by the side of the soldiers, drilling on the open square to front of the casemate, or behind them, and imitated their movements. My mother often told me humorously later on, that I was a master in the art of swinging into front, right and left. This exercise gave the men much trouble, and it is said that the commanding officer, or petty-officer, used to point me out as an example to the men.

(2) August Bebel, Reminiscences (1911)

In the beginning of March, 1863, appeared Lassalle’s, “Open Letter to the Central Committee for the calling of a general congress of German laborers in Leipsic.” A few days previous to this publication, I had made the speech of the day at the celebration of the second anniversary of the Industrial Educational Club, in which I argued against universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage, because the workingmen were not yet ripe for it. I offended even some of my friends of the club with this view of mine. On the other hand, my speech pleased my future wife immensely, who participated in the celebration with her brother. But I have goo dreasons for believing that it was more the person of the speaker that pleased her than the contents of his speech, which at that time was no doubt rather immaterial to her.

The open letter of Lassalle did not make at all such apt impression upon the world of labor as had been expected, in the first place, by Lassalle himself; in the second place, by the small circle of his followers. For my part, I distributed about two dozen copies in the Industrial Educational Club, in order to give the other side a chance. That the letter should have made so little impression upon the majority of the laborers in the movement of that time, may seem inexplicable today to some people. But it was quite natural. Not merely the economic, but also the political conditions were still very backward. Professional freedom, free migration, liberty to settle down, exemption from passports, liberty to wander, freedom of association and assembly, such were the demands that appealed more closely to the laborer of that time than productive associations subsidized by the state, of which he had no clear conception. The idea of association or of co-operation was justs prouting. Even universal suffrage did not seem an indispensable right to the majority. On the one hand, as I have emphasized several times, political intelligence was still low; on the other hand, the fight of the Prussian House of Representatives against Bismarck’s ministry appeared to the great majority as a brave deed, which deserved support and praise, but no censure or derogation. A man who was politically active, like myself, devoured the reports of the proceedings in parliament and regarded them as the outpour of political wisdom. The liberal press, which then ruled public opinion far more than it does to-day, also took care to preserve this belief. So it was the liberal press that now greeted Lassalle’s appearance with cries or, rage and sneers, in a way that had, perhaps, been unheard of until then. Personal insinuations and defamations poured down upon him, and that the chief conservative organs, for instance, the “Kreuzzeitung,” treated Lassalle objectively, because his attack on the liberals was very welcome to them, did not increase Lassalle’s credit or that of his followers in our eyes. And if we realize, finally, that even to-day, after more than forty-five years of intense labors of enlightenment, there are still millions of laborers who run after the different bourgeois parties, it is no wonder that the vast majority of the workers in the sixties of the nineteenth century were skeptical against the new movement. And at that time no success had been obtained in social legislation, such as was secured later by the Socialist movement. Pioneers are always scarce.

(3) August Bebel, Reminiscences (1911)

Liebknecht and Bernhard Becker were driven out of Prussia in 1865. Liebknecht had returned to Berlin in the Summer of 1862, after an exile of thirteen years. The amnesty of 1860 made this possible for him. He followed the call of the old revolutionist, August Brass, with whom he became acquainted, like Engels, in Switzerland, and who had founded a Greater German democratic newspaper, the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,” in the summer of 1862, in Berlin. Liebknecht had been won, together with Robert Schweichel; for the editorship, the former for foreign politics. But when Bismarck assumed the ministry at the end of September, 1862, both of them soon discovered that something was wrong. Their suspicions were confirmed, when one day an accident would have it that Schweichel received a letter for Brass from a messenger of the ministry, who said that the contents of the letter were to be published at once. Both of them gave notice and resigned from the editorship. As Liebknecht declared publicly, later on, Lassalle upbraided him, even one year after his resignation, for leaving left his position on the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.” Liebknecht, who then had a wife and two children, whom he had summoned from London to Berlin, meanwhile earned a living as a correspondent for various papers. When I became acquainted with him, he wrote, among others, for the “Oberrheinischen Kurier,” in Freiburg, Baden, for Rechbauer’s democratic “Tagespost,” in Graz, and for the “Deutsche Wochenblatt,” in Mannheim, from which last named, however, he could not have received very much. Later he wrote for several years for the “Frankfurter Zeitung.” He gave public lectures in Berlin, particularly in the printers’ and tailors’ unions, also in public labor meetings and other popular meetings, in which he combatted Bismarck’s policies. He regarded JB von Schweitzer, the editor of the “Social-democrat,” as the stool pigeon of those policies.

After his expulsion, he went first to Hanover, where Schweichel had found a position as editor of the “Anzeiger.” But, since nothing could be found for him there he came to Leipsic, where, one day in August, he was introduced to me by Dr. Eras, who was then the editor of the “Mitteldeutsche Volkszeitung.” Liebknecht, whose work and expulsion I was familiar with thru the newspapers, naturally interested me greatly. I was then forty years old, but possessed the fire and vivacity of a young man of twenty. Immediately after our introduction, we engaged in a political conversation, in which he attacked the Progressive Party and its leaders vehemently and ruthlessly, and gave them a bad character, so that I, who myself did not regard them any longer as saints, was quite dumbfounded. However, he was a first-class man, and his aggressive manners did not prevent us from becoming good friends.

Liebknecht was very welcome to us in Saxony. In July, at the state convention in Glauchau, we had decided to send agitators out on a tour. But it was easier to decide than to carry this out, for we lacked suitable personalities whose existence permitted such an activity. Liebknecht readily placed himself at our disposal for lecture tours. He was also welcome in the Workingmen’s Educational Club as a speaker, and soon his lectures were the best attended. He also undertook to teach English and French in this club. In this way he gradually worked up a modest living. Nevertheless, as I learned later, he was compelled to carry many a good book to the second hand dealer. His condition was still more deteriorated by the fact that his (first) wife was ailing with lung trouble, and needed stronger food. Liebknecht’s exterior did not show that he had any cares. Whoever saw him, and heard him, would have thought that he lived in contentment.

His first agitation tour led him into the Iron Mountains, especially into the workingmen’s villages of the Muelsen Ground, whereby he paved his way to his subsequent candidacy for the North German Reichstag. As I also undertook frequent agitation tours, and the two of us generally acted together in all political questions, our names were mentioned more and more in public, until we were regarded as two inseparables. This went so far that when a party comrade became my business associate in the second half of the seventies, sometimes business letters would arrive which were addressed to Liebknecht & Bebe1, instead of Issleib & Bebel. This always created merriment among us.

I shall have to mention Liebknecht more frequently in these pages, but I cannot give a description of his life here. Those who are interested in that, will find more details in the book on “The Leipsic Process for High Treason against Liebknecht, Bebel and Hepner,” and in the work of Kurt Eisner, on “Wilhelm Liebknecht.” Both works are published by the Vorwaerts Publishing House.

Liebknecht’s genuine fighter’s nature was keyed up by an impregnable optimism, without which no great aim can be accomplished. No blow that struck him, personally or the party, could rob him for a minute of his courage or of his composure. Nothing took him unawares; he always knew a way out. Against the attacks of his antagonists his watchword was: Meet one rascal by one and a half. He was harsh and ruthless against our opponents, but always a good comrade to his friends and associates, ever trying to smooth over existing difficulties.

In his private life, Liebknecht was a considerate husband and father, and was greatly attached to his family. He was also a great nature lover. A few beautiful trees, in an otherwise charmless landscape, could make him enthusiastic, and induce him to consider this place fine. In his wants, he was simple and unpretentious. An excellent soup, which my young wife placed before him shortly after our marriage, in the spring of 1866, pleased him so much that he never forgot it. A good glass of beer or a good glass of wine and a good cigar were agreeable to him, but he did not spend much for them. If he had donned some new garment, which did not happen very often, and if I had not noticed it immediately and appreciated it, I could be sure that before many minutes, he would call my attention to it, and ask my opinion of it. He was a man of iron, with the mind of a child. When Liebknecht died, on August 7, 1900, it was exactly thirty-five years since we had first met.

(4) August Bebel, Woman and Socialism (1879)

The woman of the future society is socially and economically independent, she is no longer subjected to even a vestige of domination or exploitation, she is free and on a par with man and mistress of her destiny. Her education is the same as that enjoyed by men, with the exception of some modifications demanded by differences of sex and sexual functions. Living in natural conditions, she is able to develop and exercise her physical and mental powers and faculties according to her requirements. She chooses her occupation in such a field as corresponds with her wishes, inclinations and talents, and enjoys working conditions identical to those of men. Even if she is engaged in some trade for some hours she may spend another part of the day working as an educator, teacher or nurse, and devote a third part of the day to some art, or the study of some branch of science, and set aside yet another part of the day to some administrative function. She joins in studies and work, enjoys diversions and entertainment with other women or with men as she pleases and as occasion allows.

In choosing the object of her love, woman, like man, is free and unhampered. She woos or is wooed, and enters into a union from no considerations other than her own inclinations. This bond is a private agreement, arrived at without the intermediacy of a functionary - just as marriage was a private agreement till far into the Middle Ages. Socialism is creating nothing new here, it only restores at a higher stage of civilisation and antler new social forms what had prevailed universally before private property began to dominate society.

Under the proviso that the satisfaction of his instincts inflicts no injury and disadvantage on others, the individual shall see to his own needs. The gratification of the sexual instinct is as much a private concern as the satisfaction of any other natural instinct. No one is accountable for it to others and no unsolicited judge has the right to interfere. What I shall eat, how I shall drink, sleep and dress, is my own affair, as is also my intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. Intelligence and culture, full independence of an individual - all qualities that will evolve naturally as a result of the education and the conditions pertaining in the future society - will guard everyone against committing acts that would be to his disadvantage. The men and women of the future society will possess a far higher degree of self-discipline and self-knowledge than those now living. The simple fact that all the stupid prudery and ridiculous affection of secrecy regarding the discussion of sexual matters will have vanished guarantees that intercourse between the sexes will be much more natural than it is today. If two persons who have entered into a union turn out to be incompatible, or are disappointed in or repulsed by each other, morality demands that this unnatural and therefore immoral bond be dissolved. Since the conditions that have up to now condemned a large number of women to either celibacy or the barter of their bodies will have vanished, men will no longer be able to maintain any superiority. On the other hand, the transformed social conditions will remove many of the inhibitions and inconveniences which affect married life today, often prevent it from unfolding, or even render it wholly impossible.

(5) Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Clara Zetkin (January, 1907)

The situation is simply this: August Bebel, and still more so the others, have completely spent themselves on behalf of parliamentarism and in parliamentary struggles. Whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentarism, they are completely hopeless - no, even worse than that, they try their best to force everything back into the parliamentary mould, and they will furiously attack as an enemy of the people anyone who wants to go beyond these limits.

 

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