August Bebel

August Bebel

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."

A group of trade unionists that became known collectively as the "junta" urged the establishment of an international organisation. This included Robert Applegarth, William Allan, George Odger and Johann Eccarius. "The aim of the Junta was to satisfy the new demands which were being voiced by the workers as an outcome of the economic crisis and the strike movement. They hoped to broaden the narrow outlook of British trade unionism, and to induce the unions to participate in the political struggle".

On September 28, 1864, an international meeting for the reception of the French delegates took place in St. Martin’s Hall in London. The meeting was organised by George Howell and attended by a wide array of radicals, including August Bebel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Élisée Reclus, Ferdinand Lassalle, William Greene, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Friedrich Sorge and Louis Auguste Blanqui. The historian Edward Spencer Beesly was in the chair and he advocated "a union of the workers of the world for the realisation of justice on earth".

In his speech, Beesly "pilloried the violent proceedings of the governments and referred to their flagrant breaches of international law. As an internationalist he showed the same energy in denouncing the crimes of all the governments, Russian, French, and British, alike. He summoned the workers to the struggle against the prejudices of patriotism, and advocated a union of the toilers of all lands for the realisation of justice on earth."

The new organisation was called the International Workingmen's Association. Karl Marx was asked to become a member of the General Council that consisted of two Germans, two Italians, three Frenchmen and twenty-seven Englishmen (eleven of them from the building trade). Marx was proposed as President but as he later explained: "I declared that under no circumstances could I accept such a thing, and proposed Odger in my turn, who was then in fact re-elected, although some people voted for me despite my declaration."

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 Luxemburg published 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

August Bebel! The name is in itself a portion of history; the name bears witness of the man. For, when we turn the leaves of the story of Bebel’s life, is not the history of the militant German proletariat .itself, and especially of the Social-Democracy, opened out to us?- a history whose waves, describing circles, have reached over also into the Labour movement of other countries. There is not an important chapter of this history, not a decided turning-point, not a milestone of irrevocable progress in the historic life of the German proletariat, which does not bear the firm and ineradicable mark of Bebel’s creating and directing hand. That has been the case for nearly half a century -from the time of its first confused and halting steps, when the German proletariat began to realise its historic existence and the task that was allotted to it; when it started, politically and economically, on its forward march as an independent class, till to-day, when it is advancing from all directions to storm the citadels of bourgeois society. As Bebel was one of the first to sound the call-to-arms, so, after decades of unresting labour and manifold experiences, he still was numbered among the most indefatigable of the advanced guard of the proletarian army.

We find him at the front among the stalwarts to whom the German Social-Democracy owes its firm organisation and who found themselves faced by an extremely difficult task. An organisation had to be created which took into consideration the historic formation of each of the Federated States, which had to deal, with varying political situations and tactics on the part of the authorities, and which would combine the necessary unity and cohesion with the equally necessary freedom of action. Other considerations, too, claimed attention. In view of the spreading and deepening activity of the Social-Democracy, it was necessary to provide for the possibility of incorporating new elements into the organism and to insure that it should be able at any time rapidly to develop its utmost impetus. And no one has done more than Bebel to fill the Party organisation with the fullest conception of proletarian life and to make it serviceable to the purposes of the working class.

A clear-sighted steersman, he guided the ship of Social-Democracy through storms and heavy seas, between the cliffs and reefs of the Anti-Socialist Law; guided it into the calms that precede great storms, and past the shallows of bourgeois Parliamentarism. With the unerring instinct of the born fighter, and the clear vision of the responsible leader, from conceptions and principles firmly anchored in science he drew the right conclusions regarding the often, apparently insoluble confusion of daily events. Thus, at all tunes he recognised how necessary is mobility of tactics in the political struggle, the variability and renewal of methods and weapons. At a time when the importance of the suffrage was still unrecognised by distinguished leaders of Germany’s young Labour movement, when it was denounced by whole brother-parties abroad as a means of cheating the masses, it was Bebel who, with strong arms, bore among the “obtuse,” “unripe,” “unorganised “ masses the banner raised by Lassalle, led by the sure insight that history is its own instructor, and that the masses themselves would learn by practice to decide in questions of mass action. And he was at the front likewise when it was a case of proclaiming – with cool consideration of the actual circumstances, leaving calmly on one side all judicial formulas – the same historic justification for the illegal as for the legal means of warfare. He remained equally free on the one hand from will-o’-the-wisp revolutionary romanticism, which loses the solid earth beneath its feet, and on the other from an easily-satisfied “statesmanism,” which slips on the smooth parquet floor of Parliamentarism. Therefore, he knew how to make use of Parliamentary action for all the everyday needs of the suffering and struggling proletariat, thus attracting the masses, while using it none the less for that inexorable criticism, based on principle, of the capitalist order, which welds the masses together and schools them for the struggle towards the Socialist goal. Finally, it was Bebel’s influence which weighed heavily in the scale when the German Social-Democracy adopted the mass strike as one of the weapons which may – indeed, must – be used in certain circumstances.

The development of Social-Democratic tactics rests in the last instance upon the theory which is applied to and verified by practical experience. Consequently, we find Bebel each time in the thick of the fight of opinions, whether regarding theoretical generalisations or the kernel of Socialist conception and principle. Since the Nurnberg Conference of the Workers’ Associations, where the bold avowal of the principles of the International Working Men’s Association was made, up to the Dresden Conference, which emphasised the principles of revolutionary Socialism, Bebel took the most active part possible in all phases of the theoretical ripening of Social-Democracy. They faithfully reflected his own step-by-step development; for Bebel has developed and grown with the Party and with the proletarian class struggle. But he did not face the problems raised by this struggle in the spirit of an academician, whose desk is stuffed full of finished solutions; he faced them as a man of action who would move the masses, who, working and fighting, wrestles hotly for new insight, at the same time having to understand that frequently “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Thus he was able to march at the head of the masses without the cold reflection falling upon him that he was dogmatic or tried to play the pedagogue; thus he was able to be a pioneer without losing touch with them or isolating himself. We have only to think in this respect of his incomparable work for the liberation of women, especially in his book, “Women and Socialism,” from which streams of life poured forth; thus it was that his great firmness in principles and tactics did not appear as dry, rigid dogmatism, but seemed, on the contrary, to breathe forth the natural freshness of life itself.

Indeed, Bebel’s life and activity are more than a mere reflection of the contemporary history of the proletarian fight for freedom. They are the incarnation of proletarian class-life, the irrepressible expression of whose being forms that history. Therefore Bebel became more than a pillar of history; he helped to make it. Thus it was that he was able to be the agitator as well as the finest type of Parliamentarian, the fiery leader of mass-action throughout the country, and the clever, cool tactician in the Reichstag. So, too, it was that he always found the right relations between the indispensable, dull, every-day political work, and the elevating struggle towards the final goal of Socialism-the end in view which elevates workaday action, by never losing sight of that goal, and looking upon all action only in its relation thereto; and he had the courage to seek even the smallest alleviation of the proletariat’s present-day conditions with as much eagerness as though the great historic day of freedom were itself at stake; and to bear aloft this sublime goal of the masses as though it were to be reached immediately. Bebel was the personal incarnation of the highest historic existence of the contemporary working class; he was the living expression of the realisation, the will, the action of those nameless, numberless ones who fight the decisive battles of the proletarian struggle for emancipation. This oneness with the historic life of the masses was the last and deepest root of his power over them, and made him at the same time their most influential and their best-beloved leader; it was from this source that Bebel’s eloquence drew its burning force, and his conviction its inflexible firmness and its youthful fire. “The breath of humanity, which pants ceaselessly for freedom,” wafted from his being and his actions. It therefore necessarily followed that Bebel’s being and actions were animated to the full by the spirit of Socialism.

But the manner in which this historic necessity was carried out in person made manifest the inexhaustible treasury of valuable forces which slumber in the still untilled and uncultivated soil of the masses. These personal forces did their part in raising Bebel, personally and politically, to the highest standard of humanity. In the closest touch with the “herd” of nameless ones, he himself forged the fulness and weight of his life. That which aesthetic dwarfs, despisers of the masses, seek to acquire by the unnatural means of withdrawing themselves, as superior persons, from the common life-the originality of a strong, historic personality – came to him through life with and for the masses.

A man and a work stand before us in Bebel; a man who is quite embodied in his work, and a work which possesses the man. In earlier times, the historic conditions forced the masses to erect thrones for those who led them in the conquest of new lands. The proletarian masses of our day, whose function it is to overthrow the last tyrannies by which human beings are enslaved, give their leaders their gratitude and love. No one received a richer or warmer share of these than Bebel, In him the masses loved and honoured a great man who, without bargaining and haggling for personal happiness, consecrated himself, with burning enthusiasm and selfless devotion, entirely to their great cause – the Moses, who, on the march through the wilderness of capitalist order, ever refreshed anew the parched souls with the vision of the promised land of freedom – the bold assailant, who, with revolutionary defiance, shook the foundations of bourgeois society. With him one of the most prominent warriors of the first heroic age of the German Socialist proletariat has fallen just at the moment when the rapid, remorseless steps of development are forcing that proletariat to concentrate all its forces to overcome, during a second and more potent heroic age, the barbarism that is being unchained by capitalism. But this time the masses themselves will be the hero and the leader. To have given his strength till his last breath to unite and make ready the masses for this historic moment is alike Bebel’s happiness and his immortality.


BEBEL, AUGUST

August Bebel was cofounder (with Wilhelm Liebknecht [1826–1900]) and longtime leader of the German socialist movement in the years before 1914. Given his origins in a Saxon working-class family, he was unusual among prominent figures in the German movement, who were mostly from middle-class families. In 1863, Bebel and Liebknecht founded one of the groups that eventually merged to form the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland [SPD], the name adopted in 1891), the world's first mass-based political party. Under his able leadership, the party not only survived a twelve-year assault by Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) during the so-called Outlaw Period (1878–1890), but also managed to grow significantly. The party finally outlasted the Iron Chancellor, who left office in 1890, the same year the Socialists became the most popular party in Germany. Bebel led the party from its founding until his death in 1913.

Bebel was also important as a leader of the opposition to the Prussian-dominated Bismarckian Reich. He was the only person elected to every term of the German Reichstag from its establishment in 1871 through the last election before World War I in 1912. In the Reichstag, in addition to defending the rights of the working class, Bebel fought, mostly unsuccessfully, to loosen the stranglehold the Prussian Junkers (members of the landholding aristocracy) had on the German state.

However, Bebel's major single achievement was to mold the diverse and fractious elements of the SPD into a unified party. He used theoreticians like Karl Johann Kautsky (1854–1938) to shore up his own stands on major party issues and emerge time and again as the architect of policies that kept German socialism united. He was respected and even revered by nearly all other elements of a party notable for its diversity. This respect allowed him to attract to his side the able people who made up the party leadership at the national, state, and local levels. Bebel delicately balanced party policies and actions between the extremes of the compromisers of the right and the radical revolutionaries of the left to oversee the growth of the SPD into the largest party in Europe prior to 1914. His masterful handling of party sentiment with regard to the mass-strike tactic at the 1906 Mannheim party congress is an example of his skill at balancing the right and left wings of the movement.

Although primarily important as an orator, organizer, and party leader, Bebel made one significant contribution to the literature of European socialism in 1879 when he published Die Frau und der Sozialismus (published in English as Woman: Past, Present, and Future). In this book, which went through dozens of editions in several languages, Bebel argued that the status of women was a key measure of the advancement of any society (echoing Karl Marx [1818–1883] on this matter). He contended that capitalist society—and earlier feudal society also—depended to a great extent on the political, economic, social, and sexual oppression of women. Only socialism, he held, could truly liberate women from this oppression and afford them their rightful place as productive contributors to modern society. For its time, this was a bold and radical assertion this widely read book won Bebel considerable respect among both male and female activists in the movement.

Bebel was the dominant figure of German social democracy for nearly forty years. As a speaker he had few peers in the party, as a leader, none. His ability to identify the mood of the membership and then form it into official policy was remarkable. Although now often remembered as a somewhat benign figure, he was a fiery, aggressive leader who frequently assaulted party opponents sharply, but he could also be generous in his praise for the achievements of others. While he was often closely allied with the Marxist factions of the party, his commitment to Marxism was not a central element of his political activities he was a pragmatic politician with a special concern for and sense of obligation to the needs of the workers, not an ideologue. Bebel's death in August 1913 created a leadership void that none of his successors could fill entirely.

Considering Bebel's central importance for the history of the SPD, there is surprisingly little debate about his contribution to the movement. Although he was the most important source of the SPD's centrist position with regard to the right-wing reformists and the left-wing revolutionists, Bebel is much less often criticized for his stances than are the party theoreticians. This is testimony to his exalted position in the eyes of most SPD members and scholars and commentators who came after him.


August Bebel (1840-1913) and his book Woman and Socialism (1879)

August Bebel (1840-1913) was one of the most influential leaders of German and international socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who fought for social justice and women’s liberation. Bebel’s 1879 book, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism), provided a programmatic platform for the socialist women’s movement. Between 1879 and 1914, the year of the beginning or World War I, Woman and Socialism came out in over fifty edition and had been translated into over twenty different languages. The first English edition was published in 1908. Unlike many of his fellow male comrades in the labor movement, Bebel believed that women are equals to men and should have the same economic, social and political rights and duties.

Ferdinand August Bebel was born in February 1840, in Deutz, Germany, now part of Cologne. He was the son of a Prussian non-commissioned officer in the Prussian infantry, and was born in military barracks. Wilhelmine Johanna Bebel, August Bebel’s mother, struggled to financially support her family after the death of both of her husbands. Bebel’s formal education was cut short at the age of 14 after he was offered an apprenticeship as a carpenter and wood worker. Similar to most educated German workmen in the mid-nineteenth century, Bebel traveled extensively in search of work after he had finished his apprenticeship, obtaining a first-hand knowledge of the economic and social difficulties working-class people faced from day to day.

After being rejected from voluntary military service, Bebel moved back to Leipzig to work as a master turner, making horn buttons. Upon his move to Leipzig in 1861, Bebel became interested in politics and joined the Leipzig Workers Educational Association, one of the many self-help groups that formed during the 1850s and 1860s. Groups like the Leipzig Workers Education Association were usually formed and lead by liberal, reform-oriented middle-class leaders and focused on helping working class men to develop a core knowledge of social issues as well as practical skills to discuss those issues, such as public speaking. Radical working-class members of these groups challenged the apolitical nature, intended by the leaders, and made them a place of intense discussion and controversy. They “were intent on jettisoning the educational focus for a real involvement in political matters, a transformation that Bebel resisted at first.” Bebel was originally an opponent of socialism but was increasingly drawn into the labor movement after reading pamphlets written by Ferdinand Lasalle (1825-1864). He was a German-Jewish jurist, philosopher and socialist, who initiated the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (General German Workers’ Associationor ADAV) in 1863, which popularized Marxist ideas. Bebel was attracted to Marxism because it gave him hope for a change to the better. However, it wasn’t until he came under the influence of Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900), who was also a leader of the ADAV, but more radical than Lasalle, that he became fully committed to the Marxist cause.

In 1867 August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht founded together the Sächsische Volkspartei (Saxon People’s Party) and two years later in 1869 Eisenach the Socieldemocratic Workers Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands. SAPD), which merged with the ADAV. In addition to his strong oratorical power, Bebel’s ability to organize speeches, rallies and protests made him widely popular among both, the members of the SAPD and the trade unions. The influence of the SDAP was quickly growing the in newly founded German Empire of 1871, indicated by the election for the Reichstag, the national parliament, which were based on universal male suffrage. Bebel and Liebknecht were elected in the Reichstag too.

In order to repress the growing popularity of socialist ideology the German government implemented the Anti-Socialist Laws, in 1878, which were in place until 1890. These laws banned all socialist groups, meetings and publications and led to the persecution and imprisonment of many of its leaders, members and supporters. During the 1870s and 1880s, Bebel was imprisoned for a total of four and a half years for insulting the monarch, distributing unapproved leaflets, denouncing militarism and treason. However, the Anti-Socialist Laws allowed socialist to run for office, including Bebel. Contrary to the aims of the German government, the repressive nature of the Anti-Socialist Laws did not weaken German socialism. In fact, by 1890, the SPD, which had been officially re-founded as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, SPD) had doubled in size and polled 20 percent of the electorate in the Reichstag elections. Additionally, another loophole in the laws allowed candidates to run for election in multiple districts, therefore Bebel was often a candidate in multiple districts.

While imprisoned because of the Anti-Socialist Laws, Bebel wrote Woman and Socialism, a book discussing the plights of women from economic, political, social and psychological perspectives. In 1879 Woman and Socialism was published and became the most educational text for working class women. One of the most notable points in Bebel’s book is his argument that the domination of women by men is rooted in history, not biology. The book had a major impact on working-class women, not only had someone finally written about them, but the person that wrote about them was one of the two leaders of German socialism. Woman and Socialism paved the way to the involvement in the socialist movement for many workers’ wives and women workers as well as for women from bourgeois and petit-bourgeois strata. In Woman and Socialism, Bebel explains that women were doubly disadvantaged in capitalist society: women suffered both “from social and societal dependence on the men’s world,” and from the “economic dependence in which women in general and proletarian women in particular find themselves together with the proletarian men.” Bebel argued that a successful struggle for the occupational, juridical and political equality might moderate this double oppression but could never fully eliminate it. A solution for the “women’s question” was only possible with the overall “removal of social antagonisms” from the societal framework. For Bebel, once the “social question” as a whole had been solved and the capitalist economic and social system had been dislodged, “sexual slavery” would finally disappear.

In Woman and Socialism, Bebel voiced his support for a wide array of feminist demands, such as the active and passive universal suffrage for men and women on all levels, the right to equal education and enter universities, practice professions and the right for married women to own their own property and to initiate divorce proceedings. However, Bebel’s demands for women’s rights to dress freely and to have sexual satisfaction were seen as outlandish. In fact, many of his demands were seen as extreme and extended past the beliefs of most feminists of the day. Woman and Socialism offered a more distinct view of the socialist future, suggesting directions for action and pointed to methods by which proletarian women could free themselves from their unsatisfactory position.

Woman and Socialism was a foundational text for both the labor movement and the socialist women’s movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Bebel’s book inspired socialist feminist leaders such as Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) and energized working class women to take an active role in the fight for women’s rights.

August Bebel remained the leader of the SPD until his death in 1913. He was regularly elected in the Reichtags, where he criticized the politics of the German Emperor, its government and the conservative majority in the Reichstags for its imperialism, militarism and support of capitalist exploitation of the workers in several speeches. He also argued in the Reichstag against the patriarchal Civil Code (the Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch, BGB) of 1900 and its suppression of female autonomy. By 1912, one year before Bebel’s death, the SPD reached 35 percent of all male voters in the Reichtag elections and became the largest and most successful political organization in Germany, which since 1891 also had allowed women to form their own organization inside the SPD. In the Novemberrevolution 1918 that ended the First World War in Germany, forced the Emperor into exile and created the Weimar Republic, German women finally got the right to vote. Bebel and the SPD were the first to demand this right for women.

Kaitlyn Capps, Majors in Political Science and Global Studies, Class of 2019

Sources

Literature and Websites

  • Frevert, Ute. “Women Workers, Workers’ Wives, and Social Democracy in Imperial Germany.” In Bernstein to Brandt: A Short History of German Social Democracy, edited by Roger Fletcher, 34-44. London: Edward Arnold, 1987.
  • Sowerwine, Charles. “Socialism, Feminism, and the Socialist Women’s Movement from the French Revolution to World War II.” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal, Susan M. Stuard, and Merry E. Wiesner, 367-369. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
  • Roth, Gary. “Bebel, August.” In Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought, ed. Gregory Claeys, 69-72. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2013.
  • “August Bebel.” Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Bebel (Accessed 19 April 2018).
Portrait of August Bebel, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) before World War I, c. 1900. A postcard of August Bebel speaking to members of the Reichstag, Berlin. The cover of the 50. edition of Bebel’s Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism), 1879, published in 1910 in German. Poster of the SPD for the first elections of the Weimar Republic with female participation on January 19, 1919. The slogan on the poser reads: “Women! Equal Rights – Equal Duties. Vote Social Democratic”!

August Bebel died 100 years ago this month. The news that the founder of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had succumbed to a heart attack on August 13, 1913 in the Swiss spa town of Passugg produced shock and mourning in factories and working class districts around the world. Bebel was loved by the working masses and honoured with the title of the “workers’ Kaiser.”

Paying tribute to Bebel shortly afterwards Leon Trotsky wrote: “An entire epoch in European socialism is passing.” He added that Bebel “embodied the stubborn and unswerving movement of the new class on the ascendancy…This frail and withered old man seemed to be made wholly of will, trained towards a single goal. In his thinking, his eloquence and his literary work he would never at all permit those expenditures of intellectual energy which did not lead directly towards that goal he was not only an enemy of rhetoric but was also completely alien to conceited aesthetic niceties. Herein lay, incidentally, the higher beauty of his political spirit. In himself he reflected that class which learns in its few spare hours, cherishes every minute and avidly swallows what is strictly essential.” [Political Profiles: An Epoch Passes (Bebel, Jaurès and Vaillant), December 1915]

Trotsky compared Bebel with the French socialist Jean Jaurés, who was murdered on the eve of the First World War in a Parisian café. Both of them—the French philosophy professor, whose writings and speeches were marked by theoretical erudition, poetic fantasy and an aristocratic flair, and the German hand-worker, whose theoretical outlook consequently resembled plebeian democracy—symbolised an historical period that came to an end with the war 100 years ago.

Trotsky remarked, “Bebel was a materialist, Jaurès an eclectic idealist, Bebel an irreconcilable supporter of the principles of Marxism, Jaurès a reformist, a ministerialist etc. But in spite of all these differences in politics they reflected through the prism of German and French culture one and the same historical epoch. This was the epoch of the armed peace — in international relations as also in domestic ones.”

August Bebel aroused the German working class to life in close collaboration with Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was 14 years older and was a close associate of Marx and Engels. Nevertheless he was unable to prevent the catastrophe of 1914.

The tremendous and successful political and cultural educational work tirelessly conducted by Bebel for over a half century contains many critical lessons. Two of them will be discussed here.

First, the advances realised by the revolutionary Social Democrats under the banner of Marxism refute the widespread conceptions that the broad masses of working people are incapable of playing an independent political role, and that a “movement from below” inevitably develops in a right-wing direction. Representatives of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, above all those associated with the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas and others), drew the most pessimistic lessons from the catastrophe of 1933. They insisted that the working class was responsible for the victory of Hitler.

In fact, Hitler’s central task was the destruction of the organised workers movement and the democratic rights and social achievements for which it had fought. This was why on March 24, 1933 all of the bourgeois parties voted decisively in favour of legislation granting Hitler emergency powers.

It is an historical fact that democratic rights and social achievements were fought for by the working class under the Marxist leadership of the Social Democrats. These include the universal right to vote, free public education, the equality of men and women, the eight hour day, and the compulsory social insurance programmes introduced by Bismarck out of fear of the growing influence and rise of the SPD.

Bebel’s SPD revealed the enormous energy, creative power and cultural potential contained within the working class.

The rise of the SPD under Bebel also disproves the claim that the trade unions are the principal organisations of the working class. In reality the rise of the working class began as a political movement with its own revolutionary socialist party. The trade unions emerged later and quickly formed the right wing of the socialist movement. They were fierce opponents of revolution, attacked Rosa Luxemburg and blackmailed Bebel in the years prior to his death.

Bebel was himself a worker. He was born in February 1840, the son of a poor junior Prussian army officer in Cologne, and he experienced the European revolutions when he was eight years old. In his autobiography, he described how he received his first concrete political lesson during that time. In the revolutionary years of 1848-49, there was widespread support for republicanism in the Rhineland region. So when the young Bebel spoke out in favour of the monarchy at school along with another classmate, they were given a sound beating. The first “class thrashing,” as Bebel later remarked humorously.

During his years as an apprentice craftsman he joined the “Industrial Education Association” and undertook intensive self-education. When Ferdinand Lassalle founded the General German Workers Association (ADAF) in Leipzig in 1863, Bebel maintained his distance. He was repelled by the eccentric appearance and authoritarian behaviour of Lassalle and strongly opposed his approaches to the reactionary Prussian premier Otto von Bismarck.

In the conflict with Lassalle, Bebel studied the writings of Marx and Engels, and his friendship commenced with Wilhelm Liebknecht. In the autumn of 1867 he was elected president of the Union of German Workers’ Associations, and he implemented the statutes of the International Workers Association which Marx had formulated. They stated, “The emancipation of the working class must be fought for by the working class itself.” On this basis Bebel drew a clear line against bourgeois liberalism, which had until then strongly influenced the workers’ associations.

Two years later, Bebel and Liebknecht founded the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) in Eisenach in August 1869. The party programme authored by Bebel oriented towards Marxism, calling among other things for the abolition of the capitalist system of production. However the influence of liberalism is still visible in the programme, such as with the demand for “the establishment of a free people’s state.”

Bebel confronted a wave of hatred the following summer after his abstention, together with Liebknecht, in a vote in the North German Reichstag over Prussian war credits to fight France, which had declared war two days earlier. Anger intensified the following year in May 1871 when Bebel explicitly defended the Paris Commune.

Both Bebel and Liebknecht were subsequently convicted of preparing high treason, but they were praised for their stance by many workers. When Bebel emerged from the train in July 1872 to begin his sentence at Hubertusburg prison, rail workers saluted him in as if acknowledging a head of state.

While Bebel used his years in prison to work on his book Women and Socialism, the followers of Lassalle and the SDAP drew closer together. One month after Bebel’s release from prison, the unification congress took place in Gotha in May 1875. This congress is known above all for the sharp criticism made of the Gotha programme by Marx.

After the unification, the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAPD) grew rapidly, changing its name 15 years later to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Three years after unification, the party already had 47 local newspapers, with Vorwärts (Forwards) as its central organ. It achieved 10 percent of the vote in elections to the Reichstag, an increase of 40 percent compared to the combined total of both organisations before unification. Bismarck responded with his anti-socialist law. All organisations and newspapers of the party were banned, but Bismarck failed in his attempt to outlaw the parliamentary fraction and the work of its deputies.

Bebel gained political prestige and theoretical clarity during the years of illegality. There were sharp faction fights. Moderates and radicals struggled for the dominant position in the party. Eventually the radicals won the upper hand, which was above all due to the superior tactical abilities and reputation of Bebel. The main reason for this victory was the growing authority of Marxism, with which Bebel’s faction was identified. The publication of Engels’ Anti-Dühring had made Marxism the authoritative voice of socialism within the workers’ movement.

The more Bebel and his supporters clearly advanced Marxist principles and a revolutionary perspective, the more the SPD’s presence in the factories grew. This was clear in the big strike movement of 1889. The work stoppages began in the mines in the Ruhr, before spreading quickly to Aachen, the Saarland, Saxony and Silesia. In the Ruhr, 97,000 miners (86 per cent of the workforce) joined the strike. There were armed clashes and soldiers intervened, but the strikes continued to grow. By April 1890, the number of strikes reached 715, with a total of 289,000 workers participating in the building, textile and metal industries.

In the elections to the Reichstag in the same year, the SPD doubled its vote total to 20 percent. Bismarck resigned a few weeks later, and in October of that year the anti-socialist laws were revoked.

The SPD grew even more quickly as a legal party. In the course of a quarter century, from the end of the anti-socialist laws in 1890 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it became the largest party in Germany. But the number of votes the party received does not fully explain the breadth and depth of its influence within the workers’ movement.

At that time, the SPD was an historically unique phenomenon: the first truly mass working class party. It aroused the fantasies, enthusiasm and creativity of a class which created all of society’s wealth and was capable of building a classless society.

At the turn of the 20th century, all areas of working class life were organised by the SPD. The following statistics illustrate the cultural development in the working class bound up with the growth of the SPD. Between 1900 and 1914 Bebel’s party was involved in the founding of 1,100 libraries. These libraries had a collection of over 80,000 volumes. By 1914 there were 365 librarians on the payroll of the party.

However, the rapid rise and increased political influence of the SPD had dangerous consequences. It intensified the conflict between its revolutionary perspective, as had been laid down in the Erfurt Programme of 1895, and the unavoidable reformist character of the party’s day to day work.

Karl Kautsky, who had emerged as the party’s leading theoretician, sought to bridge the gap between the revolutionary goals and the reformist activities of the party with his concept of “maximum and minimum programmes.” The first represented the historic goals of the SPD, while the latter contained the practical demands of the party. He still defended the revolutionary program, but the party’s practice was already characterised by an opportunist adaptation to the framework of “possibilism,” as it was then termed.

Bebel underestimated the danger that came with the growing opportunism in the party and the increasing influence of the trade unions. Until the mid-1890s, the growth of the trade unions lagged behind that of the party, which provided political leadership and material support to the unions. But a major economic boom that began in 1895 and continued almost until the outbreak of World War I encouraged a tremendous expansion of the trade unions, fundamentally changing the relationship between them and the party. As the trade unions gained considerable financial resources, they became increasingly hostile to the socialist movement.

The reason for this lay with the role of trade unions under capitalism. They represent workers in a very specific economic role, namely the sale of their labour power. Since capitalist economic relations are at the basis of their existence, the basic tendency of the trade unions is toward the suppression of the class struggle and opposition to the socialist movement. This is why Rosa Luxemburg was banned from speaking at many trade union congresses.

Eduard Bernstein emerged as the theoretician of opportunism in parallel with the growth of the trade unions. He claimed that the unions had proven that they could ensure a constant increase in the percentage of workers’ incomes within the national framework. Therefore, Marx’s theory of the impoverishment of the working class was supposedly refuted. Bernstein defended the position that the long term interests of the working class were not to be realised by a revolutionary perspective, but rather by the constant accumulation of reforms achieved by the trade unions.

Bebel sought to bridge the growing divide between the revolutionary and opportunist wings of the party and prevent a split. After the Russian Revolution in 1905, the trade unions blackmailed Bebel by openly threatening to split from the party after the debate on the mass strike at the party congress in Mannheim in 1906. Bebel agreed to a secret deal with the trade unions, which in subsequent years strengthened their influence and that of the opportunist tendency in the party.

The terrible consequences became evident in 1914, when the SPD leadership voted for war credits. Four years later, they assembled the troops of the Freikorps to bloodily suppress the November revolution and organise the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In the last years of his life, August Bebel was no longer in a position to cope with the revolutionary challenges which emerged during the transition to the epoch of imperialism.

No one outlined the tragedy of the SPD as succinctly and brilliantly as Leon Trotsky: “The organization of the German proletariat grew uninterruptedly, the funds swelled, the number of newspapers, deputies and municipal councillors multiplied unceasingly. At the same time reaction held on firmly to all its positions. From here flowed the inevitability of the collision between the two polar forces of German social life. But this collision did not set in for a long time, while the forces and the resources of the organization grew so automatically that a whole generation had time to get used to such a state of affairs, and although everyone wrote, spoke or read about the inevitability of the decisive conflict, like the inevitability of the collision between two trains going towards each other along the same track—they finally ceased to sense this inevitability within themselves. Old Bebel stood out from many others in that to the end of his days he lived in the certainty that events would lead fatally to their denouement.” [Ibid.]


August Bebel: Kaiser der Arbeiter

The year 2013 was the centenary of the death of August Bebel, which also coincided with the German Social Democratic party’s celebrations of its 150th anniversary. Jürgen Schmidt’s concise new biography has been completed to appear in time for the Bebel centenary. Schmidt has previously published a scholarly analysis of the relations between workers and bourgeois in Erfurt in the Kaiserreich (Begrenzte Spielräume: Eine Beziehungsgeschichte von Arbeiterschaft und Bürgertum am Beispiel Erfurts 1870–1914, 2005), and some of the insights in his work on Bebel can be seen as drawing on this earlier research: in particular, on the ‘separation of proletarian from bourgeois democracy’ (in Gustav Mayer’s phrase) and on the importance of associational life in Imperial Germany

Schmidt’s biography joins a number of existing treatments of the life.


August Bebel

German leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) 1868–1913 There were 50,000 mourners at the funeral of Bebel in Zurich, a remarkable number considering the place and the fact that he had never held official office in Germany. Yet he was the internationally admired leader of Germany's biggest political party, the SPD, and had been an active socialist for fifty years. In 1867 he was the first workers' representative to be elected to the North German parliament. He was a member of the Reichstag from 1883 until his death. He had served the movement in other ways too, having been jailed on two occasions for his political activities. From 1892 on he was one of the two chairmen of the SPD. In the controversy over ‘revisionism’ in the SPD Bebel steered a middle course between Bernstein and the militant Marxists.

Bebel was not a theorist but wrote a widely read book expressing advanced views on the place of women in society. He had seen his mother struggle against poverty and die of consumption when he was 13. Both Bebel's father and his stepfather also died young of consumption. He was lucky enough to be able to stay at school to 14 and then complete a four-year apprenticeship as a master thresher. His involvement in working-class politics began when he joined a workers' education association in 1861. After bitter controversy he was able to overcome the divisions in the workers' movement and found, with Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1869, the Social Democratic Workers' Party.

Bebel was an internationalist who had played a decisive part in founding the Second International in 1889. At his last national election in 1912 the SPD gained 34.8 per cent of the vote, the largest of any party. The party had one million members. Whether, had he lived, Bebel could have steered the SPD to oppose the war in 1914 is debatable. By agreeing to support ‘defence of the homeland’ it disappointed the hopes of millions in Europe and beyond.


The Recovery of August Bebel

Men’s Feminism:
August Bebel and the German Socialist Movement
by Anne Lopes and Gary Roth
Amherst, New York, Humanity Books, 2000), 261 pages, $52 hardcover.

MEN’S FEMINISM SETS out with an important purpose — rescuing August Bebel, the leading 19th century German socialist leader who authored a pioneering text on women’s liberation, Women and Socialism. This is not a biography of Bebel, but a study of Bebel’s interaction with women’s rights issues.

The book is divided into six chapters: Historiographic Switching (tracing the marginalizing of Bebel as a feminist) Reading Women (reading between the lines of Women and Socialism and discussing Bebel’s methodology) Men’s Feminism (analyzing the historical context within which Bebel moved towards women’s equality) &ldquoTransitional Feminisms&rdquo (detailing Bebel’s party experiences and women’s equality issues between 1869 and 1875) &ldquoWomen and Bebel&rdquo and &ldquoBebel and Zetkin.&rdquo

Authors Anne Lopes and Gary Roth contend that historical accounts have focused either on Marx and Engels as the key theoreticians in considering the relationship between Marxism and women’s liberation, or on Clara Zetkin — the most prominent woman leader in the revolutionary socialist movement next to Rosa Luxemburg — as the key figure for the growth of a Marxist movement for women’s liberation.

While one tradition limits Bebel intellectually, the other ignores his historical impact. The authors find this disturbing and erroneous.

Lopes and Roth juxtapose Bebel’s Women and Socialism (first published in 1879) with Engels’ The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State (first published in 1884). They demonstrate that while the book by Engels had nowhere the same level of distribution, and indeed initially it was Bebel’s book that seems to have sparked off Engels’ work (as a corrective to what Engels may have perceived as weaknesses in Bebel’s anthropology), in subsequent historiography Women and Socialism was accorded a &ldquocommon, or merely documentary&rdquo status, while The Origins became what Hayden White calls the &ldquoso-called classical text.&rdquo

They argue that this overlooks Bebel’s distinctive style of theorizing. At the same time, the authors dismiss Lise Vogel’s assertion, in her important study Marxism and the Liberation of Women, that the two books constituted a form of silent polemic.

They show that in the twenty-year-long correspondence between the two, Engels never makes criticisms of Bebel’s book. They point out that one cannot pit Engels against Bebel by asserting that Bebel relied too much on the utopian socialists, because Engels himself had full respect for the latter&rsquos position on women’s emancipation.

Granting the arguments of Lopes and Roth, it is however necessary to recognize that Engels made a theoretical contribution that would be recognized by feminist activists and scholars. Gerda Lerner, after making substantial criticisms of Engels, commented: &ldquoYet, Engels made major contributions to our understanding of women’s position in society and history: He defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.&rdquo (The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1986, 23)

Metanarratives vs. Subalternist Visions

The authors contend that they are able to rescue Bebel precisely because of their methodology. This consists first of all in moving away from historical metanarratives to a Nietzschean-Foucauldian stress on genealogy.

Instead of seeking to study the rise of socialism and women’s liberation, they focus on Bebel, the details of his life history and concerns of his book. In this regard Lopes and Roth do not engage in what Neal Wood has called writing the social history of political theory.

The central focus of Men’s Feminism is Bebel’s Women and Socialism, yet the book is not given the proper contextual reading nor is there a detailed discussion of the text.

The authors begin with a strong criticism of existing English translations. They point out that Bebel showed a sensitivity to the linguistic dimensions of gender representation, something ignored by his translators.

For example, when Bebel uses the German Menschen, which should be rendered &ldquopeople&rdquo or &ldquohumankind,&rdquo his translators routinely use &ldquomankind,&rdquo which in German would have been der Mann or die Manner. Lopes and Roth have made fresh translations that they feel reflect political as well as linguistic considerations, maintaining Bebel’s style but modernizing the language.

Instead of focusing on the history of large organizations, mass movements and well-developed theoretical positions, the authors believe that it is more important to study how members of the lower classes came to think and act on their own behalf. (23) As a result they consciously decided not to use language associated with Marxism.

What therefore emerges is not the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but an earlier Bebel, groping his way forward.

Bebel’s Evolution

In Bebel’s lifetime Women and Socialism appeared in fifty-three German-language print editions, was translated into twenty languages, and sold almost a million and a half copies.

Far more people came to be attracted to socialism through this book than through most of the writings of Marx or Engels. Richard J. Evans called Women and Socialism Bebel’s &ldquolifework,&rdquo and indeed, he went on revising and improving and altering it all his life.

A self-taught working-class socialist thinker, Bebel wrote in a conversational style so that his readers could read the book aloud and feel women’s oppression. Because the book has simple language and moves with word pictures, even those who have limited education can respond.

Lopes and Roth give examples to show how this actually happened, and the testimonies of many women activists, both from the working class and beyond, are quoted to show how women responded in reality.

Bebel is depicted as evolving from the 1860s to the 1890s, from relatively non-political self-help groups among working-class men to reaching out to women across classes, to male workers, and to socialist activists in particular. However, a number of questions also need to be posed.

The first is over a very confusing handling of the term &ldquofeminism.&rdquo At the beginning Lopes and Roth inform the reader that in the late 1800s feminism was a term reserved for men wishing to insult other men. Then we are presented with a plethora of positively evaluated feminisms (men’s feminism, proletarian feminism, Marxism’s feminism) — yet all with basically masculine agency, since few women were actually involved in this period.

Secondly, by stopping in the early 1890s, the authors seem to suggest that once the SPD was legalized and a mass party started functioning, the impact of Bebel’s book need not be judged at all.

In a later chapter, Clara Zetkin is brought in only so that we learn that her arrival as the central leader of the women’s movement marked a slide back to a less radical position. Thus, it seems that the radical phase, when Marxism and women’s liberation were one, belonged to Bebel and male feminists.

How Radical A Vision?

The early career of Bebel shows how, functioning within a number of working-class and women’s organizations, Bebel’s ideas on women’s liberation crystallized. From 1865 he takes a clear class orientation however, his feminism had a non-Marxist origin.

Two specific influences on the pre-1865 Bebel need to be mentioned. One was the role of men like Moritz Muller, whose feminism had limitations, but which stressed equal access to education, work and the right to organize.

Marxism’s ideas on gender, specifically in the German context, were shaped considerably by Muller. But his ideas involved a combination of equality and domesticity. As he expressed it, family life would be improved through the political education of women and their equal access to the public sphere.

The other influence on Bebel was that of the middle-class feminists. Their vision of gender equality would gain wider currency in the 1860s and 1870s. They assumed that women had certain feminine traits like emotional sensitivity and avoidance of conflict, and thought that carrying these over to the public sphere would humanize society.

While this perspective was different from that of men’s feminism, the fact that the Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein was in regular touch with Bebel and organizations in which he worked shows that points of contact existed.

Bebel, however, went beyond both influences. Unlike Muller, he was in favor of full equality of women in political organizations. And unlike middle-class feminists, he did not highlight feminine traits. Still, though female emancipation became an article of faith in the socialist movement, Marxism’s feminism — including that of Bebel — seemingly never shook off its faith in domesticity.

At first Bebel’s activities on behalf of women were administrative: he attended meetings, helped arrange logistics at women’s conferences, referred inquiries to women’s groups, and otherwise associated politically with advocates of women’s equality.

He was publicly silent on gender equality until the late 1860s, with the development of dual-gender unions. This was an attempt to go beyond craft union<->ism and overcome gender segregation. The fact that the Marxists embraced this idea reflected their openness on gender issues, particularly in comparison with anarchists, Lassalleans and liberals.

But Bebel’s ideas evolved in piecemeal fashion. His work on the draft program of the Social Democratic Party (the Marxist or Eisenach party, as opposed to the Lassallean Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein) and his 1870 his pamphlet, Our Goals, suffers from contradictions.

By the time the two socialist parties in Germany united in 1875, adopting the Gotha Program, Bebel had moved to the most progressive wing of the movement. Although the program was silent on the question of women’s suffrage, Bebel’s amendment proposing &ldquothe right to vote for citizens of both sexes&rdquo was rejected by 62 votes to 55.

Men’s Feminism, Theory and Practice

In an interesting chapter on Women and Bebel, the authors trace Bebel’s relationships with a number of women, bringing out the diversities of interactions. This includes mutual influences and assistance, between Bebel on one hand and Gertrud Guillaume-Schack and Hope Adams on the other.

Adams was integrated with the socialist movement, widely known for her health work, herself a physician particularly involved with issues of birth control and patient rights. Because of her hospital connections, Adams could perform abortions. Bebel’s views on abortion in Women and Socialism became increasingly sympathetic, possibly influenced by women such as Hope Adams.

Schack, for her part, was mostly outside the socialist movement, and her ideas were often at loggerheads with those of other feminists too. She was instrumental, nonetheless, in drawing attention to the situation of prostitutes.

She financed the first working-class women’s newspaper, The Woman Citizen, and wanted to organize women against state regulation of prostitution. She believed prostitutes should have the same rights as men, and opposed restrictions or sanctions on sexual behavior.

Unlike Lenin, Bebel was not uneasy with discussing about prostitution. He raised the issue and examined its causes: gender imbalance and class oppression.

But perhaps the limits of 19th century men’s feminism can also be found in this chapter, provided somewhat unwittingly by the authors. In their discussion on the relationship between Julie Bebel and August, the authors have a desire to show their hero in the best possible light.

Julie, we are told, was completely independent. Bebel’s On the Present and Future Position of Women had emphasized that marriage was a private contract between two fully equal partners, to be dissolved without external constraints when the relationship between them made it necessary.

In real life, say Lopes and Roth, &ldquotraditional gender roles prevailed in the early years of their marriage.&rdquo (145) But when Bebel was arrested Julie managed his business and served as his political liaison. Bebel’s unstinted support to Julie, including when she had a clash with his business partner, is documented.

What is played down, however, is that this involved a reintroduction of domesticity. Nearly every letter of Julie to August includes references to constraints on her time. And in a letter to Engels, she wrote:

&ldquoI was often very dissatisfied that I couldn’t do anything for my intellectual development but the thought that I could provide a comfortable home for my husband made me happy since this was so important for his intellectual development and work. Because I had to take care of his Party business insofar as I could when he was so often away from home, I was immersed in the spirit of the movement and today remain entirely within it. And so, I must be satisfied with what I have learned.&rdquo (157)

On Bebel and Zetkin

Yet the authors’ treatment of Bebel is far more gentle than their treatment of Clara Zetkin. Reading their book, one gets the feeling that Bebel had expunged the term &ldquodomesticity&rdquo from his politics, while Zetkin brought it all back.

Out of her massive works and writings, only an extract is cited, out of context, to claim that she treated women as mothers. Even at the level of personal life, they write that &ldquoHer proletarian experience (that of the impoverished intelligentsia) may have been framed by socialist theory but it was worked out in terms of middle-class solutions.&rdquo (211)

Lopes and Roth criticize Zetkin for a speech she gave at the 1893 International Socialist conference, when she criticized &ldquoso-called women’s rights.&rdquo But this was Zetkin’s criticism of liberal bourgeois feminism, particularly its opposition to protective legislation in the name of freedom of the individual.

This debate must be put in its historical and theoretical context. In every country where liberal feminism developed, a sizeable group of feminists held that given equal legal and political rights they could then work out their futures as individuals. To them, it appeared as though protective legislation was an admission of the inferior status of women — whereas for the woman worker, it meant no more than being equally exploited.

In addition, the equal right of the gentlewoman to go out and work could well come about through the exploitation of the domestic servant. The rhetoric of gender equality here masked acute class inequality and exploitation, which often came out openly in some feminist writings.

This was a period when both the socialist workers and liberal bourgeois women were trying to develop movements. In the 1890s Zetkin was fighting for a strategy based on mass struggle, and opposing one limited to petitioning. Thus her scathing comment that the women’s movement of the bourgeoisie &ldquoallegedly&rdquo fights for women’s rights has some substance.

Secondly, Zetkin is dealing with a number of sharp tactical questions. She was part of a group of women who were coming into the party and trying to make a place for themselves in a radical milieu, not as assistants, but as equal partners — all the way to the party leadership.

They had to adopt a distinct strategy to do so. A Bebel did not need recourse to the strategies that a Zetkin or a Rosa Luxemburg would adopt (each her own strategy), because he did not &ldquosuffer&rdquo from being a woman. Lopes and Roth’s unproven suggestion that Bebel’s post-1891 trajectory was a case of self-effacement in the light of Zetkin’s rise needs to be buttressed by considerable evidence before it can be regarded as convincing.

An Important Contribution

It is necessary to add in conclusion that these criticisms should not stand in the way of appreciating the real services rendered by Lopes and Roth. Bebel appears, no longer as an individual, but as part of a current, and the achievements as well as limitations of men’s feminism can be understood from the book.

Men’s Feminism has been amply researched, and a huge amount of primary sources unearthed. It is also, despite the research load, an eminently readable book. It therefore allows us to look into a formative period of the socialist and the socialist women’s movement.


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A 2013 interview with Anselm Jappe in which he discusses the crisis of the society of labor, the logic of the commodity and exchange value and its disastrous consequences for an increasingly.

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Houston, We Have a Labor Dispute

“I am convinced that there are only a few people in this hall who will not experience the great day.” August Bebel had plenty of swagger in 1891 — and he wasn’t alone. As he spoke, Rosa Luxemburg recounted, “a warm, electric stream of life, of idealism, of security in joyful action” swept through the crowd.

The Second International was just two years old and now, at the pivotal Erfurt Congress, the German Social Democrats — the largest socialist party in the world — were laying the groundwork for generations of working-class politics.

In the years that followed, socialists had plenty of cause for optimism. In election after election, labor and social-democratic parties saw their vote totals climb thanks to newly enfranchised workers. It seemed natural — both to terrified capitalists and ambitious trade unionists — that working-class political rights were translating into broader social emancipation.

Of course, history had other ideas. Most social democrats never lived to see their great day. New dynamics emerged that drew the movement close to the nation and class they once vowed to challenge. For those on its left wing, victory came in 1917 but proved to be a Pyrrhic one.

Now, a century later, the question is less whether any of us will live to see socialist triumph than if such dreams belong entirely in the past. We know that instead of great days, we need to think in terms of a “great epoch” of transformation. We also know the dangers of co-optation that face any patient political strategy. What we don’t know is whether anyone else is interested in our dreams.

The recent success of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and the growing ranks of young socialists, could be signs of a surprising resurgence. Or they could just be an Indian summer.

Capitalism has proven more resilient to working-class challenge and more amenable to reform than any of our predecessors could’ve imagined. But the system isn’t meeting the needs of millions, and at its core, it’s still an economic order rooted in exploitation and coercion. As long as we live in a class society, there will be resistance to it. The unresolved question is whether we can take the small instances of everyday struggle and — rather than just celebrating them — aggregate them into a force capable of pushing beyond capitalism.

The challenges of doing so in the twenty-first century are daunting, and many on the Left are more willing to abandon than reimagine working-class politics.

But if I had to guess, I would say that our message is too simple not to find an audience: it’s not your fault. You’re working longer hours than ever, you’re doing whatever you can to survive, and yet you’re falling further and further behind. We don’t have a gospel of self-improvement or nativist fairy tales, but we have a set of villains — the small elite that benefit from your immiseration.

Class anger isn’t going out of style.

By itself, it isn’t politics either. Yet Jacobin was founded on the idea that a rich working-class movement can reemerge and that alternatives to capitalism can still be constructed. In 2017, just as much as in 1891 or 1917, we should have moral confidence about this goal — a world without exploitation or oppression. But there is something profoundly different between claiming that socialists can unexpectedly break the tide of history and the old assurances that socialism was the tide of history.


Contents

Early years [ edit ]

Ferdinand August Bebel, known to all by his middle name, was born on 22 February 1840, in Deutz, Germany, now a part of Cologne. He was the son of a Prussian noncommissioned officer in the Prussian infantry, initially from Ostrowo in the Province of Posen, and was born in military barracks. Ώ] The father died in 1844.

As a young man, Bebel apprenticed as a carpenter and joiner in Leipzig. ΐ] Like most German workmen at that time, he travelled extensively in search of work and he thereby obtained a first-hand knowledge of the difficulties facing the working people of the day.

At Salzburg, where he lived for some time, he joined a Roman Catholic workmen's club. When in Tyrol in 1859 he volunteered for service in the war against Italy, but was rejected and in his own country he was rejected likewise as physically unfit for the army. Ώ]

In 1860 he settled in Leipzig as a master turner, making horn buttons. Ώ] He joined various labour organisations. Α] Although initially an opponent of socialism, Bebel gradually was won over to socialist ideas through pamphlets of Ferdinand Lassalle, which popularized the ideas of Karl Marx. Β] In 1865 he came under the influence of Wilhelm Liebknecht and was thereafter committed fully to the socialist cause. ΐ] In 1866 he joined the First International. Γ]

Political career [ edit ]

Following the death of Lassalle, Bebel was among the group of Socialists that refused to follow new party leader Johann Baptist von Schweitzer at the Eisenach Conference of 1867, an action which gave rise to the name "Eisenachers" for this Marxist faction. ΐ] Together with Liebknecht, he founded the Sächsische Volkspartei ("Saxon People's Party"). Bebel was also President of the Union of German Workers' Associations from 1867 and a member of the First International. Δ]

Bebel was elected to the North German Reichstag as a member from Saxony in that same year. ΐ]

In 1869 he helped found the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (SDAP), which later merged with another organisation in 1875 to form the Socialist Worker's Party of Germany  [de] (SAPD), which in turn became the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1890.

Bebel's great organizing talent and oratorical power quickly made him one of the leaders of the socialists and their chief spokesman in parliament. He remained a member of the North German Parliament, and later of its counterpart for the German Empire, the Reichstag, until his death, except for the interval of 1881–83. Ε] He represented successively the districts of Glauchau-Meerane, Dresden, Strassburg, and Hamburg. Ζ] Later in his life, he acted as chairman of the SPD. Representing as he did Marxian principles, he was bitterly opposed by certain factions of his party. Α]

In 1870 he spoke in parliament against the continuance of the war with France. Ώ] Bebel and Liebknecht were the only members who did not vote the extraordinary subsidy required for the war with France. ΐ] Bebel was one of only two socialists elected to the Reichstag in 1871, and he used his position to protest against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and to express his full sympathy with the Paris Commune. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck afterwards said that this speech of Bebel's was a "ray of light" showing him that socialism was an enemy to be fought against and crushed. Ε] Falsely accused of being in league with the French and part of a conspiracy to free French prisoners of war held in Germany and to lead them in an attack from the rear, Bebel and Liebknecht were arrested for high treason, but no prosecution was possible for lack of evidence. ΐ]

Not wanting to release such important opponents of the war effort, old charges of preaching dangerous doctrines and plotting against the state were levied against Bebel and Liebknecht in 1872. ΐ] The pair were convicted and sentenced to two years in Festungshaft  [de] (imprisonment in a fortress), which was spent at the famous Königstein Fortress. For insulting the German emperor, Bebel was additionally sentenced to nine months' ordinary imprisonment. Ε] This incarceration served to increase Bebel's prestige among his party associates and the sympathetic public at large. Ζ]

In 1874 Bebel took a partner and founded a small button factory, for which he acted as salesman, but in 1889 he gave up his business to devote himself wholly to politics. Ώ] In 1868 he became connected with the staff of the Volksstaat ("The People's State") at Leipzig, and in 1891 with that of the Vorwärts ("Forward") at Berlin. Ζ]

After his release from prison, he helped to organise, at the congress of Gotha, the united party of Social Democrats, which had been formed during his imprisonment. After the passing of the Socialist Law he continued to show great activity in the debates of the Reichstag, and was also elected a member of the Saxon parliament when the state of siege was proclaimed in Leipzig he was expelled from the city, and in 1886 condemned to nine months' imprisonment for taking part in a secret society. Ε]

In party meetings of 1890 and 1891, Bebel's policies were severely attacked, first by the extremists, the "young" Socialists from Berlin, who wished to abandon parliamentary action against these Bebel won a complete victory. On the other side he was involved in a quarrel with Volmar and his school, who desired to put aside from immediate consideration the complete attainment of the socialist ideal, and proposed that the party should aim at bringing about, not a complete overthrow of society, but a gradual amelioration. This conflict of tendencies continued, and Bebel came to be regarded as the chief exponent of the traditional views of the orthodox Marxist party. Though a strong opponent of militarism, he publicly stated that foreign nations attacking Germany must not expect the help or the neutrality of the Social Democrats. Ε] Already in 1911 amid the rising tensions between the European powers, Bebel publicly predicted an upcoming great war with millions of soldiers confronting each other Η] followed by a great collapse, "mass bankruptcy, mass misery, mass unemployment and great famine." ⎖]

In 1899, at the Hanover Congress of the SPD, Bebel delivered a speech condemning Eduard Bernstein's revisionism. His resolution, Attacks on the Fundamental Views and Tactics of the Party, garnered the support of the vast majority of the Congress, including Bernstein's supporters. ⎗]

Class, race, religion and sex [ edit ]

Bebel particularly distinguished himself by his denunciation of the maltreatment of soldiers by officers and still more frequently by non-commissioned officers. His efforts in this matter had received great encouragement when King Albert of Saxony issued an edict dealing with the maltreatment of soldiers in the Saxon contingent, thus cutting the ground from under the feet of the Imperial Government, which had persistently attempted to deny or to explain away the cases put forward by Bebel. ⎘]

Speaking before the Reichstag, Bebel criticised the war to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, saying:

No, this is no crusade, no holy war it is a very ordinary war of conquest . A campaign of revenge as barbaric as has never been seen in the last centuries, and not often at all in history . not even with the Huns, not even with the Vandals . That is no match for what the German and other troops of foreign powers, together with the Japanese troops, have done in China. ⎙]

Bebel is also famed for his outrage at the news of German mistreatment of indigenous people in its South-West African colony, the Herero nation in particular. In 1904 following a revolt by the Herero people who were being pushed off their land to make way for German settlers, the government launched the Herero and Namaqua Genocide to crush the revolt by waging a "war of extermination" against the Herero. He and the German Social Democratic Party thus became the only party in the Reichstag to oppose increased colonial expenditures, ⎚] and in a speech in March 1904 Bebel classified the policy in German West Africa as "not only barbaric, but bestial." This caused some sections of the contemporary German press to scathingly classify Bebel as "Der hereroische Bebel" (Coburger Zeitung, 17 January 1904). ⎚] Bebel was not deterred he later followed this up with strongly worded warnings against the rising tide of theories of racial hierarchy and racial purity, causing the general election to the German Reichstag in 1907 to go over in history as the "Hottentot Election." ⎛]

Bebel's book, Women and Socialism was translated into English by Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party of America as Woman under Socialism. ⎜] It figured prominently in the Connolly-DeLeon controversy after James Connolly, then a member of the SLP, denounced it as a "quasi-prurient" book that would repel potential recruits to the socialist movement. ⎝] The book contained an attack on the institution of marriage which identified Bebel with the most extreme forms of socialism. Ε] In the preface to DeLeon's translation, Woman Under Socialism, DeLeon distanced himself from Bebel on this point, holding that monogamy was the most desirable form of social organisation. ⎞]

In 1898 he voiced his support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Reichstag. ⎟]

Bebel said that religion is a "private matter", claiming that the SPD should be neutral on the question of religion, while in actuality advocating secularism. ⎠] Bebel considered himself both a patriot and an internationalist believing them to not be antagonistic but instead supplemental. ⎡]

Death and legacy [ edit ]

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

At the time of his death Bebel was eulogized by Russian Marxist leader Vladimir Lenin as a "model workers' leader," who had proven himself able to "break his own road" from being an ordinary worker into becoming a political leader in the struggle for a "better social system." ⎢]

The well-known saying "Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools" ("Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle") is frequently attributed to Bebel, but probably originated with the Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter it was in general use among German Social Democrats by the 1890s. ⎣]

Along with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle, Bebel was among the socialist icons included in bas relief portraits on the facade of The Forward building, erected in 1912 as the headquarters of the New York Yiddish-language socialist newspaper.


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