V. I. Lenin
Published according to the Severnaya Pravda text
From V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, 4th English Edition,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1968
First printing 1963 Second printing 1968
Vol. 19, pp. 295-301.
Translated from the Russian by George Hanna
Edited by Robert Daglish
for the Internet by David J. Romagnolo,
firstname.lastname@example.org (December 2001)
With the death of Bebel we lost not only the German Social-Democratic
leader who had the greatest influence among the working class, and was most
popular with the masses; in the course of his development and his political
activity, Bebel was the embodiment of a whole historical period in the life of
international as well as German Social Democracy.
Two big periods are to be distinguished in the history of international
Social-Democracy. The first period was that of the birth of socialist ideas and
the embryonic class struggle of the proletariat; a long and stubborn struggle
between extremely numerous socialist theories and sects. Socialism was feeling
its way, was seeking its true self. The class struggle of the proletariat, which
was only just beginning to emerge as something different from the common mass of
the petty-bourgeois "people", took the shape of isolated outbursts, like the
uprising of the Lyons weavers. The working class was at that time also only
feeling its way.
This was the period of preparation and of the birth of Marxism, the only
socialist doctrine that has stood the test of history. The period occupied
approximately the first two-thirds of the last century and ended with the
complete victory of Marxism, the collapse (especially after the Revolution of
1848) of all pre-Marxian forms of socialism, and the separation of the working
class from petty-bourgeois democracy and its entry upon an independent
The second period is that of the formation, growth and maturing of mass
socialist parties with a proletarian class composition. This period is
characterised by the tremendous spread of socialism, the unprecedented growth of
all kinds of organisations of the proletariat, and the all-round preparation of
the proletariat in the most varied fields for the fulfilment of its great
historic mission. In recent years a third period has been making its appearance,
a period in which the forces that have been prepared will achieve their goal in
a series of crises.
Himself a worker, Bebel developed a socialist world outlook at the cost
of stubborn struggle; he devoted his wealth of energy entirely, withholding
nothing, to the cause of socialism; for several decades he marched shoulder to
shoulder with the growing and developing German proletariat and became the most
gifted parliamentarian in Europe, the most talented organiser and tactician, the
most influential leader of international Social-Democracy, Social-Democracy
hostile to reformism and opportunism.
Bebel was born in Cologne on the Rhine on February 22, 1840, in the poor
family of a Prussian sergeant. He imbibed many barbarous prejudices with his
mother's milk and later slowly but surely rid himself of them. The population of
the Rhineland was republican in temper in 1848-49, the period of the bourgeois
revolution in Germany. In the elementary school only two boys, one of them Bebel,
expressed monarchist sympathies and were beaten up for it by their
schoolfellows. "One beaten is worth two unbeaten" is a Russian saying that
freely translates the "moral" Bebel himself drew when relating this episode of
his childhood years in his memoirs.
The sixties of the last century brought a liberal "spring tide" to
Germany after long, weary years of counter-revolution, and there was a new
awakening of the mass working class movement. Lassalle began his brilliant but
short-lived agitation. Bebel, by now a young turner's apprentice, hungrily
devoured the liberal newspapers published by the old people who had been active
in the 1848 Revolution, and became an ardent participant in workers' educational
associations. Having got rid of the prejudices of the Prussian barracks, he had
adopted liberal views and was struggling against socialism.
Life, however, took its course and the young worker,
through reading Lassalle's pamphlets, gradually found his way to Marx despite
the difficulties involved in getting to know Marx's writings in a Germany that
had suffered the oppression of the counter-revolution for more than ten years.
The conditions of working-class life, the serious and conscientious study of the
social sciences, pushed Bebel towards socialism. He would have arrived at
socialism himself, but Liebknecht, who was fourteen years older than Bebel and
had just returned from exile in London, helped to accelerate his development.
Evil tongues among Marx's opponents were saying at that time that Marx's
party consisted of three people -- Marx, the head of the party, his secretary
Engels, and his "agent" Liebknecht. The unintelligent shunned Liebknecht as the
"agent" of exiles or foreigners, but Bebel found in Liebknecht just what he
wanted -- living contact with the great work done by Marx in 1848, contact with
the party formed at that time, which, though small, was genuinely proletarian, a
living representative of Marxist views and Marxist traditions. "There is
something to be learnt from that man, damn it!" the young turner Bebel is said
to have remarked, speaking of Liebknecht.
In the later sixties Bebel broke with the liberals, separated the
socialist section of the workers' unions from the bourgeois-democratic section
and, together with Liebknecht, took his place in the front ranks of the
Eisenacher party, the party of Marxists that was to struggle for many long years
against the Lassalleans, the other working-class party.
To put it briefly, the historical reason for the split in the German
socialist movement amounts to this. The question of the day was the unification
of Germany. Given the class relationships then obtaining, it could have been
effected in either of two ways -- through a revolution, led by the proletariat,
to establish an all-German republic, or through Prussian dynastic wars to
strengthen the hegemony of the Prussian landowners in a united Germany.
Lassale and his followers, in view of the poor chances for the
proletarian and democratic way, pursued unstable tactics and adapted themselves
to the leadership of the Junker Bismarck. Their mistake lay in diverting the
workers' party on to the Bonapartist-state-socialist path. Bebel and Liebknecht,
on the other hand, consistently supported the democratic and proletarian path
and struggled against any concessions to Prussianism, Bismarckism or
History showed that Bebel and Liebknecht were right, despite
Germany's having been united in the Bismarckian way. It was only the
consistently democratic and revolutionary tactics of Bebel and Liebknecht, only
their "unyielding" attitude towards nationalism, only their "intractability" in
respect of the unification of Germany and her renovation "from above", that
helped provide a sound basis for a genuinely Social-Democratic workers' party.
And in those days the essential thing was the basis of the party.
That the Lassalleans' flirting with Bismarckism, or their
"accommodations" to it, did not harm the German working-class movement was due
only to the very energetic, ruthlessly sharp rebuff dealt to their
intrigues by Bebel and Liebknecht.
When the question was settled historically, five years after the
foundation of the German Empire, Bebel and Liebknecht were able to unite the two
workers' parties and ensure the hegemony of Marxism in the united party.
As soon as the German parliament was set up, Bebel was elected to it,
although at the time he was still quite young -- only twenty-seven years old.
The fundamentals of parliamentary tactics for German (and international)
Social-Democracy, tactics that never yield an inch to the enemy, never miss the
slightest opportunity to achieve even small improvements for the workers and are
at the same time implacable on questions of principle and always directed to the
accomplishment of the final aim -- the fundamentals of these tactics were
elaborated by Bebel himself or under his direct leadership and with his
Germany, united in the Bismarckian way, renovated in the Prussian, Junker
way, responded to the successes of the workers' party with the Anti-Socialist
Law. The legal conditions for the existence of the working-class party were
destroyed and the party was outlawed. Difficult times were at hand. To
persecution by the party's enemies was added an inner-party crisis --
vacillation on the basic questions of tactics. At first the opportunists came to
the fore; they allowed themselves to be frightened by the loss of the party's
legality, and the mournful song they sang was that of rejecting full-blooded
slogans and accusing themselves of having gone much too far, etc. Incidentally,
one of the representatives of this opportunist trend, Höchberg, rendered
financial aid to the party, which was still weak and could not immediately find
Marx and Engels launched a fierce attack from London against disgraceful
opportunist shilly-shallying. Bebel showed himself to be a real party leader. He
recognised the danger in good time, understood the correctness of the criticism
by Marx and Engels and was able to direct the party on to the path of implacable
struggle. The illegal newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat was
established and was published first Zurich and then in London; it was delivered
weekly in Germany and had as many as 10,000 subscribers.
Opportunist waverings were firmly stopped.
Another form of wavering was due to infatuation with Dühring at the end
of the seventies of the last century. For a short time Bebel also shared that
infatuation. Dühring's supporters, the most outstanding of which was Most, toyed
with "Leftism" and very soon slid into anarchism. Engels's sharp, annihilating
criticism of Dühring's theories met with disapproval in many party circles and
at one congress it was even proposed to close the columns of the central
newspaper to that criticism.
All the viable socialist elements -- headed, of course, by Bebel -- soon
realised that the "new" theories were rotten to the core and broke away from
them and from all anarchist trends. Under the leadership of Bebel and Liebknecht
the party learned to combine illegal and legal work. When the majority of the
legally-existing Social-Democratic group in parliament adopted an opportunist
position on the famous question of voting for the shipping subsidy, the
illegal Sozialdemokrat opposed the group and, after a battle four weeks
long, proved victorious.
The Anti-Socialist Law was defeated in 1890 after having been in
operation for twelve years. A party crisis, very similar to that of the
mid-seventies, again occurred, The opportunists under Vollmar, on the one hand,
were prepared to take advantage of legality to reject full-blooded slogans and
implacable tactics. The so-called "young ones", on the other hand, were toying
with "Leftism", drifting towards anarchism. Considerable credit is due to Bebel
and Liebknecht for offering the most resolute resistance to these waverings and
making the party crisis a short-lived and not very serious one.
A period of rapid growth set in for the party, growth in both breadth and
depth, in the development of the trade union, co-operative, educational and
other forms of organisation of the forces of the proletariat, as well as their
political organisation. It is impossible to assess the gigantic practical work
carried out in all these spheres by Bebel as a parliamentarian, agitator and
organiser. It was by this work that Bebel earned his position as the undisputed
and generally accepted leader of the party, the one who was closest to the
working-class masses and most popular among them.
The last crisis in the German party in which Bebel took an active part
was that of the so-called Bernsteinism. At the very end of the last century,
Bernstein, formerly an orthodox Marxist, adopted purely reformist, opportunist
views. Attempts were made to turn the working-class party into a petty-bourgeois
party of social reforms. This new opportunism found many supporters among the
functionaries of the working-class movement and among the intelligentsia.
Bebel expressed the mood of the working-class masses and their firm
conviction that a fight should be put up for full-blooded slogans, when he
revolted with great vigour against this new opportunism. His speeches against
the opportunists at the congresses in Hanover and Dresden will
long remain as a model of the defence of Marxist views and of the struggle for
the truly socialist character of the workers' party.
The period of preparation and the mustering of working-class forces is in all
countries a necessary stage in the development of the world emancipation
struggle of the proletariat, and nobody can compare with August Bebel as a
brilliant personification of the peculiarities and tasks of that period. Himself
a worker, he proved able to break his own road to sound socialist convictions
and became a model workers' leader, a representative and participant in the mass
struggle of the wage-slaves of capital for a better social system.
Der Sozialdemokrat (Social-Democrat ) -- the
illegal organ of the German Social-Democratic Party published from 1879 to 1890.
The speeches referred to are "The Attack on the Fundamental Views and Tactics of
the Party" delivered at the Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party in
Hanover (October 9-14, 1899); "The Tactics of the Party" and "Collaboration with
the Bourgeois Press" delivered at the Dresden Congress (September 13-20, 1903).