August Bebel biography

The People
February 10, 1996
Vol. 105 No. 19

A PAGE FROM WORKING-CLASS HISTORY -- A FEW WORDS ABOUT AUGUST BEBEL

I am a subscriber and hope you can help me with some information. I have a small 13-inch bronzed statue of Ferdinand August Bebel. Our small town library only lists him as a German Socialist and writer. Do you have any information of his beliefs and his association with American Socialists? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

John Norris

Vidor, Tex.

-- -

Bebel was one of the principal leaders of the German socialist movement before World War I. He was born in Cologne on Feb. 22, 1840, and died at Zurich, Switzerland, on Aug. 13, 1913.

Bebel began life as a carpenter and joiner in Leipzig, and was active in the workers' movement from an early age. Initially, however, he was openly opposed to socialism and supported instead the cooperative movement founded under the influence of the "liberal" politician, Herman Schultze-Delitzch. About 1865, he came into contact with Wilhelm Liebknecht, and soon became a confirmed advocate of socialism. Ultimately, he also became a friend and confidant of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

With Liebknecht, Bebel belonged to the following of Socialists who were in close correspondence with Marx and the International, and who refused to accept the leadership of Johann von Schweitzer, who had attempted to carry on the work of Ferdinand Lassalle after Lassalle's death in 1864. Bebel was one of those who supported a vote of no confidence in Schweitzer at the 1867 Eisenach conference, from which his branch of the party became known as the "Eisenacher." That same year, Bebel was elected to the North German Reichstag for a Saxon constituency, and excepting a brief interval from 1881 to 1883, remained a member of the German Reichstag.

Bebel's talents as an organizer and orator quickly made him one of the leaders of the Socialists and their chief spokesman in the Reichstag. In 1870, he and Liebknecht were the only members who refused to vote for the military appropriations needed for the war with France. He was the only Socialist who was elected to the Reichstag in 1871, the year of the Franco-Prussian War, and he used his position to protest against Germany's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and to express his full sympathy with the Paris Commune. German Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck afterwards said that Bebel's speech opposing the annexation and supporting the Paris Commune was a "ray of light," showing him that socialism was an enemy to be fought against and crushed.

In his stand against the Franco-Prussian War, Bebel would not be deterred by the "patriotic" clamor of the time. Despite efforts by concerned friends and determined enemies, he and Liebknecht continued their propaganda until Bismarck, alarmed over what the result might be, called upon the Saxon government to have them arrested on a charge of high treason. Wild rumors were spread that Bismarck held proof that they were in league with the French; that they had entered into a conspiracy to free French prisoners of war in Germany and lead them to attack the German army from the rear before Paris. The "patriotic" indignation expressed through the capitalist press was intense. However, when the trial came it proved a fiasco in which the public prosecutor was forced to admit that there was no evidence that Bebel and Liebknecht had dealings with the French, or that there had been any plot for them to be involved in. As Bismarck insisted that both men must be kept under lock and key, however, old allegations of Bebel and Liebknecht preaching dangerous doctrines and of plotting against the state were revived and brought against them, and they were sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

After Bebel's release, he helped to organize the united Social Democratic Party of Germany at the Gotha Congress. When the anti-socialist laws were adopted, he continued to be active in the Reichstag, and was also elected a member of the parliament of Saxony. He became the most influential member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) at that time. In the party meetings of 1890 and 1891, his policy was severely attacked by an element that wished to abandon parliamentary action. Against these Bebel won a complete victory. Then he took up the tussle with the reformistic element led by Georg von Vollmar, leader of the SDP in Bavaria. With these conflicts, Bebel was regarded as the chief exponent of Marxian socialism in Germany.

A faction within the SDP was imbued with the idea that if any real accomplishments were to be scored a policy of "moderation" was necessary. What they wanted was a revision of principles, which, on the one hand, would permit nonsocialist liberals to enlist in the party, and, on the other hand, would insure a less active hostility from the government. Mild compromise was what they asked for, a compromise that seemed to promise some tangible results in the way of legislation favorable to workers.

Bebel was unyielding in his opposition to such schemes. Because of his influence within the SDP the movement toward compromise was checked for a time, and the revisionists in the party took back seats. After Bebel's death on Aug. 13, 1913, however, the SDP quickly succumbed to the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and others.

Bebel's contact with American Socialists was slight and largely limited to official correspondence and incidental contact at the International Socialist Congresses. In 1890, he was invited to tour the United States under SLP auspices, but declined. Daniel De Leon left an insightful character sketch of Bebel in his FLASHLIGHTS OF THE AMSTERDAM CONGRESS, and his speeches were often translated and printed in THE PEOPLE. De Leon also translated Bebel's most important work, WOMAN UNDER SOCIALISM.

Besides his activity in the Reichstag and the SDP, Bebel was the author of numerous tracts and books. WOMAN UNDER SOCIALISM appeared in at least 50 German editions and was translated and published in many other languages, including English. Others of his works were CHARLES FOURIER: HIS LIFE AND THEORIES, THE GERMAN PEASANTS' WAR, FOR AND AGAINST THE COMMUNE, FOR A POPULAR MILITIA AS AGAINST MILITARISM, ASSASSINATIONS AND SOCIALISM, etc.