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 German Social Democracy  (1896)*

By Bertrand Russell

Lecture II


Marx, whose principal doctrines we have now briefly reviewed, was, as I said in the last lecture, the last of the great German system-makers; in his love of a self-contained system, in his uncompromising generalisations, he was a thorough German, but in the facts and theories on which he relied or against which he argued, he was English through and through. His system is the natural result of the action of English life and English interests on a studious and methodical German mind. But Marx was a student, not an agitator ; after 1849, when he was only thirty-one, he lived in England, I might almost say in the British Museum, and affected politics chiefly through his influence on a few leading agitators. The growth of this influence, its gradual extension to the mass of the industrial proletariat, and the adoption in Germany, both by rich and poor, of his principle of class warfare, must form the theme of a history of German Socialism.

The first man who flung Marx’s doctrines to the people, who awakened them to a feeling of class interests, to a revolt against their miserable circumstances, and an ardent political struggle for their rights — the first man, in short, who made the fourth [p.42] estate a factor in German politics, was Lassalle. Lassalle was, in many respects, the very opposite of Marx. Practical through and through, he could bring all his immense theoretical knowledge to bear on any question of the moment; passionate and powerful, he compelled all with whom he came in contact to follow his leadership; in training and sympathies, a German of the Germans, he was yet, in his character and methods, far more English than Marx. Though he could appreciate, to the full, the desirability of the most radical transformations of society, he realised, also, the necessity of confining himself, in practical agitation, to a single, simple, essential demand. No one has ever understood the power of agitation and organisation better than Lassalle; no one has ever possessed in a greater degree the power of flogging men’s minds into enthusiastic activity. The word “agitator,” says Brandes, seems to have been created for him. The secret of his influence lay in his overpowering and imperious will, in his impatience of the passive endurance of evil, and in his absolute confidence in his own power. His whole character is that of an epicurean god, unwittingly become man, awakening suddenly to the existence of evil, and finding with amazement that his will is not omnipotent to set it right.

But before we can rightly understand Lassalle’s work and aims, we must have some knowledge of the development of Germany up to the time of his appearance in public life.

The Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War had destroyed German unity, as it existed under the Holy Roman Empire; the South and much of the [p.43] West had remained Roman Catholic, while the North and East had become Protestant. Prussia, the eastern and least civilised state, with a largely Slavonic population and a wholly feudal organisation of society, had become, under Frederick the Great, the most powerful of the German monarchies. While the West had been rapidly advancing in culture by contact with France, the East had been drilling its men and perfecting its military organisation, and had acquired a purely military preponderance. In the time of Napoleon, however, the Rhineland was annexed to France, and the feudal power of Prussia was, for the moment, annihilated by the battle of Jena. These two events brought about a great progress in civilisation; the Rhine provinces, the home of Marx, and the chief centre of Lassalle’s agitation, learnt the joys of civil freedom, and Prussia learnt the weakness of a purely aristocratic organisation of society.

A reliable German authority confesses that the German governments understood the ideas of the enlightenment much better in the school of Napoleon than in that of German philosophers and poets.1 The serfs were liberated, many aristocratic and feudal rights were abolished, finance was reformed, and the King of Prussia promised a constitution if the people would help to drive out the French from German territory. By these reforms and promises, the people, who had previously been rather friendly than hostile to Napoleon, were roused to national enthusiasm, and fought, in the war of 1813, for political as well as national liberation. But no sooner were the French expelled, than the very [p.44] patriots to whom Germany owed its independence, when they ventured to remind the king of his promise, were baffled in their hopes of reform, and imprisoned as demagogues.

These repressive measures were successful in all parts of Prussia except the Rhineland; here, where economic development was already tolerably advanced, where French rule had brought civilisation and destroyed feudalism, a democratic movement was kept alive. Here, in 1842, the local democrats founded a paper, in which Karl Marx, then only twenty-four, was first a collaborator, and soon afterwards, in consequence of his brilliant articles, the chief editor. These articles were so skilfully worded that the press censors could find nothing to say against them; they therefore suppressed the paper entirely. Marx, in consequence, went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Engels and with the leading French Socialists. The study of French Socialism led him to accept its doctrines, which he and Rüge advocated in polemical form in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. The enmity to Prussia, which this journal displayed, caused Guizot’s ministry to banish Marx from France. He therefore went to Brussels, where he and Engels, at the invitation of the Communist League in London, composed the Communist Manifesto. This appeared in January 1848, a month before the Revolution broke out in France. It is noticeable that neither of its authors knew much of Germany; Marx knew France and the Rhineland, Engels had lived almost entirely in England. While this exile gave them an almost prophetic insight into the course of [p.45] German economic development, it destroyed their political insight into the needs of the moment, and is responsible, even now, for much of the unpractical, theoretical attitude of Social Democracy.

The French Revolution of February was succeeded by the German Revolution of March. At first, middle-class and proletariat, town and country, were united; the movement was irresistible, the Prussian king was terrified, and a Constitutive Assembly, without whose consent the king promised to make no new laws, was elected by universal suffrage. But when the demands of the peasants, which extended only to relief from feudal burdens, had been hurriedly granted, their interest in the Revolution collapsed, and they ranged themselves on the side of order. As the socialistic demands of the proletariat — which, by the way, were largely reactionary, and aimed partly at the preservation of guilds — became more and more pronounced, the middle-class became alarmed, and rapidly drifted into reaction. The king recovered his presence of mind, and dissolved the over-democratic assembly; a new one, more amenable to the royal will, was elected, but had still too much spirit to be wholly satisfactory. So the king broke his word, dissolved the chamber, and by a coup d'état had a new one elected under an anti-democratic suffrage. This new chamber was wholly reactionary, and consented to the constitution under which Prussia still groans. This constitution left the bulk of the power with the king, and the rest in the hands of the richer burghers. The reaction set in simultaneously in the rest of Germany, and the revolution, owing to [p.46] the sudden terror of the middle-class before the awakened proletariat, failed before it had claimed the most ordinary civil rights. Marx, who had returned to edit the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, an ultra-democratic journal, was finally forced to leave the country; all the popular leaders were imprisoned or banished, and by 1850 all remnants of the democratic movement had disappeared. In this year most of the laws against organisation were passed, which up to the present time exercise such a dangerous and harmful effect on workmen’s unions and societies.

But during the fifties, the economic development of Germany rapidly advanced. Freedom in the choice of trades, and free circulation of labour, could be granted in the early sixties, without serious opposition from the handicrafts; increase of trade and industry strengthened the Progressive Party, the champion of laissez-faire individualism, and the whole economic organisation became rapidly more and more modern. Economists adopted from England and Franco the principles of Ricardo’s disciples, with their social panacea of free competition and self-help. Schulze-Delitzsch, a rich philanthropic economist of this school, founded a large number of working-men’s friendly societies, and urged the utility of saving and thrift. He had a considerable following among the higher class of artisans and handicraftsmen, to whom he preached self-help and the benevolent action of free competition. But in some of the more advanced towns, the men soon began to feel that Schulze-Delitzsch’s gospel was not very complete, and that something better must be possible. [p.47] Some of the most intelligent were sent, by the Progressives, to the London Industrial Exhibition of 1862, and returned, doubtless to their patron’s surprise, full of heretical views which they had learnt from English and French Socialists. The chief centre of the new movement was Leipzig, and it was the Leipzig workmen’s association which, in February 1863, asked Lassalle’s opinion as to the course they should pursue in politics. This was his opportunity, and with his answer, bis agitation and German practical Socialism began.

Lassalle had already, on many important occasions, given public expression to his views, in a manner which had attracted the attention alike of police and people. But his excursions into practical politics, up to this time, had been desultory and disconnected; study, and the complications of his private life, had occupied the greater part of his time. He was born in 1825, of well-to-do Jewish parents, at Breslau, where the Jews, until 1848, were not even formally emancipated. As a boy, he filled his journal with aspirations to liberate his people, and bitter invectives against their servile endurance. A little later, his revolt against the indignities which, as a middle-class Jew, he had suffered at the hands of the more powerful classes, converted him into a revolutionary democrat. “Had I been born a prince,” he wrote, with self-knowledge rare in a youth, “I should have been an aristocrat heart and soul. But as it is, being the son of a common bourgeois, I shall in my time be a democrat.” His democratic ambitions led him to abandon, at the age of sixteen, the trade of merchant, for which his [p.48] father had destined him, in favour of an academic training for the career of a popular leader. At the university he worked with immense zeal at philology and philosophy, and, attracted by the very difficulties of the task, he planned a work, not completed, however, until 1857, on Heraclitus, the Obscure Philosopher. A visit to Paris in 1844 gave him an opportunity to study French Socialism, and in the Revolution of '48 he became acquainted with Marx and wrote for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Having urged the people to armed resistance against the Prussian coup d'état, he was brought to trial in Düsseldorf in May 1849. The speech which he prepared for his defence (Assisenrede) was a masterpiece of logical rhetoric, and much has been written, by Brandes and others, of its tremendous effect on the Court. Unfortunately, however, it was never delivered. What really happened, as reported by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung of the day, was in the highest degree characteristic.

Lassalle had given the notes of his speech to a printer, and some copies had accidentally got into the hands of the judges. On the ground that the speech was dangerous to order, the President resolved to exclude the public, even the witnesses. Hereupon the following altercation arose: 2

President. “I call on the defence or the accused to speak.”

Lassalle. “I have first to make a proposal to the Court. The Court has excluded the public on the ground that my [p.49] defence is dangerous to public order. It is true that a few copies of my speech have been distributed against my will, but neither do I know — and the Court knows just as little — whether the copy which it received is really a copy of my speech, nor do I know at this moment whether I shall really deliver the speech as I gave it to my bookseller. Since I do not know it, and cannot know it, how will the Court make a decision on the ground of a fact which it does not know? I propose, therefore, that the Court should readmit the public.”

(The judges whisper a moment, and then reject the proposal.)

Lassalle (addressing the jury in a loud voice). “Well, gentlemen, then nothing remains for me but to make a solemn protest to you against the sanguinary deed of violence which has been committed here under your eyes. After six months of painful imprisonment, I am deprived of my last right, the right to brand this accusation, the right to unfold, to the astonished eyes of the citizens, the crimes, the infamies, the atrocities which are committed under the toga of a judge. (Great disturbance among the judges.) Without publicity, the right of free defence shrinks to a mere child’s plaything. How, gentlemen, they dare, before your very eyes, to prolong the unworthy hypocrisy which has characterised this trial from the beginning! I am told, ‘The defence is free; speak, defend yourself,’ and in the same instant a gag is thrust into my mouth! I am told, ‘Fight; here is a weapon,’ and in the same instant my hands are tied behind me! And I am to acknowledge this infamous hypocrisy, this shameless violence, by still defending myself with closed doors?”

The excitement among the judges, in the meantime, had been growing greater and greater. The former burgomaster grew as red as a crab, and threw himself about on his chair in uncontrollable fury. The President. interrupted the accused, “You must not speak so of a decision of the Court; I shall forbid you to speak.” [p.50]

Lassalle (violently addressing the President). “Inquisitor-in-Chief! The prisoner’s dock has been from all time the refuge of free speech. You have no right to interrupt me. I will prove to you, from the annals of history, that even the chief inquisitors of Spain, when they held a public sitting, allowed the accused freely to unfold all his opinions and doubts, all that they called blasphemy against God. If the inquisitors of Spain allowed the accused the right to blaspheme against God, then it is open to me to blaspheme against the State and the Court of Assize.”

The young rhetorician of twenty-three then showed in detail, with masterly logic and legal knowledge, the illegality of the President’s proceedings. The President hurriedly and briefly charged the jury, and after a consultation these returned with a verdict of not guilty. The Crown then appealed to a court without a jury, where Lassalle was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Such was, and is, Prussian justice.

Throughout the fifties Lassalle took no part in public life. Ho completed his work on Heraclitus, and wrote a great legal work on Acquired Rights, both of which gave him a considerable reputation in the learned world. Less commendable was a historical drama, in bad blank verse, entitled Franz von Sickingen. In 1859, when the attention of Europe was absorbed by Garibaldi and Louis Napoleon, he wrote an anonymous pamphlet, his first and last expression of opinion on foreign politics, entitled “The Italian War and the Duty of Prussia,” in which he seems — though opinions as to its merits differ widely — to have shown at least an intimate acquaintance with foreign affairs, and a shrewd prevision of the course [p.51] which events would take. This was followed by a paper on Fichte, in which he urged German Unity on a Republican basis.

Both here and in his more learned works, he shows himself a thorough Hegelian; the Idea, for him, rules events, and different historical epochs embody different phases of the Idea. To this thorough-going Hegelianism belongs Lassalle’s worship of the State, which is often erroneously attributed also to Marx and his modern followers. “It is the duty and purpose of the State,” he says on one occasion,3 “to facilitate and effect the great advances of mankind in civilisation. This is its calling. For this it exists; it has always served, and has always had to serve, for this end.” In his more thoroughly Hegelianism, and in this respect for the State, lie his chief differences from Marx, and the chief causes of the division which subsequently arose between his followers and the orthodox Social Democrats.

But in these writings, Lassalle was purely theoretical and scholarly. His first appearance as a practical politician was occasioned by the Verfassungskonflikt, or conflict about the Constitution, which had arisen between the Crown and the Prussian Diet. In spite of the Suffrage by three Classes, the Progressives, in December 1861, had obtained a majority; the King endeavoured to govern without the Chamber, and open disagreement broke out. Under these circumstances, Lassalle was invited, in the spring of 1862, to lecture to a Berlin liberal association, and chose as his theme Verfassungswesen, the nature of constitutions. In this lecture, Lassalle [p.52] explained, to the disgust of the assembled Liberals, whose tactics were to oppose the king’s power by the justice and legality of their claims — that constitutional questions are merely questions of power.

Constitutions need not be written, for the law is merely the crystallised embodiment of the actual forces of the State; in such questions might is right, and the king, since he has the army on his side, cannot be resisted by mere legal pleas. The actual forces of the State are then briefly passed in review. The king, who is obeyed by the army and the cannon, is a fragment of constitution; a nobility, which has influence with court and king, is a fragment of constitution. The great kings of industry could cause a victorious revolt against any attempt to reintroduce guilds, therefore these are a fragment of constitution. The bankers and the Bourse are a fragment of constitution, and so, within certain limits, is public opinion. “And since your combined resistance, gentlemen, would be hard to withstand, you see that, in certain of the very extremest cases, you are all a fragment of constitution. We have now seen, gentlemen,” so Lassalle sums up this argument, “what the constitution of a country is, namely, the actually existing powers and forces in the country.” 4

This lecture, though it expresses precisely the opinion of orthodox Social Democracy, was regarded by liberals and Conservatives alike as a blow to the opposition. The Governmental press was overjoyed that another former revolutionary should have seen the error of his ways, and the Progressives were [p.53]thoroughly disgusted. Nevertheless, Lassalle twice repeated the same lecture, and only in November did he see fit to develop the consequences of his former purely academic discussion. “The princes, gentlemen,” so his first lecture had ended, “have practical servants, not fine speakers, but practical servants, such as you might well desire.” How such practical servants should act was the subject of his second lecture “Was nun?” “Aussprechen das, was ist,” to say frankly what are the facts, and trust to public opinion at home and abroad, was his advice. Let the Diet refuse all further deliberation till the king should consent to be constitutional, and the weakening of the Government’s credit would soon force a capitulation. This advice, whether wise or not, is typical of the peaceful but energetic measures by which, as opposed to armed revolution, Lassalle desired to conduct all political agitation.

More important than these two papers was Lassalle’s Arbeiterprogramm, or Workmen’s Programme, which was first delivered to a suburban workman’s association in the spring of 1862. Though, at the time, it seems to have attracted little attention — chiefly owing to its strictly theoretical and scientific form — it obtained afterwards, when published as a pamphlet, a great hold on the more socialistic workingmen, and was, indeed, the cause of the letter from the Leipzig Committee which gave occasion for his whole agitation.

The Arbeiterprogramm is in the main, as Bernstein says, a reproduction, suited to the circumstances of the time, of the Communist Manifesto. In its economic doctrines, in its view of history, in its [p.54] recognition of the fourth estate as the one revolutionary factor in society, the one class whose interests govern the future, it is almost wholly Marxian; but in some important points it shows already the difference which afterwards led to so sharp a division. The materialistic view of history is not consistently worked out, and legal explanations are often substituted for economic causes. A more important difference from Marx lies in the emphasis laid on the State. The Manchester School’s idea of the State, according to which it has only to protect men’s persons and property, is a “night-watchman idea, for it can only imagine the State as a night-watchman, whose whole function consists in preventing robbery and housebreaking.” 5

The true function of the State is to “help the development of the human race towards freedom,” to effect those steps which all, as individuals, must desire, but which no single individual can effect. But this function can only be fulfilled by a State which adequately represents the interests of all, by a State, that is, with equal and universal suffrage. In the present State, the invention of machinery and the growth of the factory system have made the wage earners the actually most powerful class; it is therefore natural and necessary to make them legally the most powerful, by abolishing the property vote, and introducing a pure democracy.

Economic progress has already brought the revolution of which this would only be the legal recognition; for “it is impossible to make a revolution; it is only possible to recognise legally and carry out consistently a [p.55] revolution which has already taken place in the actual conditions of a society.” 6 In this sense, Arkwright’s cotton-spinning machine was a revolution.7 “To wish to make a revolution is the folly of immature people, who know nothing of the laws of history.” 8 The French Revolution was the revolution of the bourgeoisie against the feudal nobility, of industry against landed property; the revolution which began in 1848, which it is the political function of the working classes to advance, is the revolution of the wage earning proletariat against the rule of the great capitalists. But unlike former class victories, the victory of the proletariat, of the disinherited, since they have no privileges to rescue, is the victory of all mankind, its freedom is the freedom of the human race itself, its rule is the rule of all. “The high world-historical importance of this mission must absorb all your thoughts. The vices of the oppressed become you no longer, nor the idle dissipations of the thoughtless, nor even the harmless frivolities of the unimportant. You are the rock on which the Church of the present must be built.” 9

The power and logical development of this programme are those of the Communist Manifesto, and its applicability to the time depends, like Marx’s whole political system, on the previous development of society to the capitalistic form. Unfortunately for Lassalle’s agitation, this development was, in Germany, very far indeed from complete. The opposition of labour and capital, as the very name of the association to which Lassalle was speaking [p.56] — the Oranienburg Handicraftsmen’s Association — should have suggested to him, was by no means so well-developed as to give any chance of success to a movement of the industrial wage earners alone.

More than half the population of Prussia was engaged in agriculture; of the town workers, many were engaged in handicrafts, and only about 10 percent of the population were dependent for their livelihood on factories.10 The policy, which had been suggested to Marx and Engels by the more advanced industry of England, could, consequently, have no chance of immediate success in Germany. Lassalle was therefore forced, in his later agitation, in spite of his theories, to try to make a revolution: not by rousing the people to armed insurrection, but by the simpler and rapider method of converting Bismarck and the Prussian Ministry. This policy the later Socialists have always avoided, as treachery to their class, but by avoiding it, they have lost all hope, for the moment, of directly bringing about any one of the reforms which they demand.

The Arbeiterprogramm, in the form of a pamphlet, obtained a wide popularity among the more advanced workmen, many of whom had begun to feel the insufficiency of Schulze-Delitzsch’s programme. The men of Leipzig, who were among the most advanced, sent a deputation to Berlin, in October 1862, to make a final attempt at co-operation with the Progressives. The three men who constituted the deputation were all Socialists, and the attempt at reconciliation failed, as was expected. After the return of the deputation to Leipzig, a resolution was passed to invite Lassalle [p.57] to express, in any form which he might think fit, his opinion of the movement, of the policy it should pursue, and of the value of the associations. There must exist, they thought, “other ways and means, besides those recommended by Schulze-Delitzsch, for attaining the ends of the workman’s movement, namely, improvement of the condition of the workingmen politically, materially, and mentally;” and owing to the great value of Lassalle’s brochure, they attached a high importance to his opinion on these points. 11

To this invitation Lassalle replied, on the 1st March, by the Offenes Antwortschreiben, or public letter of reply, in which he set forth, clearly and succinctly, the policy which, in his opinion, a workmen’s movement should follow. They had discussed whether they should abstain from politics or join the Progressives. He would urge them to a third alternative; they should take part in politics, but as a separate independent labour party. Schulze-Delitzsch’s friendly societies could only benefit individuals, for as soon as all took part in them, wages would fall, by that iron law which keeps labourers at the bare minimum of subsistence. The one and only way of overcoming this iron law was to abolish the capitalist, by establishing associations for co-operative production. In this way the gains of the undertaker would fall to the workman; but no industrial undertaking could succeed nowadays without large capital, and where were the workmen to get this capital? The only way to get it was by State credit; let the State lend them the money at the [p.58] normal rate of interest, and then they would be able to compete with private capital on equal terms. But how determine the State to this undertaking? Obviously it would not be possible in a State governed by capitalists; they must agitate, therefore, for universal suffrage, and then the State would become the true and faithful image of the will of the people. What workmen had to do, for the present, therefore, was to form a universal association throughout Germany, on the analogy of the Anti-Corn-Law League, with the one and only aim of obtaining universal suffrage. This achieved, they could establish the productive associations and destroy the Iron Law. They need not distrust the State, for what was the State but the great association of the working classes? Seventy-two and a quarter percent of the families of Prussia had an annual income under 100 thaler (£ 15); eighty-nine percent had an income under 200 thaler (£ 30). The State, therefore, was the poorest classes: State help was only help from the great national association for the smaller associations; why then should they fear it?

The universal association, therefore, must organise a legal and peaceful, but unwearying agitation for the one single purpose of universal suffrage. “Look neither to the right nor to the left; be deaf to everything which is not direct and universal suffrage, or can be brought into connection with it and lead to it! … The universal suffrage of 89 to 96 percent of the population, regarded as a hunger question, and spread through the whole body of the nation with the keenness of hunger — be quite unconcerned, gentlemen, there is no power which can [p.59] long withstand that! This is the token that you must set up. This is the token in which you will conquer! There is no other for you!” 12

At the time when this was written, the struggle between the Government and the Diet was at its height. The air was full of threats of revolution, and it seemed a doubtful question which party would conquer. The Government had already made attempts to sow dissension among the Liberals, and especially to detach the working classes by promises of State help. Lassalle’s advice appeared to the Liberals, therefore, a traitorous overture to the Government, and as such, was bitterly attacked. Many workmen’s associations held aloof from the new movement. The Liberals denied Lassalle’s Iron Law, but in an able debating speech, at Leipzig, he quoted Say, Ricardo, Adam Smith, Mill, Rau, and Roscher, to prove that it was held by all economists of repute. After this they changed their tactics, and maintained that the Iron Law was a law of nature, which no institutions could alter. Here, again, Lassalle had an easy controversial victory. In two great speeches at Frankfort, he persuaded the local associations to pass a resolution in favour of his Universal Association, and on May 23rd, it was founded at Leipzig, in the presence of delegates from ten towns, among which Berlin was not represented. The statutes, which Lassalle drew up himself, gave him, as president, dictatorial power; this was done partly to avoid the Coalition Laws by strict centralisation, partly to satisfy Lassalle’s ambition and belief in the power of an individual will.

[p.60] The Association grew slowly, and Lassalle’s energy, which was immense but sporadic, soon gave out. Early in July he left Germany for his health, but continued to direct the agitation by letter. Three months after its foundation, the Association numbered only 900 members, and Berlin still held aloof. For Lassalle, who had confidently expected, within a year, to organise the whole of the German working classes, this was a bitter disappointment. He began to look for more rapid means of victory, and when he returned in September, he adopted a new tone. With more bitterness against the Liberals, he combined a flattering attitude towards the Government: Bismarck was a man, he said, while the Progressives were a lot of old women. He also began to exaggerate enormously the results of his agitation, which, in spite of the immense personal enthusiasm which he aroused, remained without any very solid result. He made a great effort to win Berlin, first by an address “To the workmen of Berlin,” then by meetings and speeches. In the beginning he had some success, and obtained 200 Berlin members, but by February 1864 this number had sunk to three dozen. People suspected him for his bitter attack on the Liberals, and still more, probably, for the negotiations with Bismarck, which he carried on throughout the winter. What occurred in these interviews it seems impossible to discover with certainty; probably he sought to win Bismarck to universal suffrage and to State credit for his co-operative associations.

The Liberals, since they obtained such good majorities by the three-classes system, were very lukewarm about reform of the [p.61] suffrage, while the Government, relying on the Conservative instincts of the agrarian population, had serious thoughts of a change. Bismarck did, in fact, grant universal suffrage three years later, and this may, to some extent, justify Lassalle’s tactics; but the increased Conservatism of the popular representatives seems to have shown Bismarck’s statesmanship, and throws great doubt on the wisdom of Lassalle’s programme. Bismarck himself gave a most interesting, though not wholly reliable account of these interviews, in the Reichstag fifteen years later.13

Lassalle himself wished urgently to enter into negotiations with me, and if I could find time to search among old papers, I believe I could yet find the letter in which the wish is expressed, and in which reasons are given why I should allow the wish to be fulfilled. Nor did I make it difficult for Lassalle to meet me. I saw him, and from the time that I first spoke an hour with him, I have not regretted it. I did not see him three or four times a week, but only three or four times altogether. Our relations could not have the nature of political negotiations. For what could Lassalle offer or give me? He had nothing behind him, and in all political negotiations the Do ut des lies in the background, even though, for the sake of decorum, one may not say so. If I were to have said to myself: ‘What have you, poor devil, to give?’ he had nothing which he could have given me as Minister; but what he had was something which attracted me extraordinarily as a private man. He was one of the most intellectual and gifted men with whom I have ever had intercourse, a man who was ambitious on a grand scale, but by no means a Republican; he had very decided national and monarchical sympathies; [p.62] the idea which he strove to realise was the German Empire, and in that we had a point of contact. Lassalle was extremely ambitious, and it was perhaps a matter of doubt to him whether the German Empire would end with the Hohenzollern or the Lassalle dynasty; but he was monarchical through and through.… Our conversations lasted hours, and I was always sorry when they came to an end. There was no talk of negotiations, for during our conversation I could scarcely get in a word.
Whether there were negotiations or not, it is certain that Lassalle, in his speeches, began to promise more and more confidently that the Government would grant universal suffrage, and it is a proof of his anti-democratic disposition, that he regarded such a result as equally satisfactory with a suffrage won by popular agitation. “Bismarck,” he wrote on one occasion, “is only my plenipotentiary,” and he undoubtedly intended only to use, him so long as he should be useful. But this policy required, as Bismarck said, that Lassalle should be a considerable power, and necessitated the most reckless exaggeration of his actual achievements. Since these remained small, Lassalle became more and more Bismarck’s plenipotentiary; instead of being the master, he became the tool, and this situation led to ever greater outward boasting and inward discouragement.

In his last tour of agitation, in May 1864, which has been described as a triumphal progress more like that of a monarch than that of a private citizen, he spoke much of promises from the king, of the benevolence of the Prussian Government, and of the weakness of the Liberal Party, which he stigmatised as a mere clique. But the speeches of this [p.63] time no longer show the old vigour, or the old straightforward logic; the tendency to demagogy, which had hitherto been subordinate, now became supreme, and was only varied by unmeasured self-laudation. He was disappointed and broken in health, and vainly endeavoured to conceal his weakness by pompous boasts. He seems to have felt that his strength could not hold out much longer. “If I am set aside,” so ends the last of his great speeches, “may some avenger and successor arise out of my bones! May this powerful national movement of civilisation not fall with my person, but may the conflagration which I have kindled spread farther and farther, so long as a single one of you still breathes! Promise me this, and as a sign, hold up your right hands!”

Soon after this, Lassalle went to Switzerland for his health, and was killed in a foolish and conventional duel.

It is almost impossible, on first reading the history of Lassalle’s agitation, not to wonder in what its great importance consists. Barely a dozen great speeches, three or four brilliant defences in Court, a few pamphlets and a very few followers — that, at first sight, seems to sum up Lassalle’s achievements. What he really did, however, lay not in the immediate results, but in his emotional effect on men’s minds, in the forcible attention which his supremely dramatic appearance demanded and obtained from the whole nation. He forced men, even against their wills, to reflect on their political circumstances, and see them as they were.

“The name of Lassalle,” says Bernstein, “grew to be a banner for which the [p.64] masses became more and more enthusiastic, the more Lassalle’s writings penetrated among the people. Designed for immediate effect, written with extraordinary talent, popular and yet emphasising theoretic points of view, they exercised, and in part still exercise today, a great missionary effect. The Arbeiterprogramm (Workmen’s Programme), the Offenes Antwortschreiben (Public Letter of Reply), the Arbeiterlesebuch (Workmen’s Primer), etc, have won hundreds of thousands to Socialism. The force of conviction, which runs through these writings, has inflamed hundreds of thousands to the fight for the rights of labour.” 14 “Where there was, in general, only undetermined desire, he spread conscious endeavour, he brought home to German labour the recognition of its social mission, he taught it to organise itself as an independent political party, and in this way accelerated, by years at least, the development of the movement.” 15

That Lassalle practically created the German labour movement, that it long bore, and still bears in part, the stamp of his personality, is indubitable. Whether the path on which he led it was wise, whether his programme or his tactics were likely to benefit the working classes, is a different and more difficult question.

As regards his programme, it is noticeable that his theoretical economics, like those of Marx, assumed absolute free competition, and therefore coincided almost entirely with those of the Manchester School. Granted this postulate, his theory is generally orthodox and wholly unoriginal. Owing partly, [p.65] no doubt, to the hurry with which most of his work was done, he seldom made acknowledgments of his sources; his theoretic Socialism, however, seems to have been a combination of Marx and Rodbertus.

Rodbertus was a country gentleman and practical agriculturist, who advocated a Conservative Socialism which became the parent of the German State Socialists. His economic theory was almost wholly in agreement with that of Marx; it committed the same mistakes, but was not redeemed by the same brilliancy. Like Marx, Rodbertus never understood the difference between landlord and farmer. The practical measures, however, which his theory led him to advocate, were very different from those proclaimed by Marx. He was not a democrat, and he was a patriot. He wished the labourer’s condition to be improved, but from above, not by the labourer himself. In spite of his economically thorough going Socialism in short, he was politically a Conservative, a landlord, and a Prussian.16

[p.66] The point in which Lassalle’s practical economic programme differed from both these authorities, namely the proposal of co-operative associations, was severely criticised, in a series of letters to Lassalle, by Rodbertus, who, partly for this reason, and partly because he disapproved of an Independent Labour Party, always held aloof from the agitation. The criticisms of Rodbertus are, in the main, the same as those of later Socialists: that the associations would, in their turn, become competing capitalists; that those who, from the nature of their occupations, could not join any association, would form a fifth estate as miserable as the present proletariat; that there would be no guarantee against over-production, which is, according to Rodbertus and Marx, the cause of financial crises ; and finally, that the transition from such societies to the collectivist state would be difficult, if not impossible. These objections, it must be admitted, are in the main sound, and it is a gain to Social Democracy to have eliminated Lassalle’s scheme from its programme. Against the Iron Law it must be urged that, apart from the Malthusian limitation of population, it can be suspended by a sudden extension of industry and consequent increase of the demand for labour, or by Trade Unions. This, though not sufficiently emphasised by Marx, is now recognised by the leaders of Social Democracy; the small interest which the people take in Trade Unions, however, and the preponderatingly political character of the German Labour Movement, are still traceable, in part, to the mistaken influence of Lassalle’s Iron Law. The phrase Iron Law is misleading, for not only does Lassalle admit that what are regarded as necessaries [p.67] may vary from time to time, according to the standard of comfort, but like Rodbertus, he uses wages — as do most Socialists, though often unconsciously — in the Ricardian sense of the proportion of produce which falls to labour. In this sense, increase of productivity, unless accompanied by a proportional increase of absolute wages, appears as a fall in wages, since it diminishes the labourer’s proportion — a consequence which Lassalle, following Rodbertus, exploits to the uttermost.

As to Lassalle’s tactics, though it is almost impossible to estimate their wisdom, it is easy to see that many grave objections can be urged against them. In the conflict about the Constitution, the Liberal party was fighting a real if half-hearted battle for freedom and progress, and an Independent Labour Party, if it were to exist at all, would have been much more likely to achieve success by a conditional support of Liberalism than by playing into the hands of the Government. Also Lassalle underestimated, throughout his whole career, the reactionary forces among the people themselves. When he proved triumphantly that 89 percent of the population belonged to the poorest classes, he forgot how many of these were engaged in agriculture and handicrafts, and how few belonged to the revolutionary class of wage earners. This was a heritage from the Communist Manifesto, but Lassalle, who had lived all his life in Prussia, ought to have known better the conditions of his own country. A class which is still a small minority cannot hope to win much from democracy, and in this respect Bismarck showed himself a shrewder [p.68] politician than Lassalle. The time when Universal Suffrage or an Independent Labour Party could lead to the establishment of Socialism, especially by the peaceful means which Lassalle always advocated, was still far distant, as is proved by the subsequent history of Social Democracy.

But whether universal suffrage was a wise demand or not, it seems certain that Lassalle’s method, of confining the whole agitation to one point, was a wise one, and that the later movement, by demanding its whole programme at once, has lost much of the influence on politics which it might otherwise have had. By a man of Lassalle’s force of character, with more patience of slow results, such an agitation might undoubtedly have been successfully carried out. But Lassalle’s ungovernable will, and his incapacity to realise that it could be resisted, led him into a situation from which his sudden death was perhaps a fortunate deliverance. “The disease which killed him,” says Brandes,17 “was an arrogant will, as others die of too great a heart. But the will or the self-confidence, whose excess killed him, was also the principle which upheld him throughout his life. He stands out in history as a monument of will.”

*  Bertrand Russell, Lecture 2, German Social Democracy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896)  All pagination is to the original 1896 edition, downloadable as a pdf from this website

1 Herkner, Arbeiterfrage, p. 66

2 I have quoted the following from Bernstein’s Lassalle’s Reden und Schriften, Berlin, 1893, vol. i. pp. 201 ff. This edition is referred to hereafter as “Bernstein,” and Lassalle’s works are throughout quoted from this edition

3 Offenes Antwortschre ben, vol. ii. p. 432

4 Ibid., vol. i. p. 481

5 Bernstein, vol. ii. p. 45

6 Bernstein, vol. ii. p. 45

7 Ibid., p. 23

8 Ibid., p. 22

9 Ibid., p. 48

10 See Bernstein’s “Lassalle,” footnote, vol. i. p. 126

11 Bernstein, vol. i. pp. 114-116

12 Bernstein, vol. ii. p. 445

13 Speech in the Reichstag, September 16, 1878

14 Bernstein, vol. i. p. 182

15 Ibid., p. 185

16 The importance of Rodbertus, in the development of Socialism, is a disputed point, on which there has been much hot controversy between Marxians and State Socialists. The latter have even maintained, as Rodbertus himself maintained, that Marx shamelessly plagiarised him. For this view there seems, however, absolutely no evidence. (See George Adler, Die Grundlagen der Karl Marx’schen Kritik, p. 196). That Rodbertus has great importance in the development of general theoretic Socialism, and that he greatly influenced Lassalle’s views on economics, is certain. At the same time, his specifically political importance lies, in my opinion, more with the State Socialists than with Social Democracy. For those points in which Lassalle differed from Marx and agreed with Rodbertus, were not taken up permanently by his followers, and have today disappeared, almost without a trace, from the party programme and the party opinion. On these grounds, and not because, I hold Rodbertus in himself unimportant, I thought it advisable to treat him very lightly in a history of Social Democracy

17 Ferdinand Lassalle: ein Literarisches Charakterbild, 3rd ed., Leipzig, 1894, p. 174