Georg Lukacs

Franz Mehring.
On the 20th anniversary of his death


First Published: Pravda , 29 January 1939.
Source: Pravda.
Translated: from the Russian by: Anton P.

Franz Mehring is one of the greatest and most interesting figures of the period of the Second International. At the same time, he is one of the few Western socialists who remained faithful to the banner of revolutionary internationalism during the years of the imperialist war, who enthusiastically welcomed the Great October Socialist Revolution and defended it against bourgeois-Menshevik slander.

Mehring traveled a long and difficult road before he took the side of the revolutionary proletariat. As a publicist, in the early 1870s he joined the few remaining representatives of the radical democracy at that time. He entered into close relations with Jacobi, Weiss and others [1] who, after the revolution of 1848, preserved the traditions of the left wing of bourgeois democracy, sympathized with the labor movement and defended it from the attacks of reaction. These traditions had a decisive influence on Mehring’s entire further path, deeply affecting both his positive and negative qualities.

The establishment of a law against the socialists [2] caused a decisive turn in Mehring’s views. Since the mid-1880s, he had been a consistent defender of the labor movement. The revolutionization of Mehring’s views, his ideological rapprochement with Marxism led to ever more severe conflicts with bourgeois politics and the press. From his own experience, he studied the class limitations of bourgeois democracy. In the early 1890s, Mehring openly went over to the camp of the proletariat.

As a member of the German Social Democracy, Mehring was constantly on the left. He was one of the most determined fighters against Bernstein and revisionism. The newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung, which he edited, became the ideological and propaganda center of the struggle against Bernsteinism.

After the outbreak of the imperialist war, Mehring, together with Rosa Luxemburg, began publishing the magazine Internationale. However, only one issue was legally published. The magazine spoke out not only against the imperialist war and the majority of the German Social Democracy that supported it, it also tried, albeit very inconsistently, to fight against Kautskian centrism. Mehring was at that time one of the founders of the “Spartacus League.” He took part in the heroic struggle of the Spartacists, but at the same time he shared those mistakes of the left in Germany, which were so sharply criticized by Lenin and Stalin. “Lenin criticized the mistakes of the inconsistent internationalists among the Left Social-Democrats, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but at the same time he helped them to take the correct position.” (“History of the CPSU (b),” p. 160). [3]

In his letter to the editorial board of the journal Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya, Comrade Stalin noted that “Of course, the record of the Lefts in Germany does not consist only of serious mistakes. They also have great and important revolutionary deeds to their credit ... That is why the Bolsheviks reckoned with them as Lefts, supported them and urged them forward. But it does not and cannot obliterate the fact that at the same time the Left Social-Democrats in Germany did commit a number of very serious political and theoretical mistakes; that they had not yet rid themselves of the Menshevik burden and therefore were in need of severe criticism by the Bolsheviks.[4]

German militarism threw Mehring into prison. When Mehring was released, he was an old, sick man. But he could still enthusiastically welcome the beginning of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia and the founding of the German Communist Party. At the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Lenin said: “From the German socialists and other people whose names every class-conscious worker and peasant knows, like Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, the Bolshevik government receives an expression of gratitude, sympathy and support.[5]

* * *

At the center of Mehring’s literary activity was the publication of the works of Marx and Engels, little-known at that time, forgotten by the opportunists of the Second International, the compilation of the history of German Social-Democracy, and later the biography of Karl Marx.

It was thanks to Mehring that the early works of Marx and Engels, dating back to the 1840s and 1850s, became the property of the proletarian public.

In his comments, Mehring shed light on the German history of the 1840s, the period of preparation for the 1848 revolution, outlined the emergence of the proletarian movement and revived in memory those moments that bourgeois historiography deliberately sought to conceal. These works served as the basis for Mehring’s main work History of the German Social Democracy.

In this work, Mehring’s ideological weaknesses come to the fore with the greatest clarity. The basis of his mistakes was that he did not understand the entire historical significance, the entire inevitability of the significance of the struggle against opportunism in the development of the labor movement.

Mehring’s historical concept was developed under the influence of Rosa Luxemburg’s “theory of spontaneity.” He believed that theoretical disagreements in the labor movement are phenomena of a secondary order, which would be straightened out by the “spontaneous” movement. He did not see that opportunism was an agent of bourgeois influence in the working class, and therefore too late and with great hesitation made a decisive break with the opportunists, although in a number of publicistic speeches he disputed and passionately fought against certain manifestations of opportunism.

This weakness of Mehring’s political position is also revealed in his historical works. He often slipped into the direct defense of such people as Lassalle, Schweitzer [6], Bakunin, against the well-aimed and annihilating criticism of these persons by Marx and Engels.

Although Mehring strove, often not without success, to write the history of the German Social-Democratic Party in an organic connection with the general development of life in the country, he still did not fulfill the most important task of a historian of the labor movement: to give a history of ideas. Mehring did not even see this problem itself.

* * *

Mehring’s work in the field of philosophy, aesthetics, history and literary criticism reveals a contradictory mixture of positive and negative qualities. Mehring, as a historian, is full of ardent hatred for the oppressors of the German people and a spiritualized love for the humanism of the German classics. He clearly sees the connection between humanism and the tendencies of democratic liberation and unification of Germany. From the fruitful combination of this hatred and this love, his Lessing Legend arose. Here we find a brilliant exposure of Frederick the Great’s despotism, an intelligent and profound assessment of the German classics and, at the same time, an annihilating criticism of the German bourgeois literary history of this period.

In the field of philosophy, Mehring always defended materialism against idealism. He also fought against neo-Kantianism. Lenin in his work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism recognized these merits of Mehring. But Mehring’s vacillations, repeatedly criticized by Lenin, also manifested themselves in the field of philosophy. Mehring, for example, acknowledged Engels’ criticism of Kant, but asserted that this applies only to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, and that the first edition supposedly meets Engels’ requirements, and so on.

Despite his weaknesses and mistakes, Mehring remains a major figure in the revolutionary workers’ movement – an honest revolutionary who fought for communism throughout his long life.


1. Johann Jacobi (1805–1877) and Guido Weiss (1822-1899); German left-wing liberal-democrats, known as “radical democrats,” noted for their refusal to politically capitulate to the monarchical and Bismarckian reaction after 1848, in contrast with most other German liberals of that time.

2. The Anti-Socialist Laws, which illegalized the Social Democratic Party of Germany, socialist trade unions and publications and the socialist ideology altogether, were passed by Bismarck in 1878 and were in effect until his resignation in 1890.

3. The quote from the Short Course mentioned by Lukacs appears here

4. Stalin’s letter which Lukacs quotes is here.

5. Lenin’s speech from which Lukacs takes the quote is here.

6. Jean Baptista von Schweitzer (1833–1875); German playwright and early Social Democratic politician, Lassalle’s successor as president of the General Workingmen’s Union of Germany. Like Lassalle he advocated for the socialists’ cooperation with Bismarck, and was criticized for this not only by Marx and Engels, but also by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel. These disagreements caused one of the earliest splits in the history of German Social Democracy.


Last updated on: 26 May 2021