Minutes of London Conference of the First International,
September 25-29 1865

Report on the Working-Class Movement in Germany

This report by Wilhelm Liebknecht, on the working-class movement in Germany, which he had written in English, was not read at the London Conference. “As regards your report,” Marx wrote to Liebknecht on November 21, 1865, “I did not read it at the Conference since too much prominence is given in it to me.” Liebknecht’s report was found among Marx’s papers.

In consequence of the slow development of our industry and commerce the working classes of Germany entered political life much later than their brethren in England and France. It was in the year 1848, after the Revolution of February, that for the first time the necessity dawned upon them to improve their social position. What had been thought, written, done before, had been thought, written and done almost exclusively either by men not strictly belonging to the working class or by workmen that were living or had been living in England, France or Switzerland. It had not grown out of the German working classes.

The part which the workmen took in the movement of 1848 and 1849 was as honourable as it was unclear and undefined. They were the foremost on every barricade, in every battle — field, but, not having a distinct idea of their class interests, of the relations of Capital and Labour, they fought for the good of others, not their own. There existed at that time only one paper that advocated the true interests of the working classes, and tried to direct the stream of popular power into the right channels: the New Rhenish Gazette [Neue Rheinische Zeitung] founded and edited by Dr. Charles Marx. It substituted principles to phrases, destroyed the fallacies of middle-class economy instead of propagating vague socialistic theories and utopisms. Soon the New Rhenish Gazette acquired a great influence, especially amongst the workmen of Rhenish Prussia and Westphalia, where industry is more developed than in any other part of Germany and where consequently the interests of the working and middle class are more opposed to one another. However, immediate practical results could not be achieved, because through the cowardice of the middle classes reaction speedily gained the day. The popular movement was stifled in blood throughout Germany, the New Rhenish Gazette violently suppressed, the leaders of the working classes driven into exile, the liberty of the press destroyed together with the right of meeting and of association.

The Manteuffel Government was not satisfied with that. Their Jesuitical instinct told them that in order to get the people quite into their power, they must educate the people from the tenderest youth, form the mind of the growing generation in their model. The infamous “School-Regulations” were fabricated and carried out during fully nine years. In most other states of Germany reaction proceeded in the same manner. If we consider that in Germany every child must be sent to school, and that education is absolutely in the hands of the government, we can imagine the demoralising, the unmanning effects of the “School-Regulations.” When in 1862 I returned to Germany I was surprised at the ravages made by this means in the mind and character of our working men.

The whim of the King of Prussia, which overthrew the Manteuffel Ministry, also caused some kind of political revival in Germany. The middle class, characterless as always and everywhere, ever ready to sacrifice the principles they profess to their momentary pocket-interests, flung themselves at the feet of King William, and this monarch, who, when Crown-Prince, had led the Prussian army against the people fighting for “German Liberty and Unity,” was proclaimed by them the champion of “German Liberty and Unity"! The upshot of this stupid servile behaviour we see now.

The working classes did not quite escape the epidemy. After the suppression of the New Rhenish Gazette they had not had an organ in the press. The influence exercised by their banished leaders had of necessity been very small during the epoch of reaction. The secret societies, organised when no legal means of agitation was left, had mostly been broken up by the police. No workmen’s societies had been tolerated, except those founded by the tools of the government and the priests, and except the harmless goose and saving clubs introduced by Mr. Schulze-Delitzsch, formerly a so-called “Democrat,” but since converted, However, Mr. Schulze had acquired a certain popularity, and as soon as the “New Era” of mock liberalism began, the middle-class politicians (“Liberals,” “Progressists,” men of the “National Society”) took him under their wing, puffed him up as the greatest political economist of the age, the benefactor of the working classes, the Oedipus, who by his goose clubs had solved the social question. The stratagem was successful to some extent. The majority of the workmen believed what they were told every day by hundreds of middle-class speakers, by hundreds of middle-class papers. There had been rather a time of prosperity, wages had risen in many branches of industry — in fact there was no special ground for social discontent.

Mr. Schulze became a “great man.” Faithful to his mission — at first he acted conscientiously and did not see that he was merely the instrument of the middle class; but since he has taken a “present” of 50,000 Rh,[Reichstaler] from his patrons, he cannot live in this “blessed ignorance” any more — faithful to his mission he preached his gospel of the goose club amongst the workmen and proved to them that their interests were the same as those of the middle class, that the antagonism of Capital and Labour was an English and French invention, and that in every question they had to follow the lead of their capital — possessing brethren. Mr. Schulze is a very plausible speaker; he has a stock of half a dozen set phrases, all very well sounding, and at the reach of the dullest brain which he shakes about as in a kaleidoscope; so that each time he says the same thing, but always in different order, and so that all his speeches may be read from the end and from the middle just as well as from the beginning.

From 1859, the time of the “New Era,” up to the end of 1862 the German workmen formed but the chorus of the “liberal” middle-class party; at the elections they were simply, to use an American expression, the “voting cattle” of the “Progressists.”

The first attempt at emancipation was made at Berlin in the winter 1862/63 by a workman named Eichler. He was occupied in a large Berlin factory, and by his employers he had been, together with some other workmen, sent to the London Exhibition of 1862. In London he was accidentally present at a meeting held by the “German, Working Men’s Society” (now in the International Association) in commemoration of the Paris Insurrection of June.[290] He was struck with what he heard there, informed himself, and soon discovered that in England all that, which according to Mr. Schulze was to heal every social complaint: goose clubs, free competition, the right of settlement, etc., existed in full force since a long, long time, and that yet the social problem was not solved there, the fetters of labour not broken. He returned to Berlin, told his employers that Mr. Schulze was a charlatan, a humbug, and was — dismissed. He called several meetings together, explained to the workmen that in order to free themselves they must go their own way, that from the middle class they had to expect nothing and proposed a congress of the German workmen. The project met with great applause, but the intrigues of the “Progressists,” who denounced the promoter as a “tool of the reaction” aiming at the dissolution of the unity of the “great liberal party,” succeeded finally in foiling it. Eichler could not get work from any employer, he was literally starved out, and, driven to the last extremity, he has since accepted a place as telegraphist in the telegraph office of the Berlin police. It was certainly wrong in him to accept such a situation, but the principal blame no doubt falls on the middle class that systematically deprived him of every chance of living honestly.

Meanwhile the soap-bubble of the “New Era” had burst. The reins of power had slipped from the hands of the “liberal” weaklings, and been taken by Herr von Bismarck. The “Liberals” throughout Prussia and Germany set up a terrific howl; but the times are past when walls crumbled to pieces before the braying of full-mouthed creatures — Herr von Bismarck remained undisturbed, and will never be overturned by the middle-class “Liberals.” This political adventurer has made his studies at St. Petersburg and at Paris. He is the worthy confrere of Bonaparte. He aims at absolute despotic power, but, too clever not to perceive, that government is nowadays impossible, if it does not succeed in winning over the masses, he at once began to imitate the example of his friend in Paris, and held out the bribe of socialism to the working classes. In Silesia a difference arose between the masters and workmen; the government ostentatiously took the part of the latter. A former refugee, just returned from London, [W. Liebknecht] was offered a column of the Ministerial paper to write articles on the social question and he was assured of the most complete liberty — of course he refused. Herr von Bismarck looked for a socialistic agitator.

At that time Mr. Lassalle stepped upon the stage. If he had not presented himself, he would have been invented.

I have neither time nor space to draw a detailed picture of Lassalle, to give a full history of the part he has played in the German working-class movement. There are men at London who are able to do it. More a revolutionary character or rather temper than a revolutionary mind, Lassalle was disgusted with the cowardice of the “liberal” middle-class. He saw that they were unable, to realise their own programme and he resolved to appeal to the working classes. He communicated to them part of the contents of the writings of Mr. Marx, whose pupil he was in Political Economy, of Engels and others, but without naming his sources; founded the “Universal German Working Men’s Society,” and opened his campaign against the middle class. Ambitious, passionate, thirsting for immediate results, he forgot that he lived under a strong despotic government, which could crush him as soon as he gave the least offence. He asked his former friends in England to assist him. They told him the time was not well chosen, no movement as he intended was possible, now it must either degenerate into mere buffoonery, or accommodate itself to the government. Lassalle had gone too far already; he was deep in the meshes of the aristocracy — he could not return. What his friends had foretold him, soon proved true. In order not to have his movement stopped at once he had to make concessions to the powers that be, he had to break off — the point of the principles developed by him. And after a year’s time he found himself in the dilemma, either to confess that he had made a mistake, or to go over to the government. His pride forbade him the former, his honesty the latter. In August 1864 he was shot in a duel; the bullet of his adversary saved him from the cruel dilemma.

When Lassalle died, his “Society” numbered in all about 4,000 members, the highest number it ever reached — in reality, not on paper. Of his writings on the social question may be said what Lessing once said of a book: There is much good and new in them; unfortunately the good is not new and the new is not good. Good was, what he said against the middle-class economists, but then all that had been said before, and much better, by Mr. Marx, Engels and others. Bad, and a source of great mischief, was what he said about the necessity of founding co-operative societies with the help of the state. He meant another state than the present one, but most of his hearers could not but think he talked of the state of Mr. v. Bismarck. By this unhappy doctrine of state help he also spoiled his agitation in favour of universal suffrage. In Prussia, as in most German States, the elections are indirect, and the electors, according to the taxes they pay, divided into three different classes. The third class, containing the working classes and the great majority of the people, counts only as much as each of the two other classes, containing the rich minority; so that the vote, which the working classes possess, is obviously illusory. Now, the call for universal, direct and equal suffrage went right to the heart of the German working classes, but as they saw instinctively that Lassalle, who thought to make Bismarck his tool, was on the contrary Bismarck’s tool, and that with his “state help” he played the game of the government, they withdrew from him. Else the “Society” would have become twenty times as numerous; but then it would also not have been tolerated.

After Lassalle’s death Mr. Bismarck did everything in his power to get the working-class movement thoroughly and directly into his hands. He promised them through his go-betweens universal suffrage, the repeal of the Anti-Combination Laws and other concessions; asking in re urn that the working classes should support his annexation policy, and help him to destroy radically the “liberal” middle-class movement. The temptation was great. Many of Lassalle’s friends were willing to accept.

At that time, December last 118641, some friends of Lassalle started a paper at Berlin, called the Social-Demokrat. They invited Mr. Marx, Mr. Engels, in fact the men of the New Rhenish Gazette to co-operate with them. The offer was, after much hesitation, accepted under the express condition that neither directly nor indirectly the present government should be supported, that the working classes should simply be enlightened about their position and duties, and prepared for independent action.

This condition was not kept. Mr. Marx and his friends left the paper and denounced its editors and those writers, that remained at it, as traitors to the cause of the people.

The intrigues of Bismarck had brought their fruit. Lassalle’s “Society” and the paper, founded by his personal friends, belonged to the government. No time had to be lost; at Berlin and at other points the traitors were attacked, and after a hard struggle, they were turned out of their own “Society.” The Social-Demokrat has now about 300 subscribers; and the “Lassalleans” have dwindled down to a few hundred deluding or deluded people, who are divided into two different sects carrying on an internecine war, as disgusting as it is ludicrous. The man, who was principally active at Berlin in preventing the “alliance” between the working classes and the government, [W. Liebknecht] was driven out of Prussia, and all branches of the “Society” in Prussia, as they were no more of any use to the government, were suppressed.

From what is said above, it will be easily seen, why the “International Working Men’s Association” could not get a firm footing in Germany till now. The principles of the “Association” are approved of by every thinking German workman. Last winter, when the programme was sent from London, it was read and explained in all the more important working men’s societies of Berlin, and approved of unanimously and enthusiastically. Societies as such, are by the German laws prevented from combining, even from corresponding with other societies, especially with societies in foreign countries. This rendered direct accession to the “Association” impossible. Consequently it was intended to cause the single members to enter; and this would have been done, had not the intrigues of the government thrown the working men’s societies into the crisis, described by me.

For the present, in Prussia very little is to be done, because our party is watched closely by a government knowing no scruples; but still something may be done and will be done.

Out of Prussia there is only one German State where the soil is good for the working-class movement, and that is Saxony. Here until lately all societies — with the exception of a few small “Lassallean” ones, the remnants of which are rotting fast now — were under the guidance of Mr. Schulze. However, they have emancipated themselves thoroughly, and though they have to learn yet a great deal, they are on the right road. In fact, the so-called Schulze societies have, with very few exceptions, everywhere freed themselves; last month they had their yearly congress at Stuttgart, and there they declared unanimously for universal, direct and equal suffrage, and against the Anti-Combination Laws; although Mr. Schulze and his middle-class protectors had made almost superhuman efforts to persuade the workmen that they had not to meddle with politics, and that full liberty of combination (coalition) would be detrimental to them.

I think, from what I have written, it will appear that the German working classes are progressing. Certainly one great step they have made in advance during the last few years: they have learned that there is an antagonism between Labour and Capital, that they have to fight their own battle, and that they must possess political power in order to be able to achieve their social emancipation.

P.S. I could only write a hurried sketch; there are members of the Association present, who will explain the reason, and who will likewise explain, why I cannot attend personally this time.