August Bebel

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August Bebel

Ferdinand August Bebel (22 February 1840, Deutz Wp→, Rhenish Prussia Wp→ – 13 August 1913, Passugg Wp→, Graubünden Wp→) was a German Marxist politician, writer, and orator. He is best remembered as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.


Early years

Ferdinand August Bebel, known to all by his middle name, was born February 22, 1840, in Deutz, Germany Wp→, now a part of Cologne. He was the son of a Prussian noncommissioned officer Wp→ in the Prussian infantry, initially from Ostrowo Wp→ in the Province of Posen Wp→, and was born in military barracks.[1]

As a young man, Bebel apprenticed as a carpenter Wp→ and joiner Wp→ in Leipzig.[2] Like most German workmen at that time, he traveled extensively in search of work and he thereby obtained a first-hand knowledge of the difficulties facing the working people of the day.

At Salzburg Wp→, where he lived for some time, he joined a Roman Catholic workmen's club. When in Tyrol Wp→ in 1859 he volunteered for service in the war against Italy, but was rejected; and in his own country he was rejected likewise as physically unfit for the army.[1]

In 1860 he settled in Leipzig as a master turner Wp→, making horn buttons.[1] He joined various labor organizations.[3] Although initially an opponent of socialism, Bebel gradually was won over to socialist ideas through reading the pamphlets of Ferdinand Lassalle, which popularized the ideas of Karl Marx.[4] In 1865 he came under the influence of Wilhelm Liebknecht and was thereafter committed fully to the socialist cause.[2]

Political career

Following the death of Lassalle, Bebel was among the group of Socialists that refused to follow new party leader Johann Baptist von Schweitzer at the Eisenach Conference of 1867, an action which gave rise to the name "Eisenachers" for this Marxist faction.[2] Together with Liebknecht, he founded the Sächsische Volkspartei ("Saxon People's Party"). Bebel was also President of the Union of German Workers' Associations from 1867 and a member of the First International.[5]

Bebel was elected to the North German Wp→ Reichstag as a member from Saxony Wp→ in that same year.[2]

In 1869 he helped found the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (SDAP), which later merged with another organization in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (SAPD), which in turn became the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1890.

August Bebel in 1898

Bebel's great organizing talent and oratorical power quickly made him one of the leaders of the socialists and their chief spokesman in parliament. He remained a member of the North German Parliament, and later of its counterpart for the German Empire Wp→, the Reichstag Wp→, until his death, except for the interval of 1881-83.[6] He represented successively the districts of {{Wp link|Glauchau]]-[[Meerane}}, Dresden, Strassburg Wp→, and Hamburg Wp→.[7] Later in his life, he acted as chairman of the SPD. Representing as he did Marxian principles, he was bitterly opposed by certain factions of his party.[3]

In 1870 he spoke in parliament against the continuance of the war with France.[1] Bebel and Liebknecht were the only members who did not vote the extraordinary subsidy required for the war with France.[2] Bebel was the only socialist who was elected to the Reichstag in 1871, and he used his position to protest against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine and to express his full sympathy with the Paris Commune. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck afterwards said that this speech of Bebel's was a “ray of light” showing him that socialism was an enemy to be fought against and crushed.[6] Falsely accused of being in league with the French and part of a conspiracy to free French prisoners of war held in Germany and to lead them in an attack from the rear, Bebel and Liebknecht were arrested for high treason, but no prosecution was possible for lack of evidence.[2]

Not wanting to release such important opponents of the war effort, old charges of preaching dangerous doctrines and plotting against the state were levied against Bebel and Liebknecht in 1872.[2] The pair were convicted and sentenced to two years in Festungshaft Wp→ (imprisonment in a fortress), which was spent at the famous Königstein Fortress Wp→. For insulting the German emperor, Bebel was additionally sentenced to nine months' ordinary imprisonment.[6] This incarceration served to increase Bebel's prestige among his party associates and the sympathetic public at large.[7]

In 1874 Bebel took a partner and founded a small button factory, for which he acted as salesman, but in 1889 he gave up his business to devote himself wholly to politics.[1] In 1868 he became connected with the staff of the Volksstaat ("The People's State") at Leipzig, and in 1891 with that of the Vorwärts ("Forward") at Berlin.[7]

After his release from prison, he helped to organize, at the Congress of Gotha, the united party of Social Democrats, which had been formed during his imprisonment. After the passing of the Socialist Law he continued to show great activity in the debates of the Reichstag, and was also elected a member of the Saxon parliament; when the state of siege Wp→ was proclaimed in Leipzig he was expelled from the city, and in 1886 condemned to nine months' imprisonment for taking part in a secret society.[6]

In party meetings of 1890 and 1891, Bebel's policies were severely attacked, first by the extremists, the “young” Socialists from Berlin, who wished to abandon parliamentary action; against these Bebel won a complete victory. On the other side he was involved in a quarrel with Volmar and his school, who desired to put aside from immediate consideration the complete attainment of the socialist ideal, and proposed that the party should aim at bringing about, not a complete overthrow of society, but a gradual amelioration. This conflict of tendencies continued, and Bebel came to be regarded as the chief exponent of the traditional views of the orthodox Marxist party. Though a strong opponent of militarism, he publicly stated that foreign nations attacking Germany must not expect the help or the neutrality of the Social Democrats.[6]

Class, race and gender

Bebel particularly distinguished himself by his denunciation of the maltreatment of soldiers by officers and still more frequently by non-commissioned officers. His efforts in this matter had received great encouragement when Albert of Saxony issued an edict dealing with the maltreatment of soldiers in the Saxon contingent, thus cutting the ground from under the feet of the Imperial Government, which had persistently attempted to deny or to explain away the cases put forward by Bebel.[8]

Bebel is also famed for his outrage at the news of a German conducted policy of extermination towards indigenous people in her South-West African colony, the Herero nation in particular. He and the German Social Democratic Party thus voted against the colonial expenditure as the only party in the Reichstag, and in a speech in March 1904 Bebel classified the policy in German West Africa as ‘not only barbaric, but bestial.’ This caused some sections of the contemporary German press to scathingly classify Bebel as 'Der hereroische Bebel'.[9] Bebel was not deterred, he later followed this up with strongly worded warnings against the rising tide of theories of racial hierarchy and racial purity, causing the general election to the German Reichstag in 1907 to go over in history as the ‘Hottentot Election.’[10]

Bebel's book, Women and Socialism was translated into English by Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labor Party of America as Woman under Socialism.[11] It figured prominently in the Connolly-DeLeon controversy after James Connolly, then a member of the SLP, denounced it as a "quasi-prurient" book that would repel potential recruits to the socialist movement.[12] The book contained an attack on the institution of marriage which identified Bebel with the most extreme forms of socialism.[6]

Bebel´s tombstone at Sihlfeld cemetery, Zurich

Death and legacy

August Bebel died August 13, 1913 of a heart attack during a visit to a sanatorium in Passugg, Switzerland. He was 73 years old at the time of his death. His body was buried in Zürich.

At the time of his death Bebel was eulogized by Russian Marxist leader V.I. Lenin as a "model workers' leader," who had proven himself able to "break his own road" from being an ordinary worker into becoming a political leader in the struggle for a "better social system."[13]

The well-known saying "Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools" ("Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle") is frequently attributed to Bebel, but probably originated with the Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter; it was in general use among German Social Democrats by the 1890s.[14]

Bebel, along with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle, was among the socialist icons included in bas relief portraits on the facade of the The Forward building, erected in 1912 as the headquarters of the New York Yiddish-language socialist newspaper.

English language works

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Template:Cite Americana
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 "August Bebel, German Socialist Leader, Dies in Switzerland," The Weekly People [New York], vol. 23, no. 21 (August 23, 1913), pp. 1-2.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Template:Cite Collier's
  4. V.I. Lenin, "August Bebel," Severnaia Pravada, August 6, 1913. Reprinted in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works: Volume 19. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963; pg. 297.
  5. Andrei Pozdnyakov, "August Bebel," Karl Marx, Frederick Engels Collected Works: Volume 44. New York: International Publishers, 1989; pg. 684.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5  "Bebel, Ferdinand August". Encyclopædia Britannica Wp→ (11th ed.). 1911. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Wikisource-logo.svg "Bebel, Ferdinand August". New International Encyclopedia Wp→. 1905. 
  8. Information from the article on the subject in the 1922 edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which is in the public domain.
  9. Coburger Zeitung, January 17, 1904. in quote from Deas, Andrew: 'Germany’s Introspective Wars - Colonial and Domestic Conflict in the German Press’ MA Discourse on Race 1904-1907, Brandeis University April 2009.
  10. Smith, Helmut Walser; ‘The Talk of Genocide’, the Rhetoric of Miscegenation: Notes on Debates in the German Reichstag Concerning Southwest Africa, 1904–1914, in The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and its Legacy, (Sara Friedrichsmeyer etc. eds. 1998), p 107–23, 116, 111-12 & 118.
  11. August Bebel: Women and Socialism, Translation by Meta L. Stern (Hebe), Socialist Literature Co., New York 1910.
  12. James Connolly & Daniel DeLeon: The Connolly-DeLeon controversy. Cork Workers' Club, Cork 1976.
  13. V.I. Lenin, "August Bebel," Collected Works: Vol. 19, pp. 300-301.
  14. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin Group, 2005: ISBN 0-14-303469-3), p. 496.

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