Sixty Years in the Social-Democratic Movement
This happened soon after my return to Hamburg. In the workshop in which I was employed I made the acquaintance of some workmates who had been working in Switzerland, Paris, and London; there they had acquired Communistic ideas and had become intensely devoted to them. I soon became infected with their zeal.
There existed in Hamburg at that time a Workmen’s Educational Club, which was the centre of the advanced workingmen’s movement. Workmen used to meet there in the evening, to read newspapers, to debate, to practise singing, or to study foreign languages. The newspapers laid on the table were, of course, Radical ones, the discussions being chiefly about Communistic questions, and the songs were songs of freedom. The motto of the choral section was: “Not how I sing, but what I sing, makes me so proud, so free.”
The Hamburg Workmen’s Educational Club (Arbeiter Bildungsverein) was in the best sense of the word a home of the revolutionary ideas of the forties. It strove for German unity and freedom, for a republic, and the fraternisation of nations, for free thought, and Christian Communism—all these ideas were mixed together—which combination resulted in giving to their devotees dim and vague ideals. It was a time of fermentation understood only by few.
In the “Arbeiter Bildungsverein,” Wilhelm Weitling was considered as the man of the future. The admiration he enjoyed in our circle was unlimited. He was the idol of his followers. I was introduced into the “Arbeiter Bildungsverein” by my shopmates in November, 1846, and was soon afterwards admitted a member. From this time I assiduously attended the debates of the club, which had a great attraction for me. In the discussions, one workman named Martens especially excelled. He had become a Communist while travelling abroad. He was also active in the labour movement of the sixties, and was sent in 1863 as a delegate of the Hamburg “Arbeiter Bildungsverein” to the first congress of the German “Arbeiter Bildungsvereine” at Frankfort-on-Main, but as an opponent of the Lassalle movement. Martens was a very able agitator; no one knew so well as he how to win his audience in favour of Communism. He spoke fluently and touched the hearts of us workmen as the suppressed and exploited. He animated and imbued us with new hopes and joys. One of my shopmates lent me Weitling’s “Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom” to read. This book was at that time much read by working people. It passed from hand to hand, for only a few possessed a copy. I read this book through once, twice, and even thrice. For the first time it now dawned upon me that the condition of the worker could be made bright and happy. I was, indeed, already dissatisfied with my lot, which was not the case with the ordinary working man, but in the “Guarantees” my dissatisfaction was intelligently expressed. The author’s keen criticism revolutionised both feeling and thinking. The paltry and mean pleasures which had occupied my spare time, and which had prevented me from thinking over my social position, now became to me a quite subordinate consideration. The feeling that began to fill me was the desire to strive for a better organisation of society. I was extraordinarily impressed by the saying of Weitling: “The history of the world itself is nothing but a long story of robberies, in which honest people are always the duped.” This seemed to me to be an irrefutable truth, the more so as the historical works contained at that time really nothing but stories of murders and wars. And how convincing, too, were to me Weitling’s ideas on patriotism and country. “What love can a man possibly have for his fatherland,” he wrote, “when he has nothing to lose in it but what he can find in any foreign country? The ‘fatherland’ should be nothing else than the land of the father, the inheritance that everybody needs for securing his livelihood and independence. But if a man has not got these benefits, or if in order to live he is compelled to work for the advantage of others, so that the others may be able to play the master the more comfortably, how can he love his country? A fatherland which nourishes all its members will secure their love; such a country is well worth fighting for; for it one may well risk life, blood, and liberty. . . . Unfortunately our masters have robbed us of everything except the name of the fatherland, but this name we will soon throw at the feet of our oppressors and take refuge under the standard of mankind, which will have among its champions neither high nor low, neither poor nor rich, neither masters nor slaves. To-day we are surrounded by enemies in our own country, who are as bad and tyrannical as the foreigners. . . . The death they make us die is the slow death of exhaustion and privation, and the misery we suffer is the misery of slavery. And shall these be our countrymen? They are vampires, foreigners, tyrants, that have stolen our country, whether by cunning or by force matters not. All the prejudices and passions of the people are stirred up to make them, in the name of patriotism, willing tools, whose vanity and ambition make them easy victims. Thus do the workers in hundreds of thousands declaim against the supposed foreign enemies, who in their turn are nothing else than living machines without a will of their own; workmen, like ourselves, dragged from their ploughs and workshops by trickery and force to play a bloody tragedy with themselves as victims. . . . As long as society is living in injustice, as long as a people consist of masters and slaves, so long will I remain the same. Whether Jack or John, whether Napoleon Frederick William, or Nicholas are the masters, workingmen will always be made fools of by one ruler or the other. It is upon us that all the classes of society, the native ruler as well as the foreign, throw our unbearable loads.”
These stirring words greatly affected me. I was already supposed to be a soldier at that time, and had soon to don “the Duke’s colours.” For hours I would meditate on this passage, and in this way there ripened in me the resolution to “take refuge under the standard of revolution.”
At that time, when the debates of the “Arbeiter Bildungsverein” and the “Guarantees” of Weitling revolutionised my ideas and considerably broadened my horizon, there was at Hamburg also going on a vigorous agitation in favour of Jewish emancipation. Many meetings took place for this purpose, and the question was well discussed. The speakers, almost all Jews, preached the principles of democracy; equality of political rights, freedom of religion and conscience were the subjects of the debates, which were animated by a warm heart for humanity, for social and political freedom. There were especially two speakers, Schusselka and Riesser, who excellently knew how to inspire and to carry away their audience; consequently these meetings were always well attended. I did not miss any of them, for they were for me a course of political education and a school of democracy.
I consider the winter from 1846-47 was the most important period of my life; and when, on April 1st, 1847, instead of going to the barracks at Weimar I got to the ship that was to take me to England, it seemed to me as if I left my whole past on the Continent in order to start a new life in England—a life that I decided to devote to the struggle for the emancipation of my class.
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