Ferdinand Lassalle: “hero”

Before the great betrayal of August

Ralf Hoffrogge Sozialismus und Arbeiterbewegung in Deutschland: von den Anfängen bis 1914 Schmetterling Verlag, 2011, €10, pp216(1)

This book attempts to provide an overview of German social struggles from the peasant wars of 1524-25 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. There is a particular focus on the ties between socialism and the labour movement.

Ralf Hoffrogge, a historian at the University of Potsdam, has provided a real service with this contribution to a field that has declined in terms of its impact, both within the academy and society at large. For Hoffroge, the cause of this lies in the “epochal turn” (p7) after 1991. Until then, he argues, terms such as ‘socialism’ and ‘workers’ movement’ had been fundamental to political thought in Germany, with the western Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the eastern Socialist Unity Party (SED) seeking to legitimise their respective political practices in what became a protracted conflict between the “social state” and “state socialism” (ibid).

Hoffrogge is conscious that this ideological conflict has shaped the framework of labour historiography. He critically examines this framework and pursues new historiographical avenues, which may lead to a deeper understanding beyond the ideological strictures imposed by the cold war. His study achieves this by incorporating several post-1991 labour history perspectives. In particular global labour history2 and world systems theory. Through this he reinterrogates the origins of capitalism and challenges the “stereotype” that the workers’ movement was based on the “white, male factory worker”, who was completely aloof from, or even hostile to, issues of race, gender and sexuality (p12). The development of the working class women’s movement and its relations with the SPD, leading social democratic parliamentarian August Bebel’s role in the struggle for gay rights, attitudes towards colonialism and Marxist thinking on anti-Semitism are all discussed.

Hoffrogge’s book is largely successful in conceptualising innovative ways of thinking about labour history. When it comes to the SPD from 1891 to 1914, however, the case it makes is very much in the mould of cold war historiography and would have benefited from engagement with some of the recent literature on the SPD in general and that party’s leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, in particular.3

Hoffrogge’s incorporation of world systems theory - particularly its main contention that capitalism developed contemporaneously with the development of the world market in the 16th century - counters the dominant paradigm in labour history. This sees 19th century Britain and France as models for capitalism (the former in terms of industrialisation and the clash between labour and capital, the latter in terms of political democracy and the rule of the bourgeoisie), and directly feeds into seeing 1848 as the formative date for the German working class movement.

Hoffrogge contends, however, that this dating is flawed both geographically (in that it ignores the international context of both the market and of the labouring journeymen and craftsmen before 1848) and temporally (in that it overlooks the history of early capitalist development in Europe and the fierce economic struggles it ushered in). Indeed, to locate the origins of the German workers’ movement in the 19th century is, for him, to banish from the historical record those who refused to accept the social changes wrought by the emergence of industrial capitalism, which was devastating their previous modes of existence.

For Hoffrogge, therefore, 1848 is significant, but in a different respect from how it is commonly interpreted: only at this point did ‘worker’ become a cross-regional protest identity across what would later become Germany. He nonetheless stresses that this emergence of a worker self-understanding should not be conflated with the origins of the workers’ movement itself, which he examines in chapter 2 (‘Machine breakers and the communism of the craftsmen: the pre-industrial workers’ movement in Germany’).


Hoffrogge’s underlying argument is that the material entity of the German workers’ movement, which gradually emerged from these pre-industrial beginnings and in time formed itself into associations, unions and parties, only became a social force in its interaction with the guiding idea of a society of freedom and equality: socialism. The workers’ movement and socialism were initially separate phenomena, but in the 19th century found their way to each other to form a “historically powerful unity” (p11).

Hoffrogge defines socialism by distinguishing between the utopian schema with little or no resonance amongst the mass of the population and an idea that fought its way into the workers’ attempts to organise against their exploitation. Having traced the socialist ideal back to Sparta and the golden age of Greece, he proceeds to discuss “early socialism” (which encompasses earlier utopian-influenced writing, such as Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516) and charts the fate of this concept through the French radicalism of François-Noël Babeuf, comte de Saint Simon and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He concludes with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their aim of giving socialism a scientific (wissenschaftlich) basis in their Manifesto of the Communist Party, which they were commissioned to write for the Communist League in 1847.

The outcomes of the merger of socialism and the workers’ movement are discussed in chapter 3 (‘The separation of liberalism and socialism 1848-75’), which provides a highly informative summary of the first German workers’ organisations and the legacy of figures such as Stephan Born (the General German Working Class Brotherhood), Ferdinand Lassalle (the General German Working Class Association, often known as the Lassalleans), Karl Marx (the Cologne Workers’ Association, “a mass organisation of five to seven thousand members” - p54) and August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht (leaders of the pro-Marxist Eisenachers). All, in their various ways, can be seen as links between socialism and the working class movement.

Yet how can labour history account for the different political and ideological perspectives between these organisations and figures, not least the later struggle between the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers? Hoffrogge approaches these questions in a fresh manner too. Official communist historical output, fully in line with what Peter Thompson has dubbed its “Stalino-Hegelian”4 teleological approach, locates the breakthrough of Marxism in the German workers’ movement in the Eisenachers’ ‘victory’ over contending Lassallean ideas. Further, the German Democratic Republic’s official history of the German workers’ movement rather painfully attempted to trace a supposedly unbroken programmatic red thread through the Communist League of Marx and Engels, the Eisenacher organisation of 1869, the founding manifesto of the Communist Party of Germany in 1918 and the “principles and aims of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany of 1946 and its programme of socialism in 1963”.5

Gotha and Eisenach

Such an approach overlooks the dynamic tension both within the Marxist tradition as it developed over time and between Marxism and competing political outlooks in the workers’ movement. Hoffrogge usefully turns this narrative on its head by highlighting the commonalities between the Eisenacher and Lassallean organisations and by demonstrating just how pivotal Lassalle was in the rupture between liberalism and socialism in working class educational associations and cooperatives.

Yet what of the political differences between the two groups? For Hoffrogge, a major bone of contention between them revolved around Lassalle’s conception of the state as the ideal expression of the general good and collective will, which almost led to Lassalle’s rapprochement with Otto von Bismarck. Marx and Engels, by contrast, contended that the state should be conquered: not so that it would be preserved, but rather sublated (aufgehoben). Hoffrogge argues that for Marx and Engels this had to happen “not through elections, but through revolution” (p65, my emphasis). However, Hoffrogge’s creation of a dichotomy between elections and revolution in the thought of Marx and Engels ignores their later writings in particular. For instance, in the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, which they jointly wrote with Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde, it is proclaimed that “universal suffrage … will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.6

The eventual party-political fusion of Lassalle’s followers and the Eisenachers in Gotha in 1875 brought about the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAPD), with 38,000 members. Hoffrogge is critical of Marx’s comments on the Gotha programme, which were a protest against his supporters in Germany for granting too many concessions to Lassallean ideas in the pursuit of unity. While Hoffrogge sees much that is of worth in the text, he is convinced that Marx is suffering from hurt feelings because the SAPD made Lassalle “the hero”, not Marx (p71).

Hoffrogge underlines how the emergence of the SAPD was a watershed moment, which significantly strengthened the influence of socialist ideas within the German empire. The manner in which this state reacted to the astonishing rise of social democracy is the subject of chapter 4 (‘Carrots and sticks: social democracy between prohibition and integration 1871-90’). Usefully, this chapter also develops a ‘history from below’ perspective by specifying how the party was able to have an impact on the everyday lives of ordinary people. It discusses the thriving alcohol and pub culture within the German working class, with the pubs forming a hub of political organisation, not least during the Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-90), when social democracy was effectively banned. Working class women, however, as Hoffrogge points out, were largely excluded from this aspect of social life.

Already with an eye on the later drift towards reformism on the part of social democracy, Hoffrogge notes that the first signs of “a growing tendency to legalism” and an unwillingness to “discuss social-revolutionary theses” (p87) could even be found during the period of the party’s illegality. To illustrate the point, he refers to the party’s expulsion of the increasingly anarchist-inclined Johann Most and Wilhelm Hasselmann, who had both urged the German working class to follow in the footsteps of tsar Alexander II’s assassins by launching a similar attack on the German kaiser.

In this instance, Hoffrogge is clearly wrong. The expulsions should not be seen as evidence of legalism. but rather as a rejection of terrorism and putschism. Indeed, the eschewal of such methods was a defining feature of European social democracy as a whole. Hoffrogge nonetheless highlights a genuine dilemma faced by any organisation that aspires to work within the existing state, but which also seeks to overcome it: which tactics should be pursued in the interests of fundamental change? Where is the line to be drawn between accommodation to the state in the name of political expediency, and the potential isolation of radical opposition to it?

Legalism and attentism

After the legalisation of social democracy’s activity in 1890, these questions repeatedly provoked factional discord and strife within the party. In what way did they prefigure what the historian Carl Emil Schorske deemed “the great schism” and the SPD’s acceptance of the German empire’s ‘fortress peace’ (Burgfrieden) at the outbreak of World War I? Chapter 5 (‘The strongest of all parties? Social democracy 1890-1914’) grapples with this problem, which has dominated German labour historiography more than any other.

Unfortunately, Hoffrogge depends on the very cold war historical orthodoxy he is attempting to transcend. Specifically, Dieter Groh’s influential argument, outlined in his 1973 Negative Integration und revolutionärer Attentismus: die deutsche Sozialdemokratie am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges (Negative integration and revolutionary attentism: German Social Democracy on the eve of the First World War), that the leadership of the SPD was characterised by political passivity and strategic ‘attentism’ (‘wait and see’) and was concerned more with the preservation and expansion of its own organisation than with socialist revolution. Hoffrogge’s arguments also draw heavily on critics of the SPD from the right, such as the French socialist Jean Jaurès, and from the left, such as Rosa Luxemburg, both of whom were highly critical of the SPD’s alleged inaction. Yet Hoffrogge’s emphasis on attentism leads him to assert that at its height the SPD, a party with hundreds of publications and newspapers, “did not preside over any strategy or tactics” (p160) beyond concentrating on elections. This claim ignores the array of SPD activities, initiatives and campaigns and also implies that producing newspapers or standing in elections is somehow not genuinely radical political activity.

Accordingly, Hoffrogge views the mass strike and direct actionist line of the SPD left around Rosa Luxemburg as offering more of a strategic connection between theory and practice than the “economism” (p202) of those in the party’s centre around Karl Kautsky. Indeed, to the extent that Hoffrogge analyses the writings and speeches of the latter in particular, he interprets Kautsky’s ideas as being much closer to the revisionist right wing of the SPD, which sought to restrict itself to reforming the German empire democratically, than to the revolutionary wing, which foregrounded the struggle for the extension of democracy precisely in order to facilitate revolutionary upheaval.7

This leads Hoffrogge to make claims about the exceptional, far-sighted nature of Luxemburg’s Marxism. For example, he argues that Luxemburg was the “most decisive opponent”8 of revisionist socialism and of the watering-down of the SPD’s radical programme. He believes that her “vehement defence of the ‘final goal’ of the socialist movement, which she saw as coming to a head in the seizure of political power” (p151), marks her out as an unrivalled thinker.



1. This review first appeared in Critique No71, April 2015.

2. For an overview of the emergence of global labour history and its endeavour to compose an international history of labour which extends beyond the core of the capitalist system to its periphery (crucially, beyond Europe and North America), cf KH Roth, ‘Ein Enzyklopädist des kritischen Denkens: Marcel van der Linden, der heterodoxe Marxismus und die Global Labour History’ Sozial.Geschichte Online 9 2012, pp202-09, 232-39.

3. For a remarkable study of Kautsky’s influence on Bolshevism, see LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Chicago2008. Particularly in terms of a critique of the dominant cold war view of Kautsky as a purportedly passive, fatalist and evolutionist thinker (a recurring theme in Hoffrogge’s account), cf RB Day and D Gaido (eds) Witnesses to permanent revolution: the documentary record Chicago 2011; and P Blackledge, ‘Karl Kautsky and Marxist historiography’ Science and Society Vol 70, No3, 2006.

4. P Thompson The crisis of the German left: the PDS, Stalinism and the global economy New York 2005, p17.

5. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim Zentralkommitee der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands (ed) Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung Vol 1, p283. This is clearly an exercise in foundation myth-making, not history. Quite apart from Stalinism’s overhaul of the programmatic basis of the socialist movement, it is worth remembering that in her speech on programme at the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg was clear that the approach she was proposing for the young KPD represented a modification of, or a departure from, that of Marx and Engels. For a brief discussion of this, cf Ben Lewis, ‘Rosa and the republic’ Weekly Worker October 10 2013.

6. ‘The programme of the Parti Ouvrier’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

7. As Kautsky put it in 1909, “We are revolutionists, and this not simply in the sense that the steam engine is a revolutionist. The social transformation for which we are striving can be attained only through a political revolution, by means of the conquest of political power by the fighting proletariat. The only form of the state in which socialism can be realised is that of a republic, and a thoroughly democratic republic at that” (K Kautsky The road to power: www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/ch05.htm.

8. Not only is this incorrect (Alexander Parvus was first off the mark in the controversy), but it is also a misleading depiction of the intellectual relations between Kautsky and other thinkers: at this point, at least, it was Kautsky who was the main defender of the SPD’s Erfurt programme and from whom Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and other thinkers largely took their cue. Cf Rosa Luxemburg’s 1899 ‘Kautskys Buch wider Bernstein’ (http://marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/luxemburg/1899/09/wideridx.htm), which praised Kautsky’s role in the struggle against the revisionism of his old friend, Eduard Bernstein. For Zetkin’s similar praise, cf C Zetkin, ‘Wider die sozialdemokratische Theorie und Taktik’ Die Gleichheit No8 (April 12 1899), reprinted in C Zetkin Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften Vol I (Berlin1957), pp149-56.