August Bebel

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bebel, August


Born Feb. 22, 1840, in Cologne (Deutz); died Aug. 13, 1913, in Passugg, Switzerland. A figure in the German and international labor movement and one of the founders and leaders of the German Social Democratic Party and the Second International. A turner by trade. Born into the family of a poor Prussian noncommissioned officer.

From 1858 to 1860, like many other German artisans, Bebel traveled about as a journeyman through southern Germany and Austria. In May 1860, while in Leipzig, he participated in a local workers’ education club. In 1867 he became the chairman of the League of German Workers’ Associations, which in 1868 affiliated itself with the First International. His participation in the labor movement, the influence of socialist literature, and his close acquaintance with W. Liebknecht helped him make the transition from liberal democratism to revolutionary democratism and subsequently to Marxism. Bebel fought for the revolutionary democratic path to German unification and was an opponent of the “blood and iron” method pursued by Bismarck. Guided by the advice of Marx and Engels, Bebel, together with W. Liebknecht, undertook a struggle for the creation of a new independent workers’ party. The German Social Democratic Labor Party, which they founded in Eisenach in 1869, basically adhered to the principles of Marxism.

At the age of 27, Bebel was elected to the Reichstag of the North German Confederation. Here he began to lay down the foundations of the parliamentary tactics of German social democracy. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Bebel at first abstained from voting for war credits (on July 21, 1870), and then, after the fall of the empire of Napoleon III, when the expansionist policies of the Prussian government made themselves apparent, he decisively opposed an annexationist peace with France and voted in the Reichstag against the war credits. For this he was arrested on Dec. 17, 1870, and only thanks to his being elected in March 1871 to the all-German Reichstag was he freed from prison. True to the principles of internationalism, Bebel spoke in the Reichstag on May 25, 1871, in defense of the Paris Commune. He was sentenced on Mar. 26,1872, to two years in prison on a charge of high treason and to an additional nine months for his courageous speech at his trial exposing the government’s expansionist policies which were against the interests of the people. Altogether Bebel spent approximately six years in prison at different times.

He tried to overcome the division in the German workers’ movement and to achieve unification between the Eisenach party and the Lassalleans of the General German Workers’ Association on a principled basis without compromises. However, he refrained for tactical reasons from openly opposing the draft of the Gotha program which contained concessions to the Lassalleans. The Gotha program was adopted at a unification congress in 1875. During the time when the Anti-Socialist Emergency Law was in effect (1878–90), Bebel fought for the restoration of the party organizations which had been destroyed by the police; he rejected both the left anarchistic elements and the right opportunists and successfully directed both the illegal and the parliamentary work of the party. Under the leadership of Bebel and W. Liebknecht, the German Social Democratic Party overcame the party crisis of the 1890’s. As a result of the struggle carried out by Bebel and Liebknecht against the right-wing elements (Vollmar and others) and against the left opposition of the “youth,” the prestige of the Social Democratic Party increased in the eyes of the masses. Bebel emphatically opposed the revisionism which was strikingly manifested in the German Social Democratic Party with the coming of the age of imperialism. But Bebel did not carry his struggle against revisionism through to a logical conclusion and did not raise the question of excluding the revisionists from the party. Instead, at the Magdeburg Congress of the Social Democratic Party in 1910 he voted against their exclusion in the name of party unity.

Bebel did not understand the social and economic essence of imperialism. This prevented him from realizing that the sharpening of the class struggle under imperialism created new conditions of struggle for the proletariat, the success of which depended primarily on the presence of a revolutionary party of the working class cleansed of opportunism. Bebel committed errors mostly of a centrist character in several programmatic and tactical questions. Thus, in his views regarding war he proceeded from a distinction between aggressive and defensive wars, not taking any other factors into account (his speeches in 1907 at the Essen Social Democratic Congress and at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International), and he supported the principle of “the neutrality” of the trade unions (at the Mannheim Social Democratic Congress in 1906 and at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International). However, Bebel, as Lenin noted, “in 99 out of 100 cases extricated himself from the swamp when he chanced to stumble, and pulled out with him those who wanted to follow” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16, p. 434).

Bebel’s life and work were filled throughout by a firm belief in the victory of socialism. He considered socialism a natural stage in the development of society. In his speeches in the Reichstag on economic and social questions Bebel popularized the economic teachings of Marx. Bebel was an ardent fighter against militarism and war. In 1893 he declared, “Social democracy believes that the policies of every state should be based on mutual understanding and peace among the peoples and that rivalry between particular nations should not consist in determining who has the best weapons or largest army but who has done the most and the best to promote the culture and progress of humanity” (Kampf dem Militarismus, Berlin, 1955, p. 25). Bebel exposed the expansionist colonial policy of Germany, in particular the atrocities of German militarism in suppressing the I Ho T’uan (Boxer) Rebellion of 1899–1901 in China.

Bebel was a standard-bearer in the struggle for women’s liberation from the shackles of bourgeois society. He paid a great deal of attention to the problem of shedding light on the socioeconomic causes of the origin of religion and the ways of overcoming its influence.

The founders of Marxism-Leninism valued Bebel’s work highly, at the same time helping him to overcome his errors. Marx wrote of Bebel, “He represented an exceptional phenomenon in the German (one may say in the ’European’) working class” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 35, p. 78). Lenin pointed out that Bebel was a leading authority in the international proletarian movement, an experienced practical leader, and a socialist sensitive to the demands of revolutionary struggle (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16, p. 434). The German people in their struggle for peace and democracy make use of the best revolutionary traditions established by Bebel.


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In Russian translation:
Nashi tseli. [Odessa, 1905.]
O Bernshteine. Odessa, 1905.
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Ne postoiannaia armiia, a militsiia. Petrograd, 1919.
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Iz moei zhizni. Moscow, 1963.
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Zhenshchina i sotsializm. Moscow, 1959.
Khristianstvo i sotsializm. Moscow, 1959.
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Marx, K., and F. Engels. [“Pis’mak A. Bebeliu.”] Soch., 2nded., vols. 34–39. (Contains a name index.)
Engels, F. Briefe an Bebel. Berlin, 1958.
Lenin, V. I. “Predislovie k broshiure Voinova (A. V. Lunacharskogo) ob otnoshenii partii k professional’nym soiuzam.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Neitral’nosf professional’nykh soiuzov.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Voinstvuiushchii militarizm i antimilitaristskaia taktika sotsial-demokratii.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Dva mira.” Ibid., vol. 20. Lenin, V. I. “Avgust Bebel’.” Ibid., vol. 23. Lenin, V. I. “Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia.” Ibid., vol. 33, ch. 4, sec. 3.
Lenin, V. I. “Pis’mo k Bebeliu.” Ibid., vol. 47.
Lenin, V. I. “Germanskoi sotsial-demokraticheskoi partii po povodu smerti A. Bebelia.” Ibid., vol. 48.
Plekhanov, G. V. “Avgust Bebel’.” Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 16. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928.
Stalin, J. V. “Avgust Bebel’, vozhd’ germanskikh rabochikh.” Soch., vol. 2. Moscow, 1953.
Avgust Bebel’: Sb. st. [Ekaterinoslav,] 1923.
Maiskii, I. Avgust Bebel’. Moscow, 1923.
Gluzberg, M. S. Avgust Bebel’. Moscow, 1959.
Ovcharenko, N. E. Avgust Bebel’: Kratkii ocherk zhizni i deiatel’nosti. Moscow, 1963.
Adler, V. Briefwechsel mit August Bebel und Karl Kautsky .... Vienna, 1954.
Zetkin, C. “Der Vorkämpfer unserer Frauenbewegung.” In her book Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, vol. 1. Berlin, 1957.
Pieck, W. “Der Leipziger Hochverratsprozess gegen Wilhelm Liebknecht und August Bebel.” In his book Reden und Aufsatze, vol. 3. Berlin, 1954.
Leidigkeit, K.-H. W. Liebknecht und A. Bebel in der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, 1862–1869, 2nd ed. Berlin, [1958].
Fricke, D. “A. Bebel heute.” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, 1963, no. 6.
Hennig, G. A. Bebel: Todfeind des preussisch-deutschen Militärstaats, 1891–1899. Berlin, 1963.
A. Bebel: Eine Biographic Berlin, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.