Franz Mehring

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Mehring, Franz


Born Feb. 27, 1846, in Schlawe; died Jan. 29, 1919, in Berlin. A figure in the German working-class movement. Philosopher, historian, and literary critic. A Marxist.

Mehring was born into an affluent bourgeois family. He studied at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin (1866–70) and received a Ph.D. in 1882. At first he was a bourgeois radical with socialist leanings. But by 1890 he had essentially completed his evolution from idealism to dialectical and historical materialism and from bourgeois democracy to proletarian socialism. He joined the Social Democratic Party in 1891.

From that time, Mehring devoted his talents as a scholar and publicist to propagandizing the Marxist world view, to struggling for the cause of the working class, and to unmasking the ideological opponents of the proletariat. He became a permanent contributor to the party’s theoretical organ, Die Neue Zeit. Mehring vigorously opposed opportunism and revisionism, expressing his views particularly in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, which he edited from 1902 to 1907. Increasingly, he revealed himself as an intellectual leader of the left revolutionary wing of the German Social Democratic Party. He welcomed the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia.

Mehring and other German leftists were faithful to proletarian internationalism and condemned the ruling circles of the capitalist countries, including Germany, as instigators of the imperialist war. Although he fought passionately against militarism and chauvinism, he did not understand the imperialist nature of the contradictions that had caused the world war. Mehring was a founder of the International group, an internationalist organization that became the Spartacist League in 1916. In the same year he was arrested for antimilitarist writings and speeches. Mehring exposed the social chauvinists and centrists, but like other leftists, he was late in understanding that the ideological separation from them must be accompanied by an organizational one. He was one of the first Western defenders and propagandists of the ideas of the October Socialist Revolution. In 1918, V. I. Lenin noted appreciatively that in his articles Mehring had shown “the German workers that the Bolsheviks alone have properly understood what socialism is” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 459). Mehring was a founder of the German Communist Party.

The scope of Mehring’s scholarly legacy is extremely wide. As a philosopher he made a considerable contribution to elaborating the materialist conception of history, and he criticized various currents in bourgeois philosophy, including neo-Kantianism, Machism, philosophical revisionism, the views of K. R. E. von Hartmann, A. Schopenhauer, and F. Nietzsche, and the theories of bourgeois and revisionist sociologists and economists such as W. Sombart, E. Bernstein, and E. David. Lenin thought highly of Mehring as a scholar “who not only wants to be, but knows how to be a Marxist” (ibid., vol. 18, p. 377).

Mehring contributed a great deal to the development of Marxist literary theory and criticism and art studies and the general principles of Marxist aesthetics. Applying historical materialism to the study of literature, he revealed the major trends in the literature of his time (for example, his articles on naturalism and impressionism, L. N. Tolstoy, and M. Gorky). He offered a Marxist interpretation of German classical literature and criticized its tendentious interpretation in official bourgeois literary studies. One of his main scholarly preoccupations was the study and publication of the works and letters of K. Marx and F. Engels. In the collections From the Literary Legacy of K. Marx, F. Engels, and F. Lassalle (first volume issued in 1902) he published many important works by the founders of Marxism, including articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

In his historical works, including The Legend of Lessing (1893) and German History From the End of the Middle Ages (1910), as well as Jena and Tilsit, From Tilsit to Tauroggen, and From Kalisz to Carlsbad (a series; 1906–13), Mehring provided a concrete elaboration of the Marxist conception of German history. He debunked many of the Prussophile and monarchist legends of bourgeois and Junker historiography, revealed the reactionary role of Prussia and the Hohenzollerns, and showed the consequences of the cowardice of the burghers and later, of the German bourgeoisie. At the same time, he pointed out the progressive and revolutionary traditions of the German people, noted the significance of the Peasant War of 1524—26, and posed the question of the influence of the Great French Revolution on German society.

Mehring also wrote several studies on military history. In his works on the history of the working-class movement, especially the four-volume History of German Social Democracy, Mehring examined the victories of the German working-class movement against the broad background of European and German history, demonstrating the close relationship between these victories and various phases of the international struggle of the proletariat. His biography of Marx is profound and stylistically brilliant. Nevertheless, his works are not entirely free of the mistakes and weaknesses that are characteristic of the writings of other left-wing Social Democrats. For instance, Mehring did not understand the meaning of Marx’ and Engels’ struggle against antiproletarian tendencies in the Communist League and in the First International, and he overestimated the role of Lassalle and his supporters in the German working-class movement.


Gesammelte Schriften, vols. 1–15. Berlin, 1960–66.
In Russian translation:
Istoricheskii materializm. Sverdlovsk, 1925.
Istoriia Germanii s kontsa srednikh vekov, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1924.
Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1934.
Karl Marks: Istoriia ego zhizni. Moscow, 1957.
K. Marks i F. Engel’ssozdateli nauchnogo kommunizma. Moscow, 1960.
Ocherki po istorii voin i voennogo iskusstva, 6th ed. 1956.
Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vols. 34–36, 38–39 (See Index of Names.)
Lenin, V. I. Dve taktiki sotsial-demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed, vol. 11.
Lenin, V. I. “Fr. Mering o vtoroi Dume.” Ibid., vol. 15.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internatsionala.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Gagarin, A. F. Mering i ego filosofskie vzgliady. Moscow, 1937.
Chagin, B. A. Iz istorii bor’by protiv filosofskogo revizionizma v germanskoi sotsial-demokratii, 1895–1914. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Obolenskaia, S. V. “Frants Mering.” Novaia i noveishaia istoriia, 1965, no. 6.
Obolenskaia, S. V. Frants Mering kak istorik. Moscow, 1966.
Primakovskii, A. P. “K 40-letiiu so dnia smerti F. Meringa (1846–1919) (Kratkii bibliograficheskii obzor).” Voprosy istorii, 1959, no. 2.
Höhle. T. Franz Mehring. Sein Weg zum Marxismus 1869–91, 2nd ed. Berlin, 1958.
Koch, H. F. Mehrings Beitrag zur Marxistischen Literaturtheorie. Berlin, 1959.


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