Bebel, August

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BEBEL, AUGUST (1840–1913), German socialist.

August Bebel was cofounder (with Wilhelm Liebknecht [1826–1900]) and longtime leader of the German socialist movement in the years before 1914. Given his origins in a Saxon working-class family, he was unusual among prominent figures in the German movement, who were mostly from middle-class families. In 1863, Bebel and Liebknecht founded one of the groups that eventually merged to form the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland [SPD], the name adopted in 1891), the world's first mass-based political party. Under his able leadership, the party not only survived a twelve-year assault by Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) during the so-called Outlaw Period (1878–1890), but also managed to grow significantly. The party finally outlasted the Iron Chancellor, who left office in 1890, the same year the Socialists became the most popular party in Germany. Bebel led the party from its founding until his death in 1913.

Bebel was also important as a leader of the opposition to the Prussian-dominated Bismarckian Reich. He was the only person elected to every term of the German Reichstag from its establishment in 1871 through the last election before World War I in 1912. In the Reichstag, in addition to defending the rights of the working class, Bebel fought, mostly unsuccessfully, to loosen the stranglehold the Prussian Junkers (members of the landholding aristocracy) had on the German state.

However, Bebel's major single achievement was to mold the diverse and fractious elements of the SPD into a unified party. He used theoreticians like Karl Johann Kautsky (1854–1938) to shore up his own stands on major party issues and emerge time and again as the architect of policies that kept German socialism united. He was respected and even revered by nearly all other elements of a party notable for its diversity. This respect allowed him to attract to his side the able people who made up the party leadership at the national, state, and local levels. Bebel delicately balanced party policies and actions between the extremes of the compromisers of the right and the radical revolutionaries of the left to oversee the growth of the SPD into the largest party in Europe prior to 1914. His masterful handling of party sentiment with regard to the mass-strike tactic at the 1906 Mannheim party congress is an example of his skill at balancing the right and left wings of the movement.

Although primarily important as an orator, organizer, and party leader, Bebel made one significant contribution to the literature of European socialism in 1879 when he published Die Frau und der Sozialismus (published in English as Woman: Past, Present, and Future). In this book, which went through dozens of editions in several languages, Bebel argued that the status of women was a key measure of the advancement of any society (echoing Karl Marx [1818–1883] on this matter). He contended that capitalist society—and earlier feudal society also—depended to a great extent on the political, economic, social, and sexual oppression of women. Only socialism, he held, could truly liberate women from this oppression and afford them their rightful place as productive contributors to modern society. For its time, this was a bold and radical assertion; this widely read book won Bebel considerable respect among both male and female activists in the movement.

Bebel was the dominant figure of German social democracy for nearly forty years. As a speaker he had few peers in the party, as a leader, none. His ability to identify the mood of the membership and then form it into official policy was remarkable. Although now often remembered as a somewhat benign figure, he was a fiery, aggressive leader who frequently assaulted party opponents sharply, but he could also be generous in his praise for the achievements of others. While he was often closely allied with the Marxist factions of the party, his commitment to Marxism was not a central element of his political activities; he was a pragmatic politician with a special concern for and sense of obligation to the needs of the workers, not an ideologue. Bebel's death in August 1913 created a leadership void that none of his successors could fill entirely.

Considering Bebel's central importance for the history of the SPD, there is surprisingly little debate about his contribution to the movement. Although he was the most important source of the SPD's centrist position with regard to the right-wing reformists and the left-wing revolutionists, Bebel is much less often criticized for his stances than are the party theoreticians. This is testimony to his exalted position in the eyes of most SPD members and scholars and commentators who came after him.

See alsoEngels, Friedrich; Germany; Jaurès, Jean; Kautsky, Karl; Marx, Karl; Second International; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Bebel, August. My Life, by August Bebel. London, 1912. Although this account ends in the early 1880s, it is a very useful source.

Secondary Sources

Carsten, Francis L. August Bebel und die Organisation der Massen. Berlin, 1991.

Maehl, William Harvey. August Bebel: Shadow Emperor of the German Workers. Philadelphia, 1980.

Schorske, Carl E. German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism. Cambridge, Mass., 1955.

Steenson, Gary P. "Not One Man! Not One Penny!" German Social Democracy, 1863–1914. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1981.

Gary P. Steenson