Lassalle, Ferdinand (1825–1864)

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Ferdinand Lassalle, the German socialist, was born Ferdinand Lasal in Breslau, Silesia, of a middle-class Jewish family. The young Lassallehe gallicized his namewas a poor and rebellious student. Quite early he indicated his persistent, but never conflicting, longings both to relieve the oppressed and to achieve aristocratic status. These two desires illuminate the paradoxical nature of a man who championed the causes of oppressed workers and oppressed noblewomen with equal vigor. He corresponded regularly with Karl Marx, defended the honor of the Countess von Hatzfeldt in a lengthy and celebrated lawsuit, sought the acclaim of Berlin society, founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (the first political party for German workers), dressed fastidiously, and died at the age of thirty-nine, from wounds suffered in a duel with Count von Racowitza.

Lassalle attended the universities of Berlin and Breslau, falling under the influence of Hegelian philosophy at the latter. But, although he had philosophic pretensions and sought the acclaim of philosophers, he preferred a life of action to one of theory; and his fame rests chiefly on his founding the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein in 1863, to which German Social Democrats still trace their origin.

Lassalle referred to his exposure to G. W. F. Hegel as his "second birth." He avidly consumed Hegel's works, as well as those of young Hegelians like David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach. Hegel's reference to the ancient Ionian philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus as his forerunner led Lassalle to study Heraclitus; and he sought to demonstrate that Heraclitus had forecast Hegelian ideas. Lassalle also aspired unashamedly to the fame that a major philological and philosophical work would provide for him in German society. He began his research while not yet twenty, but did not complete it until fifteen years later. Berlin academicians hailed the publication in 1858 of Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunkeln von Ephesos, but later critics have found grave defects in the work, most notably Lassalle's preoccupation with Hegel rather than Heraclitus.

Hegelian ideas dominated Lassalle's historical and economic thought as well. His historical and economic theories, although not carefully formulated, emerge most clearly from the works of his last years, when he was organizing the Arbeiterverein, especially Das System der erworbenen Rechte (Leipzig, 1861); Arbeiter-Programm (Berlin, 1862); Über Verfassungswesen; Die indirekte Steuer und die Lage der arbeitende Klassen (1863; reprinted Berlin, 1874); and Herr Bastiat-Schulze von Delitzsch, der ökonomische Julian, oder Kapital und Arbeit (Berlin, 1864). He shared with Marx the belief that revolutions are not "created" by revolutionaries, but occur as the result of a historical process. Men called revolutionaries are in fact merely the midwives to a new age produced in the womb of time. Lassalle described this process in Hegelian terms. A new social order, when it appeared, would rise on the wings of Hegelian ideas. The bourgeois idea of freedom had destroyed feudal solidarity in 1789. The bourgeoisie had liberated itself by reducing the state to the role of "nightwatchman." The proletariat would in turn liberate itself through association, at first within a political party that would demand and obtain universal suffrage from the state. Having achieved universal suffrage, the proletariat would use the power of the state to form great workers' associations or cooperatives. These would in turn liberate the worker from the cruel "iron law of wages" and achieve freedom for him.

Lassalle worked arduously at organizing the workers into a national political party. He did not intend to overthrow the state, but to use it. The idea of freedom would find eventual embodiment through the state. All previous conflicts would be synthesized in this final stage of history. Thus Lassalle accepted the Prussian state and perhaps even the Prussian monarchy. His position on the latter, as well as on private property, is ambiguous. Lassalle wrote and agitated under Prussian censorship and was constantly being tried for treasonable activity. His published works and public statements are therefore not always consistent with his private correspondence and conversations.

Lassalle's relationship with Marx waxed warm and cool. Lassalle undoubtedly admired Marx and sought the latter's approval, whereas Marx disapproved of much that Lassalle wrote and did. Marx regarded Lassalle as a friend, an informant, a creditor, a publishing agent, and an immature, pompous plagiarist. They broke off their correspondence before Lassalle's death.

See also Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Marx, Karl; Socialism; Strauss, David Friedrich.


collected works of lassalle

Gesammelten Reden und Schriften. 12 vols. Edited by Eduard Bernstein. Berlin, 19191920.

Nachgelassene Briefe und Schriften. 6 vols. Edited by Gustav Mayer. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 19211925.

works on lassalle

Baron, S. Die politische Theorie Ferdinand Lassalles. Leipzig: Hirschfeld, 1923.

Bernstein, Eduard. "Ferdinand Lassalle und seine Bedeutung in der Geschichte der Sozialdemokratie." In Ferdinand Lassalle, Reden und Schriften, Vol. I. Berlin, 1892.

Brandes, Georg. Ferdinand Lassalle. Berlin, 1877. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. London: W. Heinemann, 1911.

Footman, David. The Primrose Path, a Life of Ferdinand Lassalle. London: Cresset Press, 1946. A good biography.

Knapp, Vincent J. "Ferdinand Lassalle on the State and Society: A Legacy to Welfare Statism." Australian Journal of Politics and History 17 (3) (1971): 377385.

Lewis, Vivian. "Ferdinand Lassalle, 18251864." History Today 15 (1) (1965): 5864.

Oncken, Hermann. Lassalle. Stuttgart: Frommanns, 1904. An excellent biography.

Schirokauer, Arno. Lassalle, die Macht der Illusion, die Illusion der Macht. Leipzig: P. List, 1928. Translated as Lassalle, the Power of Illusion and the Illusion of Power. London: Allen and Unwin, 1931. A good biography.

Thier, Erich. Rodbertus, Lassalle, Adolph Wagner. Jena, Germany, 1930.

Sterling Fishman (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)