Franz Mehring

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Franz Mehring was born in Schlawe, Germany, on 27th February, 1846. He became a journalist and worked for various daily and weekly newspapers including Neue Zeit, Die Zukunft and Frankfurter Zeitung. Mehring also edited the socialist newspaper, Berliner Volkszeitung.

Mehring supported August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht when they voted against war credits in 1870: "There were still traces of a split in the Social Democracy when it came to voting the war credits in July, 1870; all the Social Democratic deputies voted favorably except Liebknecht and Bebel, who abstained from voting. When in December of the same year the second war credit was to be granted, all differences had disappeared, and every single parliamentary deputy voted. All the groups of the Social Democracy of that time lined up as a unit against the militarism of the class-controlled government, a stand to which the party has adhered ever since."

Mehring joined the Social Democratic Party in 1890 and soon became accepted as one of the SDP's theoreticians. In 1893 he published On Historical Materialism where he attempted to explain the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: "The bourgeois world today regards historical materialism as it did Darwinism a lifetime ago, and socialism half a lifetime ago. It reviles it without understanding it.... The life work of Marx and Engels is based throughout on historical materialism; all their writings are founded upon this. It is simply a trick of the bourgeois pseudo-sciences to pretend that they made only occasional excursions into the science of history in order to find support for a theory of history."

Mehring was deeply influenced by the work of Rosa Luxemburg. Her biographer, Paul Frölich, pointed out: "Franz Mehring used Luxemburg's manuscript for the explanatory notes to his edition of the essays by Marx and Engels from the years 1848-49, and it is not difficult to distinguish and intellectual influence of Rosa Luxemburg in his work." In 1897 Mehring published The History of German Social Democracy.

The author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has argued: "Franz Mehring was a touchy and sensitive man given to nursing grudges. No wonder they were often clashing and breaking up... Nevertheless, their mutual respect for each other's intellectual achievements, their related temperaments, and finally their common aims and enemies brought them together again and again."

In 1911 Mehring warned against the dangers of war with Britain and France and called on the working-class to stop this from happening: "For the working class this helplessness no longer exists. They have an approved weapon with which to tear the question of peace and war from the hands of the diplomatists, in that they take this question into their own hands.... An old poet has said: When the kings quarrel the peoples get the blows. But if the peoples refuse to allow themselves to be flogged, kings will think twice before they quarrel. Certainly the peace policy of the workers cannot prevent a world-wide war under all conditions, but it can at least provide that such a way shall bring the ruin of those who have instigated it."

Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."

Clara Zetkin later recalled: "The struggle was supposed to begin with a protest against the voting of war credits by the social-democratic Reichstag deputies, but it had to be conducted in such a way that it would be throttled by the cunning tricks of the military authorities and the censorship. Moreover, and above all, the significance of such a protest would doubtless be enhanced, if it was supported from the outset by a goodly number of well-known social-democratic militants.... Out of all those out-spoken critics of the social-democratic majority, only Karl Liebknecht joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and myself in defying the soul-destroying and demoralising idol into which party discipline had developed."

Mehring now joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Liebknecht, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, began arguing that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.

In May 1915, Karl Liebknecht published a pamphlet, The Main Enemy Is At Home! He argued: "The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists. We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity."

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that it was important to stop the First World War through mass action. This brought her into conflict with Lenin who had argued that "the slogan of peace is wrong - the slogan must be, turn the imperialist war into civil war." Lenin believed that a civil war in Russia would bring down the old order and enable the Bolsheviks to gain power. Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches took the side of the Mensheviks in their struggle with the Bolsheviks. As a result Lenin favoured the Polish section led by Karl Radek over those of Luxemburg.

On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. One of those who attended reported: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers - almost ten thousand - assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides." Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned.

Franz Mehring, who published a biography of Karl Marx: A Biography in 1918, died in Berlin on 28th January, 1919.

Primary Sources

(1) Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism (1893)

The bourgeois world today regards historical materialism as it did Darwinism a lifetime ago, and socialism half a lifetime ago. It reviles it without understanding it. Eventually, and with great difficulty, the bourgeoisie began to grasp that Darwinism was really something other than an “ape theory”, and that socialism was not a matter of “having a share-out” or “laying a thieving hand on all the fruits of a thousand years of culture”. But historical materialism still remains something upon which they pour phrases that are as foolish as they are cheap, describing it, for example, as the “fantasy” of a few “talented demagogues”...

The life work of Marx and Engels is based throughout on historical materialism; all their writings are founded upon this. It is simply a trick of the bourgeois pseudo-sciences to pretend that they made only occasional excursions into the science of history in order to find support for a theory of history which they had “sucked out of their thumbs”. Capital, as Kautsky has already stressed, is in the first place an historical work, and indeed, in relation to history, it is a mine of only partially explored treasures. And in just the same way one can say that the writings of Engels are incomparably richer in content than they are in scope, encompassing infinitely more historical material than is dreamt of by the academics, who take a few partially understood or deliberately misunderstood sentences at face value, and then think they have done something wonderful in discovering a “contradiction” or something of the sort in them. It would be a very worthwhile task to bring together the wealth of historical views which, are scattered in the works of Marx and Engels in a systematic fashion, and certainly this task will at some point be carried out. But for now we must content ourselves with a general indication, because my aim, here is to draw only the essential outlines of historical materialism, and to do so in a negative rather than a positive way, through the refutation of the commonest objections which are raised against it.

(2) Franz Mehring, Frederick Engels (1905)

On August of this year it was ten years ago that Frederick Engels closed his eyes for ever, less towards the end than at the zenith of his happy and fruitful life. He remained young right till a patriarchal age, and in his old age he exercised his greatest historical influence, as he influenced Lassalle in youth and Marx in middle age.

It would be wrong to conclude that Engels’s mind was slow in coming to maturity. On the contrary, he soon developed, like Lassalle and Marx. When he was younger than either of them, he wrote an epoch-making work, a work of lasting importance, the first great monument of scientific Socialism. He was only 24 when he wrote his book on the Condition of the Working Classes in England. Such a brilliant beginning in science for a young man has always been rare, and this shows that he had strength and genius – the more especially that there was constant progress for half a century. The old man fully fulfilled what had been expected from the young man.

When Engels wrote his first work, which opened the way, he already knew Marx. Not only had they corresponded, but they had been in personal communication, and had formed the plan of a common work which appeared later under the title of the Holy Family. But Marx had in no way exercised any influence on the book relating to the condition of the English working class; on the contrary, Engels introduced him to many subjects of which he knew nothing. But a few years later, when they wrote together the Communist Manifesto, Engels took a secondary place, as he himself has always clearly recognised. It was as his friend’s most faithful and most true assistant that he fought during the revolutionary years, and afterwards, except for trifling incidents, he disappeared from public life. Then he re-appeared, being nearly 60 years of age, with his second great book (The Anti-Duhring), which marks an important advance in scientific Socialism, and when he picked up the sword which fell from the hand of his dying friend he remained for many years the most important man of the international working-class movement.

What the morning and noon had refused to him was given to him in abundance by the evening. Engels thought it was given in superabundance, though he would admit that he had done much for his destiny. As a fact, his friendship for Karl Marx was the greatest happiness, but also the great suffering of his life. He made for it many sacrifices, great even for him, but it was an honour for him greater than might have been given to him by the finest intellectual gift to have sacrificed himself to a superior genius, not in a doleful and hesitating way, but with real devotion. Knowing what the strength of Marx was for the working class, he knew how to be modest, and if more than one considerable talent was shattered against the genius on which he looked with an envious eye, Engels – and also Lassalle – showed himself to be the equal of the master by walking at his side without any trace of jealousy.

It would be idle to speculate as to what would have happened to Engels or to Marx if they had never met. They were bound to come together, and the only thing that we can do in rendering grateful recognition to their common work is to just to the work of each.

The life which Engels lived seemed to have passed happy and serene compared to the storms which agitates the lives of Lassalle and of Marx, but it was not free from troubles and worries, and what fate spared him in one way it may have been said unmercifully to have overwhelmed him with in another. Destiny has not failed in thinking differently of the dead, but Engels, as a wise man, predicted that this would be, and in the last years of his life he used to say that his present reputation, which seemed to him to be then excessive, would fall to its true level when he was no longer among the living.

That is what has happened, and to-day there is more danger in thinking too little of Engels than of estimating him at too high a standard. For Karl Marx grows greater and greater in spite of, or perhaps on account of, the race of Lilliputians who would like to climb, in their despairing vanity, on the foot of his monument so as to pull down the laurels from his head. Thus he seems to rise above Engels. Yet Marx cannot rise without taking Engels with him. For Engels was not only his interpreter and his acolyte, such as Marx often found in his life and after his death, but he was also his independent co-worker, his mind was not of the same extent, but of the same class, of the same race, and – to make a comparison which seems obvious – you cannot ignore the historic importance of Lessing because Leibniz was a more universal genius.

(3) Franz Mehring, Neue Zeit (1st December 1911)

This has for years been more clumsy than the foreign policy of England and France, which is to be explained from the fact that the German diplomatists are recruited from the backward Junket class and is bound down to their short-sighted class interests. All the same, the methods according to which they are managed are not better than those adopted here, and if the foreign policy of England and France is conducted with greater dexterity the fact remains that it is no more generous and magnanimous, or even more mindful of the interests of the working class than that of Berlin. In its squabble with foreign Powers we are for this very reason bound to show the more complete impartiality towards the German diplomacy, as it is not in the interests of the international proletariat that this should he looked on as alone guilty of having provoked the danger of war last summer; the fight against Imperialism will only be rendered more difficult if all the blame is thrown on to one Government which really should be meted out to all; or, to put the matter more accurately, when a vile system itself ought to be made responsible.

What has now made such a deep impression on the mass of the nation, so that even the agitation in connection with the Reichstag elections has had to give way, is the feeling which came over the rider in the ballad when he discovered that, without knowing it, he was trotting over the frozen water of Lake Constance: a mortal terror of the frightful condition of affairs when a small number of people, whose sagacity and the honesty of whose intentions are matters beyond our control, are able to decide whether Europe is to be laid waste by a world-wide war or not. At no time has this intolerable state of affairs been so brilliantly exposed in all its hideous reality as is the case now, and never was the indignation on that account so deep or so lively, extending as it does a long way into the ranks of the very bourgeoisie themselves. The more necessary it is to keep this fire of indignation glowing, the more necessary is it to keep principles to the fore, and anxiously to be on the watch lest the opinion should gain ground that the matter would have been otherwise if only Bethmann-Hollweg and Kiderlen Waechter had played their cards as well as they have undoubtedly played them badly. This diplomatic intrigue is equally repugnant whether Bismarck garbles the Ems despatch, or Kiderlen sends the Panther to Agadir.

No exaggerated importance ought either to be attached to the fact that Germany, with its system of personal rule, is in a worse position than countries with Parliamentary government. In the realm of foreign policy that does certainly make a difference, but none so very great. The German defenders of personal rule are not so entirely wrong with their assertion that foreign policy even in countries where Parliament rules is made over the head of Parliaments. What is to-day the foreign policy of all States – namely, a policy of robbery or barter, where every State tries to swindle the other in its own interest – this foreign policy cannot be controlled by an assembly consisting of several hundred people. A Parliament can certainly lay down the lines on which foreign policy must go, but it cannot control the carrying out of its wishes; it cannot prevent the aims of the policy being changed in the process of execution. A Cabinet that represents the interests of the dynasty and the ruling classes against foreign countries can never show the cards to Parliament, while they are cheating or trying to cheat the foreigners, for this reason alone if for no other – namely, on account of the opposition between the interests of the dynasty and the ruling classes on the one hand and those of the workers on the other.

It is sixty years since Lothar Bucher described in a most drastic fashion how even the English House of Commons is deceived in questions of foreign policy. He writes: “With the most complete secrecy the Minister of Foreign Affairs opens negotiations, gives instructions to Ambassadors and Admirals, signs agreements. After a time rumours come from abroad; somebody asks for information; a question is put. The Minister withholds all information. How he does so depends on his temperament and his skill. The one absolutely refuses an answer from a high sense of duty, from a feeling of his responsibility, in the interest of the Service; negotiations are proceeding; the diplomatic witch’s pot is on the boil; the gold is almost ready; a profane glance and everything would be spoilt; the philosopher’s stone would be turned to coal. The House turns away with a shudder and reconciles itself to its ignorance. Lord Palmerston attained the same end in another manner. He springs at once from his seat with great agility, as if he had not expected the question. He is exceedingly happy and grateful to his honourable friend – if he may so describe him – for bringing the matter before the House, to which all servants of Her Majesty are responsible, and for which no matter is too small or unimportant or too great, whose wisdom controls the fate of England! And he then either gives a reply that is untrue in point of fact, or so carefully prepared that it can be interpreted in more than one sense, or says something that is either meaningless or insolent. We have not read all the speeches of Palmerston, but very many, and we have found no answer which could not he brought under one or other of these categories.” So far Bucher, who was a shrewd observer and had a thorough acquaintance with the diplomatic swindles, but who, in his bourgeois helplessness, knew no other way of escape than by becoming the subservient tool of a diplomatist who was still more cunning and astute than Palmerston.

For the working class this helplessness no longer exists. They have an approved weapon with which to tear the question of peace and war from the hands of the diplomatists, in that they take this question into their own hands. The diplomatic game, about whose incredible stupidity even Bismarck himself has many times spoken with contempt, only becomes serious in so far as the masses pay with their lives and possessions for diplomatic undertakings. So soon as they refuse, the diplomatic house of cards falls down. We are not yet so far, but we are on the way, and will soon arrive at this. If last summer the thunder clouds rolled up but did not discharge, a large part of the debt is due to the peace demonstrations of the international proletariat; and if to-day not only Grey in the English Parliament, but also Kiderlen in the Reichstag, are obliged to answer in a very different manner to the days of Palmerston and Bismarck, so is that to be ascribed to the decision of the workers to form their own opinion on peace and war.

An old poet has said: “When the kings quarrel the peoples get the blows.” But if the peoples refuse to allow themselves to be flogged, kings will think twice before they quarrel. Certainly the peace policy of the workers cannot prevent a world-wide war under all conditions, but it can at least provide that such a way shall bring the ruin of those who have instigated it. This policy can and must be a policy of a free hand. There is no need to get enthusiastic on ostensibly national grounds for Bethmann and Kiderlen, but there is equally no need to let our dislike of these men lead us to grow enthusiastic about Grey and Lloyd George. The workers need not say what they would do on the outbreak of a world war, but they have no need to say what they would not do. The main thing is to awake and keep on stirring up in all diplomatists of the political world, small and great, the feeling that necessity knows no law. That they will understand, although according to Bucher and Bismarck their understanding is none too great, and so soon as they have understood it is such peace assured as is possible for a capitalist age.

(4) Franz Mehring, Charles Dickens (1912)

Of the three great English novelists during the long reign of Queen Victoria - Bulwer, Dickens and Thackeray - Dickens was the most loved and most read, although the literature and philosophy of the Continent were much less familiar to him than to either of his classically educated rivals. Yet he easily outstripped them by his original talent and by that indomitable energy for work and life which was perhaps his most outstanding quality...

The nerve-shattering life of the city was the real spirit of his artistic creation. He knew that life in its heights and depths; with wonderful penetration he grasped its social types and embodied them in living figures, many of which are still popular in England and beyond England as well. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller compare in fame with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. His heart, even when he was a celebrated dinner guest of Ministers of State and a close friend to all the famous names of England, was with the poor and unfortunate from whose midst he had, by his huge strength of spirit and life, raised himself to brilliant fame. No one could feel more deeply for Nature’s stepchildren, the blind, the dumb, and the deaf, nor more deeply – and this says even more – for the stepchildren of society. Even bourgeois aesthetes said of Dickens, partly in accusation, partly in wonder, that he never confused in his sympathy for the working classes crudity, criminality, immorality, or filth.

His creative powers were almost unbelievable. As much as he enjoyed the exciting social life which the fruits of his writing made possible, he still managed to write in scarcely two decades twelve substantial novels as well as a host of stories and sketches, a yearly Christmas tale, travel journals and other things as well; matters which might otherwise occupy the whole of a man’s life, such as the founding of a newspaper, the Daily News, or a substantial weekly magazine, Household Words, were for him incidental. Attempts were made to explain his productivity as carelessness; he was accused of a lack of economy, of clumsiness in his plots and denouements, of the improbabilities of his stories, of the mannered style, of a broadness in his humor, of exaggerations, and so on. It is difficult in fact to argue with many of these accusations, which are understandable in light of the facility with which Dickens wrote. Still it goes too far to contest on those grounds the honors due him as the author, since in many of his creations (and not in the least of them) he pursued certain moral ends.

One need only mention in this connection Oliver Twist, in which he describes the poor-relief with such biting humor, or Nicholas Nickleby where he does the same for the school systems, or Bleak House in which he does it for the judiciary. As it happens, notwithstanding the shameful conditions which they reveal, these novels remain a claim to fame on behalf of the English people. If a German author, either in Dickens’ time or now, had dared to portray the venality and inflexibility of the official institutions of the government as Dickens did with respect to the judiciary in Bleak House, he would be defamed in all patriotic circles, including the so-called liberal ones, as a disgrace to the Government; and the insulted judges would prepare their genuine Prussian requital, inviting the malcontent to lengthy afterthoughts in prison. There is something true in the writer’s words: “Only a free people is worthy of an Aristophanes.” To return to Dickens, however, he did not consider tendentiousness in art to be objectionable, but only that tendentiousness which utilized inartistic means. And in the choice of his own means, Dickens, as his letters edited by Forster show, was extraordinarily deliberate and circumspect. Of course, according to an aesthetic doctrine which he himself had contrived. But Lessing already knew that each genius creates new rules for himself; and as strongly as an aesthetic theory may attempt to draw the boundaries around ethical judgment and artistic taste, in the practice of artistic creation those boundaries are continually overrun, as many of the most famous art works of all people and times attest. “To better and to convert men” is an undeniable drive even in the areas of writing and painting; and to attempt to evade it anxiously can readily lead to opposite extremes represented in those tasteless and bland sauces into which a full blown morality is poured under the guise of art...

Dickens regarded alcoholism as the English national vice, but even with respect to it he kept himself free of narrowly partisan fanaticism; he himself enjoyed a drink and was never overcome by the attractions of abstinence. Nonetheless, he basically favored the temperance movements; and it was only as they sought to uproot alcoholism with pietistic and moralistic sermonizing that he poked fun at them, for example in one of the scenes in Pickwick Papers. He reiterated constantly the social causes of alcoholism – the confined, unhealthy dwellings with their disgusting odors, the mean working places with their lack of light, air, and water. He felt that if one showed so emphatically the side of the coin on which the common people with their mistakes and crimes were engraved, one was the more obligated to show the other side as well, where the mistakes and crimes of the governments which ruled the people were impressed.

One cannot call him, then, a socialist writer. He lacked any speculative plan or inclination along these lines, quite aside from the fact that it was much more difficult then than now to visualize bourgeois society overthrown and reconstructed on new foundations. Dickens had to work himself up from the bitterest poverty, in the absence of any systematic education; all philosophy would have seemed to him, had he ever troubled himself with the question, a bit foolish. As difficult as the first stages of his life might have been, he was at 27 a famous writer; bourgeois society looked to him uncannily like a stepmother. What it was able to offer, it strenuously heaped on him. He did not, however, become its toady on that account, as did so many like him and for lesser prices; his good heart and his healthy understanding of mankind kept his eyes open to its faults. But with all his passionate words his political credo remained that the institutions of England must be improved, not replaced by new ones.

In the last decade of his life Dickens was overtaken by the auri sacra fames, the unholy lust for gold, which was richly enough satisfied. Not only the writer ran afoul of this; the man himself also deteriorated in a version of suicide awful in its details. It was, apparently, certain love affairs which gave him the idée fixe that he had to earn more and more in order to assure a lavish living not only in the present but also in the future for whomever he was involved with. The extraordinary talent of representation which Dickens had restricted to playacting, reading aloud, and dinner table talk, he now turned to the public recital of his works. His friend Forster had the courage to tell him honestly that this means of earning money was not worthy of him, but this single friendly voice remained unheard in the storm of approbation which accompanied the writer’s new career. He had, however, purchased his own demons, which pursued and scourged him from then on and until, in July, 1870, he broke down.

Thus, a shadow marks the twilight of the writer; but this shadow should not be allowed to obscure the brilliant light of his dawn and midday. The grave of the writer, on February 7th, his hundredth birthday, deserves from the German working class as well, a wreath of homage.

(5) Franz Mehring, Our Old Masters and Their Modern Substitutes (1917)

After the revolution of 1848 had failed to create a united Germany the German government tried to utilize the growing need of economic unity, for dynastic purposes, to create, not a united Germany, but as the then King William put it, an elongated Prussia. Lassalle and Schweitzer, Marx and Engels, Liebknecht and Bebel agreed absolutely that the German unity which the German proletariat needed could be attained only through national revolution, and they therefore fought uncompromisingly all dynastic aspirations based on a greater Prussia. But they had to concede subsequently on account of the cowardice of the Bourgeoisie and the weakness of the proletariat that a national revolution was utterly impossible, and that the Prussia;of blood and iron; offered more favorable prospects for the proletarian struggle than any futile efforts to put the Bourgeoisie back into power. After Sedan they accepted the Prussian-German Empire, such as it was, as an accomplished fact, furnishing a better basis for the struggle for emancipation than the preceding wretched regime.

There were still traces of a split in the Social Democracy when it came to voting the war credits in July, 1870; all the Social Democratic deputies voted favorably except Liebknecht and Bebel, who abstained from voting. When in December of the same year the second war credit was to be granted, all differences had disappeared, and every single parliamentary deputy voted. All the groups of the Social Democracy of that time lined up as a unit against the militarism of the class-controlled government, a stand to which the party has adhered ever since, until the 4th of August, 1914.