Marx and the Lassalleans

Lassalle2The following was presented as a talk at Marxism 2013 in Melbourne

Who today has even heard of Ferdinand Lassalle? Who cares about Marx’s battles with his followers? Lassalle’s writings are out of print, and his collections sit gathering dust in the stacks and back-rooms of libraries. Picking over these old quarrels seems, at first, like conforming to the clichéd image of the troublesome but scholastic and irrelevant Marxist, fighting not just last century’s battles but also throwing in one from the century before that for good measure.

There is, to be sure, a great distance between Lassalle’s world and our own. He was active in a time when Europe was still dominated by powerful monarchies, when the capitalist class and the old feudal and aristocratic order still battled for power over much of the continent. His was an era of absolutism, and a time when the peasantry were still a major social force. Modern Germany did not yet exist. In 1870 65% of the German population lived on the land. It was a time of massive, and rapid, social change: the population almost doubled between 1870 and 1914, and the boundaries of the country itself were transformed. So a lot of the interest in his role in the early years of the socialist movement in Germany is historical. What are the origins of our movement? How did socialist politics develop? What sort of ideas and parties did it come into contact with? What was the context for Marx’s own analysis and agitation? Those are important questions. The better a sense of history we can have, the more valuable and useful we will find the historical products of that legacy. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme – a classic of the revolutionary socialist movement and a first-rate demolition of reformist illusions in the state – came out of his battles with the Lassalleans; examining that history and background will make this text more accessible for us now.

But this history also has all sorts of contemporary echoes and parallels. History – what militants and activists tried in past situations – can be useful for us to think with and through as we look to how we organise today. Several parts of Lassalle’s life and thought are very suggestive now.

He was a showman, a brilliant lawyer, dashing and impressive, who brought flair to the workers’ movement at the same time as he used it to further his own fame and political power. How are independent working-class parties built? What is the role of celebrity and ‘stars’ in left-wing parties? How do movements discipline and relate to their leaders? These are still relevant questions for the Left internationally.

Lassalle looked to the existing state for change, hoping to convince the rulers of his day to fund workers’ cooperatives. He accepted the limits of the existing state, a position that was to become a commonplace of reformism, and is still, in Labour here and reformist parties elsewhere, part of the ‘common sense’ of politics. How did those ideas become dominant, especially when workers in Europe had shown such revolutionary enthusiasm?

Finally, the unity of the Marxists and the Lassalleans produced the biggest revolutionary workers’ party in history, the Social Democratic Party. This Party, with its tens of thousands of members, mass of MPs, hundreds of newspapers and scores of talented theoreticians, was the pride of the Second International, living proof of the unstoppable growth of revolutionary socialist politics. But, as we now know, it did stop, supporting World War One and turning against the revolutionary workers at the war’s end. How did it come to this? The experience of broad left parties and the prospects for left unity are lively and controversial topics on the Left internationally at the moment. Looking at this early, and momentous, example might offer lessons for today.

For no other reason, perhaps, it is useful to look at the history of Marx and Lassalle together to clear up misconceptions and myths. A lot of ideas and phrases associated with Marx – the ‘iron law of wages’, for example, or the ‘theory of increasing misery’ – are in reality Lassalle’s, and positions Marx fought against. Reformist commentators and academic historians, having no reason to clear up these theoretical confusions, repeat all sorts of distortions. From Bertrand Russell’s early lectures on Social Democracy through to modern studies, there are too many sources muddying what ought to be clear. Ideas do not emerge in isolation from one another, the impression that too often comes across from our textbooks. They arise, rather, in struggle and conflict, through living movements and battles over strategy and tactics. So studying Marx’s battles with the Lassalleans gives us a chance to see how he clarified his own ideas about the state, reformism, the unions, and more. It’s good to take another look.

Who was Lassalle?


Ferdinand Lassalle

 The early details of Lassalle’s life fit into a wider pattern of nineteenth-century German radicalism, and share many similarities with Marx’s. Born into a Jewish family in Breslau in 1825, Ferdinand Lassalle studied the law and Hegelian philosophy in Berlin as a young man. He fell in love with both, becoming a brilliant and original lawyer and, for the rest of his life, a convinced Hegelian.

In 1848 revolutions and revolts broke out across the principalities and kingdoms of modern-day Germany. They were united by demands for liberty, for the vote, for freedom of the press. More radical elements within the developing workers’ movement added calls for workers’ rights, political power and redistribution. It was in this ferment that Marx and Engels produced the Communist Manifesto. These rebellions frightened most bourgeois liberals, who decided it was better for them to make their peace with the absolutist order rather than encourage a revolt of the poor by their own fight for freedom. Lassalle, however, like Marx, had been, from the mid-1840s, at the extreme left of this democratic radical movement. He was imprisoned for his role in 1848.

From 1848 until his death, though, Lassalle’s relationship to the workers’ movement, unlike Marx’s, was ambiguous. He made his name – and his personal fortune – not within the movement but as a lawyer, and it was in the courts that his reputation for oratory, personal brilliance, and unscrupulous adventure developed. Gary P Stevenson summarises him like this:

Ferdinand Lassalle was a man of causes. In the mid-1840s, he defended the great poet Heinrich Heine in an inheritance case; in the late forties and early fifties, he mounted a tenacious and dramatic campaign in defence of the Countess Sophie von Hatzfeldt in a complicated and embarrassing divorce case. By the time he turned to the workers’ movement in April 1862, Lassalle was famous and infamous for his commitment to justice, his flamboyance, his questionable personal relationships with the countess and other women, and his opportunism. When he died a tragic and silly death in a duel in 1864, he did so in service to his greatest cause – himself. [1]

This duel had nothing to do with politics, but was over a question of personal ‘honour’, in the most ridiculous high Romantic fashion. Lassalle was brave, impetuous, and liberal in 1848, but as an individual, and on his own terms. This was how he would, as a celebrity, come to the workers in later years. He was the model of a political celebrity, a figure we all recognise from the years since. The very skills that allowed him to win in the von Hatzfeldt divorce case – cunning, ruthlessness, extreme ethical flexibility in service of his own reputation – he then took into the workers’ party. Engels, writing to Kautsky after Marx’s death, remembered Lassalle like this:

Lassalle the socialist is accompanied step by step by Lassalle the demagogue. Lassalle the conductor of the Hatzfeldt law suit appears everywhere, showing through Lassalle the agitator and organiser; the same cynicism in the choice of methods, the same preference for surrounding himself with rowdy and corrupt people who can be used as mere tools and discarded.


Egotism and personal ambition characterised Lassalle from the start. Writing in his diary as a teenager he was explicit:

There are two extremes at war within me […] Shall I aim at cleverness or at virtue? Shall I take the line of least resistance, ingratiate myself with the eminent, win position and importance through subtle intrigues? No, though I have all the talents for it I will not become a smirking cowardly courtier! I will proclaim freedom to the peoples… [2]

‘Proclaiming freedom to the people’ turned out to be Lassalle’s route to the social glory he so craved. Lassalle is often credited with ‘creating’ the General Association of German Workers and the first modern socialist group in Germany but, in reality, it was the workers who brought him into the movement. Lacking confidence in their own ability to lead, and drawn to Lassalle’s fame and dramatic skills, the pioneering workers who set up the General Association offered Lassalle a vehicle for his own ambitions. A group of Leipzig workers, meeting in May 1863, wrote to Lassalle because they wanted someone with a real standing to counter the influence of bourgeois liberals in public life. The movement, Stevenson argues, ‘sought out Lassalle; he did not call it into being. In a way the movement “made” Lassalle rather than vice versa. Whatever leadership qualities the man had were dependent upon a pre-existing audience. He was an effective speaker and agitator, but no organiser.’ [3]

Here is our first useful comparison with today. Lassalle saw the movement as something to advance his own ‘career’, as a tool for his own use to expand his influence and prestige. Lassalle looked to change coming from above – he hoped the state could be convinced to take the side of the workers against the bourgeoisie and, in the context of Prussian absolutism, he saw the workers’ movement as a useful ally to offer up, he being its leader, of course, to Bismarck for his own use. This is all far away from Marx’s idea that the ‘emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,’ that organisation exists to build workers’ self-confidence, self-activity and independence. But it does not feel all that dissimilar to the approach of many Labour party MPs or trade union figures, who rise through the ranks of these parties built by workers and end their careers on corporate boards – as former CTU president Ken Douglas has done – or as well-paid consultants and advisers.

Lassalle looked to Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia, for a potential ally against the rising middle class. He wrote to Bismarck offering him his services:

The working class is inclined  [Lassalle wrote], to see in the Crown the natural bearer of social dictatorship, in opposition to the egoism of bourgeois society, if the Crown for its part […] could make up its mind […] to pursue a really revolutionary and national trend and to transform itself from a monarchy of the privileged estates into a social and revolutionary people’s monarchy.


This is a bizarre request. Why would the monarchy, the ultimate symbol of minority rule, transform itself into a ‘people’s monarchy,’ whatever that is? But, again, Lassalle’s method is familiar still today. How many theorists and politicians still look to forces outside the working class to deliver change, whether George Soros or Al Gore for many liberal commentators, or hopes in ‘true’ conservatives?

Lassalle’s hopes in Bismarck showed up his attitude to the workers’ movement for its cynicism. Most of this did not become clear until after his death, when it was revealed that he had held meetings with Bismarck and made promises on behalf of the Workers’ Association in order to try and secure this influence. Bismarck, having used Lassalle for what he needed, planned on having Lassalle jailed anyway, but his death in a duel made that unnecessary. What the ‘workers’ leader’ and the head of state talked about was, amongst other things, Lassalle’s support for Prussia’s expansionist wars. Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann that

It soon became clear […] that Lassalle had in fact betrayed the Party. He had entered into a regular contract with Bismarck […] At the end of September 1864 he was to go to Hamburg and there […] ‘force’ Bismarck to incorporate Schleswig-Holstein, that is, to proclaim its incorporation in the name of the ‘workers’ etc, in return for which Bismarck promised universal suffrage and a few socialist charlatanries. [4]

Lassalle initiates a long and dishonourable line of ‘pro-war leftists’, from Karl Kautsky to Christopher Hitchens.

Lassalle’s personal qualities – his combination of an excess of talent and a poverty of political character – end up reflected in the movement his followers built.

His legacy in the German movement is contradictory. Those close to him ended up considering him a scoundrel. The novelist George Brandes, writing a sympathetic biography of Lassalle, could find almost no-one who had a good word to say about Lassalle: ‘I must admit that I was surprised to find the disapproval so general and, in my opinion, so unfounded.’ [5]

Amongst the mass of workers, though, he was a symbol of their own struggle, and enjoyed real popularity. This was partly a result of his standing, but partly also manipulated by those who wanted to keep the movement from developing its own independent, class-conscious foundations. Eduard Bernstein, in a critical study of Lassalle written before his own revisionist moment, remembered it like this:

Among the members of the Association, the news of Lassalle’s death caused no little consternation. For a long time it was impossible for them to grasp the idea that Lassalle had actually fallen in a mere ordinary love affair. They believed in a pre-meditated plot hatched by his opponents to get rid of the dangerous agitator, and did homage to the fallen man as the victim of a vile political intrigue. A veritable Lassalle cult now grew up, a kind of Lassalle religion […] The personal attitude which Lassalle had adopted to the workers also contributed largely to this cult. Amiable as he could be in his intercourse with them, he had constantly taken care to impress upon them both by his outward appearance and his manners, his social and mental superiority […]

In his speeches his own personality had come more and more to the front – to the extent that when he spoke of himself in connection with others, he had invariably put the I first. [6]

How many self-proclaimed stars have, in the years since Lassalle’s death, fitted this description!

Lassalle’s ideas

 Lassalle’s political philosophy was a confused mush of borrowings, re-worked phrases and plagiarism. There is nothing original or insightful in his work we can draw on today. What he did, instead, was expound other thinkers’ theories, while adding a melodramatic flourish of his own. He composed a long, and unstageable, verse drama in 1859, Franz von Sickingen, trying to create a literary version of political argument. Marx wrote some gentle criticisms of this work, prompting a hurt Lassalle to reply with a thirty-page long self-justification, his vanity wounded. ‘This is grotesque,’ Marx wrote to Engels, ‘it is incredible that at this moment in history anyone should have time to write such a letter, but should expect us to have time to read it.’ [7]

Lassalle’s ‘contributions’ to socialist thought can be summarised in three areas: his obsession with ‘state aid’, his reformist conception of the state, and his followers’ later views on left unity.

State Aid Nostrums

 Lassalle was obsessed with state aid. It was, for him, the beginning and the end of socialism and, along with the demand for universal suffrage, the outer limit of the Lassallean imagination. The state funds workers’ cooperatives and associations; these proto-socialist institutions no longer need to worry about being dominated by the bourgeoisie; presto! The state has helped the workers on their way to socialism. Hal Draper, in his usual style, summarises:

The central plank of the Lassallean platform, indeed the shibboleth of the tendency, was the demand on the existing state to advance large loans to finance the establishment of producers’ cooperatives – cooperatives that constituted the boundary of Lassalean socialism. (Lassalle himself made no other socialistic demands.) In other words the old state was to be persuaded, or pressed, to bring socialism into being. [8]

Again, it is not hard to come up with modern-day parallels, from green money to exaggerated hopes in the autonomy and outlook of state-funded advocacy and welfare services. The problem, for Marx, was not state aid itself. There is nothing wrong in this as a specific demand in particular circumstances. With Lassalle, instead, this became the focus of all socialist argument and agitation. ‘The key,’ for Lassalle, Draper argues, ‘was state aid. A massive state loan to provide the capital for founding large-scale co-operatives, which would proceed to take over industry and all branches of the economy in the course of time: this was the key political demand.’ It is a demand that tied workers to the existing state of affairs, and could not see past the current power of the state. Lassalle ‘assigned the basic creative role to the state, not the working class.’

The specific demand may have changed down the years, but Lassalle’s type is still with us. He was a typical representative, Draper puts it, of ‘Realpolitiker’ types, ‘operators in ‘practical politics’ whose idea of practicality in politics was to conform to existing conditions. It was a question in Marx’s mind of a type of short-sighted, reform politics, which sought to gain reforms by giving up the independence of the movement.’

If these ‘realistic’ views had stayed dominant, we would not now have what basic rights we enjoy. None of these – from the vote to the minimum wage – were realistic in the nineteenth century. And yet Lassalle’s basic method persists among reformists, who see in the current state and its power an unchanging force.

So Lassalleanism is a type of reformism and, as the movement in Germany develops, slowly it merges into the mainstream of reformism. We live with its legacy today without even realising that is what we are doing. No wonder, then, that Marx responded with such hostility to the state aid nostrums: ‘government support to a few lousy cooperative societies is just the kind of crap that suits [the state.] It means extending the noses of officialdom, corrupting the most active of the workers.’

Hoping for the state to deliver change to a grateful population meant Lassalle always chose the ‘realistic’ option of the state over workers’ self-activity. He insisted that we should ‘show not the end and the aim, but show the way,’ a familiar excuse from those in fact never committed to the end of socialism in the first place. His personal egotism fitted a political programme. ‘Lassalle went astray in this fashion,’ Marx wrote to Kugelmann, ‘because he was a ‘realistic’ politician: for a theatrically vain character like Lassalle (who was not, however, to be bribed by paltry trash like office, a mayoralty etc.) it was a most tempting thought: an act directly on behalf of the proletariat, executed by Ferdinand Lassalle!’

Trade unionism

 After Lassalle’s death his followers in Germany and abroad opposed the development of independent trade unions. They paid little attention to the rise of unionism and, when it did start to grow, tried to control it as a party-political force. Why bother with unions? The Lassalleans had the answer: state aid! All that was required was that workers lined up behind the banner of Lassalle.

Lassalle had described all non-proletarian classes as forming ‘one reactionary mass.’ This sounds very radical, and is a line that still gets wheeled out from time to time by commentators trying to give a left gloss to their writing. Reality, as Marx and Engels showed, is rather more complicated. Forces between the workers and the bosses – small business-people, say – can play very different roles in different periods. Lassalle knew this; his left-wing phrase helped obscure his real hopes for an alliance – under his dictatorial powers, naturally – of the workers with the Prussian state against the bourgeoisie.

This confusion meant that, as the unions grew, the Lassalleans did not know how to relate to them. After Lassalle’s death the leadership of his movement went to Jean Baptista von Schweitzer, a figure with all Lassalle’s weaknesses and none of his strengths. [9] Draper summarises:

The first socialist group in Germany, founded by Lassalle, had arisen entirely within the tradition of hostility to trade unions that was characteristic of all pre-Marx socialism. But in the 1860s, trade unions starting forming without the Lassalleans’ permission. By 1868, the Lassallean organisation […] was faced with the threat of a congress, called for Berlin, which was going to consider setting up a broad trade union movement. The majority of the Lassalleans were in favour of a point blank hostile attitude to the trade-union congress. [10]

Von Schweitzer had other plans and, taking a more flexible approach, ‘welcomed’ the unions the better to dominate them. But the point stands; the Lassalleans were hostile to unionism because, in its very nature, workers banding together like this would result in workers organising and theorising in a way one sect or party could not control. This was exactly why Marx and Engels welcomed the unions; they represented ‘the development of a real workers’ organisation in Germany.’

Where the Lassalleans were strongest, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, they either tried to turn the unions into arms of their parties, as in the United States, or paid scant attention to the growing power of unions. The socialist movement in the United States, in its early years, was dominated by German-American immigrant groups and exiles, and so Lassalle’s influence travelled across. The Lassallean obsessions, in the United States, played a very damaging role in retarding the development of class-conscious and independent forces. All of Lassalle’s wheeling and dealing was reproduced, but in forces much weaker than the German party, and so to much more damaging effect. Farrell Dobbs, in his classic history of the early years of the U.S. movement, argues:

The Lassalleans thought socialism could be achieved by outflanking the capitalists. To do so, they advocated that the workers form producers’ cooperatives as a means of freeing themselves from the wage-labour system. Top priority should be given to electoral action based upon full use of universal male suffrage to increase their political strength, and force through government financing of such projects. Trade union activity had to be subordinated to ‘socialist’ objectives of that kind.


At the same time that they exaggerated the emancipating role of the ballot, it should be noted that the Lassalleans generally opposed extension of the vote to women and urged the labour movement to organize to prevent women from entering the labour market. [11]

This sectarianism caused big problems for the movement in the United States for years. Whereas the Marxist currents argued for socialist activism within the unions as they grew, and wanted to talk about workers’ power, the Lassalleans were forever looking to ways they workers’ movement could manoeuvre or position itself in ‘clever’ ways.

Inside the Knights of Labor the Lassalleans backed the leadership against the Marxist currents in downplaying trade union struggles in favour of multi-class alliances in elections. Faced with independent struggle and an election – and thus the chance to promote state aid – the Lassalleans always obsessed over the election, no matter what strength their forces. Even inside political parties, though, the Lassallean influence was damaging. They were active in the Socialist Labor Party of North America from the late 1870s, but turned the party towards electoral work over active involvement in the burgeoning workers’ movement. Then, in 1880, just as class struggle was on the upturn, the Lassalleans worked the SLP into an alliance with a strange currency reform outfit, the Greenback Party, in the hope that this united presidential ticket would be a form of ‘boxing clever.’ Specifically labour demands were downplayed in the presidential campaign, naturally, in favour of the small business fantasy of funny money. The SLP lost scores of dedicated members to this fiasco, and many of its best worker militants, disgusted with the Lassalleans adventures, were pushed into the newly growing anarchist currents of the day.

Critique of the Gotha Programme


August Bebel

August Bebel

Why, given all of this, did the socialists in Germany influenced by Marx decide to unite with the Lassalleans? Lassalle’s All-German Workers’ Association voted to unite with the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, two collaborators of Marx’s, in 1875. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDWP) had been founded in 1869, so was a new and, in many ways, inexperienced party. Its leaders hoped to grow in size, influence and fighting power. Their moves for unity reflected their growing influence, but also showed their political weakness: Marx’s battles with the German socialists, for many years, had been to try and get them onto the path of political independence, and both Liebknecht and Bebel had veered between alliances and reliance on liberal-bourgeois forces and the Lassalleans before. The truth of the Internationale – ‘no saviour from on high delivers’ – was not yet fully clear to even the most left-wing socialists. The Lassalleans were a sect, certainly, but they preached socialism. What could go wrong?

Plenty. Marx and Engels were aghast at the concessions the SDWP leaders had offered to make in order to win unity with the Lassalleans. Marx and Engels were for revolutionary unity, on the basis of clear-cut revolutionary politics, and opposed their supporters muddying and confusing what were already clear positions in order to make them more palatable to the Lassaleans.

Marx penned a critique of the Gotha Programme, a line-by-line criticism of the unity programme the two parties had agreed. This document was never published in Marx’s lifetime and, as the new Social Democratic Party got used to its growth and new-found influence, it may never have been published at all, had Engels not forced its appearance in the 1890s. The ‘Critique’ is a classic of Marxist literature. In it, Marx outlines his views on revolutionary strategy, on the attitude socialists should take to the state, on our view of future societies. It is a very short, exceptionally clear, work, and still repays serious study.

The Critique of the Gotha Programme attacked Lassallean influence in economic theory, theoretical clarity, internationalism and the attitude towards trade unions.

In economic theory, the SDWP had allowed phrases from the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere to be made vaguer and more ‘poetic’ in order for their precise meaning and implication to be less clear. Why not say what you mean? Marx insists, time and again. If our analysis of the economy leads us to revolutionary conclusions, why not state the need for revolution?

“It was in general incorrect to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principle stress on it. The distribution of the means of consumption at any time is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves.”


Tax the rich, by all means, is a worthy demand. But what about workers’ power? Who controls production? Our contemporary reformists dodge this very question still.

On theoretical clarity around the state, Marx stressed again the need for an honest and critical accounting. Whose state? Whose power? Whose control? This was not an example of Marx posturing, or trying to position himself as more pure and leftist than his rivals. Rather, he saw that confusion on the nature of the state would cripple the movement’s effectiveness.

The Gotha Programme demanded ‘universal and elementary education through the state.’ This is ‘altogether objectionable’ Marx replied. It is one thing to talk about teacher training, qualifications and so on, but it ‘is a very different thing from appointing the State as the educator of the people! Government and Church should rather be excluded from any influence on the school.’ Rather than the State educate the people, Marx suggested, ‘the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.’

Again, although the precise details may be very different, this argument retains a pressing strategic urgency and relevance for socialists today. What are our attitudes to the current state? What kind of state is it? To whom do we address our demands? If we subordinate theoretical clarity around this question for a vague sense that we need to unite to oppose neoliberalism we are bound to end up in trouble.

The Lassalleans ‘realism’ in accepting the framework of the existing state led them, like all reformists, to accept the framework of the existing nation-state. Marx and Engels were scathing about the Programme’s capitulations to German nationalism. ‘The principle that the workers’ movement,’ Engels wrote to Bebel, ‘is, to all intents and purposes, completely disavowed for the present day, and that by people who have upheld this principle most gloriously for five whole years under the most difficult conditions.’ He continued:

It was of course not necessary to speak of the International as such. But surely the very least would have been to [say] […] although, to begin with, the German workers’ party is operating within the existing state boundaries […] it is conscious  of its solidarity with the workers of all countries and will always continue to be ready, as it has been hitherto, to fulfil the obligations imposed on it by this solidarity. [12]

CritiqueoftheGothaProgrammeThe more things change, the more they stay the same: in offering the ‘realism’ of their position as their excuse, the Lassalleans adjusted their expectations to fit what was possible within the Prussian state structures. Socialism – workers’ liberation, radical democracy – was not possible in those structures. In a similar way nowadays, myriad elementary demands of international solidarity – from political opposition to imperialist war, to union coordination of industrial action, to opposition to immigration controls – are opposed by reformist forces in the unions for going beyond the legal, the currently possible, the realistic.

Most shocking of all was the fact that, as Engels put it to Bebel, ‘there is not a word about the organisation of the working class as a class by means of the trade unions. And that is a very essential point, for this is the real class organisation of the proletariat, in which it wages its daily struggles with capital, in which it trains itself.’ The unions matter, Engels argues, because they are where we train ourselves; whereas the Lassallean ‘state aid’ slogan offers a way for workers to hope for help from outside their own ranks, the unions give us a space to learn our own strength.

History is littered with single-solution proposals, from the Tobin Tax to co-operatives. Not all are bad ideas, but all share Lassalle’s aversion to the movement itself producing self-activity.

Marx and Engels did not oppose unity, but they were for revolutionary unity. If there were areas that the socialists disagreed with the Lassalleans, well and good. But to hide these disagreements in unclear formulations was, for them, unacceptable: ‘of the Lassallean propositions and catchwords,’ Engels wrote to Bebel, ‘to have accepted which remains a disgrace for our party. If two factions unite on a programme, they put in the things on which they agree and do not touch on what they are not agreed.’ [13] Revolutionaries cannot abandon their clear understanding of the need for revolution in order to avoid difficult debates.

Self-emancipation, workers’ power, runs as a theme and keyword through all of Marx’s writings. Co-operative societies were no evil on their own, but ‘are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the government or the bourgeoisie.’

Were Marx and Engels wrong?

 ‘I am convinced that a union on this basis will not last a year’ [14]: Marx and Engels both predicted that the lash-up of the unity at Gotha would lead to almost immediate splits and losses. ‘The unification was precipitate on our part and bears within itself the germ of future disunion.’

Were they wrong? The Menshevik Boris Nicolaievsky, in his classic biography Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, certainly argues this case:

The specific Lassallean demands still remained on its programme, but they were not believed with much conviction and in the end survived practically out of sheer tradition. The two German workers’ parties grew nearer and nearer to each other. They both fought the same enemy, they were both persecuted alike, and gradually the wish to surmount the breach and unite became so strong that towards the end of 1874 amalgamation into one great German workers’ part was decided on. Marx and Engels were indignant at the news. When Marx was sent a draft of the programme of the new party, he wrote his observations and sent them on […] and ended by threatening to attack it publicly if it were adopted. It was adopted, and became the programme of the German Social Democratic Workers’ party, founded at Gotha at the end of May 1875. Marx, in spite of his threat, made no public attack on it, because the programme was regarded as communist by workers and bourgeoisie alike. Nor did the split, which Marx regarded as inevitable, occur. The party remained united, and in 1891, at Erfurt, adopted a pure Marxist programme.


Marx had made a mistake, and recognised it. He never regarded himself as infallible. [15]

Voting figures seem to bear Nicolaievsky out. The party’s vote went from 7% in 1874 to 9% in 1877 and, with one blip, grew rapidly through the rest of the century. [16] But what was growing? The Gotha programme tied together revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries in the same party, and kept submerged their real differences. In the North German Reichstag vote around the Franco-Prussian War, Liebknecht and Bebel had abstained when the vote came for war credits, with Bebel eventually ending up in jail for his solidarity with the Paris Commune. The Lassalleans deputies supported the war. [17] This takes on a tragic foreshadowing irony, given what we now know about how the SPD will vote, with the exception of Liebknecht’s son, for war credits at the start of World War One. Marx was mistaken that the party would split; what he did not see, though, was how reformist accommodation would come to dominate the Party in its very success.

Lassalleanism as an organised force faded away as the century ended. Von Schweitzer had opposed unity and, with a dwindling number of supporters, continued a ‘pure’ Lassallean sect until he retired from political life. Within the newly united party, however, Lassalle’s romantic image and larger-than-life persona became a beacon for creeping reformist influences. One history of the party – published by party members! – remembered him like this:

The movement which Lassalle regarded as an eminently political one, to which he summoned not only the workers but all honest democrats, at the head of which were to march the independent representatives of science and all men imbued with true love of mankind, was lowered […] to a one-sided struggle of the industrial workers in their own interests.

Marx and Engels reacted angrily to this characterisation, writing to Bebel and others demanding the article be opposed. But the seeds of a later twentieth-century reformism are clear here. The elevation of ‘independent’ (and middle-class led) political movements over ‘narrow’ class advocacy, the adulation of a neutral ‘science’ and ‘humanity’ over militancy: this is the rhetoric of reformism from Schweitzer to Shearer. It is another way of telling workers to know their place, and to stay in it.

W. H. Dawson, an English writer, made this even clearer:

The Social Empire is more than ever a solid fact; government is becoming more and more both by the people and for the people, and there is every reason to believe that, far from the violent changes advocated by a Bebel and a Liebknecht being realised, the best in Socialism will, as by natural selection, survive the crude, the unwise and the evil, to be peaceably and perhaps unconsciously imbibed by the thought of the nation, and ultimately to find expression in the laws and institutions of the country. [18]

Blair’s New Labour in Britain – ‘peaceably’ of course – backed the war against Iraq; Labor in Australia led through two world wars; the ‘Third Way’ of modern reformism enthusiastically backs neoliberalism-lite, from David Shearer to Ed Miliband. And yet, in this quote, we have a century’s worth of reformist clichés and tropes all distilled. Lassalleanism is all around us, its influence so diffuse as to be practically invisible.

Sect and Class

 Writing to von Schweitzer before the Gotha unity programme, Marx attacked the Lassalleans in a much-quoted, and much-misunderstood, letter. It is worth quoting at length to get a real sense of Marx’s argument.

‘Instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation,’ Marx argued, Lassalle, ‘wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe.’ State aid was the answer; it was up to the workers to rote-learn this essential lesson from their master. ‘You yourself,’ Marx went on to say of von Schweitzer,’ have personally experienced the contradictions between the movement of a sect and the movement of a class. The sect sees its raison d’être and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement.’ Experience with real struggle might have shaken up the Lassalleans. They had a chance with the General Association of German Workers

To take a great step forward and to declare, to prove if necessary, that a new stage of development had now been reached, and that the moment was ripe for the sectarian movement to merge in the class movement and make an end to all sectarianism. As for the true content of the sect it would, as was the case with all previous working-class sects, be carried into the general movement as an element enriching it. Instead of this you actually demanded of the class that it should subordinate itself to the movement of a particular sect. [19]

Marx’s lines are often taken out of context to mock small revolutionary groups like ours, and are put in the service of those who no longer – or never have – supported building revolutionary socialist organisations to argue for ‘broader’ class formations. But it is clear that Marx is not arguing against openly and explicitly revolutionary politics. He’s arguing, instead, that the Lassalleans counter-pose their own pet scheme – state aid – to the growth of an independent workers’ movement. It is in this movement, Marx argues, that organised revolutionaries can find an audience and fight for their views. The Lassalleans, instead, presented the movement with a choice: ‘you only left them the alternatives of either publicly joining you or opposing you.

All sorts of mischief has been done with Marx’s letter to von Schweitzer, using him to argue for a position he quite clearly doesn’t hold. What Marx identified in the Lassalleans as sectarianism – their erroneous attitude to the class struggle – has, over time, come to be used as a cover-all quote against arguing revolutionary politics by people seeking, in Lassallean fashion, to paper over the differences between reform within the existing state and revolution. Irony upon irony!

Lessons for today

 Lassalleanism as a doctrine is long dead. We will not see it revive; his writings have gone the way of the VHS player, curried eggs, clogs and secret societies. They are the relic of a past age, and are primarily of historical interest. This is the context out of which contemporary reformism grew; this is the confusion which, along with many other factors, helped create the political culture in which the Social Democratic Party, the great hope for Marxist revolutionaries from Marx’s death through to World War One, betrayed its own principles.

But the history of Marx’s relations with Lassalle, and with his followers after their leader’s death, offers us a chance to reflect on connecting points in politics today. It shows the importance of a clearly revolutionary outlook, and of the necessary basis for revolutionary unity in open declaration of this outlook and the principles behind it. It reminds us again that workers’ self-activity is the heart and soul of Marxism, not a by-product. The demands and innovations that will lead to socialism come from workers in struggle, and are formulated by workers in struggle – this is where everything from the specific claims of a particular economic strike to a world-historic invention like the workers’ council originates. Socialists’ job is to encourage, maximise, foster self-activity and self-confidence, and within this to argue for clearly revolutionary politics, not to press whatever the latest ‘state aid’ substitute happens to be as the answer for the movement. Marx’s struggles against the Lassallean influence in the German party show us too how ideas get clarified; they grow against wrong ideas, in the battle for positions and programmes, as part of a living movement, not in the abstract or divorced from a movement’s real needs. That is how our contributions will come too.

The Social Democrats in Germany recognise this. In 1959 at their Bad Godesberg conference the SPD voted to remove all references to Marx from the party’s programme, and to replace them with Lassalle. In 2006 students within the SPD formed a network called the “Lassalle Circle”, stressing the relevance of Lassalle today, and claiming him as an ancestor to their own networking, professional, go-getting presence in a modern Third-Way social democratic party, one which, at the time, was in a ‘ grand coalition’ with Germany’s Tory Christian Democrats, happily enforcing austerity. History has come the full circle; Lassalle had found recognition from the state at last.

So his name lives on, and for all the right reasons: he is associated with accommodation, with accepting the state, with the way of the world. How our movement came into contact with his followers, and how that influence was fought, is an education for another future altogether.


The best English-language source on Marx and the Lassalleans is Volume Four of Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, a wonderfully enlightening – and surprisingly witty – account of Marx and Marxism. Bernstein’s book-length critique of Lassalle is available in full online. The Critique of the Gotha Programme remains indispensible. Farrell Dobbs’s history of the early years of the revolutionary movement in the United States gives a good sense of the battles the Marxists needed to take up with the Lassalleans.


Dougal McNeill 



[1] Gary P Stevenson, ‘Not One Man! Not One Penny!’ German Social Democracy 1863 – 1914 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), p. 8.

[2] Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4, Critique of Other Socialisms (Monthly Review Press, 1990), p. 243.

[3] Stevenson, p. 9.

[4] Marx to Kugelmann, 23rd February 1865 in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 157.

[5] George Brandes, Ferdinand Lassalle (Heinemann, 1911), p. 4.

[6] Eduard Bernstein, Ferdinand Lassalle as a Social Reformer (1893), p. 188.

[7] Quoted in David Footman, The Primrose Path: A Life of Ferdinand Lassalle (Cressnet, 1946), p. 107.

[8] Draper, vol. 4, p. 42.

[9] Marx and Engels’ relationship with von Schweitzer, and the nature of critical comments they made about him, have become the focus of some controversy recently as some Queer Theorists have tried to reclaim von Schweitzer as a ‘Queer Marxist.’ He was no Marxist, as I show here; on Marx’s jibes and homophobia see Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism (Haymarket, 2009) and the critical comments by Sandra Bloodworth in ‘Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy,’ Marxist Left Review 1, Spring 2010.

[10] Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 2, The Politics of Social Classes (Monthly Review Press, 1978), p. 133.

[11] Farrell Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: Marxist Leadership in the U.S.: The Early Years 1848 – 1917 (Monad Press, 1980), p. 64.

[12] Engels to Bebel, 18-28 March 1875, in Selected Correspondence, p. 273.

[13] Engels to Bebel, 12 October 1875.

[14] Engels to Bebel, 18 – 28 March 1875, p. 277.

[15] Boris Nicolaievksy and Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, trans. Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher (1933) (Penguin, 1976), p. 400.

[16] The figures are from Susan Tegel, ‘The SPD in Imperial Germany’ in Roger Fletcher (ed.), Bernstein to Brandt: a Short History of German Social Democracy (Edward Arnold, 1987), p. 17.

[17] Henryk Katz, The Emancipation of Labour: A History of the First International (Greenwood Press, 1992), p. 70. Tegel (p. 17) claims the Lassalleans also backed the Paris Commune and abstained on the war credits vote.

[18] W. H. Dawson, German Socialism and Ferdinand Lassalle (Swan Sonnenschein, 1890). p. xiii.

[19] Marx to von Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, Selected Correspondence, pp. 201 – 202.

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