Bebel was born in Deutz, now a part of Cologne. He was the son of a Prussian Pole who was a noncommissioned officer in the Prussian infantry, and was born in military barracks. In his youth, he was an apprentice, and, while learning and practicing the turner's trade, he acquired a practical knowledge of the difficulties and disabilities of the workingmen. Like most German workmen at that time, he traveled extensively in search of work. At Salzburg, where he lived for some time, he joined a Roman Catholic workmen's club. When in Tyrol in 1859 he volunteered for service in the war against Italy, but was rejected; and in his own country he was rejected likewise as physically unfit for the army.
In 1860 he settled in Leipzig as a master turner, making horn buttons. He joined various labor organizations. At first opposed to socialism, he fell under the influence of Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1864, and was converted to the doctrines of Karl Marx. These socialists refused to accept the leadership of Schweitzer, who had attempted to carry on Lassalle's work.
In 1867, Bebel was elected to the North German Parliament. That year, together with Liebknecht, he also founded the Schsische Volkspartei ("Saxon People's Party"). In 1869 at Eisenach, he helped found the SDAP (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany), which later merged with the ADAV (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, "General German Workers' Association") in 1875 to form the SAPD (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, "Socialist Workers' Party of Germany"), which then became the SPD in 1890.
Bebel's great organizing talent and oratorical power quickly made him one of the leaders of the socialists and their chief spokesman in parliament. He remained a member of the North German Parliament, and later of its counterpart for the German Empire, the Reichstag, until his death, except for the interval of 1881-83. He represented successively the districts of Glauchau-Meerane, Dresden, Strassburg, and Hamburg. Later in his life, he acted as chairman of the SPD. Representing as he did Marxian principles, he was bitterly opposed by certain factions of his party.
In 1870 he spoke in parliament against the continuance of the war with France. Bebel and Liebknecht were the only members who did not vote the extraordinary subsidy required for the war with France; the followers of Lassalle, on the other hand, voted for the government proposals. Bebel was the only socialist who was elected to the Reichstag in 1871, and he used his position to protest against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine and to express his full sympathy with the Paris Commune. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck afterwards said that this speech of Bebel's was a –ray of light– showing him that socialism was an enemy to be fought against and crushed. Bebel was arrested for high treason, but acquitted.
Later however, in 1872, in Brunswick, Bebel was convicted in a political lawsuit, the so-called Leipziger Hochverratsprozess ("Leipzig high treason proceedings"), of preparing for high treason. He was sentenced to two years in Festungshaft ("imprisonment in a fortress", a variant of a jail sentence that was not considered dishonouring), which he spent at the famous Knigstein Fortress. For insulting the German emperor, he was sentenced to nine months' ordinary imprisonment. This and other terms of imprisonment enabled him to make up for his lack of elementary education, and his incarceration also increased his prestige among his party associates and his large masses of followers.
In 1874 Bebel took a partner and founded a small button factory, for which he acted as salesman, but in 1889 he gave up his business to devote himself wholly to politics. In 1868 he became connected with the staff of the Volksstaat ("The People's State") at Leipzig, and in 1891 with that of the Vorwrts ("Forward") at Berlin.
After his release from prison, he helped to organize, at the congress of Gotha, the united party of Social Democrats, which had been formed during his imprisonment. After the passing of the Socialist Law he continued to show great activity in the debates of the Reichstag, and was also elected a member of the Saxon parliament; when the state of siege was proclaimed in Leipzig he was expelled from the city, and in 1886 condemned to nine months' imprisonment for taking part in a secret society.
In party meetings of 1890 and 1891 Bebel's policies were severely attacked, first by the extremists, the –young– Socialists from Berlin, who wished to abandon parliamentary action; against these Bebel won a complete victory. On the other side he was involved in a quarrel with Volmar and his school, who desired to put aside from immediate consideration the complete attainment of the socialist ideal, and proposed that the party should aim at bringing about, not a complete overthrow of society, but a gradual amelioration. This conflict of tendencies continued, and Bebel came to be regarded as the chief exponent of the traditional views of the orthodox Marxist party. Though a strong opponent of militarism, he publicly stated that foreign nations attacking Germany must not expect the help or the neutrality of the Social Democrats.
Bebel's book, Women and Socialism was translated into English by Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labor Party of America as Woman under Socialism. It figured prominently in the Connolly-DeLeon controversy after James Connolly, then a member of the SLP, denounced it as a "quasi-prurient" book that would repel potential recruits to the socialist movement. The book contained an attack on the institution of marriage which identified Bebel with the most extreme forms of socialism.
After living in Berlin-Schneberg for many years, where a commemorative plaque commemorates him at Hauptstrae 97, Bebel died on August 13, 1913 during a visit to a sanatorium in Passugg, Switzerland, and was buried in Zrich.
His basic laws of a socialist society are:
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