1902 Encyclopedia > Ferdinand Lassalle

Ferdinand Lassalle
German socialist
(1825-64)




FERDINAND LASSALLE (1825-1864), the originator of the social-democratic movement in Germany, was born at Breslau ia 1825. Like Karl Marx, the chief of interna-tional socialism, he was of Jewish extraction. His father, a prosperous merchant in Breslau, intended Ferdinand for a business carefci, and with this view sent him to the com-mercial school at Leipsic; but the boy, having no liking for that kind of life, got himself transferred to the university, first at Breslau, and afterward at Berlin. His favourite studies were philology and philosophy; he became an ardent Hegelian, and in politics was one of the most advanced. Having completed his university studies in 1845, he began to write a work on Heraclitus from the Hegelian point of view; but it was soon interrupted by more stirring interests, and did not see the light for many years. From the Rhine country, where he settled for a time, he went to Paris, and made the acquaintance of his great compatriot Heine, who conceived for him the deepest sympathy and admiration. In the letter of introduction to Varnhagen von Ense, which the poet gave Lassalle when he returned to Berlin, there is a striking portrait of the young man. Heine speaks of his friend Lassalle as a young man of the most remarkable endowments, in whom the widest knowledge, the greatest acuteness, and the richest gifts of expression are combined with an energy and practical ability which excite his astonishment, but adds, in his half-mocking way, that he is a genuine son of the new era, without even the pretence of modesty or self-denial, who will assert and enjoy himself in the world of realities. At Berlin Lassalle became a favourite in some of the most distinguished circles; even the veteran Humboldt was fascinated by him, and used to call him the Wunderhind, Here it was, also, towards the end of 1845, that he met the lady with whom his life was to be associated in so remarkable a way, the Countess Hatzfeldt. She had been separated from her husband for many years, and was at feud with him on questions of property and the custody of their children. With characteristic energy Lassalle attached himself to the cause of the countess, whom he believed to have been outrageously wronged, made a special study of law, and, after bringing the case before thirty-six tribunals, reduced the powerful count to a compromise on terms most favourable to his client. The process, which lasted ten years, gave rise to not a little scandal, especially that of the Cassettengeschichte, which pursued Lassalle all the rest of his life. This " affair of the casket " arose out of an attempt by the countess's friends to get possession of a bond for a large life annuity settled by the count on his mistress, a Baroness Meyendorf, to the prejudice of the countess and her children. Two of Lassalle's comrades succeeded in carrying off the casket, which contained the lady's jewels, from the baroness's room at a hotel in Cologne. They were prosecuted for theft, one of them being con-demned to six months' imprisonment; Lassalle, accused of moral complicity, was acquitted on appeal. He was not so fortunate in 1849, when he underwent a year's durance for resistance to the authorities at Diisseldorf during the troubles of that stormy period. But going to prison was quite a familiar experience in Lassalle's life. Till 1859 Lassalle resided mostly in the Rhine country, prosecuting the suit of his friend the countess, finishing the work on Heraclitus, which was not published till 1858, and taking little part in political agitation, but ever a helpful friend of the working men. He was not allowed to live in Berlin because of his connexion with the disturbances of '48. In 1859, however, he entered the city disguised as a carter, and finally, through the influence of Humboldt with the king, got permission to stay there. The same year he published a remarkable pamphlet on the Italian War and the Mission of Prussia, in which he came forward to warn his countrymen against going to the rescue of Austria in her war with France. He pointed out that if France drove Austria out of Italy she might annex Savoy, but could not prevent the restoration of Italian unity under Victor Emmanuel. France was doing the work of Germany by weakening Austria, the great cause of German disunion and weakness; Prussia should form an alliance with France in order to drive out Austria, and make herself supreme in Germany. After their realization by Bismarck these ideas have become sufficiently commonplace; but they were nowise obvious when thus published by Lassalle. In 1861 he published a great work in two volumes, the System of Acquired Rights.





Hitherto Lassalle had been known only as the author of two learned works, as connected with an extraordinary lawsuit which had become a wide-spread scandal, and as a young man of whom even the most distinguished veterans expected great things. Now began the short-lived activity which was to give him an historical significance. It was early in 1862, when the struggle of Bismarck with the Prussian liberals was already begun. Lassalle, who had always been a democrat of the most advanced type, saw that an opportunity had come for asserting a third great cause—that of the working men—which would outflank the liberalism of the middle classes, and might even com-mand the sympathy of the Government. His political programme was, however, entirely subordinate to the social, that of bettering the condition of the working-classes, for which he believed the schemes of Schulze-Delitzsch were utterly inadequate. Lassalle flung himself into the career of agitator with his accustomed vigour. His worst difficul-ties were with the working men themselves, among whom he met the most discouraging apathy. For a war to the knife with the liberal press he was quite prepared, and he accepted it manfully. His mission as organizer and emanci-pator of the working class lasted only two years and a half. In that period he issued about twenty separate publications, most of them speeches and pamphlets, but one of them, that against Schulze-Delitzsch, a considerable treatise, and all full of keen and vigorous thought. He founded the " Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein," was its president and almost single-handed champion, conducted its affairs, and carried on a vast correspondence, not to mention about a dozen state prosecutions in which he was during that period involved. Berlin, Leipsic, Frankfort, and the industrial centres on the Bhine, were the chief scenes of his activity. His greatest success was on the Bhine, where in the sum-mers of 1863 and 1864 his travels as missionary of the new gospel resembled a triumphal procession. The agitation was growing rapidly, but he had achieved little substantial success when a most unworthy death closed his career.

While posing as the Messiah of the poor, Lassalle was a man of decidedly fashionable and luxurious habits. His suppers were well known as among the most exquisite in Berlin. It was the most piquant feature of his life that he, one of the gilded youth, a connoisseur in wines, and a learned man to boot, had become agitator and the champion of the working man. In one of the literary and fashionable circles of Berlin he had met a young lady, a Fräulein von Dönniges, for whom he at once felt a passion, which was ardently reciprocated. In the summer of 1864 he met her again on the Bigi, when they resolved to marry. She was a young lady of twenty, decidedly unconventional and original in character, but the daughter of a Bavarian diplomatist then resident at Geneva, who was angry beyond all bounds when he heard of the proposed match, and would have absolutely nothing to do with Lassalle. The lady was imprisoned in her own room, and soon, apparently under the influence of very questionable pres-sure, renounced Lassalle in favour of another admirer, a Wallachian, Count von Eacowitza. Lassalle, who had resorted to every available means to gain his end, was now mad with rage, and sent a challenge both to the lady's father and her betrothed, which was accepted by the latter. At the Carouge, a suburb of Geneva, the meeting took place on the morning of August 28, 1864, when Lassalle was mortally wounded. In spite of such a foolish ending, his funeral was that of a martyr, and by many of his adherents he has been regarded since with feelings almost of religious devotion.

Lassalle did not lay claim to any special originality as a socialistic thinker, nor did he publish any systematic statement of his views. His aim was not scientific or theoretic completeness, but the practical one of organizing and emancipating the working classes; and his plans were promulgated in occasional speeches and pamphlets, as the crises of his agitation seemed to demand. Yet his leading ideas are sufficiently clear and simple. Like a true Hegelian he saw three stages in the development of labour : the ancient and feudal period, which, through the subjec-tion of the labourer, sought solidarity without freedom; the reign of capital and the middle classes, established in 1789, which sought freedom by destroying solidarity; and the new era, beginning in 1848, which would reconcile solidarity with freedom by introducing the principle of association. It was the basis and starting-point of his opinions that, under the empire of capital and so long as the working man was merely a receiver of wages, no improvement in his condition could be expected. This position he founded on the well-known law of wages formulated by Ricardo, and accepted by all the leading economists, that wages are controlled by the ordinary relations of supply and demand, that a rise in wages leads to an increase in the labouring population, which, by increasing the supply of labour, is followed by a cor-responding fall of wages. Thus population increases or decreases in fixed relation to the rise or fall of wages. The condition of the working man will never permanently rise above the mere standard of living required for his subsistence, and the continued supply of his kind. Lassalle held that the co-operative schemes of Schulze-Delitzsch on the principle of " self-help " were utterly inadequate, for the obvious reason that the working classes were destitute of capital. The struggle of the working man helping himself with, his empty pockets against the capitalists he compared to a battle with teeth and nails against modern artillery. In short, Lassalle accepted the orthodox political economy to show that the inevitable operation of its laws left no hope for the working classes, and that no remedy could be found but by abolishing the conditions in which these laws had their validity—in other words, by abolishing the present relations of labour and capital altogether. And this could only be done by the productive association of the working men with money provided by the state. The states of Europe had spent hundreds of millions in silly dynastic squabbles, or to appease the wounded vanity of royal mistresses; why refuse to advance a few millions to solve the greatest problem of modern civilization 1 Lassalle's estimate was that a loan of a hundred million thalers would be more than enough to bring the principle of productive association into full movement throughout the kingdom of Prussia. And he held that such association should be the voluntary act of the working men themselves, the Government merely reserving to itself the right to examine the books of the various societies. All the, arrange-ments should be carried out according to the rules of business usually followed in such transactions. But how move the Government to grant such a loan 1 Simply by introducing (direct) universal suffrage. The working men were an overwhelming majority; they were the state, and should control the Government. The aim of Lassalle, then, was to organize the working classes into a great political power, which in the way thus indicated, by peaceful resolute agitation, without violence or insurrection, might attain the goal of productive association. In this way the fourth estate would be emancipated from the despotism of the capitalist, and a great step taken in the solution of the great " social question."





It will be seen that the net result of Lassalle's life was to produce a European scandal, and to originate a socialistic movement in Germany, which, in spite of repressive laws, at last election (1881) was able to return thirteen members to the reichstag. This result was hardly commensurate with his ambition, which was boundless. In the heyday of his passion for Fräulein von Dönniges, his dream was to be enthroned as the president of the German republic with her seated at his side. With his energy, ability, and gift of dominating and organizing, he might indeed have done a great deal. Bismarck coquetted with him as the representative of a force that might help him to combat the Prussian liberals ; so late as 1878, in a speech before the reichstag, he spoke of him with deep respect, as a man of the greatest amiability and ability from whom much could be learned. Even Bishop Ketteler of Mainz had declared his sympathy for the cause he advocated.

Lassalle's two learned works were Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunklen von Ephesos (Berlin, 1858), and the System der erworbenen Rechte (Leipsic, 1861), both marked by great learning and intellec-tual power. But of far more historical interest are the speeches and pamphlets connected with his socialistic agitation, of which the most important are—XJeber Verfassungswesen ; Arbciterpro-gramm ; Offenes Antwortschreiben ; Zur Arbeiterfrage ; Arbeiter-lesebuch; Herr Eastiat-Schulze von Delitzsch, oder Kapital und Arbeit. His drama, Franz von Sickingen, published in 1859, is a work of no poetic value.

The best authority on Lassalle's life and writings is George Brandes's Danish work, Ferdinand Lassalle (German translation, Berlin, 1877). See also Laveleye, Le socialisme contemporain, Paris, 1881; Fortnightly Review, 1869; Contemporary Review, 1881. There is already a considerable literature on his love affair and death;—Meine Beziehungen zuF. Lassalle, by Helene von Racowitza, a very strange book; Enthüllungen über das tragische Lebensende F. Lassalle's by B. Becker; Im Anschluss an die Memoiren der H. von Racowitza, by A. Kutschbach; and an English and Italian novel. (T. K.)



The above article was written by Thomas Kirkup.



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