Who was August Bebel?

Submitted by Anon on 5 March, 2006 - 11:47

August Bebel (1840-1913) was the best-known
leader of the German Social-Democratic Party
(SPD: "social-democratic" then meant "Marxist")
and of the world workers' movement between
Engels' death in 1895 and World War One.
After his father died young, Bebel had to work to
support his family from the age of seven, but
managed to train as a wood-turner.
He became politically active as a member of the
German Workers' Association, led by Ferdinand
Lassalle, in 1863. He was won over to Marxism by
Wilhelm Liebknecht, a veteran of the
revolutionary struggles of 1848-9 who had lived
in London between 1850 and 1862, and known Marx
and Engels well.
Bebel and Liebknecht founded a workers' party in
1869. In 1870 Bebel and Liebknecht were the only
members of the North German parliament to not
vote for war credits for Prussia's war with
France (the followers of Lassalle voted for the
credits). In 1871 Bebel boldly defended the Paris
Commune in the parliament of newly-united
Germany. He was jailed for "high treason" and
"insulting the Emperor".
Between 1878 and 1890 the SPD was declared
illegal, and Bebel himself was jailed again in
1886. But the party continued to grow.
In 1879 Bebel published (illegally) the first
edition of his book "Woman and Socialism". As the
SPD grew, this pioneer manifesto for women's
liberation was the most popular book in its
workers' libraries.
Spurred on by SPD members like pioneer lesbian
and gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld, Bebel
was also the first person to speak in parliament
against Germany's anti-gay "Paragraph 175" (not
repealed until 1969), the only leader of a German
political party ever to bother to find out at
first hand about the life of homosexuals in that
country, and the first person publicly to reveal
the existence of "pink lists", on which the
police recorded the names of homosexuals
regardless of whether they had been convicted of
sexual activities or not.
In old age Bebel was preoccupied with keeping the
SPD together. When debates developed, he calmed
them with compromises which seemed to give a lot
to the left wing in words, but actually gave a
power of veto to the right wing.
The SPD gradually lost its revolutionary edge,
and in August 1914 capitulated dramatically by
supporting the German government in World War
One. Whether, if Bebel had lived, he would have
recalled his defiance in 1870, and stood with
Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Liebknecht's son Karl
against the war, we can never know.

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