In an ongoing series, Micheál MacEoin looks at the lives of some of the revolutionary socialist tradition’s heroes. This week, he explores the ideas and activism of Franz Mehring.
Franz Mehring (1846-1919) was a German Marxist journalist, theorist and historian. After almost thirty years in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) he opposed the leadership’s support for the First World War and founded the Spartacus League along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Mehring was born in Pomerania to well-off parents and studied at the universities of Berlin and Leipzig. As a young man, Mehring was not a socialist. But his instincts were liberal and democratic, which led him to protest openly against the Prussian annexation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.
During the next two decades, Mehring worked at a number of liberal newspapers, becoming a well-known parliamentary reporter for the Frankfurter Zeitung. By the age of 30 he considered himself a follower of the socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, but it took until 1890 for Mehring’s final breach with his own class. This came when, as editor of the democratic Berliner Volkszeitung, he made strident attacks on Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws and the German Chancellor demanded Mehring be silenced.
As Edward Fitzgerald, the English translator of Mehring’s biography of Karl Marx wrote: “True to those traditions of pusillanimity which caused both Marx and Engels to despair of the German bourgeoisie, the shareholders swallowed their democratic principles to defend their economic interests, and Franz Mehring was sacrificed. At the age of 44 he took the final and logical step and joined the Social Democratic Party.”
Mehring then entered his most creative phase, writing brilliant articles for Karl Kautsky’s Neue Zeit on philosophical, historical, cultural, military and literary subjects. His particular contribution was to deepen the historical materialist method, writing a classic history of Prussia and dealing at length with cultural and literary concerns.
For this he earned the praise of Frederick Engels, who appreciated his historical work, and Rosa Luxemburg who wrote to him on his 70th birthday that: “For decades now you have occupied a special post in our movement, and no one else could have filled it.
“You are the representative of real culture in all its brilliance. If the German proletariat is the historic heir of classic German philosophy, as Marx and Engels declared, then you are the executor of that testament. You have saved everything of value which still remained of the once splendid culture of the bourgeoisie and brought it to us, into the camp of the socially disinherited.”
From the turn of the century, Mehring took up the ideological battle against SPD “revisionists” such as Eduard Bernstein, who wished to abandon revolutionary Marxism and settle for the piecemeal, evolutionary reform of capitalism. He did this as chief editor of the Social Democratic Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper and became close to revolutionaries in the party, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg.
When the war broke out, Mehring took a revolutionary internationalist stand against the slaughter of the European working class and helped form the precursor of the German Communist Party, the Spartacus League. After 1917 he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolsheviks and the cause of the Russian Revolution.
In 1918, the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda wrote: “Franz Mehring, associated with Karl Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg and Otto Rühle, is a great Marxian scholar, who uses Marxism as an instrument of revolutionary action, and not as a subterfuge to avoid action. Socialism is to him a theory of action, a means of making history and not simply a means of interpreting history. As the Revolution develops definitely in Germany, Franz Mehring will appear as a dynamic factor in the great drama.”
Sadly, Mehring died before the new German Communist Party could find its feet and gather weight. Already an ill man, he was deeply affected by the murder of his comrades Luxemburg and Liebknecht during the Spartacist uprising in January 1919. Just under two weeks later, on 28 January 1919, Mehring passed away.
Although it is impossible to say for certain, it is not unreasonable to suggest that had more comrades like Mehring and Luxemburg, representing the best of the revolutionary Second International traditions, survived into the next decade, the work of the Stalinist counter-revolution would have been made immeasurable more difficult on account of their steadfast principles and devotion to the working-class movement.