August Bebel

Socialism and the Student

Source/Published: Wilshire's Magazine, Justice, December 1905, pp 6 & 15
Translated by: Henry Bergen of Munich
Online Version: August Bebel Internet Archive, August 2004
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mike B.
Proofread: Nik McDonald, September 2005.

I have no great expectation of being able to carry you by storm and of making you all good socialists. Certainly, it would give me great pleasure to succeed in convincing any large number of you of the justice of the ideas of Socialism, and of the necessity of putting its ideals into practice. But what I am most anxious to do, is to convince you how necessary and important it is for you at least to take an interest in the socialist movement and Socialism in general, to step beyond your circumscribed sphere of activity as students, to open your eyes to the world around you, and for once to realize that what you have in all probability been told about Social Democracy is to a large extent based on exaggeration, lack of understanding, or ignorance of the nature of the movement, and perhaps also on ill will. There is no question but that the labor movement has become the most vital of all the problems of civilization; a problem, moreover, which occupies the thoughts and endeavors of our statesmen and diplomatists to a far greater extent than they are willing to admit in their official capacity. When Count Caprivi declares: "I admit openly that there is no question of legislation which comes up before the confederated governments that they do not consider first of all from the point of view: what will be its effects on Social Democracy" - what else is this statement than the acknowledgement that every man must take an interest in politics and in Socialism? It is indeed true that a large number of your professors are of the opinion that you ought not to take any interest in politics: but I have a strong suspicion that their very reasons for saying this are political. Yet there are others who say that it is necessary for the student, who, after all, has attained to man's estate, and is able to think for himself, to take an interest in public affairs; and Professor Ziegler, in his well-known book on the "German Student at the End of the Nineteenth Century," even goes so far as to urge the student to attend popular assemblies and workingmen's conferences in order to learn from the workers things which he is apt neither to hear nor to see at the university.

What is politics? "Politics is influence exercised on the character and formation of institutions and measures, which in their totality affect society down to the very last individual, and are of determining influence on the entire social and economic life of the nation and the individual." And this means that it is the duty of every man, from the moment that he becomes capable of forming an independent judgement, to take an interest in public affairs; for the reason that the entire social existence and development of the individual are dependent to a greater degree on such institutions and conditions as are peculiar to the society in which he lives than upon his own knowledge, experience, and ability. The qualities last named are also necessary, as a matter of course, and of the highest-importance; they are of advantage to every man who is endeavoring to make his way in the world; but it is no less certain that the best will and the best of moral and intellectual characteristics can accomplish next to nothing in the face of adverse conditions and circumstances. On the other hand, from the very day that we enter into the world, politics begins to operate upon us, insofar as our parents are required to see that we are duly registered and numbered; and this continues all through our lives down to the grave, where men render us our final honors.

The public school is an eminently political institution. It is true that one does not directly cultivate politics there, but the whole of knowledge, so far as it is taught in the public schools, is inculcated to the end that the mental faculties of the child may be prepared and trained in consistence with a certain definite tendency, not only for his activities in life as an individual taking part in the struggle for existence, but also as the subject of a State. And this no one can deny. It is the same in the university. The colleges are preparatory institutions for public servants, the men who are some day to take an influential - sometimes, indeed, a decisive part in the affairs of the nation. And it is an unquestionable fact that a tremendous role is played by politics in the universities. Consider, for example, the professors of history. It cannot well be claimed that they are not adherents of a definite political creed and of a definite political tendency, with which their teaching is wholly in accordance. All sorts of politics are pursued at the universities except Socialist politics; the latter only must not be cultivated, and woe to the instructor who attempts to introduce that tabooed subject into the class-room.

And this only shows how tremendously one-sided and biased these institutions are, which have such a vast influence not only on the individual but on the entire development of our public life. In the university and college are educated the men who in subsequent years are to occupy the most important positions in society and the nation; they are the officials, the lawyers, the prosecuting attorneys, the judges, the teachers, and the administrators of national and local affairs; and upon the manner in which these men think and feel, and upon the ideals by which they are inspired depends to a large degree the manner also in which they will fulfil their offices, and the treatment that the general public may expect from them. From day to day we hear of the most extraordinary decisions of our courts against socialists and others opposed to the present social order. There is no doubt that the judges act according to their best conviction; but that such absurd decisions are rendered by them is only possible because their conception of life absolutely excludes them from understanding the true position and line of thought of the accused whom they judge. They cannot look upon things from the same point of view as workingmen, nor can they recognize the true relations of the interests which the socialist represents: and since they are unable to do this and cannot understand, so it is that as public prosecutors they demand the heaviest penalties, for which they decide as judges, and as attorneys for the accused are unable to set up a proper and adequate defense. Whatever public positions you may occupy in later life, in each and every case it is necessary for you to know and understand not only the social and economic conditions of the people in general, but the social movement of the class-conscious workers.

In regard to Socialism and its aim: you have no doubt often been told that it consists of fantastic, nonsensical attempts toward the destruction of every good thing that civilization has called into being: as something that at the very best can merely contribute towards the creation of general confusion, which under no conditions can realize its ideal and even in the most favorable circumstances is capable only of doing serious injury to the public and society in general. Such statements prove either the insincerity of the individual by whom they are uttered, or his total ignorance of the subject. A social movement that is steadily advancing in every civilized country of the world and is constantly broadening and extending the sphere of its influence and activity, ought really to awaken at the very outset a suspicion that it cannot be due to mere chance, and that it can by no possibility be the work of single individuals, who, perhaps out of hatred for the existing State, the present social order, and the wealthier classes, propagate the ideas of Socialism, and by the power of their utterances and oratorical ability draw the masses over to their side. For if that were true, nothing would be easier than to oppose this movement by the very same power of speech in pulpit and in press, and thus to put a final end to it and the ideas it represents. For what is there today in society and the State which is not under the control of the opponents of Socialism? They have the schools with their tens of thousands of teachers, not one of whom dares betray even by one word socialist opinions. They have the church, the universities; nineteen-twentieths of the daily press and the literature of the world are at their disposal; they have at their command the police force, from inspectors down to patrolmen; and they have the army. Thus, I say, how easy it would be to put an end to Socialism if it were reality only a matter of fantastic, nonsensical theories! Certainly, no one will contend that our temporal pastors and masters have not made the most extensive use possible of the intellectual and other means of power which have been placed in their hands. And thus if it be true that these coercive forces can be used with any effect upon ideas which are inherently worthless, and which have no justification, some visible success at least must beyond doubt have already been achieved. The very least that one can expect is the certain evidence that the movement has been brought to a standstill, and that it is no longer able to draw new masses within the charmed circle of its ideas. But has this occurred? Has it been demonstrated to be the case? No. From one election to another the Social Democratic vote has increased; the elections to the Reichstag exhibit no retrograde movement, no halt; on the contrary, they exhibit the uninterrupted progress of Social Democracy.

Thus the facts of the case are against the assumption that the socialist movement has arisen from nothing or from insignificant causes. By what then has it been called into life? If not by the power of words and of personality, by the diligent effort and work of propaganda for which Social Democracy is so justly celebrated - all of which have certainly contributed in a high degree to our successes - if not this, then something else must be present which has rendered it possible for the doctrines and ideas of Socialism to meet with the approval that has actually been given to them.

Even today the great majority of people imagine that in the last instance we can instill whatever ideas we may choose into a man's mind; that we can influence at our own discretion the development of ideas at any given time in any given people. But it is precisely this that is impossible.

I can only emphasize again and again the fact that we cannot and do not think what we please to think; we think what we must think. And what obliges the individual to think in a certain way is the measure of his interests and opinions, which are in turn developed out of the social interests of a certain stratum or class in society. If our capitalist class stands opposed to Socialism, we socialists are the very last people to be astonished at it. No one can require a class to decide and act against its vital interests, nor do we in the least expect this. What we have to do is to draw as dispassionately and as clearly as is possible the line of demarcation which not only does separate, but must separate the various groups and classes of society from one another on the basis of the diversity of their interests; and this is true in spite of the fact that even today it is not yet clearly recognized by them.

How is it that our German socialist movement, which was at the beginning extraordinarily small and numbered only two or three thousand members at the time of Lassalle's death, has in the course of a few decades developed into the vast party that it is today - by far the strongest of all the political parties in Germany?

If it had not been that in the meantime the modern capitalistic method of production had been steadily gaining ground and expanding in all directions, and that with this capitalistic method of production the modern proletariat also came into being; namely, that class of men who, by reason of their position in society, condemned for their entire lives to remain proletarians, to toil in the service of capitalism from early morning until late evening for a bare subsistence, and of whom the great majority must depart from this life in misery and want — if it had not been for this, Socialism would certainly not be the power that it is today.

With the increase of the proletariat, that class of society, which, as I have just said, laboring in servitude, sell their labor power, and at the same time are compelled to renounce the right of free disposal over their own persons - among this class of men the ideas of socialism spread with amazing rapidity. It is only natural that people whose calling in life and subsistence are determined in the way described, who know that they are condemned without respite to this position — which is anything but a pleasant one, for all their days — it is only natural that the thought must awaken in their minds: "Is this right? Is it reasonable? Is it to remain so for ever? Are we always to be the oppressed and expropriated, to the end that those who appropriate to themselves out of our labor all the wealth and enjoyment that this world can offer may live in opulence and ease?" These, indeed, are very pertinent questions; and to the extent that they are brought home to the consciousness of the working class, that is, by virtue of its labor, its intelligence and position as human beings, also has a claim to the rights of men — to this extent must the socialist movement expand and develop.

Toward what is this great mass of workers striving? It is to the end that a share in all the acquisitions which the civilization of modern times has created and given to man in such extraordinarily rich measure shall be open to every man without exception. Not only must Socialism and its demands be accepted as an ideal, they can also be realized. Even now, considering the number of instruments of culture of every variety — and instruments of culture of every variety is but another name for means of labor of every variety — which our intellectual and bodily powers of labor with the help of the tremendous auxiliary aids of science and technical progress have placed at our disposal, and which today are actually in use in a relatively small circle of industrial, commercial and agricultural enterprises — that these instruments of civilization can as a matter of fact be applied in an organized consistent manner to the entire field of social labor. And this, in a few words, is the solution of our social difficulties; if you will, the solution of the social question.

What does Social Democracy demand?

The abolition of every form of expropriation and oppression of man by man in social, political and economic life.

Men shall be free and equal without exception, of whatever race, family or religion, and they shall be permitted to fulfil their mission in life as civilized beings. And in order to attain this object, man ought not only to have the right but also the opportunity of harmoniously developing and educating, in accordance with his needs, the physical and intellectual capacities which nature has given to him.

From this arises the need for society to increase both the quantity and the quality of the means of life and of culture, so it shall prove adequate to meet the very highest demands that can be made upon it; and it follows, therefore, that it is the duty of every man to co-operate in accordance with his powers and capacities in the production of these means of culture and life.

The right to the enjoyment of life necessarily involves the duty to labor.

But in order that this labor may be as productive and useful, and at the same time as pleasant and short, as possible, the association of the powers of labor and the organization of the process of labor on a higher technical plane is indispensable; and this presupposes that the total means of production, including land, shall be transformed from private into collective property.

Consequently, the principle of all for one and one for all will be the life principle of the coming society. Every man has rights and duties, but no man has duties without rights.

This is in a few words the goal of Socialism. Man can do all that he wills; but in order to will to do anything, he must first realize that it is necessary; and insight is born of suffering and need.

And it is not our object to destroy civilization. We do not desire to "divide up," as people are in the habit of saying; we do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization. We wish every individual without exception to have a share in the means of culture and education according to his capacities and his needs. This is the loftiest ideal that the human race can set before itself; and this ideal is possible today because it is only now that, in consequence of the thousands of years of progress towards civilization and of the tremendous acquisitions which man has gained in this age of culture; because only now are all the means and possibilities given through which we may realize this ideal condition in the way that the majority of men desire to realize it.

At the end of his book, the same Professor Ziegler to whom I have already referred addresses his pupils in the following words: "Obtain for yourselves an ideal!" That is it precisely — obtain for yourselves an ideal. There are many different sorts of ideals. One can have the ideal of success in life. In itself not bad. I do not blame anybody for cherishing it. One can have the ideal of serving his country, in other words, of being of service to his own people. And this, too, is a good ideal. But we can have a third ideal, the ideal of serving mankind as a whole; and this is the grandest ideal of all. It is our ideal, the one that I advise you to take for your own.

In a short time from now the words: "On earth peace; good will toward men" will be proclaimed from the pulpits of a hundred thousand Christian churches. For centuries these words have sounded in vain. Let it be your endeavor to see that they finally become action and reality.