1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lassalle, Ferdinand
LASSALLE, FERDINAND (1825-1864), German socialist, was born at Breslau on the 11th of April 1825, of Jewish extraction. His father, a prosperous merchant in Breslau, intended Ferdinand for a business career, and sent him to the commercial school at Leipzig; but the boy got himself transferred to the university, first at Breslau, and afterwards at Berlin. His favourite studies were philology and philosophy; he became an ardent Hegelian. 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. It was in Berlin, 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. Lassalle attached himself to the cause of the countess, whom he believed to have been outrageously wronged, made 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 an hotel in Cologne. They were prosecuted for theft, one of them being condemned 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 of Düsseldorf during the troubles of that stormy period. But going to prison was a familiar experience in Lassalle's life. Till 1859 Lassalle resided mostly in the Rhine country, prosecuting the suit of the countess, finishing the work on Heraclitus, which was not published till 1858, 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, 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 warned 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; Prussia should form an alliance with France 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, System der erworbenen Rechte (System of Acquired Rights).
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, 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 command 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 difficulties were with the working men themselves, among whom he met the most discouraging apathy. His mission as organizer and emancipator 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, Leipzig, Frankfort and the industrial centres on the Rhine were the chief scenes of his activity. His greatest success was on the Rhine, where in the summers 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 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 Rigi, 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 would have nothing to do with Lassalle. The lady was imprisoned in her own room, and soon, apparently under the influence of very questionable pressure, renounced Lassalle in favour of another admirer, a Wallachian, Count von Racowitza. Lassalle 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, and he died on the 31st of August. 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. 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 subjection 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 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 corresponding 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. And he held that such association should be the voluntary act of the working men, the government merely reserving the right to examine the books of the various societies. All the arrangements 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? 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, at the election of 1903, returned to the Reichstag eighty-one members and polled 3,010,771 votes, and at the election of 1907 returned forty-three members and polled 3,258,968 votes. (The diminution in the number of members returned in 1907 was due mostly to combination among the different political groups.) This result, great as it was, would hardly have been 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; in 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 Die Philosophic Herakleitos des Dunklen von Ephesos (Berlin, 1858), and the System der erworbenen Rechte (Leipzig, 1861) are both marked by great learning and intellectual power. But of far more historical interest are the speeches and pamphlets connected with his socialistic agitation, of which the most important are — Ueber Verfassungswesen; Arbeiterprogramm; Offenes Antwortschreiben; Zur Arbeiterfrage; Arbeiterlesebuch; Herr Bastiat-Schulze von Delitzsch, oder Kapital and Arbeit. His drama, Franz von Sickingen, published in 1859, is a work of no poetic value. His Collected Works were issued at Leipzig in 1899-1901.
The best biography of Lassalle is H. Oncken's Lassalle (Stuttgart, 1904); another excellent work on his life and writings is George Brandes's Danish work, Ferdinand Lassalle (German translation, 4th ed., Leipzig, 1900). See also A. Aaberg, Ferdinand Lassalle (Leipzig, 1883); C. v. Plener, Lassalle (Leipzig, 1884); G. Meyer, Lassalle als Sozialökonom (Berlin, 1894); Brandt, F. Lassalles sozialökonomische Anschauungen und praktische Vorschläge (Jena, 1895); Seillière, Etudes sur Ferdinand Lassalle (Paris, 1897); E. Bernstein, Ferd. Lassalle und seine Bedeutung für die Arbeiterklasse (Berlin, 1904). There is a considerable literature on his love affair and death; the most notable books are: Meine Beziehungen zu F. 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 George Meredith's Tragic Comedians (1880).
- (T. K.)