Letter to August Bebel, October 8, 1886

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To Bebel in Plauen near Dresden

London, October 8, 1886[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

I am writing this letter on account of my conversation with old Johann Philipp Becker, who stayed with me here for ten days and will now have returned to Geneva via Paris (where he unexpectedly found his daughter dead!). I was very pleased to see the old giant again; although he has aged physically, he is still cheerful and in good fighting spirit. He is a figure out of our Rhine-Frankish saga personified in the Nibelungenlied-Volker the Fiddler, his very self.

I asked him years ago to write down his reminiscences and experiences, and now he tells me that you and others also encouraged him in this, that he himself longed to do so and even began to write on several occasions, but met little real encouragement with fragmentary publication (such was the case with the Neue Welt, to which he sent several quite splendid things[1] some years ago; these, however, were found to be not sufficiently “novelistic,” as Liebknecht informed him through Motteler). A more formidable obstacle, however, was the need to work for his keep and earn 25 frs per week as correspondent to a Viennese paper. For that he has to read a vast number of papers and periodicals and, since he has suffered from weak eyesight ever since the explosion during his experiment in Paris, this alone is more than he can cope with. I have now promised him that for a start I shall write to you and Ede.

I feel that in so far as its resources permit — as they now do, according to what I have been told by Liebknecht and have heard from Zurich — the party is under an obligation to admit this old veteran, at least partially, to its pension fund, and not to allow him to ruin his eyes for the sake of 25 frs per week. At present Becker gets 25 frs a month from van Kol, a similar amount from a friend in Basle, while I myself have undertaken to pay him £5 ≈ 125 frs a quarter, making 1,100 frs a year in all. I may have made a mistake about the amounts paid by the other two; it may only be 20 frs, in which case the total would come to 980 frs. The balance to be made up by the party would therefore be of no great significance and could doubtless be raised without difficulty by private subscription, so that in the case of payments the party treasury would simply act as intermediary. As to what the balance should amount to, this would be best determined by Ede with the help of the old man himself.

If this can be arranged, he would have time to write and/or dictate his memoirs which, since they are of the utmost importance as regards the history of the revolutionary movement in Germany, i. e. our party’s antecedents, and to some extent the actual history of the party since 1860, would make an extremely valuable and saleable addition to the Volksbuchhandlung’s[2] list. I consider this work highly necessary, for otherwise a whole mass of the most valuable material will go down with old Becker to the grave, or at best these things will be preserved and presented exclusively by those wholly or partially opposed to us, vulgar democrats, etc. Besides, the old man played quite an important political and military role. During the 1849 campaign he was the only commander who was a genuine product of the people and he achieved more with the crude, homespun strategy and tactics taught him by the Swiss army than any of the officers from Baden or Prussia, while at the same time he never deviated from the correct political course. Moreover he was a natural commander of a people’s army, had remarkable presence of mind and was possessed of rare skill in the handling of young troops.

It was in fact my intention to write to Ede first about the bookselling aspect of the matter, because there would have been much I could have discussed in a more positive vein after receiving his reply, but that damned Freiberg verdict may put paid to my plans at any moment and that is why I am approaching you straight away. If you take a favourable view of the matter, perhaps you would tell me whom I should deal with while you are in retreat, so that I can pursue this further — the old chap is somewhat mistrustful of Liebknecht, nor do I feel he is the right man, though I shall discuss it with him on his return; but the very fact of his being absent means that someone else will now have to deal with the business.

I must now close if this letter is to go off. I shan’t forgive the court for depriving me of your visit and you of your trip to Paris. But could you, perhaps, come over here next summer before the elections and accompany me on a visit to the seaside so as to build up your strength for the campaign? Will it be more or less possible to contact you while you’re in prison?

Liebknecht and the Avelings have been given a fairly, indeed unexpectedly, decent reception by the Anglo-American press.

Kindest regards.


F. E.

  1. J. Ph. Becker, 'Abgerissene Bilder aus meinem Leben', Die Neue Welt, Nos. 17-20, 23, 24, 26, 28 and 29; 22 and 29 April, 6 and 13 May, 3, 10 and 24 June, 8 and 15 July 1876.
  2. a Social Democratic bookshop in Zurich