Working Men’s Congress at Rome. Bebel’s Speeches in the Reichstag

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 18 November 1871

Source: The Eastern Post, No. 164, November 18, 1871
Collection(s): The Eastern Post

Engels’ Record of his Report at the General Council Meeting of November 14, 1871[edit source]

From Italy numerous communications had again come to hand. From them it appeared that the so-called Working Men’s Congress at Rome was but a dodge of Mazzini’s, intended to deceive the public as to the giant strides with which the International is advancing in Italy. In the course of last summer the local leaders of the well-organised Mazzinian party in many large Italian towns, for the first time, and quite unexpectedly, became aware of the fact that they were losing the absolute hold they had hitherto possessed over the working-classes. The sound instinct of the Italian working men had enabled them to see that the working men of Paris, under the Commune, execrated as they were by the common voice of the ruling classes of Europe, had been in reality but the champions of the cause of the whole proletariat; and when Mazzini gave the word to his followers to join in the general middle-class outcry against the people of Paris, he himself destroyed the foundation of his hitherto almost undisputed sway over the Italian workmen. The working people of the Italian towns then began to see that they had class interests reaching beyond Mazzini’s republic; that these interests were the same for all workmen all over the civilised world; and that there was a vast society in existence for the upholding of these common interests — the International. Moreover, they had been tired, for some time, of Mazzini’s religious preachings, quite out of place as they were in the most priest-ridden country in Europe, and of his everlastingly reminding them that the grand object of their lives was the performance of duties, while he never spoke of their rights. Mazzini thought it best to nip this counter-movement in the bud. He had, for the last twenty years, virtually directed the mutual benefit societies of working-men, the Oddfellows, Foresters, and Druids of Italy, societies in which politics were officially forbidden, and where even the commonest objects of an ordinary trades’ union were rigorously excluded. The presidents, secretaries, and boards of these societies were generally Mazzinian, and with their help some demonstration in favour of decrying Mazzinianism might be got up. Now, up to 1864 these societies had held annual Congresses; the last was held in Naples in the above year, when an act of fraternization was agreed to, embodying a kind of constitution, with a central committee for common affairs, &c. But since then no Congress had been called. By the assistance of the societies in Liguria, Mazzini now had a new Congress called, which met at Rome, on the 1st of November. How this Congress was composed is best shown by what happened in the Roman Working Men’s Society. There the board happened to be anti-Mazzinian, and, because the invitation of the Ligurians had called upon the Congress to discuss political questions, this board refused to send delegates because the discussion of politics was against the general rules. In fact, wherever the boards of the workmen’s societies were not composed of Mazzinians, no delegates were sent, as the Mazzinian papers themselves aver; from which it is pretty clear that the delegates sent were elected, not by the members, but by the boards of the various societies. Under these circumstances the mass of the Italian Internationals protested against this Congress if it should pretend to represent the mass of the Italian working men. A few only assisted at its meetings, in order to be able to watch the proceedings.

The Congress opened its sittings on the 1st November. Mazzini and Garibaldi were elected honorary presidents, and that a week after Garibaldi’s letter to Petroni appeared, in which he had finally broken with Mazzini ! a Then the act of fraternisation of the Naples Congress was re-discussed. On this occasion a delegate proposed that it should be amended by adding a declaration that the Congress adhered expressly to the principles of Giuseppe Mazzini. The debate was long, but the old Mazzinian organisation at last prevailed. Thirty-four voted yes, nineteen no, six abstained, ten were absent. By a majority of fifteen upon the number of votes given, but by a minority of one upon the total number of delegates sent to the Congress, the Italian Oddfellows and Druids have bound themselves, for the space of one year, to whatever Mazzini may say or do. Needless to say that the three representatives of International sections retired under protest immediately. We may add that already in the first preliminary meeting of Congress it had been privately settled that neither the question of the International nor any religious question should be discussed. The standing orders were to be suspended in favour of Mazzini only!

The other votes of the Congress were of interest to the Mazzinians alone. They represent attempts to galvanise back into life the dying influence of Mazzini, attempts utterly fruitless in presence of the immense International movement now pervading the Italian working class. The Radical Italian press in Rome, especially La Capitale and Il Tribuno, severely blame the Congress for its implicit note of confidence in Mazzini. The latter paper says:

“This vote was a verdict upon the plot between Mazzini and Garibaldi; between the theological notions of the high priest, and the downright affirmations of the working man’s rights.” It was intended to say to Garibaldi: — “You are wrong in denying the principles of Mazzini, which are those of the Italian working class; it was intended to say to the vanquished of the Commune that the Royalist squires of Versailles were right in shooting them down; it was intended to say to the International that the various Governments did right in trying to kill it, and that Italy would oppose a dam to the torrents coming down upon privilege and monopoly. It would have been well if the Italian workmen, in Congress united, had thoroughly discussed, and well examined every proposition, but instead of this the exceptions taken even before the questions themselves arose, the Ait Philosophus, the word of the master accepted as a gospel, constitutes acts damaging no one but that party which was compelled to recur to similar means in order to get rid of a propaganda it could not otherwise vanquish.”

The same paper has a remarkable article on the Agricultural labours or small peasants in Italy, which demanded that all the immense estates now uncultivated or left in the state of bogs, should be declared the property of the labouring class, unless reclaimed and cultivated by their owners within a limited time.

In the German Parliament, our friend Bebel has spoken twice. In the first speech, he attacked the increasing military expenditure.

All this vast army, he said, is needed principally against the working people at home. But you, gentlemen of the middle class, with the rapid increase of your factories and workshops, you yourselves created such a rapid increase of the numbers of the working-class that you will never be able to increase your army at the same rate.

In the second speech, upon the Liberal motion that all German States should be bound to have representative institutions, Bebel said that all constitutions of the German States, great and small, were not worth the paper upon which they were written; the Prussian Executive Government were supreme and did what they liked all over Germany, and he wished that all the small states, falsely supposed to be the last refuges of liberty, were swallowed up by Prussia, so as to place the people for once face to face with their true enemy, the Prussian Government. Upon his declaring that he did not except the constitutions of the German Empire from this sweeping condemnation, the House, upon the motion of the speaker, stopped him in the midst of his speech.

This is liberty of discussion, as understood by the aristocrats, bureaucrats, capitalists, and lawyers of the German Parliament. The one working-man amongst them is so much a match for the whole of the rest that they have to put him down by main force.