The founder of Social Democracy; born in Breslau, Germany, April 11, 1825; died Aug. 31, 1864, in Geneva. His father, Heymann Lassel, was a prosperous silk-merchant, and desired his son to pursue a similar calling. Lassalle even in early youth manifested the independent spirit that characterized him in all his later life, but he yielded to this wish of his father. After some preliminary schooling in his native city, the boy was sent at the age of fifteen to a commercial school at Leipsic. The studies there were not to his taste, he having already acquired a passion for philosophy and the classics. The year and a half that he spent there were irksome, but they offered him opportunity to pursue at will the intellectual labors that attracted him.

Lassalle at last succeeded in persuading his father that the commercial school was not suitable for him; and he returned to Breslau to prepare for admission to the University of Breslau, attendance at which was followed by a course at the University of Berlin.

His Youth.

Lewis J. Huff, in his article on Lassalle in the "Political Science Quarterly," vol. ii. 416, states positively that Lassalle was baptized in his youth. No historical basis can be found for this statement. Helene von Racowitza, in her memoirs, states that during their courtship Lassalle asked her whether his being a Jew would be an obstacle to their union, and whether she would require him to become a Christian, and that he expressed his gratification that such a sacrifice on his part would not be necessary. This should certainly be sufficient to disprove Huff's statement.

Lassalle devoted himself to philosophy and philology. He early became a disciple of Hegel, and acquired the ambition of writing a monograph on Heraclitus from the Hegelian point of view.

At the end of his university career (1845) Lassalle, mainly with the idea of collecting materials for his work on Heraclitus, went to Paris, and there met Heine, who was suffering from sickness, want, and the worries of litigation. Lassalle, though but a boy of twenty, came to him as a ray of sunshine. The poet's letters show that Lassalle was a source of welcome aid to him in his troubles. He admitted, too, the high mental qualities of the youth; and his letter introducing Lassalle to Varnhagen von Ense is a remarkable tribute to the possibilities of the future that lay before the former.

From Paris Lassalle returned to Berlin, where he consorted familiarly with such eminent scholars as Humboldt—who dubbed the dashing youth a "Wunderkind"—Savigny, and Böckh; and here, too, he was introduced by Dr. Mendelssohn to the Countess von Hatzfeldt, who was then in her thirty-sixth year, and who, engaged in a feud with her husband, had been dispossessed of her property and robbed of her children.

Hatzfeldt Affair.

Lassalle was soon enrolled among those who were seeking to secure for her some measure of right and justice at the hands of the courts. He applied himself to the study of jurisprudence, and, being admitted to practise, took up the countess' affairs in earnest. For eight years he confined himself exclusively to her interests, not only giving of his time, thought, and energy in her behalf, but also providing for her support out of his allowance. All other pursuits were practically discarded by him. Work on the "Heraclitus" was suspended: the Hatzfeldt affair absorbed all his intellectual powers. Some indication of the effort involved in the prosecution of the case may be gleaned from the fact that from first to last Lassalle was obliged to prosecute thirty-six separate and distinct actions in court.

One of its incidents was the casket episode, which arose out of the attempt by some friends of the countess to obtain possession of a certain bond for the settlement of a large life annuity by Count Hatzfeldt on his mistress, Baroness Meyerdorf. Thecasket, which was the jewel-case of the baroness, was taken from her room at a hotel in Cologne. Two of Lassalle's comrades were prosecuted for the theft; one of them, Mendelssohn, being condemned to six months' imprisonment, while the other, Oppenheim, was acquitted. Lassalle himself was charged with moral complicity, and was convicted, but on appeal to the higher court, judgment was reversed and he was acquitted.

Revolution of 1848.

Another and a more important incident of the Hatzfeldt affair was the uprising of 1848, at which time Lassalle had gone to Düsseldorf in connection with the case. He affiliated with the Democrats of the Rhine province. When the Prussian government dispersed the National Assembly in November, Lassalle used his oratorical powers in an effort to arouse the people to armed resistance. He was arrested and thrown into prison, and on the following day was tried on the charge of inciting the populace to armed revolt. In the eloquent speech which he delivered in his defense ("Meine Assisen-Rede," Düsseldorf, 1849) the young revolutionist, then but twenty-four years of age, emphatically proclaimed himself an adherent of the Social Democratic idea. He was acquitted of the main offense, but on a minor technical charge was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. At last the Hatzfeldt matter was settled by a compromise which secured for the countess a substantial fortune. This done, Lassalle then completed "Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunklen," 2 vols., Berlin, 1858. In 1859 he went to Berlin, where he was elected a member of the Philosophical Society and selected to deliver the Fichte Memorial oration. There appeared from his pen at this time the drama "Franz von Sickingen." In 1859 he wrote and published "Der Italienische Krieg und die Aufgabe Preussen's," in which he unfolded the very plan of campaign which Bismarck later submitted to the King of Prussia and, several years after, successfully put into execution.

In 1860 appeared the first-fruits of his researches in jurisprudence, the "System der Erworbenen Rechte, eine Versöhnung des Positiven Rechts und der Rechtsphilosophie," 2 vols., Leipsic, 2d ed. 1880, a treatise which demonstrates the thorough manner in which he had pursued his legal studies. About the same time he grappled with the literary critic Heinrich Julian Schmidt in a work of fascinating brilliancy, "Herr Julian Schmidt, der Literarhistoriker, mit Setzer-Scholien Herausgegeben," Berlin, 1862. Schmidt, who sought to pose as the interpreter of German intellectual life, was remorselessly flayed, Lassalle exposing the errors of fact as well as of judgment of which Schmidt had often been guilty.

Founder of Social Democracy.

Now came that brief period of Lassalle's life which witnessed the activity that has rendered his career most remarkable. The seed sown in 1848 blossomed forth in the three years 1861-64. It was indeed a short period within which to wage such a war against traditional ideas of politics and economics as Lassalle fought.

Lassalle himself never undertook, or at least never carried out, the task of formulating a systematic exposition of his socialistic theories, and these must, therefore, be pieced together from scattered sources.

Ferdinand Lassalle.

At the back of all his ideas on this subject lay his recognition of the pitiable plight of the peasant and laborer of his time in Germany, where the French Revolution probably exerted less influence than in any other country of Europe. His oft-recurring text is the "iron law of wages," as enunciated by Ricardo, according to which the tendency of a laborer's wages is to keep on a level with the cost of bare subsistence for himself and family. Lassalle contended that the real value of things is the amount of labor expended in their production; that labor is, therefore, the sole creator of value; and that labor should, consequently, receive all the value of its produce, instead of the greater portion being given to capital as profit on the investment. The problem to be solved was how to dispense with the interposition of capital, so that labor might secure the profit of its industry instead of the bare subsistence wage. The central idea of Lassalle's solution of this problem was that the state, by its credit, should aid the promotion of cooperative associations for the carrying on of various industries. In this brief statement lies embedded the germ of state socialism. To state it negatively, it does not contemplate any present confiscation of property, as by communism, nor ultimate abrogation of all legal obligations, restraints, and liabilities, as is embodied in the program of the anarchists. It differs fromthese in that it has not in view any violent methods whereby to secure its adoption.

His Program.

The economic phase of Lassalle's program was not, however, its sole feature, nor indeed even its chief characteristic. Equal in importance with it was the political phase, which had for its object the introduction of universal suffrage as the method by which social reform could be more expeditiously and efficaciously realized. In the "Arbeiter-programm" (Eng. transl. by Edward Peters, London, 1884) Lassalle elaborates the theme that, as the middle classes had succeeded to the territorial aristocracy, so the "fourth estate," the working classes, by means of universal suffrage was destined eventually to become the ruling power in society. It was this proposition to invest the laboring class with political power rather than his socialistic suggestions that brought upon Lassalle the wrath of both Liberals and Conservatives. This dream of a democracy was, to the German mind of 1863, as startling as if there had been no Washington, no French Revolution.

It is not easy to conceive how difficult it was so late in the nineteenth century to lead the minds of the German laborers to a realizing sense of Lassalle's teachings. He gathered about him a band of disciples such as Bernard Becker, Vahlteich, Dammer, and Bebel, and founded the General German Labor Organization; and the Social Democracy, as a political factor and an economic ideal, was created.

In all this work of agitation Lassalle displayed marvelous assiduity, and though he was hated and denounced as "the terrible Jew," astonishment was expressed at his remarkable oratorical power, his profound and wide learning, and his dialectical skill in controversies with some of the ablest publicists of his time. The literary product of this period of his life is exclusively the outcome of his politico-social agitation.

His Duel and Death.

In 1862 Lassalle met Helene von Dönnigsen, the daughter of a Bavarian diplomat and, according to Kellogg, of a Jewish mother. The two loved at first sight; and it was not long before they revealed their affection to each other. But her father opposed their union and forced his daughter to write a formal renunciation of him. She then accepted as a suitor Janko von Racowitza, who had long paid her assiduous attentions. Lassalle was enraged and sent a challenge to both father and lover, which was accepted by the latter. The duel was fought on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1864, in a suburb of Geneva. At the first shot Lassalle fell mortally wounded, and three days afterward died.

The body of the Socialist leader, brought home through Germany amid much pomp and ceremony, greeted in the various cities with many manifestations of popular grief, was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery of Breslau.

After his death the organization which he had founded developed factional differences growing out of varying conceptions of the scope and methods of the movement, the fundamental point of variance being the opposition to Lassalle's idea that socialistic regeneration was possible under the imperial or royal constitution of the state.

Influence and Writings.

The influence of Lassalle's agitation was not confined, however, to the party which he created, but was felt in the legislation of Prussia, Germany, and of all other civilized countries.

Subjoined is a list of Lassalle's writings in alphabetical order:

  • Agitation des Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeitervereins und das Versprechen des Königs von Preussen, Die. Berlin, 1864.
  • An die Arbeiter Berlins. Berlin, 1863.
  • Arbeiterfrage, Zur. Leipsic, 1863.
  • Arbeiterlesebuch. Frankfort, 1863.
  • Arbeiterprogramm. Berlin, 1862.
  • Briefe von Lassalle an Carl Rodbertus-Jagetzow. Berlin, 1878 (in vol. i. of Rodbertus, "Aus dem Literarischen Nachlass").
  • Criminalurtheil über Mich, Das. Leipsic, 1863.
  • Erwiderung auf eine Recension der Kreuzzeitung. Düsseldorf, 1864.
  • Feste, die Presse und der Frankfurter Abgeordnetentag, Die. Düsseldorf, 1863.
  • Fichte's Politisches Vermächtniss und die Neueste Gegenwart. Hamburg, 1860.
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing vom Culturhistorischen Standpunkt. 2d ed. Hamburg, 1877.
  • Herr Bastiat-Schulze von Delitzsch, der Oekonomische Julian oder Kapital und Arbeit. Berlin, 1864.
  • Indirecte Steuer und die Lage der Arbeitenden Klassen, Die. Zurich, 1863.
  • Macht und Recht. Zurich, 1863.
  • Offenes Antwortschreiben an das Zentralcomté. Zurich, 1863.
  • Open Letter to the National Labor Association. Cincinnati, O. Eng. transl. 1879.
  • Ueber Verfassungswesen. Berlin, 1862.
  • Was Nun? Berlin, 1862.
  • Wissenschaft und die Arbeiter, Die. Zurich, 1863.
  • Workingman's Programme, The. Transl. by Edward Peters. London, 1884.

There are two collected editions of Lassalle's writings, both of which include, besides his published works (though neither has the "System der Erworbenen Rechte" in its complete form), stenographic reports of several of the trials in which he was the central figure. One edition was published in New York in 1882-83, and the other, a much fuller and more accurate production, was edited by E. Bernstein and published in Berlin in 1891-93. Both editions are in three volumes.

  • B. Becker, Gesch. der Arbeiter-Agitation Lassalle's, Brunswick, 1874;
  • E. Bernstein, Lassalle as a Social Reformer, London, 1893;
  • Georg Brandes, Lassalle, Berlin, 1877;
  • 3d ed. with portrait, Leipsic, 1894;
  • D. O. Kellogg, Lassalle, the Socialist, in Atlantic Monthly, April, 1888, lxi. 483-496;
  • Laveleye, Le Socialisme Contemporain (Eng. transl. Socialism of To-Day);
  • J. M. Ludlow, Lassalle the German Social-Democrat, in Fortnightly Rev. April, 1869, xi. (2d series), 419-453;
  • E. von Plener, Lassalle, in Allg. Deutsche Biographie, xvii. 740-780, Leipsic, 1883 (printed separately, ib. 1884);
  • Helene von Racowitza, Meine Beziehungen zu Lassalle, Breslau, 1879.
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