The Recovery of August Bebel

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

Soma Marik

Men’s Feminism:
August Bebel and the German Socialist Movement
by Anne Lopes and Gary Roth
Amherst, New York, Humanity Books, 2000), 261 pages, $52 hardcover.

MEN’S FEMINISM SETS out with an important purpose — rescuing August Bebel, the leading 19th century German socialist leader who authored a pioneering text on women’s liberation, Women and Socialism. This is not a biography of Bebel, but a study of Bebel’s interaction with women’s rights issues.

The book is divided into six chapters: Historiographic Switching (tracing the marginalizing of Bebel as a feminist); Reading Women (reading between the lines of Women and Socialism and discussing Bebel’s methodology); Men’s Feminism (analyzing the historical context within which Bebel moved towards women’s equality); “Transitional Feminisms” (detailing Bebel’s party experiences and women’s equality issues between 1869 and 1875); “Women and Bebel”; and “Bebel and Zetkin.”

Authors Anne Lopes and Gary Roth contend that historical accounts have focused either on Marx and Engels as the key theoreticians in considering the relationship between Marxism and women’s liberation, or on Clara Zetkin — the most prominent woman leader in the revolutionary socialist movement next to Rosa Luxemburg — as the key figure for the growth of a Marxist movement for women’s liberation.

While one tradition limits Bebel intellectually, the other ignores his historical impact. The authors find this disturbing and erroneous.

Lopes and Roth juxtapose Bebel’s Women and Socialism (first published in 1879) with Engels’ The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State (first published in 1884). They demonstrate that while the book by Engels had nowhere the same level of distribution, and indeed initially it was Bebel’s book that seems to have sparked off Engels’ work (as a corrective to what Engels may have perceived as weaknesses in Bebel’s anthropology), in subsequent historiography Women and Socialism was accorded a “common, or merely documentary” status, while The Origins became what Hayden White calls the “so-called classical text.”

They argue that this overlooks Bebel’s distinctive style of theorizing. At the same time, the authors dismiss Lise Vogel’s assertion, in her important study Marxism and the Liberation of Women, that the two books constituted a form of silent polemic.

They show that in the twenty-year-long correspondence between the two, Engels never makes criticisms of Bebel’s book. They point out that one cannot pit Engels against Bebel by asserting that Bebel relied too much on the utopian socialists, because Engels himself had full respect for the latter’s position on women’s emancipation.

Granting the arguments of Lopes and Roth, it is however necessary to recognize that Engels made a theoretical contribution that would be recognized by feminist activists and scholars. Gerda Lerner, after making substantial criticisms of Engels, commented: “Yet, Engels made major contributions to our understanding of women’s position in society and history: He defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.” (The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1986, 23)

Metanarratives vs. Subalternist Visions

The authors contend that they are able to rescue Bebel precisely because of their methodology. This consists first of all in moving away from historical metanarratives to a Nietzschean-Foucauldian stress on genealogy.

Instead of seeking to study the rise of socialism and women’s liberation, they focus on Bebel, the details of his life history and concerns of his book. In this regard Lopes and Roth do not engage in what Neal Wood has called writing the social history of political theory.

The central focus of Men’s Feminism is Bebel’s Women and Socialism, yet the book is not given the proper contextual reading nor is there a detailed discussion of the text.

The authors begin with a strong criticism of existing English translations. They point out that Bebel showed a sensitivity to the linguistic dimensions of gender representation, something ignored by his translators.

For example, when Bebel uses the German Menschen, which should be rendered “people” or “humankind,” his translators routinely use “mankind,” which in German would have been der Mann or die Manner. Lopes and Roth have made fresh translations that they feel reflect political as well as linguistic considerations, maintaining Bebel’s style but modernizing the language.

Instead of focusing on the history of large organizations, mass movements and well-developed theoretical positions, the authors believe that it is more important to study how members of the lower classes came to think and act on their own behalf. (23) As a result they consciously decided not to use language associated with Marxism.

What therefore emerges is not the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but an earlier Bebel, groping his way forward.

Bebel’s Evolution

In Bebel’s lifetime Women and Socialism appeared in fifty-three German-language print editions, was translated into twenty languages, and sold almost a million and a half copies.

Far more people came to be attracted to socialism through this book than through most of the writings of Marx or Engels. Richard J. Evans called Women and Socialism Bebel’s “lifework,” and indeed, he went on revising and improving and altering it all his life.

A self-taught working-class socialist thinker, Bebel wrote in a conversational style so that his readers could read the book aloud and feel women’s oppression. Because the book has simple language and moves with word pictures, even those who have limited education can respond.

Lopes and Roth give examples to show how this actually happened, and the testimonies of many women activists, both from the working class and beyond, are quoted to show how women responded in reality.

Bebel is depicted as evolving from the 1860s to the 1890s, from relatively non-political self-help groups among working-class men to reaching out to women across classes, to male workers, and to socialist activists in particular. However, a number of questions also need to be posed.

The first is over a very confusing handling of the term “feminism.” At the beginning Lopes and Roth inform the reader that in the late 1800s feminism was a term reserved for men wishing to insult other men. Then we are presented with a plethora of positively evaluated feminisms (men’s feminism, proletarian feminism, Marxism’s feminism) — yet all with basically masculine agency, since few women were actually involved in this period.

Secondly, by stopping in the early 1890s, the authors seem to suggest that once the SPD was legalized and a mass party started functioning, the impact of Bebel’s book need not be judged at all.

In a later chapter, Clara Zetkin is brought in only so that we learn that her arrival as the central leader of the women’s movement marked a slide back to a less radical position. Thus, it seems that the radical phase, when Marxism and women’s liberation were one, belonged to Bebel and male feminists.

How Radical A Vision?

The early career of Bebel shows how, functioning within a number of working-class and women’s organizations, Bebel’s ideas on women’s liberation crystallized. From 1865 he takes a clear class orientation; however, his feminism had a non-Marxist origin.

Two specific influences on the pre-1865 Bebel need to be mentioned. One was the role of men like Moritz Muller, whose feminism had limitations, but which stressed equal access to education, work and the right to organize.

Marxism’s ideas on gender, specifically in the German context, were shaped considerably by Muller. But his ideas involved a combination of equality and domesticity. As he expressed it, family life would be improved through the political education of women and their equal access to the public sphere.

The other influence on Bebel was that of the middle-class feminists. Their vision of gender equality would gain wider currency in the 1860s and 1870s. They assumed that women had certain feminine traits like emotional sensitivity and avoidance of conflict, and thought that carrying these over to the public sphere would humanize society.

While this perspective was different from that of men’s feminism, the fact that the Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein was in regular touch with Bebel and organizations in which he worked shows that points of contact existed.

Bebel, however, went beyond both influences. Unlike Muller, he was in favor of full equality of women in political organizations. And unlike middle-class feminists, he did not highlight feminine traits. Still, though female emancipation became an article of faith in the socialist movement, Marxism’s feminism — including that of Bebel — seemingly never shook off its faith in domesticity.

At first Bebel’s activities on behalf of women were administrative: he attended meetings, helped arrange logistics at women’s conferences, referred inquiries to women’s groups, and otherwise associated politically with advocates of women’s equality.

He was publicly silent on gender equality until the late 1860s, with the development of dual-gender unions. This was an attempt to go beyond craft union<->ism and overcome gender segregation. The fact that the Marxists embraced this idea reflected their openness on gender issues, particularly in comparison with anarchists, Lassalleans and liberals.

But Bebel’s ideas evolved in piecemeal fashion. His work on the draft program of the Social Democratic Party (the Marxist or Eisenach party, as opposed to the Lassallean Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverein) and his 1870 his pamphlet, Our Goals, suffers from contradictions.

By the time the two socialist parties in Germany united in 1875, adopting the Gotha Program, Bebel had moved to the most progressive wing of the movement. Although the program was silent on the question of women’s suffrage, Bebel’s amendment proposing “the right to vote for citizens of both sexes” was rejected by 62 votes to 55.

Men’s Feminism, Theory and Practice

In an interesting chapter on Women and Bebel, the authors trace Bebel’s relationships with a number of women, bringing out the diversities of interactions. This includes mutual influences and assistance, between Bebel on one hand and Gertrud Guillaume-Schack and Hope Adams on the other.

Adams was integrated with the socialist movement, widely known for her health work, herself a physician particularly involved with issues of birth control and patient rights. Because of her hospital connections, Adams could perform abortions. Bebel’s views on abortion in Women and Socialism became increasingly sympathetic, possibly influenced by women such as Hope Adams.

Schack, for her part, was mostly outside the socialist movement, and her ideas were often at loggerheads with those of other feminists too. She was instrumental, nonetheless, in drawing attention to the situation of prostitutes.

She financed the first working-class women’s newspaper, The Woman Citizen, and wanted to organize women against state regulation of prostitution. She believed prostitutes should have the same rights as men, and opposed restrictions or sanctions on sexual behavior.

Unlike Lenin, Bebel was not uneasy with discussing about prostitution. He raised the issue and examined its causes: gender imbalance and class oppression.

But perhaps the limits of 19th century men’s feminism can also be found in this chapter, provided somewhat unwittingly by the authors. In their discussion on the relationship between Julie Bebel and August, the authors have a desire to show their hero in the best possible light.

Julie, we are told, was completely independent. Bebel’s On the Present and Future Position of Women had emphasized that marriage was a private contract between two fully equal partners, to be dissolved without external constraints when the relationship between them made it necessary.

In real life, say Lopes and Roth, “traditional gender roles prevailed in the early years of their marriage.” (145) But when Bebel was arrested Julie managed his business and served as his political liaison. Bebel’s unstinted support to Julie, including when she had a clash with his business partner, is documented.

What is played down, however, is that this involved a reintroduction of domesticity. Nearly every letter of Julie to August includes references to constraints on her time. And in a letter to Engels, she wrote:

“I was often very dissatisfied that I couldn’t do anything for my intellectual development; but the thought that I could provide a comfortable home for my husband made me happy since this was so important for his intellectual development and work. Because I had to take care of his Party business insofar as I could when he was so often away from home, I was immersed in the spirit of the movement and today remain entirely within it. And so, I must be satisfied with what I have learned.” (157)

On Bebel and Zetkin

Yet the authors’ treatment of Bebel is far more gentle than their treatment of Clara Zetkin. Reading their book, one gets the feeling that Bebel had expunged the term “domesticity” from his politics, while Zetkin brought it all back.

Out of her massive works and writings, only an extract is cited, out of context, to claim that she treated women as mothers. Even at the level of personal life, they write that “Her proletarian experience (that of the impoverished intelligentsia) may have been framed by socialist theory but it was worked out in terms of middle-class solutions.” (211)

Lopes and Roth criticize Zetkin for a speech she gave at the 1893 International Socialist conference, when she criticized “so-called women’s rights.” But this was Zetkin’s criticism of liberal bourgeois feminism, particularly its opposition to protective legislation in the name of freedom of the individual.

This debate must be put in its historical and theoretical context. In every country where liberal feminism developed, a sizeable group of feminists held that given equal legal and political rights they could then work out their futures as individuals. To them, it appeared as though protective legislation was an admission of the inferior status of women — whereas for the woman worker, it meant no more than being equally exploited.

In addition, the equal right of the gentlewoman to go out and work could well come about through the exploitation of the domestic servant. The rhetoric of gender equality here masked acute class inequality and exploitation, which often came out openly in some feminist writings.

This was a period when both the socialist workers and liberal bourgeois women were trying to develop movements. In the 1890s Zetkin was fighting for a strategy based on mass struggle, and opposing one limited to petitioning. Thus her scathing comment that the women’s movement of the bourgeoisie “allegedly” fights for women’s rights has some substance.

Secondly, Zetkin is dealing with a number of sharp tactical questions. She was part of a group of women who were coming into the party and trying to make a place for themselves in a radical milieu, not as assistants, but as equal partners — all the way to the party leadership.

They had to adopt a distinct strategy to do so. A Bebel did not need recourse to the strategies that a Zetkin or a Rosa Luxemburg would adopt (each her own strategy), because he did not “suffer” from being a woman. Lopes and Roth’s unproven suggestion that Bebel’s post-1891 trajectory was a case of self-effacement in the light of Zetkin’s rise needs to be buttressed by considerable evidence before it can be regarded as convincing.

An Important Contribution

It is necessary to add in conclusion that these criticisms should not stand in the way of appreciating the real services rendered by Lopes and Roth. Bebel appears, no longer as an individual, but as part of a current, and the achievements as well as limitations of men’s feminism can be understood from the book.

Men’s Feminism has been amply researched, and a huge amount of primary sources unearthed. It is also, despite the research load, an eminently readable book. It therefore allows us to look into a formative period of the socialist and the socialist women’s movement.

ATC 109, March-April 2004