Franz Mehring Was Marx’s First Biographer and a Marxist Pioneer in His Own Right

Franz Mehring joined the fledging socialist movement in Bismarck’s Germany and became one of its most brilliant propagandists. From his historical writings to his biography of Karl Marx, Mehring left behind a vital body of work for Marxists to draw upon.

German socialist Franz Mehring. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Born in Prussia two years before the 1848 revolution, Franz Mehring lived long enough to be a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany in December 1918. He was the first significant biographer of Karl Marx, and his biography remained the standard reference on Marx’s life for half a century. Mehring also wrote a major history of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) over a century ago that is still worth reading today.

He was a pioneer of Marxist writing on literature, and for over two decades he was widely regarded as the most brilliant socialist journalist in Germany, if not the whole of Europe. He died of illness in January 1919, during the last throes of the Spartacist uprising and the German revolution of 1918–19, and just two weeks after the murder of his comrades and friends Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Franz Mehring clearly lived a remarkable life and left behind a weighty body of work: the old East German edition of his collected works includes fifteen large volumes, even though it omitted most of his earlier writing and some other material. Yet his name is still not very well known to the English-speaking public.

Mehring’s career spanned the entire duration of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918. His trajectory still has much to tell us about the fate of democracy in Germany, the role of the printed word and newspaper press in the development of democratic politics, and the evolution of German socialist thought.

The Dismal Nests of Pomerania

Mehring came from an unpromising background for a revolutionary. He was born in Schlawe in Prussian Pomerania — today Sławno in Poland — on February 27, 1846. Mehring would later describe the small towns of largely rural Pomerania as “the most dismal nests of philistines,” where people “vegetate more than they live.”

Mehring’s family was archetypically Prussian, deeply rooted in the conservative Prussian establishment. His father was a civil servant, a tax official, and by all indications a loyal and conscientious servant of the Prussian crown. He went to schools that sought to instill loyalty to the monarchy and belief in Protestantism, and at one stage he expected to study Protestant theology.

Mehring later claimed to have spent much of his childhood in Protestant vicarages. This Prussian upbringing left a deep imprint on his thinking, although the main expression of this later in life was the fervor with which he reacted against the influence of Prussian conservatism in the German Empire.

The young Mehring’s horizons were broadened when he attended university in Leipzig, one of Germany’s most important commercial cities and a center of the publishing industry. In the 1860s, it was also in the process of becoming the cradle of the nascent German labor movement. In addition to this, Saxony’s largest city was drawn into the political conflicts around the unification of the German states.

After a couple of years in Leipzig, studying classics, Mehring moved to Berlin. The previously dull Prussian city was turning into the rapidly growing capital of the powerful new German Empire. Mehring seems to have been soon distracted from his studies, drawn into radical democratic politics and journalism.

Liberalism and Socialism After 1848

Mehring’s first political activities were on the radical left of middle-class politics, in the camp of the bourgeois-democratic veterans of the 1848 revolutions. This group was separate from the fledgling German socialist movement but maintained friendly relations with it.

August Bebel, who became the preeminent German socialist leader from the 1870s to his death in 1913, later remembered long nights drinking with his fellow socialist Reichstag member Wilhelm Liebknecht and the young democrats from the bourgeois radical camp, including Mehring, during the first year of the new Reich. Bebel added that Liebknecht and Mehring were better drinkers than he was.

In German politics during the early 1870s, the faction of genuine bourgeois democrats was tiny. Most German liberals were willing to knuckle under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s authoritarian treatment of parliament in exchange for national unification and policies to promote industrial development.

The very notion of “democracy” was still considered radical in an era when many state and local government elections were run on highly discriminatory property-based franchises. It was one thing for middle-class men of liberal views to advocate parliamentary scrutiny of executive government, but quite another to contemplate allowing the workers in their businesses and their domestic servants to out-vote gentlemen of property and education.

Mehring spent much of the early 1870s writing for various democratic and liberal newspapers. He was sympathetic enough to social democracy to write a pamphlet attacking the National Liberal historian Heinrich von Treitschke for having written an anti-socialist essay.

However, Mehring soon broke with Bebel, Liebknecht, and the newly unified SPD when he accused people connected with the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung under the democrat Leopold Sonnemann of corruption — this was the time of a speculative boom-and-bust cycle that followed German unification. For their part, Bebel and Liebknecht regarded Sonnemann as a political ally.

Mehring never compromised when he believed that he was fighting corruption. For a few years he became a harsh critic of the SDP, writing a critical history of the party that socialists found to be especially damaging, as Mehring was better informed about the party than any other outsider.

Toward Social Democracy

In 1878, Bismarck banned the SPD and exiled many of its active members. Faced with this exercise of state repression, Mehring’s sympathy for social democracy started to revive. During the 1880s, Mehring edited the Berlin Volks-Zeitung (People’s News), a democratic paper that staked out the most left-wing position of any nonsocialist newspaper.

In March 1889, Mehring published an article on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution in which he paid tribute to the revolutionaries who had challenged the reactionary Prussian elite and stressed the outstanding role of working people in the revolutionary struggles of that time. The police responded by banning the Volks-Zeitung — the only case of a nonsocialist newspaper being banned under the anti-socialist law.

Police raided the newspaper’s editorial office and Mehring’s home and confiscated masses of banned socialist literature. As soon as the anti-socialist law expired, Mehring wrote to the police to demand the return of the confiscated books, newspapers, and periodicals.

During the late 1880s, Mehring came increasingly close to a Marxist understanding of history as well as moving politically closer, once again, to the socialist movement. His final break with attempts to organize a bourgeois-democratic political camp in the German Empire came in 1890 when he took up the cause of an actress, Elsa von Schabelsky.

In a case with resonances of today’s #MeToo movement, Schabelsky had found it impossible to get any work in Berlin theaters after she left a relationship with the influential theater critic Paul Lindau. Mehring wrote a pamphlet attacking the corruption of Berlin’s literary and theatrical cliques that had orchestrated the boycott of Schabelsky. When Lindau’s supporters in the Berlin press turned on Mehring, attacking him personally, Mehring responded with a longer and even more polemical pamphlet called Capital and Press.

He had now burned his bridges with the world of bourgeois journalism. Not long after the appearance of Capital and Press, he began writing a weekly “Letter from Berlin” that appeared in the first pages of the Marxist journal Die Neue Zeit (The New Age).

Marxist Missiles

Mehring’s new role on Die Neue Zeit was viewed with ambivalence by its leading editor, Karl Kautsky, the party leader August Bebel, and others — although Kautsky and Bebel both admired Mehring’s capacities as a journalist and writer. On the basis of his abilities alone, he was considered an obvious choice for editor in chief of Vorwärts, the party’s central daily newspaper. However, there were political and personal sensitivities on the grounds of his previous conflicts with the party, and with leading figures like Wilhelm Liebknecht in particular.

Mehring’s regular column in Die Neue Zeit was the only part of the journal that many people would reliably read every week, according to Bebel. Mehring’s articles appeared anonymously at first, with an arrow serving as a cipher. Initially, the anonymity was to spare the journal embarrassing commentary on Mehring’s past as a critic of the party. But the arrows came to symbolize the missiles that Mehring directed every week at reactionary Prussian aristocrats, militarists, imperialists, lily-livered liberals, and others whom he sought to skewer with his columns.

From 1902 to 1907, Mehring also took over the editorship of the Leipziger Volks-Zeitung (Leipzig People’s Daily). The newspaper, which was based in the industrial center of the “Red Kingdom” of Saxony, became a leading mouthpiece of the SPD’s radical left, gaining attention well beyond its regional base.

In addition to his regular political commentary, the phenomenally well-read Mehring also contributed regular articles and reviews on literature and theatre to Die Neue Zeit and other Social Democratic publications. His first major book as a Marxist and Social Democrat was dedicated to literary history: Die Lessing-Legende (The Lessing Legend).

In this book, Mehring attacked the view of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that prevailed in mainstream bourgeois literary history and criticism. In place of the conventional, conservative view of Lessing, who is best known for his drama of religious tolerance Nathan the Wise, Mehring sought to restore the historical Lessing as a radical, even revolutionary, critic of the social and political order in the German states. He also intended to make the life of Lessing a case study in the superiority of historical materialism over idealistic bourgeois historiography.

Mehring looked to salvage what he regarded as the revolutionary potential of German literature from the age of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — a legacy that had since been abandoned by the bourgeoisie. He wrote on Friedrich Schiller for German workers, trying to emphasize the youthful rebellious Schiller of the Sturm und Drang period, who wrote The Robbers and who had initially sympathized with the French Revolution.

Mehring tried to persuade his comrade Rosa Luxemburg of Schiller’s merits as well. She had been brought up in a family that revered the German classical literary canon and had rebelled against the idealized bourgeois cult of Schiller. Mehring also championed the brilliant radical satirical poet Heinrich Heine, producing an edition of Heine’s works for workers’ libraries. This was at a time when Heine was still devalued by conservative and antisemitic critics.

A People’s Theater

In 1892, Mehring was approached by a group of Berlin Social Democratic workers who were members of the Berlin Freie Volksbühne (Free People’s Theater). They asked him to take over running the association, which organized cheap theater performances for Berlin workers.

The association had been founded by socially critical progressive writers who sought to acquaint workers with the latest avant-garde stage works, chiefly of the Naturalist tendency influenced by Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. There had been a split between the nonsocialist leadership and rank-and-file members, partly over the association’s undemocratic statutes.

Mehring was initially reluctant, arguing that he was not cut out for running associations. He was also doubtful of the efficacy of artistic work during the intense period of class conflict that Germany was experiencing. But he eventually decided to accept the post.

Mehring’s tenure at the head of the Freie Volksbühne is often associated with his interest in recovering the revolutionary spirit of the combative period of German classical bourgeois literature. Yet he was also open to works by contemporary socialist writers, even though Bertolt Brecht’s blend of agit-prop and formal creativity would be another generation away, and suitable works were still scarce.

Mehring gave up his work at the Freie Volksbühne after conflicts with the Berlin police censorship over Gerhart Hauptmann’s dramatization of the 1844 Silesian weavers’ uprising, The Weavers. This demonstrated that his doubts about the potential of the theater to advance socialist aims in the existing German state were well founded.

The Revisionist Ambush

In September 1903, Mehring interrupted his journalistic work for the Leipziger Volkszeitung — three of whose other editors had just been arrested, a common occurrence at that time — to travel to Dresden for the SPD’s party congress. He had been tipped off that certain revisionist delegates were planning to launch a concerted attack on his credibility there.

In the months leading up to the Dresden congress, Mehring had been writing polemical articles criticizing the collusion of some revisionists with the maverick liberal journalist Maximilian Harden, who had been publishing their anonymous critiques of the direction of the SPD. Mehring, who had previously conducted his own journalistic feuds with Harden, published a number of articles attacking the collaboration of Social Democrats with hostile bourgeois periodicals or newspapers.

One of these revisionist writers, Heinrich Braun, organized what Mehring characterized as a veritable “ambush” at the Dresden congress. Braun dredged up material from the 1870s in a bid to discredit Mehring by pointing to his past attacks on the party in nonsocialist periodicals and other publications, long before Mehring had been a party member. The party congress was thus confronted with an organized campaign of character assassination against one of the SPD’s foremost radical left voices. Braun accused Mehring of an ideological “reign of terror,” which could be seen as a backhanded compliment to the power of Mehring’s pen.

Historians often characterize the Dresden congress of 1903 as the climax of the party’s “revisionist debate.” Much of it took the form of a “Mehring debate,” with Mehring’s character and biography becoming a proxy for the broader debate about the attempts of the party’s right wing to “revise” its Marxist program.

Bebel had had his own differences with Mehring — and would have more disagreements with him in the years to come over their respective readings of the party’s history. The SPD leader described Mehring as a “psychological riddle,” noting that his combative personality made him sometimes his own worst enemy.

On this occasion, however, Bebel threw his enormous authority into the debate on the side of Mehring and against the revisionists. In a long and powerful speech, Bebel declared himself the “mortal enemy of this bourgeois society” and rejected revisionist efforts at accommodating the party to collaboration with its political opponents. The result was a resounding defeat for the revisionists, although the right-wing tendency managed to extend its influence in the party’s leadership over the following years.

Mehring as Historian

By this time, Mehring was already established as the leading historian of the party. In 1897–98, his history of German Social Democracy until the Erfurt Program of 1891 appeared. Its second, revised edition appeared in four volumes in 1903–04.

The first half of Mehring’s history took the reader through the origins of socialism in Germany until the founding of the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV) under the leadership of Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863 — the first independent German socialist workers’ party. It is a notable fact that this occurred a full thirty years before the creation of the Independent Labour Party in Britain, despite Britain’s head start in industrialization compared to the German states.

The second half of the work covered the early years of the ADAV, the foundation of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party at Eisenach in 1869 under Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, the unification of the party in 1875, and the anti-socialist law. Mehring’s account of the period of the anti-socialist law is still valuable, but the whole work is testimony to his wide and deep knowledge of the history of socialism.

Bebel criticizes Mehring’s account of social democracy’s early years in Germany for its sympathies with Lassalle and the Lassallean strand in social democracy. For the same reason, it was later censured by East German historians in the old German Democratic Republic, who otherwise praised Mehring.

This leaning may have been partly a product of Mehring’s Prussian-centric perspective. One of the main differences between Lassalle’s ADAV and the party of Bebel and Liebknecht was that the latter were strongly opposed to the creation of a Prussian-dominated German Empire, preferring a more federal solution and a larger German confederation in which Austria might have provided a counterweight to Prussia. Lassalle and his followers, on the other hand, were more prepared to accept a smaller German state in which Prussia was predominant.

Yet Mehring was no friend of conservative Prussian historiography. He produced some of his most vigorous writing on German history as a reaction against the patriotic and nationalist commemorative literature that poured out of publishing houses during the centenary commemorations of the Napoleonic Wars, glorified in Germany as the “Wars of Liberation.”

Mehring vehemently attacked such patriotic history writing from a historical materialist standpoint, stressing the cultural and political backwardness of Prussia under the domination of the agrarian Junker class, who continued to exercise a baleful, reactionary influence in the imperial German state a hundred years after Germany’s so-called “liberation” from Napoleon. He also wrote a concise survey history of German history from the Middle Ages on for working-class readers.

The Life of Marx

In 1918, Mehring published his last major work, a biography of Karl Marx. This drew on decades of study of Marx’s life and works — Mehring had been interested in writing a biography of Marx as early as the mid-1880s. He had compiled an edition of Lassalle’s correspondence with Marx and Engels and had been the preferred choice of Marx’s daughter Laura Lafargue to edit the Marx-Engels correspondence.

As subsequent critics of Mehring have pointed out, he was partly responsible for the bowdlerizing of some passages of Marx’s letters that reflected negatively on German socialist leaders or used offensive language (especially about Lassalle). The Russian Marx scholar David Ryazanov, who was then head of Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute, published an unexpurgated version in 1929.

Despite many subsequent biographies of Marx, Mehring’s work arguably remained the standard biography until David McLellan’s biography over half a century later, which benefited from the findings of several decades of scholarship that Mehring’s work had helped to stimulate. It remains a vivid and readable portrait of Marx.

Mehring’s work did have some limitations. He was reluctant to engage too closely with what he considered esoteric philosophical debates, feeling satisfied that Marx’s historical materialism had solved any outstanding philosophical problems once and for all. And he readily acknowledged his limitations in economic theory, enlisting the assistance of his friend Rosa Luxemburg for the chapters on Marx’s economic thought.

Later writers have accused Mehring of hagiography: most recently, Gareth Stedman Jones has argued that he mythologized Marx. Yet Mehring was willing to point out instances where he believed that Marx had been unfair in dealings with contemporaries — for example, Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin.

War, Revolution, and Counterrevolution

Mehring’s Marx biography was completed under the most difficult circumstances: war, political repression (including a period of imprisonment), and debilitating illness. The appearance of the book was also delayed by long battles with the military censorship, which eventually involved the Reich chancellor, head of the imperial government.

After the disastrous vote for war credits by the Social Democratic Reichstag deputies on August 4, 1914, Mehring joined Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Karl Liebknecht in the activist antiwar minority of the party, forming first the Gruppe Internationale and then the Spartacus League. Mehring worked on the illegal “Spartacus Letters” and the first issue of the journal Die Internationale with Luxemburg in 1915.

His antiwar agitation resulted in his arrest in August 1916, and incarceration for four months at the age of seventy. The following year, he was elected to the Prussian state parliament as a replacement for Karl Liebknecht, who was still in jail for his antiwar and revolutionary activism.

Mehring gave two speeches in the Prussian parliament, the first of which criticized wartime censorship, the second of which was a critique of the prowar SPD right. His voice was barely audible over the interjections of his political opponents. Despite his thunderous pen, Mehring always had a weak voice when it came to public speaking. Age, illness, and the effects of his recent incarceration in a Berlin city jail had weakened it further.

Mehring greeted the coming of the Russian revolution in 1917 enthusiastically, but he was too ill to participate in person in the founding of the Communist Party of Germany in December 1918. Its newspaper, Die Rote Fahne (the Red Flag) still brought out some of his writing, including an account of his time in prison.

Mehring died of inflammation of the lungs on January 29, 1919, two weeks after the murder of his comrades Luxemburg and Liebknecht by right-wing troops. Mehring’s friend and the first editor of his collected works, Eduard Fuchs, left a moving description of how profoundly distressed and shaken Mehring was at the news of the murders. Fuchs suggested that the effects of the shock on Mehring’s weakened constitution, already marked by the rigors of his imprisonment a couple of years earlier, hastened his death.

No sooner had Fuchs completed his edition of Mehring’s Marx biography, which was already the fifth edition of the work, than the Reichstag fire of February 1933 provided a pretext for the brutal repression of the German left by the Nazis. A couple of months later, Nazi students were burning Mehring’s books along with many other products of “un-German” literature. Burned by the Nazis, then (selectively) canonized by the East German Socialist Unity Party after 1949, Mehring’s works still deserve to be better known today.