English translation by Charlotte Anheier
Photo by Tommy Truong79,
CC BY License
Erinnerungen eines Proletariers aus der
(Memoirs of a proletarian from the revolutionary labor movement)
Josef Peukert (1913)
From My Youth
The memories of my youth are depressing images of the proletariat which exists in different forms in all modern societies. A bitter longing and deprivation surrounded the untimely death of my mother from the awful proletarian's illness, which has affected a fifth of the civilization of my hometown. Although the whole district in the Isergebirge, had become somewhat of a health resort for "Schwindsuechtige". The glass industry, which provided work for a tenth of the civlization in the mountains and valleys surrounding my home town, divided the workers into those who blew glass and those who worked the products. The products, that come in the form of pearls, prisms, bottons, broaches, earrings, and other luxuries for women, kids and men, used by the whole world, do not show the amount of labor, hardschip and energy it took to make them. Especially in times of economic depression, the workers do not earn even enough to live on, and this is how it was in my childhood.
My father, whom I loved though he was a strict man, was a productive man who was not at liberty to own as much as it would take to support a family. Because of my sick mother I began working at six years of age from early morning until late at night in order to help support the family as much as I could. Later, after my mother died, and I was about ten years of age, my father opened his own store and worked from four in the morning until nine o'clock at night and I was always by his side. At eleven years of age I was unable to attend school anymore because I had to learn how to run the store. I remember that when I was in school I never even thought about missing a day or a class. I would go to school in shoes that were falling apart even in the worst snow storms and I would be very upset if I had to miss a class. I wanted to gain a higher education, to "study" but my father would not hear a word of it. In his opinion, it was much more important that I learn to work, become a good worker, and that if I really saw the need I could take private lessons with a neighbor. So I worked the same hours as my father, from four in the morning in the summer and five in the winter until eight or nine o'clock as hard as my child-like physique and mentality would allow and twice during the week and on Sundays I would see my private teacher who taught me the secrets of mathematics, how to keep books and correct correspondence, etc..
Our material belongings had grown as my father's store had been successful. We did not only sell items to local businesses and individuals but exported to big cities like Frankfurt and Leipzig and my father exported to other countries himself. If my youth had been like it was when my father had the store it would have been a happy childhood even though I worked hard. But I had a stepmother, who made my life a living hell in every sense of the word.
During the first years of their marriage she was nice to us --- to my sister and me --- but when she had her own children she became just the opposite. She forced my sister out of the house and secretly and openly treated me horribly. Mean, selfish and greedy as she was, she was never able to support herself let alone help the family and often took things from my father's store, which would anger him. Since I had learned to keep books on the store, I was aware of every item in storage and in the store and whenever something went missing I knew it was my stepmother's doing. This only worsened our relationship especially when my father would leave her the keys to the shop while he traveled.
My stepmother's actions nearly drove me to insanity but I learned to keep quiet because I knew my father was as bitter and depressed as I and whether his intentions were good or bad he only ever wanted to keep the peace within the home; he often failed and there would be a household war. I finally got up the courage to explain the issues to my father and begged him to send me somewhere else. He became so angry with me I could not even finish my plea. Many relatives and men who provided fatherly support to me tried to persuade my father to hear me out but to no avail. And so it happened that at 16 years of age, while my father was on a trip to Leipzig and after another awful fight with my stepmother, I left for Germany with the help of my uncle in the hope of finding a fitting position.
After traveling to Dresden and being strung along for weeks by an employment agency which charged five "Taler", I traveled around for a few more weeks as a homeless man finding my way to Hamburg and then Hannover where I finally found a position with a painter named Fettkoeter. First I was just a worker but soon became a student.
In Hannover I heard a socialist speech for the first time. The speaker's views made a deep impression on me. The acquaintance that brought me to the meeting helped inform me on the subject but I was unable to take part in the movement because I attended night school classes. Therefore, I could only attend some public meetings every now and again but I felt instinctively drawn to these ideas immediately.
In 1874 I was asked to return home due to an error in the year I was born: Upon my return I noticed that numerous socialist book and education clubs has been established which I joined with the energy only youth possesses. This represents the beginning of my active part in the worker's movement.
These organizations were real and true worker's unions, in which workers learned their rights and developed their ability to think independently and feelings were shared and explored. Their knowledge was deepened in ways unthinkable before. Any German literature that could bring new ideas was collected and distributed during lectures. Through this knowledge building a group of agitators quickly developed. These powers shook the entire region out of its lethargy.
During this time the message and culture of the party were completely unknown. The members of the region pictured socialism in a young, naive way; they thought of it as the idea that encapsulated the very concept humanity. It became a something like a north pole to them around which all people must turn. It became each individual's goal to free himself from the constraints of society and prepare for a more equal, more brotherly society. We all hoped to reach this new society soon; according to our childish, naive opinion it would only take the education of the masses. Soon we felt the pressures of the powerful elite against our new ideas; we did not know with what meanness, horror and pressure these powers could come upon us. We believed that the educated class, the Bourgeoisie, above all other social groups, would realize the promise of socialism and enact those ideas immediately. But soon we were taught through experience that was not so.
I no longer had a free minute to spare in which I wasn't busy learning or teaching what I had read and learned. During this time I was fortunate enough to meet a man who taught me very much and stood by my side as a teacher and adviser. He had been disabled in a factory accident and was a father to a rather large family. He had been searching for a small circle of friends with whom to share his vast knowledge. Even then he began to speak out against certain elements of socialism, which he saw as incompatible with a completely free society. This same plan planted the seeds of my distrust in any form of authority and we can thank him for instilling in us a lack of respect for any authority figures within political parties.
In a short period the increase in followers through our relentless propaganda became noticeable. Even churches were empty on the days we had gatherings; at baptisms, weddings and funerals people often ended up arguing about the new ideas and eventually mass migration out of the churches and church associations. The priests were frantic. But even the masses began to confront us but we did not allow ourselves to break a single law. Soon it came to conflicts between the factory owners, the work-givers, and our illusions of the peaceful development of our ideas were shattered.
Our ideas were problematic for the capitalist powers that existed, because they thought that the workers with the help of the rest of German civilization could sever ties from the capitalist class. The capitalists wanted to find a way to promote interdependence between the classes. It should be noted; the workers of the glass industry at this time and in some ways today still, in comparison to other groups had slightly more freedom from their employers. The factories had organized and attempted, not only to establish loans but also wanted to start art factories, through which they could have more freedom in their work.
Naturally, this idea caused uproar in the capitalist class, which we noticed and used to our advantage when we started organizing the workers into an energetic rebellion. This stand-off started immediately, and lasted for a long and bitter time for both sides.
The speakers for the workers movement were criticized by the factory owners and were also ridiculed by those not involved in the movement. We did not let this deter. Because it came to violence, the military was sent. With these, it also came to fights, during which there were not fatalities, but many were wounded. We had a very hard battle, everything we attempted: the materialistic world view, the fight against social emancipation, the workers organization, the reliance on what we'd already won, just about everything was new and different for the rest of German civilization; we stood at the head of the movement, lived every experience personally, every situation and fight. We had an incredible drive to the right thing, which was what we were fighting for. Regardless, it took all our strength and determination against the capitalist coalition, which stood in cahoots with the rest of German civilization to ensure their inability to impose their rule on us. Mostly I was a target for opposition because I was the youngest on the strike committee and because I was inexhaustible, I had no fear, day or night, during any storm, and especially not during a fight. However, no one could ever get at me because they believed that I would eventually tire, which would have happened had my uncle not provided me with room and board. Previously I would not accept any shelter, food or goods from the workers I was involved with because it did not seem right.
It had lasted six months! Finally the fabric owners realized their lack of power over us and allowed themselves, thereby, to enter into negotiations with us. Our demands were: that loans must only be paid after the worker makes more than what is due in the loan, and that the process will be overseen by the workers union. We came to an agreement based on ratifications requested by various worker groups form different factories and organizations, in which I, as speaker, established the last finalizing victory, which allowed various small factories to support our goals and thereby pressured larger factory owners and exporters to accept the same agreements and terms. The fight was over, we had won complete victory, and I left the region because I had previously received a job offer through a relative as a traveling salesman.
This was my first real attempt in proletariat's struggle for emancipation. I could have become unproductive, selfish, and domineering, because at only 20 years of age I was well respected among the workforce. From all sides I was offered good work and many positions: but I was so fulfilled by the victory that I wanted to step back from the spotlight in order to avoid all the praises that were unappealing to me. But within these two years, I had become a convinced socialist. Not the type to swear by some prophet or thoughtlessly follow what is preached to him, but the kind of person who, through understanding of his place in nature and society, comes to the understanding of mankind and has taken on the fight of the betterment of mankind as though it was his life's duty.
However, I still stood on the outskirts of the socialist movement. I felt, even then, that the leaders of the socialist party were too narrow minded, and saw things too one-sidedly, without taking into account that there could be better options. Note that that this time, the entire movement was in Austria, specifically in the northwest. The ideas of the movement, though attempts were made by certain elements, did not become part of the German socialist party's discipline, although the movement leaned heavily on the ideas of the German socialist party. The following example will illustrate this.
After the fight, between Scheu and Oberwinder --- which had dealt a fatal blow to the Austrian movement --- Sheu had retreated to London and the group known as "Gleichheit" (or Sameness), was, for a while, without leadership. The movement suffered double in this way and therefore some acquaintances began having discussions with Sheu, asking for his return, and to reclaim his position and thereby the movement. Scheu explained that he will return only if his loans in London are paid off. After discussing this, we decided to decline the offer for the following reason: "the workers movement will not offer financial support to certain members and anyone who honestly supports the movement will be personally ready to make certain sacrifices." Except for a small minority, the delegates agreed on this statement. Sheu retreated for years from the movement and the central group he had led was forced to provide their own leadership. But the memory of this event lasted many years - until Dr. Victor Adler joined in the Austrian movement.
A Bitter Lesson from the Life of Salesman
No illusion is more convincing and believable as that everyone who works and battles in the economy will reach a pay off; therefore, in our movement we had to fight equally hard against this idea. It is at best an illusion we use to deceive others and ourselves but in most cases, as can be witnessed through experience, it is a selfish speculation that proves the easily deceivable nature of the working class. In numerous experiences I have found that those who own their own businesses and hope to eventually achieve the big pay off are rarely dedicated to anything else. They do not think to do more with their lives. Those who own businesses, whether they are more or less involved with them, were rarely involved in our movement unless it affected them somehow --- their activeness only went so far as to be reactionary. They hang onto the wings of the revolution, which can beat harder and cause more change depending on their impact and influence on the movement.
It is not possible in modern society to be both a businessman and a revolutionary at the same time because it represents a psychological absurdity. The first ingredient in the kind of businessman who can "make something of himself" is a healthy portion of selfishness and a lack of morals and ethics. If he possesses these things he will reach success; without such aspects, he will never achieve success and will be crushed by the competition. He must set everything else aside and care only for his business and success. To join a movement for the emancipation of the worker would take up too much time. Once a businessman chooses to put energy into such a movement, this energy is lost in terms of his business and confusion sets in. In his mind he must make a choice between putting energy into his store and remaining wealthy or choosing the life of a socialist, a revolutionary, and being poor. What allows one man to sleep easy, keeps the other awake, tossing and turning, all night. In this way a member of the Bourgeoisie could become a revolutionary because someone with financial stability could put his or her efforts into some other cause.
In socialists and revolutionaries selfishness and greediness are never found in enough quantity to fight in the economy with the businessman. The revolutionary is naturally selfless regarding his fellow humans, offering anything he can and sensitive to others. Therefore, he is more likely to share another's pain than to see someone's downfall as his means to success and exploitations. Prior to coming to these realizations I spent much time studying and thinking about my experiences. Like most of the socialists at this time, I too cherished the superstition that one could be a businessman and revolutionary at the same time. Some, mostly the disliked leaders of the movement, who could not gain employment elsewhere, we helped set up small stores that were sponsored by the striking glass workers and many others whom we could not help left the region. I had already gained employment through a relative but I did not follow through because I did not want to leave my comrades before the end, the decision. Only when the fight had ended in a victory for us did I leave for my new job as a traveling trimmings factory.
My "Chef" was the kind of person who wanted to get as rich as possible as fast as he could and was unconsciously made this clear to all through his thoughtless ways. Though I was always concerned with this, I was met with reproach because I was too determined and after our second tour I had to make it clear that I would no longer allow him to use me as his henchman. Immediately thereafter I was given a job in a higher rank at the same factory and in the same branch. This part of the firm was better established and its employes made significantly more money.
Here I felt comfortable and worked hard, happily. I had the opportunity to meet a great deal of people, gain new understanding of business and the interactions between people in this world. I was able to work with some of the propaganda, which did not feel right but I was successful at my firm and as the factory began expanding other were closing down and asking their salesmen to return to their homes. I had much freedom in my work and for a while everything was fine until one day when the brutality of the capitalists shattered all my illusions. The following occurred:
"My father, who was severely effected by the economic crisis of 1873, was once again financially secure but was very ill. He needed a great deal of medical care and financial assistance. I did what I could, and sadly it was not enough. Each of my tours took around three to four months and during one of these trips I did not see my father though he wanted to see me urgently. During the following tour I wanted to take a detour to visit him. The "competition" was on my heels and I would not have been able to make the sale if I took the detour. With a heavy heart I offered my desire to be a good child to the betterment of the company with the hope that after this tour I would visit him on a longer trip home.
My father, who loved me very much, and who was very excited for my visit was very angry about the turn of events as he feared a worse crisis in the near future and would like to embrace me one more time. Sadly, by the time I received this letter I was already very far away again and I tried to convince myself his health would improve by the end of this tour. By the end I was in Prague where I hoped to finish the trip. I worked hard day and night and planned to visit my father as soon I was done here. With about four days left I received a telegram that my father had died. Upon reading this letter I fell as though struck by lightening in the hotel lobby and was carried while unconscious by the hotel staff to my room. Before the doctor they had called arrived I left for home.
I then remembered that my "Chef" happened to be in Prague visiting relatives at the time and thought to ask him for time off in order to see my family. Shocked and angry I hurried to the house and explained to him what had happened. I was further shocked when my request was denied: I could not bring my father back to life and the company would loose business for nothing". That was too much! This cold, brutal heartlessness of the capitalists, whom I offered so much for, respected with a childish love, brought my confused, angry feelings into a bright realization and so I quit. From this moment on I began to see the bestialities committed by the capitalists, the foundation of the capitalist system became a stomping of all human emotion and anything that cannot be converted to money.
In part because of the previously mentioned events, my nerves were completely shattered and for two weeks I could not get out of bed. At 23 years of age I lost a great deal of hair and it began graying. Thanks to my physical condition and youthful strength, I soon felt better but this was an important turning point in my life. I constructed a new plan for my life, which I would dedicate to the emancipation of the workers.
After reviewing my knowledge I was sure I still had a lot to learn if I would ever achieve something close to significant in my plans. Even then I was aware, through an assessment of my own self, that selfishness and ambition become the enemy of my mission and that I must renounce these concepts. I would have to brace myself for renunciation, disappointment and ingratitude. My entire ambition was concentrated in the desire to selflessly dedicate myself to the emancipation fight, to accomplish something and to help.
Now I faced the question how to best employ myself to this goal? To simply study books was impossible because I had neither the right materials nor enough trust in them. Especially in this group of men who have studied I have found the most narrow-minded individuals, who, because they only knew what they had read, were unable to complete the simplest tasks in real life. Later I found in 999 of 1,000 cases that men who had gained such higher education were crippled in everyday social skills and even in terms of their senses and feelings they become unable to see anything or feel anything. In this way distrustful of learning from books alone, I believed none of this studying could lead to anything practical but instead to indoctrination, and the inability to see both sides. This meant my only option was to travel, in order to experience life, meet people and see the problems first hand. And so, decided that I would never be part of capitalist competition again, I decided to paint houses once again to make enough money to afford the materials I needed to travel. Next, I was interested in France because I had heard and read much of the struggles for emancipation of the workers there.
After being delayed in Metz for a few months, I was able to walk to Paris at the end of 1877. Unknowing of the language and mannerism, I was unable to find work for three months. Many other Germans as well as Austrians had found there way to Paris and in my quarter a small colony formed, which eagerly produced propaganda and attracted many different and later important people. Though the socialist club was my main concern, along with finding new members and bringing them into the group, I was also very interested in Paris, in France and in the general lifestyle there.
In Germany and Austria the literature pointed to France as a country, a people and their facilities and institutions as something to look up to, a glowing principle of what our people could become and for a long time I experienced some disappointment as I was able to live in France and see everything with my own eyes. Although I read the words "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" on all the public palaces, churches and prisons, in reality everything was very different. There were no workers unions or workers publication; it was like the entire population stood in a deep fog, afraid to breathe; it still lived under the fear of the bloody "May week" and the siege.
And this was after the famous "365" was already won, the monarchy-like coup Mac Mahons had been prevented, and the Paris town council burnt public schools down with their pipes. Against these events I found a brotherhood among the workers unlike any other I had ever experienced. However, none of the official movements had anything to do with this.
I watched the first sign of their solidified push for freedom on the same day as the funeral of the old Raspail, the only proponent of the people, who after the fall of the Commune still stuck by his beliefs and fought against the suppression. This giant train of people was so impressive in its quiet way, that the amount of spectacle in this funeral was something of a blasphemy to human spirit. But a few weeks later I had the pleasant opportunity to learn more about the French people.
On June 30th, 1878 a national festival to pay respect to the republic was held. Paris had lived in a state tainted by the suppression of the Commune in which even the whistling of certain songs was forbidden. The preparations for this festival were incredible and a few friends and I decided that we would watch the town from all sides, visit each area during the festivities since all of Paris had turned into a fairground.
At five in the morning we began to wander around. Streets, public areas, and gardens were filled with people with hopeful faces as though they were waiting for something holy. The frivolous Parisian was barely recognizable, as each remained serious in their preparations for the event. At two in the afternoon there was a large concert (1,000 musicians and 3,000 singers), which we arrived at just in time since it already took us a while to reach a place near the stage. The entire area, as far as one could see, was packed full of people.
After the program ended and the musicians and singers left the stage of much applause, suddenly a loud call echoed across the crowd: "La Marseille!". This call for the forbidden song acted like an electric shock. The masses were silenced in the blink of an eye in order that the call may be heard again. The directors of the orchestra were openly confused and discussed whether they could play the song. The masses began to call for the song collectively. In one swift move the musicians grabbed their instruments, the singers took their positions and like a holy jubilation the mighty sounds of the Marseille drifted into the air.
The effect was indescribable! It was as though a single mighty current moved through the thousands of human beings; as though for the first time feelings of joy and happiness had room to grow in their bosoms while old and young and large and small all joined together in this song. It was complete chaos of the cheerful, the crying, the sobbing, those that embraced one another, some who kissed, men and women in festival gowns and blouses, the old and the young all joined together by coincidence who all kissed and embraced and seemed overwhelmed by their joy as though from now on they were free of all fear and tyranny.
From this moment on the chords of the Marseille were once again heard all over the great city. And even though we walked around all parts of the city until late at night we found the same joyful mood everywhere. We didn't notice one act of unfriendliness and didn't even see any drunken persons. And the best part of this whole festival: except for at the military parade we had not noticed one police officer, and not even in Bois de Boulogne did we notice any of those men hired by the capitalists to keep things in order.
The impression this event left on me was so significant, even though I was exhausted that very night I did not want to shut an eye. Over and over the scenes of the day repeated themselves in my mind and I tried to explain by and compare them to everything I had heard, read, experienced in everyday life in which I gained a good understanding of the surrounding people, specifically the French.
Almost involuntarily I asked myself if the population of Paris is as frivolous as it is so often portrayed. No! In these spontaneous, unconscious manifestations of freedom, equality and fraternity there was no sign of flippancy. These feelings came about so purely that even the most morally corrupt man became undeserving of his status. (In fact, on this very day not a single case of thievery, robbery, or violence was reported or witnessed.) Was this the flighty peoples that desire constant change, who are thus characterized by bourgeois historians? Also, no! The manifestations were a completely collective expression of the desire for freedom and humanity loosened the shackles they had worn for so long. Or maybe it was the socialist, goal-orientated Parisian Proletariat in the way they are characterized by the socialist writers? Also, not correct! Everything that happened had no programmed goal, it was spontaneous and the product of a single call. It was about shared emotion, the love between people that only brothers and sisters can only experience in equality. It was about the beginning of hope: that from now on the people will experience happiness together, as a republic.
Throughout these thoughts and reflections I asked myself: Is our way (the socialist way) the right one to achieve freedom? We strive to organize the masses in order to steer them towards certain actions while they broke the cycle of fear spontaneously without any prior planning, without any organization. What they achieved could not have occurred in any better way had there been preparation or organization. Should the final goal of freedom not occur in such a way, making it securer than our legislative efforts? What the masses lack is the understanding of the causes of social problems; once they are aware of these they will be free.
Thus I was brought, during the course of the night, to confusion about the tactics of the socialists. I was not yet an anarchist – beware! I was missing the knowledge of true anarchist principles and the socialist descriptions and especially Engel's "The Bakuninists at Work" had instilled in me a distrust of anarchy. I looked to Marx and Engels as the leaders of social knowledge and to question their intelligence, and principles was like blasphemy in my opinion. However, from then on I became skeptical and started to see and judge everything different than before.
At this time "Equality" appeared in Paris, the first socialist paper since the fall of the Commune. The German socialist club paid the French to allow three delegates to become part of the publication. The main delegate was Carl Hirsch. The most important member of this newsletter was Jules Guesde who was not well versed in the jargon of the workers movement and could therefore make little impact on the workers who complained the leaflet did not support them. All attempts to convince him to find a new way of writing were refused by Guesde. Because C. Hirsch was closely aligned with Guesde, I brought the topic up for debate in one of our club meetings. It was decided that the German delegates should attempt in any way to change Guesde's opinion and C. Hirsch was to step down as representative in favor of another.
Since I was not familiar enough with the French language, I searched, with the help of a translator, for French aids that could distribute the leaflet. In a following meeting Guesde showed his true arrogance – calling the workers dumb boys – and a break occurred between the workers and the paper. Soon after a new leaflet appeared: "Le Prolitaire", which quickly became well read among the French workers.
During this time a crisis within the socialist movement occurred in Germany. The attacks of Hodels and Nobilings broke the artificial bridges between the old and new worldviews and the dependence on class structure. Those who trusted the older ideals, who owned the materials to forcefully destroy the new principles, employed their might to brutally achieve this goal. A law was accepted to outlaw socialism.
With great attention and anticipation we followed the events in Germany. In the countless discussions that followed the tactics of the socialist leaders and the attacks were never defiled with comments of their horrible crimes. Instead, the souls of the attackers were praised and it was expected that in terms of the economy everything would change. From a side so powerful, and goal-orientated as they Socialist party we expected resistance against the new law. Even C. Hirsch, a friend of Liebknechts, shared this expectation and we all waited impatiently. However, no sign of change followed. The leaders who had spoken about the power of the united workers were not filled with cowardly fears regarding their own safety. Every rebellion was marked as a betrayal or crime and thus a seemingly revolutionary party was controlled and without resistance brought to an end.
And no matter what it were the committed, courageous men who allowed this to happen. It was their loss that they were merely warned to march on command without having their own initiatives and willpower or even building their own segment of the party organization. Because, most likely, a group of such intelligent and independent men would have been more powerful than to allow a corruption like this to occur without resistance. My trust in the socialist party was now completely broken.