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August 31: The Socialist Duelist

August 30, 2015

Ferdinand Lassalle, a German socialist who was familiar with Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine and was also a proponent of Reform Judaism, died at 39 of wounds incurred in a duel on this date in 1864. “Because the family of his bride-to-be, Helene von Doenniges, [had] rejected him on account of his Jewish origin and his dubious past,” writes Shlomo Na’aman at the Jewish Virtual Library, “Lassalle provoked the duel in order to vindicate his social and political respectability.” Lassalle had been active in the 1848 German revolution and was a widely admired jurist, pamphleteer, and socialist philosopher. He founded the Algemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (General German Workers’ Association) in 1863, and was described by Bismarck, with whom he corresponded and met, as “very much a nationalist and a monarchist.” Despite Lassalle’s financial support for some of Karl Marx’s writing projects, Marx and Engels condemned him as unfaithful to class-based politics. Nevertheless, writes Na’aman, “During the classical period of international Socialism before World War I, Lassalle was honored as one of its principal figures. While Marx and Engels worked mainly abroad, Lassalle laid the foundation of the Social Democratic movement in Germany. His career showed him to be a man of extraordinary ability and his writings reveal great depth of thought.”

“Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.” —Ferdinand Lassalle