a friendly meeting
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Bismarck and Lassalle
by Simon King




Bismarck took off his pointed helmet. There was no need for it now, as he did not have to address the Prussian parliament, as this was a leisurely meeting between friends. He took off his uniform, which was festooned with an assortment of honours and medals. He was now wearing a black overcoat.
He sat down and chumped on his cigar, its smoke emanated from his bushy moustache. He adjusted his bow tie and scratched his equally bushy eyebrows. His looked stern and pensive.

The door creaked and a figure moved in. The smoke that Bismarck exhaled had now vanished. He could see the figure who had walked in and, indeed, he was expecting him – it was Ferdinand Lassalle.

Lassalle had a somewhat angular face and he, too, wore an overcoat and a bowtie. He had black frizzy hair, a moustache and green eyes. He gripped a cane in a flamboyant fashion. He took a seat in the chair directly opposite Bismarck and clutched the arms vigorously.  

This was their sixth meeting. They had been meeting – secretly – over the past three months. Indeed, it would bring disrepute to both Bismarck and Lassalle if anyone else found out, which meant that these meetings were discrete affairs. Lasalle gripped his hands and grinned. Bismarck continued to look stern and pensive and took another puff off his cigar.

Lassalle was a socialist democrat whilst Bismarck was an aristocratic Junker. Although this seemed like an unlikely union of minds, they found some common ground. They were both interested in workers’ rights, state assistance for workers, they were nationalists and they were both equally contemptuous of liberals. However, Lassalle’s agitations meant that he had gone to jail, where he missed out on the revolutions of 1848. Indeed, the Dusseldorf police had identified him as one of the most dangerous members of the revolutionary movement. Unlike Marx and Engels, Lassalle was primarily an activist, although he had written a doctoral thesis on Heraclitus. Meanwhile, Bismarck had been Minister-President of Prussia since 1862. In other words, he personified the establishment. Additionally, he was worried about the rising tide of socialism and had toyed with the idea of outlawing socialist meetings altogether.
‘Shall we talk about the workers again?’ Lassalle asked, with a mischievous grin. This was, after all, where they found common ground.

Although he had compassion for the poor, Lassalle was a product of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and he was drawn to aristocratic society, which meant that his meetings with Bismarck were not that incongruous. Unlike Marx, he had a libertarian streak and believed in free human agency. Crucially, he believed in the power of the state to fight social injustice – once more, unlike Marx who believed in the goal of both a stateless and classless society.

Bismarck took another puff of his cigar and glanced at Lassalle’s smirking face. ‘Every worker deserves security and a decent quality of life. He should be able to find work and enjoy access to health care, unemployment insurance, fair wages and pensions.’

‘So why are you perturbed by the socialist movement? Surely we need representation in parliament? We are a better way of representing working class interests than the liberals and the Progress party. The Prussian parliament represents a very small part of the population. They represent capital and property. The people and the Prussian state must become one entity,’ Lassalle interjected.

Bismarck grunted. ‘Capitalism is the main engine of growth for our nation. I cannot abide the thought of the socialists taking control of parliament – they would wreck our country. I do not believe that the common ownership of the means of production is a… viable option. However, the liberals overstate the importance of constitutional matters.’

Lassalle once more smirked. ‘They claim that you attained the presidency unlawfully. They claim that more and more power is being concentrated in one person – Bismarck. You always insisted on sole control of foreign affairs. However, I would argue that constitutional issues are issues of power. The working classes must agitate – lawfully – to attain universal suffrage and later to attain representation in parliament. The exploited, overworked and underpaid industrial masses must become free men.’

Was Lassalle trying to ingratiate himself with Bismarck? Marx claimed that the man ‘worked for him.’ The very thought of speaking to the man would have made Marx recoil. However, Lassalle believed that Bismarck was an enemy who needed to be courted and persuaded. Meanwhile, Bismarck could not form an alliance with the liberals, as they disagreed with him on constitutional issues. Could Bismarck form an alliance with socialist democrats? This was going too far, as Bismarck abhorred the idea of Prussia becoming socialist. Piece meal reform, however, could subdue revolutionary agitation and the likes of Lassalle.

Bismarck was feeling charitable: ‘I am glad to have a man of such talents and intellect as my neighbour in my country. Although I believe that the socialist threat must be vanquished, an electoral alliance between conservatives and socialists is preferable to one between conservatives and liberals. Talk of constitutional issues is moot – what we really need is a royal constitution for the benefit of the masses.’

Lassalle interjected with the following remarks: ‘A royal dictatorship would be a step in the right direction… if it benefited the whole community… We need to seize parliament and have representation for the workers.’

Bismarck fiddled with his bushy moustache before saying: ‘This might all blow over… I might get the liberals on my side… with a good war… Legitimate territorial conquests could be made in Denmark, Austria and France… Also, I would like to see a united Germany… With Prussia as the most important component… That would get the liberals on my side… Then they would shut up about my unlawful rule.’


This was a strange alliance, but it was wholly necessary for both men. Could it lead to political negotiations? Could it lead to an alliance between Junkers and socialist democrats? Bismarck was a nationalist and a monarchist whereas Lassalle was a socialist, a revolutionary and a democrat. Bismarck was a masterful statesman who thought that an alliance with Lassalle could siphon off the liberals whose views on economics were the prevalent views of the day. Some of Lassalle’s ideas could be useful, as state aid for workers could create nationalist sentiment and pave the way to a united Germany. Adopting some of his ideas could crush the socialist movement, too. Only the educated middle classes cared for democracy and constitutional matters.

Ultimately, all of this was moot, as they both respected each other as individuals. They both looked at each other and smiled. Both men walked up to each other and shook hands.

‘See you next week, Bismarck.’

‘See you next week, Lassalle.’  




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