Revolutionary Refugees: German Socialism in Britain, 1840-1860

Christine Lattek, Revolutionary Refugees: German Socialism in Britain, 1840-1860 (London & New York: Routledge, 2006).

Worker migration is a well established phenomenon, and it has often led to conflict, something which is certainly not unknown today. This is probably the reason why historical migration research has gained new popularity. Frequently, an interface exists between the findings of worker migration studies and studies of working-class political movements and organizations. The emergence of the German (and international) labor movement from around the 1830s on has been treated extensively in literature, particularly in German. Since 1990 new material has become available from previously inaccessible archives. Comprehensive collections of documents, for example, about the Communist League, are now available, as well as a complete collection of the surviving correspondence of Marx and Engels, which has been published in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe.

In her present book, Christine Lattek has made extensive use of this material, but has, at the same time, taken a new approach. As her point of departure she has chosen the German “colony” in London. The reason for this choice is twofold: 1) Labor organizations in London, i.e., especially the German Workers’ Educational Society -– better known under its later name, the Communist Working Men’s Club -– and the Communist League with their predecessors were, for a time, of decisive importance for all of the newborn German labor movement, not only because of their cooperation with Marx and Engels; and 2) the split between the Social and the Liberal Democrats in London following the defeat of the German Revolution in 1848-49 was a pre-determinant for the crucial split between bourgeois and socialists in the formation of German political parties in the 1860s. Certainly these two points are relevant, but Lattek tends to overestimate the importance of developments in London, especially in connection with the Communist League. With Martin Hundt’s thesis on the entire history of the League, an analysis is available which shows that Lattek fails sufficiently to coordinate specific events (in London) with general trends in the League’s other centers of activity.

Lattek analyzes the development of socialist (communist) fundamental viewpoints among German workers in London from around 1840 and their relationship with especially British Chartists and French socialists (including Blanquists). The other subjects in which she takes an interest are the development of Liberal Democracy among German refugees after the defeat of the 1848-49 German revolution, and finally, the connection of the German Liberal and labor movements with the “colony” in London up to approximately 1860. It is regrettable that Lattek did not have the opportunity to use a recent collection of the correspondence of German Liberals from that period, in which the vast majority of the letters emanate from Liberals domiciled in Germany. The fact that Lattek did not know of this correspondence leads her to overestimate the impact of the London Liberal Democratic movement on the discussions among German Liberals.

Lattek demonstrates unambiguously that the illegal German workers’ organization in London developed independently. Discussions in the League of the Just (the secret German workers’ organization existing in various European cities) took a different direction in London than in cities (particularly Paris) where the organization adhered to Wilhelm Weitling’s craft-communism. Lattek sees the discussions in London as an independent development among workers who subsequently got in touch with the Communist Correspondence Bureau in Brussels, i.e. especially Marx and Engels. In this process the two strands mutually influenced each other, and on the basis of discussions between Brussels and London the Communist League was born. The League broke with the existing form of organization as a secret society and developed a new politico-theoretical understanding which found expression in the Communist Manifesto. Lattek clearly attributes more significance to the contribution of the London group than to that of the Brussels communists. This, however, leads her to postulate a divergence between intellectuals and proletarians. Such a divergence is likely to have existed, but it is less one-dimensional than she supposes. Also she fails to problematize that Schapper, the spokesman for the London branch, was by no means a worker (the same is true of the subsequent split in the Communist League in 1850: Schapper’s co-spokesman, Willich, was a former army officer and subsequent general in the American Civil War).

Another important element is the description of the conflicts within the Communist League which already arose during the Revolution 1848-49 especially concerning any cooperation with democratic Liberals, conflicts which deepened substantially after the defeat of the Revolution. There were several reasons for these conflicts. In a number of the League’s branches positions existed which were not in keeping with the new scientific basis of the political stance of the League, but remained based on utopian socialism. The Brussels communists had accepted that the League could make room for divergent positions. These divergences broke out after the defeat and following the return to an exile existence in London on the part of a large number of the League’s members. In fact, the League split into two groups, and the majority of the London members joined the Willich-Schapper organization (the Sonderbund). Whereas the “Marxists” quickly understood that the Revolution had been defeated, the Sonderbund believed that it could be resurrected on the basis of military actions. Lattek deals thoroughly with the Sonderbund’s activity and final decline in 1853. Here she provides us with new insight, as this part of the history of the Communist League has not, to my knowledge, been analyzed in such detail before.

In addition to the League, London had a Workers’ Educational Society for German workers, whose membership at times reached several hundred. This body constituted a kind of external organization for the Communist League. Here also we find new material. 1861 saw the enactment of an amnesty in Prussia aimed at most of the participants in the 1848-49 Revolution, which meant that many of them could now return home. This led to a major shift in the development of the socialist and the liberal opposition. The “colony” in London lost its importance for developments in Germany, something which, in turn, changed its character –- it was no longer a politically dominated exile group with its face turned towards Germany, but a group of immigrants which, in the longer term, was integrated into British society.

In a final chapter Lattek outlines the course of events among Germans in London up to 1914, including, in particular, the role of the German Workers’ Educational Society. To a certain extent this latter organization gained new importance in the period 1878 to 1890, a period during which the labor movement in Germany suffered serious repression. The German Social Democratic Party published an illegal weekly during those years, initially in Switzerland, but following its ban there, in London (1888-90). Also Johann Most lived in London from 1879 to 1883, after which he and his weekly, the Freiheit, went to the United States where he became a leading anarchist.

The book’s argument is sometimes insufficiently clear. For example, in describing developments within the Communist League and the German Workers ‘ Educational Society, the author often fails to pinpoint which of them is specifically meant (e.g. pp. 122, 124). In other passages the author’s line of reasoning is ambiguous, and unfortunately the work contains a few errors relating to persons. A comparison with other cities having numbers of German emigrants could have provided greater depth.

The book makes much new material available to readers who do not master the German language and is also important in that it reminds us that the links between political emigrants and worker migrants, epitomized in the German workers’ organizations in London, may influence developments in their country of origin. Other more recent reminders of this are the liberation processes in, for example, South Africa or Chile, as well as the ongoing struggles elsewhere.

Reviewed by Gerd Callesen

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