Joseph Dietzgen - a sketch of his life by Eugene Dietzgen

Joseph Dietzgen
Joseph Dietzgen

Eugene Dietzgen surveys his father's life. An artisan tanner who educated himself in philosophy and Marxism, befriending Marx & Engels (gaining a complementary mention in Capital), Joseph later came to the aid of the Chicago anarchists in the aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket bombing.
He published several works on his dialectical materialist philosophy and was later criticised by Lenin in his 'Materialism and Empirio-Criticism'.

Submitted by Red Marriott on February 14, 2012


My father, Joseph Dietzgen, was born in Blankenberg, near Cologne, Germany, on December 9, 1828. The place is a former stronghold of a robber baron, romantically situated. A part of the walls and four massive ruins of towers of the old stronghold still lend a picturesque character to the landscape, the effect being heightened by the location of Blankenberg high upon a mountain covered with woods and vineyards, at the foot of which the Sieg, a charming tributary of the Rhine, winds its way.

My grandfather, who was a well-to-do master tanner and a genuine little bourgeois, transferred his tannery, about the year 1835, to the nearby village of Uckerath, a place of about four hundred inhabitants. It owed its relatively busy life to the fact that it was a relay station on the postal route between Francfort and Cologne, which was then much frequented.

My father was the eldest of three brothers and two sisters and resembled more than any of them his mother, a woman of high endowment, who at the age of 74 still attracted attention by her beautiful and stalwart appearance. The Dietzgen's were one of the oldest families in the valley of the Sieg, and the chronicle of the county seat Siegburg mentions some Dietzgen's in the capacity of civil councillors and master tradesmen as far back as 1674.

My father went to the public school in Uckerath, and later on for a short time to the high school in Cologne. He is described as being, up to his fifteenth year, an exceptionally bright boy, always up to some pranks and giving much trouble by his high spirits to the pastor, the mayor, and other prominent citizens of Uckerath and its neighborhood. For this reason, my grandfather sent him for a short while away from Uckerath to the Latin school of a very strict disciplinarian pastor in the village of Oberpleis.

However, his years of adolescence and the awakening of love's longing made a thoughtful young man of him, who in the hours of recreation from tanning in grandfather's shop assiduously studied literature, political economy, and philosophy. He derived some inspiration from the companionship of a playmate of his childhood who attended the university at Bonn.

In those days, 1845-1849, in the shop, where a book was generally found open by the side of his work, he also learned to read French fluently without a teacher and to speak it so well that in 1871, when French prisoners of war were quartered in the town of Siegburg where we lived at that time, he was able to converse with them, while to my surprise the teachers of French in the preparatory college could not do so. A small number of poems of my father, dating from his period of adolescence, 1847-1851, were found among the papers left by him. I reproduce two of them herewith:

By chains of poverty my life is bound,
And superstition's mists obscure my brain.
The curse of toil, the never-ending strain,
Oppresses me and weighs me to the ground.

Made in a mould divine, yet I was found
Amid the filthy garbage of a drain,
The offspring of the outcast and profane,
Doomed to the level of a soulless hound.

A vagabond ! Sufficient for my kind
The beggar's meal, doled out from day to day
With drops of hollow faith to ease my mind.

Bear I my cross until this mortal clay
Shall totter to its grave? Where will you find
My soul? Where Satan holds eternal sway!

Little woman, little song,
Oh, I love you, love you long.
-Fr. v. Schlegel

In my good young days of gladness,
When I felt my nature thrilling
With creation's sweetest madness,
Maidens fair were always willing,
And there was no room for sadness.
In my happy exultation,
And 'mid kisses, songs, and dances,
I defied with animation
Care's and worry's darkest glances.
Woe is me! The tide has turned!

Times have changed. Now frank devotion,
Tender glances, sweet embraces,
Conjure up the marriage notion,
Altar, wedding-ring, and laces,
And a family commotion.
Sadly do I face the question:
Why is love abomination,
Why a shame the sex suggestion,
Unless bless'd by rank and station?
Woe is me! The tide has turned!

Pretty maiden, bright and bonnie,
Winsome, charming, blithe and rosy!
If I only had the money
For a homestead snug and cosy,
You would be my bride, my honey!
But, alas ! though Cupid's craving
Is as wild and strong as ever,
Yet in vain is all my raving.
Never shall I hold you, never!
Woe is me! The tide has turned!

At an early stage of his development, my father felt attracted toward Socialism - aside from the lessons taught by the times and conditions in which he lived by the study of the French economists ; the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels made a class-conscious socialist out of him in 1848.

He tried his hand at the trade of a "preacher of discontent" in the "mad" year 1848, by addressing the peasants from a chair standing in the main street of the village.

In June, 1849, the reaction drove him to America, at the age of 21. There he worked for two years as journeyman tanner, painter and teacher, but only at intervals, spending most of his time as a so-called tramp without means, and walking, or riding on canal boats, over a large part of the United States, from Wisconsin in the North to the Gulf of Mexico in the South, and from the Hudson in the East to the Mississippi in the West. Apart from acquiring the English language, he regarded as the best result of these travels, as he wrote to me to New York in 1882, "the feeling of having become acquainted with a land and with conditions, where one can make light of the pressing care for the daily bread which weighs upon one so hard in Germany."

In December, 1851, we again find him at work in grandfather's shop at Uckerath, and two years later he married a devoutly religious orphan from the little country town of Drolshagen in Westphalia. Her goodness of heart and love of life cheered him, until her death in 1877 made him a widower.

In spite of their utterly different mental propensities - my mother having the prejudiced bourgeois mind and being a devout Catholic, while my father was a thorough-going naturalist and proud of his proletarian convictions - they lived in rare harmony.

It is significant for the relations of my parents that even after twenty-one years of union with my father, my mother urged me on the occasion of my first communion, which seemed to her an especially opportune moment, to send the fervent prayer to God that he might convert my father and lead him back into the embrace of the alone-saving church. Although this prayer remained unfulfilled, my father nevertheless occupied the place next to God in the devotion of my mother throughout all her life.

Shortly after his marriage, my father opened a grocery store, a bakery, and a tannery combined in the nearby Winterscheid, much after the manner of the enterprising Americans. He was so successful in his business that he soon opened a branch store in the village of Ruppichteroth. But as was his custom in Uckerath, so also in Winterscheid and in his later enterprises my father devoted only half of the day to material gain, while the rest of his time was spent in diligent study, from pure thirst of knowledge and without other incentive.

In order to secure economic independence for himself and to be enabled to devote himself entirely to science at an earlier date than would have been possible by the help of his country store, he again emigrated in 1859 to the United States, where he tried to establish a larger business in the South. But the Civil War breaking out soon after that, his business in Montgomery, Alabama, came to an end. One morning he found some of his friends strung up in front of their houses, because their sympathy for the North had become inconvenient to their neighbors. He left Alabama in 1861 and returned to the Rhine, where he took charge of grandfather's tannery which he operated, as the grandfather had done, with the occasional help of a day laborer.

It happened one day that his eldest sister called his attention to an advertisement in the "Kölnische Zeitung," in which a man familiar with advanced methods of tanning was wanted for a large government tannery in St. Petersburg, Russia. My father applied for this position, and in the spring of 1864 the Russian counsellor of state, Goureaux, visited him in Uckerath and engaged him at a high salary. In a few years, my father succeeded in increasing the productivity of the establishment fivefold, by the introduction of improved machinery and methods. But in 1869 he was back once more in the Rhineland, this time at Siegburg, where he had inherited a tannery from one of his uncles. It was this inheritance, together with his desire for greater independence, and the political conditions of Russia, that induced him to leave St. Petersburg. The administration regretted his departure and promised to continue his salary, if he would inspect the factory for a few months every year. My father visited St. Petersburg several times for this purpose, but later the administration decided to dispense with his costly services.

During his sojourn in Russia, my father wrote his first work: The Nature of Human Brain Work, discussed by a workingman. A renewed critique of pure and practical reason. This critique of reason first appeared in 1869, published by Otto Meissner in Hamburg. It contains for the careful reader, among other things, an epistemological confirmation and explanation of the consistency of the materialist conception of history, on the basis of the monist-naturalist theory of understanding; furthermore, the beginning of a dialectics developed beyond Hegel and his successors, Feuerbach, Marx and Engels.

However, Joseph Dietzgen formulated his discovery of a dialectics expanded into a cosmic-monistic philosophy more clearly and usefully in his "Positive Outcome of Philosophy" which appeared in 1894. In this work his dialectics is more definitely and perfectly elaborated, not only as the "science of the general movement and development of nature, of human society, and of thought" (Engels), not only as the science of the eternally changeable diffusion of things, the individual connections of which must be studied, but also as the science of the infinitely constant and monistic interrelation of all things in the universe. It was only by means of this perfection that dialectics could grow into a consistent monism, a uniform world philosophy. From this moment dates the discovery of a cosmic-dialectic method of thought which guarantees a strictly systematic and logical uniformity in the theory of all studies, no matter how wide and irreconcilable may seem the contradiction of the questions treated. This is the only method of research which exterminates dualism and superstition in all fields of studies, and clears the road for every science to its very last conclusions where each science merges into the universal interrelation of nature. These words may here suffice to indicate the principal accomplishment of Joseph Dietzgen.

In St. Petersburg, he also wrote his articles on "Capital," by Karl Marx, which appeared in the "Demokratische Wochenblatt," at Leipzig, in 1868, which paper was the precursor of the "Volksstaat " and the present Berlin "Vowärts."

Karl Marx makes a highly commendatory reference to the economic understanding of my father in the preface of the second edition of the first volume of "Capital." He also visited my father in Siegburg.

At this point I must remember another friend of my father's, who deeply influenced his mental development. This is Ludwig Feuerbach, with whom my father entertained a correspondence. When in 1871 the news of the poverty and death of this philosopher reached my father, I remember seeing him cry for the first time.

His small tannery in Siegburg permitted him to study with little interruption, since he did not care to accumulate material wealth, his Siegburg heirloom guaranteeing in a modest way the necessities of life for himself and family, so long as it was kept together. That he did not succeed in keeping this heirloom intact, was a cause of much subsequent trouble to my father. There were always a great number of friends who needed assistance that injured him. In one case he went to Denmark in order to assist a comrade financially in his tanning business. But the attempt failed, with great loss to himself. At the same time, his leather store and tannery in Siegburg were less and less able to compete with the growing great capitalist industries and to yield profits. Finally his last customers were almost wholly lost when he was taken into custody for three months, pending his trial in Cologne, in 1878. This arrest was made under the influence of the momentary excitement which had seized the German authorities after the attempt of Hödel and Nobiling, in 1878, to kill the German emperor. The direct cause of his arrest was a speech on "The Future of the Social-Democracy" which he had delivered in Cologne. This speech appeared in print in Cologne in 1878 and many new editions of it are being used up to the present for propaganda.

During his stay in Siegburg from 1869 to 1884, my father wrote a large number of articles on economic and philosophical questions for the "Volksstaat," Leipzig, 1870 1876; "Vorwärts," Leipzic, 1877; "Sozialdemocrat," Zurich, 1880-1888; "Neue Gesellschaft," Zurich; "Neue Zeit," Stuttgart ; "New Yorker Volkszeitung," New York, and a number of pamphlets. I am familiar with the following: "The Religion of Social-Democracy" (five sermons, Leipzic), "Bourgeois Society," Leipzic ; "Thoughts on Political Economy," Leipzig; "An Open Letter to Heinrich von Sybel," Leipzic; "The Faith of the Faithless," Solingen.

At the international congress at The Hague, in 1872, to which my father was a delegate, Karl Marx introduced him to the assembled delegates with the words: "Here is our philosopher." In
spite of his reluctance, due to his lack of training and, perhaps, also to lack of talent for parliamentary functions, he was induced in 1881 to accept a nomination for the Reichstag in the county of Leipzic. However, he was beaten by a coalition of the parties of "law and order." In 1880, when his Siegburg business had been undermined and his means reduced by half by unfortunate relatives and friends, he suggested to me, his eldest son, after completing my studies at the Siegburg "gymnasium," to emigrate to the United States and to become the pathfinder for the existence of our family. After luck had favored me in this respect, my father was enabled to devote himself in peace to his life's work, which unfortunately was cut short prematurely when he had just completed his "Positive Outcome of Philosophy."

How seriously he took his task, may be inferred from statements made before his death and from the following letter to me, written October 16, 1880:

"An essential part of myself, the existence of which you may have suspected intuitively, but which you cannot really know, because we have never spoken of it, since you were too young, shall now be revealed to you. It will enable us to understand one another still better. To come to the point: I have been haunted since the days of my youth by a logical problem, viz., that of the 'last questions of all knowledge.' It presses on my brain like a stone. Whenever in the course of past years the cares of providing for the necessities of life were urgent, I might forget about it for a few years. But as soon as matters would go along more smoothly, it would always return, ever stronger and clearer, until finally of recent years I have come to the conclusion that this is the work of my life. My peace of mind as well as my moral duty demand that I should devote myself to it and accomplish it. If I had been aware of this in St. Petersburg as I am now, we might still be there. This is the reason why I have been continuously striving to find an associate who would help me to carry the economic burden. Hence we have had that experience in Denmark and Solingen (he had made an unlucky venture in leather also in Solingen), and for the same reason I cannot carry on my little business here without help. My efforts are always directed toward the end of keeping my brain disengaged from business, so that I may occupy myself with my problem. For the last years I have had a hard time of it, for this problem rises with me and goes to bed with me, and the material cares do not permit me to pay much attention to it. Let this be enough for the present. I cannot say much about the subject itself, until you have become more mature. J. H. von Kirchmann, the publisher of the Philosophische Bibliothek,' names as the first requisite for the pursuit of philosophy a life rich in experience and events, a life that has seen much, tasted every happiness and every pain, and done and suffered right and wrong.

"Now I want to impress you with the desirability of genuine culture. Above all, do not forget, while in America, that one should do business for the sake of life, not live for the sake of business. Never be harsh in your judgment of others, but make allowance for their environment. In order to be able to act courteously, you must think courteously. Virtue and faults are always combined. Even the rascal is a good fellow, and 'the just sins seven times per day.' Now enjoy life and work bravely."

The private letters which my father used to write me regularly every week or two from the time of my emigration in May 1880 up to his third landing in America in June 1884, I have collected in one volume. They may interest a wider circle, not only on account of the deep insight which they afford of the soul-life and character of my father, but also on account of the wisdom of life and invaluable guides for the development of young and inexperienced people contained in them.

My father wrote two series of letters on logic during the period 1880-1883. But only that dealing with a critique of the theory of understanding was published by Dietz in Stuttgart in 1895, together with the "Positive Outcome of Philosophy." Of the series dealing with economics, only the first seven letters appeared in print, in the "Sozialdemokrat " (Zurich, 1883-84). In reference to these letters, he wrote me on November 7, 1883:

". . Sorge will be more interested in these last three letters of the economic series than in the first series which is philosophical. For my part, I think more of the logical than the economic element, since what I have to say on the art of thinking is, so to speak, my own work and discovery, while I received my understanding of economics ready made from Marx."

In the beginning of the eighties, my father was frequently visited by a number of students of the university in Bonn, among them Dr. Bruno Wille, who published, in the April number, 1896, of "Der Sozialistische Akademiker" (Berlin) his impressions in these words:

"When I inquired in pleasant Siegburg for the home of Dietzgen, I was shown a little house covered with vines and situated in the middle of a garden on the bank of a creek. Skins soaking in water and the smell of oak bark indicated the presence of a tannery. A pretty girl of tall stature showed me into the parlor and called her father. The cozy room bore evidences of the literary inclinations of its owner, being filled with hooks which were plainly more than mere articles of decoration. There was also a portrait of Béranger.

"Dietzgen entered and saluted me cordially. He was a man of giant stature, whose strength and animation did not betray his 54 years, although his luxuriant beard was grey. The first glance at his noble features convinced me that here was a man of genius. His large fiery eyes recalled the well-known portraits of Goethe. His beautiful forehead bore the imprint of the placid serenity of the antique philosophers. His manliness was combined with a loving and tender mind. His cordial sociability and the endearing melodiousness of his speech announced the best type of the Rhinelander. His voice sounded metallic, with a little nasal twang. Dietzgen came direct from his work in the shop, and he was not in the least embarrassed by meeting his visitor in his shirt sleeves. Thus he was an ideal illustration of the title of his first work, 'The Nature of Human Brain Work, by a working man.'

"Dietzgen made ready for a walk with me. He abandoned his tannery without any ado. He carried it on only so far as it was required to maintain his modest household. This philosopher did not feel inclined to be a slave of work for gain. I discovered by his very first sentences that he was perfectly at home in the regions of higher mental life. Not a trace of the dust of the shop was on his soul. No professor could rise from his desk more spiritualized than this tanner did from his manual labor. In a few minutes, we were deeply engaged in a discussion of philosophical books and problems. I was surprised at Dietzgen's expert knowledge and general education, which was calculated to put to shame those conceited intellectuals who look down with disdain on the man without a university training. This philosophical working man had even occupied himself with antique literature, and with better success than is generally shown by a graduate of a college, in spite of the fact that he was not familiar with Greek and only a beginner in Latin. When on a later occasion I visited him with a student who excelled in history, Dietzgen proved himself qualified to discuss with the greatest understanding a rather obscure special question of history. Such evidences of knowledge and mental superiority were given with extreme naturalness and simplicity, in which there was not an atom of that boastfulness which I have not unfrequently observed in self-educated men. Dietzgen was far too objective and wise to pose.

"While I was in Bonn, my pilgrimages to Siegburg were one of my favorite pastimes. As a rule I brought with me some books from the library of the university for Dietzgen. Sometimes I was accompanied by my student friends. And I learned to love the workingman philosopher more and more. The versatility, strength and freshness of his talents were as inspiring as the oak tree distinguished by the luxuriance of its trunk, branches and foliage. Dietzgen was not a one-sidedly abstract and sober nature. His finely and sharply chiseled mental life was imbued with a certain poetic quality. His eye sparkled when resting on the beauties of nature during our walks. He was fond of poetry, especially of lyrics, which are generally neglected by inartistic minds. Once he recited for me a translation of a poem by Burns which he had clad in well-rounded German verse. If I am not mistaken, he then told me that he had paraphrazed several poems by Burns and Beranger. His mind had remained young in spite of his years. With joyful humor, fraternizing and freely conversing without restraint, he would sit among us young and frivolous folk drinking beer or punch. But he always held aloof from the trivial and maintained a mental level which compelled the respect of even the most forward. Otherwise, as a citizen of Siegburg, he led a rather lonely, almost hermit-like, existence. The bourgeois were not to his liking. Moreover, they had a certain distrust of Socialism, especially the officials. He had little intercourse with comrades of the party, though there were quite a number of them in nearby Cologne. He seemed to feel no attraction for party life. He told me that he had given a few lectures in party meetings, and, if I am not mistaken, that he had been nominated for the Reichstag, but declared that he was no speaker and no politician. In his pleasant way, he related his experience with the authorities. Shortly after Hödel's attack on the emperor, he accepted an invitation of comrades of the party and gave a lecture on 'The Future of the Social-Democracy' in Cologne. His manuscript was published in pamphlet form under the same title. In his own words: 'In the meantime the second attack, that of Nobiling, had occurred, whereupon the uniformed, decorated, titled and official world of Germany leaped up as if bitten by a tarantula. They confiscated my pamphlet, handcuffed me to another vagabond, and delivered both of us on the eve of Pentecost to the prison of Cologne. After keeping me there for two months, they dragged me, together with the editor of the "Neue Freie Presse " and my Friend Kröger, who had committed the dangerous crime of acting as agent for my pamphlet - I don't know what - incited class against class, desecrated religion, endangered the public peace, etc., etc. After the court had dismissed us without any penalty and costs, I was again handcuffed by the gensd'armes and led to my cell. The public prosecutor had appealed the case. And when the second trial once more ended in my acquittal, the obstinate prosecutor appealed again, this time to the court of cassation in Berlin, where the author and his pamphlet were at last set free. A few days after that the anti-socialist laws put a radical end to all freedom, and the authorities gave me the documentary assurance that the future of the Social-Democracy was forbidden. Did not Xerxes whip the sea when it was rough? Now let the Prussians go ahead with their whipping. The Social-Democracy will attend to its own future.'"

For the third time, my father emigrated to the United States in June, 1884. Soon after his arrival he accepted the editorship of the newly founded party organ in New York, "Der Sozialist," which he retained until he moved to Chicago, in 1886, at my solicitation, with my two sisters and one brother. One of his daughters, who had married in Russia was the only one of the family remaining in Europe.

In Chicago, my father wrote in 1886 a work of 60 pages, entitled "Excursions of a Socialist into the Domain of Epistemology," which was published in 1887 by the People's Book Store in Hottingen-Zurich. In 1887, he wrote "The Positive Outcome of Philosophy."

When in 1886 the editors of the " Chicagoer Arbeiter¬zeitung " were arrested, to be condemned to death a year later in the well-known anarchist trial, my father temporarily assumed the post of chief editor and remained a contributor to this paper up to the time of his death.

At this point, I should like to insert a few statements about my father which F. A. Sorge, the intimate friend of Marx and Engels, and the Nestor of the American socialist movement, published in the Pioneer Calendar of the "New-Yorker Volkszeitung," in 1902:

"When he came to America for the third time, he rented, in a remote part of North New-Jersey, an old, almost dilapidated, house which was barely habitable, and there he felt quite satisfied, although visitors trod with misgivings on the steps of the rickety stairs which led to his rooms. In 1884, he wrote to a friend in regard to "the Marxian statement . . . that economics is the basis (also for the individual) on which the mental superstructures are reared. Our world desires to live, to eat and drink in a civilized style, even though it be barbarian inside. But for my part, I can be at ease in barbarian surroundings, provided my private economy is arranged so that I can devote myself without care to the superstructure."

Speaking of a proposed trip to Germany, he says in a letter of November 27, 1887: " I shall travel in the steerage, because a man who does not make any money has to turn his pennies over three times, before he spends them. Besides, I feel more at home in a humble role than on the high horse."

His simplicity of living made him by no means morose or indifferent to the things of the outer world. That he enjoyed life and work is clearly shown by the following letter to a friend of his youth, who lived in New York:

SIEGBURG, September 25, 1869.
. . . I have returned from Petersburg to the scenes of my childhood, on the banks of the Sieg, have built huts in Siegburg, and am tanning the skins of the people. It occurs to me to express the wish that you might likewise be so strongly attracted by the home recollections that you leave the Hudson and the American chase after the dollar and come home with your better half and the material products of your loins, in order to dig for treasures which neither the rust nor the moths corrupt, that is, the general truths of science and of the historical evolution of the human race. Although man, according to Karl Vogt, is descended from monkeys, he is nevertheless the sublime object.

At Otto Meissner's, the well-known embryo of my youth, the child which I have long carried under my heart, has at last been born. It has been baptized with the name of "The Nature of Human Brain Work, Discussed by a Working Man. A Renewed Critique of Pure and Practical Reason," and the preface is signed "Joseph Dietzgen, Tanner." I commend it to you.

Another event which moves my heart and which will interest you is a visit which was paid to me about fourteen days ago by our venerated hero, Karl Marx. He stayed a few days in
Sieburg with his charming daughter. JOSEPH DIETZGEN.

Personally, Joseph Dietzgen was a tall and handsome man, who strikingly resembled the oft-described figure of Goethe, symmetrically built and of noble and unaffected bearing, with a frank and open eye full of intelligence and goodness. His whole being inspired respect and veneration. He went almost too far in his modesty and unselfishness, especially in his relations with the publishers of the "Socialist" in New York, the National Executive of the Socialist Labor Party, who made life very unpleasant for him while he acted as editor of their paper. But with all his modesty and unassuming bearing, he still showed manliness and true courage. While the National Committee, after the throwing of the bomb at the Haymarket in Chicago, thought only of repudiating all connection with the anarchists, and with anarchism, Dietzgen, in the very midst of lawlessness of the heroes of "law and order," went to the persecuted and reviled and offered them his help and comfort in the hour of their need. It required real courage and strength of character to do so at that time. It was a purely humane and manly act on his part, for which the Chicago police rewarded him by searching his house and scaring his children.

One of the contributors to the "Chicagoer Arbeiter-zeitung," of that period described Joseph Dietzgen's actions and bearing in those times as follows : "When in May, 1886, the waves of the labor movement began to rise, when the Haymarket bomb had exploded and the reaction followed with a police rule similar to that of Russia, when cautious and soberminded men considered it well to deny any connection with the arrest of editors of the "Arbeiterzeitung," an old gentleman introduced himself, on May 6, to those of the publishers who had not preferred to take to the woods. He offered them his services, because he considered it his duty to jump into the breach and fill the place of those comrades who had been torn out of the ranks of the fighters, and because he considered it necessary that the Chicago workers should not be without an organ in those trying times.

This old gentleman, of giant stature, with the bearing of a patriarch, such as we see in good old pictures, was Joseph Dietzgen, who had shortly before joined his children in the young metropolis, in order to pass the remainder of his days in the circle of his adoring family. It was the same Dietzgen who had often been reviled and ridiculed in this Chicago paper by Spies and his companions, in a spiteful controversy, which, starting from a principle, had been directed by them against the unknown personality and sometimes old-fashioned and ornamental style of Dietzgen.

That this offer of Dietzgen's, who asked no pay for his services, and did not expect any, was brave and unselfish, was not only admitted by those to whom he had made it, but was also admired and appreciated by all who learned of it then and later. His offer was accepted, and when two weeks later the administrative board of the Socialist Publishing Society convened, they elected Dietzgen unanimously to the position of chief editor of the three papers published by this society, "Arbeiterzeitung," "Fackel," and "Vorbote."

When the new editor in chief assumed control, he made the following little address to the employees which is typical of the whole man: "Gentlemen: I have been elected chief editor of your papers. If this position requires the duties of an overseer or driver, then I am not fit for it. I shall confine myself to the writing of my articles. It is said that there is no harmony in this office. Well, if you can have confidence in me, I shall be pleased to have you present your differences of opinion to me. I shall then try to act as arbitrator and to establish peace."

Well, the dissension was not so very great, but the editorial staff learned to have confidence in their chief and to venerate him like a father. This relationship remained undisturbed, although Dietzgen did not stay in his position very long, but resigned his title and was satisfied to contribute articles up to the time of his death in April, 1888. Being almost too modest and avoiding publicity with excessive bashfulness, he became very little known personally in Chicago. But all who were fortunate enough to become acquainted with him, loved the man and respected his character."

And Sorge continues: " Dietzgen was assailed by friend and foe for his stand in defending the prisoners and taking editorial charge of the 'Chicagoer Arbeiter-zeitung,' during the prosecution of Spies and his comrades. He tried to lessen the differences between socialists and anarchists[2] by emphazing that which was common to both, in accordance with the requirements of a cultivated use of the intellect which teaches that there are only differences of degree, not radical differences, not absolute differences between things. Contradictions are solved by reasonable distinctions,' he says in his 'Positive Outcome of Philosophy.'"

To a friend in the East of the United States he wrote on April 20, 1886: "For my part, I lay little stress on the distinction, whether a man is an anarchist or a socialist, because it seems to me that too much weight is attributed to this difference. While the anarchists may have mad and brainless individualists in their ranks, the socialists have an abundance of cowards. For this reason I care as much for the one as the other. The majority in both camps are still in great need of education, and this will bring about a reconciliation in good time."

On May 17, 1886, he wrote: " I was of the opinion that the difference between socialists and anarchists should not be exaggerated, and when the bomb exploded and the staff of the 'Arbeiterzeitung ' was imprisoned, I at once offered my services, which were accepted." He wished to be only collaborator, not editor, and said further: "Anarchism would not have disturbed me so very much, only Mostism, which makes a system of violent assaults and private vengeance, could never have been congenial to me. I do not believe that this or that row hurts the party as much as the oversensitive are trying to make out. On the contrary, a nation should also be taught to assert itself."

When Dietzgen went to Chicago, he had been asked by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party to write articles on the situation in Chicago. But when he sent his report on the Haymarket riot, it was rejected, because "it was diametrically opposed to the views of the Committee." Dietzgen then made sharp attacks on the "Sozialist " and the National Executive Committee by various articles in the "Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung" and he wrote to a friend about this on June 9, 1886: . . . "I call myself an anarchist in this quotation, and the passage left out explains what I mean by anarchism. I define it in a more congenial sense than is usually done. According to me, - and I am at one in this with all the better and best comrades, - we shall not arrive at the new society without serious troubles. I even think that we shall not get along without wild disturbances, without 'anarchy.' I believe that 'anarchy' will be the stage of transition. Dyed-in-the-wool anarchists pretend that anarchism is the final stage of society. To that extent they are rattle brains who think they are the most radical people. But we are the real radicals who work for the communist order above and beyond anarchism. The final aim is socialist order, not anarchist disorder. If the Chicago comrades would now avail themselves of the state of affairs in their city, I could help them considerably. The anarchists would then join our ranks and would form, together with the best socialists of all countries, a united and active troop, before which such weaklings as Stiebeling, Fabian, Vogt, Viereck, and others would be dispersed and forced to crawl under cover. For this reason, I think, the terms anarchist, socialist, communist, should be mixed together so that no muddle head could tell which is which. Language serves not only the purpose of distinguishing things, but also of uniting them, for it is dialectic. The words, and the intellect which gives meaning to language, cannot do anything else but give us a picture of things. Hence man may use them freely, so long as he accomplishes his purpose." …

The dispute was carried along for some time, and when finally his friend in the East rebuked him also, Dietzgen wrote on April 9, 1888, a few days before his death : " I am still well satisfied with my approach to the anarchists and am convinced that I have accomplished some good by it."

Dietzgen was full of humor, always inclined to tease his friends and members of his family, and was in no way a Philistine. When some acquaintance reminded him of a promise, he replied: "Never take my word for anything, but consider it to be like mercury."

And to a female friend of the family, he wrote: "If the children or one of them should complain about my making more promises than I keep, I wish you would not think evil of me. It is the fault of the credulous children whom I have taught from their youth that they must not believe everything I promise, but they are incurable in this respect."

Another time he announces that he still has an income of two marks per day in Germany and continues: " I shall try next summer, and anticipate great pleasure from so doing, to live on this sum in some German village like some cavalier in reduced circumstances."

In a letter of July 18, 1887, he sounds a ribald note : " I have read Düntzer's 'Life of Goethe' of late. This noble poet was a great Don Juan! How well he could love and jilt! His many loves have inspired me with a strong desire to imitate him, only I fear that I should have more trouble in being faithless. On the whole, the man is an admirable character."

In November, 1887, he announces that he has received money for some literary work and adds: "Now I am a rich man, and as soon as my engagement with the paper here has expired, I shall return to Germany and try the pleasure of a hermit life in my native village. That is my ideal. Then, if I could find some old sweetheart of my youth in that place, I challenge my century."

On February 2, 1888, he wrote: ". . . There is still another thing which occupies me a great deal and which I can mention to you only quite confidentially. . . . I am engaged in deepening an old friendship of my youth into love. If I knew that you were in a better mood to listen, I should tell you a little more about the foolishness of the aged; but now I shall wait for a better time . . ."

While Dietzgen accomplished remarkable work in philosophy, and especially in dialectics, he was not less at home in political economy, in the study of the industrial development of society. With his sharp foresight, he soon recognized the trend of modern modes of capitalist production and their reaction on the political conditions of the various countries.

As early as 1881, he wrote from Germany: "The United States will in my opinion remain the land of the future in bourgeois society. By means of the competition of the New World, the oppressive atmosphere of Europe will be cleared. Agriculture is visibly on the decline in Germany. The land is becoming more and more an appendage of the cities and is turned into hunting grounds, parks, and country homes. And if our nation does not rally soon and overthrow its exploiters, the whole of Europe will soon become a sporting place of Americans. Our working men emigrate to America, and the fatted bourgeois immigrate from over there. Then they will have their factories in America, and their residences in Europe."

And a few years later, in the first letter on logic written to his son, he declares that democratic and proletarian interests are identical and continues: "If this is not yet well recognized in the United States, it is due more to the fortunate natural resources of that country than to the scientific insight of its democracy. The spreading primeval forests and prairies offered innumerable homesteads to the poor and glossed the antagonism between capitalists and laborers, between capitalist and proletarian democracy. But you still lack the knowledge of proletarian economics which would enable you to recognize without a doubt that precisely on the republican ground of America, capitalism is making giant strides and revealing ever more clearly its twofold task of first enslaving the people for the purpose of freeing them in due time."

This is not the place to dwell on the main works of Dietzgen, "The Nature of Human Brain Work" and "The Positive Outcome of Philosophy." But it may be said that Monism, the science of the unity of all being, did not find a more eloquent, convinced and convincing champion than Joseph Dietzgen in the second half of the XIXth century. He handled his dialectics, the midwife of his philosophical productions, in a wonderfully refreshing and original manner. In that very interesting work "Feuerbach, The Roots of the Socialist Philosophy," Frederick Engels explains the nature of dialectics and says: "And this materialistic dialectics, which for years has been our best tool and our sharpest weapon, was discovered, not by us alone, but by a German workman, Joseph Dietzgen, in a remarkable manner and utterly independent of us and even of Hegel." - Here I leave the data furnished by Sorge.

Those who had become acquainted with my father's impressive and high-spirited style, were surprised at his mildness and modest reserve, when they made his personal acquaintance. But behind these qualities, there stood the just pride of his true convictions. We children had the utmost liberty in our intercourse with him, but when we tried to abuse this freedom or to be too smart, then he quickly shamed us by a few words or by a meaning glance. A happier man than my father would have been hard to find, and none who was more loyal in all his relations.

Death was to him, as to Feuerbach, not an evil. But he dreaded long suffering and admitted that he was afraid of it, while he bore short attacks of illness with resignation and even with good humor. Death finally proved a friend to him, for it left him only a few seconds of time to feel the shortness of breath and consternation which I read in his face when he fell into my arms, breathing his last. Paralysis of the heart killed him within two minutes. It was on a pleasant Sunday, April 15, 1888. In the morning, after a walk in springclad Lincoln Park, we had emptied a bottle of wine between the two of us and had come home to dinner in the best of spirits. My father enjoyed his meal with his customary hearty appetite. When coffee was served immediately after dinner, one of my acquaintances happened to drop in. This was the cause of my father's lighting a cigar (instead of taking a half hour's nap as usual) and taking part in our conversation on the social question. My acquaintance had not even a superficial knowledge of the subject, which did not prevent him, however, from making offhand statements. In spite of my remonstrance against such ignorance, my father became more vivacious and excited than I had ever seen him. With a seriousness and emphasis which I shall never forget, he related that he had foreseen the modern labor-movement forty years before this date, and proceeded to explain his views on the imminent collapse of capitalist production, when suddenly he stopped in the middle of a sentence, with his hand uplifted, and died in the manner described above. He was not quite sixty years old.

Simply and without any show, in harmony with the character of my father, we buried him by the side of the murdered anarchists in Forest Home Cemetery near Chicago, on April 17, 1888.

(Translated by Ernest Untermann.)

1] A revised and completed reproduction of an article in "Die Neue Zeit," 1894-95, Vol. II.
2] Wherever we mention anarchists, it should be remembered that we refer to the Chicago anarchists, so-called "communist anarchists," who were no individualists, but sincere, though very radical and theoretically unclear proletarian revolutionaries. It was these men whom my father tried to win back for the socialist labor movement, not individualist anarchists, as was thought by comrades in New York and Europe.

Source; Some of the Philosophical Essays on Socialism and Science, Religion, Ethics, Critique-of-Reason and the World-at-large; Joseph Dietzgen - Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago 1914.



12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Dannny on February 15, 2012

Very interesting, thanks. Nice way to go as well.