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"When the Red and the Black are again united, thrones may well tremble."
-Otto von Bismarck
An important socialist theorist whose writings exerted considerable influence on the workers' movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Joseph (or Josef) Dietzgen (1828-1888) was a tanner by trade, born near Cologne, Germany.' Because of his revolutionary activity in 1848 he fled to the U.S. the following year. He wandered from the Hudson to the Mississippi and from Wisconsin to the Gulf learning English on the way.

He went back to Germany in 1851, but eight years later emigrated again and set up a tannery in Montgomery, Alabama. The Iynching of some of his friends who shared pro-northern (and/or anti-slavery) views caused him to return to the Rhine. For several years he lived in Russia where he wrote his first and most famous book, The Nature of Human Brain-Work (1869).

By the early I870s Dietzgen was already a prominent figure in the German socialist movement. Karl Marx who, according to some reports, visited him at his home in Siegburg, praised him in his preface to the second edition of the first volume of Capital and at the Hague congress of the First International introduced him to the other delegates with the words: "Here is our philosopher."

Frederick Engels also saluted the "workingman philosopher" in his Essay on Feuerbach, and credited him with the independent discovery of materialist dialectics.

Dietzgen came to the U.S. a third time in June 1884. After living for a time in New Jersey, he moved to Chicago in March 1886. A visit to August Spies, whom he found "very friendly," encouraged him to start writing for the Arbeiter-Zeitung, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he had been invited by the National Executive Committee of the Socialistic Labor Party in New York to write articles on the Chicago situation. When he sent them a report on the Haymarket events, however the SLP leaders- who were already denouncing the anarchists and proclaiming the respectability of socialism- refused to publish it.

Opposed to the SLP's divisive attitude, Dietzgen did his best to effect solidarity between the two currents of the revolutionary workers' movement. He criticized the "narrow souls" of the SLP for believing that anyone who spoke in favor of the anarchists was a "traitor to our special cause,"[2] and continued to argue that "the difference between anarchists and socialists should not be exaggerated."[3] In his response to the SLP published in the Arbeiter-Zeitung, Marx's old friend went so far as to call himself an anarchist.


"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 individuals in their ranks, the socialists have an abundance of cowards. For this reason I care as much for one as the other."

"The majority in both camps are still in great need of education, and this will bring about a reconciliation in time."
April 20, 1886

* * *
"The terms anarchist, socialist, communist should be so "mixed" together, that no muddlehead could tell which is which. Language serves not only the purpose of distinguishing things but also of uniting them- for it is dialectic."
June 9, 1886
* * *
"I am still satisfied with my approach to the anarchists and am convinced that I have accomplished some good by it."
April 9, 1888


Excerpts from letters in sriefe an Sorge, English translation in the Charles H. Kerr Company Archives Newberry Library, Chicago

Joseph Dietzgen and the Haymarket Martyrs

On the motion of the imprisoned August Spies, and to the horror of many of his Marxist associates, Dietzgen was unanimously elected editor-in-chief of the three papers issued by the anarchist-run Socialistic Publishing Society: the daily Arbeiter-Zeitung and two weeklies, the l~rbote and the FackeL Under his editorship, he wrote with pleasure "Spies and Schwab are collaborating diligently" their articles smuggled out of their cells by visitors "and that makes my office very easy."[4]

In a letter to their mutual friend Friedrich Sorge, Engels objected to Dietzgen's anarchism, but added that "the moment may excuse this" and reaffirmed his confidence in the old philosopher who, he felt, was "on the right track." Engels was far more critical of the "fine gang. . .at the head of the [SLP] in New York," whose paper, the Sozialist he regarded as "a model of what a paper should not be."[5]

In Chicago, while working on the anarchist press, Dietzgen wrote his Excursions of a Socialist into the Domain of Epistemology and The Positive Outcome of Philosophy both published in Germany. In the early 1900s these were included together with the earlier Brain-U~rk volume and several other essays in two volumes of Dietzgen's writings published by Charles H. Kerr. Every IWW and Socialist Party hall, and many a trade-union library, had these books, which were reprinted several times (Positive Outcome was issued in a revised translation by W. W. Craik on the occasion of the Dietzgen Centenary in 1928), and enjoyed a circulation well beyond the borders of the U.S.[6]

It was reported that in the homes of South Wales miners during the 1920s, Dietzgen's works were prominently featured and "treated with reverence" as 'sacred texts.' Indeed according to one observer, virtually an entire generation of Welsh miners seem to have regarded Dietzgen as "literally the greatest philosopher who ever lived."[5]

In Britain as in the U.S., his works played a significant role in the movement for workers' education. "For a worker who seeks to take part in the self-emancipation of his class," Dietzgen had said, "the prime necessity is to cease allowing himself to be taught by others and to teach himself instead."

The influence of his "cosmic-monistic" dialectical philosophy is discernible, in a general way, in the works of a number of very different revolutionary theorists, including V. I. Lenin who, though not uncritical of Dietzgen, conceded that there is "much that is great" in his work and argued that "in order to reach understanding, workers must read Dietzgen", Mary E. Marcy editor of the International Socialist Review and one of America's most brilliant and popular socialist pamphleteers; and the Yugoslav surrealists Koca Popovic and Marko Ristic.[9]

There are some, however, for whom Dietzgen's writings loomed so large that they could properly be called Dietzgenists. These include German-born paleontologist Ernest Untermann, translator of Volumes n and III of Capital, and author of Science and Revolution and other works; the Dutch astronomer and council-communist Anton Pannekoek; William W. Craik, co-founder of England's Central Labour College; Fred Casey, British author of Thinking: An Introduction to Its History and Science, and John Keracher, a Scotsman, author of The Head-Fixing Industry and other pamphlets, a founding member of the Communist Party of the U.S., and for many years the cen- tral figure of the Proletarian Party.

Dietzgen's farflung influence was entirely posthumous, however, for he died two years after Haymarket. At home enjoying a cigar after a stroll in Lincoln Park, he was engaged in a "vivacious and excited" discussion of the "imminent collapse of capitalist production" when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, his hand uplifted- dead of "paralysis of the heart."

He vas buried at Waldheim on April 17, 1888, a few feet away from the Haymarket martyrs.



1. Eugene Dietzgen, "Joseph Dietzgen: A Sketch of His Life," in Joseph Dietzgen, Some of the Philosophical Essays (Chicago, 1906). Unless otherwise noted biographical details and quotations in the present articie are from this source. ' 2. Briefe an Sorge (Friedrich Sorge's correspondence), letter from Joseph Dietzgen Nov. 8, 1886. Typescript of English translation in the Charles H. Kerr Company Archives, the Ne~vberry Library, Chicago. 3. Ibid., May 17,1886 4. Ibid, Oct. 10, 1887. 5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Letters to Americans, 1848-18,5 (New York, 1953) 61. 6. The Charles H. Kerr Cornpany: A Hundred Years of Socialist Publishing, catalog of the Kerr Archives (Chicago, 1985), 32. 7. Jonathan Ree, Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 19001.40 (Oxford, 1984), 37. 8. Ibut., 23. 9. For these and me authors noted un the next paragraph see the list of "Omer Sources'' below.


Fred Casey, "Josef Dietzgen:' The Plebs (London, Dec. 1928).

W W Craik. Central Labour College, 190,-29: A Chapter in the History of Adult Ubrking-Class Educa tion (London, 1964).

John Keracher, "Josef Dietzgen: His Life and Work," The Prolerarian (Chicago, Dec. 1928).

V. 1. Lenin. Materialism and Empinocnticism, in Collected Works, Vol. 14 (Moscow, 1968).

Mary E. Marcy. You Have No Country! U~rkers ' Struggle Against War (Chicago, 1984).

Fank P. Murphy, ''Dietzgen Recalled on Anniversary of Burial in Waldheim," Industnal U~rker (Chicago, Apnl 17, 1937).

Anton Pannekoek. Lenin as Philosopher (Ne~v York, 1948).

-: "The Stamdpomt and Significance of Josef Dietzgen's Philosophical Works ' Introduction to Joseph Dietzgen, The Posidve Outcome of Philosophy (Chicago, 1928).

Koca Popovic and Marko Ristic. Nacrt Za Jednu Fenom- enologiju Iracionalnog (Belgrade, 1931).

Untermann Ernest, "A Pioneer of Proletarian Socialist Science,' International Socialist R~view (Chicago, April 1906).

The above texts & image are taken from Haymarket Scrapbook, published in 1986 by the Charles H. Kerr Company.

Other Links:

Joseph Dietzgen Bibliography
Liberty for the People page.

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