Johann Philipp Becker

Friedrich Engels' obituary for J. P. Becker, the first Swiss marxist and the father of the Swiss labor movement.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!


Friedrich Engels

Collected Works, Vol. 26
Lawrence & Wishart, London

Reproduced by
The Red Flag

Part of this article was published in English for the first time in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Literature and Art, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978. In German, it was first published in The Social-Democrat, No. 51, 17.12.1886.


Death has torn another hole in the ranks of the champions of the proletarian revolution. Johann Philipp Becker died in Geneva on December 7th.

Born at Frankenthal in the Bavarian Palatinate in 1809, he took part in the political movement of his native region back in the 1820s, when little more than a child. When this movement became republican in character in the early 1830s, after the July Revolution, Becker was one of its most active and stalwart supporters. Several times arrested, brought before a jury and acquitted, when reaction triumphed he eventually had to flee. He went to Switzerland, settled in Biel and took Swiss citizenship. He did not remain idle there, either. He was involved not only in the affairs of the German workers‘ associations and the revolutionary endeavors of the German, Italian and European refugees in general, but also in the struggle of the Swiss democrats for control of the individual cantons. It will be recalled that this struggle was waged by means of a series of armed raids on the aristocratic and clerical cantons, particularly in the early 1840s. Becker was implicated to a greater or lesser extent in most of these «coups» and was finally sentenced to ten years‘ banishment from his home canton of Berne on this account. These minor campaigns eventually culminated in the Sonderbund War of 1847. Becker, who was an officer in the Swiss Army, took up his post and, during the march on Lucerne, led the advance guard of the division to which he was assigned.

The February Revolution of 1848 broke out; there ensued attempts to republicanize Baden by means of campaigns by volunteer corps. When Hecker launched his campaign,i Becker formed a refugees legion but was not able to get to the border until Hecker had already been pushed back. This legion, most members of which were subsequently interned in France, provided the nucleus for some of the best units in the armies of the Palatinate and Baden in 1849.

When the republic was proclaimed in Rome in the spring of 1849,ii Becker sought to form an auxiliary corps from this legion to fight on the side of Rome. He went to Marseilles, set up the officer cadre and took steps to gather together the troops. But, as we well know, the French Government was preparing to suppress the Roman Republic and bring back the Pope.iii It went without saying that the French Government prevented the auxiliaries from coming to the aid of its Roman adversaries. Becker, who had already hired a ship, was informed in no uncertain terms that it would be sent to the bottom as soon as it made any move to leave harbor.

Revolution then broke out in Germany.iv Becker immediately hurried to Karlsruhe; the legion followed, and later took part in the struggle under Böning‘s leadership, while another section of the old legion of 1848, trained by Willich in Besançon, formed the nucleus of Willich‘s voluntary corps. Becker was appointed head of the entire Baden people‘s militia, that is to say, all troops except troops of the line, and at once set about organizing it. He immediately came up against the government, which was dominated by the reactionary bourgeoisie, and its leader, Brentano. His orders were countermanded, his requests for arms and equipment left unheeded or turned down flat. The attempt on June 6th to intimidate the government by a show of revolutionary armed strength, an attempt in which Becker was a major participant, proved indecisive;v but Becker and his troops were then sent post-haste from Karlsruhe to the Neckar to face the enemy.

There the battle had already started in a small way, and the decisive moment was rapidly approaching. With his volunteers and militia troops, Becker occupied the Odenwald forest. Without artillery and cavalry he was obliged to waste his few troops holding this extensive and awkward area, and not enough was left at his disposal to mount an attack. Nonetheless, on June 15th he relieved, in a brilliantly fought action, his Hanau Gymnasts,vi who had been surrounded in Hirschhorn Castle by Peucker‘s imperial troops.

When Mieroslawski became commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army, Becker was given command of the 5th Division — nothing but militia troops and infantry — with orders to resist Peucker‘s troops, which outnumbered Becker‘s division by at least 6:1. But shortly afterwards came the crossing of the Rhine by the first Prussian corps at Germersheim, Mieroslawski‘s countermove and the defeat at Waghäusel on June 21st. Becker occupied Heidelberg; the second Prussian corps under Gröben advanced from the north, from the north-east came Peucker‘s corps, each more than 20,000 strong, while to the south-west were Hirschfeld‘s Prussians, likewise more than 20,000 strong. And then the refugees from Waghäusel — the entire Baden army, both troops of the line and militia troops — poured into Heidelberg to make an enormous detour through the mountains and rejoin the road to Karlsruhe and Rastatt, which was blocked to them in the plain.

Becker was supposed to cover this retreat — with his newly recruited, untrained troops and as usual without cavalry or artillery. At 20:00 on the 22nd, after allowing the refugees an adequate start, he marched from Heidelberg to Neckargemünd, where he rested for a few hours. Arriving on the 23rd at Sinsheim, where he again gave his troops a few hours‘ rest in battle formation in the face of the enemy, he reached Eppingen the same evening, and on the 24th he marched via Bretten to Durlach, arriving at 20:00 only to become tangled up again in the disorderly retreat of the now united Palatinate-Baden army. Here Becker was also given command of the remnants of the Palatinate troops, and was now expected not only to cover Mieroslawski‘s retreat but also to hold Durlach long enough for Karlsruhe to be evacuated. As always, he was again left without any artillery, since the artillery assigned to him had already marched off.

Becker hastily fortified Durlach as well as he could, and was attacked the very next morning (June 25th) on three sides by two Prussian divisions and Peucker‘s imperial troops. He not only repulsed all the attacks but also launched several counter-attacks, although he had only small arms to pit against the enemy‘s artillery fire, and after four hours‘ fighting withdrew in perfect order, unchecked by the columns dispatched to outflank him, after receiving word that Karlsruhe had been evacuated and his mission accomplished.

This must be the most brilliant episode in the entire Baden-Palatinate campaign. With troops most of whom had only been in the army for 2-3 weeks and who as completely raw recruits had been given a perfunctory training by improvized officers and non-commissioned officers and hardly had a trace of discipline, Becker carried out, as the rearguard of the beaten and half-dispersed armies, a march of more than 80 kilometers (or 11 German milesvii) in 48 hours, starting straight away with a night march, bringing them right through the enemy to Durlach in a fit state to offer the Prussians, the next morning, one of the few engagements of the campaign in which the battle objective of the revolutionary army was achieved in full. It was an achievement that would do credit to experienced troops and in the case of such young soldiers is extremely rare and praiseworthy.

Having reached the Murg, Becker came to a halt with his division east of Rastatt and played an honorable part in the battles of June 29th and 30th. The outcome is well known: the enemy, six times superior in strength, marched round the position through the territory of Württemberg and then rolled it back from the right flank. The campaign was now formally settled and ended of necessity with the withdrawal of the revolutionary army to Swiss territory.

Until then Becker had acted basically as an ordinary democratic republican; but from now on he went considerably further. Closer acquaintance with the German «pure republicans», particularly the South German ones, and his experience in the 1849 revolution demonstrated to him that the matter would have to be tackled differently in the future. The strong proletarian sympathies that Becker had entertained since his youth now assumed a more tangible form; he had realized that while the bourgeoisie always formed the core of the reactionary parties, only the proletariat could form the core of a genuinely revolutionary force. The communist by sentiment became a conscious communist.

Once again he attempted to set up a voluntary corps; it was in 1860, after Garibaldi‘s victorious march on Sicily. He travelled from Geneva to Genoa to make the preparations in collaboration with Garibaldi. But Garibaldi‘s rapid progress and the intervention of the Italian Army, which was to secure the fruits of victory for the monarchy, brought the campaign to an end. Meanwhile, there were widespread expectations of another war with Austria next year. It is common knowledge that Russia sought to use Louis Napoléon and Italy to consummate the Russian revenge on Austria, which had remained incomplete in 1859. The Italian Government sent a high-ranking officer from the general staff to see Becker in Genoa, offering him the rank of colonel in the Italian Army, a splendid salary and an allowance, and command over a legion to be formed by him in the war that was expected, provided he agreed to make propaganda in Germany for Italy and against Austria. But the proletarian Becker turned the offer down; the service of princes was not for him.

That was his last attempt as a volunteer. Soon after, the International Workers‘ Association was established, and Becker was among its founders; he was present at the famous meeting in St. Martin‘s Hall that saw the birth of the International.viii He organized the German and native workers of Romance Switzerland, founded The Herald as the group‘s journal, attended all the congresses of the International and was in the vanguard of the struggle against the Bakuninist anarchists of the Alliance of Socialist Democracyix and the Swiss Jura.

After the disintegration of the International there was less opportunity for Becker to play a public role. But he always remained, nevertheless, in the midst of the working-class movement and continued to exert his influence on its development through his extensive correspondence and by virtue of the many visits he received in Geneva. In 1882 he played host to Marx for a day, and as recently as this September the 77-year-old undertook a journey through the Palatinate and Belgium to London and Paris, during which I had the pleasure of having him to stay for a fortnight and talking over old times and new with him. And scarcely two months later the telegraph brings news of his death!

Becker was a rare kind of man. He can be epitomized in a nutshell: hale and hearty. In body and mind he was hale and hearty to the end. A giant of a man, of tremendous physical strength and handsome with it, he had developed his untutored, but far from uncultivated mind, thanks to a fortunate disposition and healthy activity, as harmoniously as his body. He was one of the few people who, to do the right thing, only need to follow their own instinct. That was why it was so easy for him to keep pace with every development in the revolutionary movement and to stand in the front rank in his 78th year as fresh as when he was 18. The boy who had played with cossacks passing through in 1814 and seen Sand (who stabbed Kotzebue to death) executed in 1820, advanced further and further from the vague oppositional figure of the 1820s and was still fully abreast of the movement in 1886. Yet he was no gloomy timeserver like most of the «serrrious» republicans of 1848, but a true son of the joyful Palatinate, full of life and as fond of wine, women and song as the next man. Having grown up in the land of the Nibelungenliedx around Worms, he still looked like one of the figures from our old epic, even in old age: light-hearted yet sardonic, calling to his opponent between sword blows, composing popular ballads if there was no one to beat — this, and no other ways, is how Volker the Fiddler must have looked!

But his greatest talent was undoubtedly military. In Baden he accomplished much more than anyone else. While the other officers, raised in the school of standing armies, found outlandish, almost unmanagable soldier material here, Becker had learned all his organizational skill, tactics and strategy in the outrageous school of the Swiss militia. A people‘s army was nothing strange to him, its inevitable shortcomings nothing new. Where others despaired or raged, Becker remained calm and found one solution after another; he knew how to handle his troops, cheering them up with a jest, and finally had them in his hand. Many a Prussian general of 1870 might envy him the march from Heidelberg to Durlach with a division of almost nothing but untrained recruits, who still remained capable of going straight into battle and giving a good account of themselves. And in the same engagement he threw into battle the hitherto intractable Palatinate troops that had been assigned to him, and even got them to attack in open country. In Becker we have lost the only German revolutionary general we had.

He was a man who took part, with distinction, in the freedom struggles of three generations.

But the workers will honor his memory as one of their best!

London, 09.12.1886

i The reference is to the republican insurrection in Baden, led by the small-bourgeois democrats Friedrich Hecker and Gustav Struve, which was crushed in April 1848.

ii On February 9th, 1849, the Constituent Assembly in Rome abolished the secular power of the Pope and proclaimed a republic. The Roman Republic had to repulse attacks by the counter-revolutionary Neapolitan and Austrian troops and the French expeditionary corps sent to Italy in April 1849 by decision of President Louis Bonaparte to restore Papal power. The republic only survived until July 3rd, 1849.

iii This refers to Pope Pius the 9th.

iv This reference is to the campaign for the Imperial Constitution adopted by the Frankfort National Assembly on March 27th, 1849 but rejected by the majority of German governments. In May 1849, popular uprisings in support of the Constitution broke out in Saxony, Rhenish Prussia, Baden and the Palatinate. The insurgents received no support from the Frankfort National Assembly and the movement was suppressed in July 1849. Engels devoted his work «The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution» to these events (see present edition, Vol. 10).

v This refers to the events of June 5th and 6th, 1849 in Karlsruhe, the capital of Baden. The radical wing of the democrats, who were discontented with the capitulatory policy of the Baden Provisional Government headed by Brentano, founded the Club of Resolute Progress in Karlsruhe on June 5th, 1849. The Club suggested that Brentano extend the revolution beyond Baden and the Palatinate and introduce radicals into his government. When Brentano refused, the Club tried, on June 6th, to force the government to comply by threatening an armed demonstration. But the government, supported by the civil militia and other armed units, proved the stronger party in the conflict. The Club of Resolute Progress was disbanded.

vi The reference is to the volunteer unit of the Gymnastics Society of Hanau (in the vicinity of Frankfort on the Main) which took part in the Baden-Palatinate uprising of 1849.

vii The German geographical mile = 7.42 km.

viii On September 28th, 1864, an international meeting was held at St. Martin‘s Hall, Long Acre, London. It was organized by the London trade union leaders and a group of Paris Proudhonist workers jointly with representatives of German, Italian and other foreign workers then living in London, and a number of prominent European democratic émigrés. The meeting resolved to found an International Workers‘ Association (later known as the 1st International) and elected a Provisional Committee, which shortly afterwards constituted itself as the directing body of the Association.

ix The International Alliance of Socialist Democracy was founded by Mikhail Bakunin in Geneva in September 1868. Alongside Bakunin, its Provisional Committee comprised Brosset, Duval, Guétat, Perron, Zagorsky and Johann Philipp Becker. In 1868, the Alliance published in Geneva leaflets in French and German containing its Programme and Rules. Shortly afterwards, Becker broke with Bakunin.

The Alliance incorporated a secret conspiratorial union that Bakunin had set up previously.

In December 1868, the Alliance applied to the General Council requesting admission to the 1st International. The Central Bureau of the Alliance joined the International as its Geneva section under the name Alliance of Socialist Democracy.

In the International, the Bakuninites formed a bloc with anti-Marxian elements and openly campaigned against Marx and Engels, seeking to establish their supremacy over the international working-class movement. The Alliance fell apart soon after Bakunin‘s expulsion from the International in 1872.

x The Nibelungenlied is the ancient German heroic epic based on myths and lays. Written versions of the song appeared only in the 13th to 16th centuries. The Nibelungenlied penetrated into Scandinavia (6th to 8th centuries) where it found reflection in the songs of the Edda.

The events that accompanied the great migration of peoples, notably the invasion of Europe by the Huns (5th century), served as the historical basis of the Nibelungenlied, though its final character owed more to the conditions of life in Germany in the 12th century.