Rudolf Rocker – Max Baginski
The Anarchist Library
Title: Max Baginski
Subtitle: (died 24 November 1943)
Notes: Published in Die Freie Gesellschaft (The Free Society), Darmstadt, Vol. 2, No. 23, 1951. Translated by: Yvonne Franke.
Source: Retrieved on 23rd May 2022 from www.katesharpleylibrary.net
On 24 November 1943, Max Baginski died at Bellevue Hospital in New York at the age of 79. With his passing, the world lost one of the most outstanding members of the old guard of libertarian socialism, a magnificent character of rare intellectual talent and matchless mental power.
Baginski was born in Bartenstein in 1864, a small East Prussian town near Königsberg. Max’s father had a shoemaking business, but, as a free-spirited and rebellious man who had earned a reputation as a “black sheep” within his ultra-conservative community, he often struggled to make a living. In his youth, he had enthusiastically participated in the revolution of 1848, and, after the victory of the reaction, was sent to prison for a few months—an experience which, needless to say, did not teach him a “better attitude.”
As a child in his father’s house, Max eagerly read Die freien Glocken (“The Free Bells”), which was then edited by the freethinker Dr. August Specht in Germany. The little cobbler’s workshop also received the Berliner Freie Presse (“Berlin Free Press”), which at that time was published by Johann Most in the capital; even then Most’s folksy, humorous language made an impression on the young boy.
When Max finished school and was about to become his father’s apprentice, he was supposed to receive a churchly blessing from the pastor of the little town, as was common practice in Germany. For this service the man of God demanded two and a half thalers, which the father denied him. When the pastor finally agreed to offer the blessing for free, the father told him: “No, that doesn’t work! Without money, the whole thing won’t bring any blessings, and my son will end up in hell!” Thus, Max had to begin his apprenticeship without the blessing of the church—a fact which bothered him not at all. When Max traveled to Berlin in 1882, he was already a convinced Socialist. It was a difficult time in Germany back then. Bismarck’s exceptional law against the Socialists weighed on the working class like an incubus, hampering any free movement. Socialist newspapers could only be smuggled in from abroad, and public demonstrations on behalf of Socialism were out of the question. Only small trade unions were suffered a beggar’s existence every now and again, although even these eventually fell prey to the law. Together with his older brother Richard, Max threw himself heart and soul into the underground movement; he soon became one of the most active comrades of the “inner circle,” which, heroically taking on every sacrifice, led the battle against the reaction. Because Socialists were not allowed to hold their own conventions in those days, they often appeared en masse at the conventions of the officially-sanctioned political parties, where they were obliged to talk sparingly lest every meeting be broken up by the police. Baginski, who had distinguished himself as one of the finest speakers of the movement, made frequent and masterful use of this right of hospitality to develop ideas that could not be expressed openly in Socialist meetings.
In this inner circle of the underground movement, a core group known as the Opposition der Jungen (“Youthful Opposition”) formed which opposed the centralistic tendencies of the old social-democratic party leaders and tried to direct the movement towards more radical measures. Together with Karl Wildberger, Wilhelm Werner, Bruno Wille and others, Baginski emerged as one of the spiritual leaders of a young movement which even then was foretelling the fate of German social democracy—a fate which would so cruelly come to pass many years later with Hitler’s rise to power. When the exceptional law against the Socialists was struck down in 1890 and the Youthful Opposition went public, Baginski participated in the momentous debates which took place in Berlin between the “old” and the “young” and confronted the party elders more forcefully than anyone.
Even before the two factions decisively split at the political convention in Erfurt (1891), the party leaders put Baginski in charge of the editorial office of the newspaper Der Proletarier aus dem Eulengebirge (“The Owl Mountain Proletariat”), which served as a propaganda outlet among the Silesian weaver population, then among the poorest of the German workers. That the steering committee placed the defiant Baginski in such a position can only be explained by their desire to get him out of Berlin so that he could no longer sway the Youthful Opposition.
In his new sphere of influence, Baginski was untiring. His brilliant talent as a speaker, and, above all, his humble, unaffected character earned him scores of followers among the starving weavers of the Owl Mountains. He soon knew every village, every far-flung corner in this region of ever-increasing hunger and misery. When the young Gerhard Hauptmann began to collect the impressions which he later portrayed in his famous drama “The Weavers,” he found in Baginski an excellent guide. Together they visited the most deeply impoverished sites, which Hauptmann would later describe in such shocking detail in his books.