Farewell Letter to the Readers of the Sozialdemokrat

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Engels wrote his "Farewell Letter to the Readers of the Sozialdemokrat" on the occasion of its closure. Following publication in the said newspaper, it was reprinted by the Austrian magazine Sozialdemokratische Monatsschrift, No. 9, September 30, 1890. It was also included in English translation and slightly abridged, in Edward Aveling's article "The New Era in German Socialism", which appeared in The Daily Chronicle, No. 8903, September 25, 1890, and in Italian translation in La Giustizia in October 1890. The letter was also printed (with the last phrase omitted) in the Sächsische Arbeiter-Zeitung, No. 119, October 2, and (without the first two paragraphs) in the Berliner Volksblatt, No. 230, October 3, 1890.

Might I too be permitted to bid farewell to the reader.

The Sozialdemokrat must vanish from the scene. Not only because this has been so often announced to the other parties. Far more because the Sozialdemokrat would itself under the changed circumstances necessarily become something else, with a different mission, different contributors, a different readership. And a paper which played such a specific historical role, a paper which was peculiar for the fact that in its columns, and in its columns only, the twelve most decisive years in the life of the German workers’ party are reflected—such a paper cannot and must not change. It must remain what it was, or it must cease to exist. On this we all agree.

We also all agree that the paper cannot disappear without leaving a gap. No organ appearing in Germany, official or not, can replace it. For the party this is only a relative drawback: it is entering into different conditions of struggle and therefore needs different weapons and a different strategy and tactics. But it is an absolute loss for the contributors, and particularly for me.

Twice in my life I have had the honour and the pleasure of working for a periodical where I enjoyed to full measure the two most favourable conditions in which one can be effective in the press: firstly, unconditional press freedom, and secondly, the certainty that one was reaching exactly that public one wished to reach.

The first occasion was in 1848-1849 at the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.[1] Those were revolutionary times, and in such times it is anyway a pleasure to work for the daily press. You see the effect of every word before your eyes, you see how the articles literally hit the target, as though they were shells, and how they explode.

The second occasion was at the Sozialdemokrat. This too was a revolutionary interval, after the party found its feet again at the Wyden Congress, and from then on resumed the fight “with all methods”, legal or not.[2] The Sozialdemokrat was the embodiment of this illegality. For it there was no binding imperial constitution, no imperial criminal code, no Prussian common law. Illegally, defying and disdaining all imperial and provincial legislation, it penetrated every week the frontiers of the Holy German Empire; detectives, spies, agents provocateurs, customs officials, doubled and trebled frontier forces were powerless: almost with the certainty of a bill of exchange it was presented to the subscriber on the date of maturity; no Stephan could prevent the German Reichspost from having to dispatch and deliver it. And this with over ten thousand subscribers in Germany; the banned writings of the period before 1848 were very rarely paid for by their bourgeois purchasers, but for twelve years the workers paid with the greatest punctuality for their Sozialdemokrat. How often did my heart, the heart of an old revolutionary, rejoice to observe this excellently lubricated noiseless interplay between editors, distributors and subscribers, this BUSINESSLIKE organised revolutionary work proceeding week after week, year in, year out with the same certainty!

And the paper was worth the troubles ad dangers which its distribution cost. It was certainly the best paper the party ever possessed. And this was not simply because it, alone amongst them, enjoyed full freedom of the press. The principles of the party were expounded and recorded with unusual clarity and firmness, and the tactical line of the editors was almost always the correct one. And then there was something else. While our bourgeois press cultivated the most deathly boredom, the Sozialdemokrat generously reflected the cheerful humour with which our workers are wont to fight police harassment.

And the Sozialdemokrat was anything but a mere mouthpiece for the parliamentary group. When in 1885 the majority of the group favoured the Steamer Subsidy, the paper firmly supported the opposite opinion and held on to its right to do so, even when the majority forbade it this right in an order of the day which they themselves must today find incomprehensible. The fight lasted for just four weeks, during which the editors were warmly supported by the party comrades inside and outside Germany. On April 2 the ban was issued; on the 23rd the Sozialdemokrat published a declaration agreed between the parliamentary group and the editors, indicating that the group had rescinded it s ban.[3]

At a later date it fell to the Sozialdemokrat to put to the test the renowned Swiss right of asylum.[4] There it became clear, as in all similar cases since 1830, that this right of asylum always collapses precisely when it really ought to come into force. But this is nothing new. Since the little republic’s démocratisation from 1830 on,[5] the neighbouring great powers have allowed it the democratic experiment domestically only on the condition that the right of asylum for refugees is exercised under the supervision of the interested great power. Switzerland is too weak not to submit. It cannot be blamed for this. Marx used to say, specifically with reference to Holland, Switzerland and Denmark, that today the worst situated was a small country which had had a great history. But in “free Switzerland“ they should stop bragging about their immaculate right of asylum.

The Sozialdemokrat was the banner of the German party; after twelve years of struggle the party is victorious. The Anti-Socialist Law has fallen, Bismarck has been overthrown. The powerful German Empire set in motion against us all its instruments of power; the party scoffed at them, until finally the German Empire had to lower its flag before ours. The Imperial Government will try out common law against us for the while, and so we shall, for the while, try out those legal means which we have regained for ourselves by the vigorous use of illegal means. Whether the “legal” means are once again written into our programme or not is pretty immaterial. The attempt must be made to get along with legal methods of struggle for the time being. Not only we are doing this, it is being done by all workers‘ parties in all countries where the workers have a certain measure of legal freedom of action, and this for the simple reason that it is the most productive method for them. However, the prerequisite for this is that the other side also acts legally. If the attempt is made once again actually to place our party outside the common law, be it by means of new emergency legislation, unlawful convictions and practices by the Imperial Supreme Court, by police tyranny, or by other illegal encroachments by the executive, then the German Social Democrats will once again be driven to the illegal path as the only one open to them. Even for the English, the most law-abiding nation, the first condition of legality on the part of the people is that all other agents of power remain within the bounds of the law; should this not be the case, then in the English view of law, rebellion is the first civic duty.

If this should happen, what then? Will the party build barricades, appeal to the power of the gun? It will certainly not do its opponents this favour. It will be saved from this by the knowledge of its own position of strength, given it by every general election to the Reichstag. Twenty per cent of the votes cast[6] is a very respectable figure, but this also means that the opponents together still have eighty per cent of the vote. And with our party seeing in this connection that its vote has doubled in the past three years, and that it can expect an even greater increase by the time of the next elections, then it would be mad to attempt a putsch[7] today with twenty against eighty and the army on top of that; the certain result would be—the loss of all the positions of power won in the past twenty-five years. The party has a much better and well-tested means at its disposal. On the day our rights under common law are disputed, the Sozialdemokrat will reappear. The old machinery, held in reserve for this case, will start up again, improve, enlarged, newly oiled. And one thing is certain: on a second run the German Empire will not hold out for twelve years.

  1. The daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Organ der Demokratie appeared in Cologne under Marx’s editorship between June 1, 1848 and May 19, 1849. The editorial board also included Engels, Wilhelm Wolff, Georg Weerth, Ferdinand Wolff, Ernst Dronke, Ferdinand Freiligrath and Heinrich Bürgers. A militant organ of the proletarian wing of the democrats, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung educated the masses and awakened them to the struggle against counter-revolution. The editorials, which set out the paper’s attitude to the issues associated with the German and the European revolution, were usually written by Marx and Engels. Notwithstanding reprisals and police obstruction, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung staunchly defended revolutionary democracy and the interests of the proletariat. In May 1849, with the counter-revolutionary elements in the midst of a massive offensive, the Prussian government used the fact that Marx was not a citizen of that state to issue a deportation order against him. Marx’s deportation, as well as repressive measures against other editors, eventually led to the paper's closure. The last issue, No. 301, was printed in red and appeared on May 19, 1849. The editors' farewell address to the workers read in part: "Their last word everywhere and always will be: emancipation of the working class!" (see present edition, Vol. 9, p. 467).
  2. The congress of the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany in Wyden (Switzerland) was held from August 20 to 23, 1880, with 56 delegates present. That was the first illegal congress of the German Social Democrats following the introduction of the Anti-Socialist Law. The convocation showed that the party leadership had surmounted the uncertainty and confusion caused by the dramatic changes in the conditions of its work. The congress criticised the anarchist stand of Johann Most and Wilhelm Hasselmann, who rejected all legal means of struggle, advocated individual terror and launched an open campaign against the party leadership, and expelled them from the party. The congress unanimously decided to strike out the word "legal" from the statement, contained in Part II of the programme adopted in 1875 in Gotha, that the party was working to attain its goals "with all legal means". The congress confirmed Der Sozialdemokrat as the party's official organ.
  3. Engels is referring to the statement [Erklärung] issued by the Social-Democratic group in the Reichstag (printed by Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 14, April 2, 1885) in connection with the disagreements between the majority of the parliamentary group and the paper's editorial board over the stance to be adopted on the government bill on subsidies to shipping companies (see Note 106). The group questioned the right of the party organ to criticise its actions, calling the position occupied by it an unjustified attack. After this statement was published in the newspaper, its editorial board began to receive numerous letters of protest from party members both in Germany and abroad, as well as resolutions of protest of local party branches. The majority in the parliamentary group was forced to retreat. A joint statement by the editorial board and the Social-Democratic group, printed by the paper on April 23, 1885, said that any attempt to restrict criticism constituted a departure from the party's principles and a blow at its foundations.
  4. In April 1888 the Swiss federal council (Bundesrat) yielded to the pressure of the German authorities and deported four leading figures from the editorial board and printing house of Der Sozialdemokrat. Its offices were transferred to London, where publication was resumed on October 1, 1888.
  5. Under the impact of the French revolutionary events of 1830 the movement for a revision of the Federal Pact of 1815, which declared Switzerland a federation of 22 autonomous cantons, began to gain strength. The campaign went on until 1848, when, against the background of a general revolutionary uprising in Europe, a new constitution declaring the country a unitary federal state was adopted.
  6. See Note 1.
  7. See Note 101.