Letter to August Bebel, February 19, 1892

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To August Bebel in Berlin

London, 19 February 1892[edit source]

Dear August,

First of all, my heartfelt congratulations on your birthday and MANY HAPPY RETURNS OF THE DAY, as they say over here; likewise on your 25th anniversary in Parliament and/or your silver wedding with parliamentarianism, which falls due very shortly. Well, you could hardly have chosen a better time to show the chaps what an asset you are to them, and it gave us over here a great deal of pleasure.

The situation in Germany is indeed becoming acute. Things must have gone far if oppositional tendencies repeatedly appear among the National Liberals[1] and Richter[2] can dream of a German ‘great Liberal Party’. Capitalist society, which formally has not yet subordinated the state to itself, is compelled to leave the actual rule to a hereditary monarchist-bureaucratic-squirearchal caste and content itself with the idea that by and large its own interests decide matters in the end. This society, in view of its situation in Germany, wobbles between two trends. On the one hand an alliance of all official and possessing strata of society against the proletariat. This trend leads in the long run to ‘one reactionary mass’ and, in a tranquil development, finally retains the upper hand. On the other hand there is a trend which continually places on the agenda that old conflict which out of cowardice has never been fought out, the conflict between the monarchy with its absolutist relics, the landed aristocracy, and the bureaucracy, which deems itself superior to all parties, and, opposed to all of them, the industrial bourgeoisie, whose material interests are suffering every day and hour at the hands of these obsolete elements. Such contingencies as personality, locality and the like determine which of these trends has the upper hand at any given moment. At the present moment the ascendency of the second one seems about to start, in which event the industrial barons à la Stumm[3] and the shareholders of the industrial companies will naturally side in the main with the decrepit reaction. But this rehash of the old conflict of 1848 that has been dished up an infinite number of times can become very serious only if the government and the landed aristocracy, flushed with their successes so far, should commit some monstrous imbecilities. I do not consider that impossible as the strange personal desires in top quarters are finding support in the increasing conviction of the Junkers that in the end industry will be unable to stand the taxes on raw materials and foodstuffs. What point this conflict will reach depends, as I have said, on the fortuitousness of the personal element.

A characteristic feature in this context is that the old way of doing things is being used. They hit the bag but mean to hit the donkey (or rather both). They give it to the Social-Democracy but incidentally the bourgeoisie gets a good dose too; at first politically, with regard to its liberal principles, which it has been lavishly displaying for the past sixty years, and with regard to the tiny share it has directly in the government; but later on, if things fare well, also economically, sacrificing its interests to those of landed property.

A sharp turn to the right seems therefore to be in preparation, its pretext being the need to halt our advance. In what way can it affect us?

1. Anti-Socialist Law? We overcame that and to do so now, when we are morally 100% and materially at least 50% stronger than on 1 October 1890[4], would be child’s play. Nor would it be very likely to secure a majority.

2. Reactionary amendments to the laws against the press, association and assembly? Would be unacceptable to the Centre and impossible without it. To form a majority with 93 Conservatives of both factions and 42 National Liberals would require 66 men of the Centre. If they went over, that would be the end of the Centre — a not unsatisfactory result. That and the colossal fury such retrograde measures would evoke in the people would more than compensate for the coercion we should have to endure.

3. Restriction of the suffrage and of the secret ballot? Completely out of the question so far as the Centre is concerned; the Clericals aren’t so stupid as to cut their own throats. And without the Centre they would again be short of some 60 or 70 votes.

4. Coups d’état? No good because of the princes. Any infringement of the Constitution would threaten the Empire with dissolution, and release individual princes from all obligations thereto. And even if they could all be won over in such a case (which would never happen), the assent of their immediate heirs — most of them minors! — would be necessary to ensure the stability of the Empire. Out of the question, therefore.

5. Thus the only remaining possibility would seem to lie in increasingly rigorous administrative, police and legal measures, as foreshadowed in the outrageous sentence passed on Peus. But we shall survive them and will soon learn to organise ourselves accordingly. They might even go one better and declare an ordinary state of emergency, but this would constitute a hazard only in the first few weeks; later on it would automatically fall into desuetude, quite apart from the fact that it could only be proclaimed for this or that part of the Empire; moreover the bourgeois would also tire of it, and thus perhaps be driven still further into opposition.

So unless our Prussian masters hit on other inventions of quite a new and brilliant kind — as it were intellectual and moral machine guns and Maxims — they may be able to harass us, but will always do us more good than harm. A bit of undisguised Junker rule would do no harm! But I’m rather afraid our chaps may not have enough backbone; ambitions and to spare but insufficient staying-power, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The sad thing about Germany is that both sides, Junkers no less than bourgeoisie, are so deplorably supine. Last night I read with real delight the anti-Stumm speech you made on Friday 12 February ; it was a splendid piece of improvisation and one can see how successful it was. I also look forward immensely to reading the military speech which came today.

We were very pleased by your announcement that you would be here round about the 10th or 11th of April — everything is ready for you and, should Schorlemmer turn up, we can accommodate him as well; that has been seen to. You are pretty sure to be given lobster mayonnaise again after the letter Louise got from you today; I had already hatched a little plan of my own to that end, though this will presumably no longer be needed. But /shall assume responsibility for the oysters and likewise for the choice of drinks. Luckily Louise revels in these two delicacies just as much as you and I do and, on such a basis, agreement can always be reached. That she is a witch she is herself aware and is not a little proud of the fact for, or so she says, in Vienna all witches are attractive. And, between you and me, I don’t believe that, were she not a witch, you and I would get on so well with her.

Now as regards Otto Wigand, I can only repeat that, until the completion of Volume III of Capital, I cannot take on anything that might involve me in work. As it is, I am held back quite enough by the letters that daily come pouring in from all over the world and by other current business, so I do beg you to let me get this load off my shoulders at long last, thereby regaining some liberty of action. And I have just got to a section which, if I am to finish it, demands that I have a few months completely free of interruptions. If Dietz cares to discuss the matter personally with Wigand, without in any way committing me, then let him, if he thinks anything is to be gained thereby. He can say he has reason to believe that I think he, Dietz, has better sales facilities for a new edition than Wigand, and that I am inclined to entrust publication to him, Dietz, provided he can come to an agreement with Wigand. Only I cannot 1. declare myself committed in advance by anything Dietz may say to Wigand, nor can 1, 2. send him to Wigand as my representative. Semi-officially but not officially! He should sound him out and, if the terms suit him (and are such as to leave me, i. e. for party purposes, a fee commensurate with the circumstances), should go ahead, in which case I should certainly not leave him in the lurch. But I don’t want to find myself between two stools — i.e. an unwilling Wigand and a hamstrung Dietz!

It’s a real joy to know that things are livening up again. Who can tell whether, with passions running so high, your Reichstag and the French Chamber won’t both be dissolved? And what could be better for us? What I fail to understand, however, is that now, when really decisive battles are being fought in the Reichstag, Liebknecht should remain squatting in his Dresden froggery[5]. I myself would be willing to sacrifice ten Saxon mandates for the right to say a word in the Reichstag just now.

Anyway, who can tell whether we aren’t both being accused in more timorous party circles of having spoken out of turn and conjured up the threat of reactionary measures? That my article in the Neue Zeit[6] found its mark is evident from the obstinate silence of the bourgeois and ministerial press which otherwise is so ready to attack anything like that. It has since appeared in Italian, Polish and Romanian and in Italy has involved me in a polemic with that benign old jackass Bovio.

Unfortunately I shall not be able to reply to Mrs Julie’s[7] kind letter today, having spent the whole of this morning in conference with Aveling, sorting out his translation of Entwicklung des Sozialismus[8] and, if this letter is to reach you on Monday, it will have to be sent off today, Saturday. However, I shall make good the omission at the first opportunity and in the meantime can only repeat how much we regret we shan’t be seeing her here also. Well, it’s something we can still look forward to.

Warm regards,



  1. The National Liberal Party – the party of the German, and especially the Prussian, bourgeoisie, came into being in the autumn of 1866 following the split of the Progressive Party. The principle aim of the National Liberals was the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership – Progress Publishers.
  2. Eugen Richter (1838-1906) – a leader of the German ‘party of free thinkers’, expressing views of liberal bourgeoisie, advocated possibility of reconciling class interests of proletariat and bourgeoisie – Progress Publishers.
  3. Karl Stumm (1836-1901) – big German manufacturer, Conservative, rabid enemy of working-class movement – Progress Publishers.
  4. The Anti-Socialist Law was valid until 1 October 1890
  5. in the Saxon Landtag
  6. F. Engels, 'Socialism in Germany'.
  7. Bebel
  8. F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.