Letter to August Bebel, January 18, 1884

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 18 January 1884

First published, in Russian, in Marx-Engels Archives, Vol. I (VI), Moscow, 1932

Published: Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, International Publishers, 1942;

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 47

To August Bebel in Borsdorf near Leipzig

London, 18 January, 1884[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

At last I have recovered sufficiently to spend at least a few hours a day at my desk and thus fulfil my obligations in regard to letter-writing. The thing was neither serious nor painful, but damned tedious and gênant[1] and I shall have to take great care of myself for some little while yet.

You will have received my letter about Miss Issleib written in bed in pencil. Since I have heard nothing more, I can only suppose the matter has been dropped.— I dictated to Kautsky, who happened to be on the spot, a letter to Liebknecht which I hope he has received and shown to you as requested. From it you will have seen that

I am under no illusions as to the American business, nor was I in any way inclined to give you the impression that I regarded the thing as absolutely essential. But I still maintain that, if it is to succeed, you two must go and no one else. Whether you can do so, I have absolutely no idea — you will know best. But this much is certain — no amount of American money will make good the damage that will infallibly be done if, after the manner of Fritzsche and Viereck, the emissaries again water down the party’s viewpoint into a semblance of vulgar democracy and homespun philistinism. And your presence would certainly be the best guarantee that nothing of the sort would happen.

I was delighted by the good news you sent me about the movement’s progress. The government could not, in fact, have hit on any better means of keeping the movement going and intensifying it than by everywhere involving our chaps in these violent local struggles with the police, particularly when the police in Germany is made up of such worthless characters that our lads can turn the enemy’s own weapons against him and take the offensive. And if, on top ofthat,— as recently in Berlin — the police are confused by constantly changing instructions from above, so much the better.

Should there be any repetition of the attempt to bring ‘the right to work’ back into fashion, I would write something about it in the Sozialdemokrat. I have discussed this with Kautsky; but first I should like Geiser and Co. to commit themselves a bit, to produce something tangible for us to go on, though Kautsky maintains that they won’t. These ne’r-do-well students, shop assistants, etc., are the bane of the movement. They know less than nothing and are, for that very reason, reluctant to learn anything at all; their so-called socialism is nothing but philistine hot air.

Whether you will rid yourselves of the emergency article, I cannot say; there will always be the pretext that only in this way is it possible to protect the person of old William,[2] a phrase before which all Philistia will grovel on their bellies.

Many thanks for your book, Die Frau.[3] I have read it with great interest, it contains much valuable material. Especially lucid and fine is what you say about the development of industry in Germany. I have also done some research on this subject recently, and if I had time I would write something about it for the Sozialdemokrat.[4] How strange that the philistines don’t understand that ‘the vagabond trouble’ they so lament is the necessary consequence of the rise of large-scale industry under the conditions obtaining in German agriculture and handicraft, and that the development of large-scale industry in Germany — because she arrives late everywhere — is bound to take place under the continuous pressure of adverse market conditions. For the Germans are able to compete only as a result of low wages, reduced to starvation level, and an ever increasing exploitation of the cottage industry which serves as a background to their factory production. The transformation of the handicrafts into cottage industry and the gradual transformation of the cottage industry, in so far as this is profitable, into factory and machine industry — that is the course taken in Germany. The only really big industry we have up to now is iron. The hand-loom still predominates in the textile industry, thanks to the starvation wages and the fact that the weavers have potato plots.

Here too industry has taken on a different character. The ten-year cycle seems to have been broken down now that, since 1870, American and German competition have been putting an end to English monopoly in the world market. In the main branches of industry a depressed state of business has prevailed since 1868, while production has been slowly increasing, and now we seem both here and in America to be standing on the verge of a new crisis which in England has not been preceded by a period of prosperity. That is the secret of the sudden — though it has been slowly preparing for three years — but the present sudden emergence of a socialist movement here. So far the organised workers — trade unions — remain quite remote from it, the movement is proceeding among "educated" elements sprung from the bourgeoisie, who here and there seek contact with the masses and in places find it. These people are of very varying moral and intellectual value and it will take some time before they sort themselves out and the thing becomes clarified. But that it will all go entirely to sleep again is hardly likely. Henry George with his nationalisation of the land[5] is likely to play a meteoric role, because this point here is of importance traditionally, and also actually on account of the vast extent of big landed property. But in the long run attention will not be concentrated on this point alone in the foremost industrial country in the world. Henry George, moreover, is a genuine bourgeois and his plan of defraying all governmental expenditures out of rent of land is only a repetition of the plan of the Ricardo school, that is purely bourgeois.

If you wish to study a model of state socialism, then take a look at Java. There the Dutch government has, on the basis of the old, communistic village communities, organised production as a whole along such nicely socialist lines, and so neatly assumed control of the sale of all produce that, apart from some 100 million marks for army and civil service pay, there remains each year a clear profit of some 70 million marks for payment of interest to the luckless creditors of the Dutch state. Bismarck is a mere child by comparison!

One way or another, we shall have a Russian constitution in the course of this year, and then the fun will begin.



  1. inconvenient
  2. William I
  3. Engels is referring to the second illegal edition of Bebel’s book Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism) which was published by Schabelitz of Zurich and printed in Dietz’s printing works at Stuttgart. The book came out in 1883 under the title Die Frau in der Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft (Woman in the Past, Present and Future).
  4. Der Sozialdemokrat — the central organ of the German Socialist Workers Party, founded in Zurich in September 1879. After the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Law in 1890 the paper ceased to appear and the Vorwärts again became the central organ of the party.
  5. The American economist Henry George came to England in 1882 and 1884 to conduct a propaganda campaign for his land nationalisation. For an evaluation of his theory see Marx’s letter to Sorge of 20 June 1881. Henry George (1839-1897) — American publicist, bourgeois economist, advocated bourgeois nationalisation of land as means to solve all social contradictions in capitalist society.