Letter to August Bebel, January 23, 1886

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 23 January 1886

First published abridged in: F. Engels, Politisches Vermächtnis. Aus unveröffentlichten Briefen, Berlin, 1920 and in full, in Russian, in Marx-Engels Archives, Vol. I (VI), Moscow, 1932

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

Published in English in full for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 47

To August Bebel in Berlin

London, 20-23 January, 1886[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

So the great bolt has been fired. Schramm did me the honour of sending me a copy of the magnum opus[1]; but it is, I must say, a very pauvre[2] affair and the prompt reference to it in the Sozialdemokrat[3] did him too signal an honour. Ede will undoubtedly give him a good dressing-down; I have, through Kautsky, drawn his attention to a number of points — the essentials can safely be left to him. For Kautsky this controversy with Schramm has been salutory in every way. Schramm, being unable to say anything about the actual matter in hand, is skilful enough to pick on all the errors of form perpetrated by Kautsky, partly out of youthful impetuosity, partly out of the habits acquired at university and in literary practice, and this has been a very salutory lesson to him. In this respect Ede already has a considerable advantage over Kautsky because, though neither a university man nor a professional littérateur, he is, through being on the Sozialdemokrat, always in the thick of the fray, besides which he’s a business man and, last but not least, a Jew. For after all it’s only in war that you learn the art of war.

What you tell me about the parliamentary group’s frame of mind is most encouraging. Provided the party remains sound — and here the petty bourgeoisie will surely not gain the upper hand — the blunders of the deputy gentlemen can only serve to give these last a rude lesson. As you yourself say — and this is also my opinion — we shall never get the right kind of people into the Reichstag in time of peace and here the help afforded us by the party through bringing pressure to bear on the deputy gentlemen is absolutely invaluable; it shows that they must avoid any serious conflict, and the knowledge that this is so might, at a crucial moment, be of the utmost importance, since it would enable us to make a resolute stand in the certainty that we should emerge unscathed.

Of late Liebknecht has been positively bombarding me with letters asking for information about this and that. I took the opportunity of telling him, briefly and unequivocally, if in an altogether friendly way, just what I thought of his inconsistent conduct; and when, as usual, he tried to attribute this to some piece of gossip I must have heard, I told him that there was only one person who could harm him in my eyes, and that was Wilhelm Liebknecht who was for ever forgetting what he had said in his letters and published in the press.

However that might be, I went on, we should simply have to put up with his foibles, and would do so all the more readily for the knowledge that, when things really came to a head, he would be found in the right place. Whereupon, contrary to his usual customary insistence upon having the last word, he calmed down again.

As he mentioned the matter of the Schleswig-Holstein Canal, I took the opportunity of telling him that it would be stupid to vote for a shallow canal less than 8 or 9 metres deep, allegedly out of opposition to its use by the Fleet. The tonnage of large merchant ships is steadily on the increase, 5,000 or 6,000 tons being already the norm, and ever more ports are being adapted to accommodate vessels of corresponding draught. Those that cannot do so become obsolete and fall into decay, as will also happen in the Baltic. If the Baltic is to have its share of overseas trade, deep water harbours will accordingly have to be built there, and this will happen as surely as it has happened elsewhere. But to build the canal in such a way that, within the next 10 or 20 years, it will become as useless and obsolete as the old Eider Canal is now, would be throwing money down the drain.

As regards my proposal for productive cooperatives on state-owned land, its sole purpose was to show the majority — which was, after all, then in favour of the Steamship Subsidies — how they could decently vote against it and thus emerge from the impasse in which they found themselves. But in my view, the principle of the thing was altogether correct. It is perfectly true that, when we propose something positive, our proposals should always be practicable. But practicable as such, regardless of whether the present government can implement them. I would go even further and say that, if we propose socialist measures conducive to the downfall of capitalist production (as these are), we should restrict them to such as are essentially feasible, but could not be implemented by this government. For this government would tamper with and ruin any such measure, and put it through merely with a view to sabotaging it. This particular proposal, however, would not be implemented by any Junker or bourgeois government.

To point the way for the rural proletariat in the Baltic provinces, if not set it upon the path that would enable it to put an end to exploitation by the Junkers and big farmers — to attract into the movement the very people whose servitude and stultification supplies the regiments upon which Prussia entirely depends, in short, to destroy Prussia from within, from the root up, is something that would never occur to them. The measure for which we must press, come what may, so long as big estates continue to exist there, and which we must ourselves put into practice the moment we come to the helm, is as follows: the transfer — initially on lease — of large estates to autonomous cooperatives under state management and effected in such a way that the State retains ownership of the land. But the great advantage of this measure is that it is perfectly feasible as such, although no party except ours would embark upon it, and thus no party can bedevil it. And it alone would suffice to put paid to Prussia, so that the sooner we popularise it the better for us.

The matter has nothing whatever to do either with Schulze-Delitzsch or with Lassalle. Both supported small cooperatives, in one case with, in the other without, state aid; but in neither were the cooperatives to take possession of the already extant means of production; rather they were to introduce new cooperative production alongside already extant capitalist production. My proposal envisages the introduction of cooperatives into existing production. They are to be given land which would otherwise be exploited along capitalist lines; just as the Paris Commune demanded that the workers should manage cooperatively the factories closed down by the manufacturers.[4] Therein lies the great distinction. Nor have Marx and I ever doubted that, in the course of transition to a wholly communist economy, widespread use would have to be made of cooperative management as an intermediate stage.[5] Only it will mean so organising things that society, i. e. initially the State, retains ownership of the means of production and thus prevents the particular interests of the cooperatives from taking precedence over those of society as a whole. The fact that the Empire is not a land-owner is neither here nor there; you will find some formula, just as you did in the Polish debate, for here again the expulsions were no immediate concern of the Empire’s.

Precisely because the government cannot envisage anything of the sort, there would be no harm in demanding the grant I propose as a counterpart to the steamship grant. Had there been any possibility of the government’s assenting to it, you would, of course, have been right.

The disintegration of the German free thinkers in the economic sphere quite corresponds to what is going on among the English Radicals. The people of the old Manchester school a la John Bright are dying out and the younger generation, just like the Berliners, goes in for social patching-up reforms. Only that here the bourgeois does not want to help the industrial worker so much as the agricultural worker, who has just done him excellent service at the elections, and that in English fashion it is not so much the state as the municipality which is to intervene. For the agricultural workers, little gardens and potato plots, for the town workers sanitary improvements and the like--this is their programme. An excellent sign is that the bourgeoisie are already obliged to sacrifice their own classical economic theory, partly from political considerations but partly because they themselves, owing to the practical consequences of this theory, have begun to doubt it.

The same thing is proved by the growth of Kathedersozialismus[6] which in one form or another is more and more supplanting classical economy in the professorial chairs both here and in France. The actual contradictions engendered by the method of production have become so crass that no theory can indeed conceal them any longer, unless it were this professorial socialist mish-mash, which however is no longer a theory but drivel.

Six weeks ago symptoms of an improvement in trade were said to be showing themselves. Now this has all faded away again, the distress is greater than ever and the lack of prospect too, added to an unusually severe winter. This is now already the eighth year of the pressure of overproduction upon the markets and instead of getting better it is always getting worse. There is no longer any doubt that the situation has essentially changed from what it was formerly; since England has got important rivals on the world market the period of crises, in the sense known hitherto, is closed. If the crises change from acute into chronic ones but at the same time lose nothing in intensity, what will be the end? A period of prosperity, even if a short one, must after all return sometime, when the accumulation of commodities has been exhausted; but how all this will occur I am eager to see. But two things are certain: we have entered upon a period incomparably more dangerous to the existence of the old society than the period of ten-yearly crises; and secondly, when prosperity returns, England will be much less affected by it than formerly, when she alone skimmed the cream off the world market. The day this becomes clear here, and not before, the socialist movement here will seriously begin.

I shall have to leave the composition of the English Liberals to another time. It is a complex subject because it involves depicting a state of transition.

This morning I received from Dresden the debate on the Polish motion (1st day). No doubt the 2nd day will follow shortly.[7] It is all the more essential for me to be sent these things now that I see only the weekly edition of the Kölnische Zeitung which contains only brief excerpts from the debates. How are the short-hand reports sold? I will gladly pay for those of all debates in which our people take a serious part.

Whatever happens, it’s essential that you should also go on the American tour. On the one hand, its success greatly depends on your presence. On the other, the party will not be properly represented unless you are there. If you don’t go, the first-comer will be sent along with Liebknecht, and who knows what might not happen then. Thirdly, you should not miss the opportunity of seeing with your own eyes the most progressive country in the world. Life in Germany exerts an oppressive and constricting influence on anyone, even the best, as I know from my own experience, and one ought to get out of the place — from time to time at any rate. And in that case we might also see you over here again. Had I been able to get away from my work, I should long since have slipped across to America, as I was always hoping to do with Marx. Anyway, to people abroad, you and Liebknecht represent the party and there is no substitute for either of you. Should you not go, it will mean a loss of anything between 5,000 and 10,000 marks, if not more.

It might, in fact, be a very pleasant experience. For Tussy and Aveling have been corresponding with American free-thinkers about the possibility of a trip to that country, and would like to combine it with yours. They expect to hear within the next 3 or 4 weeks. If it comes off, the four of you would make agreeable travelling companions. But now, good-bye for the present. Apropos, Ede exceeded my expectations in his first anti-Schramm article. Absolutely splendid. He has indeed learnt to make war in accordance with the rules of strategy and tactics.


F. E.

  1. C. A. S[chramm], Rodbertus, Marx, Lassalle. Sozialwissenschaftliche Studie.
  2. miserable
  3. 'Zur Aufklärung', Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 50, 10 December 1885.
  4. See K.Marx, The Civil War in France
  5. See Resolutions of the Congress of Geneva, 1866. 4. Co-operative labour
  6. professorial socialism, or "armchair socialism"
  7. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstags. VI. Legislaturperiode. II. Session 1885186, Vol. I. 25th sitting on 15 January 1886, 26th sitting on 16 January 1886.