Letter to August Bebel, June 6, 1884

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To August Bebel in Leipzig

London, 6 June 1884[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

Have received your letter of the 4th inst. and shall attend to the enclosure. You do not say whether you got my registered letter of 21 April, in which I returned the envelope, its seal broken, of your letter of the 18th of that month. If it has been intercepted, then the Stieberising of letters has been doubly proven.

If everything were to go according to the wishes of the Conservatives and Liberals, and likewise accord to the secret yearnings of the progressist philistines, there can be no doubt that the Anti-Socialist Law would long since have been perpetuated as an institution in Germany and that it would so remain. But that can only happen if nothing happens elsewhere in the world, and everything remains as it is now. Despite all these philistine desires, the Law was on the very brink of disaster when friend Bismarck applied his two last and most powerful levers — Lehmann’s direct intervention and the threat of dissolution. Hence it would not even require a particularly violent convulsion of the present status quo, peaceful as it is, to put an end to the whole caboodle. And in my opinion this will surely happen before two years are out.

True, Bismarck has, for the first time, played a really nasty trick on us by procuring 300 million marks for the Russians. That will give the Tsar[1] a couple of years’ respite from an acute financial emergency and thus temporarily eliminate the danger that looms largest— the necessity of having to convene the Estates for the voting of subsidies, as in France in 1789 and Prussia in 1846. If the revolution in Russia is not to be put back by several years, there must either be some unforeseen complications or else a couple of nihilistic thunderbolts. Neither of these can be counted on to happen. All we may be sure of is that the recent borrowing operation cannot be repeated.

At home, on the other hand — as you yourself say — a change of monarch is imminent and is bound to make everything totter. Here again it is as it was in 1840, before the death of old Frederick William III. So many interests are bound up with the old familiar state of political stagnation that there is nothing the heart of Philistia as a whole desires more fervently than its perpetuation. But with the old monarch[2] the keystone disappears and the whole artificial structure collapses. The afore-mentioned interests, faced with an entirely new situation, suddenly discover that the world of today looks completely different from that of yesterday, and that they will have to look round for new mainstays. The new monarch[3] and his new entourage have plans that have long been suppressed; the whole body of those who govern or are capable of governing expands and changes; officials are perplexed by the new conditions, and the insecurity of the future, the uncertainty about who will be at the helm tomorrow or the day after, causes the action of the entire government machine to falter. That, however, is all we require. But we shall get more. For in the first place we may be sure that while, at the start, the new government may have liberalising aspirations, it will soon become frightened at its own daring, will vacillate hither and thither and eventually grope its way hither and thither, living from hand to mouth, from instance to instance, each decision conflicting with the next. Aside from the general effect of this vacillation, what will become of the Anti-Socialist Law if it is administered under these conditions? The slightest attempt to administer it ‘fairly’ would be enough to render it ineffective. Either it has to be operated as at present, purely at the whim of the police, or it will everywhere be broken.— That is one aspect. But there is another, namely that then, at last, some animation will return to the bourgeois political scene, the official parties will cease to be the one reactionary mass they now are (which is no gain to us, but rather a dead loss), and again begin seriously combatting one another and likewise struggling for political supremacy. It will make a tremendous difference to us whether, on the one hand, both National Liberals and Crown Prince Free Thinkers have a chance of coming to the helm, or whether, as now, the ability to govern is confined to the liberal Conservatives. We shall never be able to pry the masses loose from the liberal parties so long as the latter are not given an opportunity of discrediting themselves in practice, of getting at the helm of state and showing that they cannot do a thing. We are still, as we were in 1848, the opposition of the future and it is therefore necessary that the most extreme of the present parties shall be at the helm before we can become a present opposition in relation to it. Political stagnation, that is, aimless and purposeless struggle among the official parties, as now, cannot be of service to us in the long run. But a progressive struggle of these parties with a gradual shifting of the centre of gravity to the left can be so. That is what is now happening in France where the political struggle is being waged as always in classical form. The governments succeeding each other are moving more and more to the left and a Clemenceau Cabinet is already in sight. It will not be the most extreme bourgeois one. At each shift leftward concessions come the way of the workers (cf the last strike in Denain where for the first time the military did not intervene) and, what is more important, the field is being swept clean with increasing energy for the decisive battle and the position of the parties is becoming clearer and more distinct. I consider this slow but incessant development of the French Republic to its necessary outcome – antithesis between radical, sham-socialist bourgeois and really revolutionary workers – one of the most important events and hope it will not be interrupted; and I am glad that our people are not yet strong enough in Paris (but all the stronger in the provinces) to be misled into making putsches with the aid of revolutionary phrases.

In confused Germany developments are naturally not following the classically pure lines exhibited in France. We are much too backward for that and experience everything only after it has become obsolete elsewhere. But although our official parties are so rotten political life of any sort is much more favourable to us than the present political lifelessness with nothing afoot except intrigues in the field of foreign politics.

Sooner than I expected, friend Bismarck has lowered his trousers and shown the assembled people the posterior of his right to work — an amalgam of the Poor Act of the 43rd year of the reign of Elizabeth and the Bastille amendment of 1834. What bliss for Bios, Geiser and Co. who have, after all, been riding the hobby-horse of the right to work for some time now and who already seem to imagine that it was they who had roped in Bismarck! And, having once embarked on this topic, I feel impelled to tell you that the performance of these gentry, both in the Reichstag — in so far as one can judge from the inadequate newspaper reports — and in their own press, has increasingly convinced me that I, at least, do not even remotely share their standpoint or have anything at all in common with them. These allegedly ‘educated’ but in fact utterly ignorant and obstinately ineducable philanthropists, who were not only admitted in the face of Marx’s and my long and oft reiterated warnings, but were actually shepherded into the Reichstag, would seem to me to be becoming increasingly aware that they are in a majority in the parliamentary group and that it is precisely they who, with their timeserving attitude towards every crumb of state socialism tossed to them by Bismarck, more than any one else, are concerned that the Anti-Socialist Law should remain in force and that it should be applied leniently, if at all, to well-meaning persons like themselves — again something which only people like you and I prevent the government from doing, for if these, the afore-mentioned philanthropists, were rid of us it would be easy for them to prove that there was no call for an Anti-Socialist Law where they were concerned. Their abstention as well as their general performance in connection with the Dynamite Bill was likewise typical. But what’s going to happen at the next election if, as seems probable, the safest constituencies fall to these chaps?

It is a great pity that, during the next few critical months, you will be so far away; now, with the elections upon us, we should certainly have had occasion to tell each other a great deal. Could you not let me have an address from which my letters could be forwarded to you?

I also hope you may sometimes be able to send me some interesting information about your trip.

Apart from what seems to me steady progress and increasing cohesion on the part of the educated bourgeois elements of the party,

I am not at all anxious about the course things are taking. I would, if possible, rather see a split avoided so long as we have no freedom of action. But if it has to be — and it is for you people to decide, then so be it!

A work of mine on the origin of the family, property and the state is about to appear. As soon as it comes out I shall send it to you.

Your old friend

F. Engels

  1. Alexander III
  2. William I
  3. Crown Prince Frederick William