Letter to August Bebel, May 1-2, 1891

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 2 May 1891

First published, in Russian, in Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya, Moscow, No. 2, 1939
Extract: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 49

To Bebel in Berlin

London, May 1-2, 1891[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

Today I shall reply to your two letters of 30 March and 25 April. I was delighted to hear that your silver wedding went off so well and has whetted your appetite for the next, your golden one. I sincerely hope that you will both live to see it. We shall need you long after the devil has come for me — as the old man of Dessau[1] used to say.

I must — I hope for the last time — revert to Marx’s critique of the programme.[2] That ‘no one would have raised any objection to its publication’ I feel bound to contest. Liebknecht would never have willingly consented and would have done everything in his power to prevent it. So greatly has the critique rankled since 1875 that he recalls it the moment the word ‘programme’ is mentioned. The whole of his Halle speech turns upon it. His pompous Vorwärts article is, throughout, nothing but an expression of his bad conscience in regard to this self-same critique. And it was, in fact, primarily aimed at him. We regarded, and I still regard him, as the progenitor of the unification programme or the shoddier aspects thereof. And it was this point that led me to act off my own bat. Had I been able to discuss the thing with you alone and then send it straight on to K. Kautsky for publication, a couple of hours would have sufficed for us to agree. But as it was, I considered you were under an obligation — both from the personal and the party viewpoint — to consult Liebknecht as well. And I knew what the result would be if I went ahead regardless. Either suppression or an open row — a temporary one at any rate — even with yourself. That I wasn’t wrong is evident from what follows: Now, since you came out of quod on 1 April [1875], and the document is dated 5 May, it is obvious — until some other explanation is forthcoming — that the thing was deliberately withheld from you and that this could, in fact, only have been done by Liebknecht. But just for the sake of peace and quiet you have allowed him to disseminate the lie that, because you were under lock and key, you had not been able to see the thing. Hence I take it that, even before publication, you could have spared his feelings in order to avoid a rumpus in the Executive. Indeed I find this explicable, as I trust you will likewise find my having allowed for the fact that this, in all probability, was how you acted.

I have just taken another look at the thing. It’s possible that some of it could have been left out without impairing the whole. But certainly not very much. What was the position? We knew as well as you did and, for instance, the Frankfurter Zeitung of 9 March 1875,[3] which I found, that the matter was decided when your accredited representatives accepted the draft. Hence Marx wrote the thing merely to salve his conscience, as is testified by the words he appended — dixi et salvavi animam meam[4]—and not with any hope of success. Hence Liebknecht’s big talk about the ‘categorical no‘ is mere braggadocio and he knows it. Well, if you blundered in choosing your representatives and were then forced to swallow the programme lest the whole business of unification came to naught, you surely cannot object to the publication, fifteen years later, of the warning that was sent you before you finally made up your minds. It does not brand you either fools or traitors unless, of course, you lay claim to infallibility so far as your official actions are concerned.

You, however, did not see that warning. Indeed this fact has been made public and you are thus in an exceptionally favourable position as compared with the others who, though they had seen it, nevertheless fell in with the draft.

I consider the accompanying letter to be most important. For it propounds what would have been the only correct policy. Parallel action for a trial period — that was the one thing that could have saved you from trafficking in principles. But, come what may, Liebknecht was determined not to forego the glory of having effected unification and, in the circumstances, it is a miracle that he didn’t make even more concessions than he did. From bourgeois democracy he brought with him and has retained ever since a positive mania for unification.

The fact that the Lassalleans came over because they had to, because their entire party was disintegrating and because their leaders were scoundrels or jackasses whom the masses would no longer follow, is something that can be said today in tastefully moderate form. Their ‘tightly knit organisation’ naturally ended in total dissolution. Hence it is absurd when Liebknecht excuses the wholesale acceptance of the Lassallean articles of faith on the grounds that the Lassalleans had sacrificed their tightly knit organisation — there was nothing left of it to sacrifice!

You wonder about the provenance of the muddle-headed and convoluted clichés in the programme. But all these are surely quintessential Liebknecht; they have been a bone of contention between us for ‘ years and the chap’s besotted with them. Theoretically he has always been muddle-headed and our clear-cut style is still an abomination to him today. As a sometime member of the People’s Party he, on the other hand, still loves resounding phrases which leave one free to think what one will or, for that matter, not think at all. The mere fact that, long ago and out of ignorance, some muddle-headed Frenchman, Englishman or American spoke of the ‘emancipation of labour’ rather than of the working class, and that, even in the documents of the International one sometimes had to use the language of the people one was addressing, was, to Liebknecht, reason enough for forcibly making the phraseology of the German party conform to this same outmoded point of view. Nor can he possibly be said to have done this ‘despite his knowing better’ for he really didn’t know better and I am not sure whether this is not still the case today. At all events, he is still as susceptible as he ever was to the old, woolly phraseology which, rhetorically, is certainly easier to use. And since he undoubtedly attached at least as much importance to basic democratic demands, which he thought he understood, as to economic principles, of which he had no clear understanding, he was undoubtedly sincere in believing he had pulled off a splendid deal in bartering democratic staples for Lassallean dogmas.

So far as the attacks on Lassalle are concerned, these seemed to me, as I have already said, more important than anything else. By accepting all the essential Lassallean economic catchwords and demands, the Eisenachers had in fact turned into Lassalleans — at least if the programme is anything to go by. The Lassalleans had sacrificed nothing, nothing whatever that was capable of preservation. And so as to make the latter’s victory more complete you people adopted for your party anthem the rhymed, moralising prose in which Mr Audorf celebrates Lassalle.[5] During the 13 years in which the Anti-Socialist Law was in force there was, of course, no possibility of combatting the Lassalle cult within the party. This had got to be quashed and I set about doing so. I shall no longer permit Lassalle’s bogus reputation to be maintained and revived at Marx’s expense. Those who knew and revered Lassalle personally are thin on the ground; in the case of all the rest, the Lassallean cult is purely factitious, the result of our having tacitly tolerated it against our better judgment; hence it has not even the justification of personal attachment. We showed ample consideration for the feelings of inexperienced and new recruits by publishing the thing in the Neue Zeit. But I am in no way prepared to concede that in such circumstances historical truth — after 15 years of meek forbearance — should give way to expediency and the fear of causing offence within the party. That deserving people should have their feelings hurt on such occasions is unavoidable and their grumbling after the event no less so. And if they then proceed to say that Marx was envious of Lassalle, and the German press, including even (!!) the Chicago Vorbote (which writes for more self-confessed Lassalleans — in Chicago — than exist in the whole of Germany) chimes in, it affects me no more than a flea-bite. We have had far worse things cast in our teeth and none the less carried on with the business in hand. The example has been set; Marx has laid rough hands on the sacrosanct Ferdinand Lassalle and that for the time being is enough.

And now just one more thing. In view of the attempt made by you people forcibly to prevent publication of the article, and your warnings to the Neue Zeit that, in the event of a recurrence, it, too, might be taken over and subjected to censorship by the party, the latter’s appropriation of your entire press cannot but appear to me in a singular light. In what respect do you differ from Puttkamer if you introduce an Anti-Socialist Law into your own ranks? So far as I myself am concerned, it doesn’t signify; no party in any country can impose silence upon me once I have made up my mind to speak. But all the same I would suggest you consider whether you would not do well to show yourselves slightly less touchy and, in your actions, slightly less — Prussian. You — the party — need socialist science and this cannot exist without freedom to develop. Hence one has to put up with the unpleasantnesses and to do so for preference with good grace and without flinching. Tension, however slight, let alone a rift, between the German party and German socialist science would be an unprecedented misfortune and disgrace. That the Executive and/or you yourself still have and must retain considerable moral sway over the Neue Zeit and everything else that is published, goes without saying. But with that you must and can rest content. Inalienable freedom of discussion is constantly being vaunted in the Vorwärts but is not greatly in evidence. You have absolutely no idea how odd an impression this proclivity for forcible measures makes upon one who lives abroad and is accustomed to see the most venerable party leaders being well and truly taken to task within their own party (e. g. the TORY government by Lord Randolph Churchill). And again, you should not forget that discipline in a big party cannot be anything like as strict as it is in a small sect, and that the Anti-Socialist Law, which forged the Eisenachers and Lassalleans into a single whole (though Liebknecht avers this was the work of his magnificent programme) and necessitated such close cohesion, no longer exists.

Ouf! So much for that old affair, and now for something else. There would seem to be some high jinks going on in the upper regions over there. But it’s all to the good. That the state machine should be thrown out of gear in this way suits us very well. Always providing peace is maintained by the universal fear of what the outcome of a war might be! For Moltke’s death has removed the last obstacle to the disorganisation of the army by the arbitrary appointment of new commanders, and every year must contribute towards making victory more uncertain and defeat more probable. And little though I would wish for another Sedan, I am no more anxious to see the Russians and their allies victorious, even if they are republicans and otherwise have cause for complaint about the Peace of Frankfurt.

The trouble you expended on the revision of trade regulations has not been in vain. Better propaganda would be difficult to imagine. We over here followed the business with considerable interest and were delighted by the pertinence of the speeches. In this connection I recalled the words of old Fritz: ‘For the rest, our soldiers’ genius lies in the attack, as is, indeed, right and proper.’[6] And what party, given the same number of deputies, could boast so many confident and forceful speakers? Bravo me lads!

The coal strike in the Ruhr is certainly awkward for you, but what gives? The ill-advised strike of angry passion is, as matters stand, the usual way that large new strata of workers are brought in our direction. These facts seem to me to have been given too little consideration in the treatment by Vorwärts. Liebknecht knows no shadings, he is either all black or all white; and if he thought he was duty-bound to prove to the world that our party did not egg on this strike, and even calmed it down, then God have mercy on the poor strikers — for them less than a desirable amount of concern has been shown, to see that they come to us soon. Today, 2 May, he is back again, live and kicking.

2 May. Come to that, the pit strike will doubtless soon fizzle out; it would seem to be only a very partial one and in no way to accord with the assertions and assurances at the delegates’ meeting. It’s all to the good. Not for one moment do I doubt that there’s a powerful urge to resort to the sword and the musket.

The first [of May] went off very well. Vienna again takes pride of place. In Paris it fell more or less flat thanks to the bickering which is as yet by no means a thing of the past. Mistakes have been made there qn every side. Our people in Lille and Calais had committed themselves to a specific type of demonstration — the sending of delegates to the Chamber. The Blanquists were not asked. The Allemanists did not join the demonstration comité until later. This suited neither the Blanquists nor the Allemanists; in the Chamber, the Blanquists had apostates who had been elected under Boulanger’s aegis, the Allemanists had a Broussist opponent3 there, and neither party wanted to appear as petitioners before these men. The same applied to the deputations which our chaps suggested sending to the 20 Paris mairies[7] a to which it was also proposed to summon the municipal councillors so that they might there hear ‘the will of the people’. Thus a split ensued, our chaps withdrew and the demonstration split up into 3 or 4 partial demonstrations. Lafargue sent me word yesterday afternoon; under the circumstances he is fairly satisfied with what happened, but maintains that Paris will come off badly by comparison with the provinces. Of one thing we may be certain; the countries which chose the 3rd [of May] — Germany and England — will muster the most impressive crowds, providing the weather’s not too bad. It’s wretched here today, heavy, drenching showers, a strong wind and only an occasional ray of sunshine.

Fischer will have received what he wanted for Wage Labour and Capital[8], Entwicklung[9] will follow in a few days’ time. But then there must be no more requests. I have been promising a new edition of the Origin[10] for a year now, and that has got to go off, after which I shall undertake nothing further whatsoever until the 3rd volume of Capital is ready in ms. That has got to be completed. So if over there you hear rumours of fresh demands to be made on my time, I would beg you to back me up. I shall also reduce my correspondence to a minimum, with only one exception, namely yourself. It is through you that I can most easily remain in touch with the German party and again, to be honest, I enjoy this correspondence far more than any other. Once Volume III is in print I can get cracking again, starting with the revision of the Peasant War[11]. And if I have nothing else to do, I shall probably complete Volume III this year.

Well, kindest regards to your wife[12], Paul[13], Fischer, Liebknecht and tutti quanti from



[From Louise Kautsky]

Dear August,

Many thanks for your kind letter; I shall answer it as soon as possible and let you have the information you ask for. Did you know that we, i. e. the United International Social-Democrats, namely: Tussy (representing France, England), Ede[14] (Ireland), Ede[15] (Berlin), Gine[16] (Posen[17]) and I, Austria and Italy, proposed to move a vote of no confidence when The Daily News praised you so exceedingly? Fie upon you, August! You are the last person I should have expected this from. Warm regards to you and your wife.



More anon.

  1. Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau
  2. K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme.
  3. 'Frankfurt, 8. März', Frankfurter Leitung und Handelsblatt, No. 68, morning edition, 9 March 1875.
  4. I have spoken and saved my soul
  5. J. Audorf, Lied der deutschen Arbeiter
  6. Friedrich II, 'Instruktion für die General-Majors von der Cavallerie (14. August 1748)'. In: Friedrich der Große, Militärische Schriften erläutert und mit Anmerkungen versehen durch v. Taysen, Oberstlieutenant und Abtheilungschef im Neben-Elal des Großen Generalslabes.
  7. town halls
  8. F. Engels, 'Introduction to Karl Marx's Wage Labour and Capital (1891 Edition)
  9. F. Engels, 'Preface to the Fourth Edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific'
  10. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
  11. F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany
  12. Julie Bebel
  13. Paul Singer
  14. Edward Aveling
  15. Eduard Bernstein
  16. Regina Bernstein
  17. Polish name: Poznan