Letter to August Bebel, November 14, 1879

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To August Bebel in Leipzig

London, 14 November 1879

Dear Bebel,

Many thanks for your communications, as also those of Fritzsche and Liebknecht, which have at last enabled us to get a clear idea of the facts.

That things have not, from the start, been exactly straightforward, however, is evident from earlier letters from Leipzig and the muddles and misunderstandings with Hirsch generally. ⟦Passage crossed out in the manuscript : If the Zurich trio had no pretensions to censorship, why were those pretensions, which were so loudly and insistently voiced by them, not immediately quashed by Leipzig? Only two things were needed to induce Hirsch to go to Zurich: 1. Information about the true facts of the case, such as we have now had, 2. Notification to the effect that we, the Leipzigers, have written to the Zürichers telling them that they are not to intervene officially in the editorship, and, if they nevertheless do so, you must take no notice; you are responsible to us and to us alone. The latter could not have happened if, from the start, the Leipzigers had put paid to Zurich’s pretensions to censorship. Had they done so and informed Hirsch of the fact, everything would have been all right. But since they didn’t, I can only conclude, after again comparing commissions with omissions, present communications with previous letters from all concerned, that Höchberg wasn’t altogether wrong when he told me that Zurich had imposed censorship solely on Hirsch’s account, it being unnecessary in the case of Vollmar.

As regards the financing,[1] I’m not particularly surprised that you should take matters so lightly. For this is the first time you’ve had a go at the thing. But Hirsch had already been through this particular mill with the Laterne and, as for us, who have so often witnessed such things and even experienced them in person, we can only endorse his request that careful consideration be given to this point. Freiheit, despite all subsidies, is left at the end of its third quarter with a deficit of £100=2,000 marks. I have never known a German paper, banned at home, that could have survived without substantial subsidies. Do not allow yourselves to be dazzled by initial successes. The real difficulties involved in smuggling become manifest only with time, and multiply constantly.

What you say about the attitude of the deputies and of the party leaders generally to the protective tariffs question corroborates every word of my letter. It was bad enough, in all conscience, that a party which prides itself on being so superior to the bourgeois in the sphere of economics should, when first put to the test in that sphere, prove just as divided, just as ignorant, as the National Liberals who could at least plead a genuine clash of bourgeois interests in extenuation of their inglorious collapse. But it was even worse that that split should have been seen to happen, that your attitude should have been wavering and uncertain. Once you knew that unity was unattainable, there was only one thing to do—declare the question to be a purely bourgeois question, which indeed it is, and abstain from voting. ⟦Passage crossed out in the manuscript : to invoke the point in the programme that rejects all indirect taxation and the tactics which prohibit voting this government any taxes, and to adopt as the sole precept abstention from voting. But the worst thing of all was permitting Kayser to make his lamentable speeches and to vote for the Bill at its first reading. It was not until after that division that Hirsch attacked him, and if Kayser later, at the third reading, voted against the Bill, he only made matters worse, not better. The resolution in congress is no excuse. If the party proposes to regard as binding all the earlier resolutions made by congress in the easy-going days of peace, it will be placing itself in fetters. The constitutional basis upon which a living party functions must not only be self-created, it must also and at all times be susceptible to change. Inasmuch as the Anti-Socialist Law makes congresses and hence the amendment of earlier congressional resolutions impossible, it also abolishes the binding force of those resolutions. A party that is deprived of the opportunity of passing binding resolutions can only look for its laws to its living and ever changing needs. But if it seeks to subordinate those needs to earlier resolutions that are now dead as a doornail, it will be digging its own grave.

So much for the formal aspect. However, it is the content of that resolution that really invalidates it. In the first place it is incompatible with the programme in that it admits of voting indirect taxation. Secondly it is incompatible with essential party tactics inasmuch as it permits taxation to be voted for the present-day state. Thirdly, however, it implies, translated into plain language:

The congress admits to not being well enough informed about the question of protective tariffs to pass a definite resolution, for or against. Hence it declares itself incompetent in this matter, inasmuch as it restricts itself, for the benefit of the dear public, to the enunciation of a few commonplaces, some of them meaningless, some incompatible either with each other or with the party programme, and then proceeds gladly to wash its hands of the whole affair.

And is this declaration of incompetence whereby what was, in peace-time, a purely academic question was swept under the carpet,—is this declaration,[2] now that, in time of war, the question has become a burning one, to be considered as binding upon an entire party until legally invalidated by a new resolution which present circumstances preclude?

This much is certain: whatever the impression made on the deputies by Hirsch’s attacks upon Kayser, those attacks reflect the impression made by Kayser’s irresponsible action upon Social-Democrats abroad, whether German or non-German. And it is high time it was realised that the reputation of the party has to be kept up, not only within its own confines, but also in the eyes of Europe and America.

And this brings me to the Report.[3] Although the beginning is very good and the treatment of the protective tariff debate – in these circumstances – is skilful the concessions made to the German philistines in the third part are unwelcome. Why that wholly superfluous passage about the ‘civil war’, why that kowtowing to ‘public opinion’ which in Germany will always be that of the beer-house philistine? Why here the total obliteration of the class character of the movement? Why give the Anarchists this ground for rejoicing? And all these concessions moreover are wholly useless. The German philistine is cowardice incarnate; he respects only those who inspire him with fear. But anyone who wants to get into his good graces he considers one of his own kind and respects him no more than his own kind, namely not at all. And now that the beer-house philistine’s ‘storm’ of indignation, called public opinion, has, as is generally admitted, subsided again and since heavy taxation has in any case knocked the spirit out of these people, why these honeyed speeches? If you only knew how they sound abroad! It is quite a good thing that Party organs must be edited by people who are in the thick of the Party and the struggle. But if you had been only six months abroad you would think quite differently of this entirely unnecessary self-debasement of the Party deputies before the philistines. The storm that broke over the heads of the French Socialists after the Commune was after all something quite different from the outcry raised in Germany on account of the Nobiling[4] affair. And how much more proud and dignified was the bearing of the French! Where do you find among them such weakness, such paying of compliments to one’s opponents? They kept silent when they could not speak freely; they let the philistines scream as much as they liked knowing that their time would surely come again; and now it has come...

As for the rest I only want to remark about Auer’s[5] insinuations that we here underestimate neither the difficulties with which the Party has to contend in Germany nor the significance of the successes achieved nevertheless and the quite exemplary conduct up to now of the Party masses. It naturally goes without saying that every victory gained in Germany gladdens our hearts as much as one gained elsewhere, and even more so because from the very beginning the development of the German Party was associated with our theoretical statements. But for that very reason we must be particularly interested to see that the practical conduct of the German Party and especially the public utterances of the Party leadership should be in harmony with the general theory. Our criticism is certainly not pleasant for some people. But it surely must be of greater value to the Party and its leadership than all uncritical compliments to have abroad a few people who, unbiased by confusing local conditions and details of the struggle, measure happenings and utterances from time to time by the theoretical propositions valid for all modern proletarian movements, and who convey to it the impression its actions create outside Germany.

Yours in friendship
F Engels

  1. of the newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat
  2. In the manuscript of the draft: 'this wretched piece of trash'.
  3. Engels refers to the ‘Rechenschaftsbericht der sozialdemokratischen Mitglieder des deutschen Reichstages’ (’the Report of the Social-Democratic Members of the German Reichstag’), published in Der Sozialdemokrat of 12, 19 and 26 October 1879 – Progress Publishers.
  4. The allusion is to the attempts on the life of William I by Max Hödel on 11 May, and the anarchist Nobiling on 2 June 1878, which provided Bismarck with a convenient opportunity for introducing the Anti-Socialist Law – Progress Publishers.
  5. Ignaz Auer (1846-1907) – German Social-Democrat, a leader of the Social-Democratic Party, was repeatedly elected deputy to Reichstag, later a reformist – Progress Publishers.