Letter to August Bebel, November 24, 1879

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 24 November 1879


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 45, p. 423;
First published: in A. Bebel, Aus meinem Leben Teil III, Stuttgart, 1914.

To August Bebel in Leipzig

London, 24 November 1879[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

I had good reasons for assuming that Auer was alluding to myself. The date proves nothing. He expressly excludes Most. So go and ask him yourself whom he meant; then we shall see what he says. I'm positive that the misunderstanding was not on my side.

Höchberg did, to be sure, make the statement in question.

I know that you were mostly away while the negotiations with Hirsch were going on and it never occurred to me to hold you personally responsible for what happened.

As regards the question of tariffs, your letter wholly corroborates what I have said. If feelings were divided, as was indeed the case, and if it was thought desirable to take those divided feelings into consideration, what was called for was, of course, abstention, no less. Otherwise it would have meant taking one side only into consideration. But why the protectionist section was more deserving of consideration than the free trade one is difficult to see. You say you cannot adopt a purely negative attitude in Parliament. But since everyone ultimately voted against the Bill, their attitude was, after all, purely negative. All I'm saying is, they ought to have known from the start how they intended to conduct themselves; they ought to have acted in conformity with the final vote.

Questions which enable Social-Democratic deputies to abandon a purely negative attitude are very narrowly circumscribed. All are questions which immediately involve the relation of workers to capitalists: factory legislation, the normal working-day, employer’s liability, payment in goods, etc. Perhaps also improvements in the purely bourgeois sense such as constitute a positive step forward: standardisation of coins and weights, freedom of movement, extension of personal freedom, etc. You're unlikely to be troubled with these for the time being. In the case of all other economic questions, such as protective tariffs, nationalisation of the railways, assurance companies, etc., Social-Democratic deputies must always uphold the vital principle of consenting to nothing that increases the power of the government vis-à-vis the people. And this is made all the easier in that feelings within the party itself will, of course, invariably be divided in such cases and hence abstention, a negative attitude, is automatically called for.

What you say about Kayser makes the matter even worse. If he speaks in favour of protective tariffs in general, why does he vote against them? If he intends voting against them why does he speak in favour of them? If, however, he has studied the subject with great diligence, how can he vote for tariffs on iron? Had his studies been worth a penny, he couldn’t fail to have discovered that there are two ironworks in Germany, the Dortmunder Union and the Königs- und Laurahütte, either of which is capable of meeting the entire domestic demand; besides these there are many smaller ones; hence that a protective tariff is utter nonsense in this case; that the only remedy in this case is the capture of the foreign market, hence unadulterated free trade or bankruptcy; also that the iron-masters themselves can only want a protective tariff if they have formed a ring, a conspiracy which imposes monopoly prices on the domestic market, so that they are better able to sell off their surplus products abroad at cut prices, which they are in fact already doing at this moment. It was in the interests of this ring, this conspiracy of monopolists that Kayser was speaking and, insofar as he voted in favour of tariffs on iron, was also voting, and Hansemann of the Dortmunder Union and Bleichröder of the Königs- und Laurahütte will be laughing in their sleeves at the stupid Social-Democrat who has, for good measure, studied the subject with diligence!

You must at all costs get hold of Rudolph Meyer’s Politische Gründer in Deutschland. Without a knowledge of the material assembled here on the swindles, the crash and the political corruption of recent years, it is impossible to form an opinion on present conditions in Germany. How is it that this store of riches was not exploited at the time for the benefit of our press? The book is banned, of course.

The passages in the report I particularly have in mind are 1. those in which so much emphasis is laid on winning over public opinion — to have this factor against you was to be hamstrung; it was a matter of life and death that ‘this hatred be turned into sympathy’, etc — sympathy! from people who just before, during the Terror had shown themselves to be dirty blackguards. There was no need to go to such lengths, especially as the Terror had long since ended; — 2. those to the effect that the party, which condemns war in any shape or form (hence also the one which it is forced to wage, which it wages notwithstanding) and whose goal is the universal fraternisation of all men (in terms of a slogan the goal of every party, in terms of immediate reality that of none, for not even we wish to fraternise with the bourgeois so long as they wish to remain bourgeois), cannot envisage civil war (hence not even in a case where civil war is the only means to the end). This proposition may also be construed as follows: that a party which condemns bloodshed in any shape or form cannot envisage either blood-letting or the amputation of gangrenous limbs, or scientific vivisection. Why all these empty phrases? I'm not asking that all your language should be ‘vigorous’, I am not reproaching the Report for saying too little — on the contrary, there is much that would have been better left unsaid. The next part is much better and so Hans Most has fortunately overlooked the few passages out of which he could have made capital.

But it was a blunder to insert a solemn announcement in the Sozialdemokrat to the effect that Liebknecht had taken the Saxon oath of allegiance. Hans won’t let that one pass by, and his anarchist friends will be sure to embroider on it. Marx and I don’t consider the matter itself to be as dangerous as, e.g., Hirsch took it to be in the heat of the moment. You people must know whether ‘Paris vaut bien une messe’, as Henri IV said when he became a Catholic, thus sparing France a thirty years’ war, and whether the advantages are of a kind to justify such inconsistency and the taking of an oath which, moreover, is the only one which cannot entail a prosecution for perjury. But once it had been taken, nothing ought to have been said about it until others had kicked up a fuss; that would have been time enough to go on to the defensive. But for the Sozialdemokrat, Hans wouldn’t have heard a word about it.

I was delighted at the lambasting you gave the notorious drunkard and wastrel. We shall see that this is spread about in Paris, though we are stumped for the French words that would convey the foregoing pithy expressions.

We are, by the way, fully aware that it is all very well, as they say, for us here to talk, and that your position is much more difficult than ours.

That the petty bourgeois and peasants should be joining us is, I grant you, a sign of the movement’s rapid progress, but it also constitutes a danger to the movement, once one forgets not only that these people have got to come, but also that they are coming simply because they have got to. Their joining us proves that the proletariat really has become the leading class. But since the ideas and ambitions they bring with them are those of the petty bourgeois and the peasant, it must not be forgotten that the proletariat would forfeit its leading historical role were it to make concessions to those ideas and ambitions.

Most cordially yours,
F. Engels

Herewith another loose postscript.