Letter to August Bebel, October 24, 1891

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 24 October 1891


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First published in: Marx and Engels, Works, First Russian Edition, Vol. XXVIII, Moscow, 1940

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

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 49

To August Bebel in Berlin

London, 24-26 October, 1891[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

Many thanks for the postcards and packages without which it would have been difficult for us to follow the course of events in Erfurt. Things really went off quite capitally — you, Auer, Singer and Fischer covered yourselves with glory, and the wretchedness of the opposition was the only thing you had to complain of, it being no pleasure to do battle with such small fry. At all events the gentlemen will now have to show what they are capable of outside the party, where they are innocuous, and the better elements amongst the youthful rowdies will now be accorded time for reflection. The fact that Mr von Vollmar has seen fit to reject the new course in the arms of Caprivi, if without ‘personal spite’, may provide temporary alleviation, but you are very far from being quit of the chap, and the more tense the situation becomes, the closer a watch you will have to keep upon him. However, every big party has one intriguer-in-chief and if you were to get rid of this one, another would take his place. We were pleased that there should have been so much merriment on your side, and it made us laugh a lot — the sorry opposition and the worthy Vollmar are almost enough to send one to sleep.

On the first reading the programme makes an excellent impression, with the exception of a few weak spots to which I had already drawn K. Kautsky’s attention earlier on. It must have been a bitter pill for Liebknecht to swallow when he had to give an account of the new programme from which the last traces, not only of Lassalleanism, but also of his much-beloved People’s Party slogans had been eliminated. Indeed the speech — which, if the account in the Vorwärts is to be believed, he himself drafted — provides painful evidence of this. And then he suffered a further blow in the shape of Kunert’s motion on his son-in-law.[1] I hope Liebknecht may find a gently inclined plane down which he may slowly glide into retirement— he is remarkably outmoded in the party.


Monday, 26 October.— In the meantime another letter arrived from you this morning. That Fischer had made enemies I am ready to believe, for it’s something I know from my own experience. In my younger days I was just as inclined to be uppish at the wrong time and in the wrong place as he is, and in the same way I seldom detect a failing in the younger generation which I myself did not possess to a greater or lesser degree. It gradually wears off, provided one occasionally gets a slap in the eye which one has to admit is deserved.

I don’t know whether you will in future be able to avoid settling such matters in public. I think it’s better that you should, despite minor disadvantages and much personal unpleasantness. But there’s no doubt that, unless your central organ[2] changes, you would be well advised to hand it over entirely to the Berlin party and to acquire a national weekly advertiser which, however, should and would have to be properly edited.

It was most sensible to expend the 400 marks on Lafargue’s election. This will come in very handy for the second ballot. Since unions and party are distinct in your case, it is perfectly all right if French and other STRIKES receive support direct from the trades unions in Germany, leaving the party funds free for political purposes. This being so, however, you should see to it that the unions do something for the glassworkers. Quite a lot has been done for them from over here. Lafargue is in a good position. He obtained 5,005 votes, the Opportunist and government candidate Depasse 2,928, the second Opportunist Bere (Beer or Bear, as you choose) 1,246, and the Radical Roche 2,272. The latter is stepping down in favour of Lafargue. That means that Depasse, his real competitor in the second ballot, could only get in if all Roche’s voters were to abstain and if he were to poll, say, another 1,000 votes amongst the reserve of abstainers in the monarchist camp, or if 3,000 or more votes from that reserve were to more than outweigh the 5,005 + 2,272. I don’t know how many registered electors there are and therefore am unable to judge; at all events the position is better than we had dared to hope.

Gilles is doing well for himself. The fellow must be living in clover at police expense. He has bought nearly everyone in the Communist Society by lending them money and they durst not chuck him out. Since the fellow claims that, as a member of that society, he is ipse facto a member of the German party, it may be asked whether you people are prepared to put up with this particular ‘comrade’. The funds available to him for his loans and his circulars — that sort ofthing costs a pretty penny over here— can only emanate from the Embassy.

I have not yet seen anything about the Magdeburg meeting either in the Vorwärts or in the Echo.[3] That the Vorwärts should suppress the opposition meeting in Berlin was only to be expected in view of its previous practice. But it’s abysmally stupid.

I am sending you an article by the great Paul Brousse from which you will see how that chief of all quarrel-pickers, mischief-mongers and authoritarians, now that he’s been thoroughly trounced and reduced to a cipher, is holding forth to you people, whom he has cornbatted for years as his arch-enemies on the Continent, about peace and federation.

Herewith a few cuttings about the Russian famine which is spreading even farther west than I thought. Such things are to be found daily in the British press. The position is indeed a serious one and still more troops, or so Mendelson assured me yesterday, are being sent to the west simply in order that they may be fed. It would be madness for the Russians to go to war, but militarist parties always are mad and the Russian bourgeoisie is blinkered, stupid, ignorant, chauvinist and grasping in the extreme. If war there must be, then the sooner the better, for in that case the Russians would be treated to a rude awakening.

As I considered it necessary to tell the French the unvarnished truth about our position if it comes to war – a damned difficult task, certainly – I wrote a French article and sent it to Laura [Lafargue]. She writes to me to-day that both she and Paul [Lafargue] are quite enchanted with the article, that it is just what the French need, etc. If Guesde shares this opinion – he is still in Lille, where he is representing Lafargue with the electors – the article is to be published. It was originally written for the French Socialist Calendar but is possibly (I should say probably) too strong for the mishmash people who have to do with that, in which case it will be put in the Socialiste, which I hope you see. I say to the people: we have the almost absolute certainty of coming to power within ten years; we could neither seize power nor retain it without making good the crimes committed by our predecessors towards other nationalities and therefore (1) opening the way for the reconstitution of Poland, (2) putting the North Schleswig population and Alsace-Lorraine in a position freely to decide where they shall belong. Between a Socialist France and a ditto Germany an Alsace-Lorraine problem has no existence at all. Hence there is no reason whatever for a war on account of Alsace-Lorraine. If, however, the French bourgeoisie begin such a war nevertheless, and for this purpose place themselves in the service of the Russian tsar, who is also the enemy of the bourgeoisie of the whole of Western Europe, this will be the renunciation of France's revolutionary mission. We German Socialists, on the other hand, who if peace is preserved will come to power in ten years, have the duty of maintaining the position won by us in the van of the workers' movement, not only against the internal but against the external foe. If Russia is victorious we shall be crushed. Therefore if Russia begins war – Go for her! go for the Russians and their allies, whoever they may be. Then we have to see to it that the war is conducted by every revolutionary method and that things are made impossible for any government which refuses to adopt such methods; also at a given moment to take the lead ourselves. We have not yet forgotten the glorious example of the French in 1793 and, if we are driven to it, it may come about that we celebrate the centenary of 1793 by showing that the German workers of 1893 are not unworthy of the Sans culottes of those days and that if French soldiers cross our frontiers then they will be greeted with the cry:

Quoi ces cohortes étrangères
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers?
[4] [Marseillaise]

This is the general sequence of thought. As soon as the text is finally settled (I am of course expecting proposals for small alterations of detail) and the printing taken in hand I will translate the article into German and then we will see what can be done with it. I am not sure if your press conditions will allow of its being printed in Germany; perhaps if you make some reservations it can be all the same – this will be seen. My articles do not in any case tie the Party – very fortunate for us both, although Liebknecht imagines I regard it as unfortunate for myself, which never occurs to me.

According to the reports, you said that I had prophesied the collapse of bourgeois society in 1898. There is a slight error there somewhere. All I said was that we might possibly come to power by 1898. If this does not happen, the old bourgeois society might still vegetate on for a while, so long as a shove from outside does not bring the whole ramshackle old building crashing down. A rotten old casing like this can survive its inner essential death for a few decades, if the atmosphere is undisturbed. So I should be very cautious about prophesying such a thing. Our arrival at the possibility of power, on the other hand, is a pure calculation of probability according to mathematical laws.

For all that, I hope peace remains unbroken. In our present position we do not need to risk everything – -but war would force us to do so. And then in another ten years we shall be quite differently prepared. Voici pourquoi.[5]

In order to take possession of and set in motion the means of production, we need people with technical training, and masses of them. These we have not got, and up till now we have even been rather glad that we have been largely spared the "educated" people. Now things are different. Now we are strong enough to stand any quantity of educated Quarcks and to digest them, and I foresee that in the next eight or ten years we shall recruit enough young technicians, doctors, lawyers and schoolmasters to enable us to have the factories and big estates administered on behalf of the nation by Party comrades. Then, therefore, our entry into power will be quite natural and will be settled up quickly – relatively, if, on the other hand, a war brings us to power prematurely, the technicians will be our chief enemies; they will deceive and betray us wherever they can and we shall have to use terror against them but shall get cheated all the same. It is what always happened, on a small scale, to the French revolutionaries; even in the ordinary administration they had to leave the subordinate posts, where real work is done, in the possession of old reactionaries who obstructed and paralysed everything. Therefore I hope and desire that our splendid and secure development, which is advancing with the calm and inevitability of a process of nature, may remain on its natural lines.

Warm regards to your wife[6] and yourself.

Your

F.E.

  1. Bruno Geiser
  2. Vorwärts
  3. Hamburger Echo
  4. What, shall these foreign cohorts lay down the law in our own homes?
  5. That is why
  6. Julie Bebel