Letter to August Bebel, October 28, 1885

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To August Bebel in Plauen near Dresden

London, 28 October, 1885[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

Liebknecht’s defeat in Saxony makes me feel sorry for him as a man, but in other respects it can do him no harm. He sets far too much store by popularity, to which he is prepared to sacrifice more than is proper, and it will therefore do him good to see for once that no amount of concessions to the Right will be of any avail, particularly when suffrage is qualified by age and property, in which case they won’t even earn him the vote of the petty bourgeoisie.

Your news about the independent spirit of the masses gave me much pleasure. However, the gentlemen of the right wing will refuse to credit it until some of them have been made an example of; they live within the orbit of small cliques and what they hear they assume to be the voice of the people. The scales will soon fall from their eyes.

The chronic depression in all the decisive branches of industry also still continues unbroken here, in France and in America. Especially in iron and cotton. It is an unheard-of situation, though entirely the inevitable result of the capitalist system: such colossal over-production that it cannot even bring things to a crisis! The over-production of disposable capital seeking investment is so great that the rate of discount here actually fluctuates between 1 and 1½ percent. per annum, and for money invested in short term credits, which can be called in or paid off from day to day (money on call) one can hardly get ½ percent. per annum. But by choosing to invest his money in this way rather than in new industrial undertakings the money capitalist is admitting how rotten the whole business looks to him. And this fear of new investments and old enterprises, which had already manifested itself in the crisis of 1867, is the main reason why things are not brought to an acute crisis.

But it will have to come in the end, all the same, and then it will make an end of the old trade unions here, let us hope. These unions have peacefully retained the craft character which clung to them from the first and which is becoming more unbearable every day. No doubt you suppose that the engineers, joiners, bricklayers, etc., will admit any worker in their branch of industry without more ado? Not at all. Whoever wants admission must be attached as an apprentice for a period of years (usually seven) to some worker belonging to the union. This was intended to keep the number of workers limited, but had otherwise no point at all except that it brought in money to the apprentice's instructor, for which he did absolutely nothing in return. This was all right up to 1848. But since then the colossal growth of industry has produced a class of workers of whom there are as many or more as there are "skilled" workers in the trade unions and who can do all that the "skilled" workers can or more, but who can never become members. These people have been regularly penalised by the craft rules of the trade unions. But do you suppose the unions ever dreamt of doing away with this silly bunk? Not in the least. I can never remember reading of a single proposal of the kind at a Trade Union Congress. The fools want to reform society to suit themselves and not to reform themselves to suit the development of society. They cling to their traditional superstition, which does them nothing but harm themselves, instead of getting quit of the rubbish and thus doubling their numbers and their power and really becoming again what at present they daily become less – associations of all the workers in a trade against the capitalists. This will I think explain many things in the behaviour of these privileged workers to you.

What is most necessary of all here is that masses of the official labour leaders should get into Parliament. Then things will soon go finely; they will expose themselves quickly enough. The elections in November will help a lot towards this. Ten or twelve of them are certain to get in, if their Liberal friends do not play them a trick at the last moment. The first elections under a new system are always a sort of lottery and only reveal the smallest part of the revolution they have introduced. But universal suffrage – and with the absence of a peasant class and the start England had in industrialisation the new franchise here gives the workers as much power as universal suffrage would give them in Germany – universal suffrage is the best lever for a proletarian movement at the present time and will prove to be so here. That is why it is so important to break up the Social Democratic Federation as quickly as possible, its leaders being nothing but careerists, adventurers and literary people. Hyndman, their head, is doing his very best in this way; he cannot wait for the clock to strike twelve, as it says in the folk song[1], and in his chase after successes discredits himself more every day. He is a wretched caricature of Lassalle.

I don’t believe your opinion of the French is altogether fair. The masses in Paris are ‘socialist’ in the sense of a neutral middle-of-theroad socialism distilled over the course of years from Proudhon, Louis Blanc, Pierre Leroux, etc. The only experience they have had of communism was that of Cabet’s Utopia, which culminated in a model colony in America, i. e. in flight from France and discord and semibankruptcy in America. Anything over and above that they derive from Germany, nor is it surprising that France which, from 1789 to 1850, was in every case the first country, not only to give clear expression to political ideas, but also to put them into practice, should be somewhat reluctant to endorse her own abdication as leader in matters of revolutionary theory; particularly after the glorious Commune and, what is more, vis-à-vis a Germany that was, to all intents and purposes, defeated by the Paris workers in 1870, seeing that the German army did not dare occupy Paris — a case, be it noted, unprecedented in the history of warfare. Then again, you should ask yourself how the French workers are to increase their discernment. Even the French edition of Capital is to them a sealed book; and not to them alone, but to a large part of the educated class as well. The only thing they are familiar with is my Socialism: Utopian and Scientific which, in fact, has proved surprisingly influential. None of the leaders know German, except Vaillant whom I don’t count because being a Blanquist, his tactics are totally different from our own. Mme Lafargue is now at last translating the Manifesto into good French. Even the leaders’ knowledge of theory still leaves something to be desired and, if you knew Paris, you would realise how easy it is to live and agitate, as opposed to doing any serious work there. So whence is discernment to come to the French workers?

And now a further word about the elections. In Germany it is easy to vote for a Social Democrat because we are the only real opposition party and because the Reichstag has no say in things, so that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether one votes at all, or for which of the ‘dogs that we all are ‘ one does vote. The only other party to have a policy of its own is, perhaps, the Centre. But in France, things are altogether different. There, the Chamber is the effective power in the land and there can be no question of chucking away one’s ballot paper. Besides which it must be remembered that every time the Gambettists pit themselves against the Monarchists, and the Radicals against the Gambettists, a step forward is made. And indeed practice proves this to be the case. In Germany Junker-style reaction has flourished since 1870 and everything is retrogressing. In France, they have the best schools in the world with compulsory education to match, and whereas Bismarck cannot get rid of the clergy, the French have already ousted them completely from their schools. Our German army, apart from the growing Social Democratic element, is a more infamous tool of reaction than ever before. In France, general conscription has brought the army infinitely closer to the people, and it is primarily the army that makes monarchy impossible (cf. 1878). And if the Radicals come to the helm and are compelled to implement their programme, there will be decentralisation of the administration, self-government for departments and communes, as in America and in the France of 1792-98, and separation of Church and State, every man to pay his own parson. We are not yet in a position to direct historical developments either in Germany or in France. This does not mean that those developments are standing still, however, but only that in the German Empire they are temporarily retrogressing, while in France they are for all that advancing. But our turn will not come — such is the slow but sure course of history — until the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, having demonstrated, publicly and in practice, their inability to govern the country, find themselves up a gum tree. (After a French revolution we might, somewhat anticipando[2], come to power in Germany but only if carried there by a European tidal wave.) That is why the instinct of the Paris workers in always supporting the most radical party possible is right from one point of view. As soon as the Radicals come to the helm, the same instinct will drive the workers into the arms of the Communists, for the Radicals are pledged to their old, muddled, socialist (not communist) programme and this will be their undoing. And then instinct and reason will coincide; the most radical party possible will then be the party of the proletariat as such, and things will happen fast. But the fact is that the English and the French have long since forgotten their pre-revolutionary state of virginity, whereas we Germans, not having had a revolution of our own, are still trailing around with this sometimes very awkward encumbrance. Both conditions have their advantages and disadvantages; but it would be most unjust to use the same one-sided standard in assessing the varying attitudes of the workers in those three countries.

Kautsky has given me Adler’s very superficial book[3] which is largely based on Stieber.[4] I shall help him write the review.

Won’t you come over here some time? Should business take you to the Rhine, you could be here in no time.



  1. Engels refers to the poem Kurzweil, published in Die Volkslieder der Deutschen, Vol. 4, Mannheim, 1835, pp. 174-75
  2. before our time
  3. G. Adler, Die Geschichte der ersten sozialpolitischen Arbeiterbewegung in Deutschlan
  4. Wermuth/Stieber, Die Communisten-Verschwörungen des neunzehnten Jahrhund