Letter to August Bebel, September 29, 1891

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To August Bebel in Berlin

London, 29 September, 1891[edit source]

Dear August,

We all of us very much liked your Russian article in the Vorwärts; it should prove very effective. A point on which you and I are agreed is that there is an imminent threat of war, and this specifically from Russia; also that, if it materialises, everything possible should be done, especially by us and in our own interests, to crush Russia. Where we differ is in contending, you that the Russians want war, and I that all they want is to threaten without any definite intention of attacking, while at the same time being fully aware that things might nevertheless eventually get to that stage.

I have for years studied the methods and habits of Russian diplomats past and present and know that war, inasmuch as it is invariably unsolicited by the aforesaid diplomats, invariably spells a diplomatic defeat. For in the first place, victories obtained by diplomatic intimidation are cheaper and safer and, in the second, every new war merely goes to prove how relatively weak the Russian army is when it comes to conquest. So enormously do the military in Russia overrate their preparedness for war that, even after discounting 30% of their claims, the diplomats still pitch the army’s efficiency too high. Of all the factors they must take into account, their own army is the most incalculable. Only in cases where others have to fight their battles for them (1813-14) do Russian diplomats willingly go to war.

If Gladstone comes to the helm over here, the Russian diplomats will be in a position more favourable than they could hope to achieve for decades to come. France an active ally, England a benevolent neutral — that’s plenty to be going on with. That the Russians will make war-like gestures, I am in no doubt. But if they go to war it will not be intentionally.

There is no doubt whatever that the loan is a potential war loan. But that is merely a sign that the gentlemen are preparing themselves for any eventuality. As I see it, all the other signs you adduce — the ban on the export of rye, landing exercises in the Black Sea, etc.,— only go to prove the same thing. I would hazard a guess that, when it comes to the point, Europe, and the Triple Alliance in particular, will be more afraid of a war than unassailable Russia will have need of one; whereupon Russia will be one up in the East while the French chauvinists will be the dupes.

You suggest that Russia is bound to attack because of difficulties at home. I do not think so — not, at any rate, in the sense in which you presumably understand it. In Russia three classes suffer — the landowning aristocracy, the peasantry, the emergent proletariat. The latter is still, and the first is already, too weak for revolution, while all the peasantry could achieve would be local insurrections which would be fruitless unless given the necessary cohesion and moral support by a successful insurrection in urban centres. The new bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is flourishing as nowhere else; it is gradually moving towards the point at which it will inevitably clash with bureaucracy, but this may not be reached for years. The Russian bourgeoisie originated from farmers connected with vodka production and from army contractors plundering the state and is what it is because of the state — protective tariffs, subsidies, robbing of the state, licence and state protection for the most oppressive exploitation of labour. So things would have to get pretty bad before these people, whose turpitude far exceeds that of our own bourgeoisie, would undermine the rule of the Tsar.

If consideration for this particular bourgeoisie is conducive to war, it is only because it has translated pan-Slavism into materialist terms or, rather, has discovered the latter’s material basis — the expansion of the home market by means of annexation. Hence the Slavophil fanaticism, hence the unbridled Germanophobia — up till 20 years ago, after all, Russia’s trade and industry was almost exclusively in German hands — and hence the anti-Semitism. This really vile and ignorant bourgeoisie, unable to see beyond the end of its own nose, does indeed want war and is clamouring for it in the press. But nowadays no Tsar need go to war for fear of revolution at home. This may have been the case in the 70s when the decaying aristocracy in the zemstvos[1] was becoming aware and resentful of the situation to which it had everywhere been reduced. Today that same aristocracy is very much on its uppers, is being bought out of its landed property by the bourgeoisie and is altogether in the latter’s financial clutches, while the bourgeoisie is Tsarism’s new bulwark, particularly in the big cities which alone might present a threat. And nowadays a palace revolution or successful assassination attempt could only bring the bourgeoisie to power, no matter who had instigated the coup. Yet this selfsame bourgeoisie would be even more likely than the Tsar to precipitate a war.

But that’s beside the point. We both of us recognise the danger of war and, despite the famine in Russia, which you decidedly underrate, the reins may slip from the hands of the rulers, an eventuality for which we too must be prepared. I shall see what can be done in France; while it may be necessary to draw our people’s attention to certain points, this should be done by the French themselves. Our people have got to realise that a war against Germany in alliance with Russia would first and foremost be a war against the strongest and most efficient socialist party in Europe, and that we should have no option but to fight with all our might against any assailant who went to Russia’s aid. For either we should succumb, and that would put paid to the socialist movement in Europe for the next 20 years, or we should ourselves come to the helm and then the words of the Marseillaise,

‘Quoi, ces cohortes étrangères feraient la loi dans nos foyers?’[2]

would apply to the French.

In neither case would the present regime in Germany survive a war; its defence would require too strenuous an effort and means that were too revolutionary.

You are right; if it comes to war we must demand the general arming of the people. But in conjunction with the already existing organisation or that specially prepared in case of war. Enlistment, therefore, of the hitherto untrained in supplementary reserves and Landsturm and above all immediate emergency training besides arming and organisation into fixed cadres.

The proclamation to the French will have to come out rather differently in form. The Russian diplomats are not so stupid as to provoke a war in face of the whole of Europe. On the contrary, things will be so operated that either France appears as the provoking party or – one of the Triple Alliance countries. Russia always has dozens of casus belli [occasions for war] of this kind to hand; the special answer to be given depends on the pretext for war put forward. In any case we must declare that since 1871 we have always been ready for a peaceful understanding with France, that as soon as our Party comes to power it will be unable to exercise that power unless Alsace-Lorraine freely determines its own future, but that if war is forced upon us, and moreover a war in alliance with Russia, we must regard this as an attack on our existence and defend ourselves by every method, utilising all positions at our disposal and therefore Metz and Strasbourg also.

As to the conduct of the war itself, two aspects are immediately decisive: Russia is weak in attack but strong in defensive man-power. A stab in the heart is impossible. France is strong in attack but rendered incapable of attack, innocuous, after a few defeats. I do not give much either for Austrians as generals or for Italians as soldiers, so our army will have to lead and sustain the main push. The war will have to begin with the holding back of the Russians but the defeat of the French. When the French offensive has been rendered innocuous things may get as far as the conquest of Poland up to the Dvina and Dnieper, but hardly before. This must be carried out by revolutionary methods and if necessary by giving up a piece of Prussian Poland and the whole of Galicia to the Poland to be established. If this goes well revolution will doubtless follow in France. At the same time we must press for at least Metz and Lorraine to be offered as a peace offering to France.

Probably, however, it will not go so well. The French will not allow themselves to be so easily defeated, their army is very good and better armed than ours, and what we achieve in the way of generalship does not look as if very much would come of it either. That the French have learnt how to mobilise has been shown this summer. And also that they have enough officers for their first field army – which is stronger than ours. Our superiority in officers will only be proved with the troops brought up later into the line. Moreover the direct line between Berlin and Paris is strongly defended by fortifications on both sides. In short, in the most favourable case it will probably turn out a fluctuating war which will be carried on with constant drawing in of fresh reinforcements by both sides until one party is exhausted, or until the active intervention of England, who, by simply blockading corn imports can, under the then existing conditions, starve out whichever party she decides against, Germany or France, and force it to make peace. In the meantime what happens on the Russian frontier mainly depends on the way the Austrians conduct the war and is therefore incalculable.

So much seems certain to me: if we are beaten, every barrier to chauvinism and a war of revenge in Europe will be thrown down for years hence. If we are victorious our Party will come into power. The victory of Germany is therefore the victory of the revolution, and if it comes to war we must not only desire victory but further it by every means.

Ede’s [Bernstein] article was intended as a reply to Vollmar and, as such, would have been altogether appropriate. Instead, our good Ede dilly-dallied for so long that it appeared as a reply to the Kronstadt fraternisation for which, of course, it was totally unsuitable, since the emphasis should have been laid on wholly different aspects. What should have been categorically stated was that if France formally represents the revolution in relation to Germany, Germany, through its workers' Party, stands materially at the head of the revolution, and this is bound to come to light in the war – in which we, and with us the revolution, will either be crushed or else come to power.

Apropos, I hear that you intend to put forward K. Kautsky’s declaration of principles as your programme at the party congress. I too regard it in its present version (Neue Zeit, No. 51) as a great improvement on our draft. My only recommendation was that he should make a few alterations in the passage on p. 788. He has obviously given the thing a great deal of thought and to good purpose. I have not yet been able to read Ede’s article concerning individual demands. About Leibfried-Cuno anon, in my next.

Regards from Louise and



1 October[edit source]

I had meant to send off the above today, when your letter of the 29th turned up. I trust you read in the original the article by me which appeared in the Socialiste, for the rendering in the Vorwärts is atrocious and in places sheer nonsense.[3] Where the devil does Liebknecht unearth such appalling translators? — It is clear that the time is at hand when we shall be in the majority in Germany, or at any rate the only party strong enough to take the helm—provided peace continues. And for that very reason I would be reluctant to see this process of development interrupted by a crisis which might, it is true, curtail it by 2 or 3 years but which might equally well prolong it by 10 or even 20.

As regards my remarks concerning the undue consideration shown by you for your opponents’ opinions, you alone are to blame; in your letter[4] you say of Ede’s note : ‘For our opponents attack the work simply for being couched in tendentiously anti-Lassallean terms.’ This regularly reiterated argument about your opponents cannot but end by inviting the interpretation that those opponents can play ducks and drakes with us. Come to that, Marx and I used to say as long ago as 1848: ‘What blunder of ours can have earned us our opponents’ praise?’ i. e. just as you do.

Whatever happens, you must keep Geiser away from the Vorwärts. After all, at St Gallen the man was the object of a formal vote of no confidence so surely he cannot be allowed to take part in the editing! Bios, too, is an alarmist and, what’s more, a bore.— As regards the sixth leading article Liebknecht is to write, there’s no need to worry your heads about it; I’ll wager that in 3 weeks’ time he’ll have lost all enthusiasm for leading articles and will say, as he did in Leipzig in 1866, that anyone who supposes this to be the right time for writing leading articles cannot have a proper understanding of the times.

The Vienna Arbeiterinnenblatt[5] will doubtless be a thorn in the flesh of your women’s paper ladies. The latter are all still very much ‘beschacked’[6] and would like to have something specifically women’s movementish and not confined to one feminine aspect of the labour movement. However, the latter standpoint is put forward with tremendous vigour in the Vienna journal and, if the women at home are as promising as you say, all this separate women’s rights business— bourgeois trifling, no more, will soon be pushed into the background. If the present spokeswomen are elbowed out by members of their own sex, no matter; but the Vienna paper must be given the credit for being the first of all women’s papers to adopt and advocate this standpoint.

In failing to accept Aveling’s anti-Gilles statement you have again proved that inside every German there lurks a bureaucrat who pops out the moment he holds some petty official post. Aveling considered it incompatible with his honour for Gilles’ claim that he had likewise given him, Aveling, a licking, to go unchallenged in the German press. Aveling got Louise to attest the facts and they both of them put their names to the document. In any other country the reaction would have been: ‘This is a matter in which those concerned must themselves know what they ought to do; I, the editor, though I may disapprove of their conduct, am bound to recognise their right to plead their own cause as they think fit.’ With you, however, the editorial department sets itself up as censor, lays claim to complete infallibility, and forbids them to conduct their own case. The editorial department has a right to believe that il has finished and done with Gilles and need not for its part allude to him again, but if Aveling and Louise come forward in their own names, it ought not to use this view as a pretext for muzzling a friend. Incidentally, I do not in the least share your reservations — indeed it was I who drafted Louise’s statement.

Gilles at once proceeded to publish the enclosed leaflet. You will be getting Aveling’s reply in a day or two. The business with Bradlaugh was a stupendous blunder of Aveling’s, but he was the innocent party. At the time Aveling was, so far as money matters and political negotiations were concerned, a thoroughly naïve, inexperienced and incredibly foolish young poet. Bradlaugh was aware of this and exploited him most outrageously; they started a Natural Science School and laboratory, the business side of which was managed by Bradlaugh while Aveling had to bear not only the brunt of the work but, towards the end, also the financial responsibility. When Aveling became a socialist and married Tussy, Bradlaugh falsely accused him of having engaged in dubious money transactions — Aveling was monstrously hoodwinked but altogether innocent—just unbelievably stupid.

And when Bradlaugh published his circular letter, Aveling was stupid enough to keep silent and even by degrees repay Bradlaugh, by whom, for good measure, he had been cheated, something in the region of £ 200. It is now an old story, Bradlaugh is dead and, since he took care not to formulate any definite charges, there is nothing for it but for Aveling to make the circumstances known whenever the opportunity arises. As will happen the moment Mr Hyndman, who was originally responsible for raking up this tittle-tattle again, accepts Aveling’s challenge to confront him in public.— The story of the Chicago telegram is also pure moonshine and again emanates from Hyndman. Our aim is to catch out the latter, for Gilles is simply his mouthpiece.

Many regards from Louise and myself to your wife[7] and yourself.


F. E.

  1. provincial assemblies
  2. What, shall these foreign cohorts lay down the law in our own homes?
  3. F. Engels, ‘Le congrès de Bruxelles. La situation de l’Europe’, Le Socialiste, No. 51, 12 September 1891 and ‘Über den Brüsseler Kongreß und die Lage in Europa. (Aus einem Brief an Paul Lafargue)’, Vorwärts, No. 216, 16 September 1891 (see this volume, pp. 234-36 and also MECW, Vol. 27.
  4. of 12 September 1891
  5. Arbeiterinnen-Zeitung
  6. derived from the name of Gertrud Guillaume-Schack
  7. Julie Bebel