Letter to Conrad Schmidt, August 5, 1890

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 5 August 1890


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First published in full in Sozialistische Monatshefie, Nr. 18-19, Berlin, 1920

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 49

To C. Schmidt in Berlin

London, August 5, 1890[edit source]

Dear Schmidt,

Your letter travelled with me in my pocket up to North Cape and in and out of half a dozen Norwegian fjords; I had intended to answer it during the journey, but the writing facilities aboard the ship in which Schorlemmer and I made the whole trip were too frightful. So

I am making up for it now.

Many thanks for the news about your doings which are always of great interest to me. You should really try and do the article on Knapp[1], the subject being one of such importance. What we are concerned with is the destruction of Prussian tradition in one of its strongholds and with showing up the old braggadocio for the humbug it really is.

Summarising the English Blue Books for the ‘archives’[2] could hardly be done by anyone not resident in London and therefore not himself m a position to assess the theoretical or practical importance of the various publications. The number of parliamentary publications is so great as to require a separate monthly catalogue — and thus you might find yourself in the position of having to search for a needle in a haystack, only to lay your hands on an occasional pin. If, however, you would nevertheless care to do some work in this field from time to time — as a rule it’s a terrible sweat if one wants to produce anything worthwhile — I shall be glad to let you have any information you may require. If, incidentally, Braun wants a regular man for it, he could do no better than to ask E. Bernstein, 4 Corinne Road, Tufnell Park, N. For it so happens that Ede Bernstein wishes to study conditions in England as soon as he can get away from the Sozialdemokrat and so this would suit him very well. But he leaves for a few weeks at the seaside either today or tomorrow, so I shall not be able to put the matter to him, it having only just occurred to me.

I saw a review of Paul Barth's book[3] by that bird of ill omen, Moritz Wirth, in the Vienna Deutsche Worte, and this book itself, as well. I will have a look at it, but I must say that if "little Moritz" is right when he quotes Barth as stating that the sole example of the dependence of philosophy, etc., on the material conditions of existence which he can find in all Marx's works is that Descartes declares animals to the machines, then I am sorry for the man who can write such a thing. And if this man has not yet discovered that while the material mode of existence is the primum agens [primary agent, prime cause] this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect, he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. However, as I said, all this is secondhand and little Moritz is a dangerous friend. The materialist conception of history has a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late [18]70s: "Tout ce que je sais, c'est que je ne suis pas Marxist."[4]

There has also been a discussion in the Volks-Tribune about the distribution of products in future society, whether this will take place according to the amount of work done or otherwise. The question has been approached very "materialistically" in opposition to certain idealistic phraseology about justice. But strangely enough it has not struck anyone that, after all, the method of distribution essentially depends on how much there is to distribute, and that this must surely change with the progress of production and social organization, so that the method of distribution may also change. But everyone who took part in the discussion, "socialist society" appeared not as something undergoing continuous change and progress but as a stable affair fixed once for all, which must, therefore, have a method of distribution fixed once for all. All one can reasonably do, however, is 1) to try and discover the method of distribution to be used at the beginning, and 2) to try and find the general tendency of the further development. But about this I do not find a single word in the whole debate.

In general, the word "materialistic" serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilize heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge — for economic history is still as yet in its swaddling clothes! — constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible, and they then deem themselves something very tremendous. And after that a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself, which in his circle has indeed been degraded to a mere phrase.

However, all this will right itself. We're strong enough in Germany now to stand a lot. One of the greatest services which the Anti-Socialist Law did us was to free us from the obtuseness of the German intellectual who had got tinged with socialism. We are now strong enough to digest the German intellectual too, who is giving himself great airs again. You, who have really done something, must have noticed yourself how few of the young literary men who fasten themselves on to the party give themselves in the trouble to study economics, the history of economics, the history of trade, of industry, of agriculture, of the formations of society. How many know anything of Maurer except his name! The self-sufficiency of the journalist must serve for everything here and the result looks like it. It often seems as if these gentlemen think anything is good enough for the workers. If these gentlemen only knew that Marx thought his best things were still not good enough for the workers, how he regarded it as a crime to offer the workers anything but the very best!

After the way they have so brilliantly stood the test since 1878, I have implicit faith in our workers and in them alone. They, like every big party, will make mistakes over particular aspects of their development, perhaps big mistakes. For it is only from the consequences of their own mistakes and by experiments on their own persons that the masses will learn. But all that will be overcome, and far more easily in Germany than anywhere else because the soundness of our lads is proof against anything, and again because Berlin, which is unlikely at an early date to shake off its specifically Berlin-like character is, for us, a centre only in the formal sense, like London is, not as Paris is for France. The French and English workers — despite my being able to see the reasons for their blunders — have often given me cause for vexation, but never, since 1870, the Germans, save perhaps for certain individuals who spoke in their name — but never the masses who have always brought things back onto the right lines again. And I wouldn’t mind betting that they never will give me cause for vexation.

Yours,

F. Engels

I am addressing this to the Volks-Tribüne, not knowing whether ‘Pankow’[5] still holds good.

  1. The reference is to G. F. Knapp, Die Bauern-Befreiung und der Ursprung der Landarbeiter in den älteren Theilen Preußens.
  2. Archiv für soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik
  3. Die Geschichtsphilosophie Hegels und der Hegelianer bis auf Marx und Hartmann
  4. All I know is that I am not a Marxist
  5. Part of Berlin where Conrad Schmidt lived