Letter to Eduard Bernstein, June 26, 1882

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 26 June 1882

First published abridged in Der Sozialdemokrat, Nr. 29, 13 July 1882 and in full, in Russian, in Marx-Engels Archives, Book I, Moscow, 1924

Extract published in Marx & Engels on the Irish Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971, pp.333-337;

Extract published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 46

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Engels wrote this letter after reading “Die Situation in Irland,” an article by Eduard Bernstein signed “Leo,” in the May 18, 1882, issue of Sozialdemokrat. Bernstein gave Engels’s letter to W. Liebknecht, who published a large portion of it in the same newspaper on July 13, 1882, in the form of an article entitled “Zur irischen Frage,” in which he inserted his editorial comments. He also appended Engels’s text with an introduction and a conclusion by the editorial board. In his letter to Bernstein of August 9, 1882, Engels expresses his indignation with Liebknecht’s misrepresentation of his views on the Irish question.

June 26, 1882[edit source]

...In Ireland there are two trends in the movement. The first, the earlier, is the agrarian trend, which stems from the organised brigandage practised with support of the peasants by the clan chiefs, dispossessed by the English, and also by the big Catholic landowners (in the 17th century these brigands were called Tories, and the Tories of today have inherited their name directly from them). This trend gradually developed into natural resistance of the peasants to the intruding English landlords, organised according to localities and provinces. The names Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, Captain Rock, Captain Moonlight, etc., have changed, but the form of resistance — the shooting not only of hated landlords and agents (rent collectors of the landlords) but also of peasants who take over a farm from which another has been forcibly evicted, boycotting, threatening letters, night raids and intimidation, etc. — all this is as old as the present English landownership in Ireland, that is, dates back to the end of the 17th century at the latest. This form of resistance cannot be suppressed, force is useless against it, and it will disappear only with the causes responsible for it. But, as regards its nature, it is local, isolated, and can never become a general form of political struggle.

Soon after the establishment of the Union (1800), began the liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie which, as in every peasant country with dwindling townlets (for example, Denmark), finds its natural leaders in lawyers. These also need the peasants; they therefore had to find a slogan to attract the peasants. Thus O’Connell discovered such a slogan first in the Catholic emancipation, and then in the Repeal of the Union. Because of the infamy of the landowners, this trend has recently had to adopt a new course. While in the social field the Land League pursues more revolutionary aims (which are achievable in Ireland) — the total removal of the intruder landlords — it acts rather tamely in political respects and demands only Home Rule, that is, an Irish local Parliament side by side with the British Parliament and subordinated to it. This too can be achieved by constitutional means. The frightened landlords are already clamouring for the quickest possible redemption of the peasant land (suggested by the Tories themselves) in order to save what can still be saved. On the other hand, Gladstone declares that greater self-government for Ireland is quite admissible.

After the American Civil War, Fenianism took its place beside these two trends. The hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers and officers, who fought in the war, did so with the ulterior motive of building up an army for the liberation of Ireland. The controversies between America and England after the war became the main lever of the Fenians. Had it come to a war, Ireland would in a few months have been part of the United States or at least a republic under its protection. The sum which England so willingly undertook to pay, and did indeed pay in accordance with Geneva arbitrators’ decision on the Alabama affair[1], was the price she paid to buy off American intervention in Ireland.

From this moment the main danger had been removed. The police was strong enough to deal with the Fenians. The treachery inevitable in any conspiracy also helped, and yet it was only leaders who were traitors and then became downright spies and false witnesses. The leaders who got away to America engaged there in emigrant revolution and most of them were reduced to beggary, like O’Donovan Rossa. For those who saw the European emigration of 1849-52 here, everything seems very familiar — only naturally on the exaggerated American scale.

Many Fenians have doubtless now returned and restored the old armed organisation. They form an important element in the movement and force the Liberals to more decisive action. But, apart from that, they cannot do anything but scare John Bull. Though he grows noticeably weaker on the outskirts of his Empire, he can still easily suppress any Irish rebellion so close to home. In the first place, in Ireland there are 14,000 men of the “Constabulary,” gendarmes, who are armed with rifles and bayonets and have undergone military training. Besides, there are about 80,000 regulars, who can easily be reinforced with an equal number of regulars and English militia. In addition, the Navy. And John Bull is known for his matchless brutality in suppressing rebellions. Without war or the threat of war from without, an Irish rebellion has not the slightest chance; and only two powers can become dangerous in this respect: France and, still far more, the United States. France is out of the question. In America the parties flirt with the Irish electorate, make promises but do not keep them. They have no intention of getting involved in a war because of Ireland. They are even interested in having conditions in Ireland that promote a massive Irish emigration to America. And it is understandable that a land which in twenty years will be the most populated, richest and most powerful in the world has no special desire to rush headlong into adventures which could and would hamper its enormous internal development. In twenty years it will speak in a very different way.

However, if there should be danger of war with America, England would grant the Irish open-handedly everything they asked for — only not complete independence, which is not at all desirable owing to the geographical position.

Therefore all that is left to Ireland is the constitutional way of gradually conquering one position after the other; and here the mysterious background of a Fenian armed conspiracy can remain a very effective element. But these Fenians are themselves increasingly being pushed into a sort of Bakuninism: the assassination of Burke and Cavendish[2] could only serve the purpose of making a compromise between the Land League and Gladstone impossible. However that compromise was the best thing that could have happened to Ireland under the circumstances. The landlords are evicting tens of thousands of tenants from their houses and homes because of rent arrears, and that under military protection. The primary need at the moment is to stop this systematic depopulation of Ireland (the evicted starve to death or have to emigrate to America). Gladstone is ready to table a bill according to which arrears would be paid in the same way as feudal taxes were settled in Austria in 1848: a third by the peasant and a third by the state, and the other third forfeited by the landlord. That suggestion was made by the Land League itself. Thus the “heroic deed” in Phoenix Park appears if not as pure stupidity, then at least as pure Bakuninist bragging, purposeless “propagande par le fait.” If it has not had the same consequences as the similar silly actions of Hödel and Nobiling[3], it is only because Ireland lies not quite in Prussia. It should therefore be left to the Bakuninists and Mostians to attach equal importance to this childishness and to the assassination of Alexander II, and to threaten with an “Irish revolution” which never comes.

One more thing should be thoroughly noted about Ireland: never praise a single Irishman — a politician — unreservedly, and never identify yourself with him before he is dead. Celtic blood and the customary exploitation of the peasant (all the “educated” social layers in Ireland, especially the lawyers, live by this alone) make Irish politicians very responsive to corruption. O’Connell let the peasants pay him as much as £80,000 a year for his agitation. In connection with the Union, for which England paid out £1,000,000 in bribes, one of those bribed was reproached: “You have sold your motherland.” Reply: “Yes, and I was damned glad to have a motherland to sell.”

The infamies perpetrated against our people by the German governments, police and judges are gradually assuming a character that makes even the strongest language employed in condemning them look insipid. But since language is not necessarily given added emphasis by forceful expressions, and the repeated use of the same expressions such as scoundrel, etc., detracts from the effect, so that one has to have recourse to ever more ‘forceful’ expressions and thus lapse into the style of Most-Schneidt, it would be desirable to adopt a method whereby forcefulness of expression would be assured even in the absence of intemperate language. And that method exists; it consists primarily in the use of irony, derision, sarcasm, which have a more deadly effect on an opponent than the crudest expressions of indignation. I think the Sozialdemokrat would be well advised to adopt the old, predominantly derisive style whenever this is feasible, as indeed was done in the last number. An occasional application of the cudgel would then be all the more effective. Bebel is also in complete agreement with me here. And, besides, your present correspondents already attend pretty adequately to lurid descriptions of events.

In response to the Egalité’s translation of the passage in the Sozialdemokrat about the expulsion of their people from the Congrès du Centre, the Prolétaire published a pharisaical article about an échange de lettres courtoises entre le Comité extérieur du parti ouvrier socialiste allemand et le Comité national français.[4] Can you tell me anything about this? I was quite unaware of the existence of a Comité extérieur, might it perhaps be the much-celebrated Communications Office?

The Bataille is on its last legs — c’est une défaite, et méritée[5]. Lissagaray has proved totally unfit to be a journalist and he, like his collaborators, Malon and Brousse, appeals to the Parisians’ chauvinistic Germanophobia vis-à-vis Guesde, etc., Marxistes, nébulosités allemandes,[6] etc. None of which has deterred Lissagaray from informing the Citoyen’s proprietor[7] of his desire to join the editorial department! Needless to say the editorial department instantly turned him down (this privatim) .

Marx is in Argenteuil with his daughter,[8] hiding away from Paris and availing himself of the sulphur springs in Enghien for his chronic bronchitis and cough; otherwise he is well and cheerful, but must still take great care of himself.

Did Adolf Beust give you Mirabeau’s Secret History of the Court of Berlin which I gave him to pass on to you? The book will be very useful to the Sozialdemokrat.


F . E

  1. The Alabama affair — a conflict between the U.S.A. and England due to the military help rendered by the latter to the Southern States during the Civil War of 1861-65. The English Government built and equipped cruisers for the Southern States, including the Alabama, which did considerable damage to the Northern States. After the war the U.S. Government demanded of the English Government full compensation for the losses inflicted by the Alabama and other vessels. The tribunal of arbitration in Geneva adjudged on September 14, 1872, that England should pay the United States $15,500,000 damages. England submitted to the tribunal’s decision because she wanted the U.S.A. to keep out of Irish affairs and to stop supporting the Irish revolutionaries.
  2. Lord Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the former Under-Secretary, were assassinated on May 6, 1882, in Phoenix Park in Dublin by members of the terrorist organisation “The Invincibles,” which incorporated some former Fenians. Marx and Engels did not approve of the terrorist tactics of these epigoni of Fenianism; in their view, such anarchistic acts could not in the least affect England’s colonial policy towards Ireland but only involved unnecessary sacrifices on the part of the Irish revolutionaries and disorganised the national liberation movement.
  3. In 1878, attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I were made by Max Hödel, an apprentice from Leipzig, and by Karl Nobiling, an anarchist. These attempts became the pretext for the institution of the Anti-Socialist Law, which was introduced by Bismarck’s government with the support of a majority in the Reichstag on October 21, 1878, for the purpose of fighting the socialist and working-class movement. The law deprived the Social-Democratic Party of Germany of its legal status; it prohibited all its organisations, workers’ mass organisations and the socialist and workers’ press, decreed confiscation of socialist literature, and subjected Social-Democrats to reprisals. The law was extended every 2-3 years. Despite this policy of reprisals the Social-Democratic Party increased its influence among the masses. Under pressure of the mass working-class movement the law was repealed on October 1, 1890.
  4. exchange of polite letters between the External Committee of the German Socialist Workers' Party and the French National Committee
  5. it's a defeat and a deserved one
  6. German nebulosities
  7. Blommestein
  8. Jenny Longuet