Letter to Eduard Bernstein, March 12, 1881

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 12 March 1881

First published, in Russian, in Marx-Engels Archives, Book I, Moscow, 1924

Extract published in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975).

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 46

To Eduard Bernstein in Zurich

London, March 12, 1881[edit source]

Dear Mr Bernstein,

Herewith some material on the anti-adultery commandment. Whether you’ll be able to use it, I confess I don’t know. It’s a ticklish subject and you must know whether more harm than good will be done by touching on it. At all events I wanted to show you one way of dealing with this commandment without relapsing into moral philistinism, and it may be useful to you anyway to have the historical material on the case, in so far as it was available to me.

For the rest, the paper[1] is doing very well on the whole and some of the nos. are very good; rather less doctrinaire articles, like the one on state socialism,[2] would do no harm. How can one lump together Turgot, one of the leading economists of the 18th century, with Necker, that highly practical man of haute finance,[3] precursor of your Laffittes and Péreires and, worse still, the wretched Calonne, the man of hand-to-mouth expedients, who was a genuine après moi le déluge[4] aristocrat? How can one place these — Turgot in particular and even Necker — cheek by jowl with Bismarck who, at the most, wants money regardless, à la Calonne, and the said Bismarck in his turn quite summarily cheek by jowl with Stoecker on the one hand and Schäffle and Co. on the other, every one of whom in his turn pursues quite different lines? If the bourgeois lump them all together, that is no reason why we should proceed as uncritically. Here, precisely, are the roots of doctrinairism, in that one believes the selfinterested and narrow assertions of one’s opponent and proceeds to construct on those assertions a system which naturally stands or falls with them. With Bismarck it is a case of money, money and again money, and the pretexts he gives change in accordance with purely external considerations. Give him a differently composed majority in the Reichstag and he’ll jettison all his present plans and prepare conflicting ones. That’s why one can never ever infer a declaration of modern society’s bankruptcy from anything that is done by an animal as irrational in theory and inconsistent in practice as Bismarck. Still less from the intellectual St Vitus dance of a fool like Stoecker. Nor yet from the twaddle of’thinking men’ à la Schäme. Their ‘thinking’ (and this is pretty well all they do ‘think’) is not directed towards declaring modern society bankrupt. On the contrary, they are, of course, simply living in the hope of patching it up again. But what kind of a thinking man is e.g. Schäffle? In his Quintessenz[5] the silly Swabian admits that he pondered one of the (simplest) points in Capital for ten years before getting to the bottom of it; in fact the bottom he got to was pure nonsense.

It is nothing but self-interested misrepresentation on the part of the Manchester bourgeois to describe as ‘socialism’ all interference by the state with free competition: protective tariffs, guilds, tobacco monopoly, nationalisation of branches of industry, the Overseas Trading Company, royal porcelain factory. That is something we should criticise, but not believe. If we do the latter and base a theoretical argument thereon, this will collapse together with its premisses,— simply upon it’s being proved, that is, that this alleged socialism is nothing but feudal reaction on the one hand and, on the other, a pretext for extortion, its secondary object being to turn as many proletarians as possible into officials and pensioners dependent on the state, and to organise, alongside the disciplined army of officials and military, a similar army of workers. Compulsory suffrage imposed by senior functionaries instead of by factory overseers — fine socialism that! This is where you get if you believe what the bourgeois himself doesn’t believe but only pretends to, namely that the state = socialism. Otherwise I find that your views on the attitude to be adopted by the paper coincide entirely with my own, and I’m also glad that of late there has no longer been such liberal use of the word revolution as there was at the outset. That was quite all right earlier on, after the sorry opiate-mongering of 1880, but it would be preferable, and this, too, with an eye to Most, to be wary of high-flown rhetoric. One may express revolutionary thoughts without forever harping on the word revolution. The pitiful Most is, by the way, quite beside himself; he’s at a loss where to pull in and now, on top ofthat, the success of Fritzsche and Viereck in America has taken the last bit of wind out of his sails.

Now the newspaper can really encourage and cheer our people in Germany, which some of them very much need the so-called leaders, at least. I have again received a number of letters full of lamentations, which I have answered in the appropriate way. Viereck was also very low-spirited initially, but a couple of days in the free London air have been sufficient to give him back his buoyancy. The newspaper must carry this free air to Germany, an end which will be served, primarily, by treating the enemy with contempt and derision. When people again learn simply to laugh at Bismarck and Co., much will have been gained. One must not forget, however, that this is the first time something like this has happened, at least to the great majority of people, and that, in particular, a great many agitators and editors have been rudely shaken from their rather comfortable positions. That is why encouragement is needed just as much as the constant reminder that Bismarck and Co. are still the same asses, the same canailles, the same pathetic manikins, powerless against the march of history, that they were before the attempted assassinations. Therefore every joke at the expense of this rabble is valuable.

On Ireland I shall only say the following: the people are much too clever not to know that a revolt would spell their ruin; it could have a chance only in the event of a war between England and America. In the meantime, the Irish have forced Gladstone to introduce continental regulations[6] in Parliament and thereby to undermine the whole British parliamentary system. They have also forced Gladstone to disavow all his phrases and to become more Tory than even the worst Tories. The coercion bills have been passed, the Land Bill will be either rejected or castrated by the House of Lords[7], and then the fun will start, that is, the concealed disintegration of the parties will become public. Since Gladstone’s appointment, the Whigs and moderate Tories, that is, the big landowners as a whole, are uniting on the quiet into a big landowners’ party. As soon as this matures and family and personal interests are settled, or as soon as, perhaps as a result of the Land Bill, the new party is forced to appear in public, the Ministry and the present majority will immediately fall to pieces. The new conservative party will then be faced by the new bourgeois radical party, but without any backing other than the workers and Irish peasants. And so as to avoid any humbug and trickery from taking place here again, a proletarian radical party is now forming under the leadership of Joseph Cowen (M.P. for Newcastle), who is an old Chartist, half, if not entirely, Communist and a very worthy chap. Ireland is bringing all this about, Ireland is the driving force of the Empire. This is for your private information. More about this soon.




Since Kautsky — will you give him my regards? — will be coming over here soon, there's no point in answering him at length. My regards to Beust should you see him.

  1. Der Sozialdemokrat
  2. [K. Kautsky,] 'Der Staatssozialismus und die Sozialdemokratie', signed: Symmachos, Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 10, 6 March 1881
  3. high finance
  4. after me the deluge
  5. [A. Schäffle,] Die Quintessenz des Socialismus, Gotha, 1875.
  6. Apparently a reference to the resolution adopted by the Commons at Gladstone s proposal on February 3, 1881, to introduce a new procedure in the British Parliament. Since the obstruction tactics resorted to by the Irish opposition in the House of Commons prevented the passing by Parliament of a Bill introducing coercion laws in Ireland, Gladstone proposed according the Speaker the right to interrupt speeches of orators and in case of insubordination to evict them from the premises.
  7. The spread of peasant action against English landlords moved Parliament to adopt, early in 1881, two bills on the introduction of coercion laws in Ireland. These laws suspended constitutional guarantees and introduced a state of siege in the country; troops were sent to help the landlords evict tenants refusing to leave.

    The Land Bill for Ireland, proposed by Gladstone’s Liberal government at the end of 1880, was an attempt to divert the Irish peasants from the revolutionary struggle by somewhat restricting the arbitrary rule of the English landlords over the peasant tenants. It was finally passed on August 22, 1881. According to the Land Act of 1881 a landlord was not allowed to evict a tenant from the land if he paid rent in time, the size of the rent being stipulated for 15 years in advance. Although the Land Act gave the landlords the opportunity to sell their land profitably to the state and the size of the rent fixed by it continued to be extremely high, the English landlords obstructed its implementation because they wanted to preserve their unlimited power in Ireland.