Letter to Eduard Bernstein, October 25, 1881

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To Eduard Bernstein in Zurich

London, 25 October 1881

Dear Mr Bernstein,

I am most grateful to you for having written to me about the Egalité business. Aside from the point at issue, this provides me with an opportunity of letting you know what is Marx’s attitude, and hence also my own, towards the French movement. And from this one instance you will be able to gauge our attitude towards other non-German movements, in so far as these are in sympathy with us and we with them.

I am glad that you are not at present in a position to give financial support to the Egalité. Lafargue’s letter was another of those coups de tête[1] which the French, in particular those south of the line Bordeaux-Lyons, now and again find themselves unable to resist. So certain was he of perpetrating a stroke of genius and a blunder rolled into one, that he didn’t even tell his wifeb (who has prevented many such things) about it until after the event. With the exception of Lafargue, who is always in favour of ’something being done’, n’importe quoi[2], we over here were unanimously against Egalité No. 3.[3] I confidently predicted that, with their 5,000 frs (if as much), they would last out for 32 numbers. If Guesde[4] and Lafargue are intent on acquiring the reputation in Paris of tueurs de journeaux[5], we can’t stop them, but nor shall we do anything else. If, contrary to all expectation, the paper improves again, and if it gets really good, we shall always be able to see what can be done if it finds itself in a predicament. But it’s absolutely essential that these gentlemen should learn at last how to stand on their own feet.

The fact of the matter is that, during the past 12 or 15 months, our French friends, who are trying to set up the parti ouvrier[6], have made one blunder after another, and this applies to all of them without exception. The first was committed by Guesde when, for absurdly purist reasons, he prevented Malon[7] from accepting the editorship of the labour department on the Intransigeant at a salary of 12,000 frs. That was when the whole squabble began. This was followed by the unpardonable folly over the Emancipation, when Malon allowed himself to be misled by the false promises of the Lyonnais (the worst working men in France), while Guesde showed himself no less feverishly anxious to have a daily paper à tout prix. Next came the hair-splitting over the matter of candidature, in which connection it is more than probable that Guesde was guilty of the solecism you reprobate, though it is obvious to me that Malon was seeking to pick a quarrel. Finally, the ingress into, followed by the egress from, the Citoyen français, of Mr Bourbeau, alias Secondigné, an adventurer of the worst repute — his egress being due simply to non-payment of salary, not to any political motive. Next, Guesde, in very mixed company, joined the most recent Citoyen, and Malon and Brousse[8] the miserable Prolétaire which they — or Malon at any rate — had always secretly opposed as a vulgar loutish rag.

The Prolétaire was the organ of the very narrowest clique of the most inveterate scribblers among the Parisian workers. It was axiomatic that access could be had and contributions made only by genuine manual workers. The most bigoted Weitlingian ‘scholar’-baiting was the order of the day. The sheet was in consequence quite without substance, while preening itself on being la plus pure expression[9] of the Parisian proletariat. Hence, for all its apparent cordiality, it always secretly looked upon other papers, including the 2 Egalités, as mortal enemies and intrigued against them.

When Malon now maintains that the French workers’ party is endeavouring to create an organ for itself in the Prolétaire, and questions the need for a competing Egalité, no one is better aware than Malon, 1. that the two first Egalités also existed alongside the Prolétaire simply because 2. nothing could be made of the Prolétaire, and Malon knows the Prolétaire people just as well as Guesde does, and 3. that the few blockheads on the Prolétaire, together with Malon and Brousse, don’t by any means make up the whole of the French workers’ party. Hence he knows that all this is a red herring and that it is he who is seeking to create an organ for himself in the Prolétaire, having made things too hot for himself everywhere else.

But the link that binds Malon and Brousse to this potty little sheet is their common jealousy of Marx. To the majority of French socialists it is an anathema that the nation which confers upon the world the boon of idées françaises[10] and has a monopoly of ideas—that Paris, centre des lumières[11] — must now all of a sudden import its socialist ideas ready-made from a German, Marx. But there’s no denying the fact and, what is more, Marx’s genius, his almost excessive scientific scrupulousness and his incredible erudition place him so far above all the rest of us that anyone who ventures to criticise his discoveries is more likely to burn his fingers than anything else. That is something which must be left to a more advanced epoch. If, then, French socialists (i. e. the majority) are obliged, whether they like it or not, to bow to the inevitable, it will not happen without a certain amount of grumbling. It is the Prolétaire people who say, of both Guesde and Lafargue, that they are Marx’s mouthpieces or, translated into more familiar idiom, that ils veulent vendre les ouvriers français aux Prussiens et à Bismarck.[12] And in everything M. Malon writes, this grumbling is most plainly audible and, what’s more, in most ignoble form: Malon is at pains to find or impute other progenitors (Lassalle, Schäffle and actually De Paepe!) on whom to father Marx’s discoveries. Now it is, of course, perfectly in order to disagree with party members, no matter whom, as to their mode of procedure in this or that case, or to dispute or differ on a point of theory. But thus to contest the right of a man like Marx to his own achievements is to betray a pettiness such as is found, one might almost say, only in a compositor,— a race of whose self-conceit you will surely have had ample experience. I simply cannot understand how anyone can be envious of genius; it’s something so very special that we, who have not got it, know it to be unattainable right from the start; but to be envious of anything like that one must have to be frightfully small-minded. The furtive way Malon goes about it, doesn’t improve matters. The fact that it is he who eventually comes out worst, betraying his lack of knowledge and discernment at every turn, is something of which he might at some time be made unpleasantly aware, should it at any time become necessary to scrutinise Malon’s goodly Histoire du Socialisme ‘depuis les temps les plus reculés’[13] (!!) and other productions with an eye to their substance.

Brousse is, I think, the most hopelessly muddle-headed man I have ever known. He has dropped the anarchy — i. e. opposition to political activity and voting — out of anarchism, while at the same time retaining all its other catchwords and, more notably, its tactics. Thus, in tedious articles in the Prolétaire directed against Guesde (but not naming him), he is currently brooding on the insoluble question of how to set up an organisation in such a way as to preclude a dictatorship (Guesde’s!!). If this consummate literary and theoretical ignoramus, whose forte, however, is cliquism, is again able to play a part, the blame must be shared by Lafargue, Guesde and Malon.

Lastly Guesde. In matters of theory this man is by far the most lucid thinker amongst the Parisians, and one of the few who takes no exception at all to the German origins of present-day socialism. Hinc Mae lacrimae[14]. Which is why the gentlemen of the Prolétaire are letting it be known that he is merely Marx’s mouthpiece, a rumour which, with lugubrious mien, Malon and Brousse carry further afield. Outside that clique no one dreams of such a thing. What there is to it, we shall see anon. That he is domineering may well be true. Every one of us is domineering in the sense that he would like to see his views predominate. If Guesde seeks to do this by direct and Malon by tortuous means, it says much for Guesde’s character and for the superiority of Malon’s worldly wisdom — especially in dealing with people like the Parisians who obstinately dig their heels in if you try to dictate to them but are only too delighted to let you lead them by the nose. Come to that, whenever I have heard anyone who is worth his salt described as domineering, I have only been able to conclude that there was nothing that could really be said against the man. Guesde’s failings are of quite a different kind. First, the Parisian superstition that the word revolution is something one must continually bandy about. And secondly, boundless impatience. He is suffering from a nervous complaint, believes he has not much longer to live and is absolutely determined to see something worthwhile happen before he goes. That, and his morbid excitability, provide the explanation for his exaggerated and sometimes destructive thirst for action.

If, in addition, you take the inability of the French, especially the Parisians, to conceive of differences that are other than personal, and it is obvious enough how it was that these gentry, as soon as they had scored a few small successes, saw themselves already at the goal, sought to divide as yet inexistent spoils, and fell out with each other in the process.

Guesde’s pamphlets and articles, by the way, are the best to have appeared in the French language, and he is, moreover, one of the best speakers in Paris. Also, we have always found him forthcoming and reliable.

Now for ourselves. We, i. e. Marx and I, do not even correspond with Guesde. We have only written to him for specific reasons of business. We have no more than a general idea of what Lafargue says in his letters to Guesde, nor have we by any means read everything Guesde writes to Lafargue. Heaven only knows what plans the two of them have exchanged of which we have no inkling. Every now and again Marx, like myself, has transmitted advice to Guesde via Lafargue, but it has hardly ever been taken.

But it is true that Guesde came over when it was a question of framing the draft programme of the French Workers Party. Its preamble was dictated to him word for word by Marx[15] in the presence of Lafargue and myself right here in my room: the worker is free only when he is the owner of his instruments of labour – this can be the case either in individual or in collective form; the individual form of ownership is made obsolete by the economic development, and more so with every day; hence there remains only that of collective ownership, etc – a masterpiece of cogent argumentation rarely encountered, clearly and succinctly written for the masses; I myself was astonished by this concise formulation. The rest of the programme’s contents was then discussed; here and there we put something in or took something out. But how little Guesde was the mouthpiece of Marx appears from Guesde’s insistence on putting in his foolish minimum wage demand, and since not we but the French must take the responsibility for this we finally let him have his way although he admitted that theoretically it was nonsense.

Brousse was in London at that time and would gladly have participated. But Guesde was pressed for time and he thought, not without justification, that Brousse would start long-winded discussions about misunderstood anarchist phrases. Guesde therefore insisted that Brousse should not be present at this meeting. That was his business. But Brousse never forgave him that and his intrigues against Guesde date from that time.

The French afterwards discussed this programme and adopted it with a few amendments, of which those introduced by Malon were by no means improvements.

Besides I wrote two articles for Égalité, no 2 on ‘Le socialisme de M Bismarck’ and there you have the sum total, as far as I know, of our active participation in the French movement.

But what is most vexing to the petty grumblers who are nobodies but would like to be somebodies is this: By theoretical and practical achievements Marx has gained for himself such a position that the best people in all the working-class movements in many countries have full confidence in him. At critical junctures they turn to him for advice and then usually find that his counsel is the best. This position he holds in Germany, in France, in Russia, not to mention the smaller countries. It is therefore not a case of Marx forcing his opinion, and still less his will, on people but of the people themselves coming to him. And it is upon this that Marx’s specific influence, so extremely important for the movement, reposes.

Malon also wanted to come here, but he sought to obtain a special invitation from Marx through Lafargue, which of course he did not get. One would gladly have negotiated with him as with anyone else, but invite him – why? Who had ever been thus invited?

Marx and in the second place I have adopted the same attitude towards the French as towards the other national movements. We maintain constant contact with them in so far as it is worth our while and there is the opportunity to do so. But any attempt to influence these people against their will would only do harm; it would destroy the old confidence dating back to the time of the International. We really have had too much experience in revolutionaribus rebus[16] for that.

Now for two more FACTS.

1. It was Guesde, and with him Lafargue, who, in the Egalité, brought quite undeserved fame to Malon, turned him, as it were, into a legend, and this simply because Guesde thought, in typically French fashion, that as a writer one had to have a working man beside one.

2. And here is something the recipient of the letter has authorised me to tell you: Lissagaray, who was the chairman of the meeting at which Malon arraigned that blackguard Lullier, writes to say that, just as the meeting was supposed to begin, Lullier sent word to Malon requesting a short discussion. Malon departed, didn’t return, and finally his Comité went in search of him (Lissagaray was the chairman of the Comité and the meeting) only to find him toping most jovially and on the brink of a peaceable understanding with Lullier, the man he had (rightly) described as the dirtiest of blackguards. Had not Malon had to leave at 9 o’clock for the congress at Zurich, there would have been the risk of a full reconciliation. And he describes himself as a man of politics!

Mesa’s address is: J . Mesa, 36 Rue du Bac, Paris.

Marx knows nothing about this letter. He has been in bed for the past 12 days with bronchitis and all kinds of complications, but since Sunday — due precautions having been taken — there has no longer been any danger. I’ve been anxious enough, I can tell you. Now things are looking up and tomorrow, 27 October, we shall, I trust, show the world that we are still there as large as life. Kindest regards to Kautsky.


F. E.

As regards the Egalité, I think it would be best if our people were not to found a new paper for the time being, at any rate until the state of affairs within the party has become a little less obscure. If they do want to start one, however, neither we nor anyone else can stop them, though I don’t see how it’s going to be managed this time without a row between the Egalité and the Prolétaire. This wouldn’t be a major disaster, but it would still be a perhaps unnecessary case of teething trouble.

What kind of operation is Kautsky having? — I trust he won’t let himself be cut up into a complete Malthusian!

  1. impulsive actions
  2. no matter what
  3. Engels means the third series of L'Egalité.
  4. Jules Guesde (1845-1922) – well-known leader of French and international working-class and socialist movement, a founder of French Workers Party (1879) and populariser of Marxism in France, for many years was leader of the revolutionary wing of French socialist movement; fought opportunism, during First World War – social-chauvinist.
  5. killers of newspapers
  6. workers' party
  7. Benôit Malon (1841-1893) – French socialist, member of First International and of Paris Commune, after its defeat took refuge in Italy and then in Switzerland where he drew close to anarchists, an ideologist and leader of Possibilists.
  8. Paul Brousse (1854-1912) – French petit-bourgeois socialist, participated in Paris Commune, after its suppression lived in emigration, joined anarchists. On his return to France at the beginning of 1880s joined Workers Party where he vehemently opposed the Marxist trend, an ideologist and leader of Possibilists, an opportunist trend in French socialism.
  9. the purest expression
  10. French ideas
  11. centre of enlightenment
  12. want to sell the French workers to the Prussians and Bismarck
  13. from the earliest times. See B. Malon, Histoire du socialisme depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu'à nos jours
  14. Hence those tears (Terence, Andria, I, 1, 99).
  15. See K. Marx, 'Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers' Party'.
  16. in revolutionary matters