Letter to Ferdinand Tönnies, January 24, 1895

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To Ferdinand Tönnies[1] in Kiel

London, 24 January 1895[edit source]

41 Regent’s Park Road, N. W.

Dear Sir,

I still have to thank you for your kindness in sending me your critique of Barth ‘s book and your interesting article on Pestalozzi. I would beg you to excuse the delay which was occasioned by an excess of work, the latter being aggravated by my having moved house (please note the change of address).

I should say that you have let Mr Barth off rather lightly; he would, at any rate, have fared far worse at my hands. However, in literary debate one has to get used to the fact that, lawyer-fashion, one’s opponent suppresses what doesn’t suit his book and introduces extraneous matter if he thinks this will enable him to pull the wool over his reader’s eyes. But in Mr Barth’s case this is done in a manner and to an extent that cannot but lead one to ask whether what we have here is simple ignorance and boneheadedness or deliberate, wilful distortion. To take only his chapter on Marx—how does one explain the horrendous misinterpretations, nearly all of which are incomprehensible in a man who does, after all, claim to have read my Anti-Dühring and Feuerbach[2] which should have constituted a perfectly adequate antidote? And what can one say about the absurd causal nexus attributed to me on p. 135.

‘In France Calvinism had been conquered, which is why in the eighteenth century, Christianity had become incapable of serving as an ideological cloak for any sort of progressive class’? When I compare it with the original, Feuerbach, p. 65, find it virtually impossible to believe that this is not deliberate distortion.

Your observations on Auguste Comte[3] are very interesting. As far as this ‘philosopher’ is concerned a considerable amount of work has in my opinion still to be done. Comte was for five years secretary to Saint-Simon[4] and his intimate friend. The latter positively suffered from repleteness of thought. He was a genius and mystic in one. To establish clearness, order, system was not his forte. So Comte was a man he enlisted who after his master’s death would perhaps present these overbrimming ideas to the world in orderly fashion. Comte’s mathematical schooling and method of thought seemed to render him peculiarly fit for this in contrast to other pupils, who were dreamers. Suddenly Comte broke with his ‘master’ and withdrew from the school. Then, after a rather lengthy period of time, he came out with his ‘positive philosophy’.

In this system there are three characteristic elements: 1) a series of brilliant thoughts, which however are nearly always spoiled to some extent because they are incompetently set forth likewise; 2) a narrow, philistine way of thinking sharply contrasting with that brilliant mind; 3) a hierarchically organised religious constitution, whose source is definitely Saint-Simonian, but divested of all mysticism and turned into something extremely sober, with a regular pope at the head, so that Huxley[5] could say of Comtism that it was Catholicism without Christianity.

Now I'll bet that No 3 furnishes us the clue to the otherwise incomprehensible contradiction between No 1 and No 2; Comte took all his bright ideas from Saint-Simon but when arranging them he distorted these ideas in his own peculiar way; by divesting them of the mysticism that adhered to them he dragged them down to a lower level, reshaping them in philistine fashion to the best of his ability. In very many of them the Saint-Simonist origin can easily be traced and I am convinced that this would be possible in yet other cases if somebody could be found to tackle the job seriously. It would certainly have been discovered long ago if after 1830 Saint-Simon’s own writings had not been completely stifled by the clamour of the Saint-Simonist school and religion, which stressed and developed certain aspects of the master’s teaching to the detriment of the magnificent conceptions as a whole.

Then there is another point I should like to correct, the note on p 513.[6] Marx never was Secretary General of the International but only Secretary for Germany and Russia. And none of the Comtists in London participated in the founding of the International. Professor E Beesly[7] deserves great credit for his defence of the International in the press at the time of the Commune against the vehement attacks of that day. Frederic Harrison[8] too publicly took up the cudgels for the Commune. But a few years later the Comtists cooled off considerably toward the labour movement. The workers had become too powerful and it was now a question of maintaining a proper balance between capitalists and workers (for both are producers according to Saint-Simon) and to that end of once more supporting the former. Ever since then the Comtists have wrapped themselves in complete silence as regards the labour question.

Yours very truly
F Engels

  1. Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-?) – German bourgeois sociologist – Progress Publishers.
  2. F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
  3. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) – French philosopher and sociologist, founder of positivism – Progress Publishers.
  4. Claude Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) – great French utopian socialist – Progress Publishers.
  5. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) – well-known English naturalist, biologist, friend and follower of Darwin, active propagandist of his teaching, inconsistent materialist in philosophy – Progress Publishers.
  6. Engels refers to a note in Tönnies’ article ‘Neuere Philosophie der Geschichte: Hegel, Marx, Comte’ ('Modern Philosophy of History: Hegel, Marx, Comte’) – Progress Publishers.
  7. Edward Spencer Beesley (1831-1915) – English historian and political figure, bourgeois radical, positivist, professor at London University, known for his defence of First International and Paris Commune in the English press in 1870-71 – Progress Publishers.
  8. Frederic Harrison (1831-1923) – English publicist, follower of Auguste Comte – Progress Publishers.