Letter to Karl Kautsky, February 1, 1881

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To Karl Kautsky in Vienna

London, 1 February 1881[edit source]

122 Regent's Park Road, N. W.[edit source]

Dear Mr Kautsky,

Having been long prevented, I am at last able to reply to your letter.

Now, in view of the fact that you intend to come here shortly, it would be a somewhat unnecessary labour to let you have a detailed critique in writing of the book you have been good enough to send me; since I shall, in all probability, have the pleasure of discussing it with you in person, I shall confine myself to just a few points.

1. What you say on p. 66 etc. is invalidated by the fact that other, real differences exist between surplus value and profit on capital besides the percentage estimate based on the variable or total capital. The main passages from Capital relating to this are summarised in Anti-Dühring, p. 182

Even though the Katheder-Socialists[1] persistently call upon us proletarian Socialists to tell them how we can prevent over population and the consequent threat to the existence of the new social order, I see no reason at all why I should do them the favour. I consider it a sheer waste of time to dispel all the scruples and doubts of these people which arise from their muddled superwisdom, or even to refute, for instance, the awful twaddle which Schäffle[2] alone has compiled in his numerous big volumes. It would require a fair-sized book merely to correct all the passages set in inverted commas which these gentlemen have misquoted from Capital. They should first learn to read and to copy before demanding that one should answer their questions.

Moreover, I do not regard the question as in any way a burning one at a moment when American mass production, as yet only in its infancy, and really large-scale agriculture are threatening to all but suffocate us by the sheer volume of the means of subsistence produced; on the eve of an upheaval of which one of the first consequences must be to populate the globe — what you say on the subject on pp. 169-70, skates too lightly over this point — and which, moreover, will of necessity call for considerable demographic growth in Europe.

Euler’s calculation has about as much merit as the one concerning the kreutzer which, invested at compound interest in the year dot, doubles every 13 years and therefore now amounts to some (1 x 2) / 60 gulden, a silver nugget larger than the earth. When you say on p. 169 that social conditions in America are not very different from those in Europe, this holds good only so long as you consider nothing but the large coastal cities, or even the outward legal forms those conditions assume. There can be no doubt that the vast mass of the American people live in conditions that are exceedingly favourable to demographic growth. The stream of immigrants is proof of this. And yet it has taken more than 30 years to double itself. Alarmism doesn’t come into it.

There is of course the abstract possibility that the human population will become so numerous that its further increase will have to be checked. If it should become necessary for communist society to regulate the production of men, just as it will have already regulated the production of things, then it, and it alone, will be able to do this without difficulties. It seems to me that it should not be too difficult for such a society to achieve in a planned way what has already come about naturally, without planning, in France and Lower Austria. In any case it will be for those people to decide if, when and what they want to do about it, and what means to employ. I don’t feel qualified to offer them any advice or counsel in this matter. They will presumably be at least as clever as we are.

Incidentally, I wrote as early as 1844 (Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, page 109):

... even if Malthus were absolutely right, this (socialist) transformation would have to be undertaken on the spot; for only this transformation, and the education of the masses which it alone provides, makes it possible to place that moral restraint of the propagative instinct which Malthus himself presents as the most effective and easiest remedy for over-population.[3]

This is enough for now, the other points we can discuss when we meet. You are quite right to come over here. You are one of the few among the younger generation who really tries to learn something, and hence it will do you a lot of good to get out of the atmosphere of non-criticism in which all the historical and economic literature currently being produced in Germany is going to wrack and ruin.

With sincere regards,


F. Engels

  1. Katheder Socialists – representatives of a trend in bourgeois economics and sociology which arose towards the end of the nineteenth century. They were in the main German professors who under the guise of socialism advocated bourgeois reformism from their university chairs (Katheder in German) – Progress Publishers.
  2. Albert Eberhard Friedrich Schäffle (1831-1903) – German vulgar bourgeois economist and sociologist, after publication of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, advocated class peace and cooperation between bourgeoisie and proletariat – Progress Publishers.
  3. Frederick Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (see Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow, 1961), pp. 203-04) – Progress Publishers.