Letter to Karl Kautsky, February 20, 1889

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To Kark Kautsky in Vienna

Note by the Transcriber: This letter by Engels is a review of Karl Kautsky’s Class Antagonisms in the Year 1789: A Contribution to the Centenary of the Great Revolution, originally published as a series of articles in the journal Die Neue Zeit. In that work, Kautsky described the sans culottes’ policy of 1793-1794 as one of “Revolution in Permanenz.” Kautsky’s work was then separately published as a brochure under the title Die Klassengegensätze von 1789: Zum hundertjährigen Gedenktag der großen Revolution. Stuttgart: Dietz, 1889. A French translation is available, which was recently republished by the CERMTRI: Karl Kautsky, La Lutte des classes en France en 1789 Paris: G. Jacques, 1901, traduit par Édouard Berth, Bibliothèque d’études socialistes, No. 3; reprinted in: Les cahiers du CERMTRI, No. 95, Paris: Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur les Mouvements Trotskyste et Révolutionnaires Internationaux, 1999.

London, February 20, 1889[edit source]

Dear Kautsky,

I am returning herewith the Neue Zeit article with cursory marginal comments. Main shortcoming: lack of good material – Taine and Tocqueville, idolized by the philistines, are inadequate here. If you had done the job here you would have found quite different material – a better kind second-hand and loads of it first-hand. Besides, the best work on the peasants is by N. Kareyev [The Peasants and the Peasant Question in France during the Last Quarter of the Eighteenth Century – Ed.] in Russian.

However if you can get there Moreau de Jonnès, “The Economic and Social System of France from Henry IV to Louis XIV,” Paris 1868, you will find it useful reading.

Section II, p. 3. Here there is missing a lucid exposition of how the absolute monarchy came into existence as a naturally evolved compromise between nobility and bourgeoisie and how it therefore had to protect certain interests of both sides and distribute favours to them. In this process the nobility – retired politically – got as its share the plundering of the peasantry and of the state treasury and indirect political influence through the court, the army, the church, and the higher administrative authorities, while the bourgeoisie received protection through tariffs, monopolies and a relatively orderly administration of public affairs and justice. If you start with these things much will become clearer and easier.

Another thing missing in this section is mention of the judicial nobility (noblesse de robe) and the jurists – la robe – in general, who actually also formed a privileged estate and possessed great power in the parliaments – vis-à-vis the Crown. In their political capacity they acted as the defenders of the institutions that limited the authority of the Crown, hence sided with the people, but in their judicial capacity they were corruption incarnate (cf. the Mémoirs of Beaumarchais). What you say later on about this gang is not enough.

III. p. 49. Cf. Note I from Kareyev enclosed.

On p. 50 “this kind of bourgeois” suddenly transforms himself into “the” bourgeois par excellence, which sharply contravenes the stratification of the bourgeois class, the subject under discussion. You generalize altogether too much, on account of which you often become absolute where the greatest relativity is imperative.

IV. p. 54. Here it would all the same be proper to make some mention of how these outlawed plebeians, who are excluded from any society based on class estates and therefore relatively shorn of rights, gradually arrived only during the revolution at what you call sansculottism (one more ism!) and what part they played. Then you will be able to surmount the difficulties you are bombarding on p. 53 with vague expressions and mysterious hints about new modes of production. Then it will be plain that the bourgeoisie was too cowardly in this case as always to uphold its own interests; that starting with the Bastille events the plebs had to do all the work for it; that without the intervention of the plebs on July 14, October 5-6, August 10, September 2, etc., the bourgeoisie would have succumbed to the ancien régime each time; that the Coalition leagued with the Court would have suffocated the revolution and that it was therefore these plebeians alone who carried out the revolution; but that this could not have been done without these plebeians attributing to the revolutionary demands of the bourgeoisie a meaning which they did not have, without their pushing equality and fraternity to such extremes that the bourgeois meaning of these slogans was turned completely upside down, because this meaning, driven to its extreme, changed into its opposite; that this plebeian equality and fraternity was necessarily a sheer dream at a time when it was a question of doing the exact opposite, and that as always – the irony of history – this plebeian conception of the revolutionary watchwords became the most powerful lever for carrying into reality this opposite: bourgeois equality – before the law, and fraternity – in exploitation.

I would say much less about the new mode of production. An enormous gulf always separates it from the facts you speak of, and presented in this direct form it appears as a pure abstraction which does not make the thing clearer but rather more obscure.

As for the terror it was essentially a war measure so long as there was any sense to it. The class or the factional group of the class which alone could safeguard the victory of the revolution not only maintained itself in power by this means (that was the least after victory over the revolts) but ensured itself freedom of motion, elbow-room, the possibility of concentrating forces at the decisive spot, the border. At the end of 1793 that was already fairly secure; 1794 started well. French armies scored progress almost everywhere. The Commune with its extreme course became superfluous. Its propagation of revolution became a hindrance to Robespierre as well as to Danton both of whom, but each in his own way, wanted peace. From this conflict of three elements Robespierre emerged victorious, but now terror became in his hands a means of self-preservation and thus absurd. On June 26 Jourdan at Fleurus laid the whole of Belgium at the feet of the republic. Thereby terror became untenable. On July 27 Robespierre fell and the bourgeois orgy began.

“Well-being for all on the basis of labour” still expresses much too definitely the aspirations of the plebeian fraternité of that time. No one could tell what they wanted until long after the fall of the Commune Babeuf gave the thing definite shape. Whereas the Commune with its aspirations for fraternity came too early, Babeuf in his turn came too late.

P. 100. Beggars. See Note II from Kareyev.

The section on the peasantry suffers most because of the lack of all but the most ordinary sources.

The blunders made by Ranke you showed up well. [In the above article Kautsky criticized Ranke’s work Epochs of Modern History. – Ed.] Unfortunately you did not make use of the Austrian publications with their objections, which are given by Sybel. Much relating to the second partition of Poland, etc. could still be dug up out of them and as they are based on archive material they are absolutely fit to use.

As regards Rudolf[1], history shows that even in Austria feudal licentiousness, whereby the prince and his family honoured their female subjects in bestowing carnal favours upon them, gives way to bourgeois licentiousness, whereby the bestower of the favour becomes answerable on the duelling ground or in the DIVORCE COURT to the husband or brother, etc., of the person favoured.

My cordial regards to Louise, likewise Frankel, Alder, etc. What is Bardorf doing? One never hears anything of him nowadays.

Hyndman is endeavouring to entice Ede, via Bax, into an alliance with himself and the Possibilists. The silly ass imagines that we carry on in exactly the same way as the London literary cliques, in which alliances are made and broken at will simply because those concerned have no one behind them.

How do you like the Égalité’s novel about Rudolf?

Your

F. E.


Note I. Fourth estate.

The conception of a fourth estate alongside the first, second, and third arose very early in the revolution. At the very beginning appeared Dufourny de Villiers, “Mandate of the 4th estate, that of poor day labourers, invalids, indigents, etc., the estate of the disinherited,” April 25, 1789. But the fourth estate is mostly taken to mean the peasants. For example Noilliac, Le plus fort des pamphlets. L'ordre des paysans aux États-généraux. 26 février 1789[2], p. 9: 'Prenons de la constitution suédoise les quartre ordres.'[3] Vartout, Lettre d'un paysan à son curé, sur une nouvelle manière de tenir les États-généraux[4], Sartrouville, 1789, p. 7: 'J'avons entendu dire que dans un pays qui est au Nord ... on admettait aux États assemblés l'ordre des paysans.'[5]


One also comes across other interpretations of the fourth estate. One pamphlet argues for a fourth estate of the merchants, another pleads for one of the judiciary, etc.

Kareyev, The Peasants and the Peasant Question in France in the Last Quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Moscow 1879, p. 327.

Note II. Beggars.

It is significant that the number of impoverished persons (nischich, nischyi means poorest of the poor) was greatest in the provinces which were considered the most fertile, because in these localities there were very few peasants who owned land.

But let the figures speak for themselves. In Argentré (Brittany) more than half of the population of 2,300 not earning a living in industry or trade can hardly keep the wolf from the door and over 500 people have been reduced to mendicancy. In Dainville (Artois) 60 out of 130 families are impoverished.

Normandy: In Saint Patrice 400 out of 1,500 members of the population and in Saint Laurent three-fourths of the 500 inhabitants live on alms (Taine). From the mandates of the Douai bailiwick we learn for instance that half of the 332 families in a village belonging to the Bouvignies parish live on charity alone and that in another village, of the Aix parish, 65 of the 143 families have been beggared, while in a third (Landus parish) about 100 out of 413 are indigent in the extreme, and so on. In the seneschalship of Puy en Vélay, according to the text of the mandate of the local clergy, 58,897 out of a total population of 120,000 are totally unable to pay any taxes of any kind whatsoever (Parliamentary Archive of 1787 to 1860. Vol. V, p. 467). In the villages of Carhaix District the picture was as follows: Frerogan – 10 well-to-do (doststochny), 10 impoverished, and 10 pauperized families. Motref – 47 families of means, 74 less substantial, 64 poor and day labourers.

Paule – 200 farms, most of which should by rights be called refuges for beggars (National Archives, Vol. IV, p. 17). The mandate of Marboeuf parish bewails the fact that of the 500 inhabitants about 100 are beggars (Boivin-Champeaux, Historical Notes on the Revolution in the Eure Department, 1872, p. 83). The peasants of the village of Harville relate that on account of unemployment a full third of them are utterly destitute (Petition of the inhabitants of the Harville commune, National Archives).

Nor were things any better in the towns. In 1787 Lyons had 30,000 pauperized workers. In Paris the population of 650,000 included 118,784 indigents (Taine, Vol. I, p. 507). In Rennes one out of three begged alms for a living and another third was constantly threatened with pauperization (Du Chatellier, Agriculture in Brittany, Paris 1863, p. 178). The little Jura town of Lons-de-Saunier was so pauperized that when the Constituent Assembly introduced qualifications for voters only 728 of its 6,518 inhabitants could be listed as active citizens (Sommier, History of the Revolution in the Jura, Paris 1846, p. 33). No wonder then that at the time of revolution charity cases were counted by the million. Thus a clerical pamphlet of 1791 stated that there were 6 million paupers in France (“Counsel to the Poor on the Present Revolution and on the Property of the Clergy,” p. 15), which however is somewhat exaggerated; but the figure of 1,200,000 paupers given for 1774 is perhaps not underrated (Duval, Mandates of the Marche, Paris 1873, p. 116).

(I thought you might like to have a few real illustrations.)

Kareyev, pp. 211-214.

(If my remarks sound curt please consider that as being due solely to lack of time and marginal space on the paper. I had no time to compare sources, had to rely in everything on my memory – hence many things are not as definite as I would have liked them to be.)[6]

  1. Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph
  2. The strongest of the pamphlets. The estate of the peasants in the States General, February 26, 1789
  3. “Let us take the four estates from the Swedish constitution.”
  4. Letter of a peasant to his priest on a new way of summoning the States General.
  5. “I heard it said that in a certain northern country ... the estate of the peasantry is admitted to the States-Assembled.”
  6. This paragraph is written in pencil in the original