Letter to Karl Kautsky, May 21, 1895

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 21 May 1895

Source: Marx and Engels Correspondence; International Publishers (1968);
First Published: Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe;

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 50

To Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart

London, May 21, 1895[edit source]

Dear Baron,

I should have replied at once to your letter of the 6th had not a nasty inflammation of the glands in my neck, accompanied by much pain and inevitable loss of sleep, rendered me almost wholly incapable of work during the past two weeks. But now you are to be kept waiting no longer.

You had undertaken at that time to publish a History of Socialism. Of all persons alive there was then but one — surely I am entitled to say this — whose collaboration in this work seemed absolutely necessary, and this one person was I. And I even venture to say that without my help such a job is at present bound to be incomplete and defective. You people knew that as well as I. But of all persons that could possibly be made use of it was exactly I, and I alone, who was not asked to collaborate. You must have had very cogent reasons for excluding precisely me. I don’t complain about that; far from it. You had a perfect right to act the way you did. I am only stating a fact.

What did pique me, but only for a moment, was the strange mysteriousness in which you wrapped the matter as far as I was concerned, while the whole world was talking about it. It was only through third persons that I learned of the whole project and only through the printed prospectus of the outlines of the plan. Not a word from either you or Ede.[1] It was as if you had a bad conscience. At the same time surreptitious inquiries were made by all sorts of people: how I regarded the matter, whether I had declined to collaborate, etc. And then at long last, when silence was no longer possible, good old Ede got to talking about this matter, with a shame-facedness and embarrassment that would have been worthy of a worse cause — for nothing improper had really occurred except this laughable comedy, which by the way, as Louise[2] can testify, brought me many an hour of real good fun.

Well then, you have confronted me with an accomplished fact: a history of socialism without my collaboration. I have accepted this fact from the beginning without complaint. But you cannot unmake the fact you yourselves have accomplished, nor can you ignore it should this suit you some day. I too cannot unmake it. Having shut the big front door to me after mature deliberation at a time when my counsel and my help could be of substantial use to you, please do not now ask me to sneak in through some small back-door to help you out of a difficulty now. I confess that if our roles had been reversed I would have deliberated for a very long time before making a proposal like the one in question.[3] Is it really so extremely difficult to understand that everyone must bear the consequences of his own action? As you make your bed, so you must lie in it. If there is no room for me in this business, that is so only because you wanted it so.

Well, that’s that. And now please do me the favour and consider this reply irrevocable. Let the whole incident be dead and buried as far as both of us are concerned. I shall also not speak about it with Ede, unless he starts.

Meanwhile I am about to send you a piece of work for the Neue Zeit that will please you: ‘Ergänzungen und Nachtrage zum Kapital, Buch III, Nr I: Wertgesetz und Profitrate’,[4] reply to the scruples of Sombart[5] and Conrad Schmidt.[6] Later No 2 will follow: the role of the stock exchange, which has altered very considerably since Marx wrote about it in 1865. To be continued according to demand and time available. The first article would have been finished if my mind had been free.

As for your book[7] I can say that it gets better the further one reads. Plato and Early Christianity are still inadequately treated, according to the original plan. The mediaeval sects much better, and crescendo, the best are the Taborites, Münzer, and the Anabaptists. Very many important economic analyses of political events, paralleled however by commonplaces where there were gaps in research.

I have learnt a great deal from the book [Forerunners of Modern Socialism, by K. Kautsky]; it is an indispensable preliminary study for my new revision of the Peasant War. The main faults seem to be only two: (1) A very inadequate examination of the development and role of the declassed elements, almost like pariahs, who stood right outside the feudal organisation and were inevitably bound to come to the fore whenever a town was formed; who constitute the lowest stratum of the population of every mediaeval town, having no rights at all, detached from the Markgenossenschaft, from feudal dependence and from the craft guild. This is difficult, but it is the chief basis, for by degrees as the feudal ties are loosened, these elements become the pre-proletariat which in 1789 made the revolution in the suburbs of Paris, and which absorbs all the outcasts of feudal and guild society. You speak of proletarians – the expression is ambiguous – and bring in the weavers, whose importance you describe quite correctly – but only after declassed journeymen weavers, existed outside the guilds, and only in so far as these existed, can you make them into your proletariat. Here there is still a lot to make good.

(2) You have not fully grasped Germany's position in the world market, her international economic position, in so far as it is possible to speak of this, at the end of the 15th century. This position alone explains why the bourgeois plebeian movement in religious form which was defeated in England, the Netherlands and Bohemia could have a certain success in Germany in the 16th century: the success of its religious disguise, whilst the success of the bourgeois content - of the new direction of the world market which had arisen in the meantime – was reserved for Holland and England. This is a lengthy subject, which I hope to deal with in extenso [in full] in the Peasant War. – If only I were already at it![8]

In an attempt to remain popular your style is now that of the leader writer, now that of the dominie. This you should be able to avoid. Again, is it for Janssen’s sake that you still refuse to see the pun in which Ulrich von Hütten is indulging with his obscuri viri? The joke lies in the fact of its meaning both—obscure or obscurantist—and that is what Hutten was trying to say. But that is all by the way. You and Ede have both been working on a completely new subject, and you cannot expect to attain perfection straight away. You should be glad to have produced a book that is presentable, even at this stages when it is, as it were, in its initial draft form. Now, however, you are both honour-bound not to allow the ground you have broken to lie fallow but to continue with your researches so that, in a few years’ time, you will be able to bring out a new edition capable of meeting every requirement. Someone in St Petersburg has sent me a Russian translation of your old piece on marriage and the family (Kosmos)[9]. I don’t know who did it. I shall send it to you.

Many regards from one household to the other,


F. Engels

One more thing. I have suggested to Sorge that, when he has finished his articles on the American movement, these should be published as an offprint. He is agreeable but says there will have to be a great deal of revision and many corrections and additions, for which he is unlikely.

  1. Eduard Bernstein.
  2. Louise Kautsky, Kautsky’s wife and Engels’ secretary [MIA].
  3. Kautsky did not want Engels to take part in guiding the work A History of Socialism but, eager to make use of Engels’ erudition, he asked Engels to send him material for the chapter dealing with the history of the First International.
  4. Supplement and addenda to Capital, Book III, No 1: Law of Value and Rate of Profit.
  5. Werner Sombart (1863-1941) — German vulgar economist, tried to refute Marx’s labour theory of value.
  6. Conrad Schmidt (1863-1932) — German economist and philosopher, at the beginning of his career adopted Marx’s economic doctrine but subsequently joined bourgeois opponents of Marxism, author of works that served as a theoretical source of revisionism.
  7. The reference is to Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus (Forerunners of Modern Socialism).
  8. [Note from MIA: a few months later Engels died of throat cancer.]
  9. K. Kautsky, Die Entstehung der Ehe und der Familie. In Kosmos, 6. Jg. 12 Bd. (Kosmos is the title in Russian)