Letter to Karl Marx, September 30, 1847

From Marxists-en
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 30 September 1847

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 122;
First published: in Der Briefwechsel zwischen F. Engels und K. Marx, 1913.

To Marx in Zalt-Bommel

Engels wrote this letter to Marx when the latter was on a visit to his relatives in Holland to settle his financial affairs. At the end of September 1847 Marx spent a few days in Zalt-Bommel at his uncle’s (on his mother’s side), Lion Philips, and returned to Brussels early in October.

Brussels, 28-30 September 1847[edit source]

Tuesday, 28 September[edit source]

Dear Marx,

There has recently been a very curious business here. All those elements among the local Germans who are dissatisfied with us and what we do have formed a coalition for the purpose of overthrowing you, me and the communists in general, and competing with the Workers’ Society.[1] Bornstedt is exceedingly displeased; the story emanating from Otterberg, passed on and confirmed by Sandkuhl and exploited by Crüger and Moras, to the effect that we were simply exploiting him, Bornstedt, has made him furious with all of us; Moras and Crüger, who go about complaining of our alleged cavalier treatment of them, have put his back up even further. Seiler is annoyed because of the unpardonable neglect he suffered at the founding of the Workers’ Society, and because of its good progress, which has given the lie to all his predictions. Heilberg is seeking to take spectacular if unbloody revenge for all the slights that have been, and are being, daily meted out to him. Bornstedt, too, is seething because his gifts of books and maps have failed to buy him the status of an influential democrat and honorary membership of, and a place for his bust in, the Society, instead of which his typesetter [Karl Wallau] will, tomorrow evening, put his name to the vote like that of any ordinary mortal. He is also vexed that he, the aristocratic homme d'esprit, should find much less opportunity to make fun of the workers than he had hoped. Then Moras is annoyed at having been unable to win over the Brüsseler-Zeitung for Heinzen. Enfin all these heterogeneous elements agreed upon a coup that was to reduce us one and all to a secondary role vis-à-vis Imbert and the Belgian democrats, and to call into being a society far more grandiose and universal than our uncouth Workers’ Society. All these gentlemen were fired by the idea of taking the initiative in something for once, and the cowardly rascals deemed the moment of your absence admirably suited to that end. But they had shamefully miscalculated.

They therefore decided quite on the sly to arrange a cosmopolitan-democratic supper and there to propose without prior warning a society à la fraternal democrats[2] with workers’ meetings, etc., etc. They set up a kind of committee onto which as a matter of form they co-opted the, to them, completely harmless Imbert. After hearing all kinds of vague rumours, it was not until Sunday evening at the Society that I learned anything positive about it from Bornstedt, and on Monday the meal was to take place. I could get no details from Bornstedt except that Jottrand, General Mellinet, Adolf Bartels, Kats, etc., etc., would be there, Poles, Italians, etc., etc. Although I had no inkling whatever about the whole coalition (only on Monday morning did I learn that Bornstedt was somewhat piqued and that Moras and Crüger were moaning and plotting: about Seiler and Heilberg I knew nothing), nonetheless I smelled a rat. But it was essential to attend because of the Belgians and because nothing democratic must be allowed to take place in little Brussels without our participating. But something had to be done about forming a group. Wallau and I accordingly put the matter forward and advocated it vigorously, upon which some thirty immediately agreed to go. On Monday morning I was told by Lupus that, besides the président d'honneur, old Mellinet, and the actual chairman, Jottrand, they would have to have two vice-chairmen, one of whom would be Imbert and the other a German, preferably a working man. Wallau was, unfortunately, out of the running since he didn’t speak French. That’s what he'd been told by Bornstedt. He, Lupus, had replied that in that case it must be me. I told Lupus that it must be him, but he refused point-blank. I was also reluctant because I look so awfully young, but finally I thought that, for all eventualities, it would be best for me to accept.

We went there in the evening.[3] Bornstedt was all innocence, as though nothing had as yet been arranged, merely the officials (toujours à l'exception de l'Allemand) , and a few registered speakers, none of whose names, save for Crüger and Moras I was able to discover; he kept making off to see to the arrangement of the place, hurried from one person to the next, duping, intriguing, bootlicking for all he was worth. However I saw no evidence of any specific intrigue; this didn’t transpire till later on. We were at the Estaminet Liégeois in the Place du Palais de Justice. When it came to electing the officials, Bornstedt, contrary to all that had been agreed, proposed Wallau. The latter declined through Wolff (Lupus) and had me proposed, this being carried in style. Thus thwarted, the whole plot collapsed. They now +- lost their heads and gave themselves away. After Imbert had proposed the health of the martyrs de la liberté, I came out with a toast in French au souvenir de la revolution de 1792 and, as an afterthought, of the anniversaire du 1er vendémiaire an I de la république.[4] [the anniversary of the First Vendémiaire of the first year of the Republic — 22 September 1792, the day when the Republic was proclaimed, fell on the First Vendémiaire according to the republican calendar] Crüger followed me with a ludicrous speech during which he dried up and had to resort to his manuscript. Then Moras, who read out an harangue almost entirely devoted to his humble self. Both in German. So confused were their toasts that I have absolutely no recollection of them. Then Pellering in Flemish. The lawyer Spilthoorn of Ghent, speaking French au peuple anglais then, to my great astonishment, that hunchbacked spider Heilberg, with a long, school-masterly, vapid speech in French in which he 1) patted himself on the back as editor of the Atelier Démocratique; 2) declared that he, Maximus Heilberg, had for several months been pursuing — but that must be said in French: The Association of Belgian Working Men, that is the goal I have been pursuing for several months (i. e. since the moment I deigned to take cognisance of the final chapter of the Poverty of Philosophy). He, then, and not Kats and the other Belgians. ‘We shall enter the lists when our elders are no longer there’ etc., etc. [Marseillaise] He will achieve what Kats and Jottrand could not do; 3) proposed to found a fraternal democracy and to reorganise the meetings; 4) to entrust the elected bureau with the organisation of both.

Well now, what confusion! First lump together the cosmopolitan business and Belgian meetings on Belgian affairs and 2) instead of dropping this proposal because everything’s going wrong for you, pass it on to the existing bureau! And if he had my departure in mind, should he not have known that it would be unthinkable to bring anyone else but you into the bureau? But the numbskull had already written the Whole of his speech and his vanity wouldn’t allow him to omit anything by which he could seize the initiative in some way. The thing, of course, went through, but in view of the highly factice albeit noisy enthusiasm, there could be no question of putting the confused proposal into better order. Next A. Bartels spoke (Jules wasn’t there), and then Wallau demanded the floor. But how intense was my astonishment when suddenly Bornstedt thrust himself forward and urgently demanded the floor for Seiler as a speaker whose name was higher up the register. Having got it, Seiler delivered an interminably long, garrulous, silly, absurdly vapid and truly shameful speech (in French) in which he talked the most hair-raising nonsense about pouvoirs législatif, administratif et exécutif, gave all manner of wise advice to the democrats (as did Heilberg, who invented the most wondrous things about teaching and questions of education), in which Seiler, further posing en grand homme spoke of democratic societies, in which I participated and which I may perhaps even have directed (literally), and finally, with the latest news to come from Paris; etc., etc., actually dragged in his precious bureau.[5] In short, it was ghastly. Several speakers followed, a Swiss jackass, Pellering, Kats (very good), etc., etc., and at ten o'clock Jottrand (who blushed with shame for the Germans) declared the sitting closed. Suddenly Heilberg called for silence and announced that Weerth’s speech at the free-trade congress[6] would be appearing next day in a supplement to the Atelier which would be sold separately!!! Then Zalewski also spoke, whining a while about the union between that unfortunate Poland and that great, noble and poetical Germany — finally all went home quietly enough but very much out of temper.

Thursday, 30 September[edit source]

Since the above was written a great deal more has happened and various things have been decided. On Tuesday morning, when the whole plot was clear to me, I hurried round to counter it; that same night at 2 o'clock I went to see Lupus at the bureau i could not Bornstedt he balloted out of the Workers’ Society? Wednesday called on all and sundry, but everybody was of the opinion that we couldn’t do it. On Wednesday evening, when I arrived at the Society, Bornstedt was already there; his attitude was equivocal; finally Thomis came in with the latest issue; my anti-Heinzen article which I'd brought him as long ago as Monday and, not finding him in (2 o'clock in the afternoon), had taken to the printers, was not in it. [Engels, ‘The Communists and Karl Heinzen’. First article, dated 26 September was not printed in No. 78, 29 September; it appeared in the next issue on 3 October 1847] On my questioning him, he said there had been no space. I reminded him of what you and he had agreed.[7] He denied it; I waited till Wallau arrived and he told me there had been space enough but that on Tuesday Bornstedt had had the article fetched from the printers and had not sent it back again. I went to Bornstedt and very rudely told him as much. He tried to lie his way out. I again reverted to the agreement, which he again denied, save for a few trivial generalities. I passed some insulting remarks — Crüger, Gigot and Imbert, etc., etc., were present — and asked: ‘Do you intend to publish the article on Sunday, oui ou non?’ — ‘We'll have to discuss it first.’ — ‘I refuse to discuss it with you.’ — And thereupon I left him.

The sitting began. Bornstedt, chin cradled in his hands, sat looking at me with a curiously gloating expression. I stared back at him and waited. Up got Mr Thomis, who, as you know, had demanded the floor. He drew a prepared speech out of his pocket and read out a series of the most peculiar aspersions on our sham battle.[8] This went on for some time but, as it showed no signs of finishing, there was a general muttering, a mass of people demanded the floor, and Wallau called Thomis to order. The latter, Thomis, then read out some half dozen inane phrases on the question and withdrew. Then Hess spoke and defended us pretty well. Then Junge. Then Wolff’ of Paris who, though he dried up 3 times, was much applauded. Then several more. Wolff had betrayed the fact that our opposition had been purely formal. So I had to take the floor. I spoke — to the great discomfiture of Bornstedt, who had believed that I was too much preoccupied with personal squabbles — I spoke, then, about the revolutionary aspect of the protectionist system, completely ignoring the aforesaid Thomis, of course, and proposed a new question. Agreed. — Pause. — Bornstedt, badly shaken by the vehement way I had addressed him, by Thomis’ ratting on him (there were echoes of Bornstedt in his speech) and by the vehemence of my peroration — Bornstedt came up to me: My dear boy, how terribly impassioned you are, etc., etc. In short, I was to sign the article. — No. — Then at least we should agree on a short editorial introduction. — Very well, eleven o'clock tomorrow at the Café Suisse.

There followed the matter of the admission of Bornstedt, Crüger, Wolff. Hess was the first to get up; he addressed 2 questions to Bornstedt about Monday’s meeting. Bornstedt lied his way out, and Hess was weak enough to declare himself satisfait. Junge went for Bornstedt personally because of his behaviour at the Society and because he had introduced Sandkuhl under a false name. Fischer came out very energetically against Bornstedt, quite impromptu but very well. Several others likewise. In short, the triumphant Mr von Bornstedt had almost literally to run the gauntlet of the workers. He took a severe drubbing and was so thunderstruck — he, who of course believed he had well and truly bought his way in with his gifts of books — that he could only answer evasively, feebly, concedingly — in spite of the fact that Wallau, fanatically in support of him, was a wretched chairman who permitted him to interrupt the speakers at any and every opportunity. Everything was still hanging in the balance when Wallau directed the candidates to withdraw and called for a vote. Crüger, proposed by me as an exceptionally guileless man, who could in no way harm the Society, and purement et simplement seconded by Wolff, got through. In the case of Bornstedt, Wallau came out with a long, impassioned speech on his behalf. Then I stood up, went into the whole matter of the plot in so far as it concerned the Society, demolished Bornstedt’s evasions, each by means of the other, and finally declared: Bornstedt has intrigued against us, has sought to compete with us, but we have won, and hence can now admit him into the Society. During my speech — the best I have ever made — I was constantly interrupted by applause; notably when I said: these gentlemen believed that all had been won because I, their vice-chairman, was going away, but it had not occurred to them that there is, amongst us, one to whom the position belongs by right, one who alone is able to represent the German democrats here in Brussels, and that is Marx — whereupon tremendous applause. in short, no one spoke after me, and thus Bornstedt was not done the honour of being thrown out. He was standing outside the door and listening to it all. I would rather have said my say while he was still in the room, but it could not be done, because I had to spare myself for the final blow, and Wallau broke off the discussion. But, like Wolff and Crüger, he had heard every word. As opposed to him, Wolff was admitted almost without a hitch.

In short, at yesterday’s sitting Bornstedt, Crüger, etc., etc., suffered such an affront that they cannot honourably frequent the Society again, and they've had enough to last them a long time. But frequent it they certainly will; the shameless Bornstedt has been so reduced by our even greater insolence, by the utter failure of all his calculations, and by our vehemence, that all he can do is trot around Brussels whining to everyone about his disgrace — the lowest depths of debasement. He came back into the hall raging but impotent and, when I took my leave of the Society and was allowed to go with every imaginable mark of respect, he departed seething. Bürgers, who has been here since the day before yesterday evening, was present while we discussed Bornstedt.

Throughout, the behaviour of our workers was really splendid: the gifts, 26 books and 27 maps, were never mentioned, they treated Bornstedt with the utmost frigidity and lack of consideration — and, when I spoke and had reached my peroration, I had it in my power to have him rejected by a vast majority. Even Wallau admits as much. But we treated him worse than that by adopting him with scorn and contumely. The affair has made a capital impression on the Society; for the first time they have had a role to play, have dominated a meeting despite all the plotting, and have put in his place a fellow who was trying to set himself up against them. Only a few clerks, etc., etc., are dissatisfied, the vast majority being enthusiastically on our side. They have experienced what it means to be associated.

This morning I went to the Café Suisse, and who should fail to turn up but Bornstedt. — Weerth and Seiler, however, were there to meet me; they had just been talking to Bornstedt, and Seiler was obsequiousness and ingratiation personified. 1, of course, gave him the cold shoulder. Yesterday’s sitting, by the way, was so dramatic, and evolved so splendidly towards its climax that sheer aesthetic emotion momentarily turned Wolff of Paris into a party man. Today I also went to see A. Bartels and explained to him that the German Society was in no way responsible for what had happened on Monday, that Crüger, Bornstedt, Moras, Seiler, Heilberg, etc., etc., were not even members, and that the whole affair, staged without the knowledge of the German Society, was in fact a bid to set up a rival faction. A letter in similar vein, signed by all the committee members, is to be sent to Jottrand tomorrow, when I and Lupus will also be going to see Imbert. I have further written the following letter to Jottrand about the place on the organising I committee of the Brussels fraternal democrats which will become vacant on my departure:

‘Sir, Being obliged to leave Brussels for a few months, I find myself unable to carry out the functions which the meeting of the 27th instant saw fit to entrust to me. — I therefore request you to call on a German democrat resident in Brussels to participate in the work of the committee charged with organising a universal democratic society. I would take the liberty of proposing to you one of the German democrats in Brussels whom the meeting, had he been able to attend it, would have nominated for the office which, in his absence, it honoured me by conferring upon myself. I mean Mr Marx who, I am firmly convinced, has the best claim to represent German democracy on the committee. Hence it would not be Mr Marx who would he replacing me there, but rather I who, at the meeting, replaced Mr Marx. I am, Sir, etc., etc.'

I had in fact already agreed with Jottrand that I would advise him in writing of my departure and propose you for the committee. Jottrand is also away and will be back in a fortnight. If, as I believe, nothing comes of the whole affair, it will be Heilberg’s proposal that falls through; if something does come of it, then it will be we who have brought the thing about. Either way we have succeeded in getting you and, after you, myself, recognised as representatives of the German democrats in Brussels, besides the whole plot having been brought to a dreadfully ignominious end.

This evening there was a meeting of the community[9] at which I took the chair. With the exception of Wallau who, by the way, allowed himself to be converted and whose conduct yesterday was, indeed, excusable on various grounds for which I made allowance — with this one exception, then, the enthusiasm about the Bornstedt affair was unanimous. The fellows are beginning to feel their own importance. They have at last taken their stand as a society, as a power, vis-à-vis other people, and the’ fact that everything went with such a splendid swing and that their victory was so complete has made them enormously proud. Junge’s in the seventh heaven, Riedel is beside himself with joy, even little Ohnemans goes strutting about like a fighting-cock. Anyway, as I said before, this affair has given, and will continue to give, the Society a tremendous impetus, both internal and external Fellows who otherwise never open their traps have attacked Bornstedt. And even the plot has helped us: firstly Bornstedt went about telling everyone that the German democratic Workers’ Society had arranged the meeting and secondly we denied it all and, as a result of both these things, the society has become a general topic of conversation among Belgian democrats and is regarded as a highly significant, plus ou moins mysterious power German democracy is growing very strong in Brussels, Bartels remarked this morning.

By the way, you too are to be included in the committee’s letter to Jottrand. Gigot will sign himself ‘Secretary in Marx’s absence’.

Settle your financial affairs as quickly as possible and come back here again. I'm itching to get away, but must first wait until these plots have run their course. Just now I can’t possibly leave. So the sooner you come the better. But first put your financial affairs in order. At all events I'll remain at my post as long as I possibly can; si c'est possible, until you arrive. But for that very reason it’s desirable that you come soon.


  1. The German Workers’ Society was founded by Marx and Engels in Brussels at the end of August 1847, its aim being the political education of the German workers who lived in Belgium and dissemination of the ideas of scientific communism among them. With Marx, Engels and their followers at its head, the Society became the legal centre rallying the revolutionary proletarian forces in Belgium. Its most active members belonged to the Communist League. The Society played an important part in founding the Brussels Democratic Association. After the February 1848 revolution in France, the Belgian authorities arrested and banished many of its members.
  2. Fraternal Democrats — an international democratic society founded in London on 22 September 1845. It embraced representatives of Left Chartists, German workers and craftsmen — members of the League of the Just — and revolutionary emigrants of other nationalities. During their stay in England in the summer of 1845, Marx and Engels helped in preparing for the meeting at which the society was formed, but did not attend it as they had by then left London. Later they kept in constant touch with the Fraternal Democrats trying to influence the proletarian core of the society, which joined the Communist League in 1847, and through it the Chartist movement. The society ceased its activities in 1859.

    Engels’ letter to Harney mentioned here has not been found.
  3. The international banquet of democrats in Brussels on 27 September 1847, of which Engels speaks here, adopted the decision to found a Democratic Association. Engels was elected to its Organising Committee.

    The Democratic Association united proletarian revolutionaries, mainly German refugees and advanced bourgeois and petty-bourgeois democrats. Marx and Engels took an active part in its establishment. On 15 November 1847 Marx was elected its Vice-President (the President was Lucien Jottrand, a Belgian democrat) and under his influence it became a centre of the international democratic movement. During the February 1848 revolution in France, the proletarian wing of the Brussels Democratic Association sought to arm the Belgian workers and to intensify the struggle for a democratic republic. However, when Marx was expelled from Brussels in March 1848 and the most revolutionary elements were repressed by the Belgian authorities, its activity assumed a narrow, purely local character and in 1849 the Association ceased to exist.
  4. The text of Engels’ speech at the democratic banquet on 27 September 1847 is not extant. The recorded speeches of some speakers were published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, No. 80, 7 October 1847.
  5. The reference is to the newspaper Correspondence Bureau (Deutsche Zeitungs-Correspondenzbureau), set up by S. Seiler and K. Reinhardt in the spring of 1845. It supplied information and correspondence material to the German newspapers.
  6. The reference is to Georg Weerth’s speech at the International Congress of Economists held in Brussels on 16-18 September 1847 to discuss free trade. Marx, Engels and Wilhelm Wolff also attended the congress, intending to make use of it to criticise bourgeois economics (the free trade doctrine, in particular) and to defend working-class interests. When Weerth made a speech along these lines the congress organisers closed the discussion on 18 September without allowing Marx to speak. Excerpts from Weerth’s speech were published in a few German, British and French newspapers. It was published in full in the Belgian Atelier Démocratique on 29 September 1847. A report on the proceedings of the congress is given by Engels in his articles ‘The Economic Congress’ and ‘The Free Trade Congress at Brussels’.
  7. This refers to the agreement reached with Bornstedt in September 1847 concerning Marx’s and Engels’ regular contribution to the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung.
    Previously they had only occasionally contributed to this emigrant newspaper, though they approved of the collaboration in it of W. Wolff, G. Weerth and others of their followers. On the whole up to that time the newspaper’s line had reflected the desire of its editor-in-chief, the petty-bourgeois democrat A. Bornstedt, to combine eclectic ideological trends in opposition. But financial and other difficulties compelled him to agree to the collaboration of the proletarian revolutionaries in the newspaper. From 9 September 1847 Marx and Engels were its regular contributors, directly influenced its line and at the end of 1847 concentrated editorial affairs in their own hands. During this period the newspaper became a mouthpiece of the proletarian party then being formed, virtually the press organ of the Communist League.
  8. The discussion of protective tariffs and free trade which had begun before Marx went on a visit to Holland continued at a meeting of the German Workers’ Society on 29 September 1847. To enliven this discussion Marx and Engels started a ‘sham battle’ which Engels later recalled in a letter to Hermann Schlüter of 29 January 1891: ‘...I remember only that when the debates in the German Workers’ Society in Brussels became dull Marx and 1 agreed to start a sham discussion in which he defended free trade and 1 protective tariffs.
  9. Engels means the meeting of the Brussels community of the Communist League. The community and the Brussels District Committee of the League were formed on the basis of the Communist Correspondence Committee on 5 August 1847. The District Committee included Marx, Engels, Junge and Wolff (see Note on the Formation of the Brussels Community and Circle of the Communist League).