Letter to Paul Lafargue, December 5, 1892

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To Paul Lafargue at Le Perreux

London, December 5, 1892[edit source]

My dear Lafargue,

Your remarks concerning Bebel compel me to refer back to your letter from Lille.[1] What you say about him is unfair in the extreme. Far from Liebknecht correcting Bebel on any matter whatsoever (an amusing idea to anyone who understands the situation), it’s precisely the contrary that is taking place. It is Liebknecht who is promising wonders, and if the whole thing doesn’t collapse and dissolve, it’s thanks to the work Bebel is doing. If Liebknecht said only agreeable things to you at Marseilles, don’t forget that this is how he behaves with everyone; that he always acts on the impulse of the moment and that consequently he says white here today, but tomorrow somewhere else he will say black, and he will maintain in all good faith that he has not contradicted himself. You complain about the Berlin resolution concerning May 1st,[2] well and good, according to our German press, Liebknecht is reported to have said that at Marseilles he explained the position to you, including the impossibility for the Germans to stop work on May 1st; and that ‘the French’ had fully acknowledged the force of his arguments. If that is true, by what right do you complain of the Berlin resolution? If Liebknecht has erred (for he believes what he says), what have you to say of the man who, according to you, ‘corrects’ Bebel?

I fear that behind all this lies the dissatisfaction of our Oxford hermit.[3] If his impulsive nature makes him unjust to Bebel, who is an ironic and business-like character, the heat he is generating during his compulsory activity in the heart of the only city in the world where the Middle Ages continue in full swing, will drive this aversion to the point of hatred. As it is, I never get a letter from him which does not teem with abuse of Bebel. I grant all that, I give full recognition to the hermit’s good faith and goodwill, but firstly an enthusiast of that kind is a dangerous guide in matters of practical life, particularly when he lives in the isolation of Oxford, consumed by the desire to do something for the movement. And it’s not just something to do that he needs, but positively something important and decisive. You know how he pestered us over the paper.[4] The day before yesterday he sent me a veritable ultimatum in the name of the French Party (he always speaks in its collective name) addressed to the German Party: if the Germans at Zurich propose the postponing of the May celebrations to the first Sunday, the French will withdraw from the demonstration altogether, and there will be, if not war, at least something like the breaking off of diplomatic relations—and goodness knows what else. Anyhow he warns the Germans ‘that they are playing with fire’. However, his French logic allows him to add that if the English insist on demonstrating on the Sunday, the French would see no harm in it!

I answered him fairly ironically that I would communicate his ultimatum to Bebel, but only as his personal opinion.

Naturally I don’t take Bonnier’s explosions for the attitude of the French Party; on the contrary, even if you authorised him I should not do so; I know him to be quite incapable—with the best will in the world—of expressing other people’s ideas and words without putting in his own. He can’t help it; like Liebknecht, he only knows two shades, black and white; he either loves or hates; and as he cannot love Bebel, he needs must hate him. But you would be monstrously wrong to form your view of the German movement according to his. Laura being in the country cannot gainsay all the gossip about the Germans, and it’s a great pity that he is the only one of you all who understands German.

Have you seen his ‘Moment’? There are poems in it (Heine’s Poesiemusik[5], die Instrumental- und Vokalpoesie die keine Musik ist[6]), poems on Germany; that “unfathomable” and extremely chaotic Germany which has never existed outside Victor Hugo’s imagination. The Germany which was supposed to be interested only in music, dreams and clouds, and which left the care of matters here below to the French bourgeois and journalists. This good fellow would but speak of oaks, of forests, of students with scars on the face, of Gretchen and other playthings—and this after having lived in a country which is today the most prosaic and workaday in the world. Do read all that, and if then you believe a single word of what he has to say about Germany, it will be your fault.

Besides, you may remember that recently, as you needed documents with respect to Liebknecht, it was Bebel who immediately set himself to work for you, while Liebknecht—though it concerned him closely—would but confine himself to sending several newspapers to you.

Enough of that. Had it not been to destroy the false judgements about the most perspicacious, the most sensible and the most energetic man in the German party, I would not have written to you at such length. I wanted to write about Panama,[7] but here is the bottom of the 4th page—and so I shall write about that to Laura.

Ever yours,

F. Engels

  1. On 24 November 1892 P. Lafargue wrote to Engels: ‘From the international standpoint Bebel behaves himself but very poorly by permitting Liebknecht, to put himself right. Their alliance is impossible for the German party’.
  2. The International Socialist Working-Men’s Congress held in Brussels in 1891 adopted a resolution which recommended, wherever it was possible, to combine May Day celebrations with work stoppages. All the delegates, including those from Germany, voted for this resolution, even though during the discussion on this issue the British and the German delegations had insisted on this action being held on the first Sunday of May. The Berlin Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party passed a decision to celebrate May Day 1893 on the evening of May 1 and refrain from general work stoppages owing to the bad economic situation in the country.
  3. Charles Bonnier
  4. Le Socialiste. Organe Central du Parti Ouvrier—it was planned to make this French Workers’ weekly a daily publication. Engels was watching closely the course of negotiations of which he had learned from Laura and Paul Lafargue. Yet this plan did not come off.
  5. poetry-music
  6. instrumental and vocal poetry which is not music
  7. The Panama affair—a shady transaction connected with the bribery of French statesmen, government officials and the press by the Panama Canal joint-stock company set up in France in 1880 at the at the initiative of Ferdinand de Lesseps for building a canal across of the isthmus of Panama. In December 1888 the company declared its insolvency which caused the ruin of small-time shareholders and numerous bankruptcies. This scandal compelled the French authorities to start an investigation. On 19 November 1892 the Monarchists tabled three questions on the Panama crash in the Chamber of Deputies which on 21 November elected a Commission of Inquiry of 33 with M. Henri Brisson, a Radical, as chairman. The Commission obtained irrefutable evidence implicating a number of highranking officials, e.g., the former French premier CL. de Freycinet and others who had been bribed by the Lesseps company which wanted to conceal its true financial situation and embezzlements. French justice hushed up the affair by going no further than condemning F. Lesseps and a number of his cat’s-paws. ‘Panama’ became a byword for major dealings in which government officials were implicated.