The Brussels Congress. The Situation in Europe

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(FROM A LETTER TO PAUL LAFARGUE)][1]

London, September 2, 1891

THE BRUSSELS CONGRESS

We have every reason to be satisfied with the Brussels Congress.

It was right to vote for the exclusion of the anarchists: that is where the old International broke off, that is where the new one resumes. It is quite simply the confirmation, nineteen years later, of the resolutions of the Hague Congress. [2]

No less important was the way the door was thrown wide open to the English TRADES UNIONS. The step which shows how well the situation has been understood. And the votes which tied the TRADES UNIONS to “the class struggle and the abolition of wage-labour” mean that it was not a concession on our part.

The Domela Nieuwenhuis incident has shown that the European workers have finally left behind the period of the domination of the resounding phrase, and that they are aware of the responsibilities incumbent on them: they are a class constituted as a party of “struggle” , a party which reckons with “facts”. And the facts are taking an increasingly revolutionary turn.

THE SITUATION IN EUROPE

In Russia there is already famine; in Germany there will be famine in a few months; the other countries will suffer less. This is why: the harvest deficit for 1891 is estimated at eleven and a half million hectolitres of wheat and between 87 and 100 million hectolitres of rye. The latter deficit will, therefore, mainly affect the two rye-consuming countries, Russia and Germany.

This guarantees us peace until the spring of 1892. Russia will not make a move before then; so, excepting some inconceivable foolishness on the part of Paris or Berlin, there will be no war.

On the other hand, will tsarism survive this crisis? I doubt it. There are too many rebel elements in the big cities, and particularly in St. Petersburg, for them not to attempt to seize this opportunity to depose that alcoholic Alexander III, or at the very least to place him under the control of a national assembly. Perhaps he himself will be forced to take the initiative in convening one. Russia—that is to say, the government and the young bourgeoisie—has worked enormously hard to create a big national industry (see Plekhanov’s article in the Neue Zeit[3]). This industry will be stopped dead in its tracks because the famine will close down its only market—the domestic market. The Tsar will see the results of making Russia a self-sufficient country independent of abroad: to the crisis in agriculture will be added an industrial crisis.

In Germany the government will decide too late, as usual, to abolish or suspend the duty on corn. That will break the protectionist majority in the Reichstag. The big landowners, the “rurals”,[4] will no longer want to uphold the duties on industrial products, they will want to buy as cheaply as possible. So we shall probably see a repetition of what happened at the time of the vote on the Anti-Socialist Law[5]; a protectionist majority, by itself divided by conflicting interests arising out of the new situation, which finds it impossible to reach agreement on the details of a protectionist system. All the possible proposals being only minority ones; there will be either a reversion to the free trade system, which is just as impossible, or dissolution, with the old parties and the old majority unseated and replaced by a new free-trade majority opposed to the present government. That will mean the real, definitive end of the Bismarck period and of political stagnation in home affairs — I am not speaking here of our party but of parties which might “possibly“ govern. There will be strife between the landed nobility and the bourgeoisie, and between the industrial bourgeoisie , which is protectionist, and the men of commerce and a fraction of the industrial bourgeoisie who are free traders. The stability of the administration and of domestic politics will be shattered, in short there will be movement, struggle, life , and our party will reap all the rewards. And if events take this turn, our party will be able to come to power round about 1898.

There we have it! I do not speak of the other countries because the agricultural crisis does not affect them so severely. But if this crisis in agriculture were to unleash in England the industrial crisis which we have been awaiting for twenty-five years.. . Then we’ll see!

F. Engels

  1. This essay is an extract from Engels’ letter to Lafargue of 2 September 1891 (for the full text of the letter see present edition, Vol. 49). This essay was published in Le Socialiste, in a slightly abridgd form and with editorial changes. Its German translation appeared in the Vorwärts, No. 216, September 16, 1891 in the “Politische Übersicht“ column. In a letter to Bebel of October 1, 1891, Engels voiced his displeasure at the quality of the German translation. The Second International Socialist Workers’ Congress took place in Brussels on August 16-22, 1891. It was preceded by bitter struggle between the Marxists and the opportunists, with the latter attempting to take over preparations for the congress (see Note 109). Thanks to the Marxists‘ and Engels’ personal efforts, the attempt failed. The congress, at which over 350 delegates from European countries and the USA were present, was mostly Marxist. The majority resolved against admitting the anarchists. Also taking part in its work were representatives of the British trade unions. Among the points on the agenda were the labour law, the strike and the boycott, and the attitude to militarism. Of the decisions reached by the congress, Engels commented in his essay on the resolution on labour law (borrowing phrases from the introduction to, and the conclusion of, the resolution), and the resolution on the strike and the boycott. The former urged the workers of the world to pool their efforts in the struggle against the rule of capitalism and to use their political rights (wherever they existed) to emancipate themselves from wage slavery. In the resolution on the strike and the boycott, the congress recommended the workers to employ these means of struggle. It emphasised the absolute necessity of trades associations for the working people. The key issue at the congress was the attitude of the working class to militarism. Wilhelm Liebknecht’s and Edouard Vaillant’s reports on the subject, as well as the resolution submitted by Liebknecht, stated that militarism was an inevitable product of the capitalist system, that only the establishment of a socialist society could put an end to it and secure peace among nations, and that the socialists were the real party of peace. However, the resolution did not say what could be done to remove the threat of war in practical terms. It ended with an appeal to the workers of all countries to launch vigorous protest actions against war preparations and military alliances, and to do their best to bring the triumph of socialism nearer by strengthening the international organisation of the proletariat. Liebknecht’s resolution was opposed by the Dutch delegate Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuys, who inclined towards anarchism. The resolution he submitted, calling on the socialists of all countries to exhort their peoples to stage a general strike in the event of war, was defeated by the congress. The delegates adopted the resolution proposed by Liebknecht. Engels described the outcome of the congress as a tactical and theoretical victory for Marxism. The first part of the essay (“The Brussels Congress”) was first published in English in: K. Marx, F. Engels, V. I. Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, p. 180.
  2. See Note 136.
  3. G . Plechanow , "Di e sozialpolitische Zustände Rußlands im Jahre 1890", Die Neue Zeit, Nos. 47-52, Vol. 2, 1890-91. — Ed.
  4. The "Rurals", the Assembly of the "Rurals", a derisive nickname for the National Assembly that met on February 12, 1871 in Bordeaux (France ) and consisted mostly of reactionary monarchists, such as provincial landowners, civil servants, rentiers and merchants elected from rural constituencies. Engels scornfully applied the name to the German Junkers.
  5. See Note 2.