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Book Review: 'The Correspondence of Marx and Engels'

'The Correspondence of Marx and Engels'. pp. 534. (Martin Lawrence, Ltd., 12s. 6d.)

The above letters, dating from 1846 to 1895, and numbering over two hundred, cover a wide range of subjects, topical as well as theoretical.

Industrial developments in various countries, and political movements arising therefrom, coupled with conflicting economic theories and philosophical methods are all brought under review. It is, of course, out of the question that such a collection should make smooth, connected reading or that all parts should be of equal value. Some of the letters are of outstanding merit and well worthy of preservation. An almost equal number are of only historical interest as illustrating the development of their immature ideas and the points on which they erred even later in life.

Among the most interesting of the former class may be mentioned the letter of April 18th, 1883, written by Engels to Van Patten. Engels here declares that it had always been the view of Marx and himself that “the working class must first take possession of the organised political power of the State and by its aid crush the resistance of the capitalist class and organise society-anew.”

In opposition to the anarchists, who proclaimed the abolition of the State as the first and last word of the revolution, Marx and Engels always insisted on the necessity, to the workers, of political power. This would be the means whereby the revolution (i.e., the substitution of common ownership for ownership by the capitalist class) would be carried out. The disappearance of the State would result from this. It was thus regarded as an effect of the revolution, not its primary condition. (Lengthy extracts from this letter were reproduced in the Socialist Standard in January, 1935.)

Other interesting letters are the six written by Marx or Engels to Danielson on the development of capitalism in Russia. They argued that a Socialist revolution in Western Europe was the only means by which Russia could escape the normal development of capitalism.

Of particular value is their joint letter to the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, written in September, 1879, dealing with the internal condition and unsound policies of that organisation. The following extract might have been written this year about the British Labour Party, which is deeply engrossed in the problem of winning over the so-called ”middle-class” by pandering to their prejudices and ignorance: —

       "In the opinion of these gentlemen, then, the Social- Democratic Party should not be a one-sided workers’ party, but an all-sided party of “everyone imbued with a true love of humanity.” It must prove this, above all, by laying aside its crude proletarian passions and placing itself under the guidance of educated, philanthropic bourgeois in order to “cultivate good taste” and ‘‘learn good form . . . .” Then, too, “numerous adherents from the circles of the educated and propertied classes will make their appearance. . . .  ”

       German Socialism has “attached too much importance to the winning of the masses and in so doing has neglected energetic (!) propaganda among the so-called upper strata of society,” and then “the Party still lacks men fitted to represent it in the Reichstag.” It is, however, “desirable and necessary to entrust the mandate to men who have the time and opportunity to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the relevant materials. The simple worker and small self-employed man . . . has the necessary leisure for this only in rare and exceptional cases.” So elect bourgeois!

       In short: the working-class of itself is incapable of its own emancipation."

Patching up Capitalism

Then Marx and Engels went on to ridicule the notion, familiar to-day in Labour Party—I.L.P.— Communist circles, that it is necessary to concentrate on immediate demands and leave Socialism to the future.

          “Let no one misunderstand us”; we do not want “to give up our Party and our programme, but think that for years hence we shall have enough to do if we concentrate our whole strength and energy upon the attainment of certain immediate aims. . . . ”

This is what Marx and Engels had to say about that: —

         "The programme is not to be given up, but only postponed—to an indefinite period. One accepts it, though not really for one’s own lifetime, but posthumously as an heirloom to be handed down to one’s children and grandchildren. In the meantime, one devotes one’s “whole strength and energy” to all sorts of petty rubbish and the patching up of the capitalist order of society, in order at least to produce the appearance of something happening without at the same time scaring the bourgeoisie. There I must really praise the Communist, Mique, who proved his unshakable belief in the inevitable overthrow of capitalist society in the course of the next few hundred years by heartily carrying on swindles, contributing his honest best to the crash of 1873, and so really doing something to assist the collapse of the existing order."

The letter contains much more of the same kind, Marx and Engels urging that if non-workers join the Socialist Movement “the first condition is that they should not bring any remnants of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices with them, but should whole-heartedly adopt the proletarian point of view.”

Considering the time and circumstances under which it was written, the letter to the leaders of the German S.D.P. is a fairly vigorous statement of the case against “reformism” as a basis for a political party.

Bernstein, however, its foremost representative, became editor of The Social Democrat within a year or so of this letter. Marx and Engels appear to have swallowed their threats to sever connection with the Party. Marx died two or three years after; but during the following decade Engels developed a most ill-founded optimism concerning the Party they had jointly criticised.

Marx and Engels on War

It is when we come to their letters on the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1, and Engels' letters to Bebel in September and October, 1891, on the coming European conflict (page 488 et seq.) that we find lacking in moments of practical crisis some of the brilliance which marks most of the theoretical passages.

During the Franco-Prussian War they appear to have been hypnotised by the supposed necessity for national defence.

Socialists, who remember to what uses the doctrine “national defence” was put in 1914-18, will find the arguments of Marx and Engels, in this connection, extremely unconvincing, and it is interesting to notice that Lenin, of all people, appears to have swallowed them (see footnote, pp. 297-8). Just as “liberty,” in the mouth of the capitalist, means his freedom to exploit the workers, so does “national defence" mean the protection of his share in the international swag.

As the war progressed Engels appears to have developed doubts as to its "defensive" character, but twenty years afterwards (September, 1891) he still cherished similar ideas. Anticipating the wider outbreak of hostilities, he wrote to Bebel (p. 490), “If we (Germany) are victorious our Party will come into power. The victory of Germany is therefore the victory of the revolution, and if it comes to war we must not only desire victory, but further it by every means. . . .” (The end of the sentence is omitted in the volume.) If, then, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, like the Labour Party in this country, betrayed the interests of the working class in 1914, they did but follow the path indicated by Frederick Engels.

They could, however, have recalled the words of 1847 to the effect that "the workers have no country," "they have nothing of their own to fortify and secure," "they have only their chains to lose" and “The executive of the modern state is but a committee of the capitalist class" (Communist Manifesto).

These words have encircled the globe in numerous languages, while the lapses of Marx and Engels into ideas of national defence have sunk into obscurity. It may restrain some workers from a tendency to hero worship and to suspension of their critical judgment, to be reminded that Marx and Engels could go badly astray on certain questions.

In general, it is, of course, also necessary to remember that this is a volume of letters written for private reading, not for publication. They were for that reason often in the nature of “thinking aloud," a groping towards conclusions rather than a statement of definite conclusions.

The volume is well indexed, and the text is illuminated by numerous biographical and historical footnotes. The student will, however, need to be flushed with more than ardour, in view of the price.

Eric Boden