A Retrospect. Lessons drawn from the Socialist Movement from 1848 to 1895. by Frederick Engels

  [The reprint given below of the last of the published writings of Frederick Engels is of especial value to-day in its application to the conditions prevailing in Europe. If events have so strongly falsified his views as to the strength and soundness of the rank and file of the German Social-Democratic Party, it should be remembered that when that organisation was formed by the fusion of the two previously existing parties — the Lassalleans and the Marxists—both Marx and Engels opposed the fusion, and only accepted the situation some time after, when the steady growth of the party seemed to justify its formation. The war has shown completely that the original views of Marx and Engels were right, while those of Bebel, Leibnecht, and the others were wrong, though many Marxian students proclaimed the unsoundness of the German party long before the war. In other words, the principles which Marx and Engels did so much to establish have proved to be correct even in the case where Engels was persuaded that a modification was required. A firm grip of those principles is the only safe guide for the workers to-day.—ed. com.]


As the February revolution of 1848 broke out we were all, as regards our views of the conditions and course of revolutionary movements, under the influence of previous historical experience, especially that of France. It was just this latter which had controlled all European history since 1689, and from which once more the signal for a general upheaval had gone out. Hence it was natural and inevitable that our ideas of the nature and course of the “social” revolution proclaimed at Paris in February, 1848, the revolution of the proletariat, were strongly coloured by recollections of the prototypes of 1789 to 1830. And particularly as the Paris revolt found its echo in the victorious uprisings at Vienna, Milan, Berlin; as all Europe up to the Russian border was swept into the movement; as then in June at Paris the first great battle for supremacy was fought between proletariat and bourgeoisie ; as even the victory of their own class so convulsed the bourgeoisie of all countries that they flew back again into the arms of the monarchic-feudal reactionists whom they had just overthrown : under all these circumstances there could be no doubt in our minds that the great decisive conflict had begun, and that it would have to be fought out in a single long revolutionary period with varying success, but that it could only end in the final victory of the proletariat.


After the defeats of 1849 we did not by any means share in the illusions of the pseudo-democracy which was grouped around the outskirts of the provisional governments. This was counting on an early, once for all, decisive victory of the “people” over the “oppressors”; we were counting on a long struggle after the removal of the oppressors, a struggle between the antagonistic elements hidden in this very “people” itself. The pseudo-democracy was expecting from day to day a renewed outbreak; we declared as early as in autumn 1850 that at least the first chapter of the revolutionary period was closed, and that nothing more was to be expected until the outbreak of a new economic world crisis. And for this very reason, too, we were excommunicated as traitors to the revolution by the very same people who afterwards almost without exception made their peace with Bismarck—so far as Bismarck found them worth having.


But history has shown that we, too, were wrong, and has exposed our opinion at that time as an illusion ; it has done more: it has not only demolished our error, it has totally recast the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The 1848 method of warfare is to-day antiquated in every particular, and that is a point which at this opportunity deserves to be closely examined.


All previous revolutions resulted in the displacement of one class government by another. All previous ruling classes were, however, only small minorities compared with the subject mass of the common people. A ruling minority was overthrown, in its stead another minority seized the helm of state, and remodelled the political institutions according to its own interests. In every case this new minority group was one which the progress of economic development had trained for and called to rulership, and for that very reason and only for that reason it happened that at the time of the revolution the subject majority either took sides with it or at any rate acquiesced in it. But ignoring the concrete details of each particular case, the common form of all these revolutions was this, that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority assisted it was, consciously or unconsciously, only working in the interest of a minority. This fact, or even the passive non-resistance of the majority, gave to the minority the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.


After the first great victory the successful minority as a rule became divided ; half was satisfied with what was already won, the other half wished to go farther yet and made new demands, which at least in part were in the real or apparent interest of the great mass of the people. These more radical demands were in particular instances carried through, but for the most part only temporarily : the more moderate party again got the upper hand, the latest gains were wholly or partly lost again. The radicals then raised the cry of “treason,” or attributed their defeat to accident. In fact, however, matters stood about so :—the results of the first victory were made secure only by another victory over the more radical party. This done, and thereby the immediate demands of the moderates being attained, the radicals and their following disappeared again from the stage.


All the revolutions of modern times, beginning with the great English revolution of the seventeenth century, showed these features, which seemed inseparable from every revolutionary struggle. They appeared to be also applicable to the struggles of the proletariat for its emancipation ; all the more applicable as in 1842 the few people could be counted who understood even in a general way the direction in which this emancipation was to be sought. The proletarian masses themselves even in Paris after the victory were still absolutely in the dark as to the course to pursue. And yet the movement was there, instinctive, spontaneous, irrepressible. Was not that exactly the condition in which a revolution was bound to succeed, though led, it is true, by a minority, but this time not in the interest of a minority, but in the truest interest of the majority? If in all the more prolonged revolutionary periods the great masses of the people had been so easily won over by the merely plausible inducements of ambitious minorities, how could they be less accessible to ideas which were the purest reflex of their economic situation, which were nothing else but the clear, intelligent expression of their own wants, wants as yet not understood by themselves and only indistinctly felt ? It is true this revolutionary temper of the masses had nearly always, and generally very soon, given way to lassitude or even to a reaction into the opposite attitude, as soon as the illusion had vanished and undeception had taken place.


Here, however, it was not a question of promoting the most vital interests of the great majority itself—interests which, it is true, at that time were by no means clearly seen by that great majority, but which in the course of practical enforcement were bound soon enough to become clear to it by the convincing force of experience. And now when in the spring of 1850 the development of the bourgeois republic which arose out of the “social” revolution of 1848 had concentrated all actual power in the hands of the great bourgeoisie, and this having monarchical inclinations, too; and when on the other hand this same development had grouped all other classes of society, both peasants and small-bourgeoisie, around the proletariat in such a way that in and after the joint victory the controlling factor would be, not those others, but the proletariat itself, grown sharp-witted through experience—was there not every prospect at hand for turning a minority revolution into a majority revolution ?


History has shown that we, and all who thought like us, were wrong. It has made plain that the condition of economic development on the Continent at that time was not yet ripe enough by far for the abolition of capitalist production ; it has proved this by the economic revolution which since 1848 has transformed the whole Continent and has for the first time effectively naturalised large-scale industry in France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, while out of Germany it has actually made an industrial State of the first rank—all on a capitalist, basis, which system therefore in 1848 was still capable of great expansion. Moreover, it is just this industrial revolution which first brought about clearness everywhere in class relations ; which shoved aside a lot of middle men who had come down from the early manufacturing period and in Eastern Europe even from the guild system ; which created a genuine bourgeoisie and a genuine factory proletariat and pushed them to the front place in the social development. Thereby, however, the struggle of these two great classes, a struggle which in 1848 existed outside of England only in Paris, and at most in some few great industrial centres, has spread for the first time over all Europe and reached an intensity which in 1848 was inconceivable. Then there were many confused sectarian gospels with their different panaceas ; to-day the single, transparently clear and universally recognised theory of Marx, which sharply formulates the ultimate aims of the struggle ; then, massed, separated, and differentiated by locality and nationality, bound together only by a feeling of common suffering, undeveloped, tossed helplessly back and forth between enthusiasm and despair; to-day one great international army of Socialists, unceasingly advancing, daily growing in numbers, organisation, discipline, intelligence and certainty of victory. If even this mighty army of the proletariat has not yet attained its object, if far from wresting victory at one grand stroke, it has to press slowly forward from one position to another in a hard, tenacious struggle, this proves once for all how impossible it was in 1848 to effect the transformation of society by a mere sudden onslaught.


A bourgeoisie, split into two dynastic monarchical factions, but which demanded before everything else peace and security for its financial transactions ; confronting it a proletariat, conquered but still threatening, and around which the small tradesmen and peasants were grouping themselves more and more ; the constant threatening of a violent outbreak, which after all offered no prospect of a final solution— that was the situation, fitted as if made to order, for the forcible usurpation of the pseudo-democratic pretender, Louis Bonaparte, yclept the Third. On December 2, 1851, with the aid of the army, he put an end to the strained situation, and secured internal peace for Europe in order to beautify it with new wars. The period of revolutions from the bottom up was for the time being closed ; there followed a period of revolution from the top down.


The setback of 1851 towards Imperialism gave new proof of the unripeness of the proletarian aspirations of that time. But it was itself destined to create the conditions under which they must ripen. Internal peace secured the full development of the new industrial life; the necessity of keeping the army busy and of turning the revolutionary activities away from home engendered wars in which Bonaparte, under the pretense of giving effect to the “nationality principle,” sought to rake up annexations to France. His imitator, Bismarck, adopted the same policy for Prussia ; he played his political grab-game, his revolution from the top, in 1866 against the German confederation and Austria, and not less against the recalcitrant Chamber of Deputies in Prussia. But Europe was too small for two Bonapartes, and so the irony of history would have it that Bismarck should overthrow Bonaparte and that King William should restore not only the small German empire, but also the French Republic. The general result, however, was this, that in Europe the autonomy and inner unity of the large nations, with the exception of Poland, had become a reality ; true, it was only within relatively modest limits, but yet far enough so that the developing process of the working class was no longer materially hindered by national complications. The gravediggers of the revolution of 1848 had become executors of its will; and beside them arose the proletariat, the heir of 1848, already threatening, in the new International.


After the war of 1870-1871, Bonaparte disappears from the stage and Bismarck’s mission is completed, so that he can now subside again to the level of an ordinary country squire. But the closing act of this period is formed by the Paris Commune. A treacherous attempt by Thiers to steal the cannons of the Paris National Guard called forth a successful revolt. It was again demonstrated that in Paris no other revolution is possible any more, except a proletarian one. After the victory the leadership fell uncontested into the lap of the working class, just as a matter of course. And again it was shown how impossible it was even then, twenty years after the former effort, for the leadership of the working class to be successful. On one hand France left Paris in the lurch and stood by looking on while it was bleeding under the bullets of McMahon; on the other hand the Commune wasted its strength in a barren quarrel of the two disagreeing factions, the Blanquists, who formed the majority, and the Proudhonists, who formed the minority, neither of which knew what to do. The victory of 1871, which came as a gift, proved just as barren as the forcible overthrow of 1848.


With the fall of the Paris Commune it was thought that the militant proletariat was ever lastingly buried past resurrection. But quite to the contrary, its most vigorous growth dates from the Commune and the Franco-Prussian war. The complete transformation of the whole military system by bringing the entire able-bodied population into the armies, now running into millions, and by the introduction of firearms, cannon and explosives of hitherto unheard-of power, put a sudden end to the Napoleonic war era, and assured a peaceful industrial development by making impossible any war other than a world-war of unprecedented gruesomeness and of absolutely incalculable consequences. On the other hand, the increase of the army budget in a geometrical progression forced the taxes up to an uncollectable point, and thereby drove the poorer classes into the hands of Socialism. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, which was the immediate cause of the mad competition in preparations for war, might goad the French and German bourgeoisie into chauvinism towards each other, but for the workingmen of both countries it was only a new bond of unity. And the anniversary of the Paris Commune became the first general holiday of the entire proletariat.


The war of 1870-1871 and the overthrow of the Commune had, as Marx foretold, shifted the centre of gravity of the European labour movement from France to Germany. In France it took, of course, years to recover from the blood letting of May, 1871. In Germany, on the contrary, where industry was developing faster and faster, forced on in hothouse fashion by the providential milliards from France, the social democracy was growing faster and yet more enduring. Thanks to the intelligence with which the German workingmen made use of the universal suffrage, introduced in 1866, the astounding growth of the party is revealed to all in incontestable figures. In 1871, 102,000 social democratic votes; in 1874, 352,000 ; in 1877, 493,000, Then came the high official recognition of the gains in the shape of the anti-Socialist law. The party was for a moment demoralised ; the number of votes in 1881 fell to 312,000. But the relapse was soon overcome, and then under the pressure of the anti-Socialist law, and without a Press, without a recognised organisation, without the right of association or of assembly, the growth began to increase more rapidly than ever. In 1884, 550,000 ; in 1887, 763,000; in 1890, 1,427,000. Then the hand of the State was palsied. Then anti-Socialist law disappeared ; the number of Socialist votes rose to 1,787,000, over a quarter of the total votes cast. The Government and the ruling classes had exhausted all their expedients; they were useless, aimless, resultless. The tangible proofs of their impotence which the authorities, from the night watchman to the imperial chancellor, got shoved under their noses, and that, too, from the despised working-men, were numbered by millions. The State had got to the end of its Latin, the workingmen were only at the beginning of theirs.


Moreover, in addition to this, the German workingmen had done their cause a second great service, besides the first one, consisting merely in their existence as the strongest, best disciplined, and most rapidly growing Socialist party; they had shown their comrades of all countries a new weapon, and one of the keenest, in showing them how to use the ballot.


Universal suffrage had long existed in France, but had come into disrepute through the misuse which the Napoleonic government had made of it. After the Commune there was no labour party in existence to make use of it. In Spain, too, it had existed since the republic, but in Spain it was always the custom of all the real opposition parties to refrain from voting. And in Switzerland, too, the experiences with universal suffrage were anything but encouraging for a labour party. The revolutionary working-men of the Romance countries had become accustomed to look upon the ballot as a snare, as an instrument of oppression manipulated by the government.


In Germany it was different. The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat, and Lassalle had taken up the point again. And when Bismarck saw that he was forced to introduce this franchise as the only means of getting the masses interested in his plans, our workingmen at once took the matter seriously and sent August Bebel into the constitutional convention. And from that day on they have used the ballot in a manner that has repaid them a thousand fold and has served as an example to the workingmen of all countries. They have transformed the ballot, in the words of the French Marxians, “de moyen de duperie, qu’il a ete jusqu’ici, en instrument d’emancipation” ; from a means of jugglery, which it has been heretofore, into an instrument of emancipation. And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than to allow us to count ourselves every three years, and by a regularly certified and unexpectedly rapid increase of votes to raise in equal degree the confidence of the workers and the terror of their opponents, and thus to become our best means of propaganda ; and to inform us exactly as to our own strength and as to that of all opposing parties, and thereby give us a standard for apportioning our activity such as could not be equalled ; and to save us both from untimely hesitation and untimely rashness: if that were the only benefit derived from the franchise, even then it would be enough and more than enough. But it has done far more. It gave us in election campaigns an unequalled opportunity to come in contact with the masses where they still stood aloof from us, and to force all parties to defend their views and actions before all the people against our attacks ; and it also opened to our representatives in Parliament, a forum from which they could talk to their opponents in Parliament as well as to the masses outside, with an entirely different tone of authority and freedom from what they could use in the press and in meetings. What good did the anti-Socialist law do the government and the bourgeoisie so long as the election campaigns and the Socialist speeches in Parliament were continually nullifying it ?


Note from ALB on the English translation of this text:


First published in English in an abridged form under the heading “Revolutionary Tactics” in The Plebs, London, 1921, Vol. 13, No. 1, January, pp. 12-15; No. 2, February, pp. 48-50; No. 3, March, pp. 71-74; No. 4, April, pp. 112-14. Published in full in English for the first time in: The Revolutionary Act, New York city, New York Labor News Company, 1922.



Apparently from MECW.


This link refers to an earlier translation:


“Excerpts from The Class Struggles in France were first published in English in the journal The Marxian, New York, 1921, Vol. 1, No. 2, and it appeared in full as a separate edition by Labour News Company, New York, 1924.”


Either there was an earlier American translation (the one in the Standard is American, see spellings of defense and pretense ) or the date of the one from the Marxian is wrong. Later quotes from Engels’ introduction are from the Plebs one.


I have the 1922 SLP edition and the one in the Standard is not the same as that. In fact I’ve sent it to the MIA and it is now up here.


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