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



Link to Part 1


Moreover, with this successful use of the ballot, a wholly new method of proletarian warfare had gone into effect, which was rapidly extended. It was found that the political institutions, by means of which the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is organised, afford further handholds by which the working class can attack these very institutions. The party took part in the elections for State Legislatures, Aldermen and industrial courts, and contested against the bourgeoisie for every office in the filling of which a sufficient number of the proletariat had anything to say. And thus it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to a pass where they feared the lawful activity of the Labour Party far more than its unlawful activity ; they dreaded the result of an election more than those of a a rebellion. For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had materially changed. The old style rebellion, the street fight with barricades, which down to 1848 gave the final decision everywhere, had become decidedly antiquated.


Let us harbour no illusions on this point; a victory as between two armies, is a thing of the rarest occurrence. Moreover, the insurgents had seldom aimed at this. Their only object was to soften the troops by moral influences, such as in a conflict between two warring countries would be of no effect at all, or at any rate, in a far smaller degree. If this plan succeeds the soldiers refuse to obey orders or the officers lose their presence of mind and the revolt is successful. If this plan does not succeed, nevertheless, even in case the military is fewer in numbers, the result shows the superiority of their better equipment and training, of the unified leadership, of the well-planned arrangement of forces and their discipline. The most that an insurrection can attain in real tactical action is the scientific construction and defence of a single barricade. Mutual support, the disposition and utilisation of reserves, in short the assistance and co-operation of the separate divisions, which is indispensable for the defense even of a single district, to say nothing of the whole of a large city, is very imperfect, and for the most part wholly unattainable ; concentration of forces upon a vital point is out of the question. A passive defense is the characteristic form of the struggle. The attack will extend here and there to occasional sallies or flank movements, but only as exceptions, for as a rule it will be confined to occupying the positions abandoned by the retiring troops. Then, further, the military is supplied with artillery and with completely equipped and trained battalions of pioneers, which the insurgents in almost all cases wholly lack. No wonder, therefore, that even, those barricade fights which were conducted with the most heroic bravery, as at Paris in June, 1848, at Vienna in October, 1848, and at Dresden in May, 1849, ended with the suppression of the revolt as soon, as the officers of the army, unhampered by political considerations, fought according to purely military principles and the soldiers remained trustworthy.


The numerous successes of insurgents down to 1848 are due to manifold causes. At Paris in July, 1830, and in February, 1848, as also in most of the Spanish street fights, there stood between the insurgents and the military a citizens’ guard, which either sided directly with the revolt or by its lukewarm and hesitating attitude caused the regular troops also to waver, and in addition to that, furnished the insurgents with arms. Wherever this civil guard at the start took a stand against the revolt, as in June 1848, at Paris, the insurgents were defeated. At Berlin, in 1848, the people won partly through an important addition of fresh forces during the night and on the morning of the 19th of March, partly on account of the fatigue and lack of care suffered by the troops, and partly on account of the hesitation of the authorities. But in all cases where a victory is won it was because the troops mutinied, or because the officers were lacking in determination, or because their hands were tied.


Therefore, even in the classical period of street fighting, the barricade was more of a moral than a material force. It was a means for breaking the loyalty of the army. If it accomplished this, the victory was won; if not the cause was lost.


Even in 1849 the chances were already poor enough. The bourgeoisie had gone over to the side of the governments; “culture and property” greeted and treated the troops marching out against the insurgents. The barricade had lost its charm. The soldiers no longer saw behind it the people, but only rebels, rioters, plunderers, “dividers-up,” the outcasts of society ; the officers had in time become skilled in the tactical forms of street fighting. They no longer marched out straight ahead and unprotected against the improvised breastworks, but went around them through gardens, courts and houses. And this course, with a little skill, would be successful in nine cases out of ten.


And since then many things have changed, and all to the advantage of the military. Though the large cities have become larger, so also have the armies. Paris and Berlin have not quadrupled since 1848, but their garrisons have been increased more than that. By means of the railroads these garrisons can be doubled in twenty-four hours, and in forty-eight hours can be expanded into gigantic armies. The weapons of these enormous hosts are incomparably more effective than formerly. In 1848 they had only the smooth bore, percussion-cap, muzzle-loader ; to-day the small calibre magazine breech-loader, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurate, and ten times as fast as the other. At that time they had only the comparatively ineffective solid balls and cartridges of the artillery ; to-day the percussion shells, a single one of which is sufficient to demolish the strongest barricade. At that time the pick of the pioneer for breaking through walls ; to-day the dynamite bomb.


On the other hand, for the insurgents all the conditions have become worse. A revolt with which all layers of the population sympathise can hardly come again. In the class struggle all the middle layers of society will probably never rally around the proletariat so exclusively that the reactionary party which rallies to the bourgeoisie will almost disappear. The ‘people” therefore will always appear to be divided, and thereby a powerful lever is wanting which was so exceedingly effective in 1848. Even if more trained soldiers are found on the side of the insurgents, it will be so much the more difficult to arm them. The hunters’ and sportsmen’s guns from the retail stores, even if the police should not have rendered them unserviceable by removing part of the lock as a precautionary measure, cannot by any means compete with the magazine gun of the soldiers even at close range. Up to 1848 a man could manufacture the necessary ammunition himself out of powder and lead ; but to-day the cartridge is different for every gun, and in only one particular is it alike everywhere, viz., in that it is a technical product of large scale industry, and therefore cannot be extempore, and therefore the most of guns are useless so long as one has not the ammunition specially fitted for them. Finally the new districts of the great cities have been laid out with long, straight, broad streets, as if made with special reference to operations with modern cannons small arms. The revolutionist would be insane who would deliberately select the new workingmen’s districts in the north and east of Berlin for a barricade fight.


Does the reader now understand why the ruling classes are so anxious by all means to get us where the rifle cracks and the sabre slashes? And why they to-day accuse us of cowardice because we do not straightway betake ourselves to the street, where we are beforehand certain of a defeat? And why they so passionately beseech us to play cannon fodder just for once?


These gentlemen are wasting both their prayers and their dares for nothing and less than nothing. We are not so green as all that. They might just as well ask their enemy in the next war to follow the line of formation used by Frederick the Great, or the formation in columns of entire divisions à la Wagram and Waterloo, and that, too, with the old flintlock gun in the hand. As conditions have changed for warfare, so not less for the class struggle. The period for sudden onslaughts, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where the question involves the complete transformation of the social organisation, there the masses themselves must be consulted, must themselves have already grasped what the struggle is about and what they stand for. This is what the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is needed, and it is just this work that we are now doing, and that, too, with a success which drives our opponents to despair.


In the Latin countries also people see more and more that the old tactics have to be revised. They have everywhere followed the German example of using the ballot and of winning every position which is accessible to them. In France where the ground has been broken up for 100 years by revolution upon revolution, where there is not a single party which has not furnished its share of conspiracies, insurrections and all other revolutionary doings; in France where, as the result of this condition, the Government is by no means certain of the army, and where the circumstances generally are far more favourable for an insurrectional venture than in Germany,—even in France the Socialists are coming to understand better and better that no enduring victory is possible for them unless they first win the great mass of the people;—that means there the peasants.


Slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity are recognised there, too, as the next task of the party. The results are not lacking. Not only has a whole string of municipal councils have been captured; even in the Chamber of Deputies there are fifty Socialists, and these have already overthrown three Cabinets and one President of the Republic. In Belgium last year the workingmen forced the granting of the electoral franchise and won in a fourth of the voting districts. In Switzerland, in Italy, in Denmark, yes, even in Bulgaria and Roumania, the Socialists are represented in Parliament. In Austria all parties are agreed that our entry into the imperial council can no longer be prevented. We are bound to get in, that is certain; the only question now is, by what door ? And even in Russia, whenever the celebrated Zemskij Sobor shall be assembled, that national convention which young Nicholas is trying in vain to prevent, we can count on it with certainty that we shall be represented there too.


It goes without saying that our foreign comrades do not relinquish their right of revolution. The right of revolution is after all the only actually “historical right,” the only right upon which all modern States without exception rest, including even Mecklenburg, whose revolution of the nobility was ended in 1755 by the inheritance agreement,—that glorious charter of feudalism which is still in force to-day. The right of revolution is so irrefutably recognised in the public consciousness that General von Boguslawski out of this popular right alone derives the right of forcible usurpation which he justifies on behalf of the Emperor.


But whatever may happen in other countries, the German social democracy occupies a particular position, and hence has at least for the present a particular task. The two million voters which it sends to the ballot box, together with the young men and women who, as non-voters, stand behind them, constitute the largest and compactest mass, the decisive corps of the international proletarian army. This mass furnishes already over a quarter of the votes cast; and it grows unceasingly, as shown by the elections for the Reichstag, for the separate state legislatures ; for the municipal councils, and for the industrial courts. Its growth goes on as spontaneously, steadily, and uninterruptedly, and at the same time as quietly as a process of nature. All the efforts of the government against it have shown themselves to be futile. We can to-day count on two and a quarter million voters. If that keeps up, we shall by the end of the century win the greater part of the middle strata of society, both small tradesmen and peasants, arid shall become the determining power in the land before which all other powers must bow down, whether they want to or not. To keep this growth going uninterruptedly until of itself it overtops the prevailing system of government is our chief task. And there is only one means by which this steady increase of the militant Socialist forces in Germany could be momentarily checked and even set back for a time, viz, a conflict with the army on a large scale, a blood-letting like that of 1871 at Paris. In the long run even this would be overcome. Take a party which, runs up into millions and all the magazine guns in Europe and America together would not be sufficient to shoot it out of existence. But the normal development would be checked, and the end of the conflict would be delayed, prolonged, and accompanied with heavier sacrifices.


The irony of history turns everything upside down. We, the “revolutionists,” the “revolters,” prosper far better by lawful measures than by unlawful measures and violence. The law and order parties, as they call themselves, go to ruin under the legal conditions which they themselves have established. They cry out in despair with Odilon Barrot; la legalité nous tue, ”lawfulness is killing us”; while we, under this lawfulness, are getting firm muscles and rosy cheeks and are the picture of eternal life. And if we do not so completely lose our wits as to let ourselves be drawn into a street fight just to please them, then there remains nothing else for them to do finally except to break down this lawfulness themselves, which has proved so disadvantageous to them.


For the present they are making new laws against revolts. Again everything is turning upside down. These anti-revolt fanatics of to day, are they not themselves the revolters of yesterday ? For example, did we conjure up this civil war of 1866 ? Did we drive the King of Hanover, the electoral Prince of Hessen, the Duke of Nassau from their legitimate and hereditary lands, and then annex these countries ? And now these smashers of the German confederation and of three grace-of-God crowns complain about revolt! Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes ? Who could permit Bismarck’s worshippers to complain about revolting ?


Meanwhile let them pass their anti-revolt laws, and make them still more stringent; let them turn the whole criminal code into caoutchouc ; they will accomplish nothing except to furnish new proof of their impotence. In order to get at the social democracy effectively they will have to take entirely different measures. The social democratic revolt, which just now finds its greatest advantage in observing the laws, can only be checked by a counter revolt of the law and order party which cannot exist without breaking the laws. Herr Roessler, the Prussian bureaucrat, and Herr von Boguslawski, the Prussian general, have pointed out to them the only way by which perhaps they can get even with the workingmen who will not let themselves be enticed into a street fight, breach of the constitution, dictatorship, a return to absolutism, regis voluntas suprema lex ! Courage, therefore, gentlemen, no lip-puckering will answer here; you have got to whistle !


But do not forget that the German empire, as well as all the small states composing it, and in general all modern states, are the product of a treaty; a treaty first of the princes among themselves, second of the princes with the people. If one side breaks the treaty, the whole treaty falls, and the other side is then no longer bound either.


It is now 1,600 years ago, almost to a year, that likewise a dangerous revolutionary party was carrying on its work in the Roman Empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations, of the state. It denied absolutely that the will of the people was the supreme law; it was fatherlandless, international; it spread out over all parts of the Empire, from Gaul to Asia, and even beyond the limits of the empire. It had for a long time worked underground and in secret, but for some time past it considered it self strong enough to come out into the light. This revolutionary party, which was known by the name of Christians, also had a large representation in the army. Whole legions were Christian. When they were ordered to attend the sacrifice ceremonies of the established heathen religion to perform the honours of the occasion, the revolutionary soldiers carried their impudence so far that by way of protest they struck into their helmets peculiar emblems—crosses. Even the customary floggings by the officers, with the cat-o’-nine tails of the bar racks, were fruitless. The Emperor Diocletian was no longer able to look on while order, obedience and discipline in his army were being subverted. He took hold energetically while there was yet time. He issued an anti Socialist —or rather an anti-Christian law. Assemblies of the revolters were forbidden, their meeting halls closed or even torn down, the Christian emblems, crosses, etc., were forbidden the same as red handkerchiefs in Saxony. Christians were declared incapable of holding state offices, and could not even become lance corporals in the army. As they did not yet have at that time judges so carefully trained to observe a “respect for the person” as contemplated by Herr von Koellers’ anti-revolt bill, the Christians were forbidden outright to resort to the courts at all. This exception law also proved ineffective. The Christians tore it down from the walls with contempt, aye, it is said that while the Emperor was in Nicomedia they set fire to the palace over his head. He revenged himself by the great persecution of Christians which took place in the year 303 of our era. It was the last of its kind : and it was so effective that seventeen years later the majority of the army consisted of Christians and the next succeeding monarch of the whole Roman Empire, Constantine, called by the priests the Great, proclaimed Christianity as the state religion.


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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