‘Letter from Marx and Engels to August Bebel’ (1879) from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 11 No. 39. July 23, 1931.

Writing for himself and Marx, Engels penned this circular letter to the leaders of German Social Democracy threatening to break relations, “announcing bluntly and ruthlessly our view” over the embrace of the reformist and opportunist circle led by by Karl Höchberg.

‘Letter from Marx and Engels to August Bebel’ (1879) from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 11 No. 39. July 23, 1931.

(Note by the Editor of the “lnprecorr”. The following document is an extract from a letter of Marx and Engels which appeared in “Prawda” of 19th June, prefaced by the following statement by the Marx-Engels-Institute: “The extract published below is taken from a long letter from Marx and Engels to Bebel written in the second half of September or first half of October 1879. The occasion for this letter was the growth of opportunist tendencies in the ranks of the German social democracy, in particular the publication of an article by Schramm Hochberg and Bernstein in the “Jahrbuch der Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik” (Year Book of Social Science and Social Policy). This article, entitled “Retrospective Survey of the Social Moment” and signed x x x, aroused the indignation of Marx and Engels and compelled them to confront the leaders of the German social democracy with the question whether the propaganda of such views was compatible with membership of the revolutionary proletarian Party. Schramm, Hochberg and Bernstein in their articles only anticipated the ideas which have become the guiding principles of the German social democrats and of the whole social-fascist II. International. Engels made comments and critical notes to extracts from this article which are of great interest even today. These notes are a direct blow in the face of the theoreticians and politicians of. present-day social democracy in his memoirs Bebel mentions this letter, but does not quote a single line from it. The letter was never published and these extracts are here printed for the first time. Engels to Bebel.)

London, September/October 1879.

Dear Bebel!

…In the meantime we have received the Hochberg Annual, which contains an article: “The Socialist Movement in Germany in Retrospect”, which, as Hochberg himself told me, was written by the three members of the Zurich Committee Here we have their authentic criticism of the movement up to now and therefore, their authentic program for the policy of the new organ, as far as they are concerned. Right at the beginning they say:

“The movement which Lassalle looked upon as being preeminently political, and to which he called not only the workers but all honest democrats, and at the head of which the independent representatives of science and all men imbued with a true love of humanity, should march, was, under the presidency of John Baptist Schweitzer reduced to a one-sided struggle for the interests of the industrial workers.”

In the opinion of these gentlemen, the Social-Democratic Party should not be a one-sided workers’ party, but a many-sided party of “all men imbued with a true love of humanity”. Above all, it should prove this by dropping its crude, proletarian vehemence, and “cultivate good taste” and “learn good form” (p. 85) by placing itself under the leadership of educated, philanthropic bourgeois. Then also the “low behavior” of certain leaders will give place to respectable ”bourgeois behavior”, (As if the outwardly low behavior, which is meant here, were not the least with which they can be reproached). Then also “numerous adherents from among the educated and propertied classes will make their appearance. But these must first be won if the agitation conducted is to have tangible success”. German Socialism has attached too much value to winning the masses and in this has neglected the work of carrying on energetic (!) propaganda among so-called upper strata of society”. Then, “the Party still lacks men fit to represent it in the Reichstag”. It is “desirable and necessary that the Party be represented in the Reichstag by men who have had the opportunity and leisure to become thoroughly familiar with the pertinent matters. The ordinary worker and small master have not, with rare exceptions, the necessary leisure for this”. Hence, elect the bourgeois!


In short: the working class cannot emancipate itself by its own efforts. For this it must place itself under the leadership of “educated and propertied” bourgeois, who alone “have the opportunity and time” to become familiar with what will benefit the workers. Secondly, they are to be won over by energetic propaganda.

But if the upper strata of society or the well-meaning elements of the upper strata are to be won over; great care must be taken not to frighten them. And here the three Zurichers think they have made a consoling discovery:

“Precisely now, under. the pressure of the anti-Socialist Law, the Party is showing that it does not intend to go the road of violent bloody revolution, but is determined to travel the road of lawfulness, i.e. of reform”. Thus because the five or the six hundred thousand social-democratic electors (one-tenth to one-eighth or the electorate), who, moreover, are scattered over the whole country, are wise enough not to ram their heads against a brick wall, do not try to carry through a “bloody revolution” when they are outnumbered by ten to one, then this proves that they pledge themselves for all time not to take advantage of any great external event, or a revolutionary upsurge suddenly called forth by it or even of a victory of the people, won in the conflict growing out of it!

If Berlin should prove to be so uneducated as to make another “March 18th,” then the social-democrats, instead of taking part in the struggle like “scoundrels, with a barricade mania” (p. 88) must “take the path of lawfulness”, must calm down, clear away the barricades, and if necessary march with the glorious army against the raw, uneducated, one-sided masses. But if the gentlemen declare that this was not what they mean, then what do they mean?

But this is not the worst.

“The more quietly, objectively and deliberately it (the Party) criticises the existing situation and makes proposals for changes, the less likely is it that the clever chess move played when the anti-Socialist Law was introduced with which the conscious reactionaries were able to scare the bourgeoisie with the Red bogey will be repeated.” (p. 88)

In order to remove the last trace of fear from the bourgeoisie, it must be clearly and convincingly proved to them that the Red bogey is in fact only a bogey, that it does not exist. But what is the secret of the effectiveness of the Red bogey if it is not the fear with which the bourgeoisie is filled before the inevitable life and death struggle between itself and the proletariat; before the inevitable outcome of the contemporary class struggle? But if we abandon the class struggle, the bourgeoisie and all “honest men” will “not be afraid to go hand in hand with the proletarians;” and the ones to be cheated will be the proletarians!

Let the Party prove by its humble and submissive conduct that it has once and for all abandoned the “improprieties and excesses” which called forth the anti-Socialist Law! If the Party voluntarily promise to act strictly within the, limits of the anti-Socialist Law, then certainly Bismarck and the bourgeoisie will be good enough to repeal this law, for it would then be superfluous!

“Understand us correctly,” we do not want “to give up our Party and our program, but we think that we will have enough to do for many years to come, if we turn our whole forces and all our energy to the realisation of definite, achievable aims which must be attained at all costs before it is possible to think of achieving the more fare reaching aims.” Then the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie and the workers who ”are now frightened away by the far-reaching demands” will line up with us in masses.

The program is not to be given up, it is only to be postponed- indefinitely. It is accepted. but not actually for oneself, for one’s own lifetime, but posthumously, as an heirloom for one’s children and grand-children. In the meantime. “all forces and energy” must be devoted to all kinds of tinkering and patching of the capitalist social system, in order to make it appear that something is happening, while at the same time nothing is done to scare the bourgeoisie.

This then is the program of the three censors of Zurich. It leaves nothing to be desired in regard to clarity; particularly for us, because since 1848 we have heard a great deal of phraseology of this kind. These are the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, who are afraid that the proletariat, under the pressure of its revolutionary position in society, might “go too far”. Instead of decisive political opposition-general collaboration; instead of fighting against the government and the bourgeoisie, attempt to win them and persuade them; instead of firm resistance to ill treatment from above submissive subordination and admission that the punishment was deserved. All historically necessary conflicts are explained as misunderstandings and all discussions end with the declarations; in essence we are all agreed. Those who in 1848 called themselves bourgeois democrats can not quite as easily describe themselves as social democrats. Just as in the case of the democratic republic, the overthrow of the capitalist system is regarded as something in the unreachable future, but having absolutely no significance for present day practical politics: it is permissible to collaborate, to compromise and to take up philanthropy to one’s heart’s content. And the same applies to the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie! On paper the class struggle is recognized because it is no longer possible to do otherwise. but in practice it is hushed up, smoothed over and weakened. The Social Democratic Party must not be a workers’ party! It must not bring on itself the hatred of the bourgeoisie or of anyone for that matter; it should above all, conduct propaganda among the bourgeoisie. Instead of laying stress on far reaching and what are in our generation, unattainable aims which frighten the bourgeoisie, it would be better if it turned all its forces and energy to petty-bourgeois, patching reforms which would strengthen the old social system, and thereby, perhaps, turn an inevitable catastrophe into a gradual and if possible, peaceful process of dissolution.

These are the very people who while making a pretense of restless activity, not only do nothing themselves but try to prevent things from being done-except prattling. These are the very people whose fear of every action in 1848 and 1849 hindered the movement at every step, and finally brought it to defeat, who see reaction and are then astounded to find themselves in a blind alley where neither resistance not flight is possible, – the very people who wish to banish history from their narrow Philistine horizon, but over whose heads history always proceeds in its course.

In so far as their worthiness as socialists is concerned, it is already sufficiently criticised in the Manifesto, in the chapter, “German or True Socialism”. When the class struggle is shoved to one side as something disagreeable and “rude”, the only thing that remains as the basis of socialism is “true humanitarianism” and empty phrases about “justice”.

In a petty-bourgeois country like Germany, such ideas certainly can be justified, but outside of the Social-Democratic workers’ Party. If these gentlemen formed a social-democratic petty-bourgeois party, they would be perfectly within their rights; one could then deal with them, form blocs with them according to circumstances, etc. In a workers’ party, however, they are a corrupting element. If there are reasons why they should be tolerated for the time being, then the duty is only to tolerate them, forgive them no influence in the party leadership and to bear in mind that a rupture with them is only a matter of time. Moreover, the time seems to have arrived. It seems to us incomprehensible how the Party can tolerate the writers of this article in its midst any longer. But if the party leadership should fall more or less into the hands of such people, then the party will be simply castrated and this will be the end of proletarian resoluteness.

So far as we are concerned, there is only one way open that corresponds with our whole past. For almost forty years we have emphasized that the class struggle is the immediate driving force of history, and that especially the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is the greatest lever of the modern social revolution. We cannot possibly march together with people who wish to eliminate the class struggle from the movement. At the inauguration of the International, we clearly formulated the battle cry: the emancipation of the working class must be the action of the working class itself. Thus, we cannot march together with people who openly say that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by the philanthropic bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. If the new party organ takes up the attitude indicated by the ideas of these gentlemen, which is bourgeois and not proletarian, then, however much we may regret to do so, there will be nothing left for us to do but openly to declare ourselves opposed to it and to sever our connection with the German party which we have till now represented abroad. It is to be hoped that it does not come to that.

This letter is intended for the information of all five members of the Committee in Germany, as well as Bracke,

As far as we are concerned there is nothing to prevent this letter from being brought to the notice of the Zurich people.

International Press Correspondence, widely known as”Inprecor” was published by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) regularly in German and English, occasionally in many other languages, beginning in 1921 and lasting in English until 1938. Inprecor’s role was to supply translated articles to the English-speaking press of the International from the Comintern’s different sections, as well as news and statements from the ECCI. Many ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘Communist’ articles originated in Inprecor, and it also published articles by American comrades for use in other countries. It was published at least weekly, and often thrice weekly. The ECCI also published the magazine ‘Communist International’ edited by Zinoviev and Karl Radek from 1919 until 1926 monthly in German, French, Russian, and English. Unlike, Inprecor, CI contained long-form articles by the leading figures of the International as well as proceedings, statements, and notices of the Comintern. No complete run of Communist International is available in English. Both were largely published outside of Soviet territory, with Communist International printed in London, to facilitate distribution and both were major contributors to the Communist press in the U.S. Communist International and Inprecor are an invaluable English-language source on the history of the Communist International and its sections.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/inprecor/1931/v11n39-jul-23-1931-inprecor.pdf

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