Engels' political testament

Submitted by AWL on 1 April, 2005 - 11:15

Paul Hampton reviews Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 50

After nearly thirty years and fifty weighty tomes, the final volume of the English-language Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW) was published earlier this year.

Volume 50 contains the last letters written by Frederick Engels between October 1892 and his death in August 1895. According to the editors, of the 320 letters, 229 are published in English for the first time. Of the 89 already published, 38 of these were only available in an abridged form and are now published in full. There are also five letters written between 1842 and 1859 not included in previous volumes.

Highlights of the volume include: Engels' understanding of great power relations, which looked to be leading to a European war; his advice the various socialist parties on strategy and tactics; his explanations of historical materialism; and his work in preparing new editions of Marx's works, especially Capital Volume III.

The letters include a mixture of personal matters and political observations, most not intended for publication. Thus we learn of Engels’ fear of getting false teeth (p.495) and his opinion of various European socialists.

Engels clearly respected August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He described Bebel as: “the most perspicuous, the most sensible and the most energetic man in the German party” and “by far the most lucid and far-sighted man of the lot.” (p.57, p.379)

Other comments were contradictory. For example he wrote to Austrian socialist Victor Adler on 17 July 1894, characterising French socialist Jean Jaurès as “an academic and doctrinaire who enjoys the sound of his own voice.” (p.325) Yet six months later he told the Russian Marxist Plekhanov that “Jaurès is on the right road. He is learning Marxism, and he should not be hurried too much. However, he has already made good progress, much more than I dared hope.” (p.451)

None of the English socialists drew much praise. Engels told Adler that Keir Hardie was “a cunning, crafty Scot, a Pecksniff and arch-intriguer, but too-cunning, perhaps, and too vain. The financial sources he draws upon to keep the paper [The Labour Leader] going are of a dubious kind, which might cause unpleasantness when the new elections are held.” (p.434)

He repeatedly condemned the sectarianism of Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and described the Fabians as “a bunch of careerists” (p.83) However Engels was optimistic about the prospects for independent working class politics in Britain. He supported the establishment of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which he described as the “most genuine expression of the present movement.” (p.82, p.125)

This volume is peppered with references to finishing Capital Volume III, which Engels finally finished at the end of 1894. Letters to German academic Werner Sombart discuss the “necessary fiction” of the category of “value”. (p.460, p.464, p.492) Engels’ interpretation of Marx’s political economy has proven to be highly problematic and in my view, is a blind alley in the light of subsequent discussions.


Probably the most significant political controversy in the last year of Engels’ life concerns his views on reform and revolution. In particular his introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France (contained in MECW, Volume 27) became a source of debate in subsequent years. For example the German socialist Eduard Bernstein regarded the text as Engels’ political testament and used it as the rationale for his revision of Marxism after Engels’ death. The letters in this volume help clear up some of the ambiguities for English-speaking readers.

The controversy began innocently enough. On 30 January 1895 Richard Fischer, the Executive Secretary of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) wrote to Engels explaining their plans to publish some of Marx’s articles on France from 1848-50. The SPD wanted Engels to write an introduction to the planned pamphlet.

However Engels’ reply, dated 2 February 1895 expressed his concern about the notice given. He wrote: “You and the others have an odd way of holding a pistol to a fellow’s head. Having made your plans for Marx’s articles, you really might have told me about them a bit sooner rather than at the very last moment.” (pp.437-438)

Engels wrote to Fischer again on 12 February 1895, promising to send his introduction shortly. (p.443) On 26 February 1895 he wrote to French socialist and Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue about his progress. Engels told Lafargue: “This introduction has become quite long, since besides a general review of the events since that date, it would be necessary to explain why we were right to expect the imminent and definitive victory of the proletariat, why it has not come about, and to what point events have modified the way we saw things then. This is important because of the new laws which are threatening us in Germany.” (p.446)

Engels was referring to a Subversion Bill the government had tabled in December 1894 aimed at the SPD. He was also mindful that the SPD had been outlawed by the Anti-Socialist Law between 1878 and 1890. He told Lafargue: “What is certain is that there will be a new age of persecution for our friends. As for us, our policy should not be to let ourselves be provoked at this point; we would be fighting without the least chance of success, and we would be bled like Paris in 1871.” (p.447)

What was the substance of the Introduction? Engels contrasted conditions in 1848-50 with those of the 1890s. He wrote: “The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.” (Vol. 27, p.510)

Firstly Engels drew attention to the way the SPD had made use of universal suffrage to advance their cause, winning over one million votes by 1890. He wrote: “The German workers rendered a second great service to their cause in addition to the first, a service performed by their mere existence as the strongest, most disciplined and most rapidly growing socialist party. They supplied their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the most potent, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage.” (Vol. 27, p.515)

Secondly Engels also pointed to changes in the state that had strengthened the military against demonstrators. These included soldiers’ weapons and training and the design of cities. He wrote: “By means of the railways, these garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective… today the small-calibre, breech-loading magazine rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former… At that time the pick-axe of the sapper for breaking through fire proof walls; today the dynamite cartridge.” (Vol. 27, pp.518-519)

Engels concluded: “Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated. Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions.” (Vol. 27, p.517)

Engels made it clear that he saw this as a position specific to Germany, although socialists in other countries might also follow the German example and utilise the vote more effectively. He wrote: “Of course, our foreign comrades do not in the least renounce their right to revolution. The right to revolution is, after all, the only really “historical right”, the only right on which all modern states rest without exception.” (Vol. 27, p.521)

On 6 March 1895 Engels received a letter from Fischer asking him to soften the tenor of the manuscript. Engels replied on 8 March having made some changes. He wrote: “I have taken as much account as possible of your grave objections although I cannot for the life of me see what is objectionable about say half of the instances you cite.” He added: “My view is that you have nothing to gain by advocating complete abstention from force. Nobody would believe you, nor would any party in any country go so far to forfeit the right to resist illegality by force of arms. I also have to take account of the fact that my stuff is read by foreigners as well… and I simply cannot compromise myself to that extent in their eyes.” (p.457)

He finished the letter as emphatically as he started it: “Legality for so long as and to the extent that it suits your book, but not legality at any price, not even as a manner of speech.” (p.459)

On 25 March he wrote to Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, who wanted to publish the introduction in the Marxist magazine Die Neue Zeit. Engels gave his permission “with pleasure”. He told Kautsky: “My text has suffered to some extent from the apprehensive objections, inspired by the Subversion Bill, of our friends in Berlin – objections of which, in the circumstances, I could not but take account.” (p.480)

On 28 March, Engels wrote to Marx’s daughter Laura Lafargue expressing similar concerns. He wrote: “The Berlin people are republishing Mohr’s [Marx’s] articles in the Revue der Neuen Rheinischen Zeitung on France 1848-50 and I have written an introduction which will probably first appear in Die Neue Zeit. It has suffered somewhat from the, as I think, exaggerated desires of our Berlin friends not to say anything which might be used as a means to assist in the passing of the Umsturzvorlage [Subversion Bill] in the Reichstag. Under the circumstances I had to give way.” (p.484)

However the issue was soon complicated. On 1 April Engels wrote to Kautsky, saying “I was amazed to see today in the Vorwärts [30 March] an except from my ‘Introduction’ that had been printed without my prior knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent of legality come what may. Which is all the more reason why I should like it to appear in its entirely in the Neue Zeit in order that this disgraceful impression may be erased. I shall leave [William] Liebknecht [the editor] in no doubt as to what I think about it and the same applies to those, irrespective of who they may be, gave him the opportunity of perverting my views and, what’s more, without so much as a word to me about it.” (p.486)

Two days later, on 3 April Engels wrote to Paul Lafargue in similar vein. He wrote: “Liebknecht has just played a fine trick. He has taken from my introduction to Marx’s articles on France 1848-50 everything that could serve his purpose in support of peaceful and anti-violent tactics at any price, which he has chosen to preach for some time now, particularly at this juncture when coercive laws are being drawn up in Berlin. But I preach those tactics only for the Germany of today and even then with many reservations. For France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, such tactics could not be followed as a whole and, for Germany, they could become inapplicable tomorrow. So please wait for the complete article before judging it – it will probably appear in Neue Zeit, and I expect copies of the pamphlet any day now.” (pp.489-490)

As far as I know, no letter from Engels to Liebknecht expressing his complaints has been found or published in any language. Nor has the Vorwärts bowdlerisation ever been translated into English.

Kautsky did publish the version of the Introduction with the changes Engels had made at the request of the SPD leadership in Die Neue Zeit in April 1895. The same text appeared as the introduction to the pamphlet Karl Marx, Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850, (1895). This version was first published in full in English by the Socialist Labor Party in the US in 1922.

However it was not until even later that Engels’ original draft was made public. Marxist scholar David Riazanov, the director of Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow reported the discovery of the original manuscript in Unter dem Banner der Marxismus No.1 (1925), though he wrongly implied that the changes were made against Engels’ will. The deletions were first translated into English by Alexander Trachtenberg in the US paper Workers’ Monthly, November 1925. The original draft was finally published by the Marx-Engels Institute in 1930 and in English in 1935.

What were the cuts Engels agreed to? In all he made seven changes, from half-sentences to whole paragraphs. In particular two deletions stand out. Firstly, Engels was clear that street fighting would still play a role in the seizure of power. He wrote:

“Does that mean that in the future street fighting will no longer play any role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military. In future, street fighting can, therefore, be victorious only if this disadvantageous situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom at the beginning of a great revolution than at its later stages, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces.” (Vol. 27 p.519)

That Engels also retained the need to seize power is clear from another edited passage. He wrote: “To keep this growth going without interruption until it gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system of itself, not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day, that is our main task.” (Vol. 27 p.522) But in the published versions in 1895, the words “not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day” were omitted.

What did Engels really getting at? The letters in Volume 50 give us a better idea of what he meant. He wrote to Paul Lafargue on 3 November 1892 that: "The era of barricades and street fighting has gone for good; if the military fight, resistance becomes madness. Hence the necessity to find new revolutionary tactics. I have pondered over this for some time and am not yet settled in my mind.” (p.21)

His answer came shortly in another letter to Lafargue on 12 November 1892. He argued: “Do you realise now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people had known how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the cal to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it's ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make the revolution." (p.29)

In the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) Engels expressed similar sentiments: “Universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state; but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling-point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.” (Vol. 26 p.272)

But Engels had not become a parliamentary cretin. As he explained in the Italian socialist journal Critica Sociale in February 1892: “I have never said the socialist party would first gain a majority [in parliament] and then seize power. On the contrary, I have expressly said that the odds are ten to one that our rulers, well before that point arrives, will use violence against us, and this would shift us from the terrain of majority to the terrain of revolution.” (Vol. 27 p.271)

So Engels was trying to envisage the conditions before the seizure of power, not a different [parliamentary] road to power. He reiterated the point in a letter on 14 March 1893, arguing: “The first objective of the labour movement is the conquest of political power for and by the working class… In my view the best tactics in any given country are those which lead most quickly and surely to the goal.” (p.119)

Therefore Rosa Luxemburg got it right just three years after Engels’ death and in response to those like Bernstein who tried to use his words to support their reformism. Luxemburg wrote: “When Engels, in his introduction to the Class Struggles in France, revised the tactics of the modern labour movement and urged the legal struggle as opposed to the barricades, he did not have in mind – this comes out of every line of the introduction – the question of a definite conquest of political power, but the contemporary daily struggle. He did not have in mind the attitude that the proletariat must take toward the capitalist state at the time of the seizure of power but the attitude of the proletariat while in the bounds of the capitalist state. Engels was giving directions to the proletariat oppressed, and not to the proletariat victorious.”


According to the editors, the 50 volumes of the MECW contain 1,968 works in total, with nearly half (805) published in English for the first time. The collection included 3,957 letters, the majority of which (2,283) had never been available in English before.

Although the MECW is the most comprehensive collection in English yet produced, it is not the complete edition of Marx and Engels writings. The reason for this lies with the origins of the various attempts to produce a definitive collection.

Engels first discussed plans to publish his and Marx’s collected works in the last years of his life. He raised the issue in correspondence with Sorge in 1893 (MECW 50, p.250). In a letter 15 April 1895, he told SPD secretary Richard Fischer “I have a scheme for again presenting Marx’s and my lesser writings to the public in a complete edition – not, that is to say, by instalments but all at one go, in whole volumes. (p.497) However nothing came of it during his lifetime. The first serious proposals were made at a meeting of Austro-Marxists in December 1910. But it was after the Russian revolution in 1917 that these plans began to be put into practice. With Lenin's encouragement and led by David Riazanov, the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (known as MEGA1) began publication in the 1920s.

MEGA1 was organised into three series:

I. Philosophical, economic, historical and political works

II. Capital and other economic manuscripts

III. Letters

Riazanov rejected publishing a fourth series of Marx's excerpt notebooks, which consisted of extracts, summaries and commentaries on books he read. These included notebooks on the economic crisis of 1857, a chronology of world history up to the middle of the 17th century, some mathematical notebooks and the ethnological notebooks from the 1870s.

Between 1928 and 1935 a number of previous unpublished works were made available. Eight volumes of the first series were published, including the 1844 manuscripts and the German Ideology. None of the second series were published, although the first draft of Capital, known as the Grundrisse was published separately in 1939-41. And four volumes of letters were also published.

The project was cut short above all by the rise of Stalinism. Riazanov was arrested and deported to a forced labour camp. He was executed in 1938.

However a popular collected edition planned by Riazanov became the template for subsequent Stalinist editions: the Russian Sochineniia (1928-46); the German Marx-Engels Werke (MEW, 1956-68) and the English-language MECW (1975-2004).

The structure of the MECW follows the Russian and German collections. It is divided into three series:

I. Writings of Marx and Engels throughout their lifetime Volumes 1-27

II. Major writings of Marx on political economy Volumes 28-37

III. Letters by Marx and Engels Volumes 38-50

And the English edition is marked by these origins. As US Marxist Kevin Anderson has written: "Like all Stalinist editions, MECW has serious omissions as well as other problems. The prefaces and explanatory notes are often dogmatic and sometimes misleading. Divergences between Marx and Engels are covered over. Their sharp attacks on the Russian Empire's territorial ambitions, and their strong support for anti-Russian freedom fighters such as the Poles and the Chechens are sometimes concealed, or even ascribed to errors by Marx or Engels."

But the biggest problem with MECW is that it is not a complete works. As Anderson points out, we do not get to see the whole of Marx's Capital, Vol. I, especially the 60 pages left out by Engels, or the process by which Marx changed and developed it through its various editions.

In 1975, a second MEGA (MEGA2) began to be published in Moscow and East Berlin. MEGA2 follows the same structure as MEGA1, but adds a fourth series of Marx and Engels' excerpt notebooks. These include notes from 1853 and 1880-81 on Java; notes from 1852 on gender relations; notes from the 1870s and 1880s on agriculture in Russia and the U.S.; notes on Ireland from the 1860s; notes on agriculture in Roman and Carolingian times and a chronology of world history.

After the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, MEGA2's funding disappeared. However funding from the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, the Karl Marx House in Germany and other organisations, it was able to continue. Under the auspices if the International Marx-Engels Foundation (IMES) for the first time since the 1920s, an exhaustive collection of Marx and Engels' writings is being published by scholars not under the control of Stalinist parties.

*Information about MEGA2 is on the IMES website www.iisg.nl/~imes/

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