Engels Against Reformism in Germany and France

Friedrich Engels was born 200 years ago today. Modern reformists like to cite Engels as an authority. But until his very last day, Engels fought against reformist ideas and for revolutionary principles.
  • Doug Enaa Greene | 
  • November 28, 2020
Illustration: Mar-Ned - Enfoque Rojo

More than a century ago, Eduard Bernstein claimed that it was time for socialists to abandon their revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism. He argued that the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) should adopt a reformist approach that strictly relied on legal channels, such as elections in which socialism could slowly be voted into power. To support his position, Bernstein cited the authority of Friedrich Engels, who had allegedly reached similar conclusions in one of his last works. Citing Engels’s introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, Bernstein argued, “Engels is so thoroughly convinced that tactics geared to a catastrophe have had their day that he considers a revision to abandon them to be due even in the Latin countries where tradition is much more favourable to them than in Germany.”1Bernstein, Preconditions of Socialism, ed. and trans. Henry Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 4. Bernstein is not alone in claiming Engels for reformism; he was later joined by others such as Karl Kautsky, Ralph Miliband, and Santiago Carrillo.2Kautsky invoked Engels in support of the SPD’s de facto reformist “strategy of attrition.” Kautsky, “Mass Strike,” in Kautsky: Selected Political Writings, ed. Patrick Goode (London: Macmillan, 1983), 55–56; Ralph Miliband was a Polish-English Marxist theoretician. See Miliband, Marxism and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 79–80; Santiago Carrillo was a leader of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and used Engels to make the case for Eurocommunism. See Carrillo, Eurocommunism and the State (Westport: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), 92–95. Even the American democratic socialist Michael Harrington, who otherwise viewed Engels as a “distorter” of Marxism, had no problem using him to vindicate a democratic socialist strategy: “In his 1895 Preface to a new edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France, Engels summarized the democratic strategy in sweeping historical terms…. Engels’s turn toward what can only be called democratic socialism was a critically important deepening of the idea of socialism itself.”3Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future (New York: Mentor Books, 1989), 45–47. For more on Harrington, see Doug Enaa Greene, “Michael Harrington and His Afterlives,” Cosmonaut, April 8, 2019; Doug Enaa Greene, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism (Alresford, UK: Zero Books, forthcoming).

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Are Bernstein, Harrington, and their cothinkers correct to cite Engels in support of their reformism? Or, on the contrary, did Engels remain a devoted revolutionary in his last years? His interventions in the socialist movements in France and Germany leave no doubt that Engels remained a committed revolutionary communist until his dying breath.

Marx’s General

As the son of a factory owner, Engels was born into privilege with a bright future planned for him. He disappointed his father, however, by devoting himself to the oppressed at a young age. While at his family’s firm in England, Engels witnessed the effects of the industrial revolution firsthand, where the bourgeoisie grew wealthy by exploiting the working class. From this experience, Engels realized that the working class had the potential to liberate itself and all of humanity through a communist revolution.

In 1844, when Engels and Karl Marx discovered that they shared the same materialist and communist worldview, they joined forces and began a lifelong collaboration. Engels considered Marx a genius and believed that he played only second fiddle to him. Yet Engels’s contribution to the development of scientific socialism was greater than his modesty suggested. To financially support Marx’s work on Capital, Engels sacrificed his own happiness and spent years working at his father’s firm as a factory manager. Alongside Marx, he coauthored the Holy Family, German Ideology, and the Communist Manifesto. He also popularized their shared worldview in a number of works. After Marx’s death in 1883, he labored tirelessly to make sure that the subsequent volumes of Capital were edited and published. Engels was not simply a theoretician but a man of action. Nicknamed “the General” by his friends, he had a lifelong interest in the art of war and fought on the barricades during the 1848 revolution in Germany. If Engels merely played second fiddle, none ever played it better.

Engels and Proletarian Parties

By the time Marx died in 1883, mass working-class parties with socialist programs were forming across Europe. The leaders of these new parties looked to Engels for advice, considering him the most authoritative voice of scientific socialism. With some apprehension, Engels was ready to assume this role. “But now that I am suddenly expected to take Marx’s place in matters of theory and play first fiddle,” he wrote, “there will inevitably be blunders and no one is more aware of that than I.”4“Engels to Becker. 15 October 1884,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works [henceforth MECW], vol. 47 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 202. In the coming years, Engels’s home in England received letters from socialists throughout Europe and the United States asking for advice on questions of strategy, tactics, and theory. In the United States and Britain, where the working class was politically subordinate to the parties of the ruling class, Engels advocated the creation of independent workers’ parties. In Germany and France, where avowedly Marxist parties such as the SPD and Parti Ouvrier Français (POF) already existed, Engels focused more on developing theory, program, and strategy.


Gotha Programme

No party occupied the attention of Engels (and Marx) more than the German SPD. During the 19th century, the SPD grew into the world’s largest socialist party. It was considered by its friends and foes the model of a successful Marxist party. Therefore, Engels thought it imperative to guide the SPD on the proper path and avoiding making unnecessary compromises.

In 1875 at a congress in Gotha, the Marxist-led Social Democratic Workers’ Party fused with the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV) to create a unified party. The ADAV was inspired by Ferdinand Lassalle, who advocated state socialism, made friendly overtures to German chancellor Bismarck, and held a number of erroneous views on political economy, such as the “iron law of wages.” The new SPD program reflected these conceptions, and Marx wrote a lengthy critique of the Gotha Programme for its theoretical and programmatic concessions to Lassalleanism.5Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in MECW, vol. 24, 75–99. According to Engels, “Our party has absolutely nothing to learn from the Lassalleans in the theoretical sphere.”6“Engels to August Bebel. 18–28 March 1875,” in MECW, vol. 45, 60.

Marx and Engels did not oppose unifying the two wings of social democracy, but both believed fusion should not come at the expense of programmatic clarity. Normally, Marx and Engels refrained from intervening in the party’s internal affairs, but considering the programmatic stakes, they believed it was necessary to step in. As Engels said in a letter to SPD leader August Bebel,

People imagine that we run the whole show from here, whereas you know as well as I do that we have hardly ever interfered in the least with internal party affairs, and then only in an attempt to make good, as far as possible, what we considered to have been blunders — and only theoretical blunders at that. But, as you yourself will realise, this programme marks a turning-point which may very well force us to renounce any kind of responsibility in regard to the party that adopts it.7Ibid., 65.

Despite their harsh criticisms, Marx and Engels remained associated with the SPD. Defying their expectations, the SPD stayed united and continued to grow. Meanwhile, however, both capitalists and workers viewed the Gotha Programme as a communist one. Owing to these happy accidents, Marx and Engels maintained a public silence on the SPD’s theoretical shortcomings. As Engels said, “So long as our opponents as well as the workers continue to read our views into that programme, we are justified in saying nothing about it.”8“Engels to August Bebel. 12 October 1875,” in MECW, vol. 45, 98. When it came to defending the programmatic integrity of the party, Marx and Engels were uncompromising.

The Science of Revolution

The SPD’s low theoretical level remained a constant concern to Marx and Engels. In the late 1870s, the ideas of Eugen Dühring were gaining prominence. Dühring criticized the economic determinism, materialist dialectics, and revolutionary politics that are central to Marxism. Dühring attracted a following in the SPD, including even members of the leadership such as Bebel and Bernstein, who looked kindly on his ideas. Reluctantly, Engels took up the arduous task of refuting Dühring’s ideas. Years later, he said, “Dr. Dühring openly proceeded to form around himself a sect, the nucleus of a future separate party. It thus became necessary to take up the gauntlet thrown down to us, and to fight out the struggle whether we liked it or not.”9Engels, “Introduction to the English Edition (1892) of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in MECW, vol. 27, 278.

Published in 1878, Engels’s Anti-Dühring was successful beyond all measure. The book was more than a simple polemic; it is the single most comprehensive statement of the Marxist worldview. Engels’s work not only demolished Dühring’s influence inside the SPD but also popularized scientific socialism to millions. Marx, who had written a chapter for the Anti-Dühring, championed its value to the SPD: “There’s much to be learnt from Engels’s positive exposés, not only by ordinary workers and even ex-workers … who suppose themselves capable of getting to know everything and pronounce on everything within the shortest possible time, but even by scientifically educated people.”10“Marx to Wilhelm Bracke. 11 April 1877,” in MECW, vol. 45, 218. The Anti-Dühring showed Engels’s understanding that a revolutionary movement requires a revolutionary philosophy.

Pure Opposition

A major test for the SPD came in 1878, when Bismarck passed the Anti-Socialist Laws, outlawing the SPD and its press. The party could still run candidates, however. Rather than maintaining its intransigent revolutionary opposition to Bismarck, the SPD parliamentary faction, including Wilhelm Liebknecht, signaled its willingness to compromise with the German government by remaining within the law and by voting for tariffs and the state budget. At the same time, Bernstein declared that the party should appeal to the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, along with adopting a conciliatory approach to Bismarck.

In September 1879, Engels responded to Bernstein in a circular. He recognized nothing less than a chasm between his position and that of the opportunists:

As for ourselves, there is, considering all our antecedents, only one course open to us. For almost 40 years we have emphasised that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history and, in particular, that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great lever of modern social revolution; hence we cannot possibly co-operate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement. At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes. If the new party organ is to adopt a policy that corresponds to the opinions of these gentlemen, if it is bourgeois and not proletarian, then all we could do — much though we might regret it — would be publicly to declare ourselves opposed to it and abandon the solidarity with which we have hitherto represented the German party abroad. But we hope it won’t come to that.11Marx and Engels, “Circular Letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and Others,” in MECW, vol. 24, 269.

In other words, according to Engels, the party should not include those who deny the party’s working-class character or the primacy of class struggle and working-class emancipation.

In regard to the SPD parliamentary faction and its support for tariffs, Engels confronted the residual Lassallean deviation in the party that saw progressive elements in Bismarck’s economic interventions. Although the SPD took no official position on tariffs, Engels argued that supporting them violated two essential party principles: (1) the abolition of indirect taxation, “which is expressly demanded by the party programme,” and (2) “not a farthing for this government.”12Ibid., 260. See also Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4, Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), 92–97.

In a letter written to Bebel two months later, Engels was even clearer. He asserted that the SPD could offer no material support to any measures that increased the bourgeois state’s repressive power:

In the case of all other economic questions, such as protective tariffs, nationalisation of the railways, assurance companies, etc., Social-Democratic deputies must always uphold the vital principle of consenting to nothing that increases the power of the government vis-à-vis the people. And this is made all the easier in that feelings within the party itself will, of course, invariably be divided in such cases and hence abstention, a negative attitude, is automatically called for.13“Frederick Engels to August Bebel 24 November 1879,” in MECW, vol. 45, 423–24.

Engels demanded that the SPD oppose the capitalist state outright and reject collaboration with all bourgeois parties. This did not mean, however, that Engels opposed compromising with other political forces. Doing so was permissible, he said, to support other parties’ motions and bills if they were “worth the effort.” He added, “And provided the proletarian class character of the party were not jeopardized thereby. Thus far and no further I am prepared to go.”14“Engels to Gerson Trier 18 December 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 424. For Engels, the SPD struggled for reforms not to gain a parliamentary advantage or indulge in backroom deals, but to organize the working class to fight for its own immediate interests and for the socialist revolution.

Erfurt Program

Despite the Anti-Socialist Laws, the SPD managed to increase its parliamentary representation. In 1890 it was clear that Bismarck’s policy had failed, and the SPD was legalized. In 1891, buoyed by this success, the SPD’s Erfurt Congress decided to adopt a new Marxist-inspired program. Engels, however, was still concerned about the residual Lassalleanism in the SPD and the opportunistic elements in the party’s parliamentary faction.

Engels’s opening salvo was the publication of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, which scandalized the SPD leadership with its mention of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In the Reichstag, SPD deputy Karl Grillenberger publicly repudiated Marx and declared that “the Social-Democratic Party did not acquiesce to this programmatic proposal by Marx. Marx was, indeed, indignant that the Social-Democracy made its programmatic decisions just as it felt was right for German conditions, and that in consequence for us there was never any question of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”15Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 3, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 313. Engels fired back several weeks later by releasing a new introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France on the Paris Commune of 1871. With debates in Germany in mind, Engels’s final paragraph celebrated the Commune as the dictatorship of the proletariat: “Of late, the Social Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”16Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s Civil War in France,” in MECW, vol. 27, 191.

For Engels, the Erfurt Program was an advance over the Gotha Programme. It was firmly based on Marx’s analysis of capitalism, with its tendency to break down, and the necessity for socialism. The Erfurt Program also stressed the historical mission of the working class and the party’s role in leading that struggle. As Engels noted with satisfaction,

To Liebknecht fell the bitter task of having to recommend Kautsky’s draft programme which, with Bebel’s and my support, was accepted as the basis of the new programme’s theoretical section. We have had the satisfaction of seeing Marx’s critique win all along the line. Even the last traces of Lassalleanism have been eliminated. With the exception of a few poorly written bits (though it’s only the way they’re put that is feeble and commonplace), there is nothing to complain of in the programme or not, at any rate, after a first reading.17“Engels to Sorge. 24 October 1891,” in MECW, vol. 49, 266.

But a second reading revealed that Engels had a great deal of criticism. “The political demands of the draft have one great fault,” he noted. “It lacks precisely what should have been said.” 18Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891,” in MECW, vol. 27, 225. Namely the lack of genuine political freedom prevailing in Imperial Germany. Instead of posing a revolutionary challenge to the state, the Erfurt Program emphasized the struggle for reforms. In accenting immediate demands, Engels felt, the program strengthened the hand of opportunists inside the SPD, who believed that the state was malleable enough to accept major reforms. The Erfurt Program’s stress on the day-to-day struggle as opposed to revolution came no doubt from fears of a new wave of state repression. As Engels noted, these fears showed just how unamenable the present order was to reform: 

Fearing a renewal of the Anti-Socialist Law, or recalling all manner of over-hasty pronouncements made during the reign of that law, they now want the party to find the present legal order in Germany adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means. These are attempts to convince oneself and the party that “present-day society is developing towards socialism” without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell, and also whether in Germany, in addition, it will not have to smash the fetters of the still semi-absolutist, and moreover indescribably confused political order.”19Ibid., 226.

Another criticism by Engels of the Erfurt Program was that it walked back the SPD’s calls for a democratic republic. To get around this demand, Engels said, the program should demand “the concentration of all political power in the hands of the people’s representatives. That would suffice for the time being if it is impossible to go any further.” To Engels, this was the essence of a democratic republic that the SPD needed to fight for. While the Erfurt Program wavered on the question of a political freedom, Engels stated forthrightly that he considered a democratic republic to be the only system of government in which the SPD could come to power and was “even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”20Ibid., 227.

Engels had great hopes for the SPD, believing that the party’s tactics were enabling it to win over the working class, and that it was only a matter of time before the SPD came to power. Still, he worried that the party’s successes and the strength of opportunism threatened its class character: “[Bebel] complains with reason that the party is going bourgeois. That is the misfortune of all extreme parties when the time approaches for them to become ‘possible.’”21“Engels to Paul Lafargue 22 November 1894,” in MECW, vol. 50, 369. Sadly, the course of the SPD after Engels’s death was to realize these fears.


Forming the Party

Unlike other European countries, France had a large and diverse socialist movement encompassing Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Blanquists, syndicalists, and reformists. A distinctly Marxist current emerged only at the end of the 1870s under the leadership of Jules Guesde. Guesde’s embrace of Marxism came at an opportune time as the French labor movement revived after the Paris Commune’s defeat. After a general amnesty for exiled and imprisoned Communards, Guesde and other socialists took the next step and formed a working-class party known as the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (FTSF).22Portions of this section freely borrow from Doug Enaa Greene, “The Rise of Marxism in France,” Links, May 11, 2016; Doug Enaa Greene, “Engels, Boulanger and the Fight Against Fascism,” Blanquist, January 6, 2018.

But this new party was sharply divided between reformists and revolutionaries. Guesde wanted to fuse these differing elements into a disciplined organization in which a revolutionary program would provide a common rallying point. In May 1880, Guesde went to London, seeking guidance from Marx and Engels to develop a program. Marx obliged and dictated the program, which consisted of an introductory section outlining the ultimate goal of communism. This was followed by a second section consisting of several minimal economic and political demands achievable under capitalism.23For the full text, see Karl Marx, “Preamble to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party,” in MECW, vol. 24, 340–42, 638. According to Engels, the program was a “masterpiece of cogent reasoning, calculated to explain things to the masses in a few words; I have seldom seen its like and, even in this concise version, found it astonishing.”24“Engels to Bernstein. 25 October 1881,” in MECW, vol. 46, 148. According to Engels, it was in response to Guesde’s vulgarization of Marx’s ideas that Marx said he was no “Marxist”: “Now what is known as ‘Marxism’ in France is, indeed, an altogether peculiar product — so much so that Marx once said to Lafargue: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.’” “Engels to Bernstein. 2–3 November 1882,” in MECW, vol. 46, 356. For Engels, the program of the French Workers Party served as a model that he would later recommend to the German SPD at Erfurt.

Things came to a head in the FTSF, which split in 1882 between the revolutionaries and reformists. Engels welcomed the split. “The inevitable has happened, the irreconcilable elements have separated,” he wrote. “And that is a good thing.”25“Engels to Bernstein. 20 October 1882,” in MECW, vol. 46, 341. Furthermore, Engels recognized that ideological and political struggle was inescapable and necessary in a proletarian party: “It would seem that any workers’ party in a large country can develop only through internal struggle, as indeed has been generally established in the dialectical laws of development.”26Ibid. 342.

The French Marxists quickly formed a new organization — the POF. While the POF was ideologically Marxist, its theoretical level was quite low. Furthermore, the POF had a tiny membership and did poorly in elections compared to the SPD. It was led by Guesde and Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law). Guesde was an effective agitator, but he was not a serious theoretician or a brilliant political leader. While Lafargue was far more theoretically developed and was an effective popularizer of Marxism, he exercised poor judgment that caused Engels no end of frustration.

Universal Suffrage

Unlike Germany, France was a republic, and the POF operated legally. Engels implored the POF to take advantage of its legality by agitating and spreading its revolutionary message across France. Elections were one method that Engels particularly urged the POF to use. As he said to Lafargue in 1892,

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 call 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 even 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.27“Engels to Paul Lafargue. 12 November 1892,” in MECW, vol. 50, 29.

A careful reading of this passage makes it clear that Engels did not see elections as an end in themselves. Rather, he viewed elections as a thermometer to measure the support that socialists had in society. This measurement of support was also a means to judge if the moment was ripe for the party to shift to the terrain of armed revolution. For elections to play this role, Engels believed, socialists had to stand forthright for their own program and act independently in opposition to all bourgeois parties. What we said of Bebel in regard to the SPD applies just as equally to the situation in France:

It is more than I expected. I am less concerned just now with the number of seats that will eventually be won…. The main thing is the proof that the movement is marching ahead at a pace that is as rapid as it is sure, that constituency after constituency has been carried away by it and has ceased to be a safe seat for the other parties. But what is also splendid is the way our workers have run the affair, the tenacity, determination and, above all, humour with which they have captured position after position and set at naught all the dodges, threats and bullying on the part of government and bourgeoisie.28“Engels to August Bebel. 29 October 1884,” in MECW, vol. 47, 210.

Ultimately, socialists’ main gain in elections was to increase the proletariat’s self-organization and its ability to fight for revolution.29This conclusion is drawn from August H. Nimtz Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 261.

While Engels believed that a “democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalised and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat,”30Engels, “Reply to the Honourable Giovanni Bovio,” in MECW, vol. 27, 271. he also stressed that the French republic was only formally democratic since its class character was bourgeois. He argued that “a republic, like any other form of government, is determined by what composes it; so long as it is the form of bourgeois rule, it is quite as hostile to us as any monarchy whatsoever (save in the forms of that hostility). Hence it is a gratuitous illusion to treat it as an essentially socialist form; to entrust it, whilst it is dominated by the bourgeoisie, with socialist tasks. We can wring concessions from it, but never look to it to carry out our job.”31“Engels to Paul Lafargue. 6 March 1894,” in MECW, vol. 50, 276. In other words, Engels recognized that all capitalist states — no matter how democratic on the surface — could not introduce socialism because they remained, at heart, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Fighting Reaction

For all Engels’s criticisms of a republican government under capitalism, he recognized it as the best political terrain for working-class struggle and called on socialists to defend democratic freedoms from any curtailment. A major test for this came in the late 1880s with the rise of the Boulangist movement. During this time, the French Third Republic was mired in instability, corruption, political patronage, and scandal. France was also in the midst of a long economic recession in which the workers suffered privation and unemployment. This discredited the political parties and the Third Republic itself, opening the door to the Boulangist movement.

General Boulanger, a former minister of war, appeared to many workers as a “man on horseback” who would avenge France’s defeat at the hands of Germany, favor the common man, and end Republican corruption. For enemies of the Third Republic, whether nationalist Blanquists, anti-Semites, or exiled royalists, Boulanger’s rise portended the downfall of the hated regime.

Engels paid close attention to Boulanger and saw in him the threat of a military dictatorship. Engels recognized the danger of a Boulangist dictatorship as spelling the end of both the Third Republic and the socialist movement. He warned the socialists of France,

The finest thing of it all is that three months… Boulanger will be in all probability dictator of France, do away with parliamentarism, epurate the judges under pretext of corruption, have a gouvernement à poigne (trans. strong government) and a chambre pour rire (trans. mock chamber), and crush Marxists, Blanquists and Possibilists all together. And then, ma belle France — tu l’as voulu! (trans. my beautiful France — that’s what you wanted!)32“Engels to Laura Lafargue. 7 May 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 309.

For Engels, the main question was not just how to analyze Boulangism but how to fight it. He had to contend with two different currents in the POF. On the one hand, Guesde saw the fight between Boulanger and the bourgeois opportunists as a feud between two sections of the bourgeoisie that the working class had no stake in. Guesde summed up this position with the phrase “between cholera and the plague, one does not choose.” Engels was enraged, writing that Boulanger’s ties to royalists and the threat of war would be used to kill off the workers’ movement. Engels warned the Guesdists not to let their hatred of the bourgeois parties and the Third Republic blind them to the threat of a right-wing dictatorship.

You will get him all the same, the good Boulanger whom you crave, and the Socialists will be his first victims. For a First Consul has got to be impartial and, for every time he lets the blood of the Stock Exchange, he will place another curb on the proletariat, if only to even things out.33“Engels to Paul Lafargue. 1 April 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 288.

Engels told the workers that defending democracy was vital — so vital, in fact, that it could not be left to the bourgeoisie. Rather, socialists had to lead the fight to preserve democratic freedoms, using revolutionary methods.

Some Marxists, such as Paul Lafargue, were soft on Boulangism, seeing it as a movement expressing popular discontent with republican corruption. Lafargue believed that, since Boulanger was so popular, the POF should not attack him for fear of being isolated. If the socialists attacked Boulanger, Lafargue feared, they would be mistaken as bourgeois republicans, losing them votes.

Engels warned that it was not the job of socialists to just go along with the tide, even if Boulangism was momentarily popular, arguing that such a course was politically bankrupt. Rather, socialists needed to take a long-term view:

But if we are not to go against the popular current of momentary tomfoolery, what in the name of the devil is our business?34“Engels to Laura Lafargue. 4 February 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 262.

Engels stressed to Lafargue and Guesde that the options before them were not simply between the bourgeois parties and Boulanger, but that there was the third option of independent political action by the working class. He urged socialists to put up their own candidates, opposed to those in both camps. When the Marxists put up their own candidate in Paris in 1889 against the Boulangists, Engels hailed it as “at least one step in the right direction by proclaiming the necessity of an independent socialist candidature.”35“Engels to Laura Lafargue. 2 January 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 244. Engels reminded Lafargue, “For the past twenty years we have been advocating the formation of a Party that was distinct from and opposed to all bourgeois parties.”36“Engels to Paul Lafargue. 16 November 1889,” in MECW, vol. 48, 406.

For Engels, the lesson of the Boulanger affair was that the working class could not renounce the fight against reactionary populism or see it as just another inter-bourgeois affair, but that the working class had a stake in that struggle. To defeat reaction, the working class could not rely on the ballot box or the good graces of the ruling class. Rather, the working class needed to defend democratic freedoms, primarily by extra-parliamentary means and organizing their own independent party.

Winning the Peasants

One pressing issue facing the POF and the SPD was how to win the peasantry’s support. Both parties were heavily concentrated in the urban working class, and the peasantry made up the majority of the population in both France and Germany. But the peasantry had seemingly been written off by the socialist parties. Yet Marx and Engels opposed those sectarian tendencies. For instance, the Gotha Programme had been criticized by Marx and Engels for describing all classes outside of the proletariat as “one reactionary mass.” As Engels said to Kautsky in 1891, “So long as we are not strong enough to seize the helm of state ourselves and realise our principles there can be no talk, strictly speaking, of one reactionary mass vis-à-vis us. Otherwise the whole nation would be divided into a reactionary majority and an impotent minority.”37“Engels to Kautsky. 14 October 1891,” in MECW, vol. 49, 262. For Engels, the working class needed to win a majority of the oppressed and exploited under its leadership if there was to be a successful socialist revolution.

Engels followed developing trends in the peasantry with great interest. When the royalist-inclined French peasantry began accepting the Third Republic, Engels hailed it

as a change of the highest importance…. It means also the approaching alliance between the workingmen of the towns and the peasantry of the country…. The final establishment of the Republic has at last given the French workingmen the ground upon which they can organize themselves as an independent political party, and fight their future battles, not for the benefit of others, but for their own; the ground, too, upon which they can unite with the hitherto hostile mass of the peasantry and thus render future victories not, as heretofore, short-lived triumphs of Paris over France, but final triumphs of all the oppressed classes of France, led by the workmen of Paris and the large provincial towns.38Engels, “The Workingmen of Europe in 1877,” in MECW, vol. 24, 224–25.

As time passed, however, the peasantry presented itself to many in the SPD and POF as just another constituency to gain votes from. This brought to the surface opportunistic approaches to water down the party’s program and appeal to more affluent peasants. In Germany this trend was represented by Georg Vollmar and the Bavarian SPD. In France, this tendency manifested itself at Marseilles Conference (1892) and the Nantes Conference (1894), which sought to win over the large landholding peasantry, as opposed to small peasants and the agricultural proletariat. Engels countered these deviations by writing The Peasant Question in France and Germany (1894) in order to explain how socialists could win over the peasantry on basis of their revolutionary program.

Engels argued that the party should put forward policies to ease the lot of the poorer peasantry under capitalism and win their allegiance:

The material sacrifice to be made for this purpose in the interest of the peasants and to be defrayed out of public funds can, from the point of view of capitalist economy, be viewed only as money thrown away, but it is nevertheless an excellent investment because it will effect a perhaps tenfold saving in the cost of the social reorganization in general. In this sense, we can, therefore, afford to deal very liberally with the peasants.39Engels, The Peasant Question in France and Germany, in MECW, vol. 27, 498.

Here, Engels said the party must not make demagogic promises to the peasantry in order to win votes. Rather, the party needed to learn how to win the peasantry to the revolutionary struggle for socialism.

To stay true to its revolutionary program, the party must appeal primarily to the small peasants and agricultural proletariat. The party needed to win over small and even middle peasants by not making false promises about stopping capitalism’s effects in the countryside, and by insisting that it had no intention of forcibly expropriating the peasants under socialism:

To begin with, the French programme is absolutely correct in stating: that we foresee the inevitable doom of the small peasant, but that it is not our mission to hasten it by any interference on our part. Secondly, it is just as evident that when we are in possession of state power, we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners.40Ibid., 496.

In regard to the agricultural workers, Engels argued that the party needed to support expropriating large estates and to create the basis for large-scale socialized agriculture. Engels also stated, however, that it may be possible and easier to just buy out large landholders after the revolution: “We by no means consider compensation as impermissible in any event; Marx told me (and how many times!) that, in his opinion, we would get off cheapest if we could buy out the whole lot of them.”41Ibid., 500. For more on the attitude of Marx and Engels toward the peasantry, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 2, The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 358–452.

Engels’s approach to the peasantry was based on the need to create a worker-peasant alliance. To that end, he looked for those sections of the peasantry with the most to gain from a socialist revolution and how to win their support, or at least neutralize their hostility. While Engels was tactically flexible, he was unwilling to cross the line of sacrificing programmatic integrity. Opportunists in the POF and SPD recoiled against a “dogmatic” adherence to the party’s program and were willing to dilute its class character based on perceived short-term gains. Ultimately, Engels’s approach to the peasantry had nothing in common with this opportunism, but was foundational to the revolutionary tactics of Bolshevism.

The Testament

In the last years of Engels’s life, the POF finally broke out of its isolation and won its first major electoral breakthroughs. At the same time, the SPD won nearly a quarter of the vote in the 1893 Reichstag elections. Engels reasonably speculated that if current trends continued, the SPD could expect to win a majority in the next decade: “If the growth of our Party continues at its normal rate we shall have a majority between the years 1900 and 1910. And when we do, you may be assured we shall neither be short of ideas nor men to carry them out.”42“Interview of Frederick Engels by the Daily Chronicle Correspondent at the End of June 1893,” in MECW, vol. 27, 553.

Engels reflected on the success of socialists at the ballot box in his 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, sometimes referred to as his “Testament.” He observed that conditions had changed since the 1848 revolutions, enabling socialists to use the ballot box to their advantage: “With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions.”43Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France,” in MECW, vol. 27, 516. Engels noted the irony that made elections and legality appear as a reasonable course for socialists to pursue: “The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We, the ‘revolutionaries,’ the ‘rebels’ — we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves.”44Ibid., 522. He also observed that urban insurrections appeared to be outmoded: “Rebellion in the old style, the street fight with barricades, which up to 1848 gave everywhere the final decision, was to a considerable extent obsolete.”45Ibid., 517.

If this were the whole of Engels’s Testament, then perhaps Bernstein and Harrington could claim Engels for reformism and democratic socialism. Fortunately, this was not the whole story. Engels’s Testament was written with the knowledge of the restrictive press laws in Germany. As a result, he deliberately toned down his advocacy for armed revolution. Even Engels’s self-censorship was not enough for the SPD, who feared a resumption of the Anti-Socialist Laws if they gave off any hint of favoring revolution. As a result, Engels’s text was even further edited by Liebknecht to remove all passages devoted to street fighting, violence, and revolution. When Engels learned of these editorial changes, he wrote angrily to Kautsky,

I was amazed to see today in the Vorwärts an excerpt 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 entirety in the Neue Zeit in order that this disgraceful impression may be erased. I shall leave Liebknecht in no doubt as to what I think about it and the same applies to those who, irrespective of who they may be, gave him this opportunity of perverting my views and, what’s more, without so much as a word to me about it.46“Engels to Karl Kautsky. 1 April 1895,” in MECW, vol. 50, 486. For more background on Engels’s introduction, see A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (London: New Left Books, 1970), 33–36; Doug Enaa Greene, “Bullets and Barricades: On the Art of Insurrection,” Links, November 6, 2016.

One of the key passages removed from the text involved qualification on the obsolescence of street fighting. Here, Engels made it clear that street fighting was not permanently off the table for socialists: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not.”47Engels, “Introduction,” 519. Rather, because political and technical conditions had grown “far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military” in western Europe, future urban insurrections could “therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”48Ibid.

What were these “other factors” that Engels had in mind? Engels was clear that success in urban warfare required “shaking the steadfastness of the military.”49Ibid., 518. This meant winning socialist support from soldiers and ultimately splitting the army. As he had noted two years earlier, the German army was “becoming more and more infected with socialism. Today we have one soldier in five, in a few years’ time we shall have one in three, by 1900 the army, hitherto the most outstandingly Prussian element in Germany, will have a socialist majority.”50Engels, “Socialism in Germany,” in MECW, vol. 27, 240. For more on Engels and the need for revolutionaries to split the army, see Gilbert Achcar, “Engels: Theorist of War, Theorist of Revolution,” International Socialism 2, no. 97 (Winter 2002).

In his Testament, Engels says the ruling class is utterly powerless to prevent the growth of socialist parties. Read out of context, this could strengthen the opportunist position that socialists would inexorably gain more party members and votes, and peacefully create a socialist government. Engels did not share the illusions of what one might call “linear idiocy.” He did not expect the ruling class to let things get so far:

For a start, I have never said the socialist party will become the majority and then proceed to take 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.51Engels, “Reply to the Honourable Giovanni Bovio,” 271. For what Marx envisioned if a socialist government was voted into power, see Doug Enaa Greene, “Defending First Principles,” Blanquist, May 5, 2020.

Engels expected that the ruling class would strike first against the growing forces of socialism. In fact, he practically dared them to: “It remains to be seen whether it will be the bourgeois and their government who will be the first to turn their back on the law in order to crush us by violence. That is what we shall be waiting for. You shoot first, messieurs les bourgeois.”52Engels, “Socialism in Germany,” 241. If the bourgeois used violence, then Engels promised that the working class would respond in kind: “If, therefore, you break the constitution of the Reich, then the Social-Democracy is free, can do and refrain from doing what it will as against you. But what it will do then it will hardly give away to you today!”53Engels, “Introduction,” 523. This is hardly the advice of someone devoted to legality at all costs.

Engels Is Ours

Unlike Bernstein, Michael Harrington is at least honest enough to admit that Engels’s Testament was heavily edited. Yet both still claim Engels for their reformist and democratic socialist strategies. Neither has a claim to Engels. Engels spent a lifetime fighting the politics represented by Bernstein and Harrington. He defended the perspective of building a proletarian party based on a revolutionary program that uses flexible tactics and strategy, but he never retreated from fighting for the ultimate goal of communism. Therefore, on his 200th birthday, we should proudly remember Engels alongside Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky as one of the greatest communist revolutionaries.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.



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