“The most powerful mind in our party has ceased thinking;
the mightiest heart that I have ever known has ceased beating”
By Marcos Margarido
After Marx’s death on the 14th March 1883, Engels found himself alone to continue the political task the two had undertaken throughout their adult lives. Even with Marx laid out on his death bed, he couldn’t “conceive that this man of genius has ceased to fructify the proletarian movement of both worlds with his stupendous ideas” and said that everything this movement had achieved was due to Marx, from a theoretical and practical point of view.
It is impossible to imagine the emptiness that has reached him. Even more so because Marx had told Eleanor, his baby daughter, that the Capital manuscript (the first volume of which had already been published) should be edited by Engels. Obviously, he was the only one Marx trusted to keep his ideas intact.
However, let us not think that the one who defined himself as the second violin of that orchestra was a person of dependent character. Marx would not stand for such a friend. In fact, Engels became a communist before Marx and was already writing The Condition of the Working Class in England, which contains the outline of various concepts used by Marx in his Capital when they began their mutual collaboration. When his mother reprimanded him for being in the company of that “communist”, Engels replied that nothing would change if Marx had not ever existed and that, in fact, it was Marx’s family who would say that “I had corrupted him“.
In this article, we will address some aspects of Engels’ political life after Marx’s death to assess whether he would have maintained the same strategy expressed in the founding text of modern communism, the Communist Manifesto. Would Gustav Mayer’s words, in Friedrich Engels, A Biography, that “the ideal that remained alive in the great detractor of philistinism at the age of sixty was the same as that of the twenty-two-year-old” be true?
Marx was still alive when the government of the German Empire, led by Bismarck, implemented the anti-socialist law in 1878, but it was Engels who fought a real battle against the leaders of the German party to resist the temptation to capitulate to it in order to prevent the ban of the party. This law banned the German Workers’ Party (the name of the German Social Democratic Party, SPD, at the time) from public life, prohibited the publishing of newspapers, the functioning of headquarters, and any action identified with the party, such as union action. But it allowed members to stand as independent candidates in elections.
In view of this, the majority of social-democratic MPs, the only ones who could now, thanks to parliamentary immunity, take on the representation of the party, defended the submission of the party to the new conditions imposed, to abandon its class character and establish contacts with the democratic wing of the bourgeoisie in order to keep its legality.
Faced with this, Engels replied “that we couldn’t think of lowering the proletarian flag which we had held aloft for nigh on 40 years, still less join in the general petty-bourgeois fraternisation fantasies against which we had been fighting, again for nigh on 40 years.”
His anger was directed particularly at the “cult persons” of the party, at the petit-bourgeois parliamentarians and leaders, to whom he pointed the front door:
“If the gentlemen constitute themselves a Social-Democratic petty-bourgeois party, they are fully within their rights: in that case, we could negotiate with them and, according to circumstances, form an alliance with them, etc. But within a workers’ party they are an adulterating element.”
The battle was not easy. It was years before Engels and Marx agreed to write again for The Social Democrat, published in Switzerland and smuggled into Germany because they were very suspicious of the direction the party was taking.
But the MPs minority had much more prominence, as they included the two main party leaders, Bebel and Liebknecht. Little by little, they managed to rebuild the connections broken by clandestinity and provided the party with a policy of confronting the law.
Finally, in 1880, the first congress held under the anti-socialist law, in Switzerland, passed resolutions that gave Engels and Marx the certainty that the party was back on course.
The conviction that the winds of historical events were blowing strongly in the sails of social democracy was a major factor in this. In 1874, Engels said that, finally, the establishment of a large industry and a modern bourgeoisie generated a really powerful proletariat. It was to this proletariat that he turned his eyes, for “we have never seen a proletariat capable of learning in such a short time to act collectively and to march in closed ranks.” And much of this collective action around the party was due to the anti-socialist law itself, which “taught” the working class to defend their party from attacks by the bourgeoisie.
Although clandestine action in the unions was maintained, the parliament became the party’s main instrument of public action due to the anti-socialist law. But not without problems. The German social democracy had a motto: “No one person; no one penny for this system.” This meant not voting for any budget proposals in favour of the government, as it would be strengthening the oppressive state that was to be destroyed.
But whenever Bismarck presented a bill that involved the granting of credits to certain sectors, Social Democrat MPs defended its approval on the pretext, for example, that it could offer new jobs for the working class. Engels was against this way of looking at things, even when the government implemented a form of insurance for the working class, which today we could compare with unemployment insurance, something unprecedented at the time.
In 1885, Bismarck presented a policy of granting subsidies to steamships companies, which generated expectations in the working class, since it could open up many jobs in the shipyards of the country. Some Social-Democratic MPs began to support this proposal, even if it was clear that it was a colonial policy of exporting German products. Engels, taking these expectations into account, defined his parliamentary tactics:
“To my mind, your best way of dealing with all such questions, if you want to take account of the voters’ petty-bourgeois prejudices, is to say: ‘On principle we’re against it. But since you wish us to make positive proposals and since you maintain that these things would also be of benefit to the workers, which we contest in so far as anything more than a microscopic advantage is concerned — well and good. You must place workers and bourgeoisie on an equal footing. For every million you take from the worker’s pocket and give to the bourgeoisie, directly or indirectly, you must give the workers a million; the same applies to loans made by the state’.”
And he told Liebknecht, criticizing the position of Social-Democratic MP Schumacher, that to respect the illusions of the voters, whenever the state wanted to offer subsidies to the bourgeoisie, the MPs should “vote in favour only if a like amount of state aid is directly allocated for the benefit of the workers, both urban and rural…”
It is clear that this tactic had the objective of clarifying to the working class why the proposals coming from the government must be rejected, not to make any agreement with it. Therefore, when Bebel expressed doubts, Engels explained:
“It is perfectly true that, when we propose something positive, our proposals should always be practicable. But practicable as such, regardless of whether the present government can implement them. I would go even further and say that, if we propose socialist measures conducive to the downfall of capitalist production (as these are), we should restrict them to such as are essentially feasible, but could not be implemented by this government.”
What amazing lessons Engels leaves us on parliamentary tactics!
Of course, this parliamentary tactic was at the service of a revolutionary strategy of seizing power by the working class through a necessarily violent, socialist revolution. Engels’ compass never stopped pointing to that north.
However, it is necessary to understand that the concrete struggle of the working class was the achievement of the democratic republic, for the revolutionary destruction of the German Empire, because the bourgeoisie had demonstrated its incapacity to carry out this task which was historically their own. Marx and Engels had already reached this conclusion after the betrayal of the democratic revolution of 1848 by the bourgeoisie. In 1850 Marx claimed that the flag of this struggle was passing into the hands of the working class, even if it had to go through the various petty-bourgeois options of “true socialism” ahead.
But the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the realisation of communism were never absent from this objective, neither in 1850, when Marx declared the “permanence of the revolution” until its final objective, nor at that time when Engels foresaw the victory of the working class for “the end of the century“. In 1883, he maintained the same reasoning:
“Similarly in our case the first, immediate result of the revolution can and must, so far as form is concerned, be nothing other than a bourgeois republic. But in this instance it will be no more than a brief, transitional period since fortunately we do not possess a purely republican bourgeois party. A bourgeois republic with, perhaps, the Party of Progress at the helm, will serve us at first to win over the great mass of the workers to revolutionary socialism — which will have been effected in a year or two — and will be conducive to the thorough erosion and self-destruction of all possible intermediate parties but not ours. Only then can we successfully take over.”
The achievement of the Republic was a fundamental issue. But it was not a question of declaring the republic after obtaining a parliamentary majority or of making agreements with the more progressive bourgeois republican parties. Parliamentary victories were important and he saw the achievement of a majority as possible, but only as a foothold for triggering the workers’ revolution in the streets.
This is what he told Paul Lafargue, leader of the Marxist-oriented French Workers’ Party, in 1894:
“But 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.”
But for him, this was not enough. For even a majority of workers would be easy prey for the powerfully armed German army. His reasoning, which several detractors call reformist, of waiting for an electoral majority to launch an attack, had a mandatory complement: to win the rank and file of the armed forces, a need that he didn’t stop repeating in the last articles of his life. In analysing the result of the 1887 general election, when the Social Democratic Party won about 600,000 votes, a spectacular achievement, Engels did not let himself be carried away by the siren song of parliamentarianism. He said that “the ballots allow us to calculate our strength“, not in parliament but in the support of the workers’ battalions, and concluded:
“And when I say battalions and army corps I am not speaking metaphorically. At least half if not more of these men of 25 (the minimum age) who voted for us spent two to three years in uniform and they know perfectly well how to handle a needle gun and a rifled cannon, and they belong to the army reserve. A few years more of this sort of progress and we shall have the reserves and the Landwehr (three-quarters of the war army) with us in such a way as to immobilise the armed forces as a whole and make any kind of offensive war impossible…”.
The conquest of the republic was only one step towards revolutionary socialism, and the two things were not dissociated. Regarding the electoral programme for the countryside, for example, Engels said in 1894 that “as soon as our Party is in possession of political power, it has simply to expropriate the big landed proprietors, just like the manufacturers in industry.” That is the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.
Why was Engels so sure of the revolutionary victory of the masses? Firstly, because of the march of historical events, as we have already seen. But this march would have been of no use if a proletariat capable of fulfilling its historical task had not been forged. And Engels had unshakeable confidence in the working class. In 1884 he would make a synthesis of these two conditions:
“It is greatly to our advantage that in Germany the industrial revolution should not really have got going until now, whereas in France and England it is for the most part complete… In this way we have achieved an industrial revolution that is more thoroughgoing and fundamental, more extensive and comprehensive than in any other country; we have done so with a completely fresh, intact proletariat, undemoralised by defeat and, finally — thanks to Marx — with an insight into the causes of economic and political developments and into the prerequisites for the impending revolution such as none of our predecessors possessed. But for that very reason we are under an obligation to win.”
The founding of the II International
This expansion of the working class, as well as its struggles, resulted in the organisation of socialist parties in Europe, influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Marxism. In France, the Workers’ Party was founded; in England, New Unionism emerged – in which Eleanor Marx played an important role – outside the bureaucratic structure of the unions linked to the TUC.
This rise of the working class opened up the possibility of their international reorganisation, the last expression of which was the I International, which was brought to an end after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. A demonstration of this was the similar resolutions adopted by the German Social Democratic Party and the TUC at their 1888 congresses to convene an international meeting to discuss labour legislation. After the meeting convened by the TUC, it was decided to convene a broader meeting in Paris on the occasion of the centenary of the French Revolution (4 July).
It was in this circumstance that Engels came on the scene, as the task of convening and organising it was given to the so-called Possibilists, a French organisation that restricted the struggle of the proletarian movement to what was “possible” to achieve. He could not admit that an “alliance between the Possibilists and the Social Democratic Federation was meant to constitute the nucleus of the new International which was to be founded in Paris.”
According to him, “the persistent efforts of the Possibilists and Hyndmanites to sneak into the leadership of a new International, by means of their congresses, made a struggle unavoidable for us, and here is the only point in which I agree with Brousse: that it is the old split in the International over again, which now drives people into two opposite camps. On one side the disciples of Bakunin, with a different flag but with all the old equipment and tactics, on the other side the real working-class movement.”
Engels asked the French Workers’ Party, whose leaders were Lafargue and Guesde, to convene an international congress in Paris on the same date as the Possibilists’ congress; in England, he co-authored a pamphlet with Bernstein to expose Hyndman and accusing the Possibilists of being “the recipient of reptile funds of the Opportunists, i.e. haute finance (high finance)”; and wrote to the small socialist parties throughout Europe explaining the situation and inviting them to the Workers’ Party congress.
But the greatest effort was made to convince the German party. Some leaders were in favour of participating in the Possibilists Congress, and Liebknecht and Bebel tried at all costs to unite the two sectors. Liebknecht was always concerned to find conciliatory solutions because he considered it regrettable to give the proprietary classes the spectacle of two international socialist congresses that would rival each other. For Engels, as the Possibilists’ congress succeeded in attracting only “non-Socialist or half-Socialist Trades Unions“, with “a quite distinct character from ours,” the question of the merger was a secondary one, and “two such congresses may it side by side, without scandal.”
The International (Socialist) Working Men’s Congress was held in Paris on 14-20 July 1889 and became a constituent congress of the Second International. A total of 393 delegates took part, representing workers’ and socialist parties of 20 countries of Europe and America. One of the main resolutions of the congress was the campaign for the enactment of an 8-hour working day and to hold meetings in support of this demand on 1 May 1890.
Engels was thrilled with the result and stated that “my services are no longer needed.” He would return to the work of editing Book III of the Capital and to his literary activity, left aside for a few months to ensure that the Second International would be a Marxist organization.