Marx-Engels Correpondence 1889

Engels To Gerson Trier
In Copenhagen

London, 18 December 1889 [Draft]

Source: MECW, Volume 48 pp 423-5;
First published: in Russian in Bolshevik, No. 21, 1932.

Dear Mr Trier,

Many thanks for your interesting communication of the 8th.

Since you ask my opinion about the recent dramatic events in Copenhagen to which you fell victim, let me begin with one point upon which I am not of one mind with you.

You reject on principle any kind of collaboration, however transient, with other parties. I am revolutionary enough not to deprive myself even of this recourse in circumstances in which it would be more to our advantage or at any rate do us least harm.

That the proletariat cannot seize political power, which alone will open the doors to the new society, without violent revolution is something upon which we are both agreed. If the proletariat is to be strong enough to win on the crucial day, it is essential – and Marx and I have been advocating this ever since 1847 – for it to constitute a party in its own right, distinct from and opposed to all the rest, one that is conscious of itself as a class party.

This does not mean, however, that the said party cannot occasionally make use of other parties for its own ends. Nor does it mean that it cannot temporarily support other parties in promoting measures which are either of immediate advantage to the proletariat or spell progress in the direction of economic development or political freedom. I would support anyone in Germany who genuinely fought for the abolition of primogeniture and other feudal relics, of bureaucracy, protective tariffs, and Anti – Socialist Law and restrictions on the right of assembly and of association. If our German Party of Progress or your Danish Venstre were genuine radical-bourgeois parties and not just a miserable bunch of windbags who creep into their holes at the first threat uttered by Bismarck or Estrup, I would by no means unreservedly reject any kind of temporary collaboration with them having a specific end in view. When our deputies vote for a motion tabled by a different party – as they all too often have to do – even this could be described as a form of collaboration. But I would be in favour of it only if its immediate advantage to ourselves or to the country’s historical progress towards economic and political revolution was instantly apparent and worth the effort. And provided the proletarian class character of the party were not jeopardised thereby. Thus far and no further I am prepared to go. You will find this policy propounded as early as 1847 in the Communist Manifesto; we pursued it in 1848 in the International, everywhere.

Disregarding the question of morality – a point I am not concerned with here and shall therefore not discuss – I would, as a revolutionary, countenance any means, the most violent but also what may seem the most moderate, that were conducive to the ends.

Such a policy demands insight and strength of character, but what policy does not? It exposes us to the dangers of corruption, or so say the anarchists and friend Morris. Very well, if the working class is an assortment of blockheads and weaklings and downright venal blackguards, then we might as well pack up at once, for in that case neither the proletariat nor any of the rest of us would have an business to be in the political arena at all. Like all other parties, the proletariat will be best taught by its own mistakes, and from those mistake no one can wholly save it.

In my opinion, therefore, you are wrong on when you elevate what is primarily a question of tactics to the level of a question of principle. And so far as I'm concerned, the only question that confronts us at the start is a tactical one. A tactical error, however, may in certain circumstances, lead to an infringement of principle.

And here, so far as I can judge, you are right in criticising the tactics of the Hovedbestyrelsen. For years the Danish Left has been acting out an undignified comedy of opposition, nor does it ever tire of demonstrating its own impotence to the world at large. It has long since missed the opportunity – if ever it had one – of avenging the infringement of the Constitution by force or arms; indeed, an ever increasing proportion of the Left would seem to be yearning for reconciliation with Estrup. A genuinely proletarian party could not, or so it seems to me, collaborate with a party of that kind without in the long run forfeiting its class character as a working men’s party. Hence, in so far as you stress the class character of the movement as arguing against this policy, I can only agree with you.

Now as regards the methods adopted towards you and your friends by the Hovedbestyrelsen, such summary expulsion of an opposition from the party certainly occurred in the secret societies of 1840-51; the very secrecy of the organisation made this inevitable. It also occurred – not infrequently – among the English Physical Force Chartists under the dictatorship of O'Connor. But the Chartists, being a party specifically organised for the use of force as their very name implies, were subject to dictatorship, and expulsion was an act of military discipline. On the other hand I have heard of no such high handed procedure in time of peace save in the case of the Lassalleans in J. B. von Schweitzer’s ‘rigid organisation'; von Schweitzer had to make use of it because of his suspect dealings with the Berlin police, and in doing so only precipitated the disorganisation of the General German Workers’ Association. It would be most unlikely to occur to any of the socialist labour parties presently in existence – now that Mr Rosenberg has happily made himself scarce in America – to treat along Danish lines an opposition it had nurtured in its own bosom. No party can live and prosper unless moderate and extreme tendencies grow up and even combat one another within its ranks, and one which expels the more extreme tendencies out of hand will merely promote their growth. The labour movement depends on mercilessly criticising existing society, criticism is the breath of life to it, so how can it itself avoid being criticised or try and forbid discussion? Are we then asking that others concede us the right of free speech merely so that we may abolish it again within our own ranks?

If you should wish to publish the whole of this letter, I should have no objection.