Chris Harman


Red letters

(October 1993)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Collected Works, vol 46
Karl Marx & Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £40

Reviewing the letters of Marx and Engels as they come out, volume by volume, in the Collected Works, can never be easy. They cover the widest range of issues, from the important theoretical topics to the sort of trivia anyone puts on the back of holiday postcards – what the weather is like, how the family are doing, and, in Engels’ case, where to buy the best pint of beer in Bridlington. Yet they are fascinating to read, giving a much greater insight into the lives and thoughts of the founders of Marxism than any biography ever could.

This volume covers the last three years of Marx’s life. It shows Marx himself as increasingly ill, in more or less permanent pain from sores all over his back and sides, unable to work more than very spasmodically because of a debilitating cough, moving from London to Ramsgate to the Isle of Wight to Algeria to Monaco and back to London in a desperate search for a warm, dry climate, devastated first by the death of his wife Jenny and then by that of his daughter of the same name.

They show Engels as increasingly carrying alone the burdens he used to share with Marx – developing and popularising the theory, advising the socialist parties internationally, especially in France and Germany, and, on top of all this, worrying about the welfare of Marx and his family.

A vast range of theoretical and political questions are addressed. So there is Marx on Russia’s economic development,there is Marx and Engels’ vehement opposition to the seizure of Egypt by France and Britain and Marx’s denunciation of British exploitation of India.

I found three sets of letters of particular interest. First there are those about the German and French socialist parties – the one just banned by Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws after a period of legality, the other just legalised after the decade of repression which followed the crushing of the Paris Commune.

Marx and Engels found they had to deal with the problem which has always plagued the working class movement – the emergence of tendencies which believed it was possible to reform the existing system. In Germany they found themselves combating pressure to try to placate Bismarck from sections of the parliamentary caucus and the left wing intelligentsia. In France, the ‘possibilists’ who preached reform were soon breaking completely with the Marxists and using the law to try to get control of their paper.

Yet for Marx and Engels it was not good enough to fight the reformists simply by using revolutionary phraseology. That could encourage a sectarianism which would cut the revolutionaries off from the mass struggle and encourage concessions to the anarchists.

Second, there are those letters dealing with the question of nationalisation. One form the pressure to reformism took in Germany was to see something ‘socialist’ about Bismarck taking the railways into state ownership. Engels’ letters contain arguments which remain relevant today as governments right across the globe carry through denationalisation.

His central point is that state ownership by a capitalist state is not socialism. He recognises that in certain circumstances nationalisation can make the arguments for socialism easier to put across. But he also stresses that it is no harder qualitatively for a socialist revolution to deal with privatised rather than nationalised industries.

Finally, there are Engels’ comments on the national question among the South Slavs – or, as we would call them today, the ex-Yugoslavs.

Engels has been much attacked in recent years because he was insistent all his life that the nationalism of the South Slavs could not be treated in the same way as that of those who fought on the side of revolution in 1848 – the Poles, the Hungarians and the Italians. It is claimed that he was motivated by prejudice rather than by any consistent theoretical position.

But in one of his letters to Bernstein he insists it is not sentiment but theoretical reasoning which underlies his position: ‘Everyone of us, insofar as he has first gone through a liberal or radical phase, has emerged from it with ... feelings of sympathy for all “oppressed” nationalities, and I for one know how much time and study it took me to shake them off.’

What the ‘time and study’ had taught him was that objective conditions meant that the South Slav movement was necessarily weak, and its weakness ruled out any possibility of a South Slav state (at that time referred to as ‘Greater Serbia’) not dependent on outside forces to sustain it.

The nationalist movement was, he wrote, ‘simply the product of the “educated classes” in the towns and universities, the army and the civil service’.

The bulk of the population were, he noted, ‘divided into three denominations: Greek Orthodox, Catholics, including the so-called Croats, Mohammedans. Where these people are concerned religion counts necessarily more than nationality, as it is the aim of each denomination to predominate. So long as there’s no cultural advance such as would at any rate make toleration possible, a Greater Serbia would only spell civil war.’

Engels was, of course, writing at a time when the level of the means of production was much lower in the Balkans than today. He himself would no doubt have been astonished to see conditions still leading to civil war more than a century on. And for him, the outside force which alone could sustain a South Slav nationalism was Tsarism, which led him to consider the Slav nationalists as the enemy.

‘We must’, he insisted, ‘cooperate in the work of setting the West European proletariat free and subordinate everything else to this goal ... To stir up a general war for the sake of a few Herzegovians, which would cost a thousand times more lives than there are inhabitants in Herzegovina, isn’t my idea of proletarian politics’.

Such comments show that Engels had a much more perceptive view of the national question than those who criticised him both at the time and since – and a much greater understanding of how to fight oppression than those who back military intervention by the present day centre of reaction worldwide, US imperialism acting under the guise of the United Nations.

Last updated on 17 December 2009