H.M. Hyndman Justice, 2 July 1910

The SDP and Marx and Engels

Source: letter Justice, p.5, 2 July 1910;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Russia was the foreign policy issue which separated Marx from mainstream and radical Liberal opinion more than any other and the publishing of the Eastern Question (A reprint of letters written 1853-1856 dealing with the events of the Crimean War by Karl Marx, edited by Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, 1897. Swan & Sonnenschein, pp.656.) in 1897 underlined that difference. Marx was talking about Russia in a different historical period and the Tsar was the enemy then, even if Hyndman thought the Kaiser had this role later. Why and when Aveling chose to edit it and publish The Eastern Question is of interest in itself (and it was Aveling’s choice). Like everything else Aveling did it was not “helpful.” All this will be dealt with in a forthcoming biography of Aveling by Deborah Lavin.

But some of these uncomfortable statements may be true about Engels. The great “Tory gold” scandal was originally in 1885 when Engels did not back Champion who was working with Hyndman. Engels only supported Champion after he had broken with Hyndman and then only until 1891, when Eleanor (and so Aveling) broke with Champion. – Note by transcriber, Ted Crawford 2010.

DEAR COMRADE, – I do not think Askew’s letter calls for much more comment so far as concerns the Labour Party. He is answered fully in this week’s “Justice.” I regret myself deeply, however, that our Conference at Manchester refused to offer to affiliate the S.D.P. to the Labour Party as a recognised Socialist Organisation, composed wholly and solely of avowed Social-Democrats. That, I consider, was a tactical blunder, the ill effects of which we have felt ever since. Had the Labour Party accepted our affiliation on these terms we completely retained our position as Socialists; had the Labour Party refused to accept our affiliation we should have rendered it impossible for the International Socialist Bureau to dump the Labourist tail of the tail of the Liberal Party on to the top of the Socialist movement without risking a universal cry of protest. However, that is all past and gone, and to join the Labour Party at present on any terms would be absurd indeed.

But I am a little tired of having Marx and Engels eternally trotted out as political Popes who ought to dominate our action even from their graves. Marx was, as all the world now knows, the greatest genius in political economy and historical sociology of modern times, and Engels was only second to him. I think I may fairly claim to have done more than any man living to spread the knowledge of their theories among the English-speaking peoples. Their vilification of myself has never checked me for a moment in this useful work. It would have been degrading to me in my own eyes if it had. Personal misunderstandings never affect my respect and admiration for genius. These great men, however, were not great in practical affairs, and their judgment of character was notoriously bad. They actually regarded Edward Aveling, Maltman Barry, H.H. Champion, and John Burns as the indispensable supporters of Socialism in Great Britain: we Social-Democrats, were the villains of the piece, and I who write to you was the arch-villain of all.

Now as to practical affairs. Engels himself, whom I never spoke to nor even saw, admitted, I am told, at the end of his life that he had been quite mistaken as to myself and my policy. He was a very arbitrary and malignant person was Friedrich Engels, and Mrs. Marx, a woman of great ability and charming character, herself told my wife she deeply lamented the influence he had had upon her husband. Anyhow, they were both wrong as to the course of events in Great Britain. In 1847 they, in opposition to the Chartists, who knew what they were talking about, predicted that the trade unions would be the nucleus of a great revolutionary movement, and they were always making similar mistakes. The Socialist League, whose foundation by Morris, Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Scheu, and Bax was the greatest blow organised Socialism has ever sustained in this country, was to sweep away the S.D.F. and constitute a powerful party. That was Engels’s view. He also wished to support Champion in his Labour electoral campaign; though that gentleman was intriguing with the Tories all the time, as to us was quite obvious, and as we proclaimed to the world. If, also, a claim should be made that Marx by himself was less liable to error in public affairs than Engels, I recommend the faithful to read his big tome on “The Eastern Question.” His daughter Eleanor was angry because I would not review it. Dip into it and learn why. But the advice of Marx and Engels at the time of the greatest crisis through which Socialism in Germany has ever passed was wholly wrong and harmful. Wilhelm Liebknecht told me himself that Marx and Engels were both bitterly opposed to the consolidation of the Marx Partei and the Schweitzer (Lassalle) Partei, and did their very utmost to prevent it. Yet that step was absolutely essential to the progress of socialism in Germany, and from that time onwards German Social-Democracy has never gone back. If, however, Marx and Engels could blunder so egregiously about the affairs of Germany in their own day, surely it is a little ridiculous to set them up in 1910 as infallible guides, on political matters in a foreign country, which they latterly surveyed chiefly from their study windows, and which they really never understood. I do not pretend to put myself on a level as at thinker with Marx an Engels, but I do say that in English affairs I have proved to be right, and they have proved to be wrong.

Let us, then, be content to admire them for the magnificent life-work they did, and to learn from them the theoretical basis of scientific Socialism. “Texts” from Marx, like texts from Aristotle, or from Paul of Tarsus, are not of much use to us in the practical Socialist work of to-day.

June 24. 1910.