Marx-Engels Correspondence 1881

Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis
In The Hague


Source: Marx and Engels Correspondence;
Publisher: International Publishers (1968);
First Published: Gestamtausgabe;
Translated: Donna Torr;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan in 2000;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

London, February 22, 1881

The "question" of the forthcoming Zürich Congress about which you inform me seems to me--a mistake. The thing to be done at any definite given moment of the future, the thing immediately to be done, depends of course entirely on the given historical conditions in which one has to act. But this question is in the clouds and therefore is really the statement of a phantom problem to which the only answer can be--the criticism of the question itself. No equation can be solved unless the elements of its solution are involved in its terms. Moreover the embarrassments of a government which has suddenly come into being through a people's victory have nothing specifically "socialist" about them. On the contrary. The victorious bourgeois politicians at once feel themselves embarrassed by their "victory" while the socialist can at least take action without any embarrassment. One thing you can at any rate be sure of: a socialist government does not come into power in a country unless conditions are so developed that it can above all take the necessary measures for intimidating the mass of the bourgeoisie sufficiently to gain time--the first desideratum [requisite]--for lasting action.

Perhaps you will point to the Paris Commune; but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people -- the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc.

The general demands of the French bourgeoisie laid down before 1789 were roughly just the same, mutatis mutandis [with corresponding alterations] as the first immediate demands of the proletariat are pretty uniformly to-day in all countries with capitalist production. But had any eighteenth-century Frenchman the faintest idea a priori beforehand of the way in which the demands of the French bourgeoisie would be accomplished? The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present. The dream that the end of the world was at hand inspired the early Christians in their struggle with the Roman Empire and gave them confidence in victory. Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government--while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides--all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].

It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen's Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers' congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.