Marx-Engels Correspondence 1885

Engels to Vera Zasulich
In Geneva


Published: Gesamtausgabe, International Publishers, 1942;
Additional text from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

London, 23 April, 1885

Dear Citizen

I still owe you a reply to your letter of 14 February. The delay, certainly not to be ascribed to laziness on my part, was due to the following circumstances.

You asked for my judgment of Plekhanov's book, Nashi Raznoglassiya [Our Differences]. To deliver this I should have to read the book, and I can read Russian fairly easily when I have occupied myself with it for a week. But there are full half-years in which this is impossible for me; then I lose practice and am obliged to learn it over again, so to speak. This has been the case with me over Our Differences. Marx's manuscripts, which I am dictating to a secretary, keep me busy the whole day; in the evening come visitors whom one cannot after all turn out; there are proofs to be read and much correspondence to be dealt with, and finally there are the translations of my Origin, etc. (Italian, Danish, etc.) which I am asked to revise and the revision of which is at times neither superfluous nor easy. Well, all these interruptions have prevented me from getting further than to page 60 of Our Differences. If I had three days to myself the thing would be finished with and I should have refreshed my knowledge of Russian as well.

Meanwhile the piece of the book which I have read is enough, I think, to acquaint me more or less with the differences in question.

First of all I repeat to you that I am proud to know that there is a party among the youth of Russia which frankly and without ambiguity accepts the great economic and historic theories of Marx and which has decisively broken with all the anarchist and slightly Slavophil traditions of its predecessors. And Marx himself would have been equally proud of this had he lived a little longer. It is an advance which will be of great importance for the revolutionary development of Russia. To me the historic theory of Marx is the fundamental condition of all reasoned and consistent revolutionary tactics; to discover these tactics one has only to apply the theory to the economic and political conditions of the country in question.

But to do this one must know these conditions; and so far as I am concerned I know too little about the actual situation in Russia to presume myself competent to judge the details of the tactics demanded by this situation at a given moment. Moreover, the internal and intimate history of the Russian revolutionary party, especially that of the last years, is almost entirely unknown to me. My friends among the Narodovoltsy have never spoken to me about it. And this is an indispensable element towards forming one's opinion.

What I know or believe about the situation in Russia impels me to the opinion that the Russians are approaching their 1789. The revolution must break out there in a given time; it may break out there any day. In these circumstances the country is like a charged mine which only needs a fuse to be laid to it. Especially since March 13. This is one of the exceptional cases where it is possible for a handful of people to make a revolution, i.e., with one small push to cause a whole system, which (to use a metaphor of Plekhanov's) is in more than labile equilibrium, to come crashing down, and thus by one action, in itself insignificant, to release uncontrollable explosive forces. Well now, if ever Blanquism—the phantasy of overturning an entire society through the action of a small conspiracy—had a certain justification for its existence, that is certainly in Petersburg. Once the spark has been put to the powder, once the forces have been released and national energy has been transformed from potential into kinetic energy (another favourite image of Plekhanov's and a very good one)—the people who laid the spark to the mine will be swept away by the explosion, which will be a thousand times as strong as themselves and which will seek its vent where it can, according as the economic forces and resistances determine.

Supposing these people imagine they can seize power, what does it matter? Provided they make the hole which will shatter the dyke, the flood itself will soon rob them of their illusions. But if by chance these illusions resulted in giving them a superior force of will, why complain of that? People who boasted that they had made a revolution have always seen the next day that they had no idea what they were doing, that the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make. That is what Hegel calls the irony of history, an irony which few historic personalities escape. Look at Bismarck, the revolutionary against his will, and Gladstone who has ended in quarrelling with his adored Tsar.

To me the most important thing is that the impulse should be given in Russia, that the revolution should break out. Whether this fraction or that fraction gives the signal, whether it happens under this flag or that flag matters little to me. If it were a palace conspiracy it would be swept away tomorrow. There where the position is so strained, where the revolutionary elements are accumulated to such a degree, where the economic situation of the enormous mass of the people becomes daily more impossible, where every stage of social development is represented, from the primitive commune to modern large-scale industry and high finance, and where all these contradictions are violently held together by an unexampled despotism, a despotism which is becoming more and more unbearable to the youth in whom the national worth and intelligence are united—there, when 1789 has once been launched, 1793 will not be long in following.

I shall now bid you farewell, dear Citizen. It is half past two at night and tomorrow I shall have no time to add anything before the mail leaves. If you prefer, write to me in Russian, but please do not forget that Russian script is something I do not get to read every day.

Yours sincerely
F Engels