Marx-Engels Correspondence 1885

Engels to August Bebel
In Plauen near Dresden


Published: Gesamtausgabe, International Publishers, 1942;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

London, 28 October, 1885

The chronic depression in all the decisive branches of industry also still continues unbroken here, in France and in America. Especially in iron and cotton. It is an unheard-of situation, though entirely the inevitable result of the capitalist system: such colossal over-production that it cannot even bring things to a crisis! The over-production of disposable capital seeking investment is so great that the rate of discount here actually fluctuates between 1 and 1½ percent. per annum, and for money invested in short term credits, which can be called in or paid off from day to day (money on call) one can hardly get ½ percent. per annum. But by choosing to invest his money in this way rather than in new industrial undertakings the money capitalist is admitting how rotten the whole business looks to him. And this fear of new investments and old enterprises, which had already manifested itself in the crisis of 1867, is the main reason why things are not brought to an acute crisis.

But it will have to come in the end, all the same, and then it will make an end of the old trade unions here, let us hope. These unions have peacefully retained the craft character which clung to them from the first and which is becoming more unbearable every day. No doubt you suppose that the engineers, joiners, bricklayers, etc., will admit any worker in their branch of industry without more ado? Not at all. Whoever wants admission must be attached as an apprentice for a period of years (usually seven) to some worker belonging to the union. This was intended to keep the number of workers limited, but had otherwise no point at all except that it brought in money to the apprentice's instructor, for which he did absolutely nothing in return. This was all right up to 1848. But since then the colossal growth of industry has produced a class of workers of whom there are as many or more as there are "skilled" workers in the trade unions and who can do all that the "skilled" workers can or more, but who can never become members. These people have been regularly penalised by the craft rules of the trade unions. But do you suppose the unions ever dreamt of doing away with this silly bunk? Not in the least. I can never remember reading of a single proposal of the kind at a Trade Union Congress. The fools want to reform society to suit themselves and not to reform themselves to suit the development of society. They cling to their traditional superstition, which does them nothing but harm themselves, instead of getting quit of the rubbish and thus doubling their numbers and their power and really becoming again what at present they daily become less – associations of all the workers in a trade against the capitalists. This will I think explain many things in the behaviour of these privileged workers to you.

What is most necessary of all here is that masses of the official labour leaders should get into Parliament. Then things will soon go finely; they will expose themselves quickly enough.

The elections in November will help a lot towards this. Ten or twelve of them are certain to get in, if their Liberal friends do not play them a trick at the last moment. The first elections under a new system are always a sort of lottery and only reveal the smallest part of the revolution they have introduced. But universal suffrage – and with the absence of a peasant class and the start England had in industrialisation the new franchise here gives the workers as much power as universal suffrage would give them in Germany – universal suffrage is the best lever for a proletarian movement at the present time and will prove to be so here. That is why it is so important to break up the Social Democratic Federation as quickly as possible, its leaders being nothing but careerists, adventurers and literary people. Hyndman, their head, is doing his very best in this way; he cannot wait for the clock to strike twelve, as it says in the folk song, and in his chase after successes discredits himself more every day. He is a wretched caricature of Lassalle.