Marx-Engels Correspondence 1890

Engels to Paul Ernst

Written: June 5, 1890;
Source: Ibsen ed. Angel Flores, Critics Group, New York, 1937;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan in 2000;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

Unfortunately I cannot comply with your request to write you a letter that you could use against Herr Bahr. This would involve me in an open polemic against him, and for that I would literally have to rob myself of the time. What I write here, therefore, is intended only for you personally.

Furthermore, I am not at all acquainted with what you call the feminist movement in Scandinavia; I only know some of Ibsen’s dramas and have not the slightest idea whether or to what extent Ibsen can be considered responsible for the more or less hysterical effusions of bourgeois and petty bourgeois women careerists.

On the other hand the field covered by what is generally designated as the woman question is so vast that one cannot, within the confines of a letter, treat this subject thoroughly or say anything half-way satisfactory about it. This much is certain, that Marx could never have "adopted the attitude" ascribed to him by Herr Bahr; after all, he was not crazy.

As for your attempt to explain this matter from the materialist viewpoint, I must tell you from the very first that the materialist method is converted into its direct opposite if instead of being used as a guiding thread in historical research it is made to serve as a ready-cut pattern on which to tailor historical facts. And if Herr Bahr thinks he has caught you in a mistake, it seems to me that he is somewhat justified.

You classify all Norway, and everything happening there, as petty bourgeois, and then, without the slightest hesitation, you apply to this Norwegian petty bourgeoisie your ideas about the German petty bourgeoisie.

Now two facts stand in the way here.

In the first place: at a time when throughout all Europe the victory over Napoleon spelled a victory of reaction over revolution, when only in its homeland, France, was the revolution still capable of inspiring enough fear to wrest from the re-established Bourbons a bourgeois liberal constitution, Norway was able to secure a constitution far more democratic than any constitution in Europe at that time.

In the second place, during the course of the last twenty years Norway has had a literary renaissance unlike that of any other country of this period, except Russia. Petty bourgeois or not, these people are creating more than anywhere else, and stamping their imprint upon the literature of other countries, including Germany.

If you study these facts carefully you will surely agree that they are incompatible with the fashion of ranking the Norwegians in a class with the petty bourgeoisie, particularly the German variety these facts demand, in my opinion, that we analyze the specific characteristics of the Norwegian petty bourgeoisie.

You will no doubt then perceive that we are here faced with a very important difference. In Germany the petty bourgeoisie is the product of an abortive revolution, of an arrested, thwarted development; it owes its peculiar and very marked characteristics of cowardice, narrowness, impotence and ineffectuality to the Thirty Years War and the ensuing period during which almost all of the other great nations were, on the contrary, developing rapidly. These traits remained with the German petty bourgeoisie even after Germany had again been carried into the stream of historical development; they were pronounced enough to engrave themselves upon all the other German social classes as more or less typically German, until the day when our working class broke through these narrow boundaries. The German workers are with justification all the more violently “without a country” in that they are entirely free of German petty bourgeois narrowness. Thus the German petty bourgeoisie does not constitute a normal historical phase, but an extremely exaggerated caricature, a phenomenon of degeneration. The German petty bourgeoisie is classic only because of the extreme exaggeration of its petty bourgeois characteristics. The petty bourgeoisie of England, France, etc., are on an altogether different level than the German petty bourgeoisie.

In Norway, on the other hand, the small peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, together with a limited section of the middle class – just as in England and France in the seventeenth century, for example – have for several centuries represented the normal state of society. Here there can be no question of a violent return to outdated conditions as a consequence of some great defeated movement or a Thirty Years War. The country has lagged behind the times because of its isolation and natural conditions, but its situation has always corresponded to its conditions of production, and, therefore, been normal. Only very recently have manifestations of large scale industry sporadically made their appearance in the country, but that mighty lever of the concentration of capital, the Bourse, is lacking, and furthermore the powerful shipping industry also exerts a conservative influence, for while throughout the rest of the world steamboats are superseding sailing vessels, Norway is expanding considerably her sailing vessel navigation, and possesses, if not the greatest, then at all events the second greatest fleet of sailing ships in the world, belonging mostly to small shipowners, just as in England around 1720. Nevertheless this circumstance has infused new vitality into the old lethargic existence, and this vitality has made itself felt also in the literary revival.

The Norwegian peasant has never known serfdom, and this fact gives an altogether different background to the whole development of the country, as it did in Castile. The Norwegian petty bourgeois is the son of a free peasant and for this reason he is a man compared to the miserable German philistine. Likewise the Norwegian petty bourgeois woman is infinitely superior to the wife of a German philistine. And whatever the weaknesses of Ibsen’s dramas, for instance, they undoubtedly reflect the world of the petty and the middle bourgeoisie, but a world totally different from the German world, a world where men are still possessed of character and initiative and the capacity for independent action, even though their behavior may seem odd to a foreign observer.