Paul Mattick 1937

On the Engels-Kautsky Correspondence

Review of Engels-Kautsky Correspondence. Orbis-Verlag, Prague.
First Published: International Review, February 1937;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, July 2005.

Kautsky’s relations with Engels began in 1881. In explanation, Kautsky precedes the collection of letters with a short sketch of his own development, showing the great influence exercised by Engels in the making of Kautsky. The correspondence itself cannot contribute much to this. It contains little of theoretic matter. It sheds more light on the history of the Social-Democratic Party. Kautsky refers to Marx and Engels, in the typical social-democratic and philistine manner, as the “great masters,” the “Olympian,” the “Thunder God,” etc., whose successor he was to become. Soon after their first meeting, he found himself alone with Engels. Soon he drank beer with the Master. Kautsky was extremely honored “that Marx did not receive him in the same cold way with which Goethe received his young colleague Heine.” The apprentice honors the master, for he sees in himself the future master.

Engels’ remarks on the political questions of the time, as presented in these letters, are quite often in gross contradiction with later factual development; they will, nevertheless, be used as political kindling wood. His ideas on the question of nationalist independence movement, for example, do not lag far behind the Leninist nationalist policy, and are no more tenable in our time. What can be today — or what could have been in Engels’ own time — the meaning of the following: “It is historically impossible today for a great people to discuss earnestly its internal problems as long as it lacks national independence ... The Irish and Poles are most internationalist when they are nationalist” (2:7:82). If it is true that this nationalism contributed to the general development of contemporary society, it is also true that it has constituted and constitutes a reactionary element. This double significance of the nationalist movement finds itself excluded in Engels’ single-sided judgment.

From 1883 on, writes Kautsky, Engels regarded him and Bernstein as “the trustworthy representatives of Marxian theory,” and thus Kautsky adopted as his life work “the continuation of the scientific results of Marx’s investigation and thought.” At first, he was somewhat critical of the current “party stupidity,” and in a letter to Engels (5:29:84) described the party situation as follows:

“It is quite characteristic that nearly all the intellectuals in the Party ... Cry for colonies, for national thought, for a resurrection of the Teutonic antiquity, for confidence in the government, for having the power of ‘justice’ replace the class struggle, and they express a decided aversion for the materialist interpretation of history — Marxian dogma, they call it ... Most of them are distinguished for their learned obscurity.”

Such human material could not naturally have been guilty of treachery in 1914-1918. It merely remained true to itself. And it absorbed its former critic. The historic ground for this early degeneration was, as Engels wrote to Kautsky (11:8:84), that “the development of capitalism proved itself to be stronger than the revolutionary counter-pressure. A new upsurge against capitalist production needed a violent shock, as the loss by England of its dominion of the world market, a sudden revolutionary opportunity in France.”

In the meantime, the reformists raced among themselves, and Engels remained far behind the other real-politiker. In spite of all his privileges as a master, he permits himself to complain about the publication of the Critique of the Gotha Program (2:23:91): “It is in fact a brilliant thought to have German socialist science present, after its emancipation from the Bismarckian Socialist laws, its own Socialist laws, formulated by the officials of the Social-Democratic Party.”

Many letters written by Engels to Kautsky on the questions of the day point to strong reformist tendencies in Engels himself. His interest in preserving and strengthening the party organization brought him at times to counsel caution, as shown by his opinion of the general strike. It may be considered unfair to evaluate Engels on the basis of chance remarks, it is, however, important to emphasize that Engels rejoiced over Kautsky’s work in the measure that he developed “the democratic method of proletarian struggle in the democratic countries, in opposition to the policy of violence. I (Kautsky) stood then for the same policy that I defend also today” (page 366).