Theo. Rothstein 1908

Marx, Engels, and the S.D.F.

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XII No. 3 March, 1908, pp. 109-116;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is an old experience that the kindness of some persons is more pernicious than their enmity. Here, “by the kindness of those who possess them,” a number of letters from Marx and Engels “have been placed at the disposal” of the Editor of the new “Socialist Review,” and the said Editor, without further ado, prints them in a prominent place under the attractive title, “Some Unpublished Letters,” & c. Alas for the poor Editor! He has been most atrociously imposed upon, as the letters have now been before the public for at least eighteen months as part of a large collection of over two hundred letters from various persons, including the two old masters, to F. A. Sorge, the last secretary of the International, who died in America in October, 1906.[1] Like all that has come from the pens of the founders of scientific Socialism, these letters have been read by all Socialists who know the German language, and were also read by us with great profit and enjoyment.

The reason why the Editor of the “Socialist Review” took so little care in arriving at the exact bibliographical value of the letters, lies, undoubtedly, in the circumstance that they contain a lot of disparaging remarks about the S.D.F. and Hyndman, while at the same time expressing some views on Socialist tactics which, on the face of them, appear to justify the policy of the I.L.P. with regard to the Labour Party. Our friends of the I.L.P. would have been more than human if they had successfully resisted the temptation to administer us of the S.D.F. a snub on the authority of our own teachers, for it is of them that Franz Mehring wrote in this very connection that “they who otherwise have much or everything to criticise in Marx and Engels are apt to consider every doubtful judgment passed by them on individuals as something like the knife of a guillotine which severs the head from the trunk for ever.” [2]

Now, it is no secret to anybody that between the founders of scientific Socialism and the father of Socialism in these islands there was not much love lost. The former, as these very letters show, were always prepared to acknowledge that no one in England understood Socialism better than our friend Hyndman. On the other hand, Hyndman, since he wrote that first Socialist book of his, “England for All,” never concealed either from himself or from the world at large what he owed to Marx. Yet the two parties were constantly at loggerheads. Hyndman was never weary of attacking Engels, as the “Grand Llama of Regent’s Park Road,” while the other two spoke of him as they do in their letters now published. Much, no doubt, was due to sheer temperament. Neither Marx and Engels nor Hyndman were of that metal which bends. Each belonged to different social milieus, were the products of different educations, and naturally soon came to clash against each other. That was all very human, and presents at present nothing but a biographical value. I am sure, when Hyndman read these angry outbursts of the two old Germans he felt considerably amused – so tremendously, in the light of posterior developments, have they missed fire. Indeed, one only has to read their letters to see that, with all their greatness in theoretical matters and their almost unerring judgment on broad questions of tactics, they were real past-masters in going wrong in their opinions of men and concrete issues. What they say of Hyndman is a mere bagatelle in comparison with what they say of other men. We all know that Bakunin was to them nothing but a spy. Much the same was to them another great Russian refugee, Alexander Herzen. Lassalle himself was in their eyes now an adventurer, and now a sectarian, and even Bebel and Liebknecht came in for a great deal of most violent abuse. On the other hand, what they say of a man like Aveling remains a monument of their partiality as melancholy in one sense as their other judgments are entertaining in another sense.[3] But as the same Mehring, than whom nobody better knows these men and their work, says “it would be unjust to weigh every angry word of Marx and Engels on too fine a scale .... Their characters were not amiable in the current and superficial phrase of our time, but those who can imagine them passionately consuming themselves in the service of their great cause – the greatest the world ever knew – will irresistibly be carried away by the clang and bang of their daily workshop. For that workshop was not a spinning room where the peaceful wheels revolve with a monotonous purr. Rather was it a smithy, where sparks flew in all directions from under the blows of the heavy hammers with which they were forging the tremendous weapons of the proletarian class war.”

And so, at present, we read the attacks on Hyndman and a multitude of others with interest, but never with resentment against their authors or malice against the victims: Those who will or cannot understand that Marx and Engels were full-blooded mortals who could never love or hate by halves, but must put their whole temperament into their feelings, will never understand their greatness as champions of the proletariat.

Much more serious, however, is their criticism of the S.D.F. as a political body and the view they held of Socialist policy, which we meet in these instructive letters. Their opinions in this case possess an interest much beyond the limits of biography – they are of an almost inestimable political value. We must discuss them seriously.

Let us first eliminate the personal element. A movement which was led by a man who was so distasteful to them as Hyndman stood but little chance of finding favour with Marx and Engels. It is, indeed, curious to observe to what lengths they allowed themselves to be carried away by their blind hatred of the S.D.F. and its leaders. At one time it would be heralded forth that the S.D.F. had received a blow from somebody or something from which it would never recover. Then it would be announced that a new and far more vital organisation had been formed in the shape of the Socialist League which would soon supplant the S.D.F. and make a real start with Socialism under the masses. Again, after the Socialist League had gone the way of miserable Anarchism, Engels would suddenly detect in the New Trade Unionism a sign of the impending Socialist awakening of the British masses, which would reduce the S.D.F. and its leaders to their “proper level.” Lastly, when Aveling started the agitation in the East End for a legal eight hours day, and the International Labour League came into existence, Engels could scarcely find adequate words to describe the world-wide importance of the movement, and felt sure that now the S.D.F. would surely disappear from the face of the earth. Even the formation of the I.L.P. was welcomed as an efficient rival to the S.D.F., though many of its leaders appeared to Engels as “comical persons."[4] It is easy to see how hopelessly wrong Engels was in his estimates of the vitality either of the S.D.F. or of its mushroom rivals. His errors must largely be explained by his antipathy to Hyndman, which prompted him to engage in prophecies which were only so many wishes. It recalls the somewhat similar attitude of Marx and Engels towards the Lassalleans, whom they constantly dubbed as sectarians and petty-bourgeois Socialists because they hated their leader. Their opposition to the fusion with them of the Eisenachers, which ultimately took place in 1875, at Gotha, was furious, and it did not abate even after Liebknecht had informed them that though their advice on theoretical questions would always be sought and accepted, on all questions of practical politics the party would judge and decide for itself.

When all is said and done, however, the charge preferred by .Marx and Engels against the policy of the S.D.F., as distinguished from its leaders, remains. That charge was, that its members regarded their Socialism as a dogma to be forced down the throats of the working class, and not as a movement which the proletariat has to go through with the assistance of the more conscious Socialist elements. The latter must accept the working-class movement at its starting point, go hand in hand with the masses, give the movement time to spread and consolidate, be its theoretical confusion never so great, and confine their efforts to pointing out how every reverse and every mistake was the necessary consequence of the theoretical inadequacy of the programme. As the S.D.F. did not do so, but insisted on the acceptance of the dogma as the necessary condition of their co-operation, it remained a sect and “came from nothing, through nothing, to nothing.”

Such was the charge. Was it justified? There can be no doubt that the Socialist policy as laid down by Marx and Engels in the above words was theoretically perfectly correct. It was in the Communist Manifesto that they had first proclaimed the principles of Socialist tactics by declaring that the Communists did not form a party separate from the general working-class movement, but represented in that movement its own future. One cannot help thinking, however, that when urging the same ideas thirty and forty years later upon the English Socialists they did not take sufficiently into account the difference in the conditions as between Germany of 1848 (it was primarily for German Communists that the Manifesto was composed) and England of the eighties. In Germany the proletariat was at the time mentioned only just evolving. It was largely as yet a raw material, confused but plastic, whose chief disadvantage, from the Socialist standpoint, consisted in the multitude of petty bourgeois notions under which it was still labouring. It was clearly the duty of Socialists to bring light into those masses by moving together with them much as a good pedagogist moves in the midst of his children, guarding them, when possible, against mistakes, but never lecturing them, never placing himself above them, always keeping patience with them, invariably allowing them to learn through mistakes and failures. This is the soundest line of conduct in all young capitalist countries, such as Germany was half a century ago, or America was in the early eighties, or Russia is at the present moment. It was also the policy of the Chartists in the latter thirties and early forties, when the British proletariat had just discovered for the first time its fundamental distinction from the middle classes.

Very different was the position in England in the eighties, when the Socialist movement was started by Hyndman and the S.D.F. The English working-class was no longer a raw material which one might help to shape according to one’s better light. It was well organised in trade unions, it had behind it a long and very pronounced historical experience, it had its traditions and acquired habits of mind – in short, it was a manufactured article, as it were. And what was still more important, those traditions and habits of mind were thoroughly bourgeois – not negatively-bourgeois as is the case with a working-class still unripe, but positively-bourgeois as comes from over-ripeness. In these circumstances what could and should have been the policy of the Socialists? The principles laid down in the Communist Manifesto were correct as ever – only they were in the English conditions of the eighties utterly inapplicable. By no permanent and intimate co-operation with the masses, such as was urged by Marx and Engels, could the Socialists have hoped “to revolutionise them from within”; on the contrary, what would have been achieved was merely the adaptation of the Socialists to the mental level of the masses which spelt not confusion” not theoretical unripeness, but Liberalism. Those who doubt this need only turn to the fate of those numerous ex-Socialists who have left the S.D.F. and “gone over” to the masses, but are now to be found in the ranks of the two bourgeois parties. The English working-class was not to be revolutionised from within, as many attempts, started with the blessings of Engels. himself, have proved by their dismal failure. Indeed, the International itself, in so far as Marx, in starting it, had the hope of “revolutionising” the British trade unions, was a ghastly failure – not only did the trade unions prove obstinate in their Liberalism and bourgeois Radicalism, but they ultimately withdrew, and the whole business collapsed.

No, however lamentable it may appear now, a certain intransigence, a certain modicum of impossibilism, was in those days not only inevitable but really necessary, if the Socialist movement was to subsist. It was all very well for Engels – and the idea is still entertained largely even now – to ascribe the impossibilist tendencies of the S.D.F. of that time to the baneful influence of Hyndman and other leaders; rather were Hyndman and his colleagues themselves semi-impossibilists only because the condition of their work demanded it. No other organisation, with totally different men at the top, would have conducted itself differently; if it had, it would have disappeared where the S.D.F. had survived.

And what is true of twenty-five years ago is but a shade less true now. The editor of the “Socialist Review,” no doubt, sees in the arguments of Engels, as used by him against the German Socialists in America and the S.D.F. in England, a justification of the policy of the I.L.P. in allying itself with the Labour Party. He only forgot that while urging the Socialists to go hand in hand with the masses Engels at the same time urged upon them “to represent the future of the movement in the present of the movement,” which our friends of the I.L.P. are careful not to do. Nor is our Editor evidently aware of what Engels spoke in another connection about “selling the principle to the bourgeoisie in exchange for concessions in detail, especially for well-paid posts for the leaders.” However, we do not blame him. No one would have been better under the circumstances, and it is just because of that that the S.D.F. has withdrawn from the Labour Party, and has still, in spite of the Hull resolution, some doubts as to whether it ought to rejoin it. For though much of the former bourgeois spirit has left the ranks of the organised workers of this country, plenty more still remain, and as the example of the I.L.P. has shown, permanent co-operation with them may still mean the abandonment of all Socialist principles without gaining the slightest chance of “revolutionising them from within.” OOf course, it may reasonably be expected that we, of the S.D.F., will behave rather differently from our friends of the I.L.P.. Unfortunately it is not a question of will and intention, but of what one may be compelled to do under conditions of a bloc. And these conditions are still largely such that neither we nor anybody else could, with any hope of success, try “to represent the future of the movement in the present of the movement,” actively, I mean, not passively. Under these circumstances the tactical principles of the Communist Manifesto remain still inapplicable in this country, though perfectly correct in theory.

Th. Rothstein.

1. “Briefe und Auszüge aus Briefen von Joh. Phil. Becker, Jos. Dietzen, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx u. an F.A. Sorge und Andere,” J.H.W. Dietz Nachfolger, Stuttgart.

2. “Neue Zeit,” xxv., N. 2.

3. Their opinion of Burns deserves notice: He is vain .... but with all that he is the only really honest fellow in the movement, and is, among the leaders, the one who possesses a thoroughly proletarian instinct, which will, I think, guide him at the decisive moment far better than the cunning and interested calculation will guide the others.” – Engels to Sorge, Nov. 10, 1894.

4. Engels to Sorge, March 18, 1893.