Leon Trotsky

Engels’ Letters to Kautsky

(October 1935)

Written: October, 1935
First Published: The New International [New York], Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.73-78.
Translated: The New International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Proofread: Andy Pollack.
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THE YEAR 1935 marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Friedrich Engels, one of the authors of the Communist Manifesto. The other author was Karl Marx. This anniversary is notable, among other things, for the fact that Karl Kautsky, having passed his eighty-first year, has finally published his correspondence with Engels. To be sure, Kautsky’s own letters have been preserved only in rare instances, but almost all of Engels’ letters have come down to us. The new letters of course do not reveal a new Engels. His enormous international correspondence, as much of it as was preserved, has been published almost in its entirety; his life has been subjected to ample study. Nevertheless this latest book is a very valuable gift to those who are seriously interested in the political history of the final decades of the last century, the course of development of Marxian ideas, the destiny of the working class movement and, finally, in the personality of Engels.

During Marx’s lifetime, Engels, as he himself put it, played second fiddle. But with his co-worker’s last illness, and especially after the latter’s death, Engels became the direct and unchallenged leader of the orchestra of world socialism for a period of twelve years. By that time Engels had long rid himself of his commercial ties; he was entirely independent so far as money was concerned, and he was able to devote his entire time to editing and publishing the literary legacy of Marx, to pursue his own scientific researches, and to engage in an enormous correspondence with the Left wingers of the working class movement in all countries. His correspondence with Kautsky dates to the closing period of Engels’ life (1881-1895).

Engels’ personality, unique in its purposefulness and lucidity, has been subjected to diverse interpretations in the ensuing years – such is the logic of the struggle. Suffice to recall that during the last war, Ebert, Scheidemann and others portrayed Engels as a German patriot, while the publicists of the Entente pictured him as a Pan-Germanist. On this, as well as other points the letters help to strip away tendentious encrustations from Engels’ personality. But their gist does not lie here. The letters are remarkable primarily because they are characteristic of the man. One can say without fear of exaggeration that every new human document pertaining to Engels reveals him to have been finer, nobler and more fascinating than we had previously known.

The second party to the correspondence has also a claim to our interest. In the early Eighties, Kautsky came to the fore in the role of the official theoretician of then German social democracy, which in its own turn, became the leading party in the Second International. As was the case with Engels during Marx’s lifetime, so Kautsky, too, played at best second fiddle while Engels lived – and he did his playing at a great remove from the first violinist. After Engels’ death, the authority of the disciple grew rapidly, reaching its zenith during the epoch of the first Russian Revolution (1905) ... In his commentary to the correspondence, Kautsky describes his agitation on his first visit to the homes of Marx and Engels. A quarter of a century later, many young Marxists – in particular the writer of this article – experienced the very same agitation as they climbed the stairway of the modest, tidy house in Friedenau, in the suburbs of Berlin, where Kautsky lived for many years. He was then considered the outstanding and unchallenged leader in the International, at any rate, upon questions of theory. He was referred to by opponents as the “Pope” of Marxism.

But Kautsky did not long maintain his high authority. Great events during the last quarter of the century dealt him crushing blows. During and after the war Kautsky personified irritable indecisiveness. What had hitherto been suspected only by a few was now fully confirmed, namely, that his Marxism was essentially academic and contemplative in character. When Kautsky writes Engels from Vienna, during a strike, in April 1889, that “... my thoughts are more on the streets than at this writing table” (p.242), these words seem utterly unexpected and almost false coming even from the pen of a young Kautsky. Throughout his whole life, the writing table remained his field of operation. He looked upon street events as hindrances. His is a claim to a popularizer of the doctrine, an interpreter of the past, a defender of the method. Yes, this he was, but never a man of action, never a revolutionist, or an heir to the spirit of Marx and Engels.

The correspondence lays bare completely not only the radical difference between the two personalities but also something utterly unexpected, for the present generation at any rate – the antagonism that existed between Engels and Kautsky, which finally led to a break in their personal relations.

“The General”

Engels’ insight into military matters, based not only upon his extensive special knowledge but also upon his general capacity for a synthesized appraisal of conditions and forces, enabled him to publish in the London Pall-Mall Gazette, during the Franco-Prussian War, remarkable military articles, ascribed by fame to one of the highest military authorities of the time (the Messrs. “Authorities”, doubtless, surveyed themselves in the mirror not without considerable astonishment). In his intimate circle Engels was dubbed with the playful nickname of the “General”. This name is signed to a number of his letters to Kautsky.

Engels was not an orator, or it may be that he never had the occasion to become one. Towards “orators” he displayed even a shade of disrespect, holding, not without foundation, that they incline to turn ideas into banalities. But Kautsky recalls Engels as a remarkable conversationalist, endowed with an inexhaustible memory, remarkable wit, and precision of expression. Unfortunately, Kautsky himself is a mediocre observer, and no artist at all: in his own letters Engels stands out infinitely more clearly than in the commentaries and recollections of Kautsky.

Engels’ relations with people were foreign to all sentimentalism or illusions and permeated through and through with a penetrating simplicity and, therefore, profoundly human. In his company around the evening table, where representatives of various countries and continents gathered, all contrast disappeared as if by magic between the polished radical duchess Schack and the not at all polished Russian Nihilist, Vera Zasulich. The rich personality of the host manifested itself in this happy capacity to lift himself and others above everything secondary and superficial, without departing in the least either from his views or even his habits.

One would seek in vain in this revolutionist for bohemian traits so prevalent among the radical intellectuals. Engels was intolerant of sloppiness and negligence both in small and big things. He loved precision of thought, precision in accounting, exactitude in expression and in print. When a German publisher attempted to alter his spelling, Engels demanded back several galleys for revision. He wrote, “I would no sooner allow anybody to foist his spelling on me than I would a wife” (p.147). This irate and at the same time jocose sentence almost brings Engels back to life again! In addition to his native tongue, over which his mastery was that of a virtuoso, Engels wrote freely in English, French, Italian; he read Spanish and almost all Slavic and Scandinavian languages. His knowledge of philosophy, economics, history, physics, philology, and military science would have sufficed for a goodly dozen of ordinary and extraordinary professors. But even apart from all this he possessed his main treasure: winged thought.

In June 1884, when Bernstein and Kautsky, affecting Engels’ own likes and dislikes, complained to him of the incipient pressure of all sorts of “erudite” philistines in the party, Engels said in reply, “the main thing is to concede nothing and, in addition, to remain absolutely calm” (p.119). While the General himself did not always retain “absolute calm” in the literal sense of the term – on the contrary, he was wont on occasion to boil over magnificently – he was always able to rise quickly above temporary mishaps, and restore the necessary balance between his thoughts and emotions. The elemental side of his personality was optimism combined with humor towards himself and those close to him, and irony towards his enemies. In his optimism there was not a modicum of smugness – the term itself rebounds from his image. The subsoil springs of his joy of living had their source in a happy and harmonious temperament, but the latter was permeated through and through with the knowledge that brought with it the greatest of joys: the joy of creative perception.

Engels’ optimism extended equally to political questions and to personal affairs. After each and any defeat he would immediately cast about for those conditions which were preparing a new upswing, and after every blow life dealt him he was able to pull himself together and look to the future. Such he remained to his dying day. There were times when he had to remain on his back for weeks in order to get over the effects of a rupture he suffered from a fall during one of the “gentry’s” riding to foxes. At times his aged eyes refused to function under artificial light which one cannot do without even during daytime in the London fogs. But Engels never refers to his ailments except in passing, in order to explain some delay, and only in order to promise immediately thereupon that everything would shortly “proceed better”, and then the work will be resumed at full speed.

One of Marx’s letters has a reference to Engels’ habit of playfully winking during a conversation. This helpful “winking” passes through Engels’ entire correspondence. The man of duty and of profound attachments bears the least resemblance to an ascetic. He was a lover of nature and of art in all its forms, he loved the company of clever and merry people, the presence of women, jokes, laughter, good dinners, good wine and good tobacco. At times he was not averse to the belly-laughter of Rabelais who readily looked for his inspiration below the navel. In general, nothing human was alien to him. Not seldom in his correspondence do we run across references to the effect that several bottles of good wine were opened in his house to celebrate New Year, or the happy outcome of German elections, his own birthday, and sometimes events of lesser importance. Rarely do we come across the General’s complaints about his having to remain prone on the sofa “instead of drinking with you ... well, what is postponed is not yet lost” (p.335). The writer was at the time over 72 years of age. Several months later, a false rumor circulated through the press that Engels was gravely ill. The 73-year old General writes, “So, anent the rapidly ebbing resistance, and the hourly expected demise, we emptied several bottles” (p.352).

Was he, perhaps, an epicurean? The secondary “boons of life” never held sway over this man. He was genuinely interested in the family morals of the savages or in the enigmas of Irish philology but always in indissoluble connection with the future destinies of mankind. If he permitted himself to joke trivially, it was only in the company of untrivial people. Underlying his humor, irony and joy of living one always feels a moral pathos – without the slightest phrase-mongering or posturing, always deeply hidden but all the more genuine and ever ready for sacrifice. The man of commerce, the possessor of a mill, a hunter’s horse and a wine cellar was a revolutionary communist to the marrow of his bones.

Marx’s Executor

Kautsky does not exaggerate in the least when he states in his commentary to the correspondence that in the entire history of the world it would be impossible to find a parallel instance of two men of such powerful temperaments and ideological independence as Marx and Engels who remained throughout their entire lives so indissolubly bound together by the evolution of their ideas, their social activity and personal friendship. Engels was quicker on the uptake, more mobile, enterprising and many-sided; Marx, more ponderous, more stubborn, harsher to himself and to others. Himself a luminary of the first magnitude, Engels recognized Marx’s intellectual authority with the self-same simplicity that he generally established his personal and political relationships.

The collaboration of these two friends – here is the context in which this word attains its fullest meaning! – extended so deeply as to make it impossible for anyone ever to establish the line of demarcation between their works. However, infinitely more important than the purely literary collaboration was the spiritual community that existed between them, and that was never broken. They either corresponded daily, sending epigrammatic notes, understanding each other with half-statements, or they carried on an equally epigrammatic conversation amid clouds of cigar smoke. For some four decades, in their continual struggle against official science and traditional superstitions, Marx and Engels served each other in place of public opinion.

Engels looked upon providing Marx with material assistance as a most important political obligation; and it was chiefly on this account that he bound himself to many years’ drudgery in “accursed trade” – a sphere in which he functioned as successfully as he did in all others: his estate grew and together with it the well-being of Marx’ family improved. After Marx died, Engels transferred all his cares to Marx’ daughters. The old servant of the Marx couple, Helene Demuth, who was an indissoluble part of the whole family, became immediately the housekeeper of Engels’ home. Towards her Engels behaved with a tender loyalty, sharing with her all his interests that were within her grasp, and after she died he complained how much he missed her advice not only in personal but in party matters. Engels willed to the daughters of Marx practically his entire estate, which amounted to 30,000 pounds, outside of the library, furniture, etc.

If in his younger years Engels withdrew into the shadows of the textile industry in Manchester in order to provide Marx with the opportunity to work on Das Kapital, then, subsequently, as an old man, without complaining, and one can say with assurance, without any regrets, he put aside his own researches in order to spend years deciphering the hieroglyphic manuscripts of Marx, painstakingly checking translations, and no less painstakingly correcting his writings in almost all the European languages. No. In this “epicurean” there was an altogether uncommon stoic!

Reports about the progress of the work on Marx’ literary legacy provide one of the most constant leitmotifs in the correspondence between Engels and Kautsky, as well as other co-thinkers. In a letter to Kautsky’s mother (1885) – a rather well-known writer of popular novels at the time – Engels expresses his hope that old Europe will finally swing into motion again, and he adds, “I only hope that sufficient time will be left for me to conclude the third volume of Das Kapital, and then, let her rip!” (p.206) From this semi-jocular statement is clearly to be gathered the importance he attached to Das Kapital; but there is also something else to be gathered, namely, that revolutionary action stood for him above any book, even Das Kapital. On December 3, 1891, i.e., six years later, Engels explains to Kautsky the reasons for his protracted silence: “... responsible for it is the third volume, over which I am sweating again.” He is busy not only deciphering the chapters in the murderous manuscript on money capital, banks and credit, but he is also studying at the same time literature on the respective subjects. To be sure, he knows in advance that in the majority of cases he can leave the manuscript just as it came from the pen of Marx, but he wants to secure himself against editorial errors by his auxiliary researches. Added to all this there is the bottomless pit of minute technical details! Engels carries on a correspondence whether or not a comma is needed in such and such a place, and he especially thanks Kautsky for uncovering an error in spelling in the manuscript. This is not pedantry – but conscientiousness to which nothing is unimportant that bears upon the scientific sum total of Marx’ life.

Engels, however, was furthest removed from any blind adulation of the text. Checking over a digest of Marx’ economic theory written by the French socialist Deville, Engels, according to his own words, often felt the temptation to delete or correct sentences here and there, which on further examination turned out to be Marx’s own expressions. The gist of the matter lies in the fact that “in the original, thanks to what had preceded, they were clearly qualified. But in Deville’s case, they were invested with an absolutely generalized, and by reason of this, incorrect meaning” (p.95). These few words provide a classic characterization of the common abuse of the ready made formulas of the master (“magister dixit“).

But this is not all. Engels not only deciphered, polished, transcribed, corrected and annotated the second and third volumes of Das Kapital but he maintained an eagle-eyed vigil in defense of Marx’s memory against hostile attacks. The conservative Prussian socialist Rodbertus and his admirers claimed that Marx had used the scientific discovery of Rodbertus without making any reference to the latter – in other words, that Marx plagiarized Rodbertus. “A monstrous ignorance is required to make such an assertion,” wrote Engels to Kautsky in 1884. (p.140) And once again, Engels applied himself to the study of the useless Rodbertus in order fully to refute these charges.

The letters to Kautsky contain an equally illuminating reflection of the episode with the German economist Brentano, who accused Marx of falsely quoting Gladstone. Engels, if anyone, was acquainted with the scientific scrupulousness of Marx, whose attitude towards every idea of his opponent, no matter how absurd, was akin to the attitude of a bacteriologist towards a disease-bearing bacillus. Time after time in Engels’ letters to Marx and to their common friends one runs across his chiding the excess of conscientiousness on Marx’s part. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that he put all other work aside in order angrily to refute Brentano.

Engels carried around in his mind the idea of writing a biography of Marx. No one could have written it as he, for, of necessity, it would have been in large measure Engels’ own autobiography. He writes to Kautsky: “I will get down to work at the first possible moment upon this book on which I have so long pondered with pleasure.” (p.382) Engels takes vows not to be side-tracked: “I am now 74 years old – I have to hurry.” Even today one cannot think without sorrow that Engels could not “hurry” and fulfill his project.

For the oil portrait of Marx which was in preparation in Switzerland, Engels supplied through Kautsky the following color-description of his deceased friend: “A complexion as dark as it is generally possible for a South European to be, without much color on the cheeks: ... mustaches black as soot, tinged with white, and snow-white hair on head and beard.” (p.149) This description makes clear why Marx received the nickname of the Moor in his family and intimate circle.

The Teacher of Leaders

During the first two years Engels addressed his correspondent as “Dear Mr. Kautsky” (the term “comrade” was not then in current use); after they had drawn closer in London, he abbreviated the form of salutation to merely “Dear Kautsky”; from March 1884, Engels adopted the familiar form of address in writing to Bernstein and Kautsky each of whom was 25 years younger than himself. Kautsky writes not without good reason that “from 1883 Engels looked upon Bernstein and myself as the most reliable representatives of the Marxian theory”. (p.93) The transition to the familiar form of address no doubt reflects the favorable attitude of a teacher towards his pupils. But this outward familiarity is no proof of actual intimacy: this was hindered chiefly by the fact that Kautsky and Bernstein were imbued with philistinism to a considerable measure. During their long sojourn in London, Engels assisted them to acquire the Marxian method. But he could not ingraft in them either revolutionary will or the ability to think boldly. The pupils were and remained the children of another spirit.

Marx and Engels awakened in the epoch of storms, and they passed through the revolution of 1848 as full-fledged fighters. Kautsky and Bernstein went through their formative period during the comparatively peaceful interval between the epoch of wars and revolutions from the years 1848 to 1871 and the epoch that had its inception with the Russian Revolution of 1905 through the world war of 1914, and has far from come to its conclusion even today. Throughout his entire and lengthy life Kautsky was able to circumnavigate those conclusions that threatened to disturb his mental and physical peace. He was not a revolutionist, and this was an insurmountable barrier that separated him from the Red General.

But even apart from this there was too great a difference between them. It is indubitable that Engels only gained from personal contact: his personality was richer and more attractive than anything he did and wrote. In no case can the same be said of Kautsky. His best books are far wiser than he was himself. He lost greatly from personal intercourse. It may be that this in part explains why Rosa Luxemburg, who lived side by side with Kautsky, had gauged his philistinism before Lenin did, although she was inferior to Lenin in political insight. But this relates to a much later period.

From the correspondence it becomes absolutely self-evident that there always remained an invisible barrier between the teacher and the pupil not only in the sphere of politics but also in the sphere of theory. Engels, who was generally chary of praise, sometimes referred with enthusiasm (“Ausgezeichnet”) to the writings of Franz Mehring or George Plekhanov; but his praise of Kautsky was always restrained, and one senses a shade of irritation in his criticism. Like Marx, when Kautsky first appeared in his home, Engels, too, was repelled by the omniscience and the passive self-satisfaction of the young Viennese. How readily he found answers to the most complex questions! True, Engels himself was inclined to hasty generalizations; but he, in turn, had the wings and vision of an eagle, and as years passed he adopted ever more Marx’ merciless scientific conscientiousness towards himself. But Kautsky with all his capabilities was a man of the Golden Mean.

“Nine-tenths of the contemporary German authors,” thus did the teacher warn his pupil, “write books about other books.” (p.139) In other words: no analysis of living reality, no progressive movement of thought. Using the occasion of Kautsky’s book on questions of primitive society, Engels tried to instill in him the idea that it was possible to say something really new in this enormous and dark province only by a thoroughgoing and exhaustive study of the subject. And he adds quite mercilessly, “Otherwise books like Das Kapital would not be so rare.” (p.85)

A year later (September 20, 1884) Engels again chides Kautsky about his “sweeping assertions in spheres in which you yourself do not feel at all certain”. (p.144) One finds this note passing through the entire correspondence. Chiding Kautsky for having condemned “abstraction’ – without abstract thinking, no thinking is generally possible – Engels gives a classic definition which shows the difference between a vivifying and a lifeless abstraction: “Marx reduces the common content in things and relations to its most universal conceptual expression; his abstraction consequently reproduces in concept form the content already lodged in things themselves. Rodbertus, on the other hand, creates for himself a more or less imperfect mental expression and measures all things by his concept, to which they must be equated.” (p.144) Nine-tenths of the errors in human thinking are embraced in this formula. Eleven years later, in his last letter to Kautsky, Engels, while paying due recognition to Kautsky’s researches on the Precursors of Socialism, once again chides the author for his inclination toward “commonplaces wherever there is a gap in the research”. “As to style, in order to remain popular, you either fall into the tone of an editorial, or as the tone of a school teacher.” (p.388) One could not express more aptly the literary mannerisms of Kautsky!

At the same time, the intellectual magnanimity of the master toward his pupil was truly inexhaustible. He used to read the most important articles of the prolific Kautsky in their manuscript form, and each of his letters of criticism contains precious suggestions, the fruit of serious thought, and sometimes of research. Kautsky’s well-known work, Class Antagonisms in the French Revolution, which has been translated into almost all the languages of civilized mankind, also, it appears, passed through the intellectual laboratory of Engels. His long letter on social groupings in the epoch of the great revolution of the eighteenth century – as well as on the application of the materialist methods of historical events – is one of the most magnificent documents of the human mind. It is much too terse, and each of its formulae presupposes too great a store of knowledge for it to enter into general reading circulation; but this document, so long kept hidden, will forever remain not only the source of theoretical instruction but also of aesthetic joy to anyone who has seriously pondered the dynamics of class relations in a revolutionary epoch, as well as the general problems involved in the materialist interpretation of historical events.

Kautsky’s Divorce and His Conflict with Engels

Kautsky asserts – not without a purpose in back of his mind, as we shall see – that Engels was a poor judge of men. Marx was no doubt to a larger measure a “fisher of men”. He was better able to play on their strong and weak sides, and gave proof of this, for instance, by his rather difficult work in the extremely heterogeneous General Council of the First International. However, Engels’ correspondence is the best possible proof that while he did not always manoeuvre happily in his personal relationships, this flowed from his stormy directness and not at all from his inability to understand people. Kautsky, who himself is very myopic on questions of psychology, adduces as examples Engels’ stubborn defense of Aveling, the friend of Marx’ daughter, a man who with all his indubitable capacities was a person of little worth. Cautiously, but very persistently, Kautsky strives to purvey the idea that Engels did not give evidence of psychologic sensibility in relation to Kautsky himself. This is his purpose in raising the particular question of Engels’ capacity as a judge of men.

All his life Engels had a particularly tender attitude toward women, as those who were doubly oppressed. This citizen of the world with an encyclopedic education was married to a simple textile worker, an Irish girl, and after she died he lived with her sister. His tenderness to both was truly remarkable. Marx’ inadequate response to the news of the death of Mary Burns, Engels’ first wife, raised a little cloud in their relations, to all signs, the first and last cloud throughout the forty years of their friendship. Towards Marx’ daughters, Engels behaved as if they were his own children; but at a time when Marx, apparently not without the influence of his wife, attempted to intervene into the emotional life of his daughters, Engels gave him carefully to understand that such matters concern nobody except the participants themselves. Engels had particular affection for Eleanor, Marx’ youngest daughter. Aveling became her friend; he was a married man who had broken with his first family. This circumstance engendered around the “illegal” couple the stifling atmosphere of genuinely British hypocrisy. Is it greatly to be marvelled at that Engels came to the strong defense of Eleanor and her friend, even irrespective of his moral qualities? Eleanor fought for her love for Aveling so long as she had any strength left. Engels was not blind but he considered that the question of Aveling’s personality concerned Eleanor, first and foremost. On his part he assumed only the duty to defend her against hypocrisy and evil gossip. “Hands off!” he stubbornly told the pious hypocrites. In the end, unable to bear up under the blows of personal life, Eleanor committed suicide.

Kautsky also refers to the fact that Engels supported Aveling in politics. But this is explained by the simple fact that Eleanor, like Aveling, functioned politically under the direct guidance of Engels himself. To be sure, their activity far from gave the desired results. But the activity of their opponent Hyndman, whom Kautsky continued to support, also resulted in shipwreck. The cause for the failures of the initial Marxian attempts must be sought in the objective conditions of England so magnificently dissected by Engels himself. Engels’ personal antagonism towards Hyndman arose in particular from the latter’s stubborn persistence in slurring over the name of Marx, justifying himself by the aversion of the English to foreign authorities. Engels, however, suspected that in Hyndman himself there was lodged “the most chauvinistic John Bull extant”. (p.140) Kautsky tries to invalidate Engels’ suspicion on this score, as if Hyndman’s shameful behavior during the war – not a word about this from Kautsky! – had not laid bare his rotten chauvinism to the core. How much more penetrating did Engels prove to be in this case as well!

However, the chief instance of Engels’ “inability” to judge men relates to Kautsky’s own personal life. In the correspondence just now published, a considerable, if not the central place, is occupied by Kautsky’s divorce from his first wife. This ticklish circumstance no doubt kept Kautsky so long from making the old letters public. Today, for the first time, the entire episode is given to the press ... The youthful Kautsky couple spent more than six years in London in constant and unclouded communion with Engels and his family circle. The General was literally thunderstruck by the news of the divorce proceedings between Karl and Luise Kautsky that came almost immediately after their arrival on the Continent. The closest friends willy-nilly all became the moral arbiters in this conflict. Engels immediately and unconditionally took the wife’s side and did not change his position to his dying day.

In a letter of October 17, 1888, Engels writes in reply to Kautsky: “One must first of all weigh in the balance the difference between the positions of men and women under the present conditions ... Only in extreme cases, only after mature deliberation, only if it is absolutely clear that such a step is necessary, should a man resort to this most extreme measure, but even then, only in its most prudent and mildest form.” (p.227) Coming from the lips of Engels, who well knew that matters of the heart concern only the parties involved, these words ring with an unexpected moralizing. However, it was no accident that he addresses them to Kautsky ... We have neither the occasion nor the basis for analyzing the marital conflict, all the elements of which are not at our disposal. Kautsky himself almost refrains from any remarks upon his family episode which has long since receded into the past. From his reserved comments, however, one must conclude that Engels came to his position under the one-sided influence of Luise. But whence this influence? During the divorce both parties remained in Austria. As in Eleanor’s case, Kautsky obviously evades the gist of the matter. By his entire make-up – all other things being equal – Engels was inclined to come to the defense of the underdog. But it is obvious that in his eyes “all other things” were not equal. The very possibility of Luise’s influencing him, speaks in her favor. On the other hand, there were many traits in Kautsky’s personality that clearly repelled Engels. This he could pass over in silence so long as their relations were confined to questions of theory and politics. But after he was drawn into the family quarrel upon the initiative of Kautsky himself, he spoke out what was in his mind without any particular condescension. A man’s views and a man’s morals are, as is well-known, not at all identical. In Kautsky, the Marxist, Engels clearly sensed a Viennese petty-bourgeois, self-satisfied, and egotistic and conservative. One of the most important measuring rods of a man’s personality is his attitude towards women. Engels was obviously of the opinion that in this sphere Kautsky, the Marxist, still required certain precepts of bourgeois humanism. Whether Engels was right or wrong, that is precisely the explanation for his conduct.

In September 1889, when the divorce had already become a fact, Kautsky, with an obvious desire to demonstrate that he was not at all so hard-hearted and egotistic, wrote carelessly to Engels about his feeling “sorry” for Luise. But it was precisely this word that brought down upon him a new outburst of indignation. The irate General thundered in reply: “In this entire affair, Luise has deported herself with such heroism and womanhood ... that if, in general, any one is to be pitied, it is not Luise of course.” (p. 248) These merciless words – which follow upon a more conciliatory statement that “you two alone are competent to judge, and what – ever you approve, we others must accept” (p.248) – provide a perfect key to Engels’ position on the question and serve well to illumine his personality.

The divorce case dragged on for a long time, so that Kautsky found himself compelled to spend a whole year in Vienna. On his return to London (Autumn 1889) he no longer received from Engels the warm welcome he had become accustomed to. Moreover, Engels, almost demonstratively, invited Luise to become the manager of his household that had been orphaned by the death of Helene Demuth. Luise soon married for the second time and lived in Engels’ house with her husband. Finally, Engels made Luise one of his heirs. The General was not only magnanimous but stubborn in his attachments. On May 21, 1895, ten weeks prior to his death, Engels from his sick-bed wrote a letter to Kautsky, extremely irritable in tone and full of splenetic reproaches, a propos of a really accidental matter. Kautsky swears categorically that these reproaches were entirely unfounded. Maybe so. But he received no answer to his attempt to dispel the old man’s suspicions. On August 6, Engels passed away. Kautsky attempts to explain away the break so tragic to himself by the sickly irritability of the master. The explanation is obviously inadequate. Along with the angry reproaches, Engels’ letter contains evaluations of complex historical problems, gives a favorable estimate of Kautsky’s latest scientific work, and generally testifies to a highly lucid state of mind. Besides, we know from Kautsky himself that the change in their relations occurred seven years prior to the break and immediately assumed an unequivocal character.

In January 1889, Engels was still firmly considering to appoint Kautsky and Bernstein as his and Marx’ literary executors. Soon, however, he renounced this idea so far as Kautsky was concerned. He asked, under an obviously artificial pretext, that Kautsky return the manuscripts already given him for deciphering and transcribing (The Theories of Surplus Value). This took place in the same year, 1889, when there was no talk of sickly irritability as yet. We can only venture a guess as to the reasons why Engels expunged Kautsky from the list of his literary executors; but they imperatively flow from all the circumstances in the case. Engels himself, as we know, viewed the publication of Marx’ literary heritage as the main business of his life. There is not even a hint of such an attitude on the part of Kautsky. The young, prolific writer was too much preoccupied with himself to pay to Marx’ manuscripts the attention Engels demanded. Perhaps the old man feared that the prolific Kautsky, consciously or unconsciously might put several of Marx’ ideas to use as his own “discoveries”. This is the only explanation for the replacement of Kautsky by Bebel who was theoretically less qualified, but who had the complete confidence of Engels. The latter had no such confidence in Kautsky.

While up to now we have heard from Kautsky that Engels, in contradistinction to Marx, was a poor psychologist, in another place in his commentaries, he brackets both his masters. He writes, “They were obviously not great judges of men.” (p.44) This statement seems incredible, if we recall the wealth and the incomparable precision of personal characterizations which abound not only in Marx’ letters and pamphlets but also in his Kapital. It may be said that Marx was able to establish a man’s type from individual traits in the same manner as Cuvier reconstructed an animal from a single jawbone. If Marx in 1852 was not able to see through the Hungarian-Prussian provocateur, Banya – the only instance to which Kautsky makes reference! – it only goes to prove that Marx was neither a clairvoyant nor a witch-doctor but was liable to make mistakes in evaluating people, particularly those who turned up accidentally. By his assertion, Kautsky obviously seeks to obviate the impression of the unfavorable reference made by Marx about him after Marx’ first and last meeting with him. Completely contradicting himself, Kautsky writes two pages later that “Marx had well mastered the art of handling people, showing this in the most brilliant and indubitable manner in the General Council of the International.” (p.46) A question remains: how is a man to manage people, and “brilliantly” to boot, without his being able to plumb their character? It is impossible not to conclude that Kautsky has drawn a poor balance-sheet of his relations with his teachers!

Appraisals and Prognoses

Engels’ letters abound in characterizations of individuals and in succinct appraisals of events in world politics. We shall confine ourselves to a few examples. “The paradoxical litterateur, Shaw, is very talented and witty as a writer but absolutely worthless as economist and politician.” (p.338) This remark made in the year 1892 preserves its full force even in our time. The well-known journalist, V.T. Stead, is characterized as “an absolutely hare-brained fellow but a brilliant horse-trader”. (p.298) Of Sidney Webb, Engels briefly remarks: “ein echter Britischer politician” (a genuinely British politician). This was the harshest term in Engels’ lexicon.

In January 1889, in the heat of the Boulanger campaign in France, Engels wrote: “The election of Boulanger brings the situation in France to a breaking point. The Radicals ... have turned themselves into flunkeys of opportunism, and thereby they have literally given nourishment to Boulangerism.” (p.231) These words are astonishing in their modernity – one need only put Fascism in place of Boulangerism.

Engels lashes the theory of the “evolutionary” transformation of capitalism into socialism as the “pious and joyful ’growing over’ of hoary swinishness into a socialist society”. This epigrammatic formula prognosticates the balance-sheet of the controversy which was to be taken up many years later on.

In the same letter Engels rips apart the speech of a social democratic deputy, Vollmar, “with its ... excessive and unauthorized assurances that the social democrats will not remain on the side-lines if their fatherland is attacked, and will consequently help defend the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine ...” Engels demanded that the leading organs of the party publicly disavow Vollmar. During the Great War when the social-patriots tore into tatters the name of Engels in every-which way, it never entered Kautsky’s mind to publish these lines. Why bother? The war caused sufficient worries without that.

On April 1, 1895, Engels protested against the use made of his preface to Marx’ Class Struggles in France by the central organ of the party, Vorwärts. By means of deletions, the article is so distorted, Engels fumes, “that I am made out to be a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price”. He demands that this “shameful impression” (p.383) be removed at any price. Engels, who at that time was nearing his 75th birthday, obviously had not yet made ready to renounce the revolutionary enthusiasm of his youth!

If one were to speak at all of Engels’ mistakes in people, then one should cite as examples not Aveling, the sloven in personal matters, and not the spy Banya, but the outstanding leaders of Socialism: Victor Adler, Guesde, Bernstein, Kautsky himself and many others. All of them, without a single exception, betrayed his expectations – to be sure, after he was already dead. But precisely this all-embracing character of the “mistake” proves that it does not involve any problems of individual psychology.

In 1884, Engels, referring to the German social democracy, which was scoring rapid victories, wrote that it was a party “free from all philistinism in the most philistine country in the world; free from all chauvinism in the most victory-drunk country in Europe”. (p.154) The subsequent course of events proved that Engels had visualized the future course of revolutionary development too much along the straight line. Above all he did not foresee the mighty capitalist boom which set in immediately after his death and which lasted up to the eve of the imperialist war. It was precisely in the course of these 15 years of economic full-bloodedness that the complete opportunistic degeneration of the leading circles of the labor movement took place. This degeneration was fully revealed during the war and, in the last analysis, it led to the infamous capitulation to national socialism.

According to Kautsky, Engels, even back in the Eighties, was of the alleged opinion that the German revolution “would first bring the bourgeois democracy to power, and the social-democracy only later on”. In counterpoise to which, Kautsky himself foresaw that the “impending German revolution could only be proletarian”. (p.190) The remarkable thing in connection with this old difference of opinion, which is hardly reproduced correctly, is that Kautsky fails even to raise the question of what the German revolution of 1918 really was. For in that case he would have had to say: This revolution was a proletarian revolution; it immediately placed the power in the hands of the social democracy; but the latter, with the assistance of Kautsky himself, returned the power to the bourgeoisie which, proving incapable of holding onto power, had to call on Hitler for help.

Historical reality is infinitely richer in possibilities and in transitional stages than the imagination of the greatest genius. The value of political prognoses lies not in that they coincide with every stage of reality but in that they assist in making out its genuine development. From this standpoint, Friedrich Engels has passed the bar of history.

OSLO, October 1935

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Last updated on: 18.4.2007