Book Review

Testament of Engels

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2 April-May, 1922 No. 4, pp. 366-371 (2,469 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Wie eine Revolution zugrunde ging.
Eduard Bernstein.
Stuttgart, 1921. Price 6 marks.

Die russische Revolution.
Dr. Rosa Luxemburg. (Edited with an introduction by Paul Levi.)
Berlin—Fichtenau, 1922. Price 30 marks. [SECOND REVIEW.]

The years 1891 to 1894 mark the beginning of the decline of the revolutionary spirit and the rise of reformism among the rank and file of German Social Democracy. The personal forces which largely contributed to those developments were Friedrich Engels and Eduard Bernstein. Unlike Marx, who to the very end of his life remained as ardent a revolutionary as he had been when he wrote the Communist Manifesto, Engels considerably mellowed in the last four years of his life, and used his great authority with the Germans to lead them back to legality and Parliamentary tactics. In 1894, at the age of seventy-four, he wrote his last will in the form of an introductory chapter, instinct with reformism, to the most revolutionary piece of political writing of Marx, namely, to the Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, originally published in 1850, interpreting, from the point of view of proletarian dictatorship and economic determinism, the February upheaval of 1848. Engels, republishing it in 1894, added an introduction which is a complete denial of the book; it is, in fact, a veritable palinode of his whole work which he had accomplished in association with Marx; he deprecated revolutionary action, and enjoined the German proletariat to rely on legality and Parliamentary elections. This introduction of Engels has since been regarded as the political testament of the authoritative successor of Marx, and has stifled all discussion concerning revolutionary action. Universal suffrage has been thought to constitute the best means to the emancipation of the working class. These were the final views to which one of the authors of the Communist Manifesto gave expression at a time when a mild English democrat and social reformer, Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson, in his remarkable essay on the development of English Parliamentarism (1894-95), seriously questioned the possibility of Socialist Labour coming to power through the usual Parliamentary methods, arguing that the peaceful and automatic alternation of Governments of Conservatives and Liberals was owing to the fact that both Parties had certain social principles—or as Sir Arthur Balfour lately said, “certain social verities”—in common and differed only in their application to practical politics, while a Socialist Labour victory meant the proclamation of a new principle and the creation of a new social basis.1

Yet it was the same Engels who, in 1890, published in the Neue Zeit Marx’s criticism of the Gotha Programme, which had been privately addressed to the leaders of German Social Democracy in 1875, and which contains the famous passage concerning the proletarian dictatorship as the proper form of government during the transition period from Capitalism to Communism. I well remember the sensation caused by the publication of that letter, but it was by no means the allusion to dictatorship which struck us most. Our feelings were mainly roused by the severe handling of the leaders of German Socialism at the hands of Marx for their ignorance of social science and Communist economics. Gradually Marx’s criticism was being analysed and digested, but it was chiefly Liberal writers who took exception to the passage about dictatorship. Engels appears to have been perturbed by the Liberal strictures, and he hastened to explain that there was nothing to be afraid of in that term, for the Paris Commune had been a proletarian dictatorship, based on universal suffrage. The Liberal writers felt satisfied, since they rightly syllogised that a government which issued from universal suffrage was anything but a dictatorship. Indeed, Marx never regarded the Paris Commune as a dictatorial form of government; moreover, he actually held to the opinion that the Central Committee, which on March 18, 1871, proclaimed the Paris Commune, made the fatal mistake by hastily relinquishing power into the hands of the elected body. Still, German Social Democracy never reasoned this matter out; it accepted the assertion of Engels as a true statement of Marx’s views. In fact, up to 1918, no serious discussion took place in Germany with regard to dictatorship. The question did not arise, since Social Democracy, true to the final doctrines of Engels, regarded Parliamentary action and democratic methods as the only possible and effective tactics.

Engels’ testament was confirmed and driven home by Eduard Bernstein, who as London correspondent of the Vorwärts and Neue Zeit, as well as author and translator, was indefatigable in replacing Marxism by social reform Liberalism. His great past, his close association with Engels in the years from 1880 to 1894, and his friendship with Karl Kautsky, gave him an authoritative standing in the Party, which he used, methodically and systematically, for spreading social reformist and Liberal views as against all revolutionary action. His first systematic attempt in this direction was the editing of a German translation of a history of the February revolution (1848), written in French by M. Héritier, a Swiss revolutionary Socialist and Marxist. Bernstein, following the example of Engels with regard to Marx’s Klassenkämpfe, wrote a running commentary on Héritier’s work, endeavouring to demonstrate that it had been the Blanquists and, generally, the revolutionary elements that brought the upheaval of 1848 to nought. He now republishes his commentaries for the purpose of showing that it was Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and generally the Spartacists and Communists that must be held responsible for the collapse of the German revolution of November, 1918. Bernstein, as the spiritus rector of the Majority Socialists, has evidently felt the need of writing an apologia for the Socialist statesmen, who, in alliance with the militarists, Liberals, and Catholics, have largely contributed to the defeat of the European proletariat in general and the German proletariat in particular. It was, to a great extent, Bernstein’s undermining and sapping of the German Socialist movement which rendered it so pitifully helpless in one of the greatest moments of its history.

Somewhat different was the position of Karl Kautsky. In the years from 1891 to 1910 he valiantly fought the insidious influences of Bernstein. He was the only German Socialist writer who in those twenty years alluded to proletarian dictatorship. In his Vorläufer des neuern Sozialismus (second edition, Stuttgart, 1909, vol. I., p. 219) he declares:--

“Since the Middle Ages it is the natural and logical endeavour of proletarian Communism to become, under favourable circumstances, political and rebellious. Like the present-day Social Democrats, it has been aiming at proletarian dictatorship as the most potent lever for bringing about the Communist society.”

In his booklet, Weg zur Macht (Berlin, 1910, p. 20), he remarks:--

“While Marx and Engels were always in favour of the proletariat exploiting the conflicts of the various sections of the possessing classes, they coined the term dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels in 1891, even a few years before he died, advocated—the purely proletarian government as the only form in which the working class could exercise political power.”

It is evident that even Kautsky regarded proletarian dictatorship in the light of Engels—as a Labour government issued from universal suffrage. On the whole, it may be said that Engels’ activity in the last years of his life was more and more reformist, which was systematically followed up by Bernstein.

Bernstein’s reformist beginnings coincided with the arrival of Dr. Rosa Luxemburg in Germany. She had come from her social studies at the University of Berne, free from any reformist tendencies which had grown in strength in Germany since 1891. Her first contribution to the Neue Zeit appeared in 1896, dealing with Polish Socialism, which she denounced as being nothing else than Polish nationalism plus social reform. Then she gradually intervened in German Socialist controversies, and when, in 1898, the conflict between the revisionism of Bernstein and the theoretical Marxism of Kautsky came to a head, she lent her powerful aid to the Marxists. It was Franz Mehring who at once recognised her as the foremost Marxist in Germany. Dr. Luxemburg, in conjunction with other Russians and Poles, attempted to draw German Social Democracy into discussing the means and technique of a proletarian revolution, but the Germans persistently refused to follow suit. They adhered to Engels’ political testament of 1894, which had led them to the village of Morality, where dwelt a gentleman, Mr. Legality. And there the matter rested until 1917. The ten years prior to the war, with their wonderful industrial activity and prosperity of Germany, favoured pure and simple Trade Unionism and social reformism, promoted the spread of revisionism, and prevented all revolutionary discussions. Proletarian dictatorship and Socialist revolution had come to be regarded as ideological relics of a Utopian past. No wonder; then, that the great war and the revolutionary upheavals in Russia and Central Europe found the great majority of Social Democrats unprepared and that only a small minority grasped the meaning of the European crisis. Among that minority Dr. Luxemburg occupied one of the foremost places.

At the time when the Bolsheviks came to power in Petrograd in November, 1917, Rosa Luxemburg was in a German prison, where, however, she had the opportunity of reading and writing and even receiving Russian papers and pamphlets. In the spring, 1918, after the extensive strike movement in the German munition factories as a protest against the Brest-Litovsk peace, Luxemburg wrote several articles for the Spartacus Letters, enthusiastically welcoming the Russian Bolshevik triumph, but at the same time adversely criticising some of the tactical moves of the Soviets. In answer to the objections raised by Paul Levi to the views of Luxemburg, the latter wrote in the summer, 1918, an essay of about 10,000 words, setting forth her opinions on the Russian Revolution in a more systematic manner and as far as this was possible to do in a prison cell. It is that essay which Paul Levi published at the end of 1921, after he had severed his connection with the K.P.D. and Moscow.

There can be no doubt that the essay is authentic. It is, indeed, continuation of the controversy with Lenin, started in 1904 in the Neue Zeit. Luxemburg regarded the Russian November Revolution (1917) as the most prodigious event of the war. She was full of admiration for the unprecedented thoroughness and vigour of the Russian working class, thus demonstrating that they had stood in no need of the German bayonets freeing them from Tsarism. She combated the opinion that the Russian Revolution was but a Liberal affair and that the Bolshevik Revolution was premature and also injurious to progress. In her view, even the Liberal upheaval would have failed but for the death-defying valour and ruthless consistency of the Communists. The terrible difficulties with which the Bolshevik Government had to contend did not arise from the immaturity of the Russian proletariat, but from the backwardness and selfishness of the German and generally the Western European working classes. The Russian revolutionists knew well that their success depended on the action of the international proletariat, and it was their profound insight into the evolutionary process of Capitalism which made them sacrifice all for the sake of the universal proletarian revolution. This was one of their greatest glories in the history of Socialism.

“The Bolsheviks, as soon as they had come to power, unfolded the most comprehensive revolutionary programme, not for the purpose of securing middle-class democracy, but the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the view of bringing about Socialism. . . . All the courage, energy, revolutionary insight and consistency, which any party could show in a historic hour, has been shown by Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades. The whole revolutionary honour and capacity which were so sadly wanting among the Central and Western European Social Democracy were to be found among the Bolsheviki. Their rise in November, 1917, saved not only the Russian Revolution, but the honour of international Socialism.” (p. 81.)

Her unstinted admiration for the talent and character of the Bolshevik leaders did not prevent her criticising their most important measures. She rebuked them (i.) for having allowed the peasantry to solve the agrarian question on the basis of private property, thus creating an anti-Communist class even more dangerous than the old aristocracy; (ii.) for having proclaimed the principle of national self-determination, which delivered the proletariat of the border States into the hands of the landlords and merchants, besides destroying the economic unity of a Communist Russia; (iii.) for having interpreted the dictatorship of the proletariat in a narrow sense.

“The fundamental mistake of Lenin and Trotsky,” says Dr. Luxemburg, “consists in this, that they, like Kautsky, regard dictatorship and democracy as mutually destructive. Dictatorship or Democracy—this is the problem of the Bolsheviki as well as that of Kautsky. The latter decides, of course, in favour of bourgeois democracy as the alternative to a Socialist revolution, while Lenin and Trotsky, on the contrary, decide for dictatorship as opposed to democracy, which means in reality the dictatorship of a handful of persons, that is, a dictatorship after the bourgeois model. These are the two opposite poles, equally remote from Socialist policy. The proletariat, when coming to power, cannot follow the advice of Kautsky and forego the Socialist revolution under the pretext of the immaturity of the country, without betraying its own interests as well as those of the International and the Revolution. It should and must at once begin with Socialist measures and carry them through in the most vigorous, unflinching and ruthless manner; it must exercise dictatorial power, but it must be the dictatorship of the class and not of a party or faction—dictatorship of the class, that means, in the broadest daylight, under the most active and unrestricted participation of the masses, in unfettered democracy.” (pp. 114-115.)

Luxemburg believed that Lenin and Trotsky would have interpreted the dictatorship in this sense, but the terrible pressure of the war and the German occupation created abnormal conditions, which vitiated the best intentions and principles. The Bolshevik activities were comprehensible and formed an inevitable chain of cause and effect, the points of departure and termination of which were to be found in the failure of German Socialism and the occupation of Russia by the German Imperialists. Socialist reconstruction and dictatorship by proletarian democracy were impossible under such conditions. It was the glory of the Bolsheviks to have shown what a Socialist revolution implied, what problems it had to solve. Russia was only able to formulate those problems, but, under the circumstances, could not solve them. She could not work miracles (pp. 117-120).

All this was written by Luxemburg in 1918.




1. I am paraphrasing Mr. Dickinson’s opinions from memory. It is now twenty-seven years since I read them, but I do remember that they are to be found towards the end of the book.