Why socialists should pause before celebrating Engels’ 200th birthday

The 28th of November, 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Engels’ birth. Unsurprisingly, the occasion has been celebrated by the publication of a number of hagiographies from Marxist outlets. These do not satisfy us. The intention of this article is not to deny any of Engels’ strengths; they are surely real, and have been repeated ad nauseam by the usual suspects. However, if we wish to take Engels seriously, as something more than a great man, then we need to flesh out his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

Engels was a passionate advocate for socialism, and his political work went some way in the development of one of Europe’s most significant socialist organisations, the German Social Democratic Party. Few contemporary revolutionaries express sympathy for the SDP, in light of the party’s decision to support the German war effort in 1914. Marxists tend to depict the party’s alignment with nationalism and militarism as a departure from the work of Marx and Engels. However, a fuller consideration of the material reveals that in many respects, there was no departure at all, and that many of the seeds of the SDP’s decline can be found in the works of Engels himself.

No Slav people has a future”

Like many Germans of the era, Engels’ political viewpoints were shaped by a hatred of Slavs that stretches back into the beginning of his political life. This hatred occasionally appeared under the guise of a cynical realpolitik or military analysis, but was nonetheless strong. The main question for Engels and Marx in the 1848 revolutionary period was that of the centralisation of Germany; oppressed Slavs be damned.

From February 1848 to May 1849, the Russian revolutionary democrat Mikhail Bakunin – who was not yet an anarchist – travelled endlessly, advocating for the revolutionary cause and participating in a number of insurrections. In the thick of events, Bakunin issued his manifesto Appeal to the Slavs, the clearest statement of his strategy in this period. Published in German in December of 1848 and in French the following January, the Appeal agitated for an internationalist alliance between Slav and German revolutionaries, the rejection of diplomacy and the subordination of the national question to the social question. Against the burgeoning pan-Slavists, Bakunin argued that developing an alliance with Russia would only mean a strengthening of tyranny on the continent.

In response, Engels wrote his polemic Democratic Pan-Slavism, published in February 1849. The central argument of the text was that Slavs are an inherently counter-revolutionary people, whose only real future lies under German domination. Aside from Poles, Russians, “and at most the Turkish Slavs”, “no Slav people has a future”. Were the claims of national self-determination consistently recognised, “the eastern part of Germany would be torn to pieces like a loaf of bread that has been gnawed by rats!”

Engels attacks Bakunin’s framework of justice as sentimental moralism, deploying the recent Mexican-American war as an example to prove his point – “[does Bakunin think it is] unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? […] the “independence” of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places “justice” and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?”

The historical mission of the German peoples to civilise the Slavs outweighs any concern for “justice”. Indeed, the repression carried out against them “are among the best and most praiseworthy deeds which our and the Magyar people can boast in their history”. Engels offers a reminder that “hatred of Russians [with Czechs and Croats] was and still is the primary revolutionary passion among Germans”, “and that only by the most determined use of terror against these Slav peoples can we, jointly with the Poles and Magyars, safeguard the revolution”. The polemic culminates with a suggestion that if the Slavs unified, then “we know what we have to do”: “a struggle, an “inexorable life-and-death struggle”, against those Slavs who betray the revolution; an annihilating fight [Vernichtungskampf] and ruthless terror”.

Proletarian internationalism?

Engels regarded himself as a serious military and geopolitical analyst. Though he had little in the way of practical experience – he fought for a few months as a militiaman in the 1849 German revolutions – his comrades recognised him as an expert and leaned on him for advice.

Engels’ framework for the European foreign policy largely revolved around the necessity of a unified, centralised Germany and a defeated Russia for the ultimate victory of the workers’ movement. Though he and Marx clearly did not support Bismarck – the mastermind of the unification of Germany – they nonetheless saw a certain coming together of his interest and theirs’; as Engels put it, “Bismarck works for us like the very devil”1.

In August 1870, not long after the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war, Engels wrote a revealing letter to Marx. Much of it concerns the position of Wilhelm Liebknecht, who publicly opposed the war and agitated against it. Engels did not consider the position respectable, and regarded it as Liebknecht placing “secondary considerations” about proletarian internationalism ahead of the “main one” – the German national struggle. For Engels, Napoleon has driven Germany into “a war for her national existence”. If Germany wins, then “German workers will be able to organise on a national scale quite different from that prevailing hitherto”. In fact, “the whole mass of the German people of every class have realised that this is first and foremost a question of national existence and have therefore at once flung themselves into the fray”.

In a nutshell, Engels suggests that it would be “absurd” to “magnify anti-Bismarckism into the sole guiding principle” – instead, it should be recognised that “Bismarck is doing a bit of our work, in his own way and without meaning to, but all the same he is doing it…”2. This bears some resemblance to the opinion voiced by Marx in an earlier letter – that the victory of Prussia and the corresponding centralisation of state power would be “beneficial for the centralisation of the German working class”, which would involve a shift of the “centre of gravity” of the European workers’ movement from France to Germany. The predominance of the German proletariat, “superior to the French both in theory and organisation”, would also entail “the predominance of our theory over Proudhon’s”3.

These were not mere idle opinions; they would influence practical politics. On September 9, Marx issued a manifesto as a part of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association. In it, he declared that the French proletariat should not launch any attempt at upsetting the new French government; instead, the workers must “perform their duties as citizens” and not get carried away by the memories of past revolutions – the workers should accept what comes. Thankfully, this manifesto had no impact on the French workers’ movement, and early in the following year a number of working-class rebellions broke out, with the most significant being the Paris commune – the first true proletarian revolution.

Why socialists should support certain imperial wars

Engels’ support for these elements of the German nationalist project did not cease with the victory of Prussia over France and the heroic death of the Paris commune. Engels continued to hold similar opinions until the end of his life, and discussed with the German social-democrat leaders the possibility of again supporting Germany in a war.

On the 29th of September, 1891, Engels wrote to August Bebel, one of the SDP’s most significant figures. Prompted by an article of Bebel’s on Russia, Engels outlines what he regards as a proper strategic vision for the SDP. He argues that the German socialist should realise that “a war against Germany in alliance with Russia would first and foremost be a war against the strongest and most efficient socialist party in Europe”. If the socialists found themselves in a situation where such a war was breaking out, then they “should have no option but to fight with all our might against any assailant who went to Russia’s aid”.

Engels was not a nationalist and did not justify supporting these wars on simple patriotic grounds. Instead, the support was predicated on the notion that the wars would ultimately benefit the German worker’s movement – which, to Engels, entailed a benefit to the entire European workers’ movement. As he says – “the victory of Germany, therefore, will be the victory of the revolution and, if war comes, we must not only desire that victory but promote it with all available means”4.

In another letter to Bebel on the 13th of October, Engels becomes more explicit, this time arguing that if the prospect of war increases, then the SDP can “tell the government that we should be prepared […] to support them against a foreign enemy, provided they prosecuted the war ruthlessly and with all available means, including revolutionary ones”. If Germany itself is attacked, “all means of defence would be justified”. Such a war would be a chance for the socialists to prove – to whom exactly is not specified – that they may be “the only truly vigorous war party”, as the German bourgeoisie and Junkers would prosecute the war less forcefully, knowing that their property is at risk. It would also potentially provide the socialists with an opportunity to “take the helm”5.

No war but the class war, always

Contemporary Marxists are entirely justified in placing a premium on internationalism and reacting so strongly against the socialists that support national and imperial wars. However, they must seriously probe their own tradition and establish where they lie in relation to the founders of their political ideas. Engels’ two-hundredth birthday is as good a time as any to do this.

It is worth reflecting on why, unlike revolutionary social-democrats like Lenin or Luxembourg, anarchists of the era had few illusions about whether the SDP would oppose a future world war. This author intends to devote a full article to this topic in the future. Answering this question entails establishing the way the political traditions supported by Marx and Engels led practically to the inability of workers to resist the outbreak of the First World War – and why they will continue to impede proper working-class internationalism.

For instance, the social-democratic “division of labour” in the working-class movement between economic organisations (unions) and political organisations (parties), and the subordination of the former to the latter, was a clear impediment to the possibility of unity between French and German workers in the lead-up to 1914. The French CGT union federation, which was controlled by revolutionary syndicalists for much of the preceding two decades, continually approached their German counterparts to discuss concrete plans for a general strike at the outbreak of war. They were consistently rebuffed on the grounds that militarism was a political question, and thus could only be properly discussed among parties.

My belief is that anti-militarism cannot be subordinated to our narrow, constructed political traditions. Establishing a way forward means in some sense analysing our heritage to understand it fully, and there is no room for dogmatism or hero-worship in this endeavour; if I can ask one thing of Marxists  – and anarchists  – it is for them to doubt.

Much of this article has been based on the work of René Berthier, a retired syndicalist militant who writes on this issue. Readers may be interested in his book on Bakunin’s geopolitical analysis entitled “Bakunin Politique”; select chapters have been translated and placed online here.

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  1. Engels to Bernstein, 12-13 June 1883
  2. Engels to Marx, 16 August 1870
  3. Marx to Engels, 20 July 1870
  4. Engels to Bebel, 29 September 1891
  5. Engels to Bebel, 13 October 1891