Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
The Circular Letter's Response to the The Manifesto of the Zurich Trio
by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Estimated Reading Time: 15 min

Marx and Engels came near to breaking with their German comrades over the Gotha Programme, but held back from this ultimate step. When their threat to ‘publish a short statement dissociating ourselves from the said programme of principles and stating that we have had nothing to do with it’ was ignored, they backed down and collaborated after all with the new party. However, in 1879 they had further occasion to return to the attack, as the reformist tendency of the Gotha Programme invaded the Social-Democratic Party’s practice when Bismarck introduced the Anti-Socialist Law. This move to repress the party was induced by its growing strength and electoral support (it had polled almost half a million votes in the 1878 elections), and Bismarck found a pretext in two attempts by anarchists on the life of the emperor. The crisis highlighted the predominant reformist orientation of the party. When a ‘minor state of siege’ was declared in Berlin, as a preliminary to the deportation from the capital of dozens of Socialist leaders, Liebknecht declared in the Reichstag that the SAPD was a party of reform, was opposed to ‘revolution-mongering’, and would obey the Anti-Socialist Law. The SAPD parliamentary group began to follow a policy of conciliation, even giving opportunist support to Bismarck’s protectionist tariff policy, and Marx declared, ‘They are already so far affected by parliamentary idiotism that they think they are above criticism.’

When the party leadership grudgingly accepted the need for a party organ to be published abroad and smuggled into Germany, the three comrades it appointed to produce this in Switzerland, who included Bernstein, came out instead with a ‘Yearbook for Social Science and Social Policy’ which commenced with a criticism of the party’s record from a bourgeois-democratic position, attacking it not, as Marx had done, for its reformism, but for its ‘one-sided’ class character.

In their ‘Circular Letter’ to the SAPD leadership written in response to this, Marx and Engels reiterated their basic theses on the class struggle as laid down in the Manifesto thirty years earlier. They stressed more clearly, however, in the light of the experience of the German party, the danger of the workers’ party becoming contaminated by bourgeois ideology. Marx accepts, as always, that ‘people from the hitherto ruling class [will] join the struggling proletariat and supply it with educative elements’, but he insists that ‘when such people from other classes join the proletarian party the first requirement is that they do not bring any remnants of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois etc. prejudices with them, but that they adopt the proletarian outlook without prevarication.’ Marx ascribes the party’s errors to the presence in its ranks of bourgeois ideologists, and implies that alien elements may have to be purged from the party in order to keep it to its revolutionary course. In a letter written some two years earlier he had also made it clear that it is not merely from those of bourgeois social origin that this danger comes: ‘The workers themselves, when ... they give up work and become professional literary men, always breed “theoretical” mischief and are always ready to join muddleheads from the allegedly “learned” caste.’

However, lacking a structural explanation of working-class reformism, Marx and Engels continued to see this simply as the product of external bourgeois influence, and to believe that these false ideas could be rectified by ideological struggle within a united party, at most by excluding a few bourgeois intellectuals. In the last analysis, they did not believe that reformism could take serious and systematic root in the working class.

—David Fernbach
The Political Writings of Karl Marx

The Bernstein Marx and Engels are responding to is the German Social Democrat Edward Bernstein (1850 - 1932). Despite this early misstep that Marx and Engels criticize in the Circular letter, Bernstein goes on to be named Engels Literary Executor. After Engels's death, there is a fraught period of interpreting, sometimes critically, Marx's work. A debate springs up and there are accusations of heresy (as if Marx's work was the word of god) and revisionism (e.g., understating and omitting the class struggle and proletarian elements of Marxism) as well as dogma reductionism (as if Marx had all the answers eternally and universally instead of offering a method to be updated and improved as new information came to light). Bernstein plays a major role in the Second International, along with and sometimes in opposition to Karl Kautsky.

In H. Kendall Roger's book "Before the Revisionist Controversy," he quotes an 1895 letter of the Austrian socialist leader Victor Auer:

Where the old man is irreplaceable is the interpretation of the scripture. With all respect for the younger Church Fathers, the rich experience and authority of Engels is absent even with Kautsky; [Bernstein] is beginning to doubt himself; and Plekhanov is too foreign to the masses for him to exercise influence on them. Accordingly we shall have to get along for awhile without a "Source of Truth"; and this may often be noticed as uncomfortable."

Remind yourself that Marx himself said "I'm not a Marxist" and read this circular letter to the German Social Democrats' response to the Anti-Socialist law in the context of the incipient debates of the second international.

In the meantime we have received Höchberg’s Jahrbuch, containing an article, “Rückblicke auf die sozialistische Bewegung in Deutschland,” which, as Höchberg himself informed me, was actually written by the three members of the Zurich committee.

Here we have their authentic critique of the movement up till now, and hence their authentic programme for the new paper’s stance insofar as this is dependent on them.

At the very start we read:

“The movement, regarded by Lassalle as an eminently political one, to which he sought to rally not only the workers but all honest democrats, and in the van of which were to march the independent representatives of science and all men imbued with a true love of mankind, was trivialised under the chairmanship of J. B. von Schweitzer into a one-sided struggle of the industrial workers to promote their own interest.”

I shall not inquire whether and to what extent this is historically true. The specific charge against Schweitzer is that Schweitzer trivialised Lassalleanism, here regarded as a bourgeois democratic-philanthropic movement, into a one-sided struggle of the industrial workers to promote their own interests — trivialised it by emphasising its character as a class struggle of industrial workers against the bourgeoisie. He is further charged with having “repudiated bourgeois democracy”. But has bourgeois democracy any business to be in the Social-Democratic Party at all? If it consists of “honest men”, it surely cannot wish to join, and if it nevertheless wishes to join, this can only be for the purpose of stirring up trouble.

The Lassallean party “chose to present itself in a most one-sided manner as a workers’ party”. The gentlemen who wrote those words are themselves members of a party which presents itself in the most one-sided manner as a workers’ party, and now hold office in the same. Here we have a complete incompatibility. If they think as they write, they ought to leave the party or at least resign from office. If they don’t, it is tantamount to admitting that they intend to use their official position to combat the party’s proletarian character. Hence the party is betraying itself if it allows them to remain in office.

Thus, in the view of these gentlemen, the Social-Democratic Party ought not to be a one-sided workers’ party but a many-sided party of “all men imbued with a true love of mankind”. This it is to prove, above all, by divesting itself of crude proletarian passions and applying itself, under the direction of educated philanthropic bourgeois, “to the formation of good taste” and “the acquisition of good manners” (p. 85). After which the “seedy appearance” of some of the leaders would give way to a respectable “bourgeois appearance”. (As though the outwardly seedy appearance of those referred to here were not the least that could be held against them!) After which, too,

“there will be an influx of supporters from the ranks of the educated and propertied classes. These, however, must first be won over if the ... agitation engaged in is to have perceptible results... German socialism has laid “too much stress on winning over the masses, thus omitting to prosecute vigorous” (!)"propaganda amongst the so-called upper strata of society”. For “the party still lacks men who are fit to represent it in the Reichstag”. It is, however, “desirable and necessary to entrust the mandates to men who have had the time and the opportunity to become thoroughly conversant with the relevant material. Only rarely and in exceptional cases does ... the simple working man and small master craftsman have sufficient leisure for the purpose”.

Therefore elect bourgeois!

In short, the working class is incapable of emancipating itself by its own efforts. In order to do so it must place itself under the direction of “educated and propertied” bourgeois who alone have “the time and the opportunity” to become conversant with what is good for the workers. And, secondly, the bourgeois are not to be combatted — not on your life — but won over by vigorous propaganda.

If, however, you wish to win over the upper strata of society, or at least their well-intentioned elements, you mustn’t frighten them — not on your life. And here the Zurich trio believe they have made a reassuring discovery:

“Now, at the very time it is oppressed by the A law which outlawed Socialists and Communist organisations and ideas in Germany.
Bismarck was well aware of the growing power and prospects of the working class ever since he had become Prussian Chancellor in 1862. After the Franco-Prussian War, however, his armies had to contend with the threat of the Paris Commune. Bismarck, a keen opportunist, patiently waited for the impetus to assault a popular movement while being constantly antoganistic but relatively discretely. In 1878, there were two attempts on the life of Kaiser William I; the first was on May 11, by a tin worker named Hodel who fired at but missed the Kaiser. He was executed on August 16 at Moabit. A second attempt was made by Dr. Karl Nobiling who shot and wounded the Kaiser and then shot himself on June 2.
This was the opportunity Bismarck needed (though the Social Democrats had nothing to do with it). The first attempt Bismarck made was defeated in the Reichstag after debate May 23 to 24th, by 251 votes to 57. After the 2nd attempt on the Kaiser however, Bismarck dissolved the Reichstag on June 11, and new elections were held on July 30, at which Bismarck gained 38 seats. On October 18, the new Richstag passed the law by 221 votes to 149. Regardless, the law was put into operation even before it was passed.
The law outlawed all Social-Democratic organisations (the name German Socialists used at the time), all working class organisations, all working class or Socialist presses, and ordered the confiscation of all Socialist literature by the state. Social-Democrats and various other pro-working class groups were arrested and deported. 900 workers were expelled from their homes; 1500 sentenced to various terms of imprisonment; 1300 publications were suspended and 332 organizations of workers were forcibly dissolved.
The Social-Democratic party would not waver under the pressure, however, and adapted itself to underground tactics. The party began publishing the paper Sozial-Demokrat in Switzerland. The party held regular congresses (1880, 1883, and 1887), operating under a Central Committee.
Using what legal means it could, the party strengthed its ties with the workers of Germany, and its influence grew steadily: from 1878 to 1890 the number of votes it polled in the Reichstag elections more than tripled. The mounting pressure of the underground working class coupled with growing popular support repealed the Anti-Socialist law -- the law had been renewed until 1890, when Bismarck was dropped. It was reinstated nearly 40 years later by the Nazis.
Anti-Socialist Law, the party is showing that it does not wish to pursue the path of forcible, bloody revolution, but rather is determined ... to tread the path of legality, i.e. of reform.”

If, therefore, the 5-600,000 Social-Democratic voters, 1/10 to 1/8 of the total electorate — and dispersed, what is more, over the length and breadth of the country — have sense enough not to beat their heads against a wall and attempt a “bloody revolution” with the odds at one to ten, this is supposed to prove that they will, for all time, continue to deny themselves all chance of exploiting some violent upheaval abroad, a sudden wave of revolutionary fervour engendered thereby, or even a people’s victory won in a clash arising therefrom! Should Berlin ever be so uneducated as to stage another March 18, it would behove the Social-Democrats not to take part in the fighting as “louts besotted with barricades” (p. 88) but rather to “tread the path of legality”, to placate, to clear away the barricades and, if necessary, march with the glorious army against the one-sided, crude, uneducated masses. Or if the gentlemen insist that that’s not what they meant, then what did they mean?

But there’s better in store.

“Hence, the more calm, sober and considered it (the Party) shows itself to be in its criticism of existing circumstances and its proposals to change the same, the less likelihood is there of a repetition of the present successful move” (introduction of the Anti-Socialist Law) “by means of which conscious reaction has scared the bourgeoisie out of their wits by holding up the red spectre” (p. 88).

In order to relieve the bourgeoisie of the last trace of anxiety, it is to be shown clearly and convincingly that the red spectre really is just a spectre and doesn’t exist. But what is the secret of the red spectre, if not the bourgeoisie’s fear of the inevitable life-and-death struggle between itself and the proletariat, fear of the unavoidable outcome of the modern class struggle? Just abolish the class struggle, and the bourgeoisie and “all independent persons” will “not hesitate to go hand in hand with the proletarians"! In which case the ones to be hoodwinked would be those self-same proletarians.

Let the party, therefore, prove, by its humble and subdued demeanour, that it has renounced once and for all the “improprieties and excesses” which gave rise to the Anti-Socialist Law. If it voluntarily undertakes to remain wholly within the bounds of the Anti-Socialist Law, Bismarck and the bourgeoisie will, no doubt, oblige by rescinding what would then be a redundant law!

“Let no one misunderstand us”; we don’t want “to relinquish our party and our programmed but in our opinion we shall have enough to do for years to come if we concentrate our whole strength, our entire energies, on the attainment of certain immediate objectives which must in any case be won before there can be any thought of realising more ambitious aspirations.”

Then, too, the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and workers, who “are now scared off ... by ambitious demands”, will join us en masse.

The programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed — for some unspecified period. They accept it — not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and their children’s children. Meanwhile they devote their “whole strength and energies” to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie. Here I can only commend that communist, Miquel, who gives proof of his unshakable belief in the inevitable downfall of capitalist society within the next few hundred years by swindling it for all he’s worth, contributing manfully to the crash of 1873, and thus really doing something towards the collapse of the existing order.

Another offence against good manners was the “exaggerated attacks on the Gründer”, who, after all, were “only children of their time”; hence “the vilification of Strousberg and suchlike men ... would have been better omitted”. Sadly we are all “children of our time”, and if this be sufficient grounds for excuse, it is no longer permissible to attack anyone, and we for our part would have to desist from all polemic, all struggle; we would calmly submit whenever kicked by our opponents, because we would know in our wisdom that they are “only children of their time” and cannot act otherwise than they do. Instead of repaying them their kicks with interest, we should rather, it seems, feel sorry for the poor fellows.

Similarly, our support for the Commune had one drawback, at any rate, namely

“that it put off people otherwise well-disposed towards us, and generally increased the hatred felt for us by the bourgeoisie”. Moreover, the party “cannot be wholly exonerated from having brought about the October Law, for it had needlessly exacerbated the hatred of the bourgeoisie”.

There you have the programme of the three censors of Zurich. As regards clarity, it leaves nothing to be desired. Least of all so far as we're concerned, since we are still only too familiar with all these catch-phrases of 1848. There are the voices of the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, terrified lest the proletariat, impelled by its revolutionary situation, should “go too far”. Instead of resolute political opposition — general conciliation; instead of a struggle against government and bourgeoisie — an attempt to win them over and talk them round; instead of defiant resistance to maltreatment from above — humble subjection and the admission that the punishment was deserved. Every historically necessary conflict is reinterpreted as a misunderstanding and every discussion wound up with the assurance: we are, of course, all agreed on the main issue. The men who in 1848 entered the arena as bourgeois democrats might now just as well call themselves Social-Democrats. To the former, the democratic republic was as unattainably remote as the overthrow of the capitalist order is to the latter, and therefore utterly irrelevant to present political practice; one can conciliate, compromise, philanthropise to one’s heart’s content. The same thing applies to the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. On paper it is recognised because there is no denying it any longer, but in practice it is glossed over, suppressed, emasculated. The Social-Democratic Party should not be a workers’ party, it should not bring upon itself the hatred of the bourgeoisie or, for that matter, of anyone else; above all, it should prosecute vigorous propaganda amongst the bourgeoisie; instead of laying stress on ambitious goals which are calculated to frighten off the, bourgeoisie, and unattainable anyway in our own generation, it should rather devote all its strength and energies to those petty-bourgeois stop-gap reforms which provide new props for the old social order and which might, perhaps, transform the ultimate catastrophe into a gradual, piecemeal and, as far as possible, peaceable process of dissolution. These are the same people who keep up an appearance of ceaseless activity, yet not only do nothing themselves but also try to ensure that nothing at all is done save — chin-wagging; the same people whose fear of any kind of action in 1848 and ’49 held back the movement at every step and finally brought about its downfall; the same people who never see reaction and then are utterly dumbfounded to find themselves at last in a blind alley in which neither resistance nor flight is possible; the same people who want to confine history within their narrow philistine horizons, and over whose heads history invariably proceeds to the order of the day.

As for their socialist import, this has already been adequately criticised in the Manifesto, Chapter: “German, or ‘True’ Socialism”. Wherever the class struggle is thrust aside as a distasteful, “crude” manifestation, the only basis still left to socialism will be a “true love of mankind” and empty phrases about “justice”.

It is an inevitable manifestation, and one rooted in the process of development, that people from what have hitherto been the ruling class also join the militant proletariat and supply it with educative elements. We have already said so clearly in the Manifesto. But in this context there are two observations to be made:

Firstly, if these people are to be of use to the proletarian movement, they must introduce genuinely educative elements. However, in the case of the vast majority of German bourgeois converts, this is not the case. Neither the Zukunft nor the Neue Gesellschaft has contributed anything that might have advanced the movement by a single step. Here we find a complete lack of genuinely educative matter, either factual or theoretical. In place of it, attempts to reconcile superficially assimilated socialist ideas with the most diverse theoretical viewpoints which these gentlemen have introduced from the university or elsewhere, and of which each is more muddled than the last thanks to the process of decay taking place in what remains of German philosophy today. Instead of first making a thorough study of the new science, each man chose to adapt it to the viewpoint he had brought with him, not hesitating to produce his own brand of science and straightaway assert his right to teach it. Hence there are, amongst these gentlemen, almost as many viewpoints as there are heads; instead of elucidating anything, they have only made confusion worse — by good fortune, almost exclusively amongst themselves. The party can well dispense with educative elements such as these for whom it is axiomatic to teach what they have not learnt.

Secondly, when people of this kind, from different classes, join the proletarian movement, the first requirement is that they should not bring with them the least remnant of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices, but should unreservedly adopt the proletarian outlook. These gentlemen, however, as already shown, are chock-full of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas. In a country as petty-bourgeois as Germany, there is certainly some justification for such ideas. But only outside the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. If the gentlemen constitute themselves a Social-Democratic petty-bourgeois party, they are fully within their rights: in that case we could negotiate with them and, according to circumstances, form an alliance with them, etc. But within a workers’ party they are an adulterating element. Should there be any reason to tolerate their presence there for a while, it should be our duty only to tolerate them, to allow them no say in the Party leadership and to remain aware that a break with them is only a matter of time. That time, moreover, would appear to have come. How the Party can suffer the authors of this article to remain any longer in their midst seems to us incomprehensible. But should the Party leadership actually pass, to a greater or lesser extent, into the hands of such men, then the Party will be emasculated no less, and that will put paid to its proletarian grit.

As for ourselves, there is, considering all our antecedents, only one course open to us. For almost 40 years we have emphasised that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history and, in particular, that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great lever of modern social revolution; hence we cannot possibly co-operate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement. At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes. If the new party organ is to adopt a policy that corresponds to the opinions of these gentlemen, if it is bourgeois and not proletarian, then all we could do — much though we might regret it — would be publicly to declare ourselves opposed to it and abandon the solidarity with which we have hitherto represented the German Party abroad. But we hope it won’t come to that.

It is intended that this letter should be communicated to all five members of the committee in Germany, and also to Bracke....

Nor have we any objection to its being communicated to the people in Zurich.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
   To tell us what needs to be guarded in the van, write to   ?s    YTD All the available strength of the old order faced the unorganised power of the new, the unknown