Marx-Engels Correspondence 1868
Source: MECW, Volume 43, p. 132;
First published: in Die Neue Zeit, Stuttgart, 1896.
A misunderstanding on my part accounts for your having received no reply to your letter of 15 September. I interpreted the letter as meaning that you would submit your ‘proposals’ to me for examination. So I waited for them. Then came your congress, and (being much overworked) I regarded a reply as no longer urgent. Before the arrival of your letter dated 8 October, I had already repeatedly appealed for peace, in my capacity as secretary of the International for Germany. I received the answer (and with it relevant quotations from the Social-Demokrat) that you yourself were provoking war. I declared that my role must necessarily be confined to that of ‘impartial referee’ at a duel.
In your letters you express great trust in me, and I believe I cannot respond better than to give you my opinion of the present state of affairs quite openly, without any diplomatic circumlocution. In doing so, I assume that, for you, as for myself, the cause is all that matters.
I recognise, without reserve, the intelligence and energy with which you are active in the workers’ movement. I have concealed this view from none of my friends. Wherever I have to express my views in public — in the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association and in the German Communist Association here — I have always treated you as a man of our party, and never let drop a word about points of difference.
However, such points of difference do exist.
D'abord, as regards the Lassallean Association, it was formed in a period of reaction. After fifteen years of slumber, Lassalle — and this remains his immortal service — re-awakened the workers’ movement in Germany. But he made great mistakes. He allowed himself to be influenced too much by the immediate circumstances of the time. He made the minor starting point, his opposition to the dwarf-like Schulze-Delitzsch, the central point of his agitation — state aid versus self-help. In this, he merely re-adopted the slogan circulated in 1843 sqq. by Buchez, the leader of Catholic socialism, against the genuine workers’ movement in France. Being far too intelligent to regard this slogan as anything but a transitory pis-aller, Lassalle was only able to justify its use on the grounds of its immediate (alleged!) practicability. To this end, he had to claim that it was feasible in the immediate future. The ‘state’ was, therefore, transformed into the Prussian state. He was thus forced to make concessions to the Prussian monarchy, to Prussian reaction (the feudal party) and even to the clericals. He linked Buchez’s state aid for associations with the Chartist call for universal suffrage. He overlooked the difference between conditions in Germany and England. He overlooked the lessons of the bas-empire, with regard to universal suffrage in France. In addition, like everyone who claims to have in his pocket a panacea for the sufferings of the masses, he gave his agitation, from the very start, a religious, sectarian character. In fact, every sect is religious. And just because he was the founder of a sect, he denied all natural connection with the earlier movement, both in Germany and abroad. He fell into Proudhon’s mistake of not seeking the real basis of his agitation in the actual elements of the class movement, but of wishing, instead, to prescribe for that movement a course determined by a certain doctrinaire recipe.
Most of what I am stating here post factum I predicted to Lassalle when he came to London in 1862 and called upon me to place myself, with him, at the head of the new movement.
You yourself know the difference between a sect movement and a class movement from personal experience. The sect seeks its raison d'être and its point d'honneur not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth distinguishing it from that movement. Thus when, in Hamburg, you proposed convening a congress to found trades unions, you could only suppress the opposition of the sectarians by threatening to resign as president. You were also forced to assume a dual personality, to state that, in one case, you were acting as the leader of the sect and, in the other, as the representative of the class movement.
The dissolution of the General Association of German Workers provided you with an opportunity to take a big step forward and to declare, to prove s'il le fallait [if necessary], that a new stage of development had been reached and the sect movement was now ripe to merge into the class movement and end all ‘eanisms’. With regard to the true content of the sect, it would, like all former workers’ sects, carry this as an enriching element into the general movement. Yet instead you, in fact, demanded that the class movement subordinate itself to a particular sect movement. Your non-friends concluded from this that you wished to conserve your ‘own workers’ movement’ under all circumstances.
Regarding the Berlin Congress, the time was d'abord not pressing, since the Combination Law has not yet been voted. You ought, therefore, to have reached an agreement with the leaders outside the Lassallean circle, worked out the plan together with them, and convoked the congress. Instead of this, you left them only the alternative of either publicly joining you, or lining up against you. The congress itself appeared to be only an extended edition of the Hamburg Congress.
As for the draft statutes, I regard them as unsuitable in principle, and I believe I have as much experience as any of my contemporaries in the field of trades unions. Without going further into detail here, I shall merely remark that a centralist organisation, suitable as it is for secret societies and sect movements, contradicts the nature of the trades unions. Were it possible — I declare it tout bonnement to be impossible — it would not be desirable, least of all in Germany. Here, where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk by himself.
Your plan is also impracticable in other ways. In the ‘Union’ there are to be three independent authorities of differing origin: 1. The Committee, elected by the trades; 2. the President (here a completely superfluous personage) [In the Rules of the International Working Men’s Association there also figures a President of the Association. In reality his only function was to preside at the sessions of the General Council. On my proposal, this office — which I had refused in 1866 — was completely abolished in 1867, and was replaced by that of a Chairman, who is elected at each weekly session of the General Council. The London Trades’ Council also has simply a Chairman. Its sole permanent official is the Secretary, as he has a continuous business function to exercise.] [NB. This passage follows in the copy of the letter to Schweitzer after the end of this sentence], elected by a general vote; 3. the Congress, elected by the local branches. Thus — collisions everywhere, and this is supposed to promote ‘rapid action’! (At this point the inserted sentence.) Lassalle committed a bad mistake in borrowing the ‘président élu du suffrage universel’ ['president elected by universal suffrage'] from the French Constitution of 1852. And now this in a trades unions movement! The latter is mostly concerned with financial issues, and you will soon discover that all dictatorialism finds its end here.
Yet whatever the shortcomings of the organisation, they can perhaps be cancelled out, to a greater or lesser degree, by rational application. As secretary of the International I am ready to act — naturally on a rational basis — as mediator between you and the Nuremberg majority, which has adhered to the International directly. I have written in the same vein to Leipzig. I understand the difficulties of your position, and never forget that each of us depends more upon circumstances than upon his own will.
I promise you, under all circumstances, the impartiality that is my duty. On the other hand, I cannot promise that I shall not, some day, acting as a private author, — as soon as I feel it to be absolutely dictated by the interests of the labour movement — publicly criticise the Lassallean superstition, in the same way as I dealt, in its time, with the Proudhonist superstition.
With the assurance of my best wishes to you personally,