Marx Engels Correspondence 1891

Friedrich Engels to Karl Kautsky
In Stuttgart

Source: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

14 October 1891

Dear Kautsky

To my great astonishment I found unexpectedly cropping up in the Vorwärts text of your draft [1] the term ‘one reactionary mass’. I am writing to you at once about it although I am almost afraid it is too late. This propaganda phrase spoils, like a shrill discordant note, the whole harmonious array of tersely and precisely worded scientific propositions. For it is a propaganda phrase and extremely one-sided at that and hence entirely wrong in the apodictically absolute form in which alone it seems convincing.

Wrong because it enunciates an historical tendency, which is, correct as such, as an accomplished fact. The moment the socialist revolution starts all other parties appear to be a reactionary mass vis-à-vis us. They may possibly be it already, and have lost all capacity for any progressive action whatsoever, although this is not inevitable. But at the present moment we cannot say that, at least not with the certainty with which we proclaim the other programmatic principles. Even in Germany conditions may arise under which the Left parties, despite their wretchedness, may be forced to sweep away part of the colossal anti-bourgeois, bureaucratic and feudal rubbish that is still lying there. And in that event they are by no means a reactionary mass.

So long as we are not strong enough to seize the helm of state ourselves and realise our principles there can be no talk, strictly speaking, of one reactionary mass vis-à-vis us. Otherwise the whole nation would be divided into a reactionary majority and an impotent minority.

Did the people who broke up the system of small states in Germany, who gave the bourgeoisie elbow-room to make the industrial revolution, who introduced a unified communications system, both for persons and things, and who thereby were bound to give us greater freedom of movement – did they do that as a ‘reactionary mass'?

Did the French bourgeois republicans, who in 1871-78 definitely vanquished the monarchy and the rule of the clergy and secured freedom of the press, of association and of assembly to an extent previously unheard-of in France in non-revolutionary times, who introduced compulsory education and made instruction general and improved it to such an extent that we in Germany could profit by their example – did they act as a reactionary mass?

The Englishmen belonging to either of the official parties, who have enormously extended the suffrage, quintupled the number of voters, equalised the election districts, introduced compulsory education and improved instruction, who at each session vote not only for bourgeois reforms but also for ever new concessions to the workers – they proceed slowly and listlessly but nobody can condemn them offhand as ‘one reactionary mass’.

In brief, we have no right to represent a tendency gradually becoming a reality as an already accomplished fact, and particularly not since in England for instance this tendency will never become an absolute fact. When the turning point comes here the bourgeoisie will still be ready to introduce various small reforms. But at that time it will be completely pointless to insist on introducing small reforms in a system that is being overthrown.

The Lassallean phrase is justified under certain circumstances in agitation, although our people too have greatly misused it, for example since 1 October 1890 [2] in the Vorwärts. But it does not belong in the Programme, for there it would be absolutely wrong and misleading. There it would look like banker Bethmann’s wife on the balcony they wanted to build for his house: ‘If you build me a balcony my wife will squat down on it and spoil the whole façade!’

I cannot mention any other changes in the Vorwärts text for I have mislaid the paper and the letter must be mailed.

The Party Congress started on a glorious day; 14 October is the anniversary of the battles of Jena and Auerstedt [3] where old, pre-revolutionary Prussia collapsed. May 14 October 1891 inaugurate for Prussianised Germany the ‘internal Jena’ predicted by Marx.

F Engels


1. The draft programme of the German Social-Democratic Party – Progress Publishers.

2. On 1 October 1890 the Anti-Socialist Law was abrogated in Germany – Progress Publishers.

3. Engels refers to the crushing defeat which Napoleon inflicted on the Prussian armies at Jena and Auerstedt on 14 October 1806 – Progress Publishers.