Engels on Revolutionary Tactics, 1889-1895*


In the recently published MEGA2 volumes (I/30 to I/32), we find all of Engels’ texts from the period after Marx’s death except for his work on Capital.1 They shed new and consistent light not only on Engels' understanding of theoretical issues, but more especially on his ability to analyze concrete problems, e.g. those arising out of the new historical situation following mass industrial action of workers in Germany and Great Britain in 1889 and the founding of the new International in the same year. These texts – frequently overlooked or ignored – go a long way towards laying to rest doubts concerning Engels’ understanding of Marxism, doubts that have been voiced by critics in particular regarding his editing of Capital vols. II and III.2

For the purposes of analyzing Engels’ attitude toward the labor movement around 1890, his public statements are generally more significant than what he said in private letters. His letters were addressed to personal friends, which permitted a greater degree of candor than was possible in public statements. A movement that sought the support of the broad masses, however, had to involve them in its activities and could not afford to pursue policies arrived at confidentially. Written proposals prepared by local party associations were more important in this connection than any internal discussions.

Here we might mention Engels’ ‘Farewell Letter to the Readers of the Sozialdemokrat’ (in which he opposed the ‘Force of Weapons’) or the ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850’ (1895) in which Engels, among other things, addressed the question of whether barricade fighting was obsolete.3 It is regrettable that the ‘Introduction’ has been called Engels’ ‘political testament’, for it is a text open to interpretation, not a definitive assessment of how state power is to be attained. A better insight into Engels’ views is provided by his rich correspondence.4

Engels’ correspondence shows that he discussed such issues with his political friends and did not simply impose his own finished concepts upon them. We have certain earlier statements of Engels concerning the significance of parliaments in political struggles, for instance following the 5th Congress of the International Working Men's Association in the Hague in 1872, at which time he expressed his ‘hope that it will be possible for the Danish labor movement – through exercising their lawful political rights – to gain representation in the Diet in order to promote their objectives’.5 However, twenty years later, the situation was different, as shown in Engels’ correspondence with Victor Adler (the leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party),6 as well as with e.g. Paul and Laura Lafargue, August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, F.A. Sorge, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Gerson Trier, and Filippo Turati. The Labor movement had by this time become a mass movement in a number of countries, and this opened new possibilities beyond parliamentary activities.

Any attempt to find a contradiction between Engels' reaction to changing circumstances on the one hand and his efforts to disseminate, defend, and sustain work, on the other, would hardly yield any useful results; it is far more productive to perceive the two as complementary. We should keep in mind, however, that Engels may sometimes have expressed himself obliquely, as when he wrote to party members who had been imprisoned. It is to be hoped that through a parallel reading of Engels' letters and his concurrent public statements – something which the MEGA2 will make possible – we will gain a fuller understanding of the relationship between his late writings and contemporaneous labor movement developments and socialist thought.

In their correspondence, Adler and Engels discuss, among other things, possible new revolutionary ‘tactics’. They agreed on some of the issues from the outset, and on others they came closer to agreement in the course of the exchange, although they did not reach a common position. Their focus was on tasks to be carried out. Among the problems they discussed were the relationships between 1) industrial action and general strike; 2) May-day demonstrations; 3) elections, election campaigning, parliamentarians, and universal suffrage demonstrations; 4) violent revolutions (including barricade fighting) and efforts to win over rural laborers (and thus the core regiments of the Prussian army), thereby raising the question of state power; and 5) keeping party debates secret or making them public.

These questions were, of course, interlinked and could not be analyzed in isolation from one another. Developments in the labor movement and in society led Engels to view things from new tactical angles, which he discussed in his correspondence. Although he had been concerned for several decades with the question of freedom of debate within the party, his thoughts on this topic attained new importance during the last half-dozen years of his life, because they became relevant to his assessment of whether the workers’ movement could attain state power. It is obvious that the correspondence played a preparatory role. In order for these discussions to have a wider effect, they had to be published – which they were over the following years, often as introductions or forewords to new editions of important publications.

A new situation after 1889?

After having been active for 45 years in the labor movement, which most often suffered grave defeats, Engels finally began to see light at the end of the tunnel. In May-June 1889, a miners’ strike in Germany had mobilized the great majority of miners, and had spread to Bohemia and Belgium; the July congress in Paris had been a success; in late summer the extensive dockers’ strike in London had achieved good results, which, in turn, led to intensified activities on the part of the ‘New Unions’. The general election in France in the fall of 1889 led to the establishment of a small socialist group in the National Assembly (with the ‘Marxist’ Parti Ouvrier at its center); in January 1890, the Danish party carried out a successful election campaign resulting in a doubling of its vote; in February, the German party also doubled its vote, obtaining around 20 percent of the total. In the course of the year, the German Chancellor Bismarck was toppled and the ‘Anti-Socialist Laws’ revoked, and the first international May Day –‘the best thing our congress did’ (Engels to Paul Lafargue, 27 August 1889) – demonstrated, especially in Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, and London, but also in other cities, a stronger labor movement. All of this strengthened the impression that the movement was on an upswing. In Belgium, and later also in Austria, between 1890 and 1893, comprehensive election campaigns took place, both requiring and resulting in an extensive mobilization of workers. It looked as if the socialist labor movement had achieved its breakthrough.

In most European and in some non-European countries this unequivocal rise of the labor movement was reflected by increasing degrees of organization at several levels. Engels observed this process and discussed it in his letters. The events led him to make statements which did not prove to be entirely accurate, but which should not be left out of consideration. My purpose here is not to give an exhaustive account of Engels’ positions but rather to focus on his reactions to new situations as they arose.

In order to understand the epistolary discussion it will be useful to look at Engels' exchange with the Danish socialist Gerson Trier. In a letter to Trier on 18 December 1889, he criticized the tactic of the Danish party opposition in its clash with the party leadership which had led to the recent expulsion of the oppositional members from the party. At the time of its re-establishment in 1879, the party was conceived as a cadre party – only persons who unequivocally endorsed ‘socialist principles’ were eligible for membership. The party was centrally organized and immediately took over coordination of the national labor unions. The party press was subject to the authority of the Copenhagen party branch, primarily its Control Committee which appointed the editors of local papers. When after 1884 the party was ‘overrun’ by new members, it initiated the publication of two series: one for extensive works (including vols. I and II of Capital); the second, for shorter, often topical texts intended to familiarize new members with socialist principles. In their attempt to build a strong and united movement, the party leaders based themselves on what they had experienced in the factional strife of the 1870s and ‘80s. Long-term opposition was not to be tolerated; a unified and unanimous labor movement was perceived as a precondition for success.

This not unusual ‘model’ met with opposition. Not only in Denmark, but also in Germany, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway, oppositional trends emerged in the Social Democratic labor parties around 1890, and were generally ousted. This did not happen in France, Italy, or Great Britain. In France, from 1882 on, the movement consisted of several parties; in Italy a unified labor movement was only in the process of being born; in Britain there were as yet hardly any political organizations of the working class.

From his discussion with Trier it is possible to deduce certain key elements in Engels' positions which evolved over the ensuing years as the situation changed. He saw no sense in speaking of a ‘model’. He thought about the conditions that had to be fulfilled in order to attain state power. In so doing he constantly included new components – unfolding events – into the development of a political tactic. It seems as if he was urgently trying to acquire the necessary understanding at the same time that he was attempting to impart it to others.

Even before writing his December 1889 letter, Engels had told Trier that he himself was against splitting socialist parties. He still considered that the proletariat would only be able to attain state power by means of a violent revolution. For this it needed an independent party. However, independence did not preclude temporary alliances with other parties as long as this led to an immediate advantage for the workers or for the development of the country toward the political and economical revolution, and as long as it did not wear away the class character of the party. More and more deeply Engels explored the differences between tactical and fundamental issues, but he did write that any means leading to the objective was acceptable to him, whether it was the most violent or the seemingly tamest.

He seems to have viewed expulsion of the opposition as a profound error, because disagreements were bound to develop. Criticism leveled from one vantage-point against another was vitally important. The party could not escape criticism, and the freedom of speech that socialists demanded of society as a whole could not be eradicated inside the party. Engels appealed to Trier to make the entire letter public, which gives it the status of a public statement. Although this concept anticipated the position he would arrive at towards the end of his life, it seemed to contradict what he said in several other letters and publications written in the spring of 1890. One of the things Engels stressed in them was that the working class could and would learn from its mistakes, and that curtailment of the freedom to discuss things within the party and in the labor press would slow down the learning process, and would prevent the new voters and members of the party from being integrated into the socialist movement. This issue was discussed in different permutations with several correspondents and remained on the agenda until 1895. The discussion was triggered by the electoral successes of the German Social Democrats in February 1890.

Following the election, Engels recommended that the party leadership should act with moderation. No unnecessary confrontation ought to be provoked, as the labor movement would not be ready for such clashes in the spring of 1890. The focal point was the international May Day celebrations which had been planned in July 1889 at the founding congress of the Second International in Paris. Engels feared, as he had in connection with various strikes in Britain following the successful dockers’ strike of 1889, that workers might feel tempted to act too rashly, launching strikes they would not be able to win. Basically Adler agreed with Engels in this assessment (Adler to Engels, 4 April 1894).

The advocacy of violent revolution that can be seen in his letter to Trier was now apparently being modified. ‘For the present’ the labor movement should not let itself be provoked, but should rather let time work in its favor. To be sure, Engels criticized Liebknecht’s ‘philippics against the use of violence in any form … as being inappropriate’ (Engels to Liebknecht, 9 March 1890). In the ‘Introduction’ to Class Struggles in France he stated that barricade fighting in the streets, which had epitomized the revolutionary struggle in 1848-49, had been made obsolete by the development of military technology. This was no sudden enlightenment: two and a half years before, he had made the same point in a letter to Paul Lafargue. This did not mean that Engels advocated backing down or relinquishing revolutionary objectives or the class struggle.7 Rather it was a tactical consideration for the labor movement to improve and develop its fighting strength, which he perceived as being on the increase. In this connection he warned against dividing the party.8

In an almost incidental comment in a letter dated 3 November 1892, Engels informed Lafargue that for some time he had been thinking about a new revolutionary tactic (une nouvelle tactique révolutionnaire). Considering the fact that the military had demonstrated a will to fight and had new weapons at its disposal, he felt in duty bound to do so. Furthermore, people who were to venture out into the dangers of a revolutionary struggle had a legitimate interest in knowing why. Engels said that he as yet had no exhaustive answer to the question of what this new tactic was to be. In the ‘Introduction…’ he gave part of the answer by mentioning mass mobilizations through especially wage strikes, voting-rights campaigns, and other forms of working-class activities such as May Day demonstrations.

His statement about the effects of barricade fighting should not be taken too literally, as exactly one year later (3 November 1893), Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky that in certain circumstances barricades might be quite useful to spark a revolution, provided a high portion of the army’s soldiers (30 to 40 percent was his estimate) had turned socialist. Which form the armed revolution would or could then take was a matter of interpretation.9 What would be decisive in determining this issue – if we look at letters written during these years as well as at the ‘Introduction’ to Class Struggles in France – would be the commitment of the broad masses.

Engels’ uppermost concern was to overcome the stagnation in the movement that he had observed in Germany, France, and Italy in the 1890s. In his assessment of the general situation in Europe, the Austrian labor movement was assigned the task of ‘setting the rock in motion’. While advocating mass actions, he also stressed the necessity of internal discussion and debate concerning the way ahead. In his assessments of political events he took up positions that might seem to be mutually contradictory: he considered mass strikes for specific objectives to be useful, but he viewed the ‘general strike’ as superfluous; he considered open discussion within the movement to be an absolute necessity, but at the same time did not think that expulsion from the party should be precluded. He looked into those factors which seemed essential in the circumstances, or to quote Karl Kautsky, ‘he did not tether his revolutionary imagination or his desire to predict the great apocalypse.’10

Engels was well aware of the actual weakness of the movement. Despite the apparent success of the German party, he knew that it only had 20 percent of the electorate behind it. In many countries the socialist labor movement was of modest size. Around 1890, he was still of the opinion that at least in the three great powers France, Great Britain, and Germany there had to be equally strong revolutionary parties if a revolutionary breakthrough was to be achieved. In 1894 he recognized the decline of the British labor movement just as he did not consider the strength of the French Social Democratic Party to be sufficient for a revolution; however, he attributed crucial importance to the Austrian movement.11 He had changed his perspective: in 1848-49 he had perceived the armed, barricade fighting between various groups as genuinely revolutionary. With hindsight he considered that these groups had consisted of quarrelsome minorities while the majority of the population had been more or less concerned onlookers. Furthermore, in 1895 his position was that other factors such as the Belgian and Austrian campaigns for universal suffrage would be more likely to mobilize workers. He did not think that 51 percent of votes cast would automatically bring political power to the revolutionary socialists, but disagreements between different groups and parties within the bourgeoisie would weaken that class. Political power could then be taken by the working class, thus making it possible for the labor movement to initiate the actual struggle for the new society. In this connection he stressed time and time again that discussion within socialist parties had to be totally free and open within a shared theoretical position. However, what Engels considered to be the ‘shared position’ cannot be stated unambiguously. This was, if at all, only appropriate for Germany, which had the strongest socialist movement, and here he predicted that a breakthrough would take place in1898. In other countries the emergent labor movements faced overwhelming obstacles in the form of national and international (e.g. religious) ideological influences.

As a result of the upswing in industrial production, the working class was growing. Increasing numbers were organizing. This development, however, took place against disparate societal backgrounds and was characterized by changes in working-class practices. Approaches varied. In some countries independent labor parties were founded, whereas in others, workers joined existing parties. For example, neither the USA nor Great Britain saw independent political organizations achieve any significant membership growth. At the same time, there were contending lines of thought within the socialist labor movement, of which Marxism was but one of several. The fact that there were two international socialist congresses in 1889, one of which explicitly distanced itself from Marxism, indicates that the question of which theoretical trend would become dominant was by no means settled.12

Strike movement

Engels was enthusiastic about the large-scale strikes in 1889, especially the miners’ strikes in Central Europe as well as the dockers’ strike in Britain and the associated strikes of other unskilled workers, among them industrial action taken by women workers in London, in which Eleanor Marx was heavily involved. What he considered especially positive was the process of unionization to which these strikes gave rise. He noted that industrial action had brought new life to considerable sections of the working class. At the same time he repeatedly opposed the call for a general strike, and he supported Adler’s opposition to such a call in Austria13 – an issue debated within the Austrian Social Democratic Labor Party beginning in October 1893.  This discussion was closed for the time being at the 4th Party Congress (March 1894), whose main theme was ‘Universal Suffrage and the General Strike’. The party congress resolved that the party would use mass strikes only as the ‘instrument of last resort’. In his letter of 11 January 1894, Engels congratulated Adler on this outcome.

The call for a general strike was popular among many workers. Engels and Adler, however, tended to consider the general strike an inefficient instrument, grounded in an unrealistic assessment of the strength of the labor movement. It seems that they viewed industrial action as a means to improve working conditions and wages rather than to achieve more abstract objectives like universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy. Political strikes would tend to divide the working class. Their view was that if any labor party was in a position to successfully call a general strike, it would be able to enforce its demands even without such a strike.

Following the general election in Germany in February 1890 and before the May Day demonstrations, Engels warned against embarking upon such confrontational action, doubting that decisive victories could at that time be won. He even welcomed the defeat of some strikes because such defeat made it clear to workers that the forces opposing them were stronger than they had thought. In the specific situation he recommended moderation, because in Germany the labor movement could make use of other instruments. In Germany, but also in Great Britain, he had confidence in the capacity of the (unskilled) workers to enlighten themselves by gaining insight and experience and, in so doing, to acquire the necessary skills to change society.

Engels was sufficiently flexible to take account of the disparate situations in the various countries. In 1890 his assumption was that it would not be possible to attain state power by means of a sudden and unexpected uprising. What was important was to occupy certain positions, and in order to do so, it would at times be necessary to cooperate with non-socialist democratic parties.

Neutralizing the army

Obviously the armed revolution which he had advocated as recently as December 1889 was no longer at the top of the agenda. Following the German general election in February 1890, however, Engels did already envisage a better outcome in the next general election (1893). The SPD had gained much support in the rural areas, which meant that it had reached the recruits of the Prussian core regiments. Because of this, within a few years, the Prussian army could no longer be deployed against a ‘domestic enemy’; therefore, the military and the Emperor would soon look for a pretext to mow down the workers. This concern led him to agree with the German parliamentary Social Democrats when in their statement for May Day 1890 they appealed to the workers not to down tools on that day. Although it became clear in 1893 that the rural vote did not improve as quickly as expected, he nevertheless pointed out in the ‘Introduction’ (1895) that the takeover of the army from within had a precedent in the Roman army of the year 300. The Christian revolutionary army of the day had undermined the Imperial army within a few decades despite persecution by the authorities.

His perspective at the time remained the overthrow of the social order, and one instrument to be used was neutralizing governmental agencies of enforcement. In the same ‘Introduction’ he analyzed the development of revolutionary struggles since 1848, in particular, barricade fighting in the streets. In military terms barricades were of marginal importance; even in 1848 their significance had been merely symbolic. As he indicated in a letter to Lafargue (3 November 1892), he attributed more importance to working-class mass movements than to anything else.

Elections, universal suffrage, agitation

With conditions as they were, the question of labor parties participating in elections was important to Engels. The number of candidates elected, however, was not of central importance; it was obvious that he did not expect the Social Democratic members of the Parliament to play a role in any government constellation. What he did expect was that a Social Democratic parliamentary group would ‘liven up the old place’ – the Viennese diet. The looming struggle for universal suffrage he perceived as a chance for the Austrian workers, acting within the law, to educate themselves politically, to conquer the positions which the bourgeoisie had abandoned (Engels to Adler, 11 October 1893). The merger between the different socialist fractions in the French National Assembly in 1894, he viewed with considerable skepticism: the new fraction might, given the right circumstances, become socialist, but things might also work out quite differently (Engels to Adler, 17 July 1894). His trust in each of the different groups was indeed limited, but the independent socialist Millerand seemed to him to be ‘one of the brightest … and most sincere’. He saw the two British Social Democratic parties in a similar light and even managed to say a kind word about the Fabians when comparing the Independent Labour Party to Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (Engels to Laura Lafargue, 28 March 1895).

As far as Engels was concerned, the most important thing about elections was that they constituted an opportunity to carry out agitation and to use the votes obtained to measure the strength of the revolutionary party. As the socialist vote in several countries grew unexpectedly rapidly, the election results served to bolster the confidence of the workers and scare their enemies.14

At least in relation to the German Reichstag, Engels had every reason to focus on vote counting and agitation, as the Reichstag had very limited powers for intervening actively in the policies of the Emperor and his government.15 Parliament was hardly an instrument for attaining state power – the only door to the new society. Obviously Engels had been thinking of other objectives when he said that the German party had shown that elections had a role to play. What exactly this role was cannot be established. A peaceful transition into the new society, at least in Germany, seemed most unlikely to him as long as state power was not in the hands of the people. The upswing in electoral support seems to have clouded Engels’ vision of the actual advances of the revolutionary movement. It seems as if he equated Socialist voters with consciously proletarian revolutionaries. Whether he actually made this mistake cannot be unequivocally determined, yet it is relevant to how Engels envisaged a transition to socialism – in other words, to whether he thought he had found a solution to that problem.

It is worthwhile asking whether Engels and the Social Democratic parties shared a common goal. Engels perceived the existing labor movement as a revolutionary force, whereas the socialist historian Arthur Rosenberg and some other Social Democratic leaders claimed that the majority in the parties simply wanted social reforms. However, this juxtaposition is spurious. Certainly, reformist trends existed in the organized labor movement of the time; Engels was well aware of this and spent considerable energy combating them, as can be seen in his efforts around the International congresses of 1889 and 1891.16 At the same time it was important to him that these trends should be treated as legitimate and should not lead to expulsion, but rather to discussion.

In 1893, renewed activities to promote universal suffrage began in Belgium. For preemptive tactical reasons, the Conservative and monarchist Austrian government proposed an electoral reform in October 1893, which, had it been adopted, would have given the Social Democratic party a chance to gain seats in the Austrian Diet. Some months earlier, the Austrian party had held a mass demonstration, the start of the campaign for universal suffrage, which was followed up by 400 meetings over the next few months. For a long time Adler had been concerned about maintaining the momentum of the movement. The struggle for universal suffrage seemed well suited for this purpose.17 Engels supported him energetically, seeing in this an opportunity to break the stagnation of the European labor movement.

In domestic politics, he informed Adler (11 October 1893), electoral reform would create a chance for unifying workers of many different nationalities in a confident political party, in direct contrast to the unified national parties of the Germans and Czechs; this would constitute a barrier against strong nationalism. Nine months later he still perceived the Austrian movement as being on the offensive. According to him electoral reform was merely the switch that would set the rock in motion; other obstacles would crumble in its wake (‘some democratic reforms facilitating the freedoms of movement for the masses’). Austria was so backward that concessions would have to be made by the ruling classes no matter what, and in this process workers would gain experience and acquire political insights. As a result of this development in Austria, other countries would be inspired to introduce democratic reforms. The Austrian party would thus play the role of avant-garde of the European proletariat, with a promise of victory.18 This was especially relevant since – by contrast – the labor movements in Germany, France, and Italy were on the defensive.

Activating members by means of open discussion

An issue which has been somewhat overlooked is Engels' attitude toward internal democracy in socialist parties – toward the eternally surfacing disagreements between revolutionaries and reformists. Here too contradictions appear. On the one hand, he condemned the expulsion of the opposition from the Danish party; on the other, he criticized the German ‘Literaten- und Studentenrevolte’ in 1889, apparently having no qualms about the expulsion of the ‘Jungen’, which he may even have advocated (Engels to Conrad Schmidt, 12 September 1892).

Adler reacted in a similar way to the Austrian ‘Independents’, supporting their expulsion yet subsequently deploring their departure from the party: ‘Furthermore, I think the left-wing opposition would have had to be invented if it did not already exist; only it should have been invented in a slightly more intelligent and decent shape. Because this petty bourgeois spirit is the most serious threat for us…’ (Adler to Engels, 25 August 1892). A few days later (30 August), Engels expressed his agreement. The problem as Engels saw it was that workers who had exposed themselves as revolutionaries had to be made employees of the party, a situation which tended to make them ‘morally corrupt’, while the ‘petit bourgeois’ could provide for themselves, which allowed them to take up leading positions within the party. The left-wing opposition was ‘invaluable’ for keeping them in check. Engels had touched upon similar problems before and would do so again.19

Although caution is always required when quoting from private correspondence, Engels’ letters do provide unambiguous references to the necessity of open discussion within socialist parties and to the impossibility of achieving uniform positions while at the same time trying to integrate broader working-class groups into the movement. The fact that the party had become a mass movement meant that a press which was independent of the party leadership and the party conference was called for. It would have to be free to oppose some party initiatives provided it stayed within the programmatic boundaries of the party. This, in turn, had become necessary because of the of the party’s newfound size (Engels to August Bebel, 19 November 1892). The same point is made in other places, for example in a letter to Adler (30 August 1892). Bebel, in a letter to the Viennese Arbeiter-Zeitung, endorsed this view: ‘a party like ours … cannot suppress criticism from its own ranks – that would make it guilty of suicide. Criticism directed at oneself is indeed necessary if stagnation is to be avoided’. He did not explicitly refer to Engels, but Engels considered their views to be in full agreement.20

Once again Engels' position is not unambiguous. As in other situations, he summarized his general political stance when writing to Sorge even if he could not put this position into practice. Following the German general election in 1890, he found that the party had grown so big that freedom of expression had become an imperative. Without a culture of open discussion, it would not be possible to integrate the many new members and voters into the party. He did not see freedom of expression as a danger to party unity – something he considered of vital importance – but rather saw debate, even harsh disagreement, as a prerequisite for the unity of any party basing itself on Marx’s theory. His confidence in the strength of the organized workers in Germany, which had been reinforced through 12 years of resistance to Anti-Socialist Laws, was so complete that in his opinion it was the only factor capable of withstanding revisionist attacks against this theory. The new supporters, who for a long time had not been exposed to agitation and education about the positions of the party, must be shown that freedom of criticism existed; expulsions had to be avoided as much as possible, he told Wilhelm Liebknecht in his comments to the draft Party Statutes (10 August 1890). This demonstrates the strength of Engels' certainty about the necessity of open discussion within socialist parties. In 1893, he expressed himself along the same lines in his speech to the Zurich Congress of the International.

Rosa Luxemburg’s famous statement about the ‘freedom for those who think differently’ is, therefore, not so very innovative – it places her in the tradition of the labor movement, whether or not she had in fact read Engels' letter. The same applies to the position taken by Peter Knudsen, Secretary General of the Danish Social Democratic Party, who, in a circular addressed to the parties affiliated to the International, implicitly stressed that the working class had to be armed in the event that in the wake of the labor movement’s attainment of power ‘… attempts were made to falsify the principles of Social Democracy in such a manner or to distort them to such an extent that an entirely new class rule would threaten to arise …’.21 This was an intervention in the discussion following the International’s congress in Stuttgart 1907, and obviously the new ‘class rulers’ that he had in mind were representatives of the Social Democratic parties who might falsify the principles of socialism. The attempts of the Austrian Social Democratic Party of the inter-war years to combine social security with cultural self-realization, thus creating a new culture based on self-determination in ‘Red Vienna’, can be seen as belonging to this tradition of open debate, of which Engels was the first revolutionary advocate.


It is not possible to provide an irrefutable interpretation of Engels' reflections concerning a new revolutionary tactic in the 1890s. Such a tactic would have to be developed ‘on the basis of changing circumstances’, as he emphasized in a letter to Adler. In his letter to Engels, Adler had criticized a number of unnamed adversaries within his own party who insisted on upholding a tactic once adopted even after circumstances had changed (25 August 1892). On the basis of the entire correspondence during the years 1890-95 in conjunction with the published texts of the same years, several significant statements concerning this issue appear; they do not, however, provide an unambiguous insight into his preferred solution.

It seems certain that on the basis of the general theory in combination with his personal experience, Engels was capable of understanding strategy and tactics as inextricably related. The question, however, must be asked whether the disparate European labor movements were in a position to propose tactics for themselves, and whether they would have been able to implement them. In his January 1894 letter to Turati, the leading Italian Social Democrat, Engels summarized his general experience of nearly five decades, but said that how his insights were to be applied in any specific situation in Italy would have to be determined there.22 To be sure, in his correspondence with Adler he pointed out that industrial development constituted the only firm basis for the progress of the movement. However, industrial development also differed between countries and/or regions and so could not contribute to an equalization between the working classes in the various regions or states of Europe.

According to Marx and Engels, the cycle following the 1848-49 revolution would take up the next 15 to 50 years, a period during which workers would prepare themselves in different ways to attain state power. In his letters to Adler and others, Engels indicated certain parallels between the political developments of the 1840s and those of the 1890s. Certainly, he must have taken into account the development of the US labor movement, and probably also the situation in colonial and semi-colonial states outside Europe. It is impossible unambiguously to determine how these considerations would affect the timing of an eventual victory on the part of the workers over the capitalist economic system. Here too, Engels saw the necessity of the labor movement gaining more experience, the need for educating workers through political struggles for concrete reforms. Similarly it remained imperative for the movement to grow and develop at its own pace. Engels’ expectation in 1891 that by the end of the decade political events would come to a head – that the time for change, for the conquest of state power would have arrived – was a hypothetical possibility for Germany under certain preconditions, but was not a generally applicable proclamation. Therefore, Adler did not receive an answer to his question about why Engels had mentioned 1898 as the year of a possible breakthrough in Germany.23 In the same letter, Engels indicated a longer time-frame for general overarching developments. On the other hand, for more than 25 years he had expected an agricultural and an industrial crisis to coincide in Britain.

Engels’ view seems to have been that revolution would be borne by a movement of the masses – not necessarily a majority of the population – and that already before the revolution, the bourgeoisie would have been considerably weakened, probably chiefly because the military would no longer be its unconditionally obedient servant. The preconditions would be created through mass agitation, for instance, in the form of industrial action and election campaigns, but also through intensive and open discussion within the socialist party. A detailed and elaborate formula for conquering state power would not be in keeping with this analysis.

In his effort to arrive at a successful revolutionary strategy, or tactics as Engels chose to call it, for the labor movement, Engels put forward opinions that appear to be contradictory:

1) He was in favor of armed revolution as the one and only gateway of the working class to a new social order, but rejected barricade fighting in the streets as obsolete. At the same time, however, he thought that barricade fighting could be useful in some situations to persuade groups who were uncertain about what to do to move in the right direction.

2) He claimed, around 1890, that the German party was now so big that it was vitally important to have free exchanges of opinions within the movement to convince the new recruits to the ‘proletarian army’ about the correctness of its general position. Such free discussion would also constitute the strongest barrier against left- and right-wing deviation. In practice, however, he did endorse the expulsion of certain elements from the German and Austrian parties.

3) He based himself on mass action by way of, for example, demonstrations and strikes, but rejected the General Strike as an ineffective instrument. In addition, he saw even lost strikes as an important part of the working class’s learning process.

4) He claimed that the German Social Democratic Party had found its alternative way to mobilize workers to continue the struggle by participating in parliamentary elections, but considered the increased parliamentary strength of such parties unimportant, except as a gauge for the overall strength of the workers’ movement.

To him these contradictions reflected the contradictory nature of the real world. His assessment of concrete conditions was crucial to his deliberations about the way forward. The dialectical relationship between the contradictory elements might propel the labor movement into a favorable position for future victories.

After Engels’ death, claims were made that the ‘Introduction’ to Marx’s Class Struggles in France showed that he had embraced ‘reformist positions’, that he advocated a peaceful transition to socialism through parliamentary legislation. This contention oversimplifies his understanding, which at no point fixated on just a single approach.


*For the problems discussed by Engels in his correspondence during these years, modern usage would probably have required terms such as 'strategy' and/or 'strategic'. However, as Engels himself must have been aware of the difference between strategic and tactical considerations, yet uses the terms 'tactics' and 'tactical', I have refrained from changing his choice of words.

1. On MEGA2 (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, or complete works), see my article “MEGA2 at the Half Way Point,” S&D, vol. 25, no. 3 (November 2011). In the present article, I build on previous attempts to discuss how Engels responded to the upswing of the labor movement from the late 1880s to the time of his death in 1895 – most recently at a November 2009 conference in Berlin, ‘Marx mit der MEGA neu lesen’; proceedings published in Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung. Neue Folge 2010.

2. Discussions on this subject are to be found in MEGA-Studien 1994-96, 2001, and Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch 2006, both published by the Marx-Engels Foundation. Regrettably, MEGA2 volumes III/26 to III/35 – Engels’ correspondence 1883-95 – have not yet been published, but four volumes (1888-90, 1893-95) are in progress. Almost all Engels’ letters from this period have been published in MECW (Marx-Engels Collected Works) and many of the letters to him are also available, though mostly confined to correspondence with August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Paul and Laura Lafargue.

3. Farewell Letter to the Readers of the Sozialdemokrat; in MEGA2 I/31 S. 270–273; Introduction to Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850 (1895) in MEGA2 I/32. S. 330–351. As Engels’ texts and letters are available in various editions (including some on the internet), no specific editions are cited here except for the MEGA2, which provides definitive texts with an extensive apparatus.

4. Regrettably, volumes III/26 to III/35 – Engels’ correspondence 1883-95 – have not yet been published, but four volumes (1888-90, 1893-95) are in progress. Almost all Engels’ letters from this period have been published in MECW (Marx-Engels Collected Works) and many of the letters to him are also available.

5. The text of this letter is only partly known from newspaper reports; see Ole Stender-Petersen, “Om Louis Pios kontakt med Engels og Marx,” Arbejderhistorie (Copenhagen), no. 28, April 1987, 23–27.

6. Victor Adler–Friedrich Engels Briefwechsel, ed. Gerd Callesen and Wolfgang Maderthaner, Berlin 2011.The correspondence between the two seems to have survived almost in its entirety whereas the letters exchanged between Adler and Engels’ secretary, Louise Kautsky, which complemented the correspondence with Engels himself, are lost. See e.g. Engels to Adler, 22 March 1894 and 14 December 1894. All of Adler’s letters are quoted from this publication. (Louise Kautsky, who was Karl K’s first wife, is not to be confused with Luise K, his second wife, who later corresponded with Rosa Luxemburg.)

7. Engels to Adler, 22 December 1894; Engels to Nicolaj L. Petersen, 3 May 1892 (in Arbejderen, Copenhagen No. 28, 10 July 1892, 2f). Here Engels thought that the time of the definitive battle was approaching. Almost all the correspondence in the original languages between Engels, Trier and Petersen has been published by Gerd Callesen, “Om revolutionær taktik,” Aarbog for arbejderbevægelsens historie, vol. 3, 1973, 109-141. See also Friedrich Engels, “Farewell Letter to the Readers of the Sozialdemokrat,” in MEGA2 I/31 S. 270–273; as well as, J.D. Hunley: The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation. New Haven, 1991, 96–111.

8. See, Gerson Trier to Engels, 26 May 1889, in Aarbog for arbejderbevægelsens historie, vol. 3, 1973. We don’t know of any reason for issuing such a warning, but it is possible that Trier had mentioned such a possibility in a letter to Bebel which has not survived.

9. Peer Kösling has, on the basis of his work with MEGA2, vol. I/32 presented an assessment in which he mentions the most important categories that indicate that Engels may have changed his position on the tactical measures to attain political power. Of central – but not exclusive – importance for Kösling’s assessment is the Introduction to the ‘Class Struggles…’ (Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung. Neue Folge 2008, 36-46).

10. Victor Adler: Briefwechsel mit August Bebel und Karl Kautsky, Vienna 1954, 157. In context of the letter, Kautsky’s words were definitely intended to be negative. Apparently he expected Adler to agree with his opinion. This raises the question of whether Kautsky (and possibly other leaders of the German and Austrian Social Democratic parties) viewed Engels as something of a veteran romanticizing the revolution.

11. Engels to Adler 17 July 1894. It is not easy to establish whether this latter statement should be taken literally. What is important is his assessment of mass movements in relation to the prospect of a general European revolution. Engels stressed the campaign for universal suffrage in Belgium and Austria, ‘especially so long as neither in France nor in England there is one strong and united party’. Engels to Laura Lafargue, 17 August 1891.

12. Engels to Laura Lafargue, 11 June; to Paul Lafargue, 15 June; to Laura Lafargue, 28 June 1889.

13. Cf. e.g. Adler’s letters to Engels, 11 October 1893, 26 November 1893, 4 April 1894.

14. Frederick Engels, Speech at a Social Democratic meeting in Vienna on 14 September 1893. MEGA2 I/32. 378.

15. Frederick Engels, A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891. MEGA2 I/32, 42-54.

16. Markus Bürgi, “Die Anfänge der Zweiten Internationale. Positionen und Auseinandersetzungen 1889–1893“. Frankfurt 1996 (Quellen und Studien zur Sozialgeschichte, 16).

17. Cf. Ilse Reiter: “Das Wahlrecht gebt uns frei! Der Kampf der Sozialdemokratie für das allgemeine und gleiche Reichsratswahlrecht“. In: Thomas Simon (Ed.): Hundert Jahre allgemeines Wahlrecht in Österreich. Modernes Wahlrecht unter den Bedingungen eines Vielvölkerstaates, Frankfurt/M. 2010, 171-186.

18. Engels to Adler, 17 July 1894; August H. Nimtz refers to the importance of a Russian revolution in this connection. In: Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 275–277.

19. ‘The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party’ (1865); MEGA2 I/20, 71–108; Closing Speech at the International Socialist Workers' Congress in Zurich. August 12, MEGA2 I/32, 376.

20. [August Bebel:] Bismarck frondiert. Der abgedankte Reichskanzler. In: Arbeiter-Zeitung. Vienna. No 17, 25 April 1890, 8; Engels to Sorge, 9 August 1890.

21. Circular with cover note of the Socialdemokratisk Forbund dated 14 December 1908. In Gerd Callesen, “‘… eine für unsere Sache fruchtbringende Debatte’: Die Stellung der dänischen Sozialdemokratie zur Abrüstung und die Denkschriften Peter Knudsens vom August und 14. Dezember 1908”. In: Jahrbuch für Geschichte (Berlin), Vol. 36, 1988, 355-404, here 382.

22. Frederick Engels, [The Future Italian Revolution and the Socialist Party]. MEGA2. I/32, 269-272.

23. See Engels to Paul Lafargue, 2 Sept 1891; Victor Adler to Engels, 25 August 1892.