Friedrich Engels: Briefwechsel Oktober 1889 bis November 1890. Vol. 30 of Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels: Gesamtausgabe

Reviewed by Fritz

Gerd Callesen and Svetlana Gavril’čenko, eds., Friedrich Engels: Briefwechsel Oktober 1889 bis November 1890.  Vol. 30 of Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels: Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013).

This new volume of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) contains the surviving correspondence (406 letters) between Friedrich Engels and approximately 130 correspondents in 13 countries between October 1889 and November 1890. A core of about 15 to 20 people accounts for approximately half the letters in the volume. 173 letters written to Engels are published here for the first time, as are the complete texts of 2 of the letters by Engels. The letters to Engels include contributions to on-going discussions by leading representatives of the labor movement. In some cases the letters also shed a sharper light on Engels’ personal situation.

Engels’ correspondence over this 14-month period includes at least 85 letters by him and 25 letters to him that have not survived. The existence of a number of other letters must be presumed, like those to and from the publishers Otto Meissner and J.H.W. Dietz, or to and from Samuel Moore, the British translator of Capital vol. 1, and those to Engels’ nephew, William Burns, who lived in Boston, and whose descendants have been located.1 It is still theoretically possible to find extant letters, as was the case a few years ago when a dozen or so letters written by Marx were found. In keeping with the general guidelines for the MEGA edition, all texts are printed in their original languages: the present volume contains letters in German, French, English, Italian, Danish, and Russian.

Most of the letters deal with political matters, but some are personal, and in some, both dimensions are present. Thus, Marx’s daughter Laura Lafargue sent Engels her translations of poems, while Burns reported on his labor union activities. The more strictly personal letters include those containing pleas for financial support, which Engels did in some cases meet. These letters certainly illustrate the precarious situation suffered by laborers at the time.

The letters provide us with an insight into the major changes facing the socialist labor movement in Europe and the USA. The years 1889-90 witnessed the evolution of small groups of workers into mass movements led mainly by Continental and British labor organizations. With the spring 1889 miners’ strike on the Continent and the August 1889 strike of British dockworkers, primarily unskilled workers began, for the first time, to take collective industrial action.

Mayday 1890 with its many events throughout Europe constituted an impressive demonstration of the newfound strength of the movement and of its strong international networks. The point of departure was a resolution adopted at a conference held by various labor organizations in July 1889. Networking initiated in 1889 was intensified in connection with the next international labor conference held in Brussels in 1891, which would become known as the Second International. The rallies led to a sustained upswing primarily for the left-wing (Marxist) organizations. Engels took part in organizing strikes, for instance by the British seafarers’ union, and in preparing the Brussels conference; he succeeded in getting the Marxist organizations to cooperate from an early stage, thus attaining a position of strength.

Parliaments and elections were important themes in the discussions concerning which course the labor movement should choose, especially following elections in France in September/October 1889 and in Imperial Germany in February 1890. The results of these elections were extensively discussed by Engels and his correspondents: mobilizing well over one million voters for the German Social-Democratic Party, a little under 20 percent of the total vote, as well as establishing socialist fractions in the French Chamber of Deputies and in the Paris City Council. To Engels, it was not essential to acquire a parliamentary majority; for him, general and local elections were a way to gauge the strength of the labor parties. Engels discussed with his correspondents the tactical measures to be taken.

In the European countries, many different political forces and groups tried to woo the growing number of workers. Their conflicting views are clearly reflected by the exchanges between Engels and his correspondents. In this connection France plays a prominent role, not only because of conflicts between revolutionary and reformist forces, but because of the question of how to respond to General Boulanger’s nationalist movement. As for Germany, by early 1890 it was becoming clear that the ‘Anti-Socialist’ legislation was not going to be renewed, which meant that the Social-Democratic Party would soon revert to legality. This, together with the onrush of new members, engendered far-reaching discussions on the means and goals of future policies. In December 1889, Engels wrote a noteworthy letter to Gerson Trier, one of the oppositional social-democrats, in which, among other issues, he took up the problems concerning cooperation with non-socialist political parties; he assessed the implications of parliamentary work, and the potential necessity of splitting the party.  He did not explicitly reject temporary cooperation with non-socialist parties, but he insisted that the Labor Party must remain independent (as he and Marx had done since 1848). He did not evolve any immovable and eternal solutions, but always assessed the specific situation on the basis of fundamental principles – and in the light of his almost 50 years of experience within the labor movement.

In late 1889 Engels initiated a correspondence with Victor Adler, the leader of the Austrian social-democrats. At the 1889 International Labor Conference, Engels invited Adler to visit him in London, and at the end of the year he took the initiative to strengthen their relationship, which became ever closer until Engels’ death in August 1895. He did the same with another central protagonist of theoretical Marxism, the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola, beginning in the spring of 1889. In this volume the early exchanges between Engels and Labriola are published in their international context.2

Another significant theme is the discussions that Engels pursued primarily with people representing the younger generation within the movement. It was of paramount importance to him to pass on to them Marx’s and his own insights into political theory. Equally important for him was to further critically develop dialectical thinking and the materialistic conception of history while at the same time eliminating some of the misconceptions of young university socialists. His confidence in the experience and insights of socialist workers was virtually boundless. As he wrote to Laura Lafargue following the London Mayday celebrations in 1890, ‘… these fresh elements unspoiled by the ‘Great Liberal Party’ show an intelligence such as – well I cannot say better than such as we find in the equally unspoiled German workmen’ (301).

Engels’ correspondence in this period also touched on the question of internal democracy and open discussion within the movement. Engels had already in the fall of 1889 criticized the Danish Social Democratic party for excluding its internal opposition. After the 1890 election in Germany, in which the SPD had become a mass party with nearly 20% of the votes, it became necessary to give new members an understanding of the policies which the party had developed during its 12 years in illegality (1878-90). This objective could only be achieved through unrestricted discussions with all the different viewpoints represented. Only in this way would the party’s new adherents be able to overcome any bourgeois tendencies in it. During August 1890, Engels wrote several letters to, among others, Wilhelm Liebknecht, F.A. Sorge, and a student called Otto v. Boenigk in which he developed this point of view.

Finally, a main theme of the letters in this volume is Engels’ work on the writings left behind by Marx, in particular the third volume of Capital. We also find references to other works by Engels, such as the fourth edition of the Communist Manifesto. Engels attached importance to new editions of some of his and Marx’s shorter writings, as emerges clearly from his subsequent correspondence with Adler and F.A. Sorge. With Sorge, Engels frequently touched upon his reasons for acting as he did.

One of the strong points of this volume is the completeness of Engels’ correspondence over this 14-month period. Such concentration allows us to gain an insight into the intensive endeavors on his part to find the appropriate way forward. It must be remembered that the labor movement was still in its early stages, as shown by the different political directions taken by the parties, which in some cases led to splits.

Reviewed by Fritz Keller Independent scholar Vienna


1. Julius Wilm, “Die gewerkschaftlichen und politischen Aktivitäten des Engels-Neffen William Burns in Boston 1886-1895.“ In Marx-Engels Jahrbuch 2012/2013, 46-59.

2. The correspondence with these two very different protagonists of the positions of the labor movement, to the extent that it has survived, has been published in Antonio Labriola: Carteggio. Ed. Stefano Miccolis. Vol. 3 1890-1895, Vol. 5 1899-1904, Naples 2003, 2006. Victor Adler, Friedrich Engels: Briefwechsel. Ed. Gerd Callesen and Wolfgang Maderthaner, Berlin 2011. The publication of these writings related to specific persons differs in nature from the chronological volumes of the MEGA.