MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE |  Marx Engels

Works of Frederick Engels 1895

Introduction to Karl Marx’s
The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850

“great importance must be attached to one of the historical documents of the German labour movement: the Preface written by Frederick Engels for the 1895 re-issue of Marx's Class Struggles in France.” — Rosa Luxemburg.


Written: by Engels, March 6, 1895;
Source: MECW, Volume 27, p. 506-524;
First published: in an abridged form in Die Neue Zeit, Vol. 2, Nos 27 and 28, 1894-1895 and in the book: Karl Marx, Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850, Berlin, 1895;
Text: according to the full text of the galleys of the book, checked with the manuscript.

Introduction to this document: See Note 449.


The work republished here was Marx’s first attempt to explain a piece of contemporary history by means of his materialist conception, on the basis of the prevailing economic situation. In the Communist Manifesto, the theory was applied in broad outline to the whole of modern history; in the articles by Marx and myself in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, it was constantly used to interpret political events of the day. Here, on the other hand, the question was to demonstrate the inner causal connection in the course of a development which extended over some years, a development as critical, for the whole of Europe, as it was typical; hence, in accordance with the conception of the author, to trace political events back to effects of what were, in the final analysis, economic causes.

If events and series of events are judged by current history, it will never be possible to go back to the ultimate economic causes. Even today, when the specialised press provides such rich material, it still remains impossible even in England to follow day by day the movement of industry and trade on the world market and the changes which take place in the methods of production in such a way as to be able to draw a general conclusion for any point in time from these manifold, complicated and ever-changing, factors, the most important of which, into the bargain, generally operate a long time in realms unknown before they suddenly make themselves forcefully felt on the surface. A clear overall view of the economic history of a given period can never be obtained contemporaneously, but only subsequently, after the material has been collected and sifted. Statistics are a necessary auxiliary aid here, and they always lag behind. For this reason, it is only too often necessary in current history to treat this, the most decisive, factor as constant, and the economic situation existing at the beginning of the period concerned as given and unalterable for the whole period, or else to take notice of only such changes in this situation as arise out of the patently manifest events themselves, and are, therefore, likewise patently manifest. So here the materialist method has quite often to limit itself to tracing political conflicts back to the struggles between the interests of the existing social classes and fractions of classes caused by economic development, and to demonstrate that the particular political parties are the more or less adequate political expression of these same classes and fractions of classes.

It is self-evident that this unavoidable neglect of contemporaneous changes in the economic situation, the very basis of all the processes to be examined, must be a source of error. But all the conditions required for a comprehensive presentation of current history inevitably include sources of error — which, however, keeps nobody from writing current history.

When Marx undertook this work, the source of error mentioned was even more unavoidable. It was simply impossible during the Revolution period of 1848-49 to follow the economic transformations taking place simultaneously or even to keep them in view. It was the same during his first months of exile in London, in the autumn and winter of 1849-50. But that was precisely the time when Marx began this work. And in spite of these unfavourable circumstances, his exact knowledge both of the economic situation in France before, and of the political history of that country after, the February Revolution made it possible for him to present a picture of events which laid bare their inner connections in a way never attained ever since, and which later passed with flying colours the double test applied by Marx himself.

The first test arose when, after the spring of 1850, Marx once again found time for economic studies, and began by applying himself to the economic history of the previous ten years. What he had hitherto deduced, half a priori, from sketchy material, thus became absolutely clear to him from the facts themselves, namely that the world trade crisis of 1847 had been the true mother of the February and March revolutions, and that the industrial prosperity which had been returning gradually since the middle of 1848 and attained full bloom in 1849 and 1850 was the revitalising force of a restrengthened European reaction. That was crucially important. Whereas in the first three articles (which appeared in the January, February and March issues of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische Revue, Hamburg, 1850) there was still the expectation of an early, fresh upsurge of revolutionary vigour, the historical review written by Marx and myself for the last issue, a double one (May to October), which was published in the autumn of 1850, breaks with these illusions once and for all: “A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis."[450] But that was the only major change which had to be made. There was absolutely nothing to alter in the interpretation of events given in the earlier chapters, or in the causal connections established therein, as proved by the continuation of the narrative from March 10 up to the autumn of 1850 in the said review. I have, therefore, included this continuation as the fourth article in the present new edition.

The second test was even more severe. Immediately after Louis Bonaparte’s coup d'état of December 2, 1851, Marx dealt afresh with the history of France from February 1848 up to this event which concluded the revolutionary period for the time being. (Der 18. Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte. Third edition, Hamburg, Meissner, 1885) In this pamphlet the period depicted in our present publication is again dealt with, albeit in briefer form. Compare this second presentation, written in the light of the decisive event which happened over a year later, with ours and it will be found that the author had very little to change.

What gives our work quite special significance is the fact that it was the first to express the formula in which, by common agreement, the workers’ parties of all countries in the world briefly summarise their demand for economic transformation: the appropriation of the means of production by society. In the second chapter, in connection with the “right to work”, which is described as “the first clumsy formula wherein the revolutionary demands of the proletariat are summarised”, it is said: “but behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class and, therefore, the abolition of wage labour, of capital and of their mutual relations”. Thus, here, for the first time, the proposition is formulated by which modern workers’ socialism is sharply differentiated both from all the different shades of feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., socialism and from the confused community of goods of utopian and of primitive [naturwüchsigen] workers’ communism. If, later, Marx extended the formula to include appropriation of the means of exchange, this extension, which in any case was self-evident after the Communist Manifesto, only expressed a corollary to the main proposition. A few wiseacres in England have of late added that the “means of distribution” should also be handed over to society. These gentlemen would be hard put to say what these economic means of distribution, distinct from the means of production and exchange, actually are; unless political means of distribution are meant, taxes, poor relief, including the Sachsenwald[451] and other endowments. But, first, these are even now means of distribution in the possession of society as a whole, either of the state or of the community, and second, it is precisely these we want to abolish.

* * *

When the February Revolution broke out, all of us, as far as our conceptions of the conditions and the course of revolutionary movements were concerned, were under the spell of previous historical experience, particularly that of France. It was, indeed, the latter which had dominated the whole of European history since 1789, and from which now once again the signal had gone forth for general revolutionary change. It was, therefore, natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and the course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly coloured by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830. Moreover, when the Paris uprising found its echo in the victorious insurrections in Vienna, Milan and Berlin; when the whole of Europe right up to the Russian frontier was swept into the movement; when thereupon in Paris, in June, the first great battle for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was fought; when even the victory of its class so shook the bourgeoisie of all countries that it fled back into the arms of the monarchist-feudal reaction which had just been overthrown — there could be no doubt for us, under the circumstances then obtaining, that the great decisive battle had commenced, that it would have to be fought out in a single, long and vicissitudinous period of revolution, but that it could only end in the final victory of the proletariat.

After the defeats of 1849 we in no way shared the illusions of the vulgar democrats grouped around the future provisional governments in partibus. [In partibus infidelium — in the land of the infidels, outside reality — an addition to the title of Catholic bishops appointed to non-Christian countries] These vulgar democrats reckoned on a speedy and definitive victory of the “people” over the “tyrants”; we reckoned on a long struggle, after the removal of the “tyrants”, among the antagonistic elements concealed within this “people” itself. The vulgar democrats expected sparks to fly again any day; we declared as early as autumn 1850 that at least the first chapter of the revolutionary period was closed and that nothing was to be expected until the outbreak of a new world economic crisis. For which reason we were excommunicated, as traitors to the revolution, by the very people who later, almost without exception, made their peace with Bismarck — so far as Bismarck found them worth the trouble.

But history has shown us too to have been wrong, has revealed our point of view at that time as an illusion. It has done even More; it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.

All revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of the rule of one class by the rule of another; but all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people. One ruling minority was thus overthrown; another minority seized the helm of state in its stead and refashioned the state institutions to suit its own interests. Thus on every occasion a minority group was enabled and called upon to rule by the given degree of economic development; and just for that reason, and only for that reason, it happened that the ruled majority either participated in the revolution for the benefit of the former or else simply acquiesced in it. But if we disregard the concrete content in each case, the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of a minority; but because of this, or even simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.

As a rule, after the first great success, the victorious minority split; one half was satisfied with what had been gained, the other wanted to go still further, and put forward new demands, which, partly at least, were also in the real or apparent interest of the great mass of the people. In isolated cases these more radical demands were actually forced through, but often only for the moment; the more moderate party would regain the upper hand, and what had been won most recently would wholly or partly be lost again; the vanquished would then cry treachery or ascribe their defeat to accident. In reality, however, the truth of the matter was usually this: the achievements of the first victory were only safeguarded by the second victory of the more radical party; this having been attained, and, with it, what was necessary for the moment, the radicals and their achievements vanished once more from the stage.

All revolutions of modern times, beginning with the great English Revolution of the seventeenth century, showed these features, which appeared inseparable from every revolutionary struggle. They appeared applicable, also, to the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation; all the more applicable, since precisely in 1848 there were but a very few people who had any idea at all of the direction in which this emancipation was to be sought. The proletarian masses themselves, even in Paris, after the victory, were still absolutely in the dark as to the path to be taken. And yet the movement was there, instinctive, spontaneous, irrepressible. Was not this just the situation in which a revolution had to succeed, led, it is true, by a minority, though this time not in the interest of the minority, but in the finest interest of the majority? If, in all the longer revolutionary periods, it was so easy to win over the great masses of the people simply by the plausible false representations of the pressing minorities, why should they be less susceptible to ideas which were the truest reflection of their economic condition, which were none other than the clear, rational expression of their needs, of needs not yet understood but merely vaguely felt by them? To be sure, this revolutionary mood of the masses had almost always, and usually very speedily, given way to lassitude or even to a change to the opposite as soon as illusion evaporated and disappointment set in. But what was involved here were not false representations, but the implementation of the most vital interests of the great majority itself, interests which, it is true, were at that time by no means clear to this great majority, but which were bound to become clear to it as their practical implementation proceeded, by their convincing obviousness. And when, as Marx showed in his third article, in the spring of 1850, the development of the bourgeois republic that arose out of the “social” Revolution of 1848 had even concentrated real power in the hands of the big bourgeoisie-monarchistically inclined as it was into the bargain — and, on the other hand, had grouped all the other social classes, peasantry as well as petty bourgeoisie, around the proletariat, so that during and after the common victory, not they but the proletariat grown wise from experience had to become the decisive factor — was there not every prospect then of turning the revolution of the minority into a revolution of the majority?

History has proved us wrong, and all who thought like us. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the Continent, and has caused big industry to take real root in France, Austria, Hungary, Poland and, recently, in Russia, while it has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank — all on a capitalist basis, which in the year 1848, therefore, still had a great capacity for expansion. But it is precisely this industrial revolution which has everywhere produced clarity in class relations, has removed a number of intermediate forms handed down from the period of manufacture and in Eastern Europe even from guild handicraft, has created a genuine bourgeois and a genuine large-scale industrial proletariat and has pushed them into the foreground of social development. However, owing to this, the struggle between these two great classes, a struggle which, outside England, existed in 1848 only in Paris and, at the most, in a few big industrial centres, has spread over the whole of Europe and reached an intensity still inconceivable in 1848. At that time the many obscure gospels of the sects, with their panaceas; today the single generally recognised, crystal-clear theory of Marx, sharply formulating the ultimate aims of the struggle. At that time the masses, sundered and differing according to locality and nationality, linked only by the feeling of common suffering, undeveloped, helplessly tossed to and fro from enthusiasm to despair; today the single great international army of socialists, marching irresistibly on and growing daily in number, organisation, discipline, insight and certainty of victory. If even this mighty army of the proletariat has still not reached its goal, if, far from winning victory by one mighty stroke, it has slowly to press forward from position to position in a hard, tenacious struggle, this only proves, once and for all, how impossible it was in 1848 to win social transformation merely by a surprise attack.

A bourgeoisie split into two dynastic-monarchist sections,[452] a bourgeoisie, however, which demanded, above all, peace and security for its financial operations, faced by a proletariat vanquished, indeed, but still a menace, a proletariat around which petty bourgeois and peasants grouped themselves more and more — the continual threat of a violent outbreak, which, nevertheless, offered absolutely no prospect of a final solution — such was the situation, as if made-to-measure for the coup d'état of the third, the pseudo-democratic pretender, Louis Bonaparte. On December 2, 1851, by means of the army, he put an end to the tense situation and secured Europe internal tranquillity, only to confer upon it the blessing of a new era of wars. The period of revolutions from below was concluded for the time being; there followed a period of revolutions from above.

The reversion to the empire in 1851 provided fresh proof of the immaturity of the proletarian aspirations of that time. But it was itself to create the conditions under which they were bound to grow mature. Internal tranquillity ensured the unfettered advancement of the new industrial boom; the necessity of keeping the army occupied and of diverting the revolutionary currents in an outward direction produced the wars in which Bonaparte,[453] under the pretext of asserting the “principle of nationalities”, sought to secure annexations for France. His imitator, Bismarck, adopted the same policy for Prussia; he carried out his coup d'état, his revolution from above, in 1866, against the German Confederation and Austria, and no less against the Prussian Konfliktskammer.[454] But Europe was too small for two Bonapartes and thus the irony of history had it that Bismarck overthrew Bonaparte, and King William of Prussia not only established the little German empire, but also the French republic. The overall outcome, however, was that in Europe the independence and internal unity of the great nations, with the exception of Poland, had become a fact. Within relatively modest limits, it is true, but for all that on a scale large enough to allow the development of the working class to proceed without finding national complications any longer a serious obstacle. The grave-diggers of the Revolution of 1848 had become the executors of its will. And alongside them there already rose threateningly the heir of 1848, the proletariat, in the shape of the International.

After the war of 1870-71, Bonaparte vanished from the stage and Bismarck’s mission was fulfilled, so that he could now sink back again to the position of an ordinary Junker. The period, however, was brought to a close by the Paris Commune. A perfidious attempt by Thiers to steal the cannon of the Paris National Guard sparked off a victorious rising. It was shown once more that in Paris none but a proletarian revolution is any longer possible. After the victory power fell, quite of itself and quite undisputed, into the hands of the working class. And once again it was proved how impossible even then, twenty years after the time described in our work, this rule of the working class still was. On the one hand, France left Paris in the lurch, looked on while it bled to death from the bullets of MacMahon; on the other hand, the Commune was consumed in unfruitful strife between the two parties which split it, the Blanquists (the majority) and the Proudhonists (the minority), neither of which knew what was to be done. The victory which came as a gift in 1871 remained just as unfruitful as the surprise attack of 1848.

It was believed that the militant proletariat had been finally buried with the Paris Commune. But, completely to the contrary, it dates its most powerful resurgence from the Commune and the Franco-Prussian War. The recruitment of the whole of the population able to bear arms into armies that henceforth could be counted only in millions, and the introduction of fire-arms, projectiles and explosives of hitherto unprecedented yield, completely transformed all warfare. This revolution, on the one hand, put an abrupt end to the Bonapartist war period and ensured peaceful industrial development by making any war other than a world war of unprecedented cruelty and absolutely incalculable outcome an impossibility. On the other hand, it caused military expenditure to rise in geometrical progression and thereby forced up taxes to exorbitant levels and so drove the poorer classes of people into the arms of socialism. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, the immediate cause of the mad competition in armaments, was able to set the French and German bourgeoisie chauvinistically at each other’s throats; for the workers of the two countries it became a new bond of unity. And the anniversary of the Paris Commune became the first universal holiday of the whole proletariat.

The war of 1870-71 and the defeat of the Commune transferred the centre of gravity of the European workers’ movement in the meantime from France to Germany, as Marx had foretold. In France it naturally took years to recover from the blood-letting of May 1871. In Germany, on the other hand, where industry — fostered, in addition, in positively hothouse fashion by the blessing of the French milliards 45’ — developed at increasing speed, Social-Democracy experienced a still more rapid and enduring growth. Thanks to the intelligent use which the German

workers made of the universal suffrage introduced in 1866, the astonishing growth of the party is made plain to all the world by incontestable figures: 1871, 102,000; 1874, 352,000; 1877, 493,000 Social-Democratic votes. Then came recognition of this advance by high authority in the shape of the Anti-Socialist Law[456]; the party was temporarily broken up, the number of votes dropped to 312,000 in 1881. But that was quickly overcome, and then, under the pressure of the Exceptional Law, without a press, without a legal organisation and without the right of association and assembly, rapid expansion began in earnest: 1884, 550,000; 1887, 763,000; 1890, 1,427,000 votes. The hand of the state was paralysed. The Anti-Socialist Law disappeared; the socialist vote rose to 1,787,000, over a quarter of all the votes cast. The government and the ruling classes had exhausted all their expedients — uselessly, pointlessly, unsuccessfully. The tangible proofs of their impotence, which the authorities, from night watchman to the imperial chancellor had had to accept — and that from the despised workers! — these proofs were counted in millions. The state was at the end of its tether, the workers only at the beginning of theirs.

But, besides, the German workers rendered a second great service to their cause in addition to the first, a service performed by their mere existence as the strongest, most disciplined and most rapidly growing socialist party. They supplied their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the most potent, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage.

There had long been universal suffrage in France, but it had fallen into disrepute through the way it had been abused by the Bonapartist government. After the Commune there was no workers’ party to make use of it. It had also existed in Spain since the republic ‘45’ but in Spain election boycotts had been the rule for all serious opposition parties from time immemorial. The experience of the Swiss with universal suffrage was also anything but encouraging for a workers’ party. The revolutionary workers of the Latin countries had been wont to regard the suffrage as a snare, as an instrument of government trickery. It was different in Germany. The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat, and Lassalle had again taken up this point. Now that Bismarck found himself compelled to introduce this franchise as the only means of interesting the mass of the people in his plans, our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag. And from that day on they have used the franchise in a way which has paid them a thousandfold and has served as a model to the workers of all countries. The franchise has been, in the words of the French Marxist programme, transformé de moyen de duperie qu'il a été jusquici en instrument d'emancipation — transformed by them from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation.[458] And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in our vote it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us of our own strength and that of all opposing parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion second to none for our actions, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness — if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would still have been much more than enough. But it did more than this by far. In election propaganda it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it provided our representatives in the Reichstag with a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in parliament, and to the masses outside, with quite different authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail was their Anti-Socialist Law to the government and the bourgeoisie when election campaigning and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?

With this successful utilisation of universal suffrage, however, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly took on a more tangible form. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets, to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had changed fundamentally. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated.

Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions. And the insurgents counted on it just as rarely. For them it was solely a question of making the troops yield to moral influences which, in a fight between the armies of two warring countries, do not come into play at all or do so to a much smaller extent. If they succeed in this, the troops fail to respond, or the commanding officers lose their heads, and the insurrection wins. If they do not succeed in this, then, even where the military are in the minority, the superiority of better equipment and training, of uniform leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt. The most that an insurrection can achieve in the way of actual tactical operations is the proficient construction and defence of a single barricade. Mutual support, the disposition and employment of reserves — in short, concerted and co-ordinated action of the individual detachments, indispensable even for the defence of one borough, not to speak of the whole of a large town, will be attainable only to a very limited extent, and usually not at all. Concentration of the military forces at a decisive point is, of course, out of the question here. Hence passive defence is the predominant form of struggle; an attack will be mounted here and there, by way of exception, in the form of occasional thrusts and assaults on the flanks; as a rule, however, it will be limited to the occupation of positions abandoned by retreating troops. In addition, the military have at their disposal artillery and fully equipped corps of trained engineers, means of warfare which, in nearly every case, the insurgents entirely lack. No wonder, then, that even the barricade fighting conducted with the greatest heroism — Paris, June 1848; Vienna, October 1848; Dresden, May 1849 — ended in the defeat of the insurrection as soon as the leaders of the attack, unhampered by political considerations, acted according to purely military criteria, and their soldiers remained reliable.

The numerous successes of the insurgents up to 1848 were due to a great variety of causes. In Paris, in July 1830 and February 1848, as in most of the Spanish street fighting, a civic guard stood between the insurgents and the military. This guard either sided directly with the insurrection, or else by its lukewarm, indecisive attitude caused the troops likewise to vacillate, and supplied the insurrection with arms into the bargain. Where this civic guard opposed the insurrection from the outset, as in June 1848 in Paris, the insurrection was vanquished. In Berlin in 1848, the people were victorious partly through considerable reinforcements in the shape of new fighting forces during the night and the morning of March 19th, partly as a result of the exhaustion and poor rations of the troops, and, finally, partly as a result of the paralysis engendered by the command. But in all cases the fight was won because the troops failed to respond, because the commanding officers lost the faculty to decide or because their hands were tied.

Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect. It was a means of shaking the steadfastness of the military. If it held out until this was attained, victory was won; if not, the outcome was defeat. This is the main point which must be kept in view, also when examining the outlook for possible future street fighting. [The last sentence is omitted in Die Neue Zeit and in the 1895 edition of Die Klassenkampfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850]

Back in 1849 already, this outlook was pretty poor. Everywhere the bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with the governments, “culture and property” had hailed and feasted the military moving against insurrection. The barricade had lost its magic; the soldier no longer saw behind it “the people”, but rebels, subversives, plunderers, levellers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting, he no longer marched straight ahead and without cover against the improvised breastwork, but went round it through gardens, yards and houses. And this was now successful, with a little skill, in nine cases out of ten.

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favour of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still. Paris and Berlin have, since 1848, grown less than fourfold, but their garrisons have grown more than that. By means of the railways, these garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective. In 1848 the smooth-bore, muzzle-loading percussion gun, today the small-calibre, breech-loading magazine rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former. At that time the relatively ineffective round shot and grape-shot of the artillery; today the percussion shells, of which one is sufficient to demolish the best barricade. At that time the pick-axe of the sapper for breaking through fire proof walls; today the dynamite cartridge.

On the other hand, all the conditions of the insurgents’ side have grown worse. An insurrection with which all sections of the people sympathise is likely to recur; in the class struggle all the middle strata will never in all probability group themselves around the proletariat so exclusively that in comparison the party of reaction gathered round the bourgeoisie will well-nigh disappear. The “people”, therefore, will always appear divided, and thus a most powerful lever, so extraordinarily effective in 1848, is gone. If more soldiers who have seen service came over to the insurrectionists, the arming of them would become so much the more difficult. The hunting and fancy guns of the munitions shops — even if not previously made unusable by the removal of part of the lock on police orders — are far from being a match for the magazine rifle of the soldier, even in close fighting. Up to 1848 it was possible to make the necessary ammunition oneself out of powder and lead; today the cartridges differ for each gun, and are everywhere alike only in one point, namely, that they are a complicated product of big industry, and therefore not to be manufactured ex tempore, with the result that most guns are useless as long as one does not possess the ammunition suited only to them. And, finally, since 1848 the newly built quarters of the big cities have been laid out in long, straight, broad streets, tailor-made to give full effect to the new cannons and rifles. The revolutionary would have to be mad to choose of his own accord the new working class districts in the north or east of Berlin for a barricade fight.

Does that mean that in the future street fighting will no longer play any role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military. In future, street fighting can, therefore, be victorious only if this disadvantageous situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom at the beginning of a great revolution than at its later stages, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These, however, may then well prefer, as in the whole great French Revolution or on September 4 and October 31, 1870, in Paris, the open attack to passive barricade tactics.

Does the reader now understand why the powers-that-be positively want to get us to go where the guns shoot and the sabres slash? Why they accuse us today of cowardice, because we do not take without more ado to the streets, where we are certain of defeat in advance? Why they so earnestly implore us to play for once the part of cannon fodder?

The gentlemen pour out their petitions and their challenges for nothing, for absolutely nothing. We are not that stupid. They might just as well demand from their enemy in the next war that he should accept battle in the line formation of old Fritz, [Frederick II] or in the columns of whole divisions a la Wagram and Waterloo,[459] and with the flint-lock in his hands at that. If conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul.

The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work that we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.

In the Latin countries, too, it is being realised more and more that the old tactics must be revised. Everywhere the German example of utilising the suffrage, of winning all posts accessible to us, has been imitated; everywhere the unprepared launching of an attack has been relegated to the background. [In Die Neue Zeit and in the 1895 edition of Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich the words “everywhere the unprepared launching of an attack has been relegated to the background” are omitted.] In France, where for more than a hundred years the ground has been undermined by one revolution after another, where there is not a single party which has not done its share in conspiracies, insurrections and all other revolutionary actions; in France, where, as a result, the government is by no means sure of the army and where the conditions for an insurrectionary coup de main are altogether far more favourable than in Germany — even in France the Socialists are realising more and more that no lasting victory is possible for them unless they first win over the great mass of the people, i.e. the peasants in this instance. Slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity are recognised here, too, as the immediate tasks of the party. Successes have not been lacking. Not only have a whole series of municipal councils been won; fifty Socialists have seats in the Chambers, and they have already overthrown three ministries and a president of the republic. In Bel ium last year the workers forced the adoption of the franchise,[460] and have been victorious in a quarter of the constituencies. In Switzerland, in Italy, in Denmark, yes, even in Bulgaria and Romania the Socialists are represented in the parliaments. In Austria all parties agree that our admission to the Imperial Council can no longer be withheld. We will get in, that is certain; the only question still in dispute is: by which door? And even in Russia, when the famous Zemsky Sobor[461] meets — that National Assembly to which young Nicholas offers such vain resistance — even there we can reckon with certainty on being represented in it.

Of course, our foreign comrades do not in the least renounce their right to revolution. The right to revolution is, after all, the only really “historical right”, the only right on which all modern states rest without exception, Mecklenburg included, whose aristocratic revolution was ended in 1755 by the “hereditary settlement”, the glorious charter of feudalism still valid today.[462]

The right to revolution is so incontestably recognised in the general consciousness that even General von Boguslawski derives the right to a coup d'état, which he vindicates for his Kaiser, solely from this popular right.

But whatever may happen in other countries, the German Social-Democrats occupy a special position and thus, at least in the immediate future, have a special task. The two million voters whom they send to the ballot box, together with the young men and women who stand behind them as non-voters, form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive “shock force” of the international proletarian army. This mass already supplies over a quarter of the votes cast; and as the by-elections to the Reichstag, the Diet elections in individual states, the municipal council and trades court elections demonstrate, it is constantly on the increase. Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly, and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process. All government intervention has proved powerless against it. We can count even today on two and a quarter million voters. If it continues in this fashion, by the end of the century we shall have the greater part of the middle strata of society, petty bourgeoisie and small peasants, and we shall grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not. To keep this growth going without interruption until it gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system of itself, not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day, [In Die Neue Zeit and in the 1895 edition of Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich the words “not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day” are omitted.] that is our main task. And there is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be temporarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a grand scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris. In the long run even that would be overcome. To shoot a party which numbers millions out of existence is too much even for all the magazine rifles of Europe and America. But the normal development would be impeded, the shock force would, perhaps, not be available at the critical moment, the decisive combat [In Die Neue Zeit and in the 1895 edition of Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich the words “the shock force would, perhaps, not be available at the critical moment” are omitted and instead of “the decisive combat” the word “decision” is printed.] would be delayed, protracted and attended by a heavier toll.

The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We, the “revolutionaries”, the “overthrowers” — we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves. They cry despairingly with Odilon Barrot: la légalité nous tue, legality is the death of us[463]; whereas we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal. And if we are not so crazy as to let ourselves be driven to street fighting in order to please them, then in the end there is nothing left for them to do but themselves break through this dire legality.

Meanwhile they make new laws against overthrows. Again everything is turned upside down. These anti-overthrow fanatics of today, are they not themselves the overthrowers of yesterday? Have we perchance evoked the civil war of 1866? Have we driven the King of Hanover, the Elector of Hesse, and the Duke of Nassau from their hereditary lawful domains and annexed these hereditary domains?[464] And these overthrowers of the German Confederation and three crowns by the grace of God complain of overthrow! Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes? [Who would suffer the Gracchi to complain of sedition?, Juvenal, Satire, 11.24] Who could allow the Bismarck worshippers to rail at overthrow?

Let them, nevertheless, put through their anti-overthrow bills, make them still worse, transform the whole penal law into india-rubber, they will gain nothing but fresh proof of their impotence. If they want to deal Social-Democracy a serious blow they will have to resort to quite other measures. They can cope with the Social-Democratic overthrow, which just now is doing so well by keeping the law, only by an overthrow on the part of the parties of Order, an overthrow which cannot live without breaking the law. Mr. Roessler, the Prussian bureaucrat, and Mr. von Boguslawski, the Prussian general, have shown them the only way perhaps still possible of getting at the workers, who simply refuse to let themselves be lured into street fighting. Breach of the constitution, dictatorship, return to absolutism, regis voluntas suprema lex ! [The King’s will is the supreme law!]. Therefore, take courage, gentlemen; here half measures will not do; here you must go the whole hog!

But do not forget that the German empire, like all small states and generally all modern states, is a product of contract; of the contract, first, of the princes with one another and, second, of the princes with the people. If one side breaks the contract, the whole contract falls to the ground; the other side is then also no longer bound, as Bismarck demonstrated to us so beautifully in 1866. If, therefore, you break the constitution of the Reich, Social-Democracy is free, and can do as it pleases with regard to you. But it will hardly blurt out to you today what it is going to do then. [In Die Neue Zeit and in the 1895 edition of Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich the end of this paragraph starting with the words “as Bismarck” is omitted.]

It is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied that Caesar’s will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, was international; it spread over the whole empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities underground in secret; for a considerable time, however, it had felt itself strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow, which was known by the name of Christians, was also strongly represented in the army; whole legions were Christian. When they were ordered to attend the sacrificial ceremonies of the pagan established church, in order to do the honours there, the subversive soldiers had the audacity to stick peculiar emblems — crosses — on their helmets in protest. Even the customary barrack bullying of their superior officers was fruitless. The Emperor Diocletian could no longer quietly look on while order, obedience and discipline in his army were being undermined. He stepped in with vigour, while there was still time. He promulgated an anti-Socialist — I beg your pardon, I meant to say anti-Christian-law. The meetings of the overthrowers were forbidden , their meeting halls were closed or even pulled down, the Christian emblems, crosses, etc., were, like the red handkerchiefs in Saxony, prohibited. Christians were declared ineligible for holding public office; they were not to be allowed to become even corporals. Since at that time there were no judges so well trained in “respect of persons” as Mr. von Köller’s anti-overthrow bill assumes, Christians were forbidden out of hand to seek justice before a court. Even this exceptional law was to no avail. The Christians tore it down from the walls with scorn; they are even supposed to have set fire to the Emperor’s palace in Nicomedia in his presence. Then the latter revenged himself by the great persecution of Christians in the year 303 A.D. It was the last of its kind. And it was so effective that seventeen years later the army consisted overwhelmingly of Christians, and the succeeding autocrat of the whole Roman empire, Constantine, called the Great by the priests, proclaimed Christianity the state religion.

F. Engels
London, March 6, 1895


Footnotes from MECW


449 Engels wrote this Introduction to Marx’s work The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 between February 14 and March 6, 1895 for the separate edition that appeared in Berlin in 1895.

When publishing the Introduction, the Executive of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany urgently requested Engels to tone down the excessively, revolutionary (or so they believed) tenor of the work by couching his ideas in more cautious terms due to the Reichstag’s debate of the bill on “preventing a coup d'état” submitted by the government in December 1894 and discussion throughout January-April 1895.

In a letter to Richard Fischer of March 8, 1895, Engels criticised the irresolute stand by the Party leadership and their attempts to act strictly within the bounds of legality. However, forced to reckon with the opinion of the Executive, he agreed to omit a number of passages and modify some of the definitions. The galley proofs where these changes were made and the manuscript of the Introduction allow us to completely reconstruct the original text. In the present edition, the deletions and the changes are pointed out in the footnotes.

Some Social-Democratic leaders used this work to try and present Engels as a supporter of a strictly peaceful transfer of power to the working class. With this end in view, on March 30, 1895 Vorwärts, the central printed organ of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, featured an editorial entitled “Wie man heute Revolutionen macht”, which contained a biased selection from the Introduction made without Engels’ knowledge. Profoundly indignant, Engels lodged a resolute protest against the distortion of his views, addressing it to Wilhelm Liebknecht, editor of the Vorwärts. In a letter to Karl Kautsky of April 1, 1895 Engels emphasised that with the publication of the Introduction in Die Neue Zeit “this disgraceful impression may be erased”. However, both in the separate edition of Marx’s work and in Die Neue Zeit (Nos 27 and 28, 1895), the Introduction appeared with the same omissions. The full text was not published even after the threat of a new anti-socialist law in Germany had failed to materialise (in May 1895, the bill was voted down).

First published in English in an abridged form under the heading “Revolutionary Tactics” in The Plebs, London, 1921, Vol. 13, No. 1, January, pp. 12-15; No. 2, February, pp. 48-50; No. 3, March, pp. 71-74; No. 4, April, pp. 112-14. Published in full in English for the first time in: The Revolutionary Act, New York city, New York Labor News Company, 1922.

See Introduction from Marx Engels Selected Works, Volume 1, Progress Publishers, 1969.

450 When publishing Marx’s work The Class Struggles in France as a separate edition in 1895, Engels included in it (as the first three chapters) Marx’s articles from the series “1848 to 1849” originally carried by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Politisch-ökonomische Revue, Nos 1 and 2, 1850 (Engels is referring to them here), and (as the fourth article or chapter) Marx’s section on France from the “Review, May to October [1850]” compiled in collaboration with Engels for the double, fifth-sixth issue of the journal for 1850. The passage quoted by Engels has been borrowed from the section figuring in the edition of Marx’s work as the fourth chapter.

451 Sachsenwald, an estate near Hamburg, which Emperor William I gave to Bismarck in 1871.

452 A reference to the monarchist parties of the Legitimists and the Orleanists.

453 Appraising tsarist Russia’s policy towards Poland in the 18th century, Engels uses the term “Principle of Nationalities” advanced by Napoleon III and widely used by the ruling quarters of the Second Empire as an ideological smokescreen for predatory designs and political adventures abroad. Casting himself in the thoroughly hypocritical role of “protector of nationalities” Napoleon III sought to exploit the national interests of the oppressed people as a means to consolidate the positions of France in her competition with other great powers and to expand the country’s frontiers. Marx exposed the “Principle of Nationalities” in his pamphlet Herr Vogt and Engels did the same in his work “What Have the Working Classes to Do with Poland?”.

454 A reference to the so-called constitutional conflict, promulgated in Prussia following a revision of the constitution granted by Frederick William IV on December 5, 1848 in the wake of the counter-revolutionary putsch and the dissolution of the Prussian National Assembly. In April 1849, the king dissolved the chamber of representatives, and on May 30 passed a new electoral law establishing a three-class electoral system based on property qualifications and unequal representation of the various strata. The majority in the new chamber, elected on the basis of the new law, approved a new and more reactionary constitution proposed by the king. Prussia retained the upper chamber consisting mainly of the feudal nobility; the powers of the Landtag were severely curtailed and it was deprived of the right to initiate legislation. Ministers were to be appointed by the king and made accountable to him alone. The constitution granted the government the right to set up special courts to deal with cases of high treason. The 1850 constitution remained in force in Prussia even after the formation of the German Empire in 1871.

The so-called constitutional conflict arose in the early 1860s between the Prussian government and the bourgeois-liberal majority in the Landtag. In February 1860, the majority refused to approve a plan for reorganising the army submitted by War Minister von Roon. However, the government soon managed to secure allocations for “maintenance of the army’s combat readiness and enhancement of its firepower”, which meant, to all intents and purposes, that the reorganisation could proceed. When in March 1862 the liberal majority refused to approve the military budget and demanded that the war ministry be made accountable to the Landtag, the government dissolved the latter and called new elections. In late September 1862 an administration was formed under Bismarck, which again dissolved the Landtag that October and embarked on the military reform without it approving the necessary funds. The conflict was not resolved until 1866, when, following the Prussian victory over Austria, the Prussian bourgeoisie capitulated before Bismarck.

The Constitution of the German Empire promulgated on April 16, 1871 was based on the constitution of the North German Confederation approved on April 17, 1867, with the changes introduced into it in November 1870 by the treaties on the entry of South German states (Baden, Hesse, Bavaria and Württemberg) into the Confederation. The Constitution of 1871 consolidated Prussian supremacy in Germany and the reactionary foundations of the German Empire’s state structure. The Reichstag’s legislative powers were substantially curtailed, and the laws passed by it made subject to approval by the Federal Council and the Emperor. The prerogatives of the latter, and of the Chancellor, who enjoyed independence from the Reichstag, were very broad. The constitution perpetuated the vestiges of particularism and the privileges of some small German states.

455 A reference to the 5,000-million-franc indemnity paid by France to the German Empire under the terms of the Frankfurt Peace of 1871 after the former’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

456 This refers to the Anti-Socialist Law passed by the Reichstag on October 21, 1878 for the purpose of suppressing the socialist and the working-class movement. It banned all party organisations, mass workers’ associations and the socialist and labour press, and authorised repressive actions against Social Democrats. However, the Social-Democratic Party, supported by Marx and Engels, had managed to strike a balance between underground work and legal activities, and to consolidate and expand its influence even in the years when the Anti-Socialist Law was in force. The Law’s validity was extended in 1881, 1884, 1886 and 1888, and it was repealed on October 1, 1890. Engels gave an assessment of it in his essay “Bismarck and the German Working Men’s Party”

457 Universal suffrage was introduced in Spain in 1868, at the time of the Spanish bourgeois revolution of 1868-74, and constitutionally confirmed in 1869. Having been declared in 1873, the republic in Spain existed up to 1874, when it was abolished as a result of a monarchist coup d'état.

458 Engels quotes the theoretical Preamble to the French Workers’ Party’s programme adopted at the 1880 congress in Le Havre. The Preamble was written by Marx.

459 At the Battle of Wagram on July 5-6, 1809, Napoleon I defeated the Austrian army commanded by Archduke Charles.

In the Battle at Waterloo (Belgium) on June 18, 1815, Napoleon’s army was routed by the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies under Wellington and Blucher, an event that decided the final victory of the anti-French coalition.

460 Engels is referring to the campaign for universal suffrage that developed in Belgium in 1890-93. On April 18, 1893, mass action and strikes led by the Workers’ Party compelled the Chamber of Deputies to pass a law on universal suffrage which was approved by the Senate on April 29. The law introduced voting rights for all men of over 25 years of age, who had a term of residence of not less than 12 months. It further granted one or two additional votes to certain categories of people, depending on their property status, educational standard and employment in the civil service.

461 Zemsky Sobor, the central representative bodies in Russia between the mid-16th and 17th centuries. Engels obviously refers to local self-government bodies (zemstvos) which appeared in 1864.

462 Engels is referring to the prolonged struggle between the princes and the nobility in the duchies of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which ended in the constitutional agreement on hereditary rights signed in 1755 in Rostock. Under the agreement, the Mecklenburg nobility had its former freedoms and privileges confirmed and consolidated its leading position in the Landtags and their standing bodies.

463 Engels quotes Odilon Barrot, a conservative politician of the Second Republic in France, who said: “Legality is the death of us” (“la légalité nous tue”) when repressions were instituted against democratic organisations in late 1848-early 1849.

464 An allusion to the incorporation into Prussia of the Kingdom of Hanover, the electorate of Hesse-Cassel and the Grand Duchy of Nassau in 1866 as a result of Prussia’s victory in the war against Austria in 1866.

465 Engels expressed his gratitude for the letter sent to him on November 28, 1890 on the occasion of his 70th birthday by the members of the executive of the German Workers’ Educational Society in London.

The (Communist) German Workers’ Educational Society in London was founded in 1840 by Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll together with other leaders of the League of the Just. Marx and Engels were actively involved in its work in 1847 and 1849-50. On September 17, 1850, they and some of their followers left the Society which had come to be dominated by the sectarian and adventurist Willich-Schapper group who were responsible for the split in the Communist League. From the late 1850s, Marx and Engels once again contributed to the work of the Society. When the First International was founded, the Society, with Friedrich Lessner among its leaders, became one of its sections. The London Educational Society existed up to 1918, when it was closed down by the British government.