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Book Review: Correspondence Volume 3: 1891-1895 by Friedrich Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue

June 27, 2015

Correspondence Volume 3: 1891-1895Correspondence Volume 3: 1891-1895 by Friedrich Engels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This third and final book of the Engels-Lafargue correspondence is proof that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. So much of the book is reminiscent of the splintered factions of Occupy and their disruptions and disagreements. It starts right in with the planning of May Day 1891 and which Leftist organization should be in control. Lafargue and Engels are against the Possibilists under Henry Hyndman, the Opportunists, and, of course, the anarchists. Often the correspondence reminded me of e-mails and texts between me and fellow Occupiers, many of whom feel that the anarchists have destroyed the movement. Today we are fighting for an increased minimum wage and increased rights for workers. Back then, they were fighting for an eight hour work day. In Fourmies, France, the army massacred demonstrators who wanted an eight hour work day. The army shot into crowd of demonstrators wanting an eight-hour work day. The 84th Regiment refused. 145th regiment did other than Private Lebon, who was concerned that his mother might be in the crowd (Paul Lafargue, 68). The only thing that seems to have changed is the severity, but now we have the Black Lives Matter movement to tie in, since no one is shooting us over the Fight for 15.

The afterword to the book was the foreword to the French edition, giving the historical background that would have been quite helpful in understanding the first volume. The reader’s only anchor if they are a newbie to the period is that it starts with Engels as the intermediary in the courtship between Paul Lafargue and Laura Marx. Unfortunately, this book was published (in English) in the USSR, and the Leninist editors have a strong bias throughout, and is no more boldly apparent than when they insist on importance of dictatorship of the proletariat even though Engels and Lafargue don’t care about it (524). Marx was very insistent, at least in the small amount of Marx that I’ve read, that this was a brief, transitional phase, of no particular importance, so Lafargue and Engels being faulted is incredibly biased, if not all-out ludicrous. Leninism runs very much contrary to Engels. He attacks Jean Jaurès for advocating State socialism, “which represents one of the infantile diseases of proletarian socialism, a disease which they went through in Germany, for example, more than a dozen years ago, under the regime of the Anti-Socialist Laws. when that was the only form tolerated by the government (and even protected by it). And even then only a negligible minority of the Party was caught in that snare for a short while; after the Wyden Congress, the whole thing petered out completely” (325). Unfortunately, Leninism got caught up right in that, and even some of my allies in Occupy are Leninist, so… Marx and Engels were not expecting Russia to become communist any time soon because it was always intended as a corrective for capitalism, when Russia was still very much in feudalism. The authors of the afterword/introduction seem clearly caught up in this ignorance, to the point that they feel the need to find fault in two people with close ties to Marx.

Indeed, Paul Lafargue states that in the movement, “There is no place for murder, loot, or any act of individual violence” (80).

Paul Lafargue’s letter to Engels on October 24, 1891 is particularly interesting in terms of the bank failures in the 2007-8 crisis:

I believe that in a short while the entente between Russia and France will no longer be so cordial; the chauvins will begin to realise that the tsar is bamboozling them and extracting hundreds of millions from them while giving them nothing but fine words. the success of the 500 million loan perhaps conceals a gigantic failure. It was not subscribed by the public; but by a dozen or so big banks: the Crédit Foncier alone took over two and a half million shares. As the Russian Government granted a so-called “counter” commission for every share subscribed, the banks had an interest in swelling the number of their subscriptions in order to draw a higher bonus and inspire confidence in their credit: all their brokers and agents who share with them in the discount have subscribed far beyond the needs of their clients. The day after the loan they began selling in order to unload their holdings. The number of shares thrown on the market was so great that they lost ½ percent, according to the financial report in Le Temps. If public confidence is shaken the banks may only be able to dispose of their shares at a loss; and as the money will have to be given to Russia things will become very intricate; the more so since the Rothschilds are playing the market for a fall in the value of Russian bonds. A month before the loan it was estimated that there were 4,500 million Russian bills in France; this figure must have increased, for Germany and England have unloaded part of their Russian loans in Paris. If the patriots lose their money over Russia, their ardent love for the tsar will not last long and they would soon start calling him a hangman and flogger of women, as they did a few years ago. And in that case the political situation could take a new turn.

Another example of history repeating itself comes in the appendix, in an April 6, 1892 L’Éclair interview with Engels that deserves quoting en masse so much that I recited this passage from the steps of Federal Hall:

“Russia would very much like to make war but could not. She has at the moment to combat a more formidable enemy than any other: famine.

“This scourge is not the result of a temporary shortage due to climactic or other hazards: it is the result of the new organisation of Russian society.

“Since the Crimean War, during which whole regiments perished in the snow, the situation has not changed much. that war marked the beginning of a great crisis in Russian history. When defeat was complete, when Russia’s impotence had been demonstrated to the whole of Europe, the Emperor Nicholas, desperate on realising the deplorable condition in which his Empire found itself, did not hesitate to take poison. Hence Alexander II, on ascending the throne, found himself obliged to try and do something to remedy his country’s appalling situation.”


“It was then that the Tsar proceeded to the emancipation of the serfs, an emancipation which served as a pretext for a new redistribution of land between the aristocrats and the peasants. The aristocrats were given the best land, as also water and forests. The peasants were given only land of poor quality and even that distribution was made in an inadequate fashion and averaging a sum payable by annuities over 49 years! What was the result?

“The peasants were unable to pay the rent to the State and were forced to borrow: they had too much to die and not enough to live. A bunch of kulaks (money-lenders) battened on these tillers of the soil and bit by bit they were indebted to the point of losing all hope of ever freeing themselves. When the usurers refused to make further advances, the peasants were forced to sell their crops to obtain money, and they sold not only the corn necessary for their own consumption, but even the corn essential for sowing, so that future harvests were jeopardised.

“In these circumstances, the first bad harvest inevitably led to a real famine. this famine in its turn struck the last blow at agricultural production in Russia. In fact, the peasant, no longer able to feed his cattle, was obliged to either kill or sell it. But, without farm animals, you can neither work nor manure the land. So agricultural production was suspended for years at a stretch.

“The emancipation of the peasants was only one aspect of the economic revolution which occurred in Russia; another aspect was the artificial creation of a manufacturing bourgeoisie intended to become an intermediate class. To achieve this more quickly, a real prohibitive system was introduced which encouraged and developed Russian industry in a most remarkable way; but as that industry could not export, it needed a home market. Now, the Russian peasant hardly buys anything, accustomed as he is to making everything himself: houses, implements, clothes, etc.; hitherto he had even produced many wood, iron and leather goods which he had sold in the markets. But once the wood had been taken from the peasant, by giving the forests to the aristocrats, rural industry was endangered. Manufacturing industry came to finish it off and the peasants had to turn to it. At the moment when that form of industry would have succeeded, famine arrived to give it its death blow: the peasants could no longer buy anything from it and the ruin of the one led to the ruin of the other.” (383-385)

This reminds me of so many current events, particularly in Spain, Greece, and the United States, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism, but also of my own personal situation. Having lost my apartment in 2012, my belongings are in storage while I live in the New York City shelter system. Cyberbullies have told me I should have (or should still) sell my belongings to pay the rent (the city currently pays my storage bill, although I have to pay the tax and insurance each month out of pocket–only liars say that the poor and homeless do not pay taxes), even telling me to sell my computer, when it is primarily via computer (short of being a Luddite with a notebook) that I can do any productive labor, and rent is, of course, a bottomless pit. They are essentially telling me to lose everything to line the wallets of rich people. They have listened too long to the demonization of socialism by the media. In an interview with Le Figaro, Engels specifically defines communism as community control of the means of production (393), and that anything else they do would be driven by factors of social evolution that they cannot foresee (392). I don’t understand how that can be considered evil by any rational person, particularly in comparison to a fat cat owning the means of production and giving the poor no alternative but to work for him for subsistence wages. I established above that community control is not government control in the eyes of true Marxists.

Right-wingers blame government for not enforcing the laws they break, or for deregulating things they know should have been regulated. Laura Lafargue’s letter to Engels of February 10, 1893:

[quoting “The Impression of Paris” in Le Figaro the same day] “When all is said and done are not the deeds of which they are accused common usage, openly practised under the benevolent eye of the government? Did not the authorities have some responsibility for the mistakes committed and for the laws violated? Did not the Chambers have some part in the misappropriations?… there has been some surprise at the severity of the sentences imposed on engineers and on a contractor, whilst the judges acquitted with such eagerness the influential political figures who were accused of bribery and corruption. The political world has been saved by the very people who attack the world of finance and business.”–And the Figaro goes on to speak of Eiffel and his “councours [co-operation] loyal.” It might as well have said désintérressé, after all, l’homme de tous les tours [the man of all the towers] only pocketed a trifle of 27 millions for his pains.–It is indisputable that the “gogos” make lighter of the 1,300 millions of francs gulped down by the Lesseps and Co. than of the few millions gobbled up by the ministers and members of Parliament with votes and consciences to sell.

“Business is business”, they say, but the government! They believed in the government. And they cannot understand why “la Justice”, with such an assortment of weights and measures at her command, should make no distinction between the ex- “grand français” and the small fry of the Cottus and the Fontanes.–They had taken such pride in the glory of Suez-Lesseps–“une gloire française!”(233)

This reminds me of how the only bank that got punished for the financial crisis was a little bank in Chinatown. (Cottu and Fontane were each imprisoned for two years.)

After the incident at Fourmies, Paul Lafargue was elected a deputy of Parliament in the Socialist party to replace one who had died. He was unlawfully imprisoned for incitement to murder, even though French law considered what he actually said, that employers should be exterminated like vermin with insecticide, too vague to be considered as such (88). He was accused of saying worse things, though no evidence ever turned up. Another man even tried to take the fall for him, but Paul rejected this. Eventually, his sentence was suspended, although he would be expected to serve it once his term ended. No letters indicate that he returned to prison, though. In his letter of September 9, he recounts a birther argument against him, accused of being Prussian, causing reactionaries to go crazy (133).

Engels’s letter of May 19, 1892 describes an anti-socialist conglomerate, “Lassalle’s ‘one single, compact reactionary mass'” (174) which again speaks to the way the reactionaries today are so easily able to unite against causes that aid anyone who is not a rich, white, straight, male.

In the first volume, when Paul Lafargue went to Spain, we only get bits and pieces of information. A series of letters from this period is included between the final letter, in which Engels describes in detail the symptoms that will lead to his death shortly thereafter, and the appendix. The most interesting element to me here is Paul Lafargue’s letter of June 5, 1872, when the Federal Council demands an expulsion of all the editors of La Emancipación because they demanded an investigation into the private fortunes of politicians and the sources thereof (457).

The book also contains a valuable index of books, journals, periodicals, and people mentioned throughout the three volumes that would have been useful to have had from the beginning.

As the afterword states, not all the letters are of equal value, but there is a drama and continuity to them that make them a compelling read. The portions emphasized here are simply what seem particularly enlightening in 2015 based on the events of the past eight years. Surely different letters will seem more significant read in different periods of time. Unfortunately, these letters are long out of print, in three volumes that I struggled to obtain through interlibrary loan. The copy I read came from Vassar College. I don’t know when they stopped using stamp cards to handle circulation, but the only date due stamp on the card that remained in the pocket was “May 13 ’64.” As the above quotations suggest, even though this material was not written for publication, it most certainly needs to be read and discussed much more widely than it currently is.

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One Comment
  1. My review of Volume 1. I read Volume 2 but did not write a review. Structurally it comes to a sort of climax with the death of Engels’s wife.

    Correspondence, Volume 1: 1868 - 1886Correspondence, Volume 1: 1868 – 1886 by Friedrich Engels
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I was really impressed with this book and would recommend it to anyone involved in the Occupy movement. It chronicles the long struggles and arrests of Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, author of the influential essay, “The Right to Be Lazy,” which was integral in the founding of the forty hour, five day work week. In fact, I got this book from Brooklyn Public Library when trying to obtain that book and not finding it in the catalog. This is volume 1 of 3, and they have only another copy of volume 1. Although printed in 1959, the book’s cover has proven very brittle, and I hope I don’t get blamed for trying to fix ripped cloth with tape. Perhaps, having been published in Moscow, quality of work suffered under the Soviet Union’s perversion of Marxism. I have books published before 1930 that are sturdier. BPL keeps this book in storage, apparently from lack of demand, and I had to wait so long for it to be processed for me to check out that I missed a soup kitchen where I was planning to have lunch.

    Much of the content of the letters is familial, dealing with travel, weather, and health, along with plenty of requests from the Lafargues for money from Engels, who supported them in his old age. This really humanizes the material and shows what a struggle for justice life was for them. Paul was a white collar worker, and unlike the American perversion of Marxism, communism is not about lionizing blue collar workers over white, it is about lionizing those who work for their money, no matter what sort of work, and wresting control away from those who live on their investments.

    The book is a compelling read for those who don’t need everything spoon-fed to them. I had to look up the first names of many of the personages depicted in the letters, and reference to correspondences with other people (not included, with the exception of #140A by Nikolai Danielson, whose first name is never given once between the covers–I had to look it up just to give him credit here with my librarian privileges–this one is included because it was sent as an enclosure in letter 140 and explicitly referenced in Lafargue’s letter as being pertinent). The first word of the text is “Mohr,” which I didn’t realize until about halfway through was a nickname for Marx, a key bit of information that affects all understanding of the narrative! (I kept thinking of the lyricist who wrote “Stille Nacht.”) The letters were written in a mix of German, French, and English. Sometimes the translator prefers to leave the material in the original language and translate it in a footnote, suggesting lack of true translatability of those passages. The translated letters have a different character from the English letters, and it is sometimes harder to tell the author without looking then when we get the writer’s actual words. Laura is very much a 19th century woman, which is not always clear in the translated portions. Some of what she says is flightly and allusive and suggestive of Jo March, while other portions are deadly serious, so I would not consider her a frivolous woman by any means.

    The book begins with the courtship of Paul and Laura with the assistance of Engels, “The General.” There are letters Paul Lafargue has written from prison, and a whole series of letters near the end that deal with another legal case against him, which is primarily in letters from Laura, which pulls suspense and ultimately leads to a happy ending with the celebration of Chrismas 1886 as the end of the book, followed by an appendix of a published letter of reassurance to the working class.

    Although much of the book deals with the difficulty of translating Marx (Laura’s father), the police actions against socialists in Paris and the fate of those involved kept the pages turning for me, even though I already know how and when the Lafargues died, and it’s not until much later (and two more volumes I now have to find). There is also a long letter, originally published an article, dealing with the details of 19th century European war, much of it dealing with the countries that became Yugoslavia from after World War I until the 1990s.

    I am definitely interested in reading the remainder of the correspondence. Perhaps a new edition of the book will be published with better footnotes for someone who doesn’t know the identities of all involved without having to do an Internet search for each one. Now, I really must read Dracula, a novel in epistolary form. Even though there are footnotes with each letter referring you back to threads in earlier letters, real letters show how the epistolary form can really involve the reader in reconstructing the story from such artifacts.

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