Interview with Friedrich Engels in Le Figaro, May 1893

Submitted by libcom on August 5, 2005

... Having learnt the purpose of my visit, Engels told me the following:

"Germany is entering one of the gravest phases of its history, but let me add straightaway that we socialists have nothing to fear from the situation; on the contrary, we shall gain some major benefits from it. It is above all thanks to our efforts, that the military credits were refused. It was impossible for the various parties in Parliament to ignore us, and even more so for the government, which knows full well that we are its most dangerous enemy. When the government motion to seek new military credits became known in Germany, the people were indignant, and the vote of the Centre and the Radicals was certainly influenced by the pressure of public opinion.

"You see," added Engels, deliberately stressing his statement, "in Germany the people said: 'We have enough soldiers; there must be an end to it!'"

"And the new Reichstag, Mr. Engels?"

"As I speak to you, it seems to me that the next Reichstag will be even less inclined to approve the credits than the old one. However, I do not shut my eyes to the possibility that we may see the newly elected deputies, with five years of legislature in front of them, negotiating with the government, which with a little gentle arm-twisting could force through a compromise. In the likely event of the Reichstag refusing the credits, it would be necessary to resort to a second dissolution, which I am convinced would result in the election of a Reichstag even more hostile to accepting the government's proposals. Then the conflict would move into a critical stage, and it would be a matter of finding out who is to have power, Parliament or the emperor. It would be a repetition of the conflict between Bismarck and the Prussian Chamber in 1864, which was brought to an end by the war with Austria."

By his very reply, Frederick Engels prompted me to ask him to consider the two eventualities already discussed in the European press: that of a domestic coup d'?tat and that of a diversion abroad.

"Today a coup d'état is no longer as easy as it used to be," replied my interlocutor briskly. "In 1864, at the time of Bismarck's clash with the Prussian Chamber, Prussia was a centralised state, whereas today the German Empire is a federal state. The central government would be taking too great a risk in attempting a coup d'état. In order to be certain of bringing it off, it would need the unanimous consent of these different federal governments. If one of these failed to accept the coup d'état, it would be released from its obligations towards the Empire, and that would mean the break-up of federal state. That is not all! The federal constitution is the only guarantee which the small states have against the domination of Prussia; in violating it themselves, they would be handing themselves over, bound hand and foot, to the mercies of the central power. Is it likely that Bavaria would capitulate to such an extent? No, and to reserve myself on this point, I tell you this: 'To carry out a coup d'état in Germany, the emperor would have to have either the people on his side-and he has not-or all the confederate governments, and he will never have them all.'"

Engels' last statement having failed to convince me, I insist on the possibility of a domestic coup d'état.

"Oh," he replied, "I am not saying that what I will call the revolution from above is not a threat for the future. Bebel and several of our friends have already said that they foresaw an attempted coup against universal suffrage."

"In that case, would you answer violence with violence?"

"We would not be mad enough to walk into the trap set by the government to catch us, because there is nothing the German government would like more than an insurrection, in order to crush us. We are all too well acquainted with the current state of our forces and those of the government to risk a game like that from sheer high spirits. Moreover, would William II dare to suppress universal suffrage completely? I do not think so. Perhaps he would raise the voting age and bestow upon us the revised and corrected suffrage" (and in uttering these words Engels started to laugh) "which Belgium is about to experience."

"You do not fear the mass arrest of the opposition deputies?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Engels, "no-one in Germany considers such an event possible. There are confederate governments, such as Bavaria for example, which would never agree to sanction such a flagrant breach of the constitution. Do not lose sight of the fact that, for the small states, the imperial constitution and the Reichstag are the only weapons that can prevent their absorption by the Prussian Government."

We come to the hypothesis of a foreign diversion. Engels is far from being pessimistic.

"Obviously," he told me, "a war may occur. But who, today, would dare assume responsibility for provoking one, if not perhaps Russia, whose territory, because of its enormous area, cannot be conquered? And yet...! At the moment Russia is in such a situation that it could not keep up a war for four weeks unless it received money from abroad."

Here my interlocutor stopped for a moment, continuing with a scarcely contained note of anger:

"I really do not understand the French Government. It is Russia that needs France, not France Russia. Russia is ruined, its soil exhausted. If the French Government saw the situation as it really is, it could obtain from Russia everything it wanted... everything... except money and efficient military assistance. Without France Russia would be isolated, completely isolated. And do not speak to me of the military might of the Russians! Remember the Turkish war. Without the Roumanians, the Russians would have been powerless before Plevna. No, the more I think about it, the less I believe in war. Its fortunes today are so uncertain! The armies are placed in totally new conditions which defy all calculations. There are rifles that fire ten rounds a minute, whose range approaches that of a cannon and whose bullets are endowed with unheard-of percussive force! There are melinite and roburite shells, etc.! All these terrible weapons of destruction have never been put to the test in wartime. Therefore we know nothing at all about the effect this revolution in armaments will have on tactics and on the morale of the troops.

"If William II wished to launch himself into a war he would encounter resistance from his own general staff; he would be made to feel the enormous risks of war. In the time of Napoleon III it was possible to have localised wars; today war would be general, and Europe would be at the mercy of England, because England could starve to death at will one or other of the belligerents. Neither Germany nor France produces enough wheat within its borders; they are constrained to import it from abroad. In particular they acquire their provisions from Russia. Germany at war with Russia would not be able to obtain a single hectolitre. On the other hand, France would be cut off from supplies of Russian wheat by Central Europe entering the campaign against her. So that would leave only the sea-routes open. But the sea, in wartime, would be more than ever in the grip of the English. In return for a fee granted to the companies which run the various transoceanic services, the British Government has at its disposal vessels built under its control; so that once war was declared England would possess, apart from its powerful navy, fifty to sixty cruisers instructed to prevent provisions from reaching one or more of the belligerents to whom it wished to declare its opposition. If it remained neutral it would still be the supreme arbiter of the situation. While the belligerents exhausted themselves fighting, England would come along at the opportune moment to dictate the peace conditions. Anyway, you need not worry about the possibility of a war provoked by William II. The German emperor has lost a lot of his old fire ...."

It remained for me to question Mr. Engels on one important matter: the chances of the German socialists at the next elections.

"I am convinced," he replied to this question, "that we will gain between 700,000 and one million votes more than in 1890. Thus we shall pick up altogether two and a quarter million, if not two and a half million votes. But the seats won will not correspond to this figure.... If the seats had been shared out equally in the last Reichstag, after the elections which gave us one and a half million votes, we would have had eighty deputies instead of thirty-six. Since the foundation of the empire, when the electoral districts were established, the distribution of the population has changed to our disadvantage. The rule which governed the formation of the electoral districts was this: one deputy per 100,000 inhabitants. Now Berlin, which still only has six deputies, currently has a population in excess of one and a half million. Nowadays Berlin should be regularly returning sixteen deputies. Another example: Cologne, which now has 250,000 inhabitants, still has only one deputy."

"Will the socialist party have candidates in all the constituencies?"

"Yes, we shall have candidates in all 400 constituencies. It is important to us that we should muster our forces."

"And what is your final goal as German socialists?" Mr. Engels looks at me for a few moments and then says:

"Why, we have no final goal. We are evolutionaries, we have no intention of dictating definitive laws to mankind. Prejudices instead of detailed organisation of the society of the future? You will find no trace of that amongst us. We shall be satisfied when we have placed the means of production in the hands of the community, and we fully realise that this is quite impossible with the present monarchist and federalist government."

I permit myself to observe that the day when the German socialists will be in a position to put their theories into practice still seems a long way off to me.

"Not as far as you think," replied Mr. Engels. "For me the time is approaching when our party will be called upon to take over the government. Towards the end of the century you may perhaps see this event come about.

"Indeed, take the figure of our supporters since the start of our parliamentary struggles. There is a steady progression at each election. Personally I am convinced that, if the last Reichstag had run the full legal term, that is to say if the elections had not taken place until 1895, we would have collected three and a half million votes. Now there are ten millions electors in Germany, and on average seven million who vote. With three and a half million electors out of seven million, the German empire cannot continue in its present form. And ... do not forget this fact, which is very important: the number of our electors tells us the number of our supporters in the army. With one and a half million out of ten million electors already, that is roughly a seventh of the population in our favour, and so we can count on one soldier out of six. When we have three and a half million votes -- which is not far off -- we shall have half the army."

When I express doubt as to the loyalty of the socialist troops in the army to their principles in the event of revolution, Mr. Engels makes the following statement, word-for-word:

"The day when we are in the majority, what the French army did instinctively in not firing on the people will be repeated in our country quite consciously. Yes, whatever the frightened bourgeois say, we are able to calculate the moment when we shall have the majority of the people behind us; our ideas are making headway everywhere, as much among teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. as among the workers. If we had to start wielding power tomorrow, we should need engineers, chemists, agronomists. Well, it is my conviction that we would have a good many of them behind us already. In five or ten years we shall have more of them than we need."

And with these extremely optimistic words from him I took my leave of Mr. Engels.

Published in Le Figaro, May 13, 1893 In Le Socialiste, No. 140, May 20, 1893 Translated from the French Transcribed by Zodiac in January 1996 Html Markup by Brian Basgen