Engels as a Strategist of Socialism

Matías Maiello

December 6, 2020

200 years after his birth, a look back at the “First Red Clausewitz”

A pioneer in many fields, Friedrich Engels created an important body of work on military questions. In a book published several years ago, U.S. Army Major Michael Boden called him “the first red Clausewitz.”1Michael Boden, “First Red Clausewitz”: Friedrich Engels and Early Socialist Military Theory (Auckland: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014). There were plenty of reasons for this, although opinions are divided as to who had more influence on Engels, Carl von Clausewitz or Napoleon’s general Antoine-Henri Jomini. What is certain is that the co-author of the Communist Manifesto laid the basis for understanding war from the point of view of historical materialism. This line of research was continued by Franz Mehring, who in his extensive work on military questions set out to combine Engels’s contributions with the work of Clausewitz and one of his successors, Hans Delbrück. Lenin and Trotsky took up these reflections and introduced them into the realm of revolutionary strategy in the 20th century. There are numerous studies of Engels’s military thought, with varied results, such as those of Martin Berger,2Martin Berger, Engels, Armies, and Revolution: The Revolutionary Tactics of Classical Marxism (Hamden, Archon Press, 1977). Walter B. Gallie,3Walter B. Gallie, Philosophers of Peace and War: Kant, Clausewitz, Marx, Engels and Tolstoy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978). Gilbert Achcar,4Gilbert Achcar, “Engels: theorist of war, theorist of revolution,” in International Socialism (97), London, Winter 2002. Sigmund Neumann and Mark von Hagen,5Sigmund Neumann and Mark von Hagen, “Engels and Marx on Revolution, War, and the Army in Society,” in Peter Paret (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986). as well as Boden, among others.

Engels’s interest in these matters was not purely intellectual — it was closely linked to the practical question of how the working class could conquer political power. Engels combined analysis of the phenomenon of war with the use of military theory to address the strategic, tactical, and even technical problems of socialist revolution. After a brief period of military service in the Prussian artillery at 21 years of age, Engels had the opportunity to join in battle during the revolutionary process in Germany in 1849, fighting in the ranks of the insurrectional army of Baden and the Palatinate. From then on, he never abandoned his reflections on military problems. Wilhelm Liebknecht said that “If there had been another revolution in his lifetime we would have had in Engels our Carnot, the organiser of armies and victories, the military brain.”6Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) was a member of the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution and created the 14 armies of the Republic. He was known as the “Organizer of Victory.” Wilhelm Liebknecht, “Reminiscences of Engels” (1897), quoted in Achcar, “Engels.” In 1857, when it appeared as though a new period of turbulence was about to begin, Engels was enthusiastic about the possibility of returning to the battlefield. But this did not come to pass.

During much of his life, Engels analyzed the principal conflicts of the day: the clashes of the revolutions of 1848-49 in France and Germany, the Crimean War (1853-56), England’s colonial wars, Garibaldi’s campaign in Southern Italy and Sicily, etc. He was among the first to highlight the historical significance of the American Civil War (1861-65) for the future of the art of war, and recognized that the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) represented a turning point for European militarism. The quality of his works meant that those published anonymously were often attributed to important military figures of the day. Engels’s pamphlet Po and Rhine (1859), for example, was thought to be the work of the Prussian general von Pfuel. In his book Anti-Dührung, Engels synthesized a whole series of theoretical insights on the relationship between the development of technology and its application in warfare, its relation to changes in combat tactics and strategies, the place of politics, and moral factors. Boden rightly points out that “he contributed the same elements to the socialist cause as his more famous successor, Hans Delbrück, contributed to own audience in the decades following Engels’ death.”7Boden, Clausewitz.

In the 12 years after Marx’s death, Engels was able to perceive some — though obviously not all — of the contours of the new phase of capitalism and the class struggle that was coming. Thanks to the depth of his strategic thought, he foresaw the probability of a world war of apocalyptic dimensions, the need to build a revolutionary party of a new type, the much more massive character that revolutions would acquire in the 20th century, and other things.

Destructive Forces and World War

A year after Engels’s death, in 1896, the Bernstein debate (or revisionism debate) began to take shape. Eduard Bernstein believed that Marx and Engels had exaggerated capitalism’s tendencies toward crisis and the importance of the class struggle. He considered that the growth of the productive forces was becoming increasingly harmonious, making a socialist future possible without the need for a revolution. It appeared as though great upheavals, crises, wars, and revolutions were slowly becoming things of the past, just like the 19th century itself. In contrast to such optimistic views about how the development of the productive forces could be an impetus for emancipation, Engels spent his final years analyzing how capitalism was translating the advances of technology and science into new destructive forces on a scale never seen before.

Beginning with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Engels noted a qualitative leap in the development of the means of destruction by the European powers. The trained eye of the “general,” as friends and associates called him, led him to make one of the most astonishing predictions about the future of war. In 1887, in the introduction to a book by Zygmunt Borkheim, he wrote:

the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats […] The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; […] ending in […] collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end […] Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.8Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Borkheim” (1887).

Image: @marcoprile

Thus Engels foresaw the world character of Germany’s coming war 27 years before it began, and the massive devastation “of an extent hitherto unimagined” that the First World War would bring. Even the details of this description are striking, including the number of dead — almost identical to the eventual figures — and the duration. He predicted the military consequences (“universal exhaustion”) and the political ones (“crowns rolling into the gutters,” as happened with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany or Tsar Nicholas II of Russia). Finally, and fundamentally, he argued that this situation would create the conditions for the definitive victory of the working class. Such conditions did in fact develop in different revolutionary processes, not only in Russia, but also in Germany, Hungary, Finland, and later in Italy’s Two Red Years.

In further letters written in those years, Engels provided additional insights. In a letter written to Sorge on January 7, 1888, for example, he wrote that the war would not end quickly:

no quick decision could be arrived at, despite the colossal fighting forces. For France is protected on the north-eastern and south-eastern frontiers by very extensive fortifications and the new constructions in Paris are a model. So it will last a long time, and Russia cannot be taken by storm either. If, therefore, everything goes according to Bismarck’s desires, more will be demanded of the nation than ever before and it is possible enough that partial defeats and the dragging out of the decisive war would produce an internal upheaval.9Friedrich Engels, Letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, January 7, 1888.

In this way, Engels anticipated the stalemate reached at the end of 1914, after the German troops’ advance into France, and the two-front war that Germany had to wage against Russia as well. He also foresaw consequences this would have inside Germany.

For Engels, the possibility of preventing the war required getting the working class on its feet, with an organization, a program, and a strategy capable of saving humanity from the barbarism that capitalist militarism was preparing. In his final years, he dedicated most of his energy to this task. Together with Marx, he had waged many fundamental political battles — not always successfully, of course — that had led to the foundation of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAPD). After Marx’s death, Engels continued this work alone for another decade, during which time the party was underground because of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws. These were years when the party could expand broadly with the help the newspaper Sozialdemokrat, which was published in Switzerland by Karl Kautsky, with Engels’s collaboration, and smuggled into Germany. This model was taken up by Lenin years later in What Is To Be Done?10See Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello: Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018). In 1889, Engels also supported the formation of the Second International.

Far from optimism about peaceful progress and evolution, with Social Democracy winning more and more social and democratic rights every year, Engels saw all these gains as provisional. Thus, a few months after the Social Democratic Party of Germany made its first big electoral leap in 1890, obtaining 1.4 million votes (19.75%), he wrote from London to Hermann Schlüter:

So far everything is going well over here, as also in Germany, where little Wïllie [the kaiser] is threatening to abolish universal suffrage — what better could befall us! In any case we’re heading quite fast enough either for a world war or for a world revolution — or both.11Friedrich Engels, Letter to Hermann Schlüter, June 14, 1890, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 48 (London, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 508.

In keeping with this, Engels criticized the Erfurt Program adopted by the Social Democracy in 1891, noting the absence of a clear revolutionary strategy; a proposition that was ignored and would prove to be of central importance just a few years later.

Capitalist Militarism and Revolutionary Strategy

According to Engels, what would happen if the working class were unable to prevent the war? He was convinced that the war would lead to revolution, even voicing his hope that this could happen in Russia. Nonetheless, he was aware that the early stages of the war would have harsh consequences for socialist organizations. He expressed this in multiple letters, such as one he wrote to Bebel in September of 1886:

A revolution in Germany following a defeat would be of use only if it led to peace with France. Best of all would be a Russian revolution which, however, can only be expected after severe defeats have been inflicted on the Russian army. This much is certain: A war would above all retard our movement all over Europe, completely disrupt it in many countries, stir up chauvinism and xenophobia and leave us with the certain prospect, amongst many other uncertain ones, of having to begin all over again after the war, albeit on a basis far more favourable even than today.12Friedrich Engels, Letter to August Bebel, September 13-14, 1886, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 47, 487.

In other words, far from any evolutionary vision of how the party would develop, Engels saw the difficulties that the war would bring for socialists, with the upsurge of chauvinism and xenophobia, but he believed that the socialist movement would then reemerge “on a far more favourable basis.” In the aforementioned introduction from 1887, he made this point in the form of a challenge to the ruling classes:

The war may push us into the background for a while, it may wrest many a conquered base from our hands. But […] by the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either been achieved or else inevitable.13Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Borkheim” (1887).

This idea predicted the crossroads at which German Social Democracy would find itself at the outbreak of the world war. In 1914, the social democratic leaders supported the war credits, in order to prevent the state from wresting away “many a conquered base.” These leaders guaranteed the “civil peace,” hindering the class struggle — including enforcing the ban on strikes — and acting as accomplices in the persecution of their party’s left wing. Engels had suggested precisely the opposite course.

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But Engels’s approach also contrasted with the interpretation of his work that Kautsky eventually “theorized” in 1910, using the term “strategy of attrition.” According to this theory, the key was the accumulation of forces, while the revolutionary perspective was increasingly relegated to an indeterminate future. According to Kautsky, Engels had envisaged a new strategy whose main objective was to conquer positions (in unions, parliament, etc.) within the regime in an evolutionary way. This proposition was based on Engels’s 1895 introduction to a book by Marx, The Class Struggles in France. In order to avoid state censorship, this text had been cut down by Wilhelm Liebknecht, eliminating the parts referring to a revolutionary strategy for the conquest of power. The only thing that remained from Engels’s reflections on physical combat in the revolution was:

Rebellion in the old style, the street fight with barricades, which up to 1848 gave everywhere the final decision, was to a considerable extent obsolete.14Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France” (1895).

However, in the omitted part, Engels continued:

Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for [civilian fighters], far more favorable for the military. A future street fight […] will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These, however, may then well prefer, as in the whole Great French Revolution on September 4 and October 31, 1870, in Paris,15On September 4, 1870, the government of Louis Bonaparte was overthrown by the revolutionary action of the popular masses, and the republic was proclaimed. On October 31, the Blanquists carried out an attempted uprising against the government of national defense. the open attack to the passive barricade tactics.16Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France” (1895), our emphasis.

In other words, what Engels was arguing was practically the opposite of what was published. No wonder that Engels complained to the editors that his text had been “trimmed in such a fashion that I appear as a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price.”17Friedrich Engels, Letter to Karl Kautsky, April 1, 1895. A few months later, Engels died and the matter was left unresolved, with the censored text taken as his testament. Engels’s letter of protest was put in a drawer and it was not until 1930 that the full introduction was published.

The critique of barricade fetishism was nothing new in Engels’s work — he shared this view with Marx. It can be traced back to his articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung about the workers’ insurrection of June 1848 in France. The barricades remained one of the technical elements of insurrection — and played an important role of undermining the morale of the troops — but they were not a strategy. Thus, in his articles for the New York Daily Tribune — later compiled as Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany — Engels developed the idea of insurrection as an art, which implies preparation and the combination of the element of “surprise” proper to a “conspiracy” with the “mass” element of the violent intervention of the masses, taking their own destinies into their hands in order to triumph.18

Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules […] the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; […] in the words of Danton, […] de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace! [Audacity, audacity, and once more audacity!]

(Engels, Revolution.) This concept was taken up again by Lenin, Trotsky, and the Third International in its early years as a key element of revolutionary strategy.

In the 1895 introduction, Engels pointed out the merits of using universal suffrage and parliament to contribute to the accumulation of forces so that extra-parliamentary struggles could have “greater forces” for the “open attack.” Yet the conclusions that could be drawn from the censored version of the text was that the conquest of positions within the regime (in parliament, unions, etc.) was an objective that by itself would lead to the advancement of socialism’s positions outside the class struggle. The First World War showed that these illusions were baseless, and that Engels’s perspective of a revival of socialists on a much more favorable basis was posed — and, in fact, materialized in Russia and Germany, although in the latter case, the left wing of social democracy did not arrive on the scene on time to take advantage of the conditions of the revolution of 1918-19.

Engels’s Legacy

During the final years of his life, Engels saw how one epoch was ending and a new one was beginning. Lenin described this new epoch as one of crises, wars, and revolutions. Of course, his impactful prognoses about the First World War do not imply that he was never wrong. As Trotsky said:

Only very naive persons can think that the greatness of a Marx, Engels or Lenin consists in the automatic infallibility of all their judgments. No, they too made mistakes. But in judging the greatest and most complicated questions they used to make fewer mistakes than all the others.19Leon Trotsky, “Engels’s War Articles” (1924).

On the other hand, many things changed not long after Engels’s death: he did not get to witness the upsurge of the trade union movement, nor the subsequent development of the bureaucracy in the unions and the German Social Democracy. He did not see the leap in the activity of the workers’ movement beginning in the final years of the 19th century with its own methods (mass strikes), nor the qualitative increase in the strategic positions of the working class that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. He was not able to compare his hypotheses regarding the development of mass armies with their later evolution.

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He did, however, predict some of the great dramas of the 20th century. Bernstein’s illusions about the peaceful development of an ever more harmonious capitalism, as well as Kautsky’s illusions about the progressive accumulation of positions and rights within the bourgeois regime, proved unfounded and had catastrophic consequences. In spite of this, a century later, these figures are more in vogue than was to be expected. In the case of Kautsky, his legacy has been explicitly taken up by a significant sector of the U.S. Left organized in the Democratic Socialists of America. The founder of Jacobin magazine proposes a return to a “pre-1914 social democracy.” In the case of Bernstein, beyond the debt that leading authors of neoreformism like Ernesto Laclau owe to him, his idea of a harmonious capitalism and his teleological view of the development of the productive forces can be found in different versions — some more optimistic and some less so — from “post-capitalist” theorists.

In the face of such “revivals,” Engels’s legacy has much to teach us about the possibility of preventing this new century from becoming the scene of war and capitalist barbarism.

First published in Spanish on November 29 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Nathaniel Flakin


Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).