The times of the revolution in Friedrich Engels

Image: Diana Smykova


“The right to revolution is the only real 'historical right'”

On March 18, 1871, the Paris Commune was proclaimed, the first experience of a workers' government. For 72 days it aroused the enthusiasm of egalitarians of all left tendencies. But the defeat of the Commune led to a situation where the preservation of the First International became untenable.

The historic turn in the balance of forces in France also corresponded to a shift in the axis of organization of the movement on an international scale to Germany, where the Marxist current joined the current of Ferdinand Lassale at the Congress of Gotha.

Even under the repression of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws, the party of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht managed to extend its influence and, from 1890 onwards, began to contest elections under its own flags as the SPD, with promising results. In the “testament” Friedrich Engels insists on the importance of the new “German tactics” for all sections of the Second International: “However, using universal suffrage so effectively, the proletariat had practiced an entirely new method of struggle which developed rapidly. It so happened that the bourgeoisie and the government became more afraid of the legal action than of the illegal action of the workers' party, more afraid of the success of the elections than of the success of the rebellion”.[I]

Enthusiasm for the German party, with its vigorous social implantation and electoral successes, on the one hand, and perhaps the bitter historical balance of the defeat of the Commune, would seem to indicate that the old Engels (of whom it is said that in the 1990s lived a happy old age ) believed that, at least in Germany, the issue of power was faced with new possibilities. But also new difficulties.

Possibilities opened up by the growing social weight of workers, and their ability to raise class consciousness to new levels of permanent self-organization through unions that affiliated millions, with the skilful use of expanded margins of freedom, in short, the school of union learning -parliamentary.

Difficulties that resulted from the historical exhaustion of bourgeois revolutions, the bastard accommodation of the bourgeoisie with the Bonapartist regimes, the displacement of the middle classes, that is, the rupture of the front of “all the people for democracy”, as occurred in the first phase of February from 1848.

Finally, difficulties arising from the new subjective political needs that appeared as obstacles for the proletariat, which could not count on easy triumphs. Friedrich Engels, on the other hand, did not even consider the Kaiser's senile bismarchy regime a democracy. On the contrary, he considered that the limited freedoms were threatened precisely by the growing weight of the SPD and, therefore, he confused the hypothesis of a revolution in legitimate defense against a neo-Bonapartist adventure of the regime, that is, a defensive democratic revolution against a Bonapartist coup.

This is how Friedrich Engels explained his conclusions about the new challenges of the experience of German tactics: “The right to revolution is the only real “historical right”, the only one on which all modern States rest without exception. (...) But whatever happens in other countries, German Social Democracy has a particular situation and, as a result at least for the moment, a particular task as well. With two million voters that it sends to the polls, including young people and women who stand behind the suffragettes as non-voters, they constitute the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive “shock force” of the international proletarian army . (...) Well, there is only one way to contain for a certain period the continuous growth of the socialist fighting forces in Germany, and even to make them regress momentarily: a large-scale clash with the troops, a bloodletting like that of 1871, in Paris".[ii]

Friedrich Engels therefore warned of a merciless counterrevolutionary bourgeois reaction, with renewed resources, expanded social bases of support, capacity for political initiative and even a modern military device, far superior to those that befell the Commune. But he also considered that it would be essential to learn the lessons of the previous historical period. The main one was the need to gain support among the majority of the oppressed layers of the people, and to choose the political moment of the confrontation, avoiding at any price a premature combat, without the best conditions being met, and he concludes: “They will only be able to contain the social-democratic subversion, which at the moment does so well respecting the law, through the subversion of the parties of order, which cannot live without violating the laws(….) have taught them the only way by which perhaps they can take the gasganet the workers, who simply refuse to let themselves be dragged into street fighting. Violation of the Constitution, dictatorship, return to absolutism. (...) Do not forget, however, that the German Empire, like all small States and, in general, all modern States, is the product of a pact; first, of a covenant of princes among themselves, and secondly, of princes with the people. If one of the parties breaks the pact, the whole of it is void and the other party is released. Bismarck demonstrated this brilliantly in 1866. Therefore, if you violate the Reich Constitution, Social Democracy will be free to do what it thinks best about you. But what he will do then he will not tell you today.”[iii]

From these fragments four conclusions are drawn: (a) that being majority revolutions, proletarian revolutions would be, paradoxically, socially more powerful but, at the same time, politically more difficult than bourgeois revolutions; (b) that the conquest of democracy would now rest in the hands of the proletariat, overcoming the 1848 hypothesis of two revolutions, even if in those circumstances thought of as an uninterrupted process of permanent revolution; (c) that the new strategic hypothesis would require the ability of the parties to use the spaces of legality, however small they may be, to accumulate forces, stimulate self-organization and raise the level of activity, confidence and class consciousness, but also to avoid , particularly in Germany, a headlong confrontation; (d) that the struggle for power should be pursued at the best time and, if possible, in conditions of self-defense, in defensive response to the counter-revolutionary initiative of the regime, which would be incapable of coexisting perennially with a strong labor movement in legality.

Of these four postulates, only the last one did not survive the test of historical balance. Which is not irrelevant (we know how this premise was reasonably important in Karl Kautsky's “quietist” formulations that infuriated Rosa Luxemburg in the SPD). To what extent, the reading that Kautsky later made of the legacy left by Friedrich Engels to justify his defense of a policy of adapting the SPD to the limits of the legality of the Kaiser's monarchical democracy is another problem.

Finally, it could be said that a theory of the times of the revolution in Marx and Engels, a thought about the era, situation and revolutionary crisis, with different rhythms, unevenly developed, but intertwined in unique historical circumstances, was built as an expression of a tensioned duality of factors. [iv]

At its center is an emphasis on the circular pulsation of the economic crisis, as a time of movement and inertia of capital, which develops on the scale of the world market and finds national refractions in each country; and another is the time of class struggles: “The first test occurred when Marx, from the spring of 1850, found leisure to dedicate himself to economic studies and undertook, first of all, that of the Economic History of the last ten years. In this way, he extracted, with complete clarity, from the facts themselves, what until then he had only deduced, semi-aprioristically, from insufficient materials, namely, that the crisis of world trade, which occurred in 1847, had been the true mother of the revolutions of February and March and that industrial prosperity, which had returned little by little, (...) was the vivifying force from which the European reaction drew renewed vigor (...) a new revolution is not possible except as a result of a new crisis. But this one is just as sure as that one.”[v]

These two times are distinct, but they are articulated, in ways that are, essentially, unpredictable, because they mature in rhythms that are their own, unique and discordant.[vi]

However, these two driving forces of the historical process are amalgamated in the sense of a substantive unit of time. Just as the economic crisis affects class struggles, because it opens and precipitates social crisis, class struggles, greater insecurity or greater determination of each social class in the defense of its interests, it also affects the economic process, deepening the trends to the crisis or favoring recovery.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo).


[I] Engels unequivocally insists on the political advantages that the use of legality brought to the strengthening of the workers' party and on the need to explore to the limit the possibilities of the new freedoms as part of a process of accumulating forces. This passage of the Testament has, however, allowed a polemic about a new attitude of Engels, supposedly more “dazzled” in the face of democracy. Doesn't seem to be the case. Marx and Engels always considered democracy a progressive regime against absolutism, and they never tired of writing countless pages in its defense, even lamenting the historical cowardice of the German bourgeoisie in refusing to fight for a political revolution against the Bismarck regime. What was new in the Testament was the clear defense of the “German tactic” for the entire international labor movement: “Even if universal suffrage had not produced other benefits than that of allowing us to count ourselves every three years, that of increasing, by the regularly verified and extremely rapid rise in the number of votes, the certainty of the workers in victory, as well as the fear among their opponents, thus becoming our best means of propaganda; even if it only served to inform us exactly our own strength (...) preserving us both from an inopportune fear and from an equally unreasonable mad audacity, and that were the only benefit we would have derived from the right of suffrage, it would already be more than enough . But he gave us so much more. It has provided us, with the electoral agitation, with an unequaled means of getting in touch with the popular masses where they are still far from us, to oblige all parties to defend their opinions before the people; (...) moreover, it has opened up to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they can speak not only to their opponents in Parliament, but also to the masses outside with greater authority and greater freedom than in the press and in meetings”. ENGELS, Friedrich. “Introduction to the Class Struggle in France” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 1. p.103.

[ii] ENGELS, Friedrich, “Introduction to Class Struggle in France” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 1, p.108

[iii] ENGELS, Friedrich. “Introduction to the Class Struggle in France” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 1, p.108).

[iv] Revolutionary crises germinated where the economic crisis paved the way for a profound social crisis, generating project divisions within the ruling classes that expressed themselves in a crisis of political regimes. Revolutionary situations are those in which the crisis of the regime opens, and may or may not evolve in the direction of revolutionary crises. Do not confuse, however, a crisis of the regime of domination with a political crisis of government: in the former, a questioning of the institutions is precipitated, by entering the scene through unified political mobilizations of the masses, in the latter, it is only in dispute which among the regime's parties, wield power and with what political tactics. Engels, however, neither simplifies nor facilitates the issue: the economic crisis is presented to us as a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. It needs to find fertile ground in the social crisis, not only a division between the propertied classes, but also a willingness to fight and confidence of the popular layers in their own forces.

[v] Engels, in this quote from the Introduction of 1895, insists on re-establishing the link between the revolutionary crisis of 1848 in France (especially in Paris, as it happened again in 1871, and which would be one of the key reasons for the defeat of the Commune, the delay of called “Deep France”) in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the economic crisis. This concern is not, as we know, methodologically irrelevant. It is not uncommon to criticize this interpretation of the relationship between economic crisis and revolutionary crisis as either economistic or catastrophic. But a Marxist interpretation of the times of politics, of its accelerations and decelerations, should be indissolubly linked with a revaluation of the oscillations of economic life. (ENGELS, Friedrich. “Introduction to Class Struggle in France” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, volume 1. p.95)

[vi] Unpredictable requires clarification. Don't be confused by mystery. Unpredictable is understood by excess of determinations and not by absence. Indeed, the relationship between economic crises and revolutions is intriguing. Economic crises, as we know, are regular and almost decennial phenomena. It is even possible that we are witnessing a historic process of abbreviation of fixed capital turnover. Evidently, there is no simple correspondence between these cycles and the rising waves of the class struggle. But there are curious regularities. Let's explain. Although the 1917th century is par excellence the century of wars and revolutions (and they ruthlessly crossed all continents and decades), it is still interesting to observe some circumstances of the four great waves of the world revolution: (a) that of 23/30 which severely affects Central Europe and has Russia at its epicenter; (b) that of the 29s, which followed the great crisis of 33 and had its epicenter in Germany in 1968, but extended to Spain and France (civil war and popular front); (c) the one that precipitates at the end of the Second World War, extends through the Mediterranean and has the epicenter in Italy and the Balkans; (d) the one from 79/1979, and which is contemporary with the exhaustion of the long wave of post-war growth - war, which begins with the French May, passes through the red decade in Italy, the Carnation Revolution and the Francoist crisis, in countries dependent on the American defeat in Vietnam, and finally, in XNUMX, culminates with the Sandinista revolution and the fall of the Shah in Iran; Two are associated with the crisis of the inter-state system at the end of the world wars, when the construction of a new world order was at stake. Another two coincide with the end of the ascending phases of the last two Kondratiev long waves, when the economic crises of the short cycle were joined by the systemic crisis of long-term accumulation, and a picture of prolonged depression opened that requires new historical conditions for a relaunch. sustained growth. Some reason had old Engels...

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives