The story behind how guidance on communist armed struggle got into a major American newspaper in 1852. Listener requested background on the text used by Lenin and which was so influential in the Guangzhou Commune.
Some names from this episode:
Zhang Tailei, leader of the Guangzhou Uprising of December 1927
Welcome to episode 76 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to answer a question that I received from a listener. Usually, when someone asks me a question, I can answer it really quickly and it doesn’t merit taking up podcast time for it. But other questions make less sense to answer in an email. Partially, that’s because my time is limited, but also, when someone asks a question that I suspect other people are asking, or that other listeners wouldn’t mind hearing answered even though they haven’t already thought of the question, then I put the question aside as something to answer in the podcast. I’ve actually received a few questions like that over the past few months, and I mean to get to them soon.
But I’ll start with the most recent question, one I just got. In our last episode, I referred to a text by Lenin that was very important in informing Zhang Tailei’s decision to keep advancing with the Guangzhou Uprising, despite overwhelming odds, and the almost certain failure of the uprising. In this text, Lenin was quoting Engels and summing up the rules of insurrection, which included statements like “Never play with insurrection, but when beginning it realize firmly that you must go all the way” and that “Once the insurrection has begun, you must act with the greatest determination, and by all means, without fail, take the offensive. ‘The defensive is the death of every armed rising.’”
Now, during the episode I mentioned that Lenin was quoting an article by Engels which originally appeared under Marx’s name in the New York Tribune newspaper. The question that I got from a listener was “Wait a minute, are you saying that Marx was sending newspaper articles to New York that just contained instructions for how to have an insurrection? Was this a socialist newspaper? What was going on that these articles about waging armed struggle from a communist perspective were being printed in a New York newspaper?” So, I wanted to take a step back and say a few words about Marx and Engels’s collaboration with the New York Tribune, what the nature of the Tribune was, give some context for the particular article by Engels that Lenin was quoting, and talk some about how Marx and Engels viewed the newspaper and encyclopedia articles that they wrote during the 1950s in order for Marx to be able to support himself.
So, first off, what was the nature of the New York Tribune, the newspaper that Marx and Engels contributed to? To answer the listener’s question, it was not a socialist newspaper. It was in fact a very mainstream newspaper, and in the 1850s achieved a circulation of about 200,000, making it New York City’s newspaper with the largest circulation. Marx began contributing to the Tribune in 1851 and continued contributing until 1862. During these years, the paper was under the editorship of Charles Dana. Dana had lived at the utopian socialist community in Massachusetts called Brook Farm in the 1840s, and when Brook Farm collapsed he became a journalist for the Tribune. In 1848 Dana was in Europe and wrote correspondence back to the Tribune about the revolutionary events in Europe of that year, and it was in that context that he met Marx and Engels, who were editing a revolutionary newspaper out of Cologne in Germany during those events.
When he got back to New York in 1849, Dana became the managing editor of the newspaper, and in 1851 he invited Marx to contribute to the paper. Marx was living as a refugee in London and was badly in need of income, but he was also not very confident of his English-language writing skills yet, and also felt that his study of political economy was of utmost importance. So, what Marx and Engels came up with was for Engels to write for the Tribune under Marx’s name, and Engels began doing so in August 1851. By August 1852 Marx felt more confident of his English and also began writing newspaper articles of his own, but for that first year, everything was written by Engels, and Engels would continue contributing under Marx’s name in order to help Marx support himself. Engels himself had a very solid position in Manchester. Engels’s father was the co-founder of a textile manufacturing company, based in Germany but which operated with German and British capital, and which had a factory which made sewing thread. So Engels had a pretty secure position working in factory administration for his dad’s company, and didn’t need the income from the articles that he wrote under Marx’s name.
Now, during this time the Tribune was associated first with the American Whig Party, and then, after its founding in 1854, with the Republican Party. This was, of course, back when the Republican Party was anti-slavery, not pro-slavery like it is today, and had a left-wing that was associated with a range of other progressive causes. So, it was a very mainstream newspaper, but it was run by someone who had a very progressive history, and because of the escalating polarization within the United States leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, it provided a forum in which some relatively progressive and interesting stuff could get printed, including some things by Marx and Engels that ended up coming down through the years as important works in the socialist canon. Marx and Engels ended up ending their association with the Tribune in 1862 because the editorial line taken during the Civil War shifted to accommodate some sort of compromise and appeasement of the slaveowners.
So actually, the very first article that Marx sent to the Tribune, in August 1851, was this article written by Engels which turned out to be the first installment of a 19-article series printed over the course of a year under the title “Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution.” This series dealt with the events of the revolution of 1848 to 1849 in Germany, in which Marx and Engels played a very active role as the editors of the radical newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. And then, after their newspaper was shut down, Engels joined an armed insurrection against the counter-revolution and had to escape over the border to Switzerland to avoid getting captured and executed. It was later first reprinted by Marx’s daughter Eleanor, in 1896, so after both Marx and Engels had died, as a book titled Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany. It was only in 1913, when Marx and Engels’s correspondence was first published, that it became known that Engels was the author, not Marx. And as we saw last episode, in 1917 Lenin hadn’t found out yet that Engels was the author, and attributed the work to Marx. It can be hard to remember that information traveled at a much slower speed a century ago than it does today.
So, now that we have a little more context, let’s return to part of the listener’s question: were Marx and Engels sending newspaper articles to New York that contained instructions for how to have an insurrection? I’m going to say, yes and no.
The passage that Lenin quoted, and which was so important for Zhang Tailei’s decision-making during the Guangzhou Uprising, occurs in the 17th article in the series, and so it’s pretty close to the end of the series. The article is titled “Insurrection,” and deals with the outbreak of open hostilities in May 1849 between the German National Assembly at Frankfurt and the various conservative powers within Germany, the most powerful of which were the Prussian and Austrian monarchies. The National Assembly was the first elected parliament of Germany, and was brought into being as a result of the widespread protests of March 1848. So even though this National Assembly, after protracted debates, only produced a timid constitution calling for a constitutional monarchy, the original character of the National Assembly as a product of the people’s protest movement set it in opposition to the Prussian, Austrian and lesser monarchs of Germany (remember, this was before German unification in 1871, so Germany was divided up still into a bunch of different political entities). And anyways, the Prussian king wasn’t about to go in for any form of liberal constitutional monarchy.
So you had a kind of dual power situation where, on the one hand, you had this National Assembly that had been brought into power through the people’s movement and represented the masses on some level as a popularly elected body, at least when compared to how representative the various feudal and monarchical political institutions were. And the National Assembly was supposed to form a government to unify the German nation, which sounds like an incredibly bad thing today, but at the time was a progressive demand apparently. And on the other side, you had these various reactionary entities such as the Prussian King and Austrian Archduke and all these other smaller German principalities.
So, okay, now that I’ve given about as much background on 19th century German history as I can in a podcast on Global Maoism, I’m going to let Engels take over. What the heck, it’s not that long, I’m going to read you this article by Engels here, just so that you have the full picture of where Lenin was taking his rules for the art of insurrection from, which were both so central to the guidance that Lenin gave in the days preceding the insurrection in Petrograd that brought the Bolsheviks to power, and which also guided Zhang Tailei in Guangzhou in December 1927, in the events that we discussed last episode.
“The inevitable conflict between the National Assembly of Frankfort and the States Governments of Germany at last broke out in open hostilities during the first days of May, 1849. The Austrian deputies, recalled by their Government, had already left the Assembly and returned home, with the exception of a few members of the Left or Democratic party. The great body of the Conservative members, aware of the turn things were about to take, withdrew even before they were called upon to do so by their respective Governments. Thus, even independently of the causes which in the foregoing letters have been shown to strengthen the influence of the Left, the mere desertion of their posts by the members of the Right, sufficed to turn the old minority into a majority of the Assembly. The new majority, which, at no former time, had dreamed of ever obtaining that good fortune, had profited by their places on the opposition benches to spout against the weakness, the indecision, the indolence of the old majority, and of its Imperial Lieutenancy. Now all at once, they were called on to replace that old majority. They were now to show what they could perform. Of course, their career was to be one of energy, determination, activity. They, the elite of Germany, would soon be able to drive onwards the senile Lieutenant of the Empire, and his vacillating ministers, and in case that was impossible they would—there could be no doubt about it—by force of the sovereign right of the people, depose that impotent Government, and replace it by an energetic, indefatigable Executive, who would assure the salvation of Germany. Poor fellows! Their rule—if rule it can be named, where no one obeyed—was a still more ridiculous affair than even the rule of their predecessors.
“The new majority declared that, in spite of all obstacles, the Imperial Constitution must be carried out, and at once; that on the 15th of July ensuing, the people were to elect the deputies of the new House of Representatives, and that this House was to meet at Frankfort on the 15th of August following. Now, this was an open declaration of war against those Governments that had not recognized the Imperial Constitution, the foremost among which were Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, comprising more than three-fourths of the German population; a declaration of war which was speedily accepted by them. Prussia and Bavaria, too, recalled the deputies sent from their territories to Frankfort, and hastened their military preparations against the National Assembly, while, on the other hand, the demonstrations of the Democratic party (out of Parliament) in favor of the Imperial Constitution and of the National Assembly, acquired a more turbulent and violent character, and the mass of the working people, led by the men of the most extreme party, were ready to take up arms in a cause which, if it was not their own, at least gave them a chance of somewhat approaching their aims by clearing Germany of its old monarchical encumbrances. Thus everywhere the people and the Governments were at daggers drawn upon this subject; the outbreak was inevitable; the mine was charged, and it only wanted a spark to make it explode. The dissolution of the Chambers in Saxony, the calling in of the Landwehr (military reserve) in Prussia, the open resistance of the Government to the Imperial Constitution, were such sparks; they fell, and all at once the country was in a blaze. In Dresden, on the 4th of May, the people victoriously took possession of the town, and drove out the King, while all the surrounding districts sent re-inforcements to the insurgents. In Rhenish Prussia and Westphalia the Landwehr refused to march, took possession of the arsenals, and armed itself in defence of the Imperial Constitution. In the Palatinate the people seized the Bavarian Government officials, and the public moneys, and instituted a Committee of Defence, which placed the province under the protection of the National Assembly. In Wurtemberg the people forced the King to acknowledge the Imperial Constitution, and in Baden the army, united with the people, forced the Grand Duke to flight, and erected a Provincial Government. In other parts of Germany the people only awaited a decisive signal from the National Assembly to rise in arms and place themselves at its disposal.
“The position of the National Assembly was far more favorable than could have been expected after its ignoble career. The western half of Germany had taken up arms in its behalf; the military everywhere were vacillating; in the lesser States they were undoubtedly favorable to the movement. Austria was prostrated by the victorious advance of the Hungarians, and Russia, that reserve force of the German Governments, was straining all its powers in order to support Austria against the Magyar armies. There was only Prussia to subdue, and with the revolutionary sympathies existing in that country, a chance certainly existed of attaining that end. Everything then depended upon the conduct of the Assembly.
“Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that 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; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!
“What, then, was the National Assembly of Frankfort to do if it would escape the certain ruin which it was threatened with? First of all, to see clearly through the situation, and to convince itself that there was now no other choice than either to submit to the Governments unconditionally, or take up the cause of the armed insurrection without reserve or hesitation. Secondly, to publicly recognize all the insurrections that had already broken out, and to call the people to take up arms everywhere in defence of the national representation, outlawing all princes, ministers and others who should dare to oppose the sovereign people represented by its mandatories. Thirdly, to at once depose the German Imperial Lieutenant, to create a strong, active, unscrupulous Executive, to call insurgent troops to Frankfort for its immediate protection, thus offering at the same time a legal pretext for the spread of the insurrection, to organize into a compact body all the forces at its disposal, and, in short, to profit quickly and unhesitatingly by every available means for strengthening its position and impairing that of its opponents.
“Of all this the virtuous Democrats in the Frankfort Assembly did just the contrary. Not content with letting things take the course they liked, these worthies went so far as to suppress by their opposition all insurrectionary movements which were preparing. Thus, for instance, did Herr Karl Vogt at Nuremberg. They allowed the insurrections of Saxony, of Rhenish Prussia, of Westphalia to be suppressed without any other help than a posthumous, sentimental protest against the unfeeling violence of the Prussian Government. They kept up an underhand diplomatic intercourse with the South German insurrections but never gave them the support of their open acknowledgment. They knew that the Lieutenant of the Empire sided with the Governments, and yet they called upon him, who never stirred, to oppose the intrigues of these Governments. The ministers of the Empire, old Conservatives, ridiculed this impotent Assembly in every sitting, and they suffered it. And when William Wolff, a Silesian deputy and one of the editors of the New Rhenish Gazette, called upon them to outlaw the Lieutenant of the Empire—who was, he justly said, nothing but the first and greatest traitor to the Empire, he was hooted down by the unanimous and virtuous indignation of those Democratic Revolutionists! In short, they went on talking, protesting, proclaiming, pronouncing, but never had the courage or the sense to act; while the hostile troops of the Governments drew nearer and nearer, and their own Executive, the Lieutenant of the Empire, was busily plotting with the German princes their speedy destruction. Thus even the last vestige of consideration was lost to this contemptible Assembly; the insurgents who had risen to defend it ceased to care any more for it, and when at last it came to a shameful end, as we shall see, it died without anybody taking any notice of its unhonored exit.”
So, in this article, we can see that the bulk of the text is taken up with concrete historical exposition. Engels explains the forces at play and the events that occurred. But, because he was publishing in a newspaper that had openly taken sides against European reaction, at least in the most overtly anti-democratic forms as was seen in Prussia, Austria and Russia, Engels is able to not only describe what happened, but also to pass judgment on the totally ineffective leadership of the liberals in the revolution, and he condemns them for how they let down the masses who were rising up against the monarchs. Then, on top of that, there is that one paragraph which Lenin lifted so much material from, which does give in summary form a kind of guidance that any reader who might find themself participating in an insurrection in the future might follow.
So, it’s not socialist military doctrine given in the form of a didactic tract, which is a form that would become more common in the 20th century. Rather, it is guidance given as part and parcel of historical exposition. And if you read Marx and Engels’s newspaper and encyclopedia articles (which were also commissioned by Charles Dana for an encyclopedia he edited), and also their books on historical and contemporary events, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the Peasant War in Germany, or the Civil War in France, this is their preferred method of exposition of political guidance. Most of Mao’s most important works look very different from this, and the context plays a huge role here. As socialist leaders have to start writing more immediately for a movement that is being guided through political and military campaigns, the movement is going to start to require different forms of texts, even if, as we saw with Lenin drawing on this work by Engels, and the use that Zhang Tailei put Lenin’s text to, the more erudite works of Marx and Engels remain foundational.
So, I think we’ll be back to China next episode, although there are a couple other questions that listeners have asked that I intend to get to soon. I do hope that the listener who asked for more of an explanation about how this guidance on communist armed struggle got into a major American newspaper in 1852 feels that her question has been answered. That’s it for now. And, before I go, I do want to thank everyone for your ratings, reviews, and contributions. They are all very much appreciated.