Willy Huhn (1961): On the doctrine of the revolutionary party (3)

In this last part of his article, Huhn develops on the reasons for the scission  from the ‘League of Communists’ by a minority (the “Willich-Schapper fraction”), as it became increasingly clear that a resurgence of the 1848 uprisings was out of the question. At the hand of the writings of Marx and Engels, both from this episode and from their later reviews, he demonstrates their conception of the purpose and possibilities of a revolutionary organization, which ultimately led them to dissolve the ‘League’ and take their distance.


[The Party, not as an organization of minorities, but as a class for itself]

The March 1850 address by the central authority of the “Communists’ League” had concluded by declaring the revolution in permanence”. And the one of June 1850 still expressed the hope “that the outbreak of a new revolution cannot be long absent” at its end. (loc. cit. pp. 136 and 144)(1). But already on September 15, 1850 the central authority split (“Herr Vogt”, p. 59)(2), because its minority, the “fraction Willich-Schapper”, clung to that declaration of permanence of the revolution, while its majority, the fraction Marx/Engels, reproached the minority:

Instead of the real conditions, the mere will becomes the driving force of revolution.” (From Marx’s proposal for separation in “Revelations”, loc. cit., p. 39)(3)

The motives of this split are of such great importance to our investigation that we must consider them a little more thoroughly. Friedrich Engels was of the opinion that the reorganized “League” after June 1850 was “the only revolutionary organization that had significance in Germany”, but with Marx he asked himself the question “what end this organization should serve.” The answer, however, in turn depended “very much on whether the prospects for a renewed upswing in the revolution were realized. And this became increasingly unlikely, even impossible, in the course of 1850.” (1885, loc. cit., p. 27)(4) So Marx and Engels no longer believed in a soon to come new revolution, while Willich and Schapper wanted to stage it by force of will. [ i Comment by Willy Huhn]

Marx and Engels discovered in their economic studies that the revolution of 1848 had been prepared by the industrial crisis of 1847 and that thanks to a “new, unprecedented period of industrial prosperity” the revolutionary storm of 1848 was gradually exhausted. It was precisely these studies, however, which first produced the later mature “Marxism” as a “critique of political economy” – as the subtitle of “Capital” reads – and which brought Marx and Engels to completely redefine their relationship to the “League” and thus to the organization and last but not least to the “workers’ party”. This is already contained in the sentences of Marx’s request for separation from the Willich-Schapper fraction:

“In place of the critical view the minority places a dogmatic one, in place of the materialistic one an idealistic one.” (“Revelations”, p. 39)(5)

According to Marx and Engels, it did not belong to the tasks of the “League of Communists” to “prepare the revolution, agitate for it, conspire for it, plot for it”, even if “the members of the proletarian party”, of course, would participate anew in a new, spontaneously erupted revolution of the people “against the status quo”. Organizing a revolution would have seemed ridiculous to them. (In the meantime, some “Leninists” have blurred the boundaries between revolution and insurrection, and many of this kind have completely forgotten about their “art of armed insurrection”, that the Bolsheviks came into government during a revolution that had lasted almost three quarters of a year and through the Soviets who long existed and were not particularly respected by them, thus through the councils – by the way, like the gentlemen comrades around Ebert!) We repeat an earlier interpretation of the text: an organization is not a revolutionary association by the fact that it intends to stage a revolution, but by its readiness to put itself at the service of a revolution that will break out in the future, to put advisers and leaders at its disposal. So it is not the organization that is the precondition of the revolution, but the revolution is the precondition of the organization, the purposes and meaning of which find their fulfillment only in the outbreak of the movement of the people, the workers respectively, and simultaneously have to pass their test in it.

For the critical analysis of the economic situation in the autumn of 1850, however, the following resulted for Marx/Engels: “With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as abundantly as is possible within bourgeois conditions, there can be no question of a real revolution. Such a revolution is possible only in those periods when these two factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production, come into contradiction with each other.” (Marx-Engels, “Revue von Mai bis Oktober 1850” in the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”, V/VI. issue, Hamburg 1850; cited after Engels 1885, loc. cit., p. 28)(6)

Opposed to this position, the Willich-Schapper fraction felt itself to be a “party of action”, for a “League”, which merely aimed at the foundation of an independent proletarian “opposition party of the future”, but did not want to form a “government party”, was nothing for ambitious individuals who “spread their personal insignificance under the theatrical cloak of conspiracy” (p. 95)(7), as above all Willich himself, of whom Engels still writes in 1885:

“Willich was one of the mood communists who appeared very frequently in Western Germany since 1845, thus already therefor [he was] in an instinctive, secret opposition to our critical tendency. But he was more, he was a complete prophet, convinced of his personal mission as predestined liberator of the German proletariat, and as such a direct pretender to the political no less than to the military dictatorship. Original Christian communism, preached earlier by Weitling, was thus accompanied by a kind of communist Islam.” (loc. cit., p. 26)(8)

Here Mr. Jules Nonnerot could have found the model of his “Islam of the twentieth Century”! See his “Sociology of Communism”, Paris 1949, Cologne-Berlin 1952, pp. 9-24.

Willich, too, as a former Prussian lieutenant (and later a general in the North American civil war), tended towards a militaristic view of social processes, and as a “man of action” he had not yet understood that the first virtue of the conscious revolutionary is patience:

“While we say to the workers: You have fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and peoples’ struggles to go through, not only to change the conditions [Verhältnisse], but to change yourselves, and to enable yourselves to political rule, you say on the contrary: ‘We must come to rule immediately, or we can go to sleep.’ While we especially point out to the German workers the undeveloped figure of the German proletariat, you flatter the German craftsmen’s national sentiment and social prejudice in the most crude way, which is more popular. As the democrats turn the word people into a sacred being, so you do with the word proletariat. Like the Democrats, you frame the phrase of revolution at the expense of the revolutionary development.” (Marx in his “Request for Separation,” op. cit., p. 39)(9)

After the two fractions had separated in mid-September 1850, both groups acted according to their different views. The irony of the Cologne Communist trial, however, was just that the “Marx Party” was accused of the intentions the other “Willich-Schapper Party” had pursued! On May 10, 1851, an emissary of the League was arrested in Leipzig, and the police tracked down the Communists’ League”. Further arrests (a.o. of Bürgers and Rösers) took place shortly afterwards. According to Marx, the League hence ceased to exist on the continent; he and Engels had no connection with Europe since then and were thus on the English island isolated from their “party”. One could assume that they would now have been very unhappy about this. The following sentences by Engels to Karl Marx of February 13, 1851, however, testify to the opposite:

“We now finally have once again – for the first time since long – the opportunity to show that we need no popularity, no support from any party of any country, and that our position is totally independent of such mean tricks. From now on we are only responsible for ourselves, and when the moment comes when the gentlemen need us, we will be able to dictate our own conditions. Until then we will at least have peace. Admittedly, there is also a certain loneliness… By the way, we can’t even complain that the petits grands hommes (10) shy away from us; haven’t we been acting for so many years as if Krethi and Plethi [all sorts of rabble, W.H.] were our party, where we had no party at all and where the people we counted as belonging to our party, at least officially, sous reserve de les appeler des betes incorrigibles entre nous, (11) did not even understand the initial reasons of our causes? How do people like us, who flee official positions like the plague, fit into a ‘party’? What should mean a ‘party’ to us , who spit on popularity, who lose on ourselves when we begin to become popular? A gang of donkeys who swear by us because they think we are their kind. Truly, it is no loss if we no longer pass as the ‘correct and adequate expression’ of the narrow-minded dogs with whom we have been thrown together in recent years… Not only no official state position, even as long as possible no official party position, no seat on committees, etc., no responsibility for donkeys, ruthless criticism for all, and in addition that cheerfulness which all conspiracies of sheep’s heads will not take away from us after all.” (12)

These longer remarks by Engels are the answer expressly requested by Marx to the following lines from him of February 11, 1851:

“I really like the public authentic isolation that you and I are now in. It is completely in line with our position and principles. The system of reciprocal concessions, halfheartedness tolerated out of decency, and the duty to take one’s share of ridicule in the party before the public with all these donkeys, that has now stopped.” (Marx-Engels, “Correspondence”, Volume I, 1844 to 1853, East Berlin 1949, pp. 180 to 181 and 176 to 177)(13)

Thus, long before the first arrests of members of the “Marx Party” in the Spring of 1851, the two founders of Marxism had not only internally dealt with the Willich-Schapper fraction, but with “their” party at all. After the conviction of the accused in the Cologne Communist trial (October 4 to November 12, 1852), Marx wrote to Engels on November 19:

“Last Wednesday, at my request, the League dissolved and declared the continuation of the League on the continent to be out of date.” (Ibidem, p. 527)(14)

This marked the end of the history of the first “Marxist” party, and there was never again a party whose members were Marx and Engels. (Their participation in the foundation of the First International is on a different page). It suffices to give the floor to Marx himself at the end:

“I notice … that … I have never belonged or belong to a secret or public society again, that the party has ceased to exist for me in this whole ephemeral sense (15) for eight years … So of ‘party’ … I know nothing since 1852 … I am a critic and had truly enough with the experiences made in 1849-1852. The ‘League’ … was only one episode in the history of the party, that naturally grows out of the soil of modern society … I tried … to eliminate the misunderstanding, as if I understood party to mean a ‘League’ that had died eight years ago or a newspaper editorial board that had been dissolved twelve years ago. By party I understood the party in the great historical sense”. (Karl Marx to the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath on February 29, 1860. In: Franz Mehring, “Freiligrath and Marx in Their Correspondence”, Supplementary Issues to the Neue Zeit, No. 12 of April 12, 1912, pp. 42 and 46)(16)

So, in how far did Lenin “in the question of the Party directly take up the doctrine of Marx and Engels”?

End of the article


Translation text and annotations by Jac. J.;

Source references and proofreading by F.C.

Final revision of January 4, 2020.

Comment by Willy Huhn

i “Expiration time of the European revolutions”: In this context Engels speaks of an “expiration time of the European revolutions” of the 19th Century of about “fifteen to eighteen years”. (After the revolution of 1830 came that of 1848 after eighteen years; the next crisis thus was due about 1863 to 1866; it actually did break out but was intercepted by war and was characterized by Marx/Engels as a “revolution from above”, like the war of 1870/71, who only continued the first one after a pause of five years. As a consequence, the next revolution was due in 1885/86 to 1888/89. Hence in 1885 Engels expected it to come “soon”.) One might smile about about it: Since 1918 again it lasted only fifteen years until the next “revolution from above” in the year 1933!

Editorial Notes

1 Marx-Engels, Ansprache der Zentralbehörde an den Bund vom Juni 1850” (MEW Bd. 7, p 312).

2 Marx, “Herr Vogt” (MEW Bd. 14, S. 440).

3 Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW Bd. 8, S. 412).

4 Engels, “Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten” (MEW, Bd. 21, S. 221).

5 Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW Bd. 8, S. 412).

6 Engels, “Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten” (MEW, Bd. 21, S. 221).

7 Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW Bd. 8, S. 461).

8 Engels, “Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten” (MEW Bd. 21, S. 220).

9 Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozeß zu Köln” (MEW Bd. 8, S. 412).

10 “Little great men” [W.H.].

11 “with the reservation of calling them among us incorrigible fools” [W.H.].

12 Engels an Marx. 13, Februar 1851 (MEW Bd. 27 S. 190).

13 Idem, S. 184/185.

14 Marx an Engels, 19. November 1852 (MEW Bd. 28, S. 195).

15 “one-day, short-lived” [W.H.].

16 Marx an Ferdinand Freiligrath 29. Februar 1860 (MEW Bd. 30, S. 488/495).


Willy Huhn poses the question how far Lenin has “directly taken up the doctrine of Marx and Engels in the question of the Party”, as his adversary Dracker puts it. Contrary to the latter’s a-historical approach, Huhn endeavors to explain how the organizational question arose in the practice of the 1848 bourgeois revolutions. In doing so, he shows that Lenin, in the (supposedly) bourgeois revolution in Russia from the outset of the 20th Century, represented a concept of organization that was substantially different from that of Marx and Engels.

Today more than 150 years have passed since the 1848 bourgeois revolutions; more than 100 years since the proletarian world revolution announced itself in the Red October of 1917, and almost 60 years since Huhn opposed Leninism in this text. The communist minorities again face the question of how to organize themselves to fulfill their function in the workers’ struggle. Huhn’s text advances  essential elements for a valid reply, even if it is still deeply influenced by the last years of the counterrevolution at the time.

1. Bibliographic reference

First published in WISO, Korre­spondenz für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften, Issue 15, September 1961, Volume 6, in response to a contribution of the same name by Heinz-Otto Dracker in Issue 13, July 1961, Volume 6. Both articles were subsequently republished by the Karin Kramer Verlag, as part of the text collection “Anton Pannekoek u.a.: Partei und Revolution”, Berlin 1970. The page references regarding Dracker refer to this edition, except for the opening clause.

The text is taken from the CD accompanying Jochen Gester’s “Auf der Suche nach Rosas Erbe. Der Deutsche Marxist Willy Huhn (1909-1970)”, Berlin, Die Buchmacherei, 2017. A presentation and a short review of this biography are available at this blog: Willy Huhn, an unknown coun­cil communist (F.C., December 27, 2017)

2. Source References

The quotations from Marx/Engels have been translated from the Marx-Engels Werke (MEW). They are referenced in German in the footnotes and can be looked up in the searchable MEW facsimiles at the Antonie Pannekoek Archives web site.

A German language transcription is available in pdf at Left-dis; Online language versions can be found in the ‘Willy Huhn’ section of the Antonie Pannekoek Archives.

3. The Marx-Engels editions used by Willy Huhn

  • Karl Marx, “Das Elend der Philosophie”, 9th Edition, Stuttgart/Berlin 1921.
  • Marx-Engels, “Die Deutsche Ideologie”, Part I. in: “Der Historische Materialismus. Die Frühschriften”. Published by S. Landshut and J.P. Mayer. Leipzig, 1932, Volume II, p. 25. New edition, East Berlin, 1953.
  • Marx-Engels, “Das kommunistische Manifest”, 6th authorized German edition, Berlin 1894.
  • Karl Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln”, 1852; Zürich edition of 1885, with an introduction by Friedrich Engels (“Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten“, October 8, 1885) and documents. Reprint, East-Berlin, 1952.
  • Karl Marx, “Herr Vogt”, first new edition after the original (London 1860), Moscow, 1941.
  • Franz Mehring, „Freiligrath und Marx in ihrem Briefwechsel“, Ergänzungshefte zur „Neuen Zeit“, Nr. 12 (April 12, 1912).
  • Franz Mehring, „Einleitung“ zur vierten Auflage [of the “Enthüllungen”], Berlin, 1914.
  • Marx-Engels, „Briefwechsel“, Band I, 1844 bis 1853, East-Berlin, 1949.