Blue plaque outside 122 Regent’s Park Road in the London borough of Camden

Socialism and socialising

Eduard Bernstein gets us into the Christmas spirit with his fascinating recollections of Frederick Engels’ London home as an often ‘squiffy’ salon of international socialism and good cheer - with an introduction by Ben Lewis.


It might seem odd that this publication should reprint a section from the memoirs of Eduard Bernstein. After all, he - more than most - greatly contributed to the reformist degeneration of Marxist socialism that remains a thorn in the side of the development of a viable revolutionary alternative to capitalism. Readers can rest assured that by doing so we are by no means engaged in a ‘rediscovery’ of his work in the 21st century.

That said, we should not forget his significance in the history of the left. As the editor of the outlawed German publication Der Sozialdemokrat (The Social Democrat), which was smuggled into Germany from Switzerland during Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-90), Bernstein was one of the most influential Marxist thinkers and publicists of the time in the minds of friend and foe alike. So it was that in 1888 the Prussian authorities put pressure on the Swiss government to deport him as the dangerous revolutionary that he then was. He fled to London and only returned to Germany in 1901, when his arrest warrant expired. In London he grew particularly close to Engels and came into contact with various representatives of socialism on these shores, as well as internationally through other London-based exile communities that would often convene in Engels’ house.

Despite at times publicly disapproving of some of his editorial choices and political positions when in Switzerland, Engels (and Marx, while he was alive) were clearly fond of Bernstein and saw him as one of those, such as August Bebel, who would take forward their project after their demise. Not only did Bernstein learn from both of the elder statesmen, but clearly enjoyed himself in the company of Frederick in particular. I recall reading somewhere that the stock in Engels’ wine cellar that he left to the German Social Democratic Party in his will was so valuable that it provided quite a fillip to party funds in 1895.

Bernstein wrote the following in 1915, long after he had broken with the strategic fundamentals of Marxism to embrace so-called revisionism - a project that in essence amounted to a contradictory, misinformed and on occasion slanderous attempt to gut Marxism of its revolutionary content. In this sense, the hopes of Marx and Engels were misplaced and another student of theirs - Karl Kautsky - was the one who took up the fight against Bernstein.1

Nonetheless, his memoirs provide a fascinating insight into his relations with some of the socialists he met at Engels’ legendary Sunday-evening get-togethers, as well as his impressions of how cultural norms and values in various countries - Britain and his native Germany in particular - also found reflection in personal behaviour and political attitudes.

During the holiday period, your company will sadly probably be nowhere near as stimulating as Bernstein’s back then (and the booze offering will certainly be no match for Engels’), but hopefully this article can bring some holiday cheer. And don’t forget to arrange a Christmas pudding for each of your dearest comrades.

This is a condensed version of chapter 9 of Bernstein’s memoirs, first published in 1915.2 I have not been able to check the translation thoroughly against the original German, but have silently corrected some obviously outdated language.

- Ben Lewis

Engels was not only democratic in his opinions: he was thoroughly democratic in feeling as well. His manner of living showed in many characteristic ways that he came from a good middle class home, but he had chosen a girl of the lower middle classes as his life’s companion; and in the choice of his associates he recognised no class distinctions.

At the same time, he did draw distinctions. Those who wished to be invited to his social evenings must either have done good service in the socialist cause or must be of some consequence intellectually. On the other hand, if socialists, they need not necessarily be Marxists. In this respect, there was little of the pedant about the co-founder of the Marxist school. Even socialists who were not social democrats were tolerated. Dr Rudolph Meyer, the friend of Karl Robertus (a socialist-conservative, and formerly the publisher of the Berliner Revue), was often among the guests at Engels’ house, during the time of his stay in London. His entrance ticket was his expert knowledge in the sphere of political economy, and the circumstance that he was living in exile, having been persecuted by Bismarck. As a good East-Elber he was no enemy to alcohol, and one evening at Engels’ he drank a regular skinful. It was extremely droll. Quite conscious of his condition, he kept on shouting, in a slightly thickened voice: “Well, well, if anyone had ever told me that I, a Prussian conservative, should one day, here in London, be made squiffy by the revolutionary communists!” This was on Christmas Eve, and then, to be sure, such things might well befall one in Engels’ house.

Christmas was kept by Engels after the English fashion, as Charles Dickens has so delightfully described it in The Pickwick papers. The room is decorated with green boughs of every kind, between which, in suitable places, the perfidious mistletoe peeps forth, which gives every man the right to kiss any person of the opposite sex who is standing beneath it or whom he can catch in passing. At table the principal dish is a mighty turkey, and if the exchequer will run to it this is supplemented by a great cooked ham. A few additional attractions - one of which, a sweet known as tipsy-cake, is, as the name denotes, prepared with brandy or sherry - make way for the dish of honour, the plum pudding, which is served up, the room having been darkened, with burning rum. Each guest must receive his helping of pudding, liberally christened with good spirits, before the flame dies out. This lays a foundation, which may well prove hazardous to those who do not measure their consumption of the accompanying wines.

In this connection, I cannot help thinking of an evening at Engels’ which preceded the Christmas celebrations. It was on the day when the dough, or rather paste, for the Christmas puddings was prepared. An enormous quantity was made, for there was not a single friend of the house who did not receive a Christmas pudding from 122 Regent’s Park Road. Professor Karl Schorlemmer, Engels’ medical advisor, Dr Gumpert of Manchester, friend Sam Moore in Yorkshire, the old Chartist, Julian Harney, in Jersey, Peter Layoff, the honoured leader of the Russian socialists, as well as Marx’s sons-in-law, Paul Lafargue and Charles Longuet in Paris, various intimate friends in London, and, if I am not mistaken, some friends in Germany as well, were always remembered.

Hence, on a given day, about a fortnight before Christmas, the lady friends of the house turned up early in the morning, and worked on until the evening, chopping great heaps of apples, nuts, almonds, candied peel, etc into little bits, and stoning and chopping pounds upon pounds of raisins; and, as may be supposed, it was a thoroughly cheerful party: As the ingredients were prepared, they were put into a huge tub. Later in the evening the male friends of the house arrived, and each of them was required to lay hold of a ladle that stood upright in the tub, and stir the paste three times round - a by no means easy task, which needed a good deal of muscular strength. But it had rather a symbolical meaning, and those whose strength was inadequate were mercifully exempted.

The concluding touch was given by Engels himself, who descended into the wine cellar and brought up champagne, in which we drank to a merry Christmas and many other things as well. All this, of course, took place downstairs in the great kitchen, which enhanced the charm of the whole proceeding, for to linger in a spacious kitchen always puts one somehow in mind of one’s home. At one time even well-to-do people used to eat in the kitchen: and this would have answered capitally in Engels’ house, for the kitchen was a roomy one, with the range built into the fireplace after the English fashion, so that it did not take up any room to speak of. Like so many things in England, it combined the old with the new. The construction of the range was at that time regarded as modern, but the old-fashioned turn-spit or meat-jack was not lacking, on which a hanging joint of beef could be roasted, while underneath was a dish to catch the dripping fat. In Germany, in a small house or tenement, the kitchen has often enough to serve as a sitting room; but hardly so often as in England, where in the advertisements of dwelling houses the kitchen, in the smaller houses, is briefly described as a ‘living room’, to distinguish it from the best room, or sitting room, as it is called. Of course, in such houses the scullery is always shut off from the kitchen.

But, whereas Engels’ kitchen was never used for meals, there were occasions on which it seems to have served for drinking, owing to its proximity to the cellar. Engels himself told me of at least one such occasion. With a certain good friend of his he once sat the livelong night in the kitchen, arguing and drinking wine, until his wife came down early in the morning and made coffee for them.

This friend was Dr Eugen Oswald - a German, who in his youth, after spending some time in France, came to London as a fugitive, made himself at home there, and obtained a position as teacher in the Greenwich School of Navigation. Although he was not a socialist of the Marxian type, but contented himself with a democratic republicanism, he was on friendly terms with both Marx and Engels, and in my days he was a constant visitor on Engels’ social evenings.


Oswald was almost the only German living in England who was not a social democrat, yet visited Engels’ house. At the same time, in my days, apart from Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, only one prominent English socialist used to frequent Engels’ house. This was the author and man of letters, Ernest Belfort Bax - a man of many-sided culture, who had a good knowledge of German philosophy and spoke the German language fluently. Until the Great War he had in most things a very high opinion of the German character, but on the outbreak of the war he was, of course, to be found in the ranks of those English socialists who turned absolutely against Germany. An extremely outspoken atheist and republican, he is, in the matter of politics, a good deal in sympathy with the French radicals: the inexorable Marat is his hero, and the subject of one of his books. As an author, he is highly esteemed, and he has undoubtedly done great service in the propagation of socialistic opinions in England. He is one of those English intellectuals who, early in the 80s, first resorted to socialism, which was then regarded as defunct - its civil rights in the world of letters. He has also done his part in creating the English socialistic lyric, as poet and composer. He is, it must be added, a cultivated musician, and about 1890 he was joint musical critic with George Bernard Shaw in the radical evening paper, the Star.

Casting my mind back to those days, I remember a very amusing, friendly smack that Bax received from Shaw. “My colleague,” wrote Shaw in one of his criticisms, “had fallen asleep beside me. As on the way home I was telling him what I thought of the performance, he suddenly interrupted me with the words, ‘How can you pretend to give an opinion when you were asleep the whole time?’” The humour of this remark resides in the fact that Bax, as all his acquaintances were aware, was prone to become completely lost in speculation, and was capable of the maddest paradoxes, which he, unlike Shaw, always took very seriously.

His paradoxes made him a lively contributor to the conversation round Engels’ table. He upheld them in spite of all our contradictions, and defended them with the greatest obstinacy. As an anti-feminist he was absolutely fanatical. With his pen he asserted and defended the opinion that in England the men constitute the downtrodden sex, while the women are privileged to excess. It may indeed be admitted that the protection which English law extends to the woman, in mitigation of her general condition of statutory tutelage, does in individual cases result in the unjust treatment of the man. Such anomalies are possible in all legislation intended to protect the socially or personally weaker party. But to conclude from this that in England the man is legally the “bondsman” of the woman betrays a very one-sided consideration of the matter.

There are various instances of such one-sidedness to be observed in Bax. Since he is well read and perspicacious, he can plead his case cleverly enough, so that a colleague on the socialist weekly Today once exclaimed in the middle of a criticism with comical effect: “Why is Bax so unanswerably in the right and so hopelessly in the wrong?” One can understand how such a man will keep the conversational ball rolling.

Shaw himself I never met at Engels’, nor any other of the then better-known Fabians. For a long time Edward Aveling stood between him and Engels, and also between him and myself. On account of Aveling, indeed, many people kept away from Engels’ house; as did, even before my time, Frau Gertrud Guillaume Schack, who had done so much for the German working-women’s movement. This lady, who was descended from the noble family of Schack, was a warm-hearted, convinced socialist, and was, on account of her good humour and her unassuming character, an extremely pleasant companion, whom Engels was always delighted to see. One day he received a letter from her, in which she begged him not to suppose, if she refrained from coming to his ‘evening gatherings’, that it was due to any lack of esteem for him. So long as Dr Aveling visited his house, she could not enter it.

He received a similar letter when I was just settled in London from a highly cultivated lady - the English socialist who, under the pseudonym of ‘John Law’, wrote of the conditions of the seamstresses of Manchester, and the work and character of the Salvation Army in the East End of London, and described similar social conditions and phenomena in the form of fiction. Both ‘Miss H’ and Frau Schack flatly refused to give Engels any further reason for their desire to avoid Aveling.

One is forced to suppose that Aveling had been guilty of some insult of a kind that a refined woman would not willingly speak of. Even in Englishmen I have encountered a strong disinclination to allow accusations of a serious nature to go beyond a very narrow circle. In 1895, Aveling was excluded from the London branch of the affiliated league of the Independent Labour Party. The reason given for his exclusion was non-committal, so that at the time it was supposed that it was put forward in place of the real one. Three years later, when I had occasion to establish the truth concerning Aveling, I one day asked the secretary of the league, in a friendly conversation, what the real cause of his exclusion had been. He could safely confide in me. However, I could get nothing out of the fellow. He replied, on the other hand, almost protestingly, that he had “the greatest respect for Dr Aveling’s talents and knowledge”, and when I pressed him further his remarks became almost evasive. I could get nothing more out of him, except that he finally decided to make a confession: “Well, I will tell you. The reason given was not the real reason. The matter is simply this - that we don’t want to have anything more to do with the fellow.” These last words were spoken with peculiar emphasis, and I saw that it would go against the grain with him to say anything further. Yet he knew things of the excluded member which would have sufficed to land him in prison.

The predilection for the expedient of indulging in partial praise of a person, in order to avoid telling the unpleasant truth about him, was a thing that astonished me soon after my settling down in London. About the end of the first year my wife and I received a social invitation from Mr and Mrs Hubert Bland, who belonged to the inner circle of the Fabians. They and their guests were interesting people, and the conversation was very natural and spontaneous. But when in some connection or other I spoke of the Avelings, there was suddenly a suspiciously unanimous chorus of praise of them: “Oh, the Avelings are very clever people.” “Oh, everybody must admit that they have been of great service to the movement” - and so forth, in the same key, so that it was at once clear to me that there was something in the air. I diverted the conversation to politics. But a judge of human nature might have blurted out the question: ‘What’s the truth about them, really? Have they murdered their children, or what?’ I am, however, not certain that I should be entitled to speak of hypocrisy in connection with this manner of evading a definite accusation: we are dealing with a deeply rooted custom, which is practised from youth onwards, so that in any case no-one is conscious of deception and, as it is a national custom, no-one is deceived by it.

That it prevails in literature as well was made very plain to me on one occasion, when I was running through a book of mine with a cultured and open-minded English lady, who was advising me on points of grammatical correctness and style. I no longer remember precisely what it was about; but in various polemical passages my advisor would inform me, categorically: “That is much too crudely put; you mustn’t say that; you couldn’t possibly say this in the better class of literature.” And yet I don’t think I am regarded as a peculiarly contentious writer.


Of course, there are plenty of people, even in England, who are capable of holding their own, in the matter of a contentious and quarrelsome tone, with the pugnacious Teuton. Among them is, or was, HM Hyndman, the leader of that wing of the English socialists which derived its political doctrine from Marx. Hyndman, who had made Marx’s acquaintance during the last years of his life, and had steeped himself in his writings, has written a very readable book on the Economics of socialism, which is, indeed, not without its defects, but is still able to hold its own with the average German work devoted to the popularisation of Marx’s teaching.

But the practical application which he gave this doctrine was violently sectarian, and his manner of stating it was often arrogantly disputatious. In this connection, the irony of the facts so ordered matters that he, who was regarded as the appointed apostle of Marxism in England, was to find the house of Marx’s collaborator and his formally appointed apostle closed to him. Hyndman, when he had published his first socialistic work, sent it to Engels, asking if he might call on him; but he received the cool reply, which amounted to a refusal, that Engels would receive him when he had publicly made it known to whom he owed the ideas contained in his writings. As a matter of fact, of course, he had availed himself extensively of Marx’s writings, but, as Hyndman himself explained at a later date, he had not mentioned Marx for reasons of expediency. However, although there was no question of malicious plagiarism, Friedrich Engels was always in deadly earnest where Marx was concerned, and when Hyndman had repaired his mistake certain squabbles which had in the meantime occurred in the English socialist movement had the result that the interdict was never raised.

William Morris, the distinguished poet and artist, and the leader of the Socialist League, which in 1884 seceded from the Socialist Federation, was, up to the time of this schism, an occasional visitor in Engels’ house, and Engels always spoke of him with respect, but they never became intimate. The principal reason was this - that Morris was the central star of a circle of his own. Moreover, he could only with difficulty get away on Sunday evenings. Beside his beautiful house, which was in the western part of London - namely, in Hammersmith, facing the swiftly-flowing Thames - beside Kelmscott House was a long, narrow lecture hall, where socialist propagandist meetings were held on Sunday evenings for the greater part of the year, and at these meetings Morris was often in the chair. I have twice delivered a lecture there with Morris as chairman, but I never heard him speak himself.

But I do not believe that he had any great rhetorical gift. Certainly he could express his ideas in a very arresting manner, but this was when speaking to a comparatively small circle in an unconstrained, gossiping tone. Rhetoric, properly speaking, was not natural to him; his whole nature was, if I may say so, anti-rhetorical. This strongly-built man of middle height, with his fine, impressive head, was an artist through and through; but not an artist of the spoken word. The principal scene of his activity was his workroom or his studio, whether that of the literary or the plastic artist. As a painter and designer he is one of the founders of the style which, variously distorted, is known in Germany as the Jugendstil (art nouveau); as a poet he is, in his longer works, a teller of tales, richly embellished by his imagination. A follower of Ruskin in the first place, he is essentially a romantic - no-one but a romantic could have written that interesting picture of the future, which has been translated into every language, News from Nowhere. But, although he regarded socialism essentially from the standpoint of the artist, William Morris was by no means the type of aesthete who merely writes of socialism now and again. No, he was in the heart of the movement; he was among the first to assist in its organisation, and to do propaganda work; and at that time one might often see the admired poet, the well-to-do manufacturer, the designer of tapestries for the most select houses in the West End, at some street corner in a working class district of London, preaching the message of socialism to a handful of working men.

When socialist propaganda was resumed in England it encountered, in the working class population, an uncommonly stubborn material. The members of the trade unions and other organisations were as often as not supporters or allies of the Liberal Party, which included a powerful radical contingent, especially of the left wing of the party, and the uneducated working men stood as yet on a very low intellectual level, and were therefore all the more difficult to organise. The difference between the artisan and the uneducated working man in the matter of wages and cultivation was, for the most part, until lately, very much greater in England than with us; which explains, among other things, why the German, on coming to England, having read that the English worker is better paid, and works shorter hours than the German worker, at first receives the contrary impression. Since the uneducated workers constitute the great majority, it is they who give the tone to certain working class districts, though not to all.

Gifted proletarians

One of the first artisans to join the socialist movement was the engineer or machinist, John Burns, who later became a cabinet minister. He now and then visited Engels, who was very well aware of the superior capacities and the weaknesses of this undoubtedly gifted proletarian. In conversation with me, he once compared him to Cromwell, of whose capacities he had a great opinion. He placed him, in the military rank, as high as Napoleon and, as a statesman, above him. Of Burns he used to say, if any one criticised him unfavourably: “He is more sinned against than sinning.” A sinner he was, to be sure; his conceit, which verged upon the childish - in itself very comprehensible in a man who is astonished by his own capacity - caused him to behave with a want of consideration which is only with difficulty forgiven in the labour movement. But he was absolutely honest in his devotion to the cause, and for many years had performed a vast and unselfish amount of work for the movement, while he was still earning his living as an artisan. Strong as a bear, endowed with a tremendous voice, with a mastery of striking images and comparisons which it would be difficult to beat, he combined, with the outward attributes of the popular speaker, the virtues of the worker who takes a delight in acquiring knowledge, and is an eager and omnivorous reader. His pride and treasure is his library, which was already considerable before he became a minister.

I got to know him when I had, one day, some transaction or other with a very capable English socialist, the ex-naval lieutenant, HH Champion. We met at a restaurant in the City, and Champion introduced me to Burns, who already had a reputation in the movement, but who impressed me, at first, merely as a man of great energy. He ordered nothing to eat or drink. I learned later that he ordered no food because he had not the money to pay for it, and was too proud to eat at our expense; and no drink because he was a strict abstainer. Until then I had never met an abstainer face to face - I had only just heard of the Temperance Party. But that so sturdy a worker should on principle abstain from the least drop of beer was to me quite an unexpected phenomenon. I thought it a curious and interesting fact that Champion and I, both ‘intellectuals,’ should drink beer, while Burns, the manual worker, was an abstainer on principle - a contrast which I was often to note later on. A large percentage of English working class socialists are total abstainers, while the majority of middle class socialists do not despise the delights of beer, wine or whisky. Every one who has read his letters knows that Friedrich Engels was no abstainer.

How English workers sometimes conceive of total abstinence is shown by an incident that occurred in Zurich in 1893, on the occasion of the International Socialist Congress, which was held there. Eleanor Marx encountered, in one of the finest beer gardens in Zurich, a number of English labour leaders, whom she knew as total abstainers, cheerfully sitting with glasses of beer in front of them. She scornfully reproached them, remarking that their principles apparently had not survived the change of air; but the gigantic leader of the Gas Workers’ Union, Will Thorne, coolly replied that she was quite mistaken, for lager was a “temperance drink”.

Will Thorne, who today is playing an influential part in the public life of England as a member of parliament and a member of the Trade Union Parliamentary Committee, was at that time the representative of one of the so-called ‘new unions’: that is, of a struggling union of uneducated workers, and was himself quite the proletarian. Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels thought very highly indeed of him. Engels gave him a copy of the English edition of Marx’s Capital, with a long personal dedication, and only the great distance of his place of residence - the extreme East End of London - prevented him from becoming one of Engels’ regular guests. Between him and Eleanor Marx there was a real friendship, and when, in 1898, we gathered round the poor girl’s coffin, in order to accompany her body to the crematorium, the strong man was so overcome that his valedictory speech was uttered in a tremulous voice, while the tears rolled incessantly down his cheeks. During the Great War, he was one of those English socialists who held German militarism to be responsible, and he regarded its defeat as the imperative war-aim of democracy.

However free and easy Engels might be, and however democratic in his relations with his political friends, he was nevertheless respected as the master of the house, and he never forgot the excellent manners which he had learned in his parents’ house. And as master of the house he was skilful in contriving that, even in moments of the greatest extravagance of his circle, guests always preserved a tone which was true, let us say, to the demands of a cultivated taste.

  1. And this in spite of the fact that Marx was not exactly overwhelmed by Kautsky, whom he found to be somewhat of a know-it-all and pedant. (If I had a penny for every time this passage has been cited as some kind of proof of Kautsky’s later renegacy, then the beers would certainly be on me.) Engels, by contrast, came to treasure Kautsky’s role within German Social Democracy in the 1890s and they became very close.↩︎

  2. See www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bernstein/works/1915/exile/ch09.htm.↩︎