Monday, November 23, 2009

Regarding the infamous letter that Engels sent Marx in 1869, which supposedly proves his homophobia.

This is part of an ongoing research project I've been conducting on the various accusations of Marx and Engels' supposed virulent homophobia. The other two entries I've done on this topic can be viewed here and here.

"The Urning you sent me is a very curious thing. These are extremely unnatural revelations. The paederasts [homosexual paedophiles] are beginning to count themselves, and discover that they are a power in the state. Only organisation was lacking, but according to this source it apparently already exists in secret. And since they have such important men in all the old parties and even in the new ones, from Rosing to Schweitzer, they cannot fail to triumph. Guerre aux cons, paix aus trous-de-cul will now be the slogan. It is a bit of luck that we, personally, are too old to have to fear that, when this party wins, we shall have to pay physical tribute to the victors. But the younger generation! Incidentally it is only in Germany that a fellow like this can possibly come forward, convert this smut into a theory, and offer the invitation: introite [enter], etc. Unfortunately, he has not yet got up the courage to acknowledge publicly that he is ‘that way’, and must still operate coram publico‘ from the front’, if not ‘going in from the front’ as he once said by mistake. But just wait until the new North German Penal Code recognises the droits du cul [rights of the arse-hole] then he will operate quite differently. Then things will go badly enough for poor frontside people like us, with our childish penchant for females. If Schweitzer could be made useful for anything, it would be to wheedle out of this peculiar honourable gentleman the particulars of the paederasts in high and top places, which would certainly not be difficult for him as a brother in spirit." (Letter from Engels to Marx, June 22, 1869;
First of all, Engels is not commenting here on Karl Ulrichs's overall theory of 'Urning' (his term for homosexuality), but rather on the specific pamphlet that Marx sent him titled, Incubus (see below)*. (Ulrichs has no such work titled simply, Urning. Engels must have just been confused here). Indeed, it appears that Engels probably wasn't that familiar with any of Ulrichs's work other than this one pamphlet. This is evidenced by the fact that in this and other letters, Engels and Marx seem to not even readily know the name of the author, let alone show a familiarity with his overall works.

If one actually reads Incubus, it becomes quite clear why Engels may have reacted as viscerally as he does here. Further, it can be seen to be ridiculous to claim that Engels' comments on Incubus somehow in themselves show that he is nothing but a 'hopeless bigot'.

Incubus is actually one of Ulrichs's least flattering texts. It is a broad attempt at a (psycho-social) analysis of the causes that lead older men to commit the rape and murder of young children. The particular incident that spurs his writing is the case of Lieutenant von Zastrow, who had been charged with the rape, physical mutilation, and murder of two young boys in Berlin in 1867 and 1869.

Ulrichs, who makes clear that he is in no way defending acts of child rape and gruesome pedestary, nonetheless makes a plea for leniency for such criminals on the grounds that they are driven not by malice, but rather by a "faulty natural disposition," or "a diseased nature," as he puts it alternatively.

All in all, the work is a very macabre, rather clumsy attempt to use his findings in his earlier studies of the Uraniun (gay) male to prove that violent pederasts should not be treated as criminals, but rather spiritually ill people, who cannot control the inborn nature of their sexual-selves any more than a Uranian (or straight, "Dionian," for that matter).

As Ulrichs puts it, "The Zastrow case stands in a close relationship to the sexual nature of the man-loving Urning." He goes on to explain, "There is at times a yearning, wild, inordinate desire in certain individuals to commit cruelties and to see blood flow for no clear reason; a bloodthirstiness which, as it appears, goes far beyond a responsible state of mind, which at the moment in which it sets in seems to press heavily upon the soul of the individual as an incubus rising from the realm of darkness."

In the course of Ulrichs's analysis, he describes 15 cases of sexual 'perversion' in addition to the Zastrow case, many of which cases involve older men of high standing in German society. This is very tough reading. To give you a flavor, Ulrichs describes in gorey detail how Zastrow first raped, castrated, and beat a 6-year old boy to near-death, and then later how he raped, beat, sodomized with a sharp stick, and then murdered a 15-year old boy. The fifteen other cases are of like brutality and graphic description.

Indeed, Ulrichs wants to highlight the utter brutality of these cases in order to prove his point that their 'pathological' (and therefore uncontrolled) character is as great as the sexual brutality of the acts themselves. Therefore, he argues, the courts ought not to punish these people, but rather seek other means of curbing this behavior.

Now that we have a clear picture of the content of the specific work of Ulrichs's that Marx had given Engels to read in 1869, and which Engels commented on in reply to Marx, we can understand why Engels would write that the work is a "very curious thing" involving "extremely unnatural revelations." Again, Engels is not here commenting on homosexuality in general, or even the theory of Urning itself, but rather the phenomena of violent pederasty (pedophilia) -- which Ulrichs himself calls 'unnatural' -- as detailed in Incubus.

This also explains the comment Engels makes regarding his fear for the fate of the "younger generation;" a fate that does not await "older" individuals. It should now be clear that Engels is not just bringing the question of pederasty into his correspondence with Marx out of nowhere, owing purely to some supposed prejudiced notion that all homosexuals are pederasts (as has been intimated by some recent writers). He is, in fact, only talking about the issue at hand as raised by Ulrichs in the pamphlet concerned.

None of this is to deny that this particular, private letter between Engels and Marx is written quite crassly and undoubtedly would have been formulated differently by Engels if it had been intended for public consumption. And his crude quip about "frontside" people with their "childish penchants for females," is itself plainly a childish and ridiculous comment.

Moreover, Engels undoubtedly expresses an utter cluelessness about the nascent "homosexual identity" just beginning to be articulated in Germany at the time. Though, to be fair, homosexuality was talked about as a pathology by even its proponents until the rise of the German gay rights movement in the 1870s and '80s -- well after Engels penned the clumsy letter above. Indeed, the idea that there were even distinct "homosexual" and "heterosexual" types of people was not advanced until the 1870s by the German scientist and human rights campaigner, Karl-Maria Kertbeny. (It's also worth noting that the German Social-Democratic Party, which Engels helped found and influenced until his death in 1895, would also, to its credit, become an early and dedicated supporter of the German gay rights movement upon its inception).

In conclusion, I do think it is rather quite disingenuous to assert that this one letter in question proves the pervasive homophobia of Marx and Engels. Say what you will about Engels's response here to a muddled treatise analyzing the phenomenology of rape and violent pederasty in the "man-loving Urning," but don't attempt to turn this letter into something it is not -- that is, a conscious diatribe against homosexuality in general.


* Even one of the foremost proponents of the "Homophobic Engels" theory admits that the work, which Marx and Engels were discussing in their letter above, was precisely the pamphlet, Incubus, and not one of Ulrich's other works on the actual theory of Urning (see below).
Hubert Kennedy, "The Queer Marx Loved to Hate"

The booklet that Marx sent Engels was identified by the editors of the Marx Engels Werke as Ulrichs’s Argonauticus, and this identification has been repeated in the Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, whose translation of Marx’s letter is given here.

But this cannot be correct, since Argonauticus was not completed until late September 1869. The reference to ‘‘introite,’’ which Engels wanted to read as an invitation to anal intercourse, instead suggests some knowledge of Ulrichs’s Memnon (1868), for it appears in that booklet’s epigraph: ‘‘Introite! nam et hoc templum naturae est’’ (‘‘Enter! for this is also a temple of nature’’), which is rather a reference to the edifice of Ulrichs’s theory. (This is a variation of a phrase that goes back to Heraclitus and would have been known to Engels through its use as an epigraph to Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise.)

More probably the booklet that Engels read was Incubus, which was completed on May 4, 1869. This is confirmed by several indications, the most important of which is Ulrichs’s use of ‘‘von vorn hinein’’ for ‘‘von vorn herein,’’ which Engels puns on and which occurs twice in Incubus. (The idiomatic phrase ‘‘von vorn herein’’ means ‘‘from the beginning.’’) That Ulrichs admits he is not ‘‘from the front’’ is clear enough in Memnon, in which he several times refers to himself as an example of an Urning, but is not apparent in Incubus.

The reference to Johannes Rösing, a merchant in Bremen who was active in the democratic movement in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s, may also be pointed out here, since he was mentioned in Incubus, but Engels could well have known about him from other sources. The ‘‘personal details’’ about Schweitzer, of course, were known to all.


  1. so you say Engels did not read the definition made by Ulrich himself: "Urning: Men who, as a result of their inborn nature feel themselves attracted by the impulse of their sexual desire exclusively to male individuals, I call Urnings, their love Uranian, and the entire phenomenon Uranism."

    and do you think that Engels was such a stupid person who couldn't be able to understand such an obvious definition?

    1. Yeah right. If only Engels referred exclusively to pederasts in his letter and not to "Urnings".

      Oh wait. He did.

      Do you think you're a stupid person unable to understand such a short text?

  2. Read this:

    1. If only this article was about Engels and not Bebel. Right?

  3. Hello, I have to say I find your arguments very weak. First of all you say that Engels was unfamiliar with Ulrichs work but don't provide any evidence of this.

    I bring this up because the essay you cite at the end of your post states that on the contrary the original German letter is full of references to Ulrichs other work.

    Indeed that's brought up right after you cut off the quote, that's more then a little dishonest wouldn't you say?

    You also assert that the reason Engels is so vulgar and crass here is because of the contents of Incubus. But as was shown in Schweitzer Engels and Marx used language that was just as vulgar when comment on homosexuality or just sexual freedom in general.

    Its curious that you're looking at this letter in a vacuum, how exactly do you know that Engels response was unique like you claim?

    You don't provide much evidence and what little you do provide contradicts your entire argument.

    "It's also worth noting that the German Social-Democratic Party, which Engels helped found and influenced until his death in 1895, would also, to its credit, become an early and dedicated supporter of the German gay rights movement upon its inception)"

    See here again it isn't worth noting at all because entirely irrelevant. Unless you have evidence Engels himself supported this campaign its as spurious as bringing up the SDP's support for German Colonialism and World War One. This isn't evidence its an attempt at evasion.

    1. You are wrong about Engels being familiar with Ulrichs' other work, as supposedly evidenced in the letter mentioned in the cut off text. That letter refers to Marx's familiarity with Ulrichs -- not Engels.

      As far as the 'uniqueness' of Engels' comment, one can easily search the contents of Engels' collected correspondence for any number of crass or lurid phrases, or any phrases at all relating to homosexuality. Such a search will reveal that out of thousands of pages of text, the topic only appears a mere handful of times.

  4. This is unconvincing. Engels was atheist and against religious dogmas. For that reason, he would not use the word 'sodomy', which is based on religious belief (a reference to Biblical story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). There is no evidence that Engels could tell the difference between homosexual men and what he calls 'pederast'. On the contrary: the booklet Incubus explains the difference in detail and even so Engels seems to treat 'Urning' and 'pederast' as synonyms in the letter. Otherwise, he wouldn't consider Ulrichs to be a 'pederast'.

    It's also logical that the expression 'younger generation' includes men in 20s or 30s. Otherwise he would use 'boys', 'children', 'underage boys', etc. He would not say "we are too old", but rather "we are adult men".

    "Guerre aux cons, paix aus trous-de-cul" also leaves no doubt about its meaning.

    In short, that interpretation of the letter is begging the question.

    1. The fact that Engels shows a backwards, Victorian moralist humor (the "trous-de-cul" thing) does not rule out the main point: that, indeed, Engels is referring in his whole letter to pederasts, and not "Urnings"; which is precisely the term Ulrichs coined. If Engels is referring to "Urnings", why is he not using the term indistinctly in the letter? He only mentions "the Urning you sent me", which clearly means he miswrote the titled of the article. Article which, in fact, only speaks about the definition of "Urning" at the very beginning; being the almost totality of the article on the topic of violent pederasty. How can you not realise the big ahistorical assumptions you're doing in here?

      Historiography about Ancient Greece has ALWAYS known about the distinction between homosexuality and slaveryist Greek customs of pederasty, which systematically consisted of older men from upper social status preying on younger boys, usually plebeians or semi-slaves. Everyone at that time (mid-to-late 19th century, with a developed modern historiography) knew about the specific social, cultural and economic context of ancient Greek pederasty. The equation of homosexuality and pederasty was not, in fact, a thing from modern historiography: just a traditionalist inheritance from people with a poor understanding of the slaveryist Ancient Age.

      That's in fact your proof that Engels indeed knew about the difference between homosexuality and Ancient Greek pederasty: that all modern historiography knew.

  5. One more thing, about Engels' stance on the criminalization of so-called 'sodomy', that is a different matter. Other people of the same period also thought that homosexuality was unnatural and a disease and who where against of criminalization of 'sodomy' (for homosexuals - or 'pederasts' as they where called - needed to seek help, not get imprisoned).