Marx-Engels Correspondence 1858
Source: MECW Volume 40, p. 321;
First published: abridged in F Lassalle. Nachgelassene Briefe und Schriften, Berlin, 1922.
You would have had an immediate answer to your letter, but it seemed to me advisable — not in order to formulate my own views but because tres faciunt collegium — to put the case to Engels and Lupus in Manchester and obtain their opinion. Since their views and my own coincide at every point, you may regard the following as our unanimous opinion.
1. From the standpoint of the duel. It is as clear as day that by their despicable attack in the street the two gentlemen, the Intendanturrat and the Assessor, have adopted in toto the standpoint of the bludgeon and that the only duel which one might engage in with such laddies has already taken place during the brawl itself. If 2 chaps waylay a third and both of them set on him, we don’t believe that any duelling code in the world would permit a subsequent duel with such riff-raff. If, by flourishing a horse-whip, Mr Fabrice intended forcibly to provoke a duel, either Mr Bormann ought to have looked on purely passively as a witness, or his presence was altogether superfluous. But when two men simultaneously set upon one, and one of them actually operates in the rear of the person attacked, then we are dealing with canaille who have given proof that a fair duel cannot be fought with them.
2. Principle of the duel. We don’t believe that, generally speaking, an affair as relative as a duel can be subsumed under the category good or bad. That duelling as such is not rational there can be no doubt. Nor that it is a relic of a bygone stage of civilisation. However, a concomitant of the one-sidedness of bourgeois society is that, in opposition to the latter, certain feudal forms maintain the rights of the individual. The most striking proof of this is to be found in the United States where duelling is a civil right. Individuals may become locked in a mutual conflict so insupportable that a duel seems to them the only solution. However such deadly tension is not in fact possible vis-à-vis an indifferent person such as an Intendanturrat, an Assessor, or a lieutenant. This would demand a significant personal relationship. Otherwise a duel is an utter farce. It is invariably a farce when performed in deference to so-called ‘public opinion’.
3. We therefore regard duelling as being purely dependent on circumstances; hence recourse may be had to it as an exceptional pis aller [expedient] in exceptional circumstances. In the case under discussion, however, all the circumstances argue quite emphatically against it, even if the attack in the street had not put it altogether out of the question.
4. The really decisive factor is that you are not only opposed to all duelling on principle but have proclaimed this principle, and in Fabrice’s presence at that. So you would discredit yourself were you nevertheless to engage in a duel through fear of ‘public opinion’.
5. In the case under discussion, a duel would have absolutely no meaning save as the observance of a conventional formality recognised by certain privileged classes. Our party must resolutely set its face against these class ceremonies and reject with the most cynical contempt the presumptuous demand that we submit to them. The present state of affairs is far too serious to permit of your consenting to such puerilities and it would be sheer puerility to engage in a duel with Mr Fabrice because he is an ‘Intendanturrat’ and belongs to the clique qualified to fight duels, whereas if e.g. a tailor or cobbler were to set about you in the street, you would simply hand him over to the courts without any infringement of ‘honour’. In the case under consideration you would not be fighting a duel with Fabrice, an individual who is indifferent to you, but with the ‘Intendanturrat’ — which would be an absurd manoeuvre. In general, the fellows’ insistence that differences with them must be settled by a duel as a privilege due to them — and all fashionable duels fall under this head — should be laughed to scorn. To acknowledge this claim would be altogether counter-revolutionary.
I have given you our view in nuce. We shall be interested to hear how the affair progresses.