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
. (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, I personally tend to agree with parts of Ulrich’s argument that sex offenders should be treated as mentally ill people and not as sound-of-mind criminals. Engels seems to (close-mindedly, I think) dismiss this perspective.
Finally, 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:Hubert Kennedy, “The Queer Marx Loved to Hate”http://www.marxmail.org/schweitzer.pdfThe booklet that Marx sent Engels was identified by the editorsof the Marx Engels Werke as Ulrichs’s Argonauticus,8 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.