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Affairs in Prussia

Karl Marx

Berlin, Oct. 19, 1858

The Chambers are to assemble in united sitting on the 21st inst., when the Prince will call upon them "to acknowledge the necessity of the Regency," a demand which, I need not say, will be at once complied with, and most humbly too. It is, however, generally felt that if the formal existence of the Constitution dates from the 30th of January, 1850, its reality, as a working machine against the royal prerogative, is to be dated from 21st October, 1858. Meanwhile, to damp useless enthusiasm, newspaper confiscation is the order of the day—a true pity this, if one considers the happy-family character of the offenders. The most advanced of these papers are the Volks-Zeitung and the National-Zeitung—the latter being a paper which, by dint of respectable mediocrity, cowardly concession and unbounded display of Prussian local enthusiasm, contrived to weather the counter-revolutionary tempest, and convert into hard cash the scanty remnants of a movement whose dangerous eccentricities it was too wise in its generation to share. After the deluge, the organic beings peopling the earth were shaped in more decent and moderate size than their antediluvian predecessors. The same law prevails in the process of the formation of society. Still, we are involuntarily driven to the conclusion that the German Revolution itself must have been very dwarfish indeed, if the Lilliputians of the Berlin Press are to be considered as the legitimate representatives into whom it has finally settled down. However that may be, if these editors are no heroes, nor even common fighting men, they are shrewd calculators at all events. They feel that there is something stirring and that the regime which formed the background necessary for their own mock liberalism, and gave the value in exchange to their ware, is rapidly breaking down. To convince, therefore, their customers that they are true watchmen, they venture upon low murmurs and plaintive moans. They do certainly not bite, nor even bark. Their audacity in this moment consists in lauding the Prince to the sky. They call upon him even, as the National-Zeitung recently did, to make free with the public exchequer; but, and this is the humor of the thing, all their compliments on his deeds yet unborn, turn into as many strictures on the past deeds of the Manteuffel Cabinet. They annoy the Prince by their prospective credulity and pique the ministry by their retrospective scepticism. But to appreciate them duly, one ought to read them in the vernacular. It is impossible to attempt in any other language, not even in Decembrist French, which smacks at least of its own specific odeur de mauvais lieu[a], the dull, insipid, interminable yarn they spin. One might suppose they were speaking by mere innuendoes, playing hide and seek with the police, but this would be a great mistake. They say, in fact, every thing they have to say, but combine the homeopathic and allopathic methods in a most skilful and profitable way; they administer an infinitesimal deal of drug in an ocean of indifferent fluid. The ministers, on the other hand, seem aware of the geological fact, that the continuous action of water will wash away the proudest rock and roll it into pebbles. They feel not so much irritated at the stammering of these cautious wiseacres as at the general state of public mind which they presuppose to exist. Consequently, in their shortsighted bureaucratic way they beat the donkey in order to hit the bag—I mean the bag of public opinion. The repeated newspaper confiscations, initiating the new régime, say the royalists, are the true answer to the noisy hopes that affect to cling to the Prince. No, say the official Liberals, the Prince's régime has not yet begun, and his great respect for constitutional law obliges him, until he has been acknowledged by the Chambers and sworn in as Regent, to allow the ministers, according to the Charter, to act on their own responsibility. Now, "ministerial responsibility" is a very mysterious thing in all our monarchic Constitutions, whether cut on the English or the French pattern. In England, where it may be supposed to exist in its most vital, palpable form, it means that on certain solemn occasions irresponsibility becomes transferred from a Whig to a Tory, or from a Tory to a Whig. Ministerial responsibility means there the transformation of place-hunting into the main business of parliamentary parties. He who is in office is, for the time, irresponsible, because the representative of a legislative majority who, in order to help him in, abdicate into the hands of his whipper-in. In Prussia, the most ardent aspirations of middle-class ambition tend to render the ministerial posts prizes to be won in parliamentary tournaments. Till now, however, Prussian ministerial responsibility was a myth in every sense. Article 44 of the Charter runs thus:

"The ministers of the King are responsible; all the governmental acts of the King, to have legal force, require the countersignature of a minister upon whom, thereby, the responsibility devolves."

No law has, however, been made with respect to this responsibility. In the paragraph itself, it is not said to whom the ministers are responsible. In practice, on every occasion when the chambers went the length of threatening the ministers with a vote of non-confidence, the latter .declared roundly that they were quite welcome to it, ministers being responsible, indeed, but to their royal master only. The question of ministerial responsibility possesses in Prussia, as it did in the France of Louis Philippe, an exceptional importance, because it means, in fact, the responsibility of bureaucracy. The ministers are the chiefs of that omnipotent, all-intermeddling parasite body, and to them alone, according to Article 106 of the Constitution, have the subaltern members of the administration to look, without taking upon themselves to inquire into the legality of their ordinances, or incurring any responsibility by executing them. Thus, the power of the bureaucracy, and by the bureaucracy, of the executive, has been maintained intact, while the constitutional "Rights of the Prussians" have been reduced to a dead letter.

The imminent elections are the lever which all parties intend now using, but it is principally with regard to electoral matters that the present octroyed Constitution has succeeded in rooting out all traces of its revolutionary origin. True, in order to eke out small bureaucratic salaries by adding to them a parliamentary source of income, the very plebian law prescribing that the representatives of the people should be paid has been maintained. So has the eligibility of every Prussian aged 25 years. The electoral rights, however, and the machinery of election, have been managed in such a way as to exclude not only the bulk of the people, but to subject the privileged remnant to the most unbridled bureaucratic interference. There are two degrees of election. There are first elected the electors of the electors, and then the latter elect the representatives. From the primitive election itself are not only excluded all those who pay no direct tax, but the whole body of primitive electors itself is again divided into three portions, consisting of the highest-taxed, the middle-taxed, and the lowest taxed; these three parties, like the tribes of King Servius Tullius[64], electing each of them the same number of representatives. As if this complicated process of filtering was not sufficient, the bureaucracy has, moreover, the right to divide, combine, change, separate and recompose the electoral districts at pleasure. Thus, for instance, if there exists a town suspected of liberal sympathies, it may be swamped by reactionary country votes, the minister, by simple ordinance, blending the liberal town with the reactionary country into the same electoral district. Such are the fetters which shackle the electoral movement, and which, only in the great cities, can exceptionally be broken through.

Written on October 19, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5475, November 8, 1858


[a] Bad odour.—Ed.

[64] Roman tradition associates the name of Servius Tullius with the reforms which led to the establishment of the state system in Rome. The most important of these was the centurial reform which put an end to the gentile constitution and completed the transition to the slave-owning system. According to this reform, gentile tribes were replaced by territorial, and the plebs became part of the Roman people (populus Romanus). The entire population of Rome was divided into five classes according to property qualifications. Each class provided a definite number of centuries (centurie), or army companies of a hundred men each, which were also political divisions. Of great importance were the assemblies of centurie, where each class received a number of votes corresponding to the number of centurie it placed in the field. This system made it possible for the more propertied classes to influence the settlement of major political questions.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.78-81), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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