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Affairs in Prussia

Karl Marx

Berlin; 11th January, 1859

You know the German proverb: "Where there is nothing, the Emperor loses his right" (Wo nichts ist, hat der Kaiser sein Recht verloren), and this law of nothingness, lording it over so mighty a personage as an Emperor, is, of course, not to be set at naught by your own correspondent; Where there are no events, there is no reporting. Such is the. very conclusive reason which has induced me for some weeks to lay an embargo on my missives from the "capital of intelligence," the central residence, if not of worldly power, at least of the "Weltgeist"[a].The first phase of the Prussian movement ended in the general elections, while the second begins to-morrow with the opening of the Diet. Meanwhile, the views of the state of affairs in this country developed in my former letters[b], and, as I see from a batch of German American papers sent over to me, annexed by many American sons of Teut[135] without a due acknowledgment of the source from which they derived their wisdom, have been fully borne out by the slovenly, bit-by-bit, I cannot say march of-things; but as Dr. Johnson, of pedantic memory, might have called it—their movement with the belly to the ground, without legs, like a worm. The German miles are longer than those of any other nation, but the steps by which they measure the ground are the shorter, with a vengeance. It is for this exact reason that in their fairy tales they are always dreaming of magical boots, enabling their happy possessor to walk over a league[c] at every lifting of the foot.

The history of the past ten years in this country has been so one-sidedly (to use a pet word of the Germans, who, like Buridan's scholastic animal, are so many-sided that they stick every moment in a deadlock)[136] judged, that some general considerations may not appear out of place. When the King with the brainless head ascended the throne, he was full of the visions of the romantic school[137]. He wanted to be a king by divine right, and to be at the same time a popular king; to be surrounded by an independent aristocracy in the midst of an omnipotent bureaucratic administration; to be a man of peace at the head of barracks; to promote popular franchises in the mediaeval sense while opposing all longings of modern liberalism; to be a restorer of ecclesiastic faith while boasting of the intellectual preeminence of his subjects; to play, in one word, the mediaeval ,king while acting as the king of Prussia—that abortion of the Eighteenth Century[138]. But, from 1840 to 1848, everything went the wrong way. The Landjunkers, who had hoped that the crowned collaborator of the Politisches Wochenblatt[d], which day by day had preached the necessity of engrafting the poetical rule of aristocracy upon the Prussian prosaic rule by the schoolmaster, the drill-sergeant, the policeman, the tax-gatherer and the learned mandarin, were forced to accept the King's secret sympathies in lieu of real concessions. The middle class still too weak to venture upon active movements, felt themselves compelled to march in the rear of the theoretical army led by Hegel's disciples against the religion, the ideas and the politics of the old world. In no former period was philosophical criticism so bold, so powerful and so popular as in the first eight years of the rule of Frederick William IV, who desired to supplant the "shallow" rationalism, introduced into Prussia by Frederick II, by mediaeval mysticism. The power of philosophy during that period was entirely owing to the practical weakness of the bourgeoisie; as they could not assault the antiquated institutions in fact, they must yield precedence to the bold idealists who assaulted them in the region of thought. Finally, the romantic King himself, was, after all, like all his predecessors, but the visible hand of a common-place bureaucratic Government which he tried in vain to embellish with the fine sentiments of by-gone ages.

The revolution, or rather the counter-revolution to which it gave birth, altogether changed the face of things. The Landjunkers turned the private crotchets of the King to practical account, and succeeded in driving the Government back, not behind 1848, not behind 1815, but even behind 1807. There was an end of coy, romantic aspirations; but in their place there sprang up .a Prussian House of Lords; mortmain[139] was restored, the private jurisdiction of the manor flourished. more than ever, exemption from taxation became again a sign of nobility, the policemen and the Government men had to stoop to the noblemen, all places of power were surrendered to the scions of the landed aristocracy and gentry, the enlightened bureaucrats of the old school were swept away, to be supplanted by the servile sycophants of rent-rolls and landlords, and all the liberties won by the revolution—liberty of the press, liberty of meeting, liberty of speech, constitutional representation—all these liberties were not broken up, but maintained as the privileges of the aristocratic class. On the other hand, if the bourgeoisie, in the by-gone period, had fostered the philosophical movement, the aristocracy now rooted it out and put pietism in its place. Every enlightened professor was driven away from the University and the viri obscuri[e], the Hengstenbergs, the Stahls and tutti quanti seized upon all the educational institutions of Prussia, from the village school to the great seminary of Berlin. The police and administrative machinery were not destroyed, but converted into the mere tools of the ruling class. Even industrial liberty was struck at, and as the license system was turned into a mighty engine of patronage, intimidation and corruption, so the artizans in the great towns were again pressed into corporations, guilds, and all the other extinct forms of a departed epoch. Thus, then, the boldest dreams of the King, which had remained dreams during the eight years of his absolute regime, had all become fulfilled by the Revolution, and shone as palpable realities in the light of day during the eight years from 1850 to 1857.

But there is another side to the medal. The revolution had dispelled the ideological delusions of the bourgeoisie, and the counter-revolution had done away with their political pretensions. Thus they were thrown back upon their real resources—trade and industry—and I do not think that any other people have relatively made so immense a start in this direction during the last decennial epoch as the Germans, and especially the Prussians. If you saw Berlin ten years ago, you would not recognize it now. From a stiff place of parade it has been transformed into the bustling center of German machine-building. If you travel through Rhenish Prussia and the Duchy of Westphalia, Lancashire and Yorkshire will be recalled to your memory. If Prussia cannot boast one Isaac Affairs in Prussia 161 Péreire, she possesses hundreds of Mevissens, at the head of more Crédits Mobiliers than the German Diet numbers princes.

The rage of getting rich, of going ahead, of opening new mines, of building new factories, of constructing new railways, and above all of investing in and gambling with joint-stock company shares, became the passion of the day, and infected all classes from the peasant even to the coroneted prince, who had once been a reichsunmittelbarer Fürst[140]. So you see the days when the Bourgeoisie wept in Babylonian captivity[f] and drooped their diminished heads, were the very days when they became the effective power of the land, while even the inner man of the overbearing aristocrat became converted into a profit-loving, money-mongering stock-jobber. If you want an example of speculative philosophy converted into commercial speculation, look at Hamburg in 1857[141]. Did not these speculative Germans then prove masters in the swindling line? Still this upward movement of the Prussian middle class, strengthened by the general rise in the prices of Commodities, and, consequently, the general fall of the fixed incomes of their bureaucratic rulers, was, of course, accompanied by the ruin of the small middle class and the concentration of the working class. The ruin of the small middle class during the last eight years is a general fact to be observed all over Europe, but nowhere so strikingly as in Germany. Does this phenomenon need any explanation? I answer in one word: Look at the millionaires of to-day who were the poor devils of yesterday. For one man of nothing to become a millionaire overnight, a thousand $1,000-men must have been turned into beggars during the day. The magic of the Stock Exchange will do this sort of thing in the twinkling of an eye, quite apart from the slower methods by which modern industry centralizes fortunes. A discontented small middle class and a concentrated working class have, therefore, during the last ten years, grown up in Prussia simultaneously with the bourgeoisie.

It is time to post this letter, although I have not yet done with my Rundschau, as the New Prussian Gazette calls this sort of retrospective review.

Written on January 11, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5548, February 1, 1859;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1429, February 4, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] "World spirit".—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 74-81 and 106-09.—Ed.

[c] The German mile (Meile) was a linear measure of different length in different German states. The Prussian mile was equal to 7,533 metres. The English (statute) mile is equal to 1,609 metres. One land league is equal to about three miles.—Ed.

[d] Frederick William IV.—Ed.

[e] Obscure people (Ulrich von Hutten, Epistolae obscurorum virorum).—Ed.

[f] Psalms 137.—Ed.

[135] Teut—an ancient Germanic god invented in the late eighteenth century by the Klopstock school and named after the Teutons. Ancient sources make no mention of such a god.

[136] The reference is to the expression l'âne de Buridan attributed to the French fourteenth-century scholastic philosopher Jean Buridan. To prove the absence of free will he cites the example of an ass dying of starvation through inability to choose between two equidistant and equally desirable stacks of hay.

[137] An allusion to Frederick William IV's devotion to medieval social ideals and mystical sentiments typical of the German romantic school of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See also Note 52↓.

[138] Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg, became the first king of Prussia under the name of Frederick I in 1701.

[139] Mortmain—in the Middle Ages the right of the feudal lord to inherit the property of a dead serf peasant. Since the property and the land of the dead peasant usually went to his heirs the latter were obliged to pay a special onerous fee for it to the lord.

[140] In the period of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (962-1806) the reichsunmittelbarer Fürst was the German sovereign directly subordinated to the Emperor. The king of Prussia was such a sovereign from 1701.

[141] This refers to the 1857 monetary crisis in Hamburg. Trade in Hamburg was expanded by increasing promissory-note circulation, which led to the large-scale forging of such notes and the use of all kinds of fictitious, accommodation and financial bills. As a result, the beginning of the crisis in November 1857 was accompanied by numerous bankruptcies in Hamburg, as Engels wrote to Marx on December 7, 1857 (see present edition, Vol. 40). Marx made use of this fact in his article "The Crisis in Europe" (Vol. 15).

[52] In 1843 Frederick William IV, who wanted to revive the romantic aspect of feudalism, issued a decree on the rebirth of the Order of the Swan, a medieval religious order of Knights (founded in, 1440 and dissolved during the Reformation). The King's intention did not materialise, however.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.158-161), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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