Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher
Your letter, my dear friend, is a fine elegy, a funeral song that takes one’s breath away; but there is absolutely nothing political about it. No people wholly despairs, and even if for a long time it goes on hoping merely out of stupidity, yet one day, after many years, it will suddenly become wise and fulfil all its pious wishes.
Nevertheless, you have infected me, your theme is still not exhausted, I want to add the finale, and when everything is at an end, give me your hand, so that we may begin again from the beginning. Let the dead bury their dead and mourn them. On the other hand, it is enviable to be the first to enter the new life alive; that is to be our lot.
It is true that the old world belongs to the philistine. But one should not treat the latter as a bugbear from which to recoil in fear. On the contrary, we ought to keep an eye on him. It is worth while to study this lord of the world.
He is lord of the world, of course, only because he fills it with his society as maggots do a corpse. Therefore the society of these lords needs no more than a number of slaves, and the owners of these slaves do not need to be free. Although, as being owners of land and people, they are called lords, in the sense of being pre-eminent, for all that they are no less philistines than their servants.
As for human beings, that would imply thinking beings, free men, republicans. The philistines do not want to be either of these. What then remains for them to be and to desire?
What they want is to live and reproduce themselves (and no one, says Goethe, achieves anything more), and that the animal also wants; at most a German politician would add: Man, however, knows that he wants this, and the German is so prudent as not to want anything more.
The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Only this feeling, which vanished from the world with the Greeks, and under Christianity disappeared into the blue mist of the heavens, can again transform society into a community of human beings united for their highest aims, into a democratic state.
On the other hand, people who do not feel that they are human beings become the property of their masters like a breed of slaves or horses. The aim of this whole society is the hereditary masters. This world belongs to them. They accept it as it is and as it feels itself to be. They accept themselves as they are, and place their feet firmly on the necks of these political animals who know of no other function than to be “obedient, devoted and attentive” to their masters.
The philistine world is a political world of animals, and if we have to recognise its existence, nothing remains for us but simply to agree to this status quo. Centuries of barbarism engendered and shaped it, and now it confronts us as a consistent system, the principle of which is the dehumanised world. Hence the most complete philistine world, our Germany, was bound, of course, to remain far behind the French Revolution, which once more restored man; and a German Aristotle who wanted to derive his politics from our conditions would write at the top of it: “Man is a social animal that is however completely unpolitical” [in contradistinction to the Greek Aristotle who in his Politics called man a political animal — Zöön politicon.] but he could not explain the state more correctly than has already been done by Herr Zöpfl, the author of Constitutionellen Staatsrechts in Deutschland [Zöpfl, Grundsatze des Allgemeinen und Constitutionell-Monarchistischen Staatsrechts]. According to him, the state is a “union of families” which, we continue, belongs by heredity and property to a most eminent family called the dynasty. The more prolific the families, the happier, it is said, are the people, the greater is the state, and the more powerful the dynasty, for which reason, too, in Prussia, an ordinary despotic state, a prize of 50 imperial talers is awarded for a seventh son.
The Germans are such circumspect realists that all their desires and their loftiest thoughts do not go beyond a bare existence, and this reality — nothing more — is taken into account by those who rule over them. These latter people, too, are realists, they are very far removed from any kind of thoughts and from any human greatness; they are ordinary officers and country squires, but they are not mistaken, they are right; just as they are, they are quite capable of making use of this animal kingdom and ruling over it, for here, as everywhere, ruling and using are a single conception. And when homage is paid to them and they survey the swarming mass of these brainless beings, what is more likely to occur to them than the thought that Napoleon had at the Berezina? It is said of Napoleon that he pointed to the crowd of drowning people below him and exclaimed to his companion: “Voyez ces crapauds!” [Just look at these toads!] This is probably a fabrication, but it is nonetheless true. Despotism’s sole idea is contempt for man, the dehumanised man, and this idea has the advantage over many others of being at the same time a fact. The despot always sees degraded people. They drown before his eyes and for his sake in the mire of ordinary life, from which, like toads, they constantly make their appearance anew. If such a view comes to be held even by people who were capable of great aims, such as Napoleon before his dynastic madness, how can a quite ordinary king in such surroundings be an idealist?
The monarchical principle in general is the despised, the despicable, the dehumanised man; and Montesquieu was quite wrong to allege that it is honour [Montesquieu, De l'esprit des lois]. He gets out of the difficulty by distinguishing between monarchy, despotism and tyranny. But those are names for one and the same concept, and at most they denote differences in customs though the principle remains the same. Where the monarchical principle has a majority behind it, human beings constitute the minority; where the monarchical principle arouses no doubts, there human beings do not exist at all. Why should someone like the King of Prussia, [Frederick William IV] to whom it has never been demonstrated that his role is problematical, not be guided exclusively by his whims? And when he acts in that way, what is the result? Contradictory intentions? Well, then nothing will come of it. Impotent trends? They are still the sole political reality. Ridiculous and embarrassing situations? There is only one situation which is ridiculous and only one which is embarrassing, and that is abdication from the throne. So long as whim retains its place, it is in the right. It can be as unstable, senseless and contemptible as it chooses, it is still good enough for ruling a people that has never known any other law but the arbitrary power of its kings. I do not say that a brainless system and loss of respect within the state and outside it will be without consequences, I do not undertake to insure the ship of fools, but I assert: the King of Prussia will remain the man of his time so long as the topsy-turvy world is the real world.
As you know, I have given much thought to this man. Already at the time when he still had only the Berliner politische Wochenblatt as his organ, I recognised his value and his role. Already when the oath of allegiance was taken in Königsberg, he justified my supposition that the question would now become a purely personal one. He declared that his heart and his turn of mind would be the future fundamental law of the realm of Prussia, of his state, and in point of fact, in Prussia the king is the system. He is the sole political person. In one way or another, his personality determines the system. What he does or is allowed to do, what he thinks or what is attributed to him, is what in Prussia the state thinks or does. Therefore the present king has really performed a service by stating this so unambiguously.
But the mistake which people made for a time was to attach importance to the desires and thoughts that would be expressed by the king. This could not alter the matter in the slightest: the philistine is the material of the monarchy, and the monarch always remains only the king of the philistines; he cannot turn either himself or his subjects into free, real human beings while both sides remain what they are.
The King of Prussia has tried to alter the system by means of a theory which in this form his father [Frederick William III] really did not have. The fate of this attempt is well known. It was a complete failure. This was to be expected. Once one has arrived at the political world of animals, reaction can go no farther, and there can be no other advance than the abandonment of the basis of this world and the transition to the human world of democracy.
The old king had no extravagant desires, he was a philistine and made no claim to intellect. He knew that the state of servants and his possession of it required only a prosaic, tranquil existence. The young king was more alert and brighter and had a much higher opinion of the omnipotence of the monarch, who is only limited by his heart and mind. The old ossified state of servants and slaves disgusted him. He wanted to enliven it and imbue it wholly and entirely with his own desires, sentiments and thoughts; and in his state he could demand this, if only it could be brought about. Hence his liberal speeches and the outpourings of his heart. Not dead laws, but the full, vigorous heart of the king should rule all his subjects. He wanted to set all hearts and minds into motion for the benefit of his own heart’s desires and long-cherished plans. A movement did result; but the other hearts did not beat like that of the king, and those over whom he ruled could not open their mouths without speaking about the abolition of the old domination. The idealists, who have the audacity to want to turn men into human beings, spoke out, and while the king wove fantasies in the old German manner, they considered they had the right to philosophise in the new German manner. Of course, this was shocking in Prussia. For a moment the old order of things seemed to have been turned upside-down; indeed things began to be transformed into human beings, there even appeared renowned persons, although the mention of names is not permitted in the Diets. But the servants of the old despotism soon put an end to this un-German activity. It was not difficult to bring about a marked conflict between the desires of the king, who is enthusing about a great past full of priests, knights and feudal serfs, and the intentions of the idealists, who want only the consequences of the French Revolution and therefore, in the final count, always a republic and an organisation of free human beings instead of the system of dead objects. When this conflict had become sufficiently sharp and unpleasant and the hot-tempered king was sufficiently aroused, his servants, who previously had so easily guided the course of affairs, approached him and asserted that he was not acting wisely in inducing his subjects to make useless speeches, and that his servants would not be able to rule this race of vociferous people. In addition, the sovereign of all the posterior-Russians was alarmed by the movement in the minds of the anterior-Russians [Marx ironically calls the Prussians — in Latin Borussen, Vorderrussen — anterior-Russians, and Nicholas I the sovereign of all the Hinterrussen — posterior-Russians] and demanded the restoration of the old tranquil state of affairs. And so the result was a new edition of the old proscription of all the desires and thoughts of people in regard to human rights and duties, that is to say, a return to the old ossified state of servants, in which the slave serves in silence, and the owner of the land and people rules, as silently as possible, simply through a class of well-bred, submissively obedient servants. It is not possible for either of them to say what he wants: the slave cannot say that he wants to become a human being, nor can the ruler say that he has no use for human beings in his country. To be silent, therefore, is the only way out. Muta pecora, prona et ventri oboedientia. [The herd is dumb, prostrate and obedient to its stomach]
That is the unsuccessful attempt to abolish the philistine state on its own basis; the result has been to make it evident to the whole world that for despotism brutality is a necessity and humanity an impossibility. A brutal relationship can only be maintained by means of brutality. And now I have finished with our common task, that of taking a close look at the philistine and his state. You will not say that I have had too high an opinion of the present time; and if, nevertheless, I do not despair of it, that is only because it is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope. I am not speaking of the incapacity of the masters and of the indifference of the servants and subjects who let everything happen just as God pleases — although both together would already suffice to bring about a catastrophe. I simply draw your attention to the fact that the enemies of philistinism, in short, all people who think and who suffer, have reached an understanding, for which previously the means were altogether lacking, and that even the passive system of reproduction of the subjects of the old type daily enlists recruits to serve the new type of humanity. The system of industry and trade, of ownership and exploitation of people, however, leads even far more rapidly than the increase in population to a rupture within present-day society, a rupture which the old system is not able to heal, because it does not heal and create at all, but only exists and consumes. But the existence of suffering human beings, who think, and thinking human beings, who are oppressed, must inevitably become unpalatable and indigestible to the animal world of philistinism which passively and thoughtlessly consumes.
For our part, we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb.