Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge

in Dresden

Written: Cologne, May 1843;
First Published: Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844;
HTML Markup: S. Ryan.

In this letter, Marx is replying to Ruge's previous letter, in which Ruge expressed a resigned certainty that there can be no popular revolution – German are too docile, "our nation has no future, so what is the point in our appealing to it?" Classic revolutionary despair...

Your letter, my friend, is a fine elegy, a breath-taking funeral dirge; but it is utterly unpolitical. No people despairs and if stupidity induces it to live on hopes for many years, a sudden burst of cleverness will eventually enable it to fulfill its dearest wishes.

However, you have stimulated me. Your theme is by no means exhausted. I am tempted to add a finale and when all is at an end give me your hand and we can start all over again. Let the dead bury the dead and mourn them. In contrast, it is enviable to be the first to enter upon a new life: this shall be our lot.

It is true that the old world belongs to the philistines. But we must not treat them as bogeymen and shrink from them in terror. On the contrary, we must take a closer look at them. It is rewarding to study these lords of the world.

Of course, they are lords of the world only in the sense that they fill it with their presence, as worms fill a corpse. They require nothing more than a number of slaves to complete their society and slave-owners do not need to be free. If their ownership of land and people entitles them to be called lords and master par excellence this does not make them any less philistine than their servants.

Human beings – that means men of intellect, free men – that means republicans. The philistines wish to be neither. What is left for them to be and to wish?

What they wish is to live and to procreate (and Goethe says that no one achieve more). And this they have in common with animals. The only thing a German politician might wish to add is that man knows this is what he wants and that the Germans are determined to want nothing more.

Man's self-esteem, his sense of freedom, must be re-awakened in the breast of these people. This sense vanished from the world with the Greeks, and with Christianity it took up residence in the blue mists of heaven, but only with its aid can society ever again become a community of men that can fulfill their highest needs, a democratic state.

By contrast, men who do not feel themselves to be men accumulate for their masters like a breed of slaves or a stud of horses. The hereditary masters are the aim and goal of the entire society. The world belongs to them. They take possession of it as it is and feels itself to be. They accept themselves as they are and place their feet where they naturally belong – viz., on the necks of these political animals who have no other vocation that to be their "loyal, attentive subjects".

The philistine world is the animal kingdom of politics and if we must needs acknowledge its existence we have no choice but to accept the status quo. Centuries of barbarism have produced it and given it shape, and now it stands before us as a complete system based on the principle of the dehumanized world. Our Germany, the philistine world at its most perfect, must necessarily lag far behind the French Revolution which restored man to his estate. A German Aristotle who wished to construct his Politics on the basis of our society would begin by writing: "Man is a social but wholly unpolitical animal". And as for the state, he would not be able to better the definition provided by Herr Zopfl, the author of Constitutional Law in Germany. According to him the state is an "association of families" which, we may continue, is the hereditary property of family higher than all others and called the dynasty. The more fertile the families, the happier the people, the greater the state, the more powerful the dynasty, for which reason a premium of 50 Talers is placed on the seventh-born son in the nominal despotism of Prussia.

The Germans are such prudent realists that not one of their wishes and their wildest fancies ever extends beyond the bare actualities of life. And this reality, no more no less, is accepted by those who rule over them. They too are realists, they are utterly removed from all thought and human greatness, they are ordinary officers and provincial Junkers, but they are not mistaken, they are right: just as they are, they are perfectly adequate to the task of exploiting and ruling over this animal kingdom – for here as everywhere rule and exploitation are identical concepts. When they make people pay them homage, when they gaze out over the teeming throng of brainless creatures, what comes into their minds but the thought that occurred to Napoleon on the Berezina. It is said that he pointed to the mass of drowning men and declared to his entourage: Voyez ces crapauds! ["Look at those toads!"] The story is probably invented, but it is true nevertheless. Despotism's only thought is disdain for mankind, dehumanized man; and it is a thought superior to many others in that it is also a fact. In the eyes of the despot, men are always debased. They drown before his eyes and on his behalf in the mire of common life from which, like toads, they always rise up again. If even men capable of great vision, like Napoleon before he succumbed to his dynastic madness, are overwhelmed by this insight, how should a quite ordinary king be an idealist in the midst of such a reality?

The principle on which monarchy in general is based is that of man as despised and despicable, of dehumanized man; and when Montesquieu declared that its principle is honor, he is quite in error. He attempts to make this plausible by distinguishing between monarchy, despotism, and tyranny. But these names refer to a single concept denoting at best different modes of the same principle. Where the monarchical principle is in the majority, human beings are in the minority; where it is not called in question, human beings do not even exist. Now, when a man like the king of Prussia has no proof that he is problematic, why should he not simply follow the dictates of his own fancy? And when he does so, what is the result? Contradictory intentions? Very well, so they all lead to nothing. Impotent policies? They are still the only political reality. Scandals and embarrassments? There is only one scandal, and one source of embarrassment: abdication. As long as caprice remains in its place, it is in the right. It may be as fickle, inane, and contemptible as it pleases; it is still adequate to the task of governing a people which has never known any law but the arbitrary will of its kings. I do not claim that an inane system and the loss of respect both at home and abroad can remain without consequence; I am certainly not prepared to underwrite the Ship of Fools. But I do maintain that as long as the topsy-turvy world is the real world, the King of Prussia will remain a man of his time.

As you know, he is a man I have been much interested in. Even when his only mouthpiece was the Berlin Political Weekly, I could see his worth and his vocation clearly. As early as the act of homage in Konigsberg, he confirmed my suspicion that all issues would now become purely personal. He proclaimed that henceforth his own heart and feelings would constitute the basic law of the Prussian domains, of his state; and in Prussia the King really is the system. He is the only political person. His personality determines the nature of the system. Whatever he does or is made to do, whatever he thinks or is put into his mouth, constitutes the thought and action of the Prussian state. It is therefore a positive good that the present King has admitted this so frankly.

The only mistake was to attribute any significance, as people did for a while, to the wishes and ideas actually produced by the King. [Frederick William IV of Prussia was influenced by the Romantic movement. It was his intention to revive an imaginary concept of the Middle Ages, with estates of the Realm as his answers to the calls, which he opposed, for a Constitution. – editor Quintin Hoare] but these could not affect the situation since the philistine is the material of the monarchy and the monarch is no more than the King of the philistines. As long as both remain themselves he can turn neither himself nor them into real, free human beings.

The King of Prussia tried to change the system with the help of a theory such as his father did not possess. The fate of this attempt is well known: it failed utterly, naturally enough. For once you have arrived at the animal kingdom of politics there is no reaction that can go further back and no way of progressing beyond it without abandoning its basis and effecting the transition to the human world of democracy.

The old King had no extravagant aims, he was a philistine and made no claims to intelligence. He knew that the servile state and his own possession of it stood in need of nothing more than a tranquil, prosaic existence. The young King was more lively and quick-witted; he had a much more grandiose idea of the omnipotent monarch limited only by his own heart and understanding. He felt only repugnance for the old, ossified state of slaves and servants. He desired to infuse new life into it and imbue it with his own wishes, thoughts and feelings; and this, if anything, he could demand in his own state. Hence his liberal speeches and effusions. Not the dead letter of the law, but the living heart of the King would govern all his subjects. He wished to set all hearts and minds in motion to fulfill his heart's desires and his long-mediated plans. And people were set in motion, but their hearts did not beat at one with his and the governed could not open their mouths without demanding the abolition of the old form of authority. The idealists, who are impertinent enough to want human beings to be human, spoke up and while the King gave vent to his Old German fantasies, they imagined that they could begin to philosophize in New German. This had never happened before in Prussia. For a moment it looked as if the old order had been turned upside down; things began to be transformed into people and some of these people even had names, although the naming of names is not permitted in the provincial Diets. But the servants of the old despotism soon put a stop to these un-German activities. It was not difficult to bring about a palpable conflict between the wishes of the King who dreamed of a great past epoch full of priests, knights, and bondsmen, and the intentions of the idealists who simply aspired to realize the aims of the French Revolution – i.e., who in the last analysis wanted a republic and an order of free men instead of an order of dead things. When this conflict had become sufficiently acute and uncomfortable, and the irascible King was in a state of great excitement, his servants, who had formerly managed affairs with such ease, now came to him and announced that the King would be unwise to encourage his subjects in their idle talk, they would not be able to control a race of people who talked. Moreover, the lord of all posterior Russians [Hinterrussen] was disturbed by all the activity going on in the heads of the anterior Russians [Vorderrussen – Marx is sneeringly calling the Prussians anterior Russians, extensions of the Russian Emperor, Nicholas I; that czar's extreme antipathy to anything remotely revolutionary was well known] and demanded the restoration of the old peaceful state of affairs. This led to a new edition of the old proscription of all the wishes and ideas men have cherished concerning human rights and duties, that is, it meant a return to the old ossified, servile state in which the slave serves in silence and the owner of land and people rules as silently as possible over well-trained, docile servants. Neither can say what he wishes – the one that he wishes to be human, the other that he has no use for human beings on his territory. Silence is therefore the only means of communication. Muta pecora, prona et ventri oboedientia. ["The herd is silent, docile and obeys its stomach."]

This then is the abortive attempt to transform the philistine state on the basis of itself; its only result was that it revealed for all the world to see that, for a despotism, brutality is necessary and humanity impossible. A brutal state of affairs can only be maintained by means of brutality. And this brings me to the end of our common task of analyzing the philistine and the philistine state. You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it, this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope. I will say nothing of the incapacity of the masters and the indolence of their servants and subjects who allow everything to proceed as God would have it; and yet taken together both would certainly suffice to bring about a catastrophe. I would only point out that the enemies of philistinism, i.e., all thinking and suffering people, have arrived at an understanding for which formerly they lacked the means and that even the passive system of procreation characteristic of the old subjects now daily wins new recruits to serve the new race of men. However, the system of industry and commerce, of property and exploitation of man, will lead much faster than the increase in the population to a rupture within existing society which the old system cannot heal because, far from healing and creating, it knows only how to exist and enjoy. The existence of a suffering mankind which thinks and of a thinking mankind which is suppressed must inevitably become unpalatable and indigestible for the animal kingdom of the philistines wallowing in their passive and thoughtless existence.

For our part, it is our task to drag the old world into the full light of day and to give positive shape to the new one. The more time history allows thinking mankind to reflect and suffering mankind to collect its strength the more perfect will be the fruit which the present now bears within its womb.