Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung June 1848

The Programmes of the Radical-Democratic Party and of the Left at Frankfurt

Written: 6 June 1848.
First Published:Neue Rheinische Zeitung, No. 7, 7 June 1848.
Source: Marx and Engels: Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Moscow 1972, pp. 30 – 34.
Transcribed: Einde O'Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive (May 2014).

Cologne, June 6. Yesterday we acquainted our readers with the “reasoned manifesto of the Radical-Democratic Party[1] in the constituent National Assembly at Frankfurt am Main.” Today they will find the manifesto of the Left under the heading Frankfurt. At first sight the two manifestos appear to Be almost identical except in form, as the Radical-Democratic Party has a clumsy editor and the Left a skillful one. On closer scrutiny, however, several substantially different points stand out. The manifesto of the Radicals demands a National Assembly to be set up “by direct voting without any electoral qualifications,” that of the Left wants it to be convened by “free universal elections.” Free universal elections exclude electoral qualifications, but do not exclude indirect methods. In any case why use this vague and ambiguous term?

We encounter once more this greater latitude and flexibility in the demands of the Left compared with the demands of the Radical Party. The Left wants “an executive central authority elected by the National Assembly for a definite period and responsible to it.” It does not say whether this central authority has to be elected from the ranks of the National Assembly, as the manifesto of the Radicals expressly states.

Finally the manifesto of the Left calls for the immediate definition, proclamation and maintenance of the basic rights of the German people against all encroachments by individual governments. The manifesto of the Radicals is not content with this. It declares that

“all political power of the federal state is now concentrated in the Assembly which must immediately bring into operation the various forces and political institutions falling within its jurisdiction, and direct the home and foreign policies of the federal state.”

Both manifestos agree that the “drafting of the German constitution should be left solely to the National Assembly” and the governments debarred from taking part in it. Both agree that “without prejudice to the people’s rights to be proclaimed by the National Assembly” it should be left to the individual states to choose the form of government, whether that of a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Both finally agree that Germany should be transformed into a confederation or a federative state.

The manifesto of the Radicals at least expresses the revolutionary nature of the National Assembly. It demands appropriate revolutionary action. Does not the mere existence of a constituent National Assembly prove that there is no longer any constitution? But if there is no constitution, then there is no government either. And if there is no government the National Assembly must govern. Its first move should have been a decree of seven words: “The Federal Diet[2] is dissolved for ever.”

A constituent National Assembly must above all be an active, revolutionarily active assembly. The Assembly at Frankfurt is engaged in parliamentary school exercises and leaves it to the governments to act. Assuming that this learned gathering succeeds, after mature consideration, in framing the best of agendas and the best of constitutions, of what use is the best agenda and the best constitution if the governments meanwhile have placed bayonets on the agenda?

Apart from the fact that it was the outcome of indirect elections, the German National Assembly suffers from a specifically German malady. It sits at Frankfurt am Main, and Frankfurt am Main is merely an ideal centre, which corresponded to the hitherto ideal, that is, merely imaginary, German unity. Frankfurt moreover is not a big city with a numerous revolutionary population that can back the National Assembly, partly defending it, partly spurring it on. It is the first time in human history that the constituent assembly of a big nation holds its sessions in a small town. This is the result of Germany’s previous history. While the French and English national assemblies met on volcanic ground – Paris and London – the German National Assembly considered itself lucky to find neutral ground, where in the most comfortable peace of mind it could ponder over the best constitution and the best agenda. Yet the present state of affairs in Germany offered the assembly an opportunity to overcome the drawbacks of its unfortunate physical situation. It only had to oppose authoritatively all reactionary encroachments by obsolete governments in order to win such strength of public opinion as would make all bayonets and rifle butts ineffective against it. Instead Mainz, almost within sight of the Assembly, is abandoned to the arbitrary actions of the army, and German citizens from other parts of the country are exposed to the chicanery of the philistines in Frankfurt.[See issue of 1 June – MIA] The Assembly bores the German people instead of inspiring it or being inspired by it. Although there is a public which for the time being still looks with good-natured humour upon the antics performed by the spectre of the resurrected Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, there is no people that can find its own life reflected in the life of the Assembly. Far from being the central organ of the revolutionary movement, the Assembly, up till now, was not even its echo.

If the National Assembly forms a central authority from its own midst, little satisfaction can be expected from such a provisional government, in view of the Assembly’s present composition and the fact that it let the favourable moment slip by. If it forms no central authority, it puts its seal to its own abdication and will be scattered to the winds at the first stir of a revolutionary current.

It is to the credit of both the programme of the Left and that of the Radical group that they have grasped this necessity. Both exclaim with Heine:

After very careful consideration
I see that we need no emperor at all.[3]

Because it is so difficult to decide “who shall be emperor,” and because there are as many good reasons for an elected emperor as there are for a hereditary emperor, even the conservative majority of the Assembly will be compelled to cut the Gordian knot by electing no emperor at all.

It is quite incomprehensible how the so-called Radical-Democratic Party can advocate, as the ultimate political structure of Germany, a federation of constitutional monarchies, small principalities and tiny republics, i.e., a federal union of such heterogeneous elements, headed by a republican government – for this is what the central body agreed to by the Left really amounts to.

First of all the German central government elected by the National Assembly must undoubtedly be set up alongside the governments which still actually exist. But its struggle against the separate governments begins as soon as it comes into existence, and in the course of this struggle either the federal government and the unity of Germany are wrecked, or the separate governments with their constitutional princes or petty republics are destroyed.

We do not make the utopian demand that at the outset a united indivisible German republic should be proclaimed, but we ask the so-called Radical-Democratic Party not to confuse the starting-point of the struggle and of the revolutionary movement with the goal. Both German unity and the German constitution can result only from a movement in which the internal conflicts and the war with the East will play an equally decisive role. The final act of constitution cannot be decreed, it coincides with the movement we have to go through. It is therefore not a question of putting into practice this or that view, this or that political idea, but of understanding the course of development. The National Assembly has to take only such steps as are practicable in the first instance.

Nothing can be more confused than the notion advanced by the editor of the democratic manifesto – for all his assurances that “everybody is glad to get rid of his confusion” – that the federal state of North America should serve as a model for the German constitution.

Leaving alone the fact that all its constituent parts have a similar structure, the United States of America covers an area equal to that of civilized Europe. Only a European federation would be analogous to it. But in order to federate with other states Germany must first of all become one state. The conflict between centralization and federalism in Germany is a conflict between modern culture and feudalism. Germany fell into a kind of bourgeoisified feudalism at the very moment the great monarchies arose in the West; she was moreover excluded from the world market just when this market was opened up to the countries of Western Europe. Germany became impoverished while the Western countries grew rich; she became countrified while they became urbanized. Even if Russia did not knock at the gates of Germany, the economic conditions alone would compel the latter to introduce rigorous centralization. Even from a purely bourgeois point of view, the solid unity of Germany is a primary condition for her deliverance from her present wretchedness and for the building up of her national wealth. And how could modern social problems be solved in a territory that is split into 39 small states?

Incidentally, the editor of the democratic programme does not bother about such a minor question as material economic conditions. He relies on the concept of federation in his reasoning. Federation is an alliance of free and equal partners. Hence Germany must be a federal state. But cannot the Germans unite in one great state without offence to the concept of an alliance of free and equal partners?


1. The Left wing of the Frankfurt National Assembly comprised two factions: the Left, one of whose most influential leaders was Robert Blum, and the extreme Left known as the Radical-Democratic Party. Among the deputies belonging to this party were Arnold Ruge, Franz Zitz and Friedrich Wilhelm Schlöffel.

2. The Federal Diet, which was set up in 1815 by a decision of the Congress of Vienna as the central agency of the German Confederation, consisted of representatives of the German states and had its seat at Frankfurt am Main. It had no real power. After the March revolution of 1848 reactionary forces tried to revive the Diet and use it to prevent the democratic unification of Germany.

3. Heine, Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen, Kaput XVI.