Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung June 1848

The Berlin Debate on the Revolution
By Friedrich Engels

Written: 13 June 1848.
First Published: Neue Rheinische Zeitung, No. 14, 14 June 1848.
Source: Marx and Engels: Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Moscow 1972, pp. 35 – 37.
Transcribed: Einde O'Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet archive (May 2014).

Cologne, June 13. At last the Agreement Assembly has made its position clear. It has rejected the idea of revolution and accepted the theory of agreement.[1]

The matter the Assembly had to decide was this.

On March 18 the King promised a Constitution, introduced freedom of the press together with caution money, and made a series of proposals in which he declared that Germany’s unity must be achieved by the merging of Germany in Prussia.

These sum up the real content of the concessions made on March 18. The fact that the people of Berlin were satisfied with this and that they marched to the palace to thank the King is the clearest proof of the necessity of the March 18 revolution. Not only the state, its citizens too had to be revolutionised. Their submissiveness could only be shed in a sanguinary liberation struggle.

A well-known “misunderstanding” led to the revolution. There was indeed a misunderstanding. The attack by the soldiers, the fight which continued for 16 hours and the fact that the people had to force the troops to withdraw are sufficient proof that the people completely misunderstood the concessions of March 18.

The results of the revolution were, on the one hand, the arming of the people, the right of association and the sovereignty of the people, won de facto; on the other hand, the retention of the monarchy and the Camphausen-Hansemann Ministry, that is a Government representing the big bourgeoisie.

Thus the revolution produced two sets of results, which were bound to diverge. The people was victorious; it had won liberties of a pronounced democratic nature, but direct control passed into the hands of the big bourgeoisie and not into those of the people.

In short, the revolution was not carried through to the end. The people let the big bourgeoisie form a Government and the big bourgeoisie promptly revealed its intentions by inviting the old Prussian nobility and the bureaucracy to enter into an alliance with it. Arnim, Kanitz and Schwerin became members of the Government.

The upper middle class, which was all along anti-revolutionary, concluded a defensive and offensive alliance with the reactionary forces, because it was afraid of the people, i.e. of the workers and the democratic bourgeoisie.

The united reactionary parties began their fight against democracy by calling the revolution in question. The victory of the people was denied, the famous list of the “seventeen dead soldiers” was fabricated, and those who had fought on the barricades were slandered in every possible way. But this was not all. The United Diet[2] convoked before the revolution was now actually convened by the Government, in order rather belatedly to fabricate a legal transition from absolutism to the constitution. Thus the Government openly repudiated the revolution. It moreover invented the theory of agreement, once more repudiating the revolution and with it the sovereignty of the people.

The revolution was accordingly really called in question, and this could be done because it was only a partial revolution, only the beginning of a long revolutionary movement.

We cannot here go into the question as to why and to what extent the present rule of the big bourgeoisie in Prussia is a necessary transitional stage towards democracy, and why, directly after its ascent to power, the big bourgeoisie joined the reactionary camp. For the present we merely report the fact.

The Assembly of conciliation was now to declare whether it recognised the revolution or not.

But to recognise the revolution under these circumstances meant recognising the democratic aspects of the revolution, which the big bourgeoisie wanted to appropriate to itself.

Recognising the revolution at this moment meant recognising the half-and-half nature of the revolution, and consequently recognising the democratic movement, which was directed against some of the results of the revolution. It meant recognising that Germany was in the grip of a revolutionary movement, and that the Camphausen ministry, the theory of agreement, indirect elections, the rule of the big capitalists and the decisions of the Assembly itself could indeed be regarded as unavoidable transitional steps, but by no means as final results.

The debate on the recognition of the revolution was carried on by both sides with great prolixity and great interest, but with remarkably little intelligence. One seldom reads anything so unedifying as these long-winded deliberations, constantly interrupted by noisy scenes or fine-spun arguments about standing orders. Instead of the great passion of party strife, we have a cold, placid temper which threatens at any moment to lapse into amiable colloquy; instead of the biting edge of argument we have interminable and confused talk rambling from one subject to another; instead of neat retorts we have tedious sermons on the essence and nature of morality.

Nor has the Left particularly distinguished itself in these debates. Most of its speakers repeat one another; none of them dare tackle the matter head-on and speak their mind in frank revolutionary terms. They are always afraid to give offence, to hurt or to frighten people away. Germany would have been in a sorry plight if the people who fought on March 18 had not shown more energy and passion in battle than the gentlemen of the Left showed in the debate.


1. According to this theory, which was advanced by Camphausen and Hansemann, the Prussian National Assembly was to prepare a constitution by agreement with the Crown.

The Berlin Assembly, i.e., the Prussian National Assembly, was convened on May 22, 1848, “for the purpose of drafting a constitution by agreement with the Crown” (hence Marx and Engels frequently call it the Assembly of agreement or conciliation). The Assembly was elected under the electoral law of April 8, 1848, by universal suffrage and an indirect (two-stage) system of voting. Most of the deputies belonged to the bourgeoisie or the Prussian bureaucracy.

2. This refers to the second United Provincial Diet (Vereinigter Landtag) which was convoked on April 2, 1848, and consisted of representatives of the eight Provincial Diets (based on the estate principle) then existing in Prussia. The second United Provincial Diet passed a law on the election of a Prussian National Assembly and sanctioned a loan which the first United Provincial Diet had refused to grant the government in 1847. The Provincial Diet was dissolved on April 10, 1848.