Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung July 1848

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung

The Bill Proposing The Abolition of Feudal Obligations

by Karl Marx

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 60
 Translated by the Marx-Engels Institute
Transcribed for the Internet by, 1994

Cologne, July 29. If any Rhinelander should have forgotten what he owes to the "foreign rule", to "the yoke of the Corsican tyrant", he ought to read the Bill providing for the abolition without compensation of various services and dues. The Bill has been submitted by Herr Hansemann in this year of grace 1848 for the "consideration" of his conciliators. Liegedom, allodification rent, death dues, heriot, protection money, legal dues and fines, signet money, tithes on live-stock, bees, etc. -- what a strange, what a barbaric ring these absurd terms have for our ears, which have been civilized by the French Revolution's destruction of feudalism and by the Code Napoleon. How incomprehensible to us is this farrago of medieval duties and taxes, this collection of musty junk from an antediluvian age.

Nevertheless, put off thy shoes from off thy feet, German patriot, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. These barbarities are the last remnants of Christian-German glory, the last links of the historical chain which connects you with your illustrious ancestors all the way back to the forest of the Cherusci. The musty air, the feudal mire which we find here in their classic unadulterated form are the very own products of our fatherland, and every true German should exclaim with the poet:

'Tis my own native air, and the glow on my cheek Could bear no other construction; The very dirt in the highway itself Is my fatherland's production!' [40]

Reading the Bill, it seems to you at first glance that our Minister of Agriculture Herr Gierke, on the orders of Herr Hansemann, has brought off a terrifically "bold stroke", has done away with the Middle Ages by a stroke of the pen, and of course quite gratuitously.

But when one looks at the Bill's motivation, one discovers that it sets out straight away to prove that no feudal obligations whatever ought to be abolished without compensation, that is to say, it starts with a bold assertion which directly contradicts the "bold stroke".

The minister's practical timidity now maneuvers warily and prudently between these two bold postures. On the left "the general welfare" and "the demands of the spirit of our time"; on the right the "established rights of the lords of the manor"; in the middle the "praiseworthy idea of a freer development of rural relations" represented by Herr Gierke's shamefaced embarrassment -- what a picture!

In short, Herr Gierke fully recognizes that feudal obligations in general ought to be abolished only against compensation. Thus the most onerous, the most widespread, the principal obligations are to continue or, seeing that the peasants have in fact already done away with them, they are to be reimposed.

But, Herr Gierke observes,

"if, nevertheless, particular relations, whose intrinsic justification is insufficient or whose continued existence is incompatible with the demands of the spirit of our time and the general welfare, are abolished without compensation, then the persons affected by this should appreciate that they are making a few sacrifices not only for the good of all but also in their own well-understood interests, in order that relations between those who have claims and those who have duties shall be peaceful and friendly, thereby helping landed property generally to maintain the political status which befits it for the good of the whole".

The revolution in the countryside consisted in the actual elimination of all feudal obligations. The government of action, which recognizes the revolution, recognizes it in the countryside by destroying it underhandedly. It is quite impossible to restore the old status quo completely; the peasants would promptly kill their feudal lords -- even Herr Gierke realizes that. An impressive list of insignificant feudal obligations existing only in a few places is therefore abolished, but the principal feudal obligation epitomized in the simple term corvee is revived.

As a result of all the rights that are to be abolished, the aristocracy will sacrifice less than 50,000 thaler a year, but will thereby save several million. Indeed the minister hopes that they will thus placate the peasants and even gain their votes at future parliamentary elections. This would really be a very good deal, provided Herr Gierke does not miscalculate.

In this way the objections of the peasants would be eliminated, and so would those of the aristocrats, in so far as they correctly understand their position. There remains the Chamber, the scruples of the inflexible legalists and radicals. The distinction between obligations that are to be abolished and those that are to be retained -- which is simply the distinction between practically worthless obligations and very valuable obligations -- must be based as regards the Chamber on some semblance of legal and economic justification. Herr Gierke must prove that the obligations to be abolished 1. have an insufficient inner justification, 2. are incompatible with the general welfare, 3. are incompatible with the demands of the spirit of our time, and 4. that their abolition is fundamentally no infringement of property rights, i.e., no expropriation without compensation.

In order to prove the insufficient justification of these dues and services Herr Gierke delves into the darkest recesses of feudal law. He invokes the entire, "originally very slow development of the Germanic states over a period of a thousand years". But what good will it do? The deeper he digs, the more he rakes up the stagnant mire of feudal law, the more does that feudal law prove that the obligations in question have, not an insufficient justification, but from the feudal point of view, a very solid justification. The hapless minister merely causes general amusement when he tries his hardest to induce feudal law to make cryptic pronouncements in the style of modern civil law, or to let the feudal lord of the twelfth century think and judge like a bourgeois of the nineteenth century.

Herr Gierke fortunately has inherited Herr von Patow's principle that everything emanating from feudal sovereignty and serfdom is to be abolished without payment, but everything else is to be abolished only against payment of compensation. But does Herr Gierke really think that special perspicacity is required in order to show that all and every obligation subject to repeal emanates from feudal sovereignty?

It is hardly necessary to add that for the sake of consistency Herr Gierke constantly insinuates modern legal concepts into feudal legal regulations, and in an extremity he always invokes them. But if Herr Gierke evaluates some of these obligations in terms of the modern ideas of law, then it is incomprehensible why the same should not be done with all obligations. In that case, however, the corvee, faced with the freedom of the individual and of property, would certainly come off badly.

Herr Gierke fares even worse when he advances the argument of public welfare and the demands of the spirit of our time in support of his differentiations. Surely it is self-evident that if these insignificant obligations impede the public welfare and are incompatible with the demands of the spirit of our time, then this applies in still greater measure to such obligations as labor service, the corvee, laudemium, etc. Or does Herr Gierke consider that the right to pluck the peasants' geese (S 1, No. 14) is out of date, but the right to pluck the peasants is not?

Then follows the demonstration that the abolition of those particular obligations does not infringe any property rights. Of course, only spurious arguments can be adduced to prove such a glaring falsehood; it can indeed only be done by reckoning up these rights to show the squires how worthless they are for them, though this, obviously, can be proved only approximately. And so Herr Gierke sedulously reckons up all the 18 sections of Clause 1, and does not notice that, to the extent in which he succeeds in proving the given obligations to be worthless, he also succeeds in proving the proposed legislation to be worthless. Virtuous Herr Gierke! How it pains us to have to destroy his fond delusions and obliterate his Archimedean-feudalist diagrams.

But there is another difficulty. Both in previous commutations of the obligations now to be abolished and in all other commutations, the peasants were flagrantly cheated in favor of the aristocracy by corrupt commissions. The peasants now demand the revision of all commutation agreements concluded under the previous government, and they are quite justified in doing so.

But Herr Gierke will have nothing to do with this, since "formal right and law are opposed" to it; such an attitude is altogether opposed to any progress, since every new law nullifies some old formal right and law.

"The consequences of this, it can confidently be predicted, will be that, in order to secure advantages to those under obligations by means that run counter to the eternal legal principles" (revolutions, too, run counter to the eternal legal principles), "incalculable damage must be done to a very large section of landed property in the state, and hence" (!) "to the state itself."

Herr Gierke now proves with staggering thoroughness that such a procedure

"would call in question and undermine the entire legal framework of landed property and this together with numerous lawsuits and the great expenditure involved would cause great damage to landed property, which is the principal foundation of the national welfare"; that it "would be an encroachment on the legal principles underlying the validity of contracts, an attack on the most indubitable contractual relations, the consequences of which would shake all confidence in the stability of civil law, thereby constituting a grave menace to the whole of commercial intercourse"!!

Herr Gierke thus sees in this an infringement of the rights of property, which would undermine all legal principles. Why is the abolition of the obligations under discussion without compensation not an infringement? These are not merely indubitable contractual relations, but claims that were invariably met and not contested since time immemorial, whereas the demand for revision concerns contracts that are by no means uncontested, since the bribery and swindling are notorious, and can be proved in many cases.

It cannot be denied that, though the abolished obligations are quite insignificant, Herr Gierke, by abolishing them, secures "advantages to those under obligations by means that run counter to the eternal legal principles" and this is "directly opposed to formal right and law"; he "undermines the entire legal framework of landed property" and attacks the very foundation of the "most indubitable" rights.

Really, Herr Gierke, was it worth while to go to all trouble and commit such a grievous sin in order to achieve such paltry results?

Herr Gierke does indeed attack property -- that is quite indisputable -- but it is feudal property he attacks, not modern, bourgeois property. By destroying feudal property he strengthens bourgeois property which arises on the ruins of feudal property. The only reason he does not want the commutation agreements revised is because by means of these contracts feudal ownership relations were converted into bourgeois ones, and consequently he cannot revise them without at the same time formally infringing bourgeois property. Bourgeois property is, of course, as sacred and inviolable as feudal property is vulnerable and -- depending on the requirements and courage of the ministers -- violable What in brief is the significance of this lengthy law?

It is the most striking proof that the German revolution of 1848 is merely a parody of the French revolution of 1789.

On August 4, 1789, three weeks after the storming of the Bastille, the French people, in a single day, got the better of the feudal obligations.

On July 11, 1848, four months after the March barricades, the feudal obligations got the better of the German people Teste Gierke cum Hansemanno.

The French bourgeoisie of 1789 never left its allies, the peasants, in the lurch. It knew that the abolition of feudalism in the countryside and the creation of a free, Iand-owning peasant class was the basis of its rule.

The German bourgeoisie of 1848 unhesitatingly betrays the peasants, who are its natural allies, flesh of its own flesh and without whom it cannot stand up to the aristocracy.

The perpetuation of feudal rights and their endorsement in the form of the (illusory) commutations -- such is result of the German revolution of 1848. There was much ado about nothing.