Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung September 1848

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung

Freedom of Debate in Berlin

by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 105
 Transcribed for the Internet by director@marx.org

Cologne, September 16. Ever since the beginning of the crisis the counter-revolutionary press keeps alleging that the deliberations of the Berlin Assembly are not free from interference. In particular, the well-known correspondent "G" of the Kolnische Zeitung, [75] who also discharges his duties only "temporarily pending the appointment of a successor", [76] refers with obvious fear to the "8,000 to 10,000 strong fellows" in the Kastanienwaldchen who "morally" support their friends of the Left. The Vossische, [77] Spenersche [78] and other newspapers have set up a similar wail, and on the 7th of this month Herr Reichensperger has even tabled a motion frankly demanding that the Assembly be removed from Berlin (to Charlottenburg perhaps?).

The Berliner Zeitungs-Halle [79] publishes a long article in which it tries to refute these accusations. It declares that the large majority obtained by the Left was by no means inconsistent with the former irresolute attitude of the Assembly. It can be shown

"that the voting of the 7th could have taken place without conflicting with the former attitude even of those members who previously voted always for the cabinet, that it was indeed from their point of view in perfect harmony with their former position...." The members who came over from the centre parties "had labored under a delusion; they imagined that the ministers carried out the will of the people; they had taken the endeavors of the ministers to restore law and order for an expression of their own will, i.e., that of the majority of deputies, and had not realized that the ministers could accede to the popular will only when it did not run counter to the will of the Crown, and not when it was opposed to it".

The Zeitungs-Halle thus "explains" the striking phenomenon of the sudden change in the attitude of so many deputies by ascribing it to the notions and delusions of these deputies. The thing could not be presented in a more innocent way.

The paper admits, however, that intimidations did occur. But it says,

"if outside influences did have any effect, it was only that they partially counterbalanced the ministerial misrepresentations and artful temptation, thus enabling the many weak and irresolute deputies to follow their natural vital instinct...."

The reasons which induced the Zeitungs-Halle thus morally to justify the vacillating members of the centre parties in the eyes of the public are obvious. The article is written for these gentlemen of the centre parties rather than for the general public. For us, however, these reasons do not exist, since we are privileged to speak plainly, and since we support the representatives of a party only as long and in so far as they act in a revolutionary manner.

Why should we not say it? The centre parties certainly were intimidated by the masses on September 7; we leave it open whether their fear was well founded or not.

The right of the democratic popular masses, by their presence, to exert a moral influence on the attitude of constituent assemblies is an old revolutionary right of the people which could not be dispensed with in all stormy periods ever since the English and French revolutions. History owes to this right almost all the energetic steps taken by such assemblies. The only reason why people dwell on the "legal basis" and why the timorous and philistine friends of the "freedom of debate" lament about it is that they do not want any energetic decisions at all.

"Freedom of debate" -- there is no emptier phrase than this. The "freedom of debate" is, on the one hand, impaired by the freedom of the press, by the freedom of assembly and of speech, and by the right of the people to take up arms. It is impaired by the existing state power vested in the Crown and its ministers -- the army, the police and the so-called independent judges, who depend, however, on every promotion and every political change.

The freedom of debate is always a phrase denoting simply independence of all influences that are not recognized in law. It is only the recognized influences, such as bribery, promotion, private interests and fear of a dissolution of the Assembly, that make the debates really "free". In times of revolution, however, this phrase becomes entirely meaningless. When two forces, two parties in arms confront each other, when a fight may start any moment, the deputies have only this choice:

Either they place themselves under the protection of the people, in which case they will put up occasionally with a small lecture;

Or they place themselves under the protection of the Crown, move to some small town, deliberate under the protection of bayonets and guns or even a state of siege, in which case they will raise no objections when the Crown and the bayonets dictate their decisions to them.

Intimidation by the unarmed people or intimidation by an armed soldiery -- that is the choice before the Assembly.

The French Constituent Assembly transferred its sessions from Versailles to Paris. It would be quite in character with the German revolution if the Assembly of conciliation were to move from Berlin to Charlottenburg.