Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The German Reformation and its consequences

Conditions in Germany

Remnants of Feudalism and of the Guild System

In England and France, the year 1830 called the bourgeoisie to political power, but in Germany it merely woke them from political hibernation. It was the renown, and the undoing, of this class that it could win its revolution gloriously enough in the cloudy heights of literature and philosophy, but never on level ground with bare fists and cold steel. Its wings were not aired in the storming of any of the countless Bastilles of despotism and feudalism that covered German soil: only the sword of the French conqueror opened the way for it.

Thus it owed the beginning of its emancipation to a foreign domination that destroyed its national existence. It had to fight its liberator, and could only do so in the service of its oppressor: it helped to win the victory of European reaction, but had no share in its fruits. Germany remained torn into some thirty despotisms, the smallest of which was as sovereign as the greatest. The German Confederation was a mockery of German unity. The Federal Diet (Bundestag) in Frankfurt-am-Main, the object of universal contempt, performed the one national function of being the people’s jailor on behalf of the princes.

The terrible disappointment roused the German bourgeoisie to one more attempt at manly resistance. Its vigorous youth, inspired by classical literature and just returning from a victorious war, raised a banner of rebellion in the universities in the Students’ Association (Burschenschaft). But no army gathered around this vanguard, which itself lacked any clear class-consciousness. In the Students’ Association, medieval dreams of Emperor and Empire were crossed with a Jacobin wrath to draw an avenging dagger against the treacherous princes and their abettors. Both elements combined in Sand, the member of the Students’ Association who, in 1819, murdered the Russian spy, Kotzebue. Inspired by high-minded motives, the deed was politically senseless, but was therefore all the more welcome to the despotic feudal reaction, which had already long been lying in wait. The Karlsbad Decrees launched that infamous persecution of ‘demagogues’ that destroyed all the budding political life within Germany.

The surfeit of political reaction on which the German bourgeoisie choked was possible because of its lack of economic development. French rule had cleared Germany only of the coarser rubbish of feudalism. It was totally destroyed on the left bank of the Rhine. Here the nobility no longer had any privileges, feudal and Church property had been transferred into peasant hands and the peasant was a free proprietor as in France. Elsewhere however, and most strongly in the North and East, a mighty remnant of feudal garbage had been preserved.



Junkerdom East of the Elbe

Aristocratic landlordism as it had arisen after the sixteenth century in Holstein and Mecklenburg, but particularly in the Prussian provinces east of the Elbe, owed its origins to the economic revolutions of the age of the Reformation. From being a warrior, the knight had become a producer of commodities. But he carried out his resurrection on the legal basis of feudal entitlement. It was from medieval landlordism that he derived, with the help of venal lawyers, the excuses for, on the one hand, driving peasants from the soil and seizing for himself their common woods, waters and pastures, and, on the other, undermining the tenure rights of those peasants who had been spared and destroying their personal freedom, so that they had to give up all opposition and obey his ever-increasing claims on their labour power and that of their families. Princely absolutism did not oppose this robbery, which lasted for centuries. Particularly in Prussia, it always stood on the side of the landlords against the peasants, unless, of course, it fought with the Junkers about the peasants for the purposes of its military or taxation policies. Its so-called protection of the peasants was limited to preserving the peasant class and keeping its despoliation within such bounds that despotic exploitation should not be squeezed by aristocratic exploitation.

Feudal conditions were by no means abolished by the so-called liberation of the peasants. The French peasants who set the torch to the castles of their tormentors had sufficiently enlightened aristocratic leaders. The noble members of the French National Assembly had been in the forefront on that famous August night in 1789 when an end was put to feudal privileges. The German peasants were much too impoverished to apply such a thoroughgoing method. Only here and there, as in East Prussia and Silesia, did they stir a little. On the other hand the cleverer members of the aristocracy supported the liberation of the peasants, but they were concerned with the interests of the Junkers, and not at all with those of the peasants. They recognized that the forced labour of the peasant produced bad and unreliable work, and in transforming him into a free but propertyless proletarian they wanted to squeeze a greater quantity of work out of him. Just as Mirabeau, the aristocratic leader of the Third Estate, distanced himself from the resolutions of the French National Assembly that cleared away the feudal methods of exploitation, so Schön, the most freethinking of all Prussian statesmen, wanted to restore the personal freedom of the peasants, but by no means their free possession of their acres. In their deeply rooted class selfishness, the mass of the Junkers did not even understand this. Only the fearful blows they received from the peasants’ sons of the French army beat a little economic sense into them.

To crawl before French despots was an old and venerable habit of the German princes and Junkers. They crawled enough before Napoleon too. But at the same time they hated in him the plebeian executor of the bourgeois revolution, and this hatred appeared more sharply, the deeper the individual parts of Germany were still sunk in feudalism. However, free peasants would not let themselves be beaten by serfs. The liberation of the Prussian Peasants therefore was limited to making the peasants fit for modern warfare, but otherwise aimed at saving of feudalism whatever could be saved. So the peasants were given their personal freedom and lured with all kinds of promises about regulation of their rights of tenure until the enemy had been driven from the land, Then the peasant class was cheated worse than the bourgeois.

The great mass of the small peasants, that is the peasants who did not possess their own team of draught animals, fell with the emancipation of the peasants out of the frying pan into the fire. They could neither confirm their right of tenure nor free themselves from feudal dues, services and compulsory labour. On the other hand, their personal freedom from now on exposed them to every whim of the Junkers. The bounds that the eighteenth century monarchy had still tried to set to the clearance of the peasants fell away. The Junker did as he wished with these peasants. He could evict them ‘with compensation for whatever tenure rights might exist’, he bought them out or simply gave them notice to quit their acreage, or used their ignorance to make them give up whatever rights they had. Enough – for a derisory sum or, if even that was too much for him, with force or with lies and trickery, he depressed them to the level of a class of propertyless proletarians whose freedom consisted in this, that the peasants were deprived of all rights where the Junkers were concerned, and the Junkers were free of all duties towards the peasants. For a part of this proletariat, this lack of rights was even legally established by the Statute of Servants (Gesindeordnung) of 1810. This is how the great mass of the peasants were thanked for Grossbeeren, Dennewitz, Leipzig and all the countless battles of the Napoleonic wars. Even in 1848, the Junker Bismarck publicly boasted, as if it were an ideal state of affairs, of the fact that the labourers on his estate at Kniephof had to drudge unpaid, the men for 156 days in the year, the women for 26, for supplies in kind that were by his own account wretched, and for wages fixed, in summer, at 4 silver groats a day for men and 3 for women, and in winter, at one groat less for either sex.

After the Junkers had created for themselves the proletariat that was both indispensable for large-scale agricultural enterprise and defenceless against the most thoroughgoing exploitation, they plundered the minority of spannfähig peasants, i.e. those possessing their own draught animals, in a different manner. These peasants were divided into those still having security of tenure and those whose right of tenure was insecure, or rather made insecure over the course of years by the encroachments of the Junkers. The spannfähig peasants with insecure right of tenure were ‘regularized’. They were able to secure the right to possess their land freely and liberate themselves from all feudal burdens by giving up to the Junkers a third or a half of their acreage, according to the degree of insecurity of their tenure. Moreover, a further large portion of these spannfähig peasants were excluded from regularizing their situation by dubious interpretations of the law, and were just as exposed to the arbitrary will of the Junkers as were their comrades in misfortune who possessed no draught animals. The spannfähig peasants with secure tenure were ‘released’: they were allowed to have their feudal charges estimated as rent in money or in corn, and to buy themselves off completely by paying twenty-five times the value of the rent.

Thus there emerged between 1815 and 1848, as a result of the regularization, in the Provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, Prussia and Posnan no more than 70,582 hereditary holding, of which 20,000 were in the Province of Posnan alone, where the government proceeded somewhat more sharply against the rebellious Polish nobility. In addition, 289,652 spannfähig peasants were released from their feudal obligations. In the process of regularization and release itself the peasants suffered, not only from the ‘reform’ that cost them so dear, but from the activities of the town authorities which everywhere worked hand-in-glove with the Junkers. The whole emancipation cost the peasants 1,533,050 morgen of land,18,544,768 talers in capital payments, and a further 1,599,992 talers and 260,069 bushels of corn in annual rents.

The emancipation of the Prussian peasants turned out to be a bloody caricature of what the French peasants had achieved in their revolution. Across the Rhine, absolutism and feudalism had been destroyed, and their spectral return after Waterloo only proved that their days were numbered. East of the Elbe, they flourished all the more comfortably the more the exploitation of the masses enabled them to put the royal domains and the Junkers’ estates on a capitalist footing. Large scale agriculture now had a proletariat in all due and legal form, the last drops of whose sweat it could mint into money, and the colossal expenditure of money and land with which the peasants had had to foot the bill for four centuries of plunder provided the means to set up agricultural industries. The first and most important was the distillation of schnaps, which from now on began to flood first Germany and then the whole world with Prussian fusel oil. The Prussian spirit industry poisoned the masses with a success only surpassed by the poisoning of China by the Anglo-Indian opium industry. The still is a better emblem of the Junkers east of the Elbe than any warrior crest. And while they erected new bulwarks to their power with this and other highly-modern industries like sugar beet refining, the Prussian Junkers clung convulsively to a whole lumber of feudal privileges, manorial policing rights, manorial courts, control of Church offices, hunting rights, etc.

It was a wondrously distorted world, and it may well have looked as it appeared to Heine, the Rhenish poet: a child with a pumpkin-head, a blond moustache and grey pigtail; with long arms, spidery but strong, a monstrous belly but a short gut. [72] But until it had finished off this tough and obstinate class of Prussian Junkers, the German bourgeoisie could not think of ruling politically on its own, especially since these Junkers had forged for themselves, in the Prussian army and the bureaucracy, weapons that were always ready to strike.



Town Crafts

In the Prussian state, more than three quarters of the population lived on the land, and in the German Confederation more than two thirds. Low as it had fallen, the craft guild system still predominated in the towns. In 1830 it was still on the same level as 1800. In the second half of this period it had healed as best it could the wounds it had received in the endless wars of the first half. Otherwise it showed not the slightest trace of progressive development. It worked on in the time-honoured manner, for local consumption, for better or for worse, narrow and selfish in outlook, abhorring all technical progress and spinning out a shadowy vegetable existence in the close repressive atmosphere of the small town. The individual craft enterprises were tiny; there were almost twice as many masters as there were journeymen. Every journeyman had the hope of becoming a master himself; where crafts were not monopolized, it was also possible to become an established master. Handicrafts lacked the tension of social contradictions.

Nevertheless, matters looked less dismal among the journeymen than they did among the masters. The old journeymen’s associations had collapsed after the Thirty Years’ War, and the power of the princes had forcibly stamped out their tattered remnants in the interests of rising capitalism. The Prussian monarchy was prominent in this. On its instigation, the Imperial Law of 1731 was decreed, suppressing the last resistance of the once so combative and defiant journeymen. The Prussian Statute of Handicrafts of 1733 placed the severest penalties upon infringements of the articles of the Imperial Law; imprisonment, penal servitude and, for recidivists, death. It goes without saying that a strict ban on combinations was then decreed under Prussian law. But it was the very cruelty of this legislation that kept a vague class-consciousness alive among the journeymen, an uneasy, dissatisfied feeling that was constantly inflamed by the rule within the guild system that forced journeymen to be always on the move. In Switzerland, England and France, German artisans got to know advanced conditions that contrasted sharply with the decay at home. Many remained abroad, but others brought freer attitudes home with them.

The ruinous condition of German handicrafts was mirrored in the ruinous condition of their legal status. Already in the eighteenth century, the capitalist policies of enlightened despotism had violated, breached and shaken up the guild constitution; then the storms of the Napoleonic age had raged over it, but they had only really thoroughly swept away the guild where they had completely destroyed feudalism: in Rhenish Prussia, Rhenish Bavaria and Rhenish Hesse. The guild still ruled in the whole of south Germany and in the Kingdom of Saxony, which had already reached a comparatively high level of industrial development. It is true that in the old Prussian provinces free industry existed on paper, but it gave no new impulse to Prussian handicrafts. The towns east of the Elbe had been fleeced so often over the centuries by the princes and the Junkers that they lacked any lively civic spirit.

The Municipal Statutes of 1808 were, it is true, fairly progressive for their time. They freed the towns to a certain extent from the whip of the military and the bureaucracy and restored control over their own finances, education, provision for the poor, and even under some circumstances the police. And even if, like the whole Prussian reform legislation after Jena, it was scrappy and only extorted by the most extreme necessity, after Waterloo it was revised in a retrograde way: the poorer layers of the population were excluded as far as possible from citizenship and the civic authorities were placed under the vexatious supervision of the state bureaucracy. In addition, the unhappy distinction between citizens and temporary residents (Schutzverwandten) had the actual result – although it was illegal – that members of the educated classes only condescended to become citizens when they bought a house and had to do so. The mass of urban citizens were master craftsmen and home-owners who grew up in the narrowest philistinism. Used to the exploitative practices of the guilds, they saw in the new civic freedom a substitute for what they had lost with the introduction of industrial freedom. With comfortably easy consciences they squandered civic lands, devastated civic forests, advanced the boundaries of their gardens until the town wall and moat had disappeared, and even divided the town hall grounds among themselves. The best skat-player in the rifle-club was the hero of this petty bourgeoisie. [73]

The south German petty bourgeois appeared more active, although here, to the East of the Rhine, handicrafts were still fettered by the guilds. Napoleon had forged together the intermediate states south of the river Main out of hundreds of independent scraps, and their princes remained true to their French protector as long as they possibly could, being faced with the penalty of immediate ruin. Now they sought to stabilize their thrones, which were hastily lashed together and still very shaky, on a firmer legal basis of constitutionalism. But this constitutionalism was like their claim to rule: behind it there were nothing but big words. It represented a sort of Hobson’s choice: with their territorial diets (Landtage) the South German princes wanted to provide a counter-weight to the superiority of Austria and Prussia in the Federal Diet (Bundestag), while they could always count on the Federal Diet if their own territorial Diets should ever become unruly. South German constitutionalism could not revolutionize feudal-military Germany, and showed no desire to grasp that particular nettle.

The political ideal of the petty bourgeois as he predominated in Baden, the Palatinate and Württemberg was determined by his economic position. Circumstances permitting, he desired a republic, but a gentle Arcadia of a republic, a peasant and bourgeois republic, modest in dimension, without the great contradictions of historical and social life, without extremes of wealth or poverty, nothing but middle class and mediocrity. He wanted no princes and no civil list, no aristocracy and no standing army, and if possible no taxes. But above all he wanted no active participation in history, no foreign policy, no big industry and no world trade. Had it really been possible for Germany to disintegrate into a number of such hole-and-corner republics, the country would have finally and utterly disappeared from the ranks of the great nations.



The Beginnings of Capitalism

Side by side with the predominant handicrafts there was no lack of variety in the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production in Germany.

Despite the general impoverishment, a considerable remnant of capital had been preserved in the old trading centres and ports. Then in the eighteenth century the despotism’s insatiable need for money for the court and for the army, its growing appetite for taxes and its growing state debts, its economic system of monopolies, privileges and protection, had become powerful levers for the capitalist mode of production. In part, the industrialist’s capital flowed directly from the state treasury: Mirabeau explained the brilliance of Saxony’s manufactories from the country’s 180 million talers of state debts. The mercantilist policies of the Hohenzollerns are known. The Prussian taxes, excises and military contributions squeezed blood out of the peasants and craftsmen only to throw away the lion’s share on the army and the Junkers; but many a round little sum fell into the laps of the capitalists, who in those days were delighted to embrace the principle of ‘state aid’. The proletarianization of the peasantry provided budding capital with ever new masses for the transformation of muscles and nerves into surplus value, and the draconian abolition of the ‘blue Monday’ [74] and the summary shortening of religious holidays set the capitalist pump into faster and faster motion. The smaller despots made countless millions from the mass sales of their countries’ sons for foreign wars. The original accumulation of capital in Germany was only carried out in blood, misery and shame.

German capitalism always lagged far behind that of France, not to speak of that of England. It was obliged to undercut its stronger competitors in the world market by paying starvation wages and by petty business intrigues. Its broad basis was cottage industry. Manufacturing based on manual labour was less advanced, and the mechanized factory still less so.

Now cottage industry, as well as being the oldest, is also the most backward form of the capitalist mode of production. In its beginnings it often appears as a boon to the poor peasants and craftsmen; it lulls its victims in a comfortable lethargic slumber of the spirit to wake them up to the grossest atrophy of body and soul. Once cottage industry was overtaken by manufacturing or mechanized industry, it could only be kept alive by the most feverish intensification of labour power. The dispersion of cottage workers weakens their power of resistance to capital, and the continual pressure on wages forces them to stretch the working day to the limit of what is physically possible, to harness their wives and children to the same yoke, to sacrifice themselves and their families rapidly to chronic illness and an early death, not only from overwork, but also from the lack of light, air and ventilation in a narrow lodging that is at the same time home and workshop, and often enough from the work itself being injurious to health. In addition there are the irregularity of the work, the truck system, profiteering, parasitic middlemen and a hundred other evils. The most hopeless of all proletarians, the cottage workers are nevertheless the furthest away from proletarian class-consciousness. They flaunt their apparent independence while their pennyweight of possessions drags them like a lead weight into the abyss. Their kind of enterprise throws them the more defencelessly into the destructive bustle of the world market the more firmly it binds the peasant to his few acres and the craftsman to his tools.

German cottage industry arose essentially in two ways. In part, capital lodged in the cracks in the guild system and broke up the rotting structure, so that individual craftsmen became capitalist distributors while the majority became wage labourers in cottage industries. Here too the state power gave its friendly assistance. Prussian state law subjected the whole guild organization to the sovereign. Only the King could set up new guilds, and he could open or close the existing guilds as he pleased. For the most part, however, capital threw itself upon the countryside, where it was free from the still irksome limitations of the guilds. It threw itself upon the bondsman, whom the Junker had already made defenceless, on the small peasant, who, in infertile areas where the land was excessively divided up, squatted on his bare few acres, could not live from agriculture alone, and had already long since sought a side occupation in spinning and weaving and carving more or less artistic household articles.

It is characteristic that capitalism flooded the heights and the slopes of the German mountain ranges with the misery of cottage industry, the Eulen, Riesen, Erz and Fichtel Mountains, the Thuringian Forest and the Rhone, the Taunus, the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps. But it did not spurn what the lowlands offered; broad stretches of the Lower Rhine and Westphalia were old strongholds of cottage industry.



Cottage Industry in Silesia and Saxony

In Eastern Germany, the Province of Silesia and the Kingdom of Saxony formed the centres of the capitalist mode of production. Even in the times of its deepest decline, Germany had maintained the linen industry which furnished almost its only export, and since the middle of the seventeenth century Silesia had been one of its main strongholds. At that time, the lively demand of English and Dutch traders had given the Silesian linen trade a strong impetus. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, linen was produced for sale in 287 localities in Silesia. It was almost exclusively a rural cottage industry carried out in villages whose land was poor, and it rested on the basis of feudalism.

To a certain extent Silesia represented the classical example of feudalism east of the Elbe. When Schön visited the province in 1797 he was horrified by the ‘ghastly’ conditions. What he meant was that here the very air itself was impregnated with feudalism, that outside the towns there were only lords and servants. If there was not revolt after revolt, it was explicable partly by the remnants of a patriarchal relationship between landlord and smallholder, by reason of which the latter in their ignorance were better able to endure the otherwise unendurable, and partly because the Silesians were morally and physically stunted by serfdom, bondage and hereditary subjugation, and by the trade of spinning and weaving. In fact the organization of the Silesian linen trade was rooted in landlordism. Whereas in the other old Prussian provinces the handicrafts were banned or as good as banned from the countryside, there were in Silesia countless craftsmen in the villages too, dating back to the days of Austrian rule, and it was the landlords alone who had the right to license the pursuit of trades. King Frederick, it is true, forbade the increase of traders’ and craftsmens’ taxes after he had conquered Silesia, but as so often happened, the will of the enlightened despot collapsed in the face of the united resistance of the feudal Junkers.

All weavers, free and unfree, had to pay the weaving tax to the landlords. But the free were a diminishing minority; the huge majority were estate serfs, and had to pay and perform all the feudal dues and services on top of the weaving tax. In selling to their subjects the right to carry out weaving as a commodity production, the landlords felt no obligation to provide an outlet for the commodity. On the contrary, they had the yarn, which they received in massive quantities as payment in kind from the serf flax spinners, sold on to the weavers by middle-men. The tradesmen they themselves taxed were a sure market for their excess yarn. But what the weavers were supposed to do with any excess of finished linen was their own affair, and no concern of the landlord. They had to sell it off at whatever was the market price, or at whatever the linen dealers saw fit to tell them was the market price. The poverty of the Silesian weavers, which has long since been proverbial, is sufficiently explained by this, that they were fleeced simultaneously by feudalism and by capitalism in friendly competition.

Despite, or rather because of, the poverty of the weavers, the Silesian linen industry flourished until towards the middle of the eighteenth century. Then however it succumbed to rising Anglo-Irish competition. Indeed, life was no bed of roses for the Irish and Scottish spinners, but the meagrest reward proved itself to be a better spur to industrious and efficient work and to technical progress in the spinning process than the feudal obligation to supply a certain amount of yarn, whether fixed or not. The spinning wheel had not even replaced the hand-spindle in Silesia, and Silesian yarn gained a reputation that was as bad as it was merited. Landlordism influenced the competitiveness of the Silesian weavers even more thoroughly. According to an English parliamentary report of 1773, weavers in Scotland earned 10d, in Ireland 8d and in Silesia from 2d to 6d a day. On top of that the Scottish and Irish weavers did not have to pay a weaving tax, or feudal dues or perform services to a landlord. If trade was good and their wages rose, so that they could put a penny or two on one side, they could emigrate to America when trade was bad. The Silesian weaver on the other hand could only leave his landlord’s estate by paying a redemption fee, which was more than he could afford under any circumstances. Thus spinning and weaving, as Schön correctly said, were highly disadvantageous for the moral and physical development of the Silesian population. But since the work had to suffer along with the worker, the Silesian linen industry was increasingly obliged to give ground to its English competitors, despite all the arts of unfair competition.

By their very nature, King Frederick’s mercantilist policies could not remove these abuses. However many Regulations and Statutes he decreed, aimed at ensuring the quality of the work by inspectorates, by the exclusion of shoddy work, by threatening the weavers with flogging, the stocks, the neck-irons and penal servitude – all this was useless as long as the root of the evil, the feudal bondage of the spinners and weavers, remained. Frederick only increased the poverty of the weavers by constantly seeking to bring fresh weavers into the land, an effort that exercised him constantly and which went as far as forcibly seizing human beings from his less powerful neighbour states. His measures for the improvement of the Silesian linen industry are one of the most incredible chapters of his backward economic policy.

A distant echo of the French revolution broke through to the Silesian weavers for all their dullness. In 1792 revolts broke out amongst them. With their sacks over their left shoulders they marched down out of the hills to the town markets and by rough treatment forced the yarn-dealers to sell cheap and the linen-dealers to buy dear. The movement was supported by peasant disturbances and a riot by the Breslau journeymen. Since the Prussian army was away on the tragi-comic crusade against revolutionary France and Silesia was without troops, the horrified government vacillated between barbaric suppression and useless palliatives. But the merchants beat down the revolt more effectively than alms or the whip by staying away from the markets until the weavers had been starved into submission.

Just as the Silesian cottage workers were fleeced equally by feudalism and capitalism, so, in accordance with the noble harmony of the Prussian social reforms, they were cheated equally by the emancipation of the peasants and by that of the crafts. The ambiguous conception of freedom that the peasant was to enjoy from Martinmas 1810 [75] was strictly suppressed in many parts of Silesia, and an order of the King in Council informed his beloved subjects that forced labour and socage [76], payments in money and in kind, ground rent and dog fees, hen, goose, egg, broom, watchmens’ and silver dues were by no means abolished along with serfdom. The government interpreted the emancipation of the crafts in the same way, with Hardenburg explaining, on the insistence of the Junkers, that the new freedom by no means abolished the weaving tax, which was on the contrary to continue, on a legal basis -- the very tax that Frederick had attacked in principle, even if he had not abolished it in practice. The poverty of the Silesian linen workers continued undiminished, and now the competition from England threatened them with a second and mightier blow. Instead of the struggle between free labourers and serfs, they were now faced with the struggle of the machine against the hand. There followed a period in which the Silesian weavers were, in the words of an official reporter, ‘perhaps the most poverty stricken of all the inhabitants of Europe.’

In the Kingdom of Saxony, the beginnings of capitalism dated from the age of the Reformation. Its oldest stronghold was mining. The revenue from mining, a blessing for some, was a curse for the miners who brought the minerals to the surface. As early as the fifteenth century there are reports of forcibly suppressed wages struggles and countless decrees against the truck system. With the discovery of gold and silver mines in America, the importance of the mining of precious metals in Saxony declined, but its old trade and transport connections, the country’s favourable geographical position, the wealth of mineral treasures in its soil, of lead, tin and coal, prevented a permanent economic decline. The fairs at Leipzig became the biggest markets in Eastern Europe, first for French, then for English manufactured goods, and the various branches of the textile industry flourished. Cloths from Saxony, linen from Lusatia, muslin from the Vogtland, cotton goods from Chemnitz and lace from the Erz Mountains were exported to the most distant countries. Saxon industry received a new and powerful impetus from the Continental System. Chemnitz began to develop into a Saxon Manchester. A calico mill employed 1,200, a calico printing plant and a cotton spinning mill over 3,000 workers. Small jennies for spinning cotton were introduced as early as the end of the eighteenth century, but until the middle of the nineteenth century there were still no mechanical looms. Cottage industry was predominant, and its starvation wages were notorious. The cottage workers of the Erz Mountains lived exclusively on potatoes and chicory broth; as early as 1780 a Vogtland doctor published a book on the special diseases that flourished with the growth of cottage industry.

In the eighteenth century Saxony was economically and therefore intellectually the most developed part of Germany. Saxony was the trail-blazer of German culture, the Saxons were the most educated and learned branch of the German nation. Saxony possessed the best schools, and it was from here that German classical literature developed. But as to its political constitution, things were different. On such an economic basis, of course, it could not erect a military state on the Prussian pattern. The economic understanding of the day had progressed much further in Dresden than in Berlin. The Electress Regent Maria Antonia tried in vain to convert der Alte Fritz (Frederick the Great) from his outdated mercantilism. Leipzig was virtually an Imperial Free City, and the Saxon towns generally enjoyed a certain measure of independence. Even if this independence primarily favoured a patrician clique, the simmering discontent of the plebeian mass represented a progressive element entirely missing in the Prussian towns, which were cowed by the corporal’s cane. Nevertheless, neither feudalism on the land nor the guilds in the towns had been cleared away, and the mouldering forms of the monarchy based on the Estates persisted into the nineteenth century. Saxony was a voluntary ally of Napoleon, and being neither, like Prussia, his enemy, nor, like the states of the Confederation of the Rhine, his creation, Saxony maintained its social structure amidst all the beneficially disruptive consequences of the French conquest. When, already exhausted to death by the campaign of 1813, it was torn apart by the Congress of Vienna as a punishment for its loyalty to its ‘great ally’, it staggered on in the old humdrum way.



Big Industry in the Rhineland and Westphalia

Thus the centres of industry in Eastern Germany were still more or less sunk in the swamp of feudalism. The industrial centres of Western Germany on the other hand had almost reached the level of modern bourgeois society. The industries of Rhenish Prussia were more advanced in skills and more varied than those of Silesia or even of Saxony. It was a long way ahead of them also; in the whole of Germany this advantage was shared only by Rhenish Bavaria and Rhenish Hesse, in that since 1795 it had participated in the liberating bourgeois legislation of the French Revolution. The old indigenous industries, which in times past had been greatly encouraged by Germany’s great waterway, by access to the sea and by the mineral wealth in the ground, flourished under French domination. In the administrative districts of Aachen, Cologne, and Düsseldorf, almost all branches of industry were to be found: cotton, wool and silk industries with the dependent industries of bleaching, printing and dyeing, iron-founding and mechanical engineering, as well as mining, the manufacture of arms and other engineering industries. They employed a population of a density unknown in the rest of Germany.

Directly connected with the Rhenish Province was the coal and iron district, which provided it with part of its raw materials and belonged to it industrially. There was a reciprocal relationship between industry and an import-export trade with all parts of the world, which was very extensive by German standards, and a significant direct traffic with all the great emporia of world trade. The flourishing state of trade and industry encouraged the accumulation of capital; in the towns the feudal Estates fell apart, and their atoms reformed anew in the more and more sharply distinct classes of bourgeois and proletarians. Free possession of the land existed in the countryside. The small peasant predominated, free of all feudal burdens, but becoming more and more indebted to capital. The bourgeoisie dominated him through mortgages as it dominated the proletariat through wages and the petty bourgeoisie through competition. But the rule of the bourgeoisie was recognized and confirmed by the trade courts, the industrial courts, the assize courts, the whole material arm of legislation. For Germany it was a uniquely high level of economic development.

In its gradual growth, big industry in the Rhineland and Westphalia offered a colourful mixture of various capitalist forms of enterprise. In the Remscheid district, handicrafts had persisted and capital was content to play the role of middleman exporting every conceivable kind of commodity, which did not in fact make its rule any the gentler. In the Solingen district, it destroyed the guilds and depressed the armourers, once the most respected craft, which had been world-famous, to the poverty of a cottage proletariat. In Aachen, it brought the cloth-makers’ guilds to heel by hiring cheaper labour from the surrounding countryside. In the Krefeld silk industry, which from the beginning was organized on a merchant basis, the cottage weavers struggled obstinately for recognition as master craftsmen. They were fortunate enough to gain possession of their own looms by dint of great self-sacrifice, without realizing that they were thus merely forging even stronger capitalist chains to bind themselves. But Rhenish industry excelled in the early development of manufacturing and mechanized industries. The first mechanized spinning jenny in Germany was driven by water power by an Elberfeld manufacturer in 1783. [77] Although the Solingen grinders rioted in 1826 against an atrocious truck system and the silk weavers of Krefeld rose in 1828 against an intolerable wage cut, countless masses of workers’ children at the same time fell victim in dumb silence to the Moloch of the machine.

The Prussian government bore, involuntarily, the credit for revealing these abominable conditions. In 1818 it learned quite by chance that a Rhenish manufacturer had set up a factory school. With that unique hypocrisy that has become proverbial as ‘Prussian wind’, the King publicly praised this worthy man in an order in council. Meanwhile the persecution of the ‘demagogues’ led to an investigation of schools, and the Minister of Culture, von Altenstein, demanded fuller information about that factory school from the authorities in Düsseldorf. It then emerged that the manufacturer who had been so highly praised possessed two spinning mills, in which children from six years of age were exploited day and night. In one of the mills 96 children worked on the day shift and 65 on the night shift, in the other 95 worked by day and 80 by night. A shift lasted 13 hours by day and 11 hours at night, with frequent additional Sunday working. The daily wage was not quite 20 pfennigs for the smaller children and 30 for the bigger ones, while adult workers received 10 silver groats for the same work. But the famous factory school consisted in this, that the day-shift children received one hour’s education and the night-shift children two hours. A senior financial Geheimrat [78], whose name has unfortunately not been recorded for posterity, reported to Berlin that the night-shift children were distinguished from the pale children of Berlin by their healthy, blooming appearance, and that night work had so little effect on them that on their way home, often more than a quarter of a mile away, they got up to all sorts of merry pranks. Sleeping by day, he considered, was as healthy as sleeping at night.

Altenstein did not regard the matter quite so complacently. He was a friend of Hegel and wanted to make his mark as Minister of Education in Prussia, with its famous universal compulsory education. His direction of the educational system was almost the only bright side to the whole degenerate administration of the Prussian state. His colleague, however, the Minister of the Interior, von Schuckmann, with whom he had to co-operate, had no objection to child-labour in factories. In order to convince him of the need to act, Altenstein instructed all the local authorities in the Rhenish Province, Westphalia, Silesia, Brandenburg and Prussian Saxony, to investigate the nature and extent of the use of child labour in factories. Although the authorities approached ran the inquiry in the old slapdash Prussian manner, taking no evidence from workers or their children, but only from the manufacturers and the occasional doctor, clergyman and teacher, their reports presented a picture that was nevertheless shocking.

Many thousands of children of the tenderest years, even as young as four, were worked to death in every branch of the textile industry, as well as in nail, bronze, buckle, armour, tapestry and other factories, paper mills and potteries. For an irregular working day of ten, twelve or even fourteen hours they were rewarded with a daily wage of a few groats and, as a report from Iserlohn puts it, a brief recreation with brandy, tobacco, lechery and play. In other reports it is stated: ‘Pale faces, dull and inflamed eyes, swollen bodies, bloated cheeks, swollen lips and nostrils, inflammations of the glands in the neck, malignant eruptions of the skin and asthmatic attacks distinguish these unfortunate creatures in point of physical health from children of the same class of the population who do not work in factories. Their moral and intellectual condition is equally degenerate.’ Even in areas of low economic development such as Brandenburg and Prussian Saxony, the very saddest conditions obtained. The municipal council at Luckenwalde announced that the children employed in the textile industry in the town grew up in moral degradation, and in the nail smithies of the Merseburg district children were used from four in the morning until six at night for the heavy labour of operating the bellows.

All this left the Prussian cabinet, with the exception of Altenstein, very cold. Even in 1826, when Lieutenant General von Horn reported to the King that the factory districts could no longer provide their drafts of recruits, nothing happened except that Schuckmann replied to a further warning from Altenstein, very coarsely, but with a deep insight into the nature of the Prussian military state, that the employment of children in factories was anyway less dangerous than giving them work that would further their intellectual development. Only when humanitarian manufacturers in the Rhenish Province made a fuss in the press and the Rhenish Provincial Diet demanded legal regulation of child labour did the government condescend, in 1839, not indeed to introduce, but at least to commit to paper, some limitations on the employment of children in factories. It took a further ten years before the complaints of the Rhenish workers about the truck system were heeded. Only after the salutary lesson of 1848 was a ban on the substitution of goods for wages decreed, and even to some extent seriously imposed. Until then the Prussian government had answered the workers’ complaints, the repeated representations of the Rhenish and Westphalian Provincial Diets and the passionate agitation of a few honourable manufacturers with ‘serious reservations and considerable doubts’ as to whether a ghastly method of profiteering committed at the expense of a poverty stricken and defenceless working class really ought to be banned. It was always ready, on the other hand, to suppress any unruly movement among the ill-treated workers by force of arms.

Anyway, the only link that held the Eastern and the Western Provinces of the Prussian State together was the intimate understanding the bureaucrats from east of the Elbe had of the Rhenish bourgeoisie’s lust for profits. Otherwise, the Rhinelanders were treated more or less as defeated rebels, and the attempt was made by constant attacks on their progressive laws to reduce them to the cultural level of Kashubia. [79] Whatever culture and self-confidence they possessed was in open revolt against the Christian Teutonic government in Berlin, and it is not hard to guess with what fervent love the proletariat particularly responded to the paternal care of such rulers.



Romantic Reaction

The young bourgeoisie that had developed in Germany was not, by and large, the flower of the nation. The manner of its formation and the limitations placed on its existence gave it the petty outlook of the peddlar. It was brutal towards the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat, sycophantic towards absolutism and feudalism. The worst short-coming of Prussian industry according to Privy Councillor Kunth, who knew it better than anyone, was the astonishing lack of education of most manufacturers. Among the leading factory owners in Berlin, he found many who could scarcely write their own name properly. The literature and philosophy that had lifted Germany, politically and economically backward as it was, at least culturally onto a level with the other civilized western nations, had arisen in the eighteenth century from petty-bourgeois layers, from craftsmen and petty officials in church, school and state, and not from the big and medium bourgeoisie.

There was little left of this great national heritage by the twenties of the last century. The Romantic school, which followed the Classical movement like a feudal reaction from the East to a bourgeois advance from the West, degenerated more and more after Waterloo into the shallowest inanity. Poets who wrote a lot about very little, oscillating between sentimental tears and lewd obscenity, were the darlings of the general public. Already there were heralds of a new age, but all of them, Immermann and Platen, Börne and Heine, were still much more at the stage of struggling with Romanticism rather than victoriously overcoming it. [80]

Just as, three hundred years previously, the development of the language had been the brightest aspect of the Lutheran reaction, the real scientific fruit of Romanticism was in the area of linguistic research. In economics, politics and religion, it advocated a restoration of the Middle Ages, which, after the historical decay of the medieval forms of society, inevitably led to a fantastic glorification of feudal methods of exploitation. Moreover, the spokesmen of Romantic theories of government, the Adam Müllers and Hallers and all the rest of them, were the paltriest imitators of the more brilliant Frenchmen Bonald and Maistre. To be sure, the necessity of abolishing more or less of the rubbish of feudalism and the guild system under the Napoleonic whip, had called forth in Germany a certain echo of classical bourgeois political economy. But even its exponents remained unoriginal pupils of Adam Smith and Ricardo. They lacked the living soil of modern bourgeois society, so that in their hands the theoretical expression of foreign reality was transformed into a collection of dogmas that they misinterpreted to fit the petty-bourgeois world around them. Perhaps nothing expresses the economic backwardness of German conditions better than the fact that Friedrich List, the only German economist to be original in his own way, attacked Adam Smith’s theories, not from the front, as happened in England and France, but from behind; not from the point of view of socialism, but from that of mercantilism. List, who was no great scientist, but had practical common sense, recognised nevertheless what the next step had to be for German capitalism. He agitated passionately for a German customs union and a German railway system. But the particularist governments persecuted the nationalist demagogue and the bourgeoisie left its most eloquent pioneer to starve, until in the end he shot himself.

Of all Adam Smith’s German pupils, only Heinrich von Thünen had some ideas he could call his own. In 1826 he wrote A Dream of Serious Content: On the Lot of the Workers, but he locked it away in a drawer for ten years. Thünen was a practical agriculturalist of some scientific education, born in Friesland, who had grown up among the free peasants around Jever and had settled as a landowner in Mecklenburg, where feudal commodity production made life terribly hard for the rural proletariat. This contradiction sharpened Thünen’s insight into the sufferings of ‘the most numerous class of citizens, the common labourers’, who even in a state with a representative constitution had no way of representing their interests and who were paid too little in comparison with the income of the manufacturer or the tenant farmer. Before anyone else in Germany, Thünen recognized in the July revolution of 1830 the signal for the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He asked how, since capital was the product of human labour, the creature could subject the creator, how the worker had become the slave of capital instead of its ruler. Thünen found the answer in the mathematical formula of the natural wages of labour, which he thought so infallible that he had it carved on his tombstone. It was no more than scholastic hair-splitting, however, and it was not until shortly before his death in 1850 that he was able to realize his idea of forming associations of rural workers. Despite his good intentions this turned out in practice to be a new advantage for the owners and a new chain for the workers.

German Romanticism proved to be more original in the study of law than in the study of government. The Historical School of Law was its own peculiar creation. It was intended as a protest against the allegedly frivolous spirit of the eighteenth century, but was in fact a protest against its revolutionary spirit. It may be that the rationalist school of law was based on bourgeois reason, but as such it represented historical progress, while an historical school of law cut off all progress by making what was hallowed by history the basis of law simply because it was hallowed by history. Thus Hugo [81] defended slavery, manorial privileges and the law of entail. When, in Heidelberg in 1813, the law lecturer Thibaut, shaken by the hordes of young Germans he saw armed to the teeth streaming off to France, demanded a universal bourgeois legal code for Germany, Savigny replied that the age lacked a vocation for legislation. Savigny’s book [82] became the programme of the historical school of law. It closed its eyes to the bourgeois laws of France, in which the age had indeed proved its vocation for legislation, and sought to mock the laws of the bourgeois class, which were in the process of becoming historical. It mocked them, as the famous criminal lawyer, Feuerbach, said, as a child of the gods, born of reason out of the ideal, striking the past out of the book of history and boldly leaping over the present into centuries still to come. As Hegel said, it was the greatest disgrace any nation ever had to endure. Soon a young fighter was to arise who was to brand the historical school of law for ever as a school that used the vileness of yesterday to justify the vileness of today and denounced as rebellious every cry of the serf against the knout, as long as the knout was an age-old, an ancestral, an historical knout.

That same young fighter, Karl Marx, said of the 1820s that philosophy, the only branch of literature that still pulsed with the spirit of life, had ceased to speak German because German had ceased to be the language of thought. The spirit spoke in mysterious words because words that could be understood were no longer allowed to be understood. But we must go deeper into the meaning of these mysterious words if the origins of scientific communism are not themselves to remain shrouded in mystery.



The Classical Philosophy

The basic question of all philosophy, the dispute between idealism and materialism, the relationship between subject and object, the question whether thinking or being, mind or nature came first, whether a god created the world, or whether it was eternal, occupied the minds of the thinkers of antiquity and was not even completely stifled in the faith of the medieval church. It emerged with new force at the beginning of the bourgeois age, when economic development and as a consequence science began to grow increasingly rapidly. The home of the new materialism was accordingly England and Bacon its first pioneer.

Although it was a product of the bourgeois mind, materialism was first used as weapon against the revolutionary strivings of the bourgeoisie which, in seventeenth century England, still fought its battles under religious banners. Hobbes, the first consistent materialist, was a straightforward absolutist, even if he was an absolutist of a bourgeois cut. He did not start out from the divine order of the feudal classes, a monarchy by divine right and all the other feudal whims, but rather denied that man was a political animal, a natural builder of states. Hobbes described the natural condition of man as the war of all against all, a catchword that has since become proverbial for bourgeois competition. He derived the state from a contract concluded to limit human greed, a contract which, therefore, had to have absolute authority. Hobbes saw the most advantageous but by no means the only form of absolute state power in the hereditary monarchy. Any church, he thought, must be subordinated to the state; the absolute state power had the right to control the religion and the ways of thinking of its subjects. Here, Hobbes went so far as to recognize the superstitious fear of invisible powers, invented or inherited, as a religion, as long as it was ordained by the state.

The English revolution of the seventeenth century ended in a compromise between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, who set up a common kingdom. Thus English materialism transferred from the absolutist to the constitutional form of the state. Locke taught that there can be nothing in the mind that has not been previously in the senses; he founded the philosophy of common sense; by this he meant that there could be no philosophy apart from the healthy human senses and an understanding based on them. He separated religion and politics. In contrast to Hobbes, he denied the state the right to form or to expunge the opinions of men. He preached bourgeois tolerance. He divided the legislature just as strictly from the executive power. The legislature is in the hands of the people, who elect the legislative assembly. The King stands not above, but under the law, and in misusing his power he forfeits his rank.

Nevertheless, English materialism remained an esoteric doctrine, a secret of the top ten thousand, of the aristocracy rather than of the bourgeoisie. For once the English bourgeoisie gained a share of power, however modest, it became pious, very pious, and almost two centuries before the Kaiser Wilhelm I it discovered the profound wisdom that religion must be maintained among the people. It went so far in the eighteenth century that an English materialist like Hartley upheld biblical miracles and a transcendental life after death in the same book that first derived human thought and sensations from brainwaves, and thus explained them in a materialist manner. [83] The recognised leader of the free thinkers in those days was not a materialist, but the philosopher Hume, who indeed rejected the faith of the church, but also rejected materialism by denying that the human senses could achieve an exhaustive knowledge of the world. Rich as England was in great natural researchers, all of them, from Boyle and Newton to Darwin and Faraday, either believed in a supernatural creation or let the Dear Lord alone.

Nevertheless, Locke was the godfather of French materialism as Hume was of German Idealism. On the continent, the idealist and materialist viewpoints had maintained a kind of equilibrium in the philosophers of the seventeenth century, who were mostly, like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz, important mathematicians and physicists. Descartes dealt with earthly things in a materialist way and with celestial concepts in an idealist way; Spinoza explained the essential unity of mind and nature in the idealization of substance; Leibnitz propounded the eternally fore-ordained harmony of thinking and being. Only at the beginning of the eighteenth century did French materialism emerge as an independent phenomenon. It picked up the threads from Locke, and it too was at first an aristocratic theory, although the seething revolutionary spirit of the bourgeoisie soon recognized what this theory could mean to it in its struggles against the monarchy, the nobility and the clergy.

French materialism in the eighteenth century not only finished with religion, in the course of which it was immaterial whether its exponents were atheists and explained man as a machine, or whether they were deists, and pensioned the Dear Lord off to some quiet corner of the universe; it also intervened profoundly in the political and social life of France. If man formed all his perceptions and knowledge from the sensuous world and his experience of it, then all his happiness and his destiny were to be sought in this world alone. The perfection of human society consisted in its complete harmonisation with the nature of man. Whatever contradicted human nature had to be removed from society. Helvetius, the real founder of French materialism, explained in his book on mankind [84] that the real bases of morals were sensuous attributes and egotism, pleasure and enlightened self-interest. The main points of his system are the equality of human intelligence, the unity between the progress of reason and the progress of industry, the natural goodness of man and the omnipotence of education.

What the French materialists thought was human nature was actually the political and social needs of what was then the third estate. In the emancipation of bourgeois society they saw the creation of a perfect society. French materialism was a mighty weapon against absolutist, feudal and clerical France. Its literary peak was the famous Encyclopaedia, [85] its political peak was the Declaration of the Rights of Man; [86] and it finally degenerated into utopian socialism. It is easy to see how much this kind of socialism could and did draw from the doctrines of French materialism on the fundamental goodness and the intellectual equality of man, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, the influence of external circumstances upon man, the extreme importance of industry and the justification of pleasure. Fourier and Owen started out from materialism, and Dezamy returned to it, as the logical basis of socialism.

Despite all its brilliant successes, French materialism rested on very shaky ground. The natural sciences had made great progress, but mechanics was the first to reach definite conclusions. Chemistry and biology were still in the very first stages. Nothing was known of evolution in nature, and accordingly nothing was known of evolution in society. Nature moved in eternal circles, and the human mind had been the same from the very beginning, obscured at times as in the Middle Ages, but now striving once more for its natural rights. Materialism did not even touch the inner relationship of the riddle of existence. Idealism therefore once more took up the task of solving this riddle. It happened in the country where the bourgeoisie was mature enough to father plenty of intelligent thinkers, geniuses even, but not yet mature enough to storm the mouldering castles of absolutism and feudalism.

German philosophy was the continuation of German literature, to the extent that the latter had embodied the bourgeois struggle for emancipation. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared in the year of Lessing’s death, and it first became generally known in the year of the French revolution. An inward feeling of spiritual community with this mighty revolution was common to our great philosophers. Kant, Fichte and Hegel always spoke of it with the greatest appreciation, unperturbed even by the Reign of Terror, which inspired Goethe with his miserable Citizen General and inspired Schiller to write all sorts of doggerel about that blessed daughter of heaven, the divine order of the petty bourgeoisie. German idealism was a reaction to Anglo-French materialism, but in no sense a step backwards from it. Kant triumphantly defeated materialism on its own home ground by introducing the principle of evolution in nature. He abolished the eternal permanence of the solar system by explaining that the sun and all the planets arose out of a rotating cloud of dust. Indeed, in his popular lectures he already talked about the evolution of man from the animal kingdom as something self-evident. He rejected the older idealist theory that all knowledge from experience and from the senses was nothing but appearance, and that truth existed only in the ideas of pure intellect. He put it the other way round, saying that all knowledge of things gained from mere intellect was nothing but appearance, and that truth came from experience alone.

Kant’s real role lay, following Hume, in investigating man’s ability to perceive, and in reversing, in the Critique of Pure Reason, the whole of experience and all the historical and exact sciences by the simple assumption that our concepts do not follow things, but that things follow our concepts, that we do not see external things as they are, but as they appear to be to our imperfect senses, that the whole world of phenomena, including the sensuous perception of space and time, only exists in men’s illusions, while behind it the absolute nature of things, the thing-in-itself, is hidden in impenetrable obscurity. On the one hand this reconciled thinking and being, on the other they gaped as far apart as ever. Kant did not solve the riddle of existence but declared that it was insoluble. There can be no contradiction in things, since whatever contains a contradiction is impossible. Thought, on the other hand, involves us in unavoidable contradictions, Kant’s famous antinomies, such as the finitude and infinity of the universe, the divisibility and indivisibility of matter, and freedom and necessity.

If Kant had destroyed the objective world, dissolving it into the activity of human consciousness, Fichte reconstructed it out of human consciousness, building on Kant’s doctrine and at the same time transforming it. Fichte was a stranger to the natural sciences. The ego, that is man not as an individual but as a species, was for him the real thing-in-itself. Human self-consciousness was not the mirror but the creator of the objective world, whose existence is not explained by forms of pure thought, but the forms of whose existence are begotten by pure thought. From it Fichte derived space and time, quantity and quality, possibility, reality and necessity. Thought is an independent process carried out according to inner necessity. Every proposition brings with it its opposite, and thought moves forward through the constant overcoming of this constant contradiction by a higher unity. Thus Fichte took up again the dialectical method of the ancient Greeks. But if he made the pure inwardness of the subject the begetter of the object, mind and nature were one and the same, and Fichte indeed announced that the ego was a subject-object. Schelling and Hegel on the other hand, carrying on his doctrine and simultaneously transforming it, amplified it as follows: if subject and object are one and the same, then neither of the two is the thing itself, neither the subject nor the object, neither thinking nor being, neither the mind nor nature. Each is only one side of the thing, and the whole thing is the process, which goes through both and comes to consciousness of itself in the mind of man.

For Schelling, the ‘identity of subject and object’ merely remained a bright idea which distracted him into a fantastic natural philosophy and all kinds of romantic junk, until he ran aground in that long-since silted harbour, a belief in divine revelation. Hegel, on the other hand, declared that the absolute idea was the soul that gave the whole world life, although he had nothing to say about it, and in its philosophical derivation it was merely the higher unity of Spinoza’s substance and Fichte’s self-consciousness. But he conceived of it as a logical and historic process. The mind, the ego existing in and for itself, becomes in the various stages of its development first consciousness, then contemplative and active reason, and finally the mind, grasping itself, refined and religious. In nature it operates as blind necessity, but in history it fashions itself from the raw state until it becomes conscious of itself. The historical process is therefore only a reflection of the logical process that fulfils itself, ignorant of when and where. However obscure this concept may be, Hegel’s most original contribution was to portray the historical process as a logical one. If Kant had introduced evolution in nature, Hegel introduced it in history. If Fichte had latched onto the dialectical method, Hegel made it the source of all life. The concept of being brings with it the concept of nothing, and out of the conflict between the two arises the higher concept of becoming. Everything is and at the same time is not, for everything flows, is in constant change, caught up in constant becoming and passing away. And the dialectical movement of German philosophy fulfilled itself in this, that Kant’s proposition: ‘everything that contains a contradiction is impossible’ was transformed into Hegel’s proposition: ‘it is only contradiction that moves the world at all.’

Thus a goal was reached that Anglo-French materialism could not have attained because its knowledge of nature was still on a comparatively low level. To demonstrate the dialectical movement in nature has only become possible through the mighty advances that have fallen to the natural sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century. Here the impetus given by Kant found its conclusion in Darwin’s demonstration that all organic nature, plants and animals and with them of course man, is the product of a process of evolution carried out over millions of years. Here even Hegel could not clear the barriers placed in his way by insufficient knowledge of nature in his day. He still shared the views of the French materialists that nature was a whole, moving in equal cycles, always the same, eternal heavenly bodies and unchanging varieties of organic existence. But he broke out of this viewpoint, particularly insofar as it had been applied to history by the English materialists. He conceived of human history as a process in constant motion, change and transformation, rising from the low to the high. In a tremendous mental task he tried to follow the gradual stages of this process through the most varied branches of historical knowledge, through all apparent diversions and contingencies. Since he took things to be the reflections of concepts, he indeed accomplished some very arbitrary historical constructions, but since such obstinate things as historical facts are not easily subjugated to concepts, he also arrived at some insights of genius into the coherence of human history.

The peculiar greatness, as well as the peculiar weakness, of German philosophy is explained by the economic and political peculiarities of German conditions. They permitted bourgeois ideals on the one hand to be pursued to their boldest and purest conclusions. Kant’s main principle of morality: ‘Always act in such a manner that you use humanity, in your own person as much as in anyone else’s, as an end and never merely as a means’, was only possible in a country where the bourgeoisie had developed only slightly and the proletariat not at all. Only in such a country could Fichte say that no man should use another’s strength for himself, or write: ‘Man should work, but not like a beast of burden that sinks to sleep beneath its load, and, after the shortest of rests, is whipped up again to carry the same load. He should work without fear, with joy and happiness, and have time to spare to raise his mind and his eye to heaven, the sight his body was fashioned to see.’ Fichte, whose proletarian origins can be traced in a fiery succession of revolutionary thoughts throughout his whole life, branded the exploiting feudal nobility as stupid, ignorant, cowardly, lazy and base. All the terrorism of the French revolution breathes in his saying: ’The law absolutely must prevail. Whoever cannot see that for himself must be forced to see it.’ Precisely from the pitiful history of Germany, which for him was no history at all, Fichte deduced that the mission of the Germans was to present a rule of law such as the world has never seen, with all the citizen’s enthusiasm for freedom that we saw in the old world but lacking that sacrifice of the majority of mankind as slaves without which the old states could not survive – for freedom based on the equality of all those who have a human face. If finally Hegel uprooted all authority, heavenly and earthly alike, by the pure thought-play of the dialectical method, this procedure, as thorough as it was airy, was only possible in a nation without great class collisions and struggles. But on the other hand it was only in their thoughts that the German classical philosophers lived in the clouds. Their idealism experienced a very perceptible limitation in the fact that their thoughts could not be separated from their bodies, which breathed under the rod of despotism and the lash of orthodoxy. With pure reason Kant argued the Dear Lord out of the universe, but he smuggled him back in again through the back door of practical reason. When he was put on trial for his atheist outlook, a trial that led to his expulsion from Jena, Fichte vacillated in a manner both strange and unpleasant in such a strong man, between untimely defiance and untimely subservience. In later years a fit of mysticism clouded the hair-sharp logic with which he had annihilated the illusion of a personal God. Hegel even came to terms with the Trinity by incorporating it into his system: God, the bare thought of whom created the real world as his image, as the Son, and, recognizing himself in it, received himself back as Spirit.

Politics was even thornier ground than religion. The German philosophers lacked that Archimedes’ fulcrum with which the French materialists had shifted the absolutist, feudal, clerical state: the concept of bourgeois society. But they lacked the concept because they lacked the thing itself, or rather only its scant beginnings were in existence. They only knew the state as the guardian of human morality. In his famous scheme for eternal peace, Kant starts with the sentence: ‘The state is indeed not a possession, like the country in which it resides; it is a society of men which no-one but themselves may command or manage.’ From this he correctly concluded that the constitution of the state should be republican. But how was the state that was the possession of the despots to be transformed into a republic? By the moral progress of the human species, answered Kant; by national education, answered Fichte. However greatly and profoundly they conceived these ideologies, they begat in them what was indeed a tiresome race of moral preachers and school teachers, but for all that they did not shake a single stone of the despotic state, whose representatives suspiciously spied on their every move.

Even Fichte’s treatise on mercantilism [87], which he called his best and most thoroughly thought-out work, portrays the ideal of the Frederician state as that historical state, reorganized to suit the strict demands of bourgeois reason. The Prussian Finance Minister, Streuensee, a man of the Frederician school, graciously accepted Fichte’s dedication of the treatise to him in 1800. He felt that Fichte had laid down the ideal state for which every state servant who had a share in the administration had a duty to strive, even if it was doubtful whether it would ever be achieved. Streuensee may at the time have been thinking of his brother, who, in Denmark, thirty years previously, had paid with his life for the attempt to reorganize a feudal, absolutist commonwealth according to the laws of bourgeois reason. Fichte is unable to comprehend bourgeois society; he sees in free trade an untenable inheritance from ‘the thinking of our ancestors’; what was fitting for the medieval unity of Christian Europe, he thinks no longer valid for modern nations. When Fichte assigns to the government the task of tying particular classes of the population to particular occupations such as agriculture, the crafts or trade, or when he says that the flow of cash abroad impoverishes the people, these are completely Frederician thoughts. When Fichte says that foreign travel should be forbidden because the idle search for novelty and distraction should no longer be permitted to parade its curiosity from land to land, we seem to hear Old Fritz himself arguing.

Fichte, it is true, wanted to transform Frederick the Great’s state completely into a harmonious commonwealth, whose individual members were to have their right to a happy and satisfying existence guaranteed. But even this he outdid with his Rational State, completely shut off from abroad, which made its own special currency, whose composition in monarchic states was to be a secret of the royal family, a state which was to have nothing in common with the rest of the world except science. It was, in the national arena, the same tragic conflict between means and ends that, in the international arena, turned Fichte’s last years into the most moving drama. He who had once yearned for the arrival of French bayonets as the saviours of free thought, whom the German despots had sought to stifle by force, aroused the German nation in his fiery speeches to fight those selfsame bayonets and died amidst the clamour of victory, without hope, without self-deception, prophesying with shattering clarity all the misery that befell Germany after Waterloo.

Hegel, too, sensed what the victory of European reaction meant. He had once called his philosophy the forerunner of the time when there would be a free people. After the defeat of the French he declared that the natural mission of the Germans was to be able to preserve undisturbed the holy flame of philosophy as the chief fruit of the independence they had regained. When, called to Berlin, he wrote Philosophy of Right to portray the law as a rational organism developing out of itself, he started from the proposition: All that is real is rational and all that is rational is real. His ideal of the state based on the rule of law reflected the Prussian state of 1821 as much as Fichte’s closed trading state had reflected the Prussian state of 1800, with the understandable difference that Hegel, under the pressure of the Karlsbad Decrees, idealized his model less than had Fichte in all the excitement following the French Revolution. Hegel does know bourgeois society, but his estimation of it is very low. It is indeed the state, but only the external state, the site of necessity and intellect, the showplace of debauchery and misery, of physical and moral ruin. The state itself on the other hand is the reality of the moral idea, absolutely rational and an absolute end in itself, and therefore the highest law over against individuals, whose highest duty is to be members of the state. This conception fits the persecution of the ‘demagogues’ like a glove.

Now the state according to Hegel’s philosophy of law is always the monarchy. The republic can no longer exist in the face of the developed idea. A people without monarchs is a formal mass without structure. In the monarchy however the word ‘the people’ describes those members of the state who do not know what they want. The Estates are raised above the mass of the people as the legislative power that has to decide on general questions, but here, too there is little that can be done. The servants of the state can do best without it, and within the assembly of the Estates they must do best. They are the exponents of the second power, the government, and as such the real men of the state, who understand everything best. The third is the princely power. Its will makes the final decisions, dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, and contains within itself the ideal form of the three powers as a totality. As well as being the substantial will and the ideal powers as form of the whole it is identical with the true reality as opposed to the yellow press. The press represents public opinion, ’existing contradiction’ according to Hegel, and is fed by those who have no other way of making themselves heard. Completely in the spirit of the Karlsbad Decrees, Hegel wishes to impose upon the press regulations that are partly preventive and partly punitive. His philosophy of law is in advance of the Prussia of the 1820’s in little more than in demanding that the administration of justice should be public, and trial by jury.

However, in its incomprehensible words alone pulsed the spiritual life of the age. The polemic against the Historical School of law and the Romantic theory of government in the same work are sufficient to prove that for Hegel it was not a matter of a thoughtless idealization of existing conditions or even a return to the Middle Ages. To his tortuous efforts to find the reason in the then existing reality, his own saying is best applicable: in our age that is so rich in reflection and given to reasoning, someone who cannot establish a cause for everything, even the worst, has achieved very little. For all that he recognized nonetheless the reality of reason.

Reason is historical necessity, the eternal flux of the process of historical development. What it creates is real and rational because it is necessary; as soon as it ceases to be necessary it becomes unreal and irrational. The Prussian monarchy was real and rational because in the given historical conditions it could be no other than it was, because the people did not know what they wanted, and were thus very irrational. If the people were to become rational, then the Prussian monarchy would have to be posited as a real state, and according to Hegel’s definition of a real state, the monarch would have to be posited as an ideal, and both negated into the public good.

Hegel himself had no illusions about the revolutionary character of his dialectic, and he even feared his Philosophy of Right would be banned. Nor was the Prussian state entirely easy in its mind for all its idealization. Proudly leaning on its police truncheon, it was unwilling to have its reality justified merely by its reason. Even the dull-witted King saw the serpent lurking beneath the rose: when some distant rumour of his state philosopher’s teachings reached him he asked suspiciously: ’But what if I don’t dot the i’s? The Prussian bureaucracy meanwhile was grateful for such generous laurels, especially since the strict Hegelians clarified their master’s obscure words for the understanding of the common subjects, and one of them wrote a history of Prussian law and the Prussian state, where the Prussian state was proved to be a gigantic harp strung in God’s garden to lead the universal anthem. Despite its sinister secrets, Hegel’s philosophy was declared to be the Prussian state philosophy, surely one of the wittiest of history’s ironies. Hegel had brought together the rich culture of German idealism in one mighty system, he had led all the springs and streams of our classical age into one bed, where they now froze in the icy air of reaction. But the rash fools who imagined they were safely hidden behind this mass of ice, who presumptuously rejoiced when bold attackers fell from its steep and slippery slopes, little suspected that with the storms of spring the frozen waters would melt and engulf them. Hegel himself experienced the first breath of these storms. He rejected the July revolution of 1830, he railed at the first draft of the English Reform Bill as a stab in the ‘noble vitals’ of the British Constitution. Thereupon his audience left him in hordes and turned to his pupil Eduard Gans, who lectured on his master’s Philosophy of Right but emphasized its revolutionary side and polemicized sharply against the Historical School of Law. At the time they said in Berlin that it was this bitter experience that killed the great thinker, and not the cholera.




72. Heine’s poem, describing the Prussian state that emerged from the Napoleonic wars, reads as follows:

The Changeling

A baby with a pumpkin head
Blond moustache and grey pigtail
Spider-long but strong little arms,
A monstrous stomach, but short little gut
A changeling, whom a corporal
Instead of the suckling, whom he stole
Secretly laid into our cradle
This abortion, conceived by lies
Perhaps with his favourite play of wind
By the old Sodomite himself
I don’t need to name the little monster
You should drown or burn it rather.

‘Play of wind’ refers to ‘Prussian wind’, i.e. flatulent Prussian boastfulness. The ‘old Sodomite’ is Frederick the Great.

73. Skat – A card game popular in Berlin and North Germany. Rifle clubs were important social meeting-places.

74. Blue Monday (Blauer Montag) – A day taken off work to recover from the weekend.

75. Martinmas 1810 – Date of the so-called ‘emancipation’ of the Prussian serfs. Martinmas is November 11.

76. Socage – Tenure of land in return for certain services.

77. Cf. the introduction of the jenny in England in 1779.

78. Geheimrat – Privy Councillor.

79. See note 59.

80. Romanticism – Literary movement which included Schiller and Heine. They reacted against the formal classicism of baroque literature, drew inspiration from folksongs, were in some cases involved in the revolutionary movement before and during 1848.

81. Gustav Hugo (1764-1844) – Founder of the German historical school of law.

82. Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1798-1861) – One of the leading members of the historical school of law, who wrote a book on The necessity of a general bourgeois legal system in Germany.

83. David Hartley (1705-1757) – English philosopher. In his Observations on Man (1749) he repudiated the view that the ‘moral sense’ is instinctively innate in us and attributed it to the association of ideas. His philosophy greatly influenced Coleridge, the poet and philosopher.

84. On Man his intellectual faculties and his education, published in London after his death. Claude Arien Helvetius (1715-1771) was a French philosopher and one of the Encyclopaedists, who were sceptical in religion and materialists in philosophy. Also wrote De l’esprit (The Mind) which was burned.

85. The Encyclopaedia – Published between 1751 and 1776 by the French thinkers Diderot and D’Alembert in 35 volumes. Contributors included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Buffon and others. It attempted to give a rational explanation of the universe and attacked superstition. This gained it the hostility of the clergy and the ruling classes; it was twice prohibited.

86. Adopted by the National Assembly of the French Revolution.

87. Written in 1800, advocating protectionism.


Last updated on 16.2.2004