Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The class struggles of the German Revolution

The Tragi-comedy of November

The action of the counter-revolution gave the Assembly a firmer basis than the Prussian bourgeoisie has ever enjoyed before or since.

In opposing the King’s command the Assembly was completely within its rights, in form and in substance, irrespective of whether or not ’agreement’ was theoretically valid. Even those, like the right-wing lawyer, Gneist, who recognized the validity of that theory, were forced to conclude with him, that: ‘The National Assembly was convened in Berlin to agree a constitution. It followed this call and constituted itself according to the law. Then and afterwards it approved the place thus determined in fact. A unilateral alteration of the place or of the time of its meeting is therefore impermissible either for the monarchy or for the Assembly, since both stand as independent powers, the one against the other. He who admits the right of an adjournment to Brandenburg must also permit an adjournment to Tilsit, Saarlouis or another friendly neighbouring territory; he who permits an adjournment of fourteen days must also admit an adjournment of fourteen years. Free agreement ceases where one party alone wishes to determine time and place. It is however a unilateral decision when one side alone gives the verdict on whether an alteration is essential and whether there is sufficient reason for it. It is not therefore a question of "obedience to orders", but the preservation of our rights.’ The legal question was now so clear that even the most conservative lawyers, like Bornemann, Minister of Justice in Camphausen’s ministry, had to answer it in the same way as Gneist, if they were not to twist the law deliberately.

The majority of the Assembly was also convinced that it was right. When Brandenburg left the hall on November 9, after his ‘formal protest’, not even the whole of the Right followed him. Individual members stayed with the Centre and the Left, either because of qualms of conscience, or for less worthy reasons. The approximately 250 members who did not submit to the coup d’état greatly increased the Assembly’s ability to take decisions. A resolution proposed by Gierke, the former Minister of Agriculture, which repudiated the monarchy’s right to adjourn, remove or dissolve the Assembly, and accused the minister responsible of dereliction of his duty to the monarchy, the country and the Assembly, won almost unanimous applause. After this decisive settlement of the legal question, the problem was how the Assembly was to defend its rights and ward off the injustice of the monarchy.

In itself, the question of what to do was as clear as the legal question, and arose immediately from it. If the monarchy attacked with force, the Assembly had to defend itself by force. Any question of the right to wage a revolution, which could have raised doubts in the minds of the ‘legal’ bourgeoisie, simply did not arise. It was simply a matter of lawful defence against an illegal attack, and the defender had to accept willy nilly the weapons the aggressor chose. A people whose territories a foreign conqueror invades by force of arms defends its hearth and home with the same weapons, and the traitors, Brandenburg and Wrangel, were more dangerous and detestable than any foreign invader. And if, after the King’s illegal action, the Assembly considered itself the only legally constituted authority in the land, which in fact it was, then it had to appeal to the people to rise up at any price, to call for armed resistance against its armed oppressor. That was its right and its duty once the monarchy tried to break it up by force.

Even if the Assembly feared that it had squandered the confidence of the people by its serious mistakes, and was worried because it possessed no forces superior to those of the monarchy, that changed nothing in this situation. To give up a fight for justice because it may possibly end in a defeat is the attitude of cowards, not of men. If Leonidas had led his three hundred away from Thermopylae on the excuse that the Persian army was bound to wipe them out, he would have gone down in history as a knave or a fool, not as a hero. What is true of war is also true of revolution. Marx later condemned the tactics of the Prussian Assembly in the November crisis, saying: ‘A hard-fought defeat is a fact of as much revolutionary significance as an easily-won victory’. [116] Even if the Assembly had risked the fight in the certainty of a defeat, it could have wiped out its past guilt and saved its hope for the future: then Prussian parliamentarianism would never have been condemned to play for half a century like a shadow on the wall. Moreover, the fight was not at all hopeless, provided the Assembly was able to act energetically, clearly and quickly.

An opportunity to do so this was offered that very day. With true Prussian light-mindedness, the Minister of the Interior, through the Chief of Police, ordered the commanders of the Bürgerwehr to deny the Assembly access to the Playhouse. The commanders refused, correctly arguing that, in law, the Bürgerwehr had the duty to defend ‘constitutional freedom and legal order’ and not destroy it, and that the same law meant it took its orders neither from the Minister of the Interior nor from the Chief of Police, but only from the local authorities. Rimpler conveyed this correspondence to Unruh, and the latter as quickly as possible convened the Assembly for 5 a.m. on November 10, since the Chief of Police had declared that, if the Bürgerwehr did not declare its willingness to co-operate by 6 a.m. the royal authorities would themselves take ‘whatever measures seemed appropriate’.

In this decisive session there were three statements to be considered which could determine their actions. A deputation from the city council offered itself as a mediator between the monarchy and Parliament, demanding ‘conciliatory steps’ on the part of the Assembly and especially the avoidance of bloodshed. The Bürgerwehr handed over to the Assembly the letters exchanged between their commanders and the Chief of Police without attaching any specific demands, tacitly hinting therefore that it would not, indeed, permit itself to be misused in an assault on the Assembly, but asking that its heroism should be regarded as being exhausted beyond that point. Finally the organized workers of Berlin, ‘The Berlin District Committee for the Brotherhood of German Workers’, ‘to which’ – as Unruh said when reading out the address – ‘to go by the signatures a large part of the workers here belong’, summoned the Assembly to armed resistance. The short address said: ‘The workers of Berlin are armed and ready to follow your call if anyone dares to injure the people in the person of their representatives; they offer you their arms and their hearts’ blood against any enemy who seeks to betray you and the freedoms of the people.’ Without opening these statements to debate, Unruh declared that the Assembly could no longer take ‘conciliatory steps’, but that bloodshed must by all means be avoided. The Ministry, he said, must not be given any excuse for violent and coercive measures, for the declaration of a state of siege, and so forth; passive resistance should be offered, and it would be sufficient if the Assembly ‘only’ permitted itself to be driven from its seats ‘by violence’. He said that the real decision lay in the hands of the country. As long as the freedom of association and of the press was not suppressed once more, the country could defeat reaction without bloodshed. If the country failed to protest sufficiently, then it only had itself to blame if its recently-flowered freedom faded again.

Since Unruh knew better than anyone else what the very sparrows were piping from the rooftops, that is to say, that the counter-revolution was in the process of ‘once more suppressing’ the freedom of the press and of association and declaring, with or without valid reason, a state of siege, the thoughtful heroism of his declaration of principle speaks for itself. In fact he attached to it a request to the Bürgerwehr that, if the Assembly was threatened by military force, they would not defend it actively, but only offer passive resistance. And of the workers’ address he said: ‘If I have understood your opinion correctly, Gentlemen, we are very far from ordering or even permitting these men, whose strength and whose blood belong to the Fatherland, to sacrifice that strength they have dedicated to the Fatherland at the wrong time and in the wrong place.’ Unruh was too wily a bourgeois not to think that those workers’ fists were in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if they only wanted to smash feudal despotism in the interests of the bourgeoisie; in his opinion the blood and the strength of the proletariat belonged exclusively to the ‘Fatherland’, by which he understood the profit of capital.

The Assembly received its President’s comments with a ‘general bravo’. No opposition was raised. Indeed, in the very same session, it uttered an appeal to the people ‘at this difficult moment, when the legal organ of popular representation is being broken up by bayonets, not to stray from the basis of legality for a single moment’. It then proceeded, in order to prove its independence of the government by discussing the organic law in the absence of ministers, to debate the law concerning feudal burdens, but under conditions that were bound to cool the ardour of the rural proletariat as much as Unruh’s declaration had cooled the ardour of the urban proletariat. The few members of the Right who had remained in the Assembly demanded that amendments amplifying the law should be referred back to the commission if even a single member raised objections, and the Assembly approved their demand. They abandoned the interests of the peasants in order to maintain the rights of those members who had forgotten their duty and turned their backs upon the Assembly.

And now this so-called National Assembly acted out a farcical parody of the great historical drama the French National Assembly had presented sixty years previously.

The government proposed the abolition without compensation of unlimited labour-services that were of purely feudal origin and had no contractual basis, and which even the Vormärz legislation had recognized as consequences of serfdom, but only in those few corners of the Provinces of Saxony and Westphalia where they still existed although in the rest of those parts of the country the French foreign conqueror had already thoroughly cleared out those remnants of Christian-Germanic splendour. However, an amendment cancelling all unlimited labour-service everywhere without compensation – including, therefore, the Eastern Provinces – had to be referred back because a member of the Right objected. In addition, the government proposed to abolish, without compensation, obligatory service as huntsmen, drivers, whippers-in and messengers and also all dues raised under the names of hound-bread, hound-corn, hound-oats, houndacre-corn, houndacre-oats, the houndacre-tax and hound-fees. A series of amendments proposed to throw into this feudal mish-mash for good measure all baiting-corn, hunting-money, spinning-tax, knitting-money, woodcutting-money, the obligatory supplies of flax and quills, hemp-money, wick-money, bog-money, refreshment-money and labouring-money, chaff-cutting and covering fees, fronde-oats and grazing-oats, pepper-money etc., etc. But none of these amendments were debated because every time a member of the Right objected. And so it went on for hours.

It was a bloody but well-deserved irony of fate that, in the middle of this unworthy game, the announcement came that the Playhouse, guarded by the Bürgerwehr, was now also surrounded by troops. A Homeric struggle of words between Rimpler and Wrangel at the head of their respective hosts ended with the General’s assurance that he would not go away until the deputies had left the building, even if he had to bivouac for eight days, and that he intended to close it down after their departure. Then the Bürgerwehr refused to withdraw without the Assembly, and so the President declared that the military had forcibly intervened. Amid the ‘general bravo’ that was bestowed so freely and lavishly in those days the Assembly announced that it gave way ‘only in the face of military force’ and withdrew with the Bürgerwehr. Thereupon the troops occupied the Playhouse and made it their patriotic pastime to scatter the archives of the Assembly.

On November 11 the Ministry dissolved the Bürgerwehr, which the King was formally entitled to do ‘for serious reasons which must be detailed in the Order of Dissolution’. In the material sense the measure was rendered all the more emphatically illegal by the single reason given in the Order: the Bürgerwehr was dissolved because it had refused to obey the Police Chief’s order to close the Playhouse, which was both materially and formally illegal. The Assembly, which met the same day at the Shooting Gallery, declared that the dissolution of the Bürgerwehr was illegal and that any official or citizen who colluded in it was a traitor to the Fatherland. They cautiously added a clause calling on the Ministry to withdraw the Order, and promising that the Bürgerwehr and the population of Berlin would respond peacefully. Rimpler immediately resigned his command. The Majors of the Bürgerwehr went further by meeting in the night of November 11-12 to discuss whether active or passive resistance was called for. A delegation of the Workers’ Brotherhood summoned them to active resistance and guaranteed the powerful support of the proletariat, but Waldeck appeared too with some Left deputies and said that it was not his business to give the Majors advice, that he was no man of arms, and knew nothing of military science, that everyone must make up his own mind, and all sorts of other conciliatory phrases. The very poorly attended meeting broke up after some confused gossip and the disarmament of the Bürgerwehr proceeded ‘peacefully’.

The military moustaches had once again had the wind taken out of their sails. They wanted to and had to impose a state of siege in order to throttle the freedom of the press and of association, but the Bürgerwehr permitted itself to be disarmed in all good humour and no one was hurt by the paper protests of the Assembly. In these straits, bourgeois impertinence came to the assistance of military perplexity. On November 12 a deputation from the municipal authorities appeared before the assembled Ministry of State to suggest its resignation. Brandenburg retained enough composure to refuse this demand, whose charming humour did not escape even his powers of comprehension, with ‘quiet dignity’, as the eye-witness Gneist reports. Then however the spokesman of the civic authorities burst out with the words ‘that many thousands of the Bürgerwehr’s weapons, we knew not how, had just fallen into the hands of the democratic clubs and the workers, and that we therefore had, in order to prevent a fearful bloodletting, to protest against the dissolution of the Bürgerwehr and the threatened state of seige.’ With these words, whose factual content had been plucked purely out of the air, a satisfied grin – ‘a ray of happily surprised sunlight’, the courteous Gneist called it – appeared on the faces of the assembled ministers, and they answered immediately that, precisely in consideration of this highly pressing situation, a state of siege would have to be declared, which then happened on that very day.

All clubs were immediately closed down, meetings of over twenty people forbidden and the publication of placards, newspapers and other printed matter tied to police approval. The police extinguished on the spot the life of all the organs of the press that had incurred their disfavour. They impressed upon all the old philistine rags that their lives were in danger if they printed anything in favour of the Assembly or against the government. This was followed by a mass of illegal searches, arrests and other chicanery, such as the authority vested in the police, and immediately applied against Rodbertus, to expel within twenty-four hours all foreigners ‘who could not show sufficiently good reason for their presence in these parts’, and the introduction of courts-martial to which all those were subjected whose ’seditious activities’ hampered or endangered the troops.

When these events became known the Assembly hastened to the Shooting Gallery. They found the Gallery itself and the part of the town in which it stood overrun with armed men, not from the Bürgerwehr, but from the Mobile Corps, which, consisting of younger merchants, technicians, artists and students, had always proceeded with more vigour. They categorically demanded permission to defend the organ of popular representation. Unruh answered equally categorically that the Assembly did not require their protection, and Waldeck, as Vice-President, agreed. Unruh drove the armed men away by refusing to open the session before they withdrew. During the session itself, the state of siege that had been imposed was declared illegal, but this time the usual line asking the people not to offer violent resistance was not attached to the declaration. Jung, a member of the Left, brought himself to declare that they should not treat the people like a schoolmaster and, with such warnings, create the impression that they did not have the right to oppose illegal farce with violence. If the Assembly did not want to call the people to arms, he said, they should not warn them off doing so either. Gradually a feeling of shame was awakened in the Assembly. While hundreds of rousing Addresses were flooding into it from all parts of the country, it had been devoting itself to trying to square the circle, trying to defend freedom provided that not a drop of blood was shed.

As early as November 11 the Left had moved refusal to pay taxes, although it must be admitted that the motion was referred to a commission after Unruh had promised that, even without this ‘ultimate peaceful step’, the voice of the country would drown out the ‘squeaking of reaction’. But since the reaction did not ‘squeak’, but plunged into more and more illegal violent measures, while the ‘voice of the country’ rang louder and louder, on November 12, the Left once more introduced the motion that the Ministry was guilty of high treason and was not entitled to spend state money and raise taxes. In addition, Bucher proposed a resolution that the oath of loyalty was not binding if the army was ordered to impose illegal actions such as a state of siege, and several members of the Left wanted to have a Proclamation issued in this sense, which called upon ‘our brothers in the army’ to recognize the ‘legal attitude’ of the Assembly. But all this went too far for the few remaining members of the Right who threatened to make the Assembly, which was only just quorate at that session, inquorate by their departure if such plans were not dropped. The motions that referred to the army were withdrawn, and even Ziegler, overcome by his fanatical support for the Prussian state, which he was to pay dear for soon enough, hurried them on their way, praising discipline as the mother of victory. The majority of the commission had already declared itself to be opposed to a refusal to grant taxes, and a decision on the issue was adjourned until they reported in writing. The few right-wingers who decided the Assembly’s formal right to exist, simultaneously voided this right of any material content.

When the state of siege had been imposed, the government proceeded more vigorously against the Assembly as a private club of more than twenty people. It still managed to hold three more sessions on November 13, 14 and 15. The stenographic reports of these sessions give an absolutely disgraceful impression. The ministers were once again declared guilty of high treason and denounced to the State Prosecutor. Addresses were read out amid stormy applause. In between them a Vice-President and a couple of secretaries, who had remained in the hall of the Shooting Gallery after the session of November 13 in order to receive and deal with delegations, described the unexpected courtesy with which they had been shown to the door by the military. The Vice-President declared with emotion that he had, it is true, been treated roughly, but not with brutal violence; one of the secretaries depicted touchingly how a soldier, ‘a big strong man’, had hauled him downstairs, ‘as tender as can be, arm in arm, more like a brother than an enemy’, and the other secretary added that that soldiers’ ‘eyes were full of tears’. A member of the Left did, it is true, protest against this admiration of Prussian tyranny the moment it sneaked up on stocking feet, but he was punished for such frivolous contempt by the ‘disapproval’ of the Assembly. Every rude word that some Lieutenant uttered to some member or other was, meanwhile, carefully minuted. These pleasant but incompetent gentlemen all behaved as if it what was at stake was not a historical process between the monarchy and the people, but an exchange of insults, the validity of which required demonstration. Only the high melodrama of refusing to pay taxes still stuck in the Assembly’s throat. Since time after time they had declared Brandenburg and company guilty of high treason, they could, indeed they had to, deny him the right to raise taxes and spend state money. But, under these conditions, to refuse taxes would have been not the final step in passive resistance but the first step in active resistance. If the refusal of taxes was to remain a peaceful measure, then there could be all sorts of constitutional nit-picking over whether, despite the fact that the law of April 6 reserved for future parliaments the right to approve taxes, the Assembly could refuse taxes already fixed for the current budgetary year.

The question came much too close to the knuckle for many other Assembly members as well as the Right not to feel uncomfortable. After further discussion, the commission once again voted not to refuse of taxes by three votes to five. But the deputations and Addresses became more and more pressing, and so Unruh hit upon a particularly sly tactic. During the session of November 14, which took place in the hall of the City Council, when rumours spread that the military were approaching, he declared that, if the Assembly was driven out once more, it should not reconvene until it could meet in safety, since it was not in accord with its dignity to let itself be hunted from one part of the town to the other. But the soldiers did not come, and when Waldeck, amid vehement protests from the Right, demanded a decision on the refusal to pay taxes, the President asked him to have patience for another day so that no disunity might disrupt the Assembly’s ‘glorious position’. Unruh promised that, since the Assembly had not been broken up, he would convene it for the following morning in the same hall. Waldeck allowed himself to be pacified by this promise and agreed to it being deferred. At the end of the session, however, the hall was occupied by soldiers, and Unruh thought that now, by burying the organ of popular representation, he had also buried the debate on the refusal to permit taxes.

But the Assembly had ideas not quite as unworthy as those of its worthy President. By a written demand, signed by more than the quorum of 202 members, the President was forced to convene the Assembly once more, on the evening of November 15 at the Hotel Milentz. The supporters and the opponents of refusing taxes both turned up in large numbers. On the one hand, even the commission was now of the opinion that the actions and measures taken by the government had gone to such an extreme of violence, trickery and injustice, and that the Assembly was entangled in such a web of violence and duplicity, that nothing remained for it to do but to turn to the most extreme measures, even if this was to plunge the country into anarchy. On the other hand, the opponents of what had now become a highly inflammable question wanted to stamp it out before it burst into flames, or at least wrap the decision in so many clauses that it would mean nothing. They came prepared with a motion that the taxes should continue to be raised as before and the payments already determined be paid out of them, but that any surpluses should not be placed at the disposal of the Brandenburg ministry, but should be retained by the authorities that raised them on their own responsibility. There could be no better exposure of passive resistance than this, that the resistance to the coup d’état was laid on the shoulders of the most unresistant of all classes, the bureaucracy, which depended body and soul on the Ministry.

The Assembly was saved from this ultimate indignity by the timely arrival of the soldiers. During a thunderous philippic delivered by one of the members against the withholding of the taxes, Major Herwarth, later Field Marshal, occupied the building with a picket of soldiers. Scarcely had Unruh seen the saving presence of the helmets, when he announced that he would not proceed to a vote in the presence of bayonets. After a short parley with Herwarth he was just uttering the sacramental formula that ‘we are once more giving in to force’, when, in a passing fit of temper, the Assembly protested and demanded a vote. Rodbertus showed the Major out for a moment in his friendliest manner, and the withholding of the taxes was now carved unanimously in the weakest form yet proposed, in which the Brandenburg ministry was not to have the right to have state money at its disposal as long as the Assembly was not allowed to continue its discussion undisturbed in Berlin. The president declared that the decision was ‘legally enacted’ and closed the session.

This prudent man, however, immediately called a conference with the officers of the Assembly, in which it was established that the decision was no decision at all because the motion received should have first been presented in writing, and paragraph such-and-such of standing orders laid down that when oral motions are approved they have to be printed and then presented for a further formal vote. The President had, it is true, ruled only the day before that the non-observance of this purely formal condition in no way prejudiced the validity of decisions, but he may of course have had second thoughts overnight. In that case he would naturally either have had to reconvene the Assembly to carry out that formality, or, if he really did not want to do so, at least inform the taxation authorities publicly that the decision which he had just declared publicly to be ‘legally enacted’ was nonetheless not valid in law. Even the slightest sense of honour and duty would have prevented him from deliberately misleading the voters, who naturally could not follow all the minutiae of formal procedure. Nevertheless the conference decided that it was no concern of the Assembly to publish elucidations of its standing orders. Once these brave bourgeois had saved their own valuable skins they were no longer concerned, cost their voters what it might, to play the resolute hero in the face of death.

Under such conditions, the decision to withhold taxes was shadow-boxing. In individual revolutionary centres, such as the Rhineland and Silesia, it was used to fan armed resistance, but these fires consumed themselves, since the Assembly had no intention of lighting a big fire by organizing the withholding of taxes. When afterwards several dozen tax-withholders faced prosecution for allegedly inciting their voters, they convincingly proved their complete innocence. Schulze-Delitzsch could even boast that he had held the citizens of his home town back when they were already on their way to attack the Landwehr armoury. Bucher alone was convicted of calling on the voters, and particularly the municipal authorities of his native province, to drive out officials loyal to the treacherous ministers, to defend themselves with arms against armed attacks, and in short of having demanded everything the members of the Assembly should have done if they intended their decision to withhold taxes to be anything other than buffoonery.

Once Unruh and company had succeeded in making a complete muddle of things, they thought they could make their way to Brandenburg town to continue their parliamentary shadow-boxing. But they did not reckon on the Brandenburg ministry. As soon as the latter were certain that the masses no longer stood behind the Assembly, they showed that practical and tactical superiority over the politics of the Prussian bourgeoisie that is proper to the politics of the Prussian Junkers. On December 5 the Ministry dissolved the Assembly, but simultaneously issued a version of the Assembly’s own constitution which was to be revised by an Assembly elected by general suffrage. The constitution was, it is true, badly mutilated in some of its essentials, and it is also true that a chamber elected on a narrowly limited suffrage was to be called to revise it alongside the new Assembly, but the lustre of libertarian principle shone so bright in this document, granted by the royal hand, that it was easy to overlook the obstacles over which all this magnificence could come to grief.

At the same time the government promised to place before the new popular Assembly a long series of specifically enumerated laws that were to place the Prussian state on a bourgeois basis. As a proof of its good will, it now scratched the bourgeois press where it itched most by abolishing the newspaper stamp duty, filled the brave citizens with magisterial pride with a decree on trial by jury and finally tried to extinguish the most dangerous focus of the peasant revolution with a decree for the interim settlement of landlord-peasant relations in Silesia. They succeeded in the latter thanks less to the rather mild conditions of the decree than to the flying columns that patrolled Silesia and particularly to the way Palriament had dashed the peasants’ hopes. The counter-revolution was speculating on this. They sang the peasants a melancholy dirge about how they could not give them final satisfaction until the new chamber assembled, but how the guilt lay at the door of the dissolved Assembly, which, instead of worrying about the well-being of the peasants – so close to the heart of the monarchy – had wasted its time over ‘all sorts of interpellations on things very far from their true function’. It was an unusually shameless pretence, since it was particularly the Assembly’s zealous discussion of the law to relieve feudal burdens that had driven the monarchy and the Junkers to their coup d’état. Of course, the Assembly only had itself to blame if they even dared to spread this pretence at all, and with a certain appearance of truth at that.

And now it turned out that it had not only been caught between two stools, but even between three. It was deserted by its own class. The Ministry generously granted more or less everything the Assembly had tried to enact, and if this or that was still missing, then these gaps were more than compensated for by the hope of a revival of credit and a restoration of calm, which allowed the undisturbed functioning of the machinery of exploitation. The good citizens imagined that what the counter-revolution found it politic to promise at the moment would become permanent.

Worse even than that of the bourgeoisie was the behaviour of the educated classes who had principally provided its parliamentary pioneers: the urban bureaucracy, the universities and particularly the courts. With few exceptions, the larger city councils outdid one another in their servile proclamations, and eighty professors of Berlin University, including men like the two Grimms,[117] even managed to discredit the dispersed National Assembly by saying in an address to the King that it had ‘sullied the honour of the German Nation’. How the courts, to expiate to some extent their rebellious sins, submitted to the bayonet, how, in open and conscious contempt of the law, they clad in the splendour of legality every single atrocity, is written in indelible letters in the history of Prussian justice, not the first and not the last example of this kind in that temple of justice which, with incorrigible servility, the honest German citizen never dares approach save with holy awe.

Perhaps the most miserable behaviour of all in the tragi-comedy of November was that of the German National Assembly, however. It sent a number of commissars to Berlin to mediate between the monarchy and the Parliament, but they made themselves impossible either, like Simson, by their vain self-importance, behind which there was nothing, or, like Bassermann, by the stupid inventiveness with which they depicted Berlin as a Sodom and Gomorrah teeming with uncanny figures. The Frankfurt Assembly then whispered its demand that the Brandenburg ministry should resign and thundered out that the decision on the withholding of taxes was null and void. This enlightened Parliament did not even grasp that it was thus declaring itself null and void, for its dispersal followed that of the Berlin Assembly as B follows A.



The Rebellious Petty Bourgeoisie

Out of fear of the working class, the German bourgeoisie submitted to absolutist feudal reaction. If the monarchy and the Junkers suppressed the proletariat, the bourgeoisie permitted itself, willing or otherwise, to be suppressed as well. It had at least one consolation in its sorrow: for all its feeble condition it had made some advances. It remained a class in the ascendant despite the leading-reins that had been once more laid on it.

Not so the German petty bourgeoisie. In the German revolution this class suffered a decisive defeat from which it was never to recover. From the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century it made a number of tentative attempts and had in its way fought for bourgeois freedom. But it had never gone so far as to rid itself thoroughly of the stick-in-the-mud philistinism that had been drummed into it since the sixteenth century. As soon as the illusion of the the March days died, that the fall of the Vormärz state meant the dawn of an age of universal happiness, as soon as it became obvious that bourgeois liberty merely prepared the ground on which the great class struggles of modern bourgeois society could develop, the German petty bourgeois shrank back from the ghastly prospect. They wanted peace at any price, even at the price of moral, economic and political ruin.

In England and France, in English Chartism and French Social Democracy, the most powerful elements of the petty bourgeoisie had allied themselves with the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. This was not beneficial to the working class, for it greatly delayed their development as a class, but it was of great use to the petty bourgeoisie, which won revolutionary drive from this alliance. The German petty bourgeois could never think of such an alliance; he thought he was doing enough by childishly suggesting that the working class should blindly accept his leadership. This limitation of the petty bourgeoisie was extraordinarily advantageous to the German working class; it is one of the most important reasons why the political organization of the proletariat had a much bigger impetus in Germany than it did in England or France. Conversely it was fatal for the German petty bourgeoisie that it never, not even after the bitterest experiences, was able to gain an understanding of proletarian class struggle. In the last half century scarcely a decade has gone by without some individual ideologists trying to organize a petty-bourgeois democratic movement with its ranks open to the left resolutely closed to the right. But only a handful of ideologues has regularly rallied around this banner, which has sunk back into the dust almost as soon as it has been raised. The great mass of the German petty bourgeoisie remained deaf to all those who called on it to follow a bold and far-sighted class policy.

In 1848 this mass split into three parts, whose decaying remnants drag out a spectral existence in today’s Reichstag [118] as anti-semites, free-thinkers and the South German ‘Peoples’ Party’. The anti-Semite and craft-guild tendency found its main support in the small and medium-sized states of North Germany, where the guilds had still not been cleared out; in the Hansa towns, in Hanover, Brunswick, Mecklenburg and parts of Saxony. As early as April 22, 1848, 22 Masters of Leipzig guilds issued an Open Letter to ’all fellow guild members in Germany’ urging them to hold fast to the guild system as a jewel without which the labour question could never be solved and without which Germany would never see the good days return. Hand in hand with this extolling of the guild went a violent declaration of war on the Jews, whose heart it said was a moneybag and whose emancipation was simply a fashionable fad. It said that Germany had their activities to thank in good part for the growth of the proletariat, which was then stirred up against the existing order by Jewish orators and writers. The reactionary character of this appeal was revealed not least in the particularist way it looks askance at other German states and in its violent polemic against universal suffrage, which, it said, oppressed the craft masters by giving their servants and journeymen the right to vote.

Similar announcements were issued by the guild masters of Bremen and Hamburg, and, on June 2,200 delegates met in Hamburg at an ‘Assembly of the North German Craft and Trade Estate’, where the old song about the one true faith of the guild and the total ruin caused by the liberation of industry from it was sung in every key. A Berlin delegate even found enthusiastic support for the audacious claim that the attempt to estrange the Berliners from their gracious King would never have succeeded without the liberation of industry from the guilds. The Assembly would, no doubt, have broken up in this hopeless confusion, especially since a violent dispute developed between masters and journeymen, had not a member – who was only admitted after long opposition --intervened to soothe feelings and, so to speak, bring a modern context into this guild confusion. It was Professor Winkelblech who had been sent by a popular assembly in Kassel.

Winkelblech taught chemistry at the Technical College in Kassel and had, curiously enough, discovered his socialist convictions during a trip to Norway, as a result of the description of the plight of the proletariat given him by a German factory worker he chanced to meet. This made Winkelblech decide, in his own words, to concern himself no longer purely with machines and technology, but with man and his economic system. He conceived a learned system, later copiously developed in a long-winded work, which was supposed to reconcile liberalism and communism in federalism, abolish monopolism through panpolism and generally replace all the badisms with good-isms. In the essence of the matter it was a narrow-minded, petty-bourgeois socialism, which could only put its estimable hatred of the exploitative tendencies of the bourgeoisie to practical use by plaiting the Christian Teutonic guild system, Malthus’ population theory [119] and individual ideas from Fourier and Louis Blanc into a pigtail tacked on behind.

Such a pigtail, however, was just the thing for an assembly of guild masters who wanted to put new life into the guild on the basis of the bourgeois revolution. At Winkelblech’s suggestion, the Hamburg assembly declared that only a thorough guild-system, covering all branches of industry, could save Germany from the fate of France and England, or even from the threat of communism, and decided to convene a general congress of the German crafts at Frankfurt-am-Main to discuss such a system and to place it before the German National Assembly. This congress, which was attended by 116 master craftsmen from 24 individual German states, met between the middle of July and the middle of August and, under Winkelblech’s guidance, managed to produce the draft for a statute of crafts and trades, which was then handed over to the National Assembly as a ‘solemn protest against the liberation of industry, sealed by millions of unfortunates’. The German parliament, however, did not know what to do with this curious mixture of progressive and reactionary proposals, and that perhaps was not the greatest of its sins.

The draft demanded a kind of hierarchically structured guild state with a general German chamber of trade at its head. The ‘social chamber’ was to be elected by direct suffrage of all guild-masters, and meet whenever the German parliament met to support it in an advisory capacity. Within the guilds the old hierarchy of apprentice, journeyman and master was to remain, as were work-books, articles of apprenticeship, the obligation to travel, the certificate of competence and the limitation to one trade only. In addition a marriage test was demanded: the proof of possession of sufficient capital by all those wishing to marry. Side by side with this reactionary utopia there were, it is true, some demands for practical reform: the introduction of a progressive income and property tax, legal regulation of the working day, thorough improvement of the education system, free education and the raising of the elementary schools to the level of institutions of general culture for all elements of civil society, so that art and science should become the common property of the people and not remain the monopoly of wealth.

The centre of gravity of the congress of the crafts remained nonetheless the reactionary guild system. This was particularly obvious in the attitude towards the ten journeymen who were elected as delegates to the congress. At first they were not going to be admitted at all; then they were only given an advisory role. Thereupon the journeymen issued a call for a special congress of journeymen for which numerous delegates were elected and which similarly met in Frankfurt from the end of July until the end of September. It took up a position sharply hostile to the congress of masters. ‘The selfishness of the masters’, it wrote in a submission to the National Assembly, ‘has so clouded their reason that they dare to declare that we are not of age, we who are the youth and thus also have our own strength, we who work, and are thus the real producers, and therefore the heart of Germany, we who form the great majority and know that we form it.’ Nevertheless, this congress, too, was stuck fast in the guild mire.

Winkelblech, who wanted to bring all the enemies of large-scale capital together under one roof, watched the quarrel between masters and journeymen that threatened his petty-bourgeois utopia with lively disquiet. By dint of tireless activity, he succeeded in winning the journeymen for the essential demand of the masters, for compulsory guilds and even for the limitations on workers’ right to marry. The journeymen, it must be admitted, did not want the old pattern of guild system. In their own way they demanded the ‘organization of labour’, the ‘introduction of a new guild system, completely different from the old, corresponding to our highly developed industrial conditions, recognizing the equal rights of all producers and extending to all social professions.’ In important details, too, they opposed the clauses the masters had put in their draft claiming the privilege of tutelage. They rejected work-books as a ‘burdensome police measure’, were totally against the obligation on journeymen to travel and accepted the progressive taxes only as a palliative, and not in the slightest degree as a sufficient measure to assure equity between capital and labour. But in the heart of its outlook the journeymen’s congress only represented that section of the German journeymen who were still caught up in the stolid prejudices of the craft guilds.

Therefore it started as clumsily as possible on the formation of a General Union of German Workers, which was to unite the German workers’ unions behind the watchword that the workers should serve no-one but themselves, that they should only pursue their own ends. This sensible principle was immediately broken by the decision that the Workers’ Union would only involve itself in politics when they immediately touched its class interest. The adoption of a common cockade and a common banner, which the workers were urged to accept in bombastic phrases, seemed more important to the congress than politics. The congress finished by appointing a commission, to which Winkelblech also was elected, which it entrusted with the organization of the whole body of German workers and the publication of a general German workers’ newspaper. The paper appeared on January 1, 1849 in Frankfurt, but placed itself beyond the pale, even given the partial state of workers’ development, in the very first issue, which was at great pains to mock the constitutional system in the romantic phraseology of the King of Prussia.

Besides the reactionary craft element in the petty bourgeoisie there was also a petty-bourgeois democratic movement. It was made up of those elements of the crafts that were not yet threatened by large-scale industry or had learned to accommodate to it, of small traders, the politically awakened stratum of the peasants, and not least, of those sections of the educated and literary class who still struggled against the wage slavery with which capitalism threatened them. They organized themselves politically in congresses and associations and around newspapers. This democratic petty bourgeoisie was however not a unified whole but was divided into a North German and a South German component, which were in many ways different despite substantial similarities.

The petty-bourgeois democracy of Northern Germany found its classical expression in the Left of the Prussian National Assembly. If it had liberated itself from medieval guild fantasies, it was taken all the more firmly in tow by the bourgeoisie on a rope which stretched from time to time but never broke. It dared not in the long run carry out consistently independent policies, and any desire to do so regularly deserted it at the moment when it was faced with a decision between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. At such times it clung blindly to the progressive faction of the bourgeoisie. There were indeed among the Left in the Prussian National Assembly members who would not have shrunk from an alliance with the working class and even demanded it, socialists by sentiment like the old man, Nees von Esenbeck from Breslau, or determined practical men like young Doctor d’Ester from Cologne. But they were only individuals, and in the Assembly’s decisive moments of crisis the democratic petty bourgeoisie danced to the tune of the liberal bourgeois piper.

It showed its worst side in Berlin, where it paid for the momentary intoxication of March 18 with an endless hangover. In its local and military organizations, the municipal authorities and the Bürgerwehr, it outrivalled itself in quivering fear. It even had to swallow its humiliation when the newspaper of the Berlin bourgeoisie – itself quite immune from a surfeit of heroism, if truth be told – took it to task for ‘sounding the alarm over every little thing.’ It created its own classical memorial in the Vossische Zeitung. The general cowardice of this organ was from time to time, in the days following the March fighting, interrupted by those extreme and overweening phrases which the petty bourgeois loves when for once he thinks he can play the hero at a safe distance. According to the ‘joyous special edition’ that the Vossische Zeitung issued on March 20, the most respectable municipal officials had defended the barricades. But this ‘joy’ really was only a ’special issue’. A democratic historian of 1948 has correctly said that no reactionary voice defended as persistently as the Vossische Zeitung the rumour about the rogues and criminals who supposedly fought on the barricades. The paper invented the lucrative ‘correspondent’ system. For ready cash it would turn itself into a trumpet for every slanderous word that the Junker reaction undertook to throw at the bourgeoisie and that the bourgeoisie undertook to throw at the proletariat. The first issue of the first workers’ paper that appeared in Berlin aimed a proud protest against this ‘venal press’. The Volk, the Organ of the Central Committee for Workers [120], said in its issue of May 25: ‘The Vossische Zeitung has the unusual advantage that, instead of paying its contributors, it is on the contrary paid by them. Now and then there are exceptions; for example it prints a lengthy article from the Berlin master printers without payment from the authors, but on the other hand they made the printing workers, poor working men, pay 16 talers and 22 silver groats for the reply’. Even the bourgeois newspapers stood aloof from such money-grubbing in those days.

Northern German petty-bourgeois democracy showed its best side in the Kingdom of Saxony. The high level of economic development in this small country rebelled continuously against the still very backward state-form, while its basis in cottage industry slowed down the differentiation between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Fourteen members of the Saxon Landtag had set themselves up as a Social Democratic faction – Social Democratic in the French, petty bourgeois-proletarian sense of the word – and, of the 24 deputies Saxony elected to the German National Assembly, 20 joined the Left. At their head were Blum and Trützschler, the two parliamentarians of 1848 who, in desecration even of summary military justice, were murdered by the vengeful reaction, the one with Imperial Austrian bullets, the other with Royal Prussian bullets. Trützschler was a refined, elegant aristocrat, a determined mind with a fist of ivory; Blum a child of the Rhenish proletariat, pithy and indefatigable, a bold heart densely packed in an ugly body. In Blum, the German petty bourgeoisie of the bourgeois revolution found its best man. But the fate of this class also fulfilled itself in him, except that in him it achieved tragic intensity. In the pre-parliament, when the issue was to call the masses to the ballot boxes, Blum had correctly prevented a break between the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, but he was completely wrong to make the same decision in the fatal September days, when the German Parliament was beyond any salvation and the German revolution could only be saved by a second revolution. After that, he lost his bearings, and tried in vain to make good, in the street fighting in Vienna, what he had let slip in the street fighting in Frankfurt. He expiated his political sins by a brave death, and his name lives on, not, indeed, in the class for which he fought, but in the class for which he was unable to fight, although it gave him birth. Twenty years later, Bismarck expressed sympathy for him because he would have nothing to do with the proletarian class struggle, and that sympathy was unfortunately not entirely unmerited.

The petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat came closest together in the Democratic Congresses, although, admittedly, it was only in order soon to go apart once more. The first of these Congresses took place in Frankfurt-am-Main in the middle of June. It was attended by more than 200 delegates who represented 88 democratic associations. Moll and Schapper were there, among other members of the Communist League. [121] The Congress unanimously declared that the democratic republic was the only possible constitution for Germany, and made an effort to create an organization for democratic republican propaganda. The democratic associations were to combine by area or by province under the leadership of regional committees, which, it was recommended, should be based on Mannheim, Stuttgart, Bamberg, Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Marburg, Halle, Breslau, Stettin and Konigsberg. There stood over the regional committees a central committee of five which, against the lively opposition of the South German particularists, was sent to Berlin. The election of two of its members was left to the Berlin association. Of the three who were elected by the Congress two tended towards an admittedly very dubious socialism: Julius Fröbel [122] and that Kriege from New York whose ‘drivel about love’ Marx and Engels had criticized so sharply. As well as the Mannheimer Abendzeitung, Southern Germany’s most radical paper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne and the Zeitungshalle in Berlin were chosen as the Congress’s organs.

This organization was unable to develop powerful life of its own except in Cologne, where beside two bourgeois democrats there sat on the regional committee three members of the Communist League, Marx, Moll and Schapper and, as a sixth member, Hermann Becker, later Lord Mayor of Cologne, who did not belong to the Communist League but was very close to it. An exhaustive sample of the confusion that reigned in the Central Committee is given by the fact that Fröbel went to Vienna because, as Kriege explained, ‘the idea of a Federal Republic with the Slav peoples seemed to us to be even more sublime than even the idea of a German Republic’. The second Congress, which met in Berlin, showed the organization to be already in full dissolution. This Congress was attended by 240 delegates mainly from North Germany. The only Communists present were Ewerbeck from Paris, who was soon to part with the Communist League, and Weitling, who had long since left it in utopian egoism. On Kriege’s suggestion Georg Fein was elected President of the Congress, a political mummy from the long departed days of the romantic Bürschenschaft. [123] Reporting from the Central Committee, Kriege opened the Congress with the promising words: ‘Our main support must be the bourgeoisie; we cannot use the proletariat, it is too coarse and uneducated to enter into our endeavour.’ Kriege added, it is true, that the Congress would have to stand armoured as a government of the democratic social republic, and that it would be unconscionable to make a revolution without such an organization. But this and similar outbursts of other speakers only had the effect that many members left the Congress, saying that their constituents had not known that ‘the members of the present Congress were steeped in the republican form of the state’ and were obliged to ‘work to bring it about’.

The rump of the Congress wasted its time with all sorts of party games, with extensive hair-splitting over whether the Central Committee should not have three or seven members rather than five, with debates on Robespierre’s Rights of Man, a thorough discussion of which was recommended to the democratic associations, and an appeal for beleaguered Vienna from Ruge’s pen. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung aptly said of this appeal that its lack of revolutionary energy was compensated by a strident sermonizing pathos that hid the most decided poverty of thought and feeling. And all this while the Prussian coup d’état was in the air! The failure of this Congress contributed in no small measure to encouraging the military moustaches, while the wild phrases that individual members indulged in only succeeded in giving the Prussian State Prosecutor an excuse, after the coup, to accuse the most harmless rebels of being sinister conspirators. This happened particularly to Waldeck, whose royal Prussian patriotism was absolute anathema to the Democratic Congress with its republican tendencies.

The petty-bourgeois democrats of Southern Germany generally held aloof from this democratic organization once the first Congress chose Berlin as the centre of republican propaganda. An admirable abhorrence of the Borussian despot [124] co-exists with a decidedly reactionary element in the South German hatred of Prussia: the hatred of the sluggish hayseed for the big plantation on whose soil the great conflicts of modern society were beginning to unfold. The South German petty bourgeois wanted to have as little to do with these conflicts as did the North German. He had a horror of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in the instinctive knowledge that his class would be ground to nothing between these two millstones. The pocket republicanism that made a big splash in Southern Germany and was particularly strongly represented in the Left at the Frankfurt Assembly was much more the rear-guard than the vanguard of the revolutionary movement. The fresher air that blew in from abroad into the petty states of South West Germany, despite the despotic misrule they had all had to suffer for decades, profoundly agitated the petty bourgeois masses and particularly the small peasants. They were quicker to get their muskets down from the wall than the Prussian petty bourgeoisie, and they felt the moral force of the ‘monarchical principle’ much more weakly, but in other respects their vision was even more limited. Their gaze scarcely penetrated beyond their village boundary post, and their ideal state was no more than an inflated parish. These masses easily became playthings of others somewhat more far-sighted than themselves, lawyers, booksellers, schoolmasters, newspaper-writers, who lured on them with expressions of worthy integrity until they betrayed them at the first opportunity to their own, now childish and now cunning ambition.

In Baden, the heartland of South German democracy, the leaders of the Vormärz opposition had made a reputation for themselves which echoed throughout Germany. No sooner had the storm clouds of revolution gathered, however, than one part of these model patriots immediately collapsed. Once Blum reached Frankfurt he could not complain loudly enough about these ‘rascals who for years had passed as determined liberals’, and had now become ‘reactionaries’. Had he lived longer he would have discovered that even in the Frankfurt Left not all the chaff had been sorted out from the wheat by a long chalk. At his very side sat the leader of the Parliamentary Left, Karl Vogt from Giessen, who played the German National Regent in 1849 only to play the bonapartist paper-hero with the same dignity in 1859.



The Revolutionary Proletariat

The proletarian class struggle could only develop in the German revolution under the determining influence of the decisive struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. If it had had the slightest courage, the bourgeoisie could have had the entire working class behind it. But by striking its colours in the face of the monarchy and the Junkers out of fear of the proletariat, it provoked precisely what it wished to avoid, and forced the class consciousness of the workers forward more sharply than it would have developed naturally in the historical state of things at the time.

The rural proletariat, it must be said, did not attain a class-conscious organization, except in Silesia, where they had their hands full dealing with the counter-revolution’s so called Rustic Associations. Elsewhere it presented its programme in thousands of petitions to the National Assemblies in Berlin and Frankfurt, but its demands never went beyond the abolition of feudal burdens, the possession of land, be it only a spot on which to keep geese, the raising of the daily wage and the cutting of taxes. And it could not be otherwise, for precisely this programme corresponded with the outlook of feudal dependents who expected that the bourgeois revolution would bring their emancipation and consequently could not adopt an attitude that went far beyond that revolution.

Not so the industrial proletariat, which had long since lived in a state of secret war with capital and only supported the bourgeois revolution in order to clear a battlefield where it could wage open war on the bourgeoisie. When it saw that this bourgeois class was beginning to sacrifice its own interests in order to deny them that battlefield, it was also forced to recognise that it could no longer let itself be led by the bourgeoisie, but would have to organize itself despite the bourgeoisie. The more the bourgeois revolution silted up, the more revolutionary the working class became. It was still far too weak to carry the banner that the bourgeoisie had betrayed to victory, but it fought bravely for that banner and its defeat was not, as was that of the bourgeois class, the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning of its struggle for emancipation. In the March revolution it got rid of the last of those illusions that the modern proletariat has to go through in the early phases of its revolutionary development, and it was only thrown off the historical stage to reappear on it with all the more determination, preparation and clarity ten years later, having licked its grievous wounds.

The main centres of proletarian class struggle in 1848 were naturally the great cities, above all Berlin and Cologne. The Berlin workers won the victory of March 18 only to have its fruits wrenched from them the following day. That was only possible because they lacked the clarity to recognize their interests and the organized power to fight for them. Indeed, their political immaturity was still very great, as was proved by the first big meeting that they held on March 26 to discuss the relief of their poverty. Nearly twenty thousand people came, from among whose ranks the most higgeldy-piggeldy suggestions were aired. The meeting ended with a riot that lasted hours because a wily writer from the Vossische Zeitung managed, by a vague formulation, to give the impression that the paper preferred the United Landtag to an organ of modern popular representation.

Understandably the ruling class, consciously or unconsciously, did everything possible to increase confusion in the working class. The furious attacks of the Biirgerwehr and the clumsy confidence tricks of the counter-revolution; the free redemption of all goods in pawn to a value of less than 5 talers in the royal pawnshops; the remission of rent arrears and of all outstanding school fees and fines; the setting up of a sort of workshop, of earthworks and canal works, with which the state employed 3,500 unemployed and the city 2,500; the setting up even of a so-called Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Public Works, which of course immediately unmasked itself as a new bulwark of the propertied classes; the hollow Rodomontades [125] of the demagogues Held and Company; the loving talk of noble-minded friends of the workers; the heart-rending exhortations that the workers should be as willing to live and work for the good of society as they had been to fight and to die for it on the barricades, exhortations uttered with truly woebegone faces by those clowns of the liberal Vormärz philistines, the writers Glassbrenner and Kossak – all that was forced on the Berlin workers like an earsplitting, confusing cacophony. All the more to their credit, therefore, that they did not permit themselves to be pushed from the political path along which their historical task directed them. They permitted themselves neither to be repelled by the liberal alarmists nor to be stupefied by the siren songs of reaction, and up to and including the coup d’état they placed their arms and their blood at the disposal of the bourgeois revolution.

They learnt from their mistakes. Only a few days after the unfortunate mass meeting, 150 workers met to form a special workers’ club, openly acknowledging that they would have to get used to parliamentary forms and the logical formulation of questions before staging great mass meetings where all kinds of fly-by-nights and braggarts could lead them by the nose. The club decided to call upon all workers’ associations, trades and factories to elect representatives to form a Central Committee for Workers.

And so it happened, and after careful preparations the projected Central Committee constituted itself on April 19, not without this or that unreliable customer in its number, but possessing in the typesetter Born and the goldsmith Bisky a couple of leaders who knew very well what they were about.

Besides them there emerged at that first meeting the student Gustav Adolf Schlöffel, a visionary youth of 19, the son of that Silesian landowner who had previously been persecuted by Stieber [126] and soon to become one of the best members of the Left in the Frankfort National Assembly. Young Schlöffel had been rusticated to the Odenwald from Heidelburg University for the alleged dissemination of inflammatory writings, and the University of Berlin, where he wanted to continue his studies, had refused him admission. He now devoted himself entirely to proletarian agitation and published in irregular broadsheets the Volksfreund, in which he proclaimed in vehement and bold terms the war to the death between capital and labour. His likeable appearance quickly brought him a big following among the workers. Nevertheless he came into sharp conflict with Born and Bisky when he called for a big mass rally that was to march to the Schloss on April 20 and enforce the direct suffrage.

Born had a shrewd but cool and calm brain. He had belonged to the Communist League in Brussels and Paris and, as his essays and speeches show, he had grasped the spirit of the Communist Manifesto. At running meetings, and as a fascinating and pithy orator, he was superior to all the popular leaders in Berlin, as even the organ of the bourgeoisie testified. If he – and also Bisky, who was like him but less able – refused to participate in the mass rally, it was probably because he was afraid that the unarmed crowd would be driven off by the armed Bürgerwehr and that a breach would thus open up between the bourgeoisie and the workers which would open the door to the counter-revolution even before the National Assembly had been elected. Born and Bisky and some bourgeois democrats left the Committee for Popular Elections, which was to work for the granting of the direct suffrage, when the majority voted for Schlöffel’s plan, which anyway collapsed of its own accord, since the expected crowds did not turn up at the rendezvous. Schlöffel was afterwards arrested and, on May 11, sentenced by the Supreme Court to six months fortress arrest, for attempted incitement to rebellion, serving his term at Magdeburg. He was – where the Camphausen ministry was concerned – the first victim of reaction. Expressions of the liveliest sympathy accompanied the noble youth, but his activities left no permanent mark on the Berlin revolution.

The conflict between Born and Schlöffel had a profounder background and was to a certain extent typical of the course events took. Born himself was only speaking his honest opinion when he said that in Germany the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, capital and labour, were not in such sharp conflict as they were in England and France, where they stood face to face, cold-blooded and armed for the fight as strictly separate parties. He thought that the workers in Germany were not yet organized and did not see themselves as a party, and that it would be senseless for individual workers to smash machines or make demands on individual manufacturers that they could not possibly grant. If the working class wanted to be a power in the state, then its first task was its own organization. ‘We count in our number the greatest part of the nation; not only the wage workers and the journeymen, but also the great number of small masters who are oppressed by the competition of large-scale capital, the agriculturalist whose parcel of land is no longer enough, the teacher who educates our children, the girl who sits at the embroidery-frame or the machine are ours. Everybody whose industry and efforts are outbid by the power of capital and must perish in free competition belongs to us.’ Born added this programme to the statutes of the Central Committee for Workers, by which the proletariat was organized.

In later years Engels said that, in the official publications of the organization that Born founded, the conceptions of the Communist Manifesto were mixed up with guild memories and guild aspirations, scraps from Louis Blanc and Proudhon, tariff protection and so on. This is correct, but Engels added that Born, a very talented young man, was in a bit too much of a hurry over his transformation into a great political figure, that he allied himself with any Tom, Dick and Harry in order merely to get his army together, and was not at all the man to bring unity into the conflicting tendencies and light out of chaos. This verdict required at least some qualification.

So far as the workers’ movement of 1848 in the German trading and industrial towns can be judged from reliable sources, it had – with the exception of the Rhineland and parts of Westphalia – only developed to about the level of the French Social Democracy of the day, and could not go beyond questions of the organization of labour, the right to work and a Ministry of Labour. The stage of the aimless fight against hunger lay not far behind it, even though outbreaks of machine-breaking occurred. It had also in the main got over utopian craft-communism; Weitling, who came to Berlin in June, could find no basis among the workers and had to let the Urwähler, a paper he founded, collapse after a few numbers because of the lack of readers. But it was not yet ripe for the viewpoint of the Communist Manifesto, which, in order to become the banner of a mass movement, presupposed large scale industry as the typical form of enterprise to a much greater extent than was then the case in Eastern Germany. If Born wanted to organize the workers as a class, he had to reckon with the mental compass to which they were at that time limited, and he at least did not lack zeal in leading them beyond that horizon.

During the discussions that led to the formation of the Central Committee for Workers, a liberal bureaucrat, President Lette, turned up to persuade the workers to join a common organization with the employers that could, with its loftier overall view, regulate the relationship of national production to the world market. Born replied that this relationship was no concern of the workers. The relationship with other countries, the sale of products was, he said, a matter of complete indifference to the worker as such. The expansion of industry was not a means to improve the condition of the working class, but rather caused an increase in the numbers of the working class, and the interests of the workers were directly opposed to those of the employers. Born opposed all toying with guilds just as decisively. He said that no state that had introduced large-scale modern industry could ever again return to an already outdated mode of production without ruining itself or taking up a completely subordinate position in the ranks of the European states.

So when Proudhon tried and failed to put his labour-money utopia into practice by founding a Peoples’ Bank [127] Born wrote, completely in the spirit of the Communist Manifesto and the sense of historical materialism: ‘We by no means applauded this enterprise, and if its failure saddens us it does not surprise us, for we expected this outcome with certainty, for the simple reason that an idea, however great and true it is, can never simply be put into practice without any further ado where the elements needed to carry it out are not present to a sufficient degree. The republic, for example, is certainly a more rational form of state than the monarchy; but whether it is equally suitable for all nations, for the Croats as much as for the French, that is a different question ... We have always placed the organization of workers over the organization of work, we always presuppose the political mastery of the working classes before we consider possible the introduction of social ideas affecting all layers of society... We disapprove in advance of all such socialist experiments, although we belong to the socialist party, and indeed have all the more right to do so ... Human society, that ever living and creative organism, can no more be crammed into the straitjacket of a system than the growing poverty can be combatted with Peoples’ Banks, which must draw their funds from the pockets of the poor... We rightly ask: what future, what expectation of life could the Peoples’ Bank have if it collapsed because of – M. Proudhon’s prosecution for press offences. With the Peoples’ Bank Proudhon wanted to build a new world, in the Peoples’ Bank lay his solution to the social question, and because of six months gaol and a fine of a few thousand francs to which Citizen Proudhon is sentenced, the world is once more cheated of its Saviour and Redeemer. We cannot suppress a bitter smile when we think of the petty vanity that sought to light the way to the great popular movement, when the modern Joshuas in their prophets’ robes go marching on before, not, however, to join the fray, to wield their sword, no – to be admired. Here comes M. Considérant, a second rate prophet, who wants to dispute that M. Proudhon invented the Peoples’ Bank [128] – how pitiful is this little war between two personalities at a time when the whole world is pregnant with projects and the earth shakes to the tread of two massive armies who, lusting for the fight, march on each other and will soon be seeing the whites of each others eyes; at a time when a battle won in Hungary by Dembinski or Bem [129] is worth more than all the printed and unprinted works of Citizens Proudhon and Considerant put together; at a time when the greatest reputations are broken by a single day.’ Thus wrote Born in the Volk and the Verbrüderung [130], the two official organs of the organization he led. If nonetheless in its own programmes the ideas of Louis Blanc predominated, mixed up with all kinds of protectionist, utopian and guild rubbish, this is explained by the fact that the industrial workers of Germany, with the exception of some areas in the West, had as yet only been able to reach the level of the French Social Democracy of the day, which, for the proletariat east of the Elbe, was a pretty good achievement.

The Central Committee for Workers developed a zealous agitation in the press and in meetings and also for the elections for the National Assembly, in which it managed to get Bisky in as a deputy delegate in one Berlin constituency. From June 1 it brought out the Volk three times weekly, a ’social-political newspaper’ with the programme ‘on the one hand to support the bourgeoisie in the fight against the aristocracy, against the Middle Ages and against the forces of God’s Grace, on the other hand to support the small tradesman and the worker against the power of capital and free competition and to be always in the forefront where it is a matter of winning for the people some political right that is still denied them, so that they achieve the means to wrest all the more quickly social freedom and an independent existence’. In its third issue the paper greets the appearance of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which had also come out on June 1, and whose ‘determined line’ was, it said, guaranteed by the names of ‘our friends’ Marx, Engels and Wolff. Politically it supported and tried to put fire into the Left in the Berlin Assembly, courageously supported the Parisian June fighters and honoured the English Chartists, just as in general it was at pains to maintain a spirit of close sympathy with the workers’ parties of Western Europe. Hand in hand with this went a ruthless scourging of the socio-political swindle which demagogues like Held tried on the population. The paper devoted a great part of its space to a discussion of the social ideas that were considered on the Central Committee and which stretched from export subsidies and corporations of craftsmen to the employment of the unemployed by the state.

The Central Committee moreover sent a delegation to the Hamburg Handicrafts Congress, with whose ‘fanatical defence of the medieval guilds’ it naturally declared itself to be in disagreement. It was equally dissatisfied with a smaller congress of craftsmen’s and worker’s associations which met in Berlin on July 18 which, although it did not strike such extreme guild attitudes, did in general get no further than well-meaning phrases about the good of the workers. Six members of this congress, Born for the Central Committee, Lucht and Krause for the Berlin millwrights, Bühring and Steinhauer for the Hamburg and Crüger for the Königsberg workers, on June 27 issued an appeal ‘to all workers’, craftsmen’s and cultural associations, to the German associations in Switzerland, Paris, Brussels and London’ for the election of delegates to a workers’ parliament that was to meet in Berlin. ‘The working classes of all towns and industrial and agricultural areas’ were to be represented. The proposed subjects for discussion were the guarantee of work by the state, state support of industrial associations of workers, state aid for all helpless and invalid workers, regulation and limitation of the excessive working day, reform of the taxation system in favour of the working classes by a sharply progressive income tax, limitation of the right of inheritance and the abolition of all taxes on food as well as all feudal fees and burdens, free education in national schools, free legal care and the introduction of Ministries of Labour in the individual German states which were to come from a free vote of all the working classes.

The Workers’ Congress met on August 23. It counted 40 participants, of whom 5 only had an advisory capacity. 35 workers’ associations in Berlin, Breslau, Hamburg, Leipzig, Königsberg, Munich and other large cities had sent delegates. There was also a representative of the Frankfurt Journeymen’s Congress present. Together with him Weitling moved, immediately after the opening of the Congress, that a petition for the calling of a special Workers’ Parliament should be sent to the Frankfurt National Assembly. He left the hall in high dudgeon when the Congress, while not rejecting the motion, put it back to the agenda of the second session. The Congress elected Nees von Esenbeck and Born as its chairmen, Bisky and the surveyor Schwenniger from Hamm as its secretaries, and then, in ten days of discussion, dealt with a great number of proposals more or less within the areas proposed by its initiators. On the whole they represent a pretty colourfully mixed confusion. Thus precise regulations concerning the right to be a master were decided upon, for which the Congress demanded proof of competence. The plan to collect subscriptions from wages in order to buy land and divide it into smallholdings also played a big role. In a manifesto, the German National Assembly was called upon to include the decisions of the Congress among the basic rights of the German people and to convene a Workers’ Parliament at Frankfurt at the expense of the state, in order to ‘support’ the Assembly’s economic committees in an advisory capacity.

More important than these theoretical decisions were the statutes that the Congress drafted for the organization of German workers. The Workers’ Brotherhood, as the new league was to be called, was structured in local and district committees, over which stood a Central Committee as the highest authority. The different trades in a locality were to be represented on the local committees in proportion to their membership. The job of these committees consisted of holding regular meetings of workers and representing the interests of local workers. A number of these local committees were grouped under a district committee elected by a district meeting of representatives of the local committees that was to be held at least one a year. The district committees had the responsibility of looking after workers’ interests in their district and forming a link with the Central Committee; the cause of women workers was to be represented on them by a special commission. The Congress provisionally named Danzig, Königsberg, Stettin, Cologne, Bielefeld, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Munich, Linz, Vienna, Brno, Prague, Nuremberg, Bamburg, Jena, Coburg, Marburg, Hannover, Osnabrück, Brunswick, Magdeburg, Berlin, Breslau and Dresden as the seats of the district committees, although the local committees were not to be deprived of the right to form themselves into further district committees. Over the district committees stood the Central Committee, which was removed to Leipzig and entrusted with the publication of a national newspaper. For its part, it was under the supervision of and re-elected by a General Congress of all German workers that was to take place at least annually. The Congress provisionally decided upon Born, Kick and Schwenniger as its members, and from October they published the Verbrüderung from Leipzig as the organ of the League.

The Central Committee dedicated itself to its task with tireless zeal and succeeded in spreading the League over a great part of Germany, particularly through a series of district congresses that took place in Altenburg, Leipzig, Hamburg, Heidelburg, Nuremberg and other places. In Heidelburg, Born collided with Winkelblech, and the typesetter beat the learned professor so thoroughly that Winkelblech left the congress after the first day of discussion. Everywhere the workers’ association set up by the Frankfurt Journeymen’s Congress was either driven out or absorbed by the new League. Politically the Workers’ Brotherhood was consistently bold. Its Berlin district committee, led by Bisky, placed itself at the disposal of the Berlin National Assembly in order to fight the coup d’état not simply with phrases but also with arms, and during the night-long meeting of the Bürgerwehr Majors, Bisky showed the utmost personal zeal to drive the bourgeois philistines to the barricades. In November, the Central Committee in Leipzig also issued an urgent demand to the district and local committees to see to the arming of the workers.

The social aims of the Workers’ Brotherhood were less immune from criticism. It had simply accepted everything, possible and impossible, for its social programme, and the more points at which it tried to exert leverage, the more it dispersed its forces. Its attempt to use subscriptions from wages to buy land, to set up credit funds for the workers, to found all kinds of producer co-operatives and generally to put the cart before the horse – attempting a reckoning with the capitalist mode of production before the proletariat had seized political power – all led to disappointments and losses. But the league’s organ greatly contributed to awakening and sharpening workers’ class consciousness. It was skilfully edited and tore apart the pompous phrases about how capitalist wealth trickles down to the people, how there have always been rich and poor, and all the rest of those capitalist mirages, with telling wit. It also gave the wages struggles of the workers real support by proving how justified they were and warning about blacklegging.

1848 was particularly rich in such wages struggles. In Berlin alone there were many dozens of them after the March days. It lies in the nature of things that the striking workers had many temporary but no permanent successes. What was granted them out of fear of the revolution was wrested back from them in the arrogance of the reaction. The countless occasional strikes gave rise in some trades to attempts to form permanent national organisations, first and most strongly among the typesetters and cigar workers. The typesetters founded themselves a trades union journal, the Gutenberg, and the cigar workers started the Konkordia. The bourgeoisie were much more hostile to the trades union organization of the workers, which threatened their profits directly, than they were to their socio-political organization; and they found willing helpers in the courts and the police, who calmly used the Vormärz prohibition of combinations as if the laws of April 6 had never guaranteed unlimited freedom of association.

Faced with these powers of crude and illegal suppression, no permanent trades union organization could yet maintain itself, but the intellectual victory went undiminished to the workers. When the Berlin typesetters, worked to death and badly paid as they were, struck for a cut in the working day and a wage increase, the Berlin master printers declared that if their employees’ demands were granted, prices would rise by fifty per cent and therefore demand would drop by one hundred per cent. For it was a fearful, irrevocable truth, proved by a century of statistical studies and invincible legions of counted facts, that if the price of labour rises in arithmetical progression consumption drops in geometrical progression. To such inexpressible nonsense this ‘educated’ bourgeoisie appended the outraged question: ‘Can and should we, who belong to a trade that truly nourishes the intellect, deny the greatest and highest properties of intelligence?’ But the Nationalzeitung was of the opinion that strikes should only take place with the permission of the authorities, since otherwise the state would dissolve into warring associations, and the Vossische Zeitung denounced the typesetters as the bribed mercenaries of foreign powers, who, it said, had received 14,000 francs from France and Switzerland. Since that paper’s own typesetters had to work 14 to 16 hours a day seven days a week for a weekly wage of 4 to 6 talers, the Berlin bourgeois could easily grasp that dissatisfaction with such idyllic working conditions could only be aroused by vile French money.

Even today it is a pleasure to read how effortlessly the leaders of the proletarian wages struggles, the typesetters Born and Fröhlich, and the cigar workers Kohlweck and Stechan, dealt with this chatter was born of the unholy matrimony of bourgeois ignorance and bourgeois greed for profit. They were all, or almost all, proletarians who had been trained in the Communist League.




[116] Marx and Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany.

[117] The Grimm brothers, Jacob Ludwig Karl (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Karl (17871859) – German philologists and men of letters, collected Grimms Fairy Tales from German peasants and other traditional sources.

[118] Reichstag – Seat of the German parliament in Berlin.

[119] Malthusianism – The theory of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1831) an English clergyman and economist. In 1784 wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population and its Effects on the Future Improvement of Society in which he maintained that the realization of a happy society will always be hindered by the miseries consequent on the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence.

[120] For its formation see below, p.256.

[121] Communist League – Existed in Germany, 1836-1850. Founded as an international workers’ movement. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto for it.

[122] Julius Fröbel (1805-1893) – German author and politician, a member of the National Assembly in 1848, condemned to death for his part in the Vienna rising; after exile in America returned to Germany to become a supporter of reactionary Greater-German politics.

[123] Burschenschaft – Students’ association. This was the focus of youthful liberal opposition to the reactionary Congress system imposed on Germany after 1815 which was crushed in the Vormärz. Students’ associations later were extremely reactionary societies which encouraged duelling and served as recruiting bases for the right-wing parties in Germany.

[124] Borussian – Archaic term for Prussian, here used ironically.

[125] Rodomontades – Boastful speeches in the style of Rodomont, a character in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

[126] Wilhelm Stieber (1818-1882) – Prussian police officer appointed to the Berlin Police HQ in 1843 to deal with political activities and greatly feared.

[127] Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) – French political theorist and politician. In 1840 wrote a work called What is Property? in which he wrote: ’Property is theft.’ Member of the National Assembly in 1848. Believed that the social question could be solved by founding a bank operating on gratuitous credit.

[128] Victor Considérant (1808-1893) – French socialist and disciple of Fourier; aimed at social reform by founding communes called phalansteries. Believed that total world reform could be obtained ‘on the basis of harmony’. Member of the National Assembly in 1848, accused of high treason and fled to Belgium and then Mexico where he attempted unsuccessfully to set up a utopian settlement. An advocate of proportional representation.

[129] Henri Dembinski (1791-1849) – Polish general who took part in the Polish revolt of 1830 and in 1849 commanded revolutionary forces in Hungary against the Austrians. Josef Bem (1795-1850) – Polish soldier who also took part in the 1830 rising and fought in Vienna in the 1848 revolution. Was involved in the Hungarian rebellion in 1849 and then took refuge in Turkey where he became a Muslim and a high-ranking officer in the Turkish army.

[130] Volk – People; Verbrüderung – Fraternity.


Last updated on 16.2.2004