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Fourth International, January 1942


Ferdinand Lassalle

On the Essence of Constitutions

(Speech Delivered in Berlin, April 16, 1862)


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.1, January 1942, pp.25-31.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Editors’ Introduction

We reprint below an abbreviated English translation of Lassalle’s famous speech on the nature of constitutions, one of the classic documents of the international labor movement.

Lassalle here uses the method of historical materialism to explain the real character of constitutional forms of government – political phenomena which are least understood precisely where they are the most prevalent, i.e., in democratic countries.

These constitutions are generally regarded with superstitious awe. They are believed to be supra-historical products which are essentially fixed and final, embodying principles which hold good at all times and under all conditions. In the national mythology the constitution occupies the same place as does dogma in religion. In contrast to this idolization of constitutions, Lassalle lays bare the real historical origins of constitutions in the class struggle, and their actual material bases in the given relationship of forces between the classes in a particular country at a particular time.

As a rule the written code is identified with the real constitution. Lassalle, however, points out that nothing is more illusory and superficial than such an approach. Written constitutions are merely juridical expressions of class relations which have been established as a result of intense struggle in society. They remain in force only so long as no profound change occurs in the existing relationship of forces which created the constitution.

For example, the original constitution of the United States, drafted by the representatives of Southern slave-owners and Northern capitalists, recognized the institution of chattel

slavery as one of the “inalienable rights” of American citizens. This right was established and enforced by the government for three-quarters of a century. During this period, tremendous shifts occurred in the relationship of class forces in the United States. The power of the Southern slave-holders declined while that of the Northern capitalists became dominant. The written constitution no longer reflected the real relations between the contending class forces in the U. S. The victory of the North in the Civil War crushed the slave-holders and gave political supremacy to the Northern capitalists. This new stage in the class struggle was reflected and validated by the passage of amendments to the U. S. Constitution abolishing chattel slavery and eliminating the slave-holding class. This illustration from American history serves to show how the real constitution, i.e., the relationship of class forces, determines the character of the written constitution.

Written constitutions are a modern development – essentially a product of bourgeois society in the period of its ascent. The appearance of constitutional forms of government and their elaboration marked successive stages in the evolution of bourgeois democracy. With the decline of capitalism, constitutional forms have become more and more weakened, and in one country after another have been set aside by the monopolist rulers and their agents. The real constitution of capitalist society now manifests itself in the naked rule of finance capital under fascism or other forms of dictatorship. The old written constitutions are swept aside. Under such circumstances only the establishment of a new social order through the further development of the class struggle can give a new constitution to the people, safeguarding their elementary democratic rights and social gains. – The Editors

I have been invited to address this esteemed audience, and I have chosen for the occasion a subject which merits your attention because it is the most timely one. I shall speak on the essence of constitutions.

I begin my speech by asking: What is a constitution? What constitutes its essence?

Today everybody is talking from morning until night about the constitution. In every newspaper, at every meeting, in every tavern, the discussion revolves interminably around the constitution.

And yet, if I were seriously to pose the question: What is the essence, the concept of constitutions, I am afraid that from among the many who discuss the matter so glibly very few could give a satisfactory answer.

On being asked this question many would feel it necessary to pick up the volume of the Prussian Legal Code of 1850, and read from it passages concerning the Prussian constitution.

Formal Definitions Inadequate

But, after all, this would be no answer to my question. For in this volume there is merely the special content of a certain constitution, namely, the Prussian; and, consequently, it cannot supply us with an answer to the question: What is the essence, the concept of constitutions in general?

If I were to ask this question of a lawyer, he would answer: “A constitution is a contract, solemnly concluded between a king and his people, which establishes the basic principles of the country’s legislation and government.” Or, inasmuch as there also exist republican constitutions, he might offer a more general definition: “A constitution is the basic law promulgated in the country which establishes the organization of public rights in that country.”

But all these and similar formal juridical definitions carry us as far afield from the real answer to my question as did the previous answer.

For all of them provide merely superficial descriptions of how a constitution arises, and what it docs, but they do not explain what it is. They supply us with criteria, signs by which a constitution can be recognized superficially and Juridically. But they do not tell us what is the concept, the essence of a constitution. They, therefore, leave us completely in the dark concerning whether a constitution ia good or bad, possible or impossible, stable or unstable. We could make a judgment about this only if we knew the essence of constitutions in general; only then could we determine whether a particular constitution corresponds to this essence, or just how it is related to the latter. But this essential nature (of a constitution) is in no way explained by juridical and superficial definitions which are equally applicable to every piece of paper signed by a nation, or by a nation and its King, and which is proclaimed as a constitution regardless of its content. The concept of a constitution alone is the source of all constitutional art and all constitutional wisdom which flow from it so easily, in and of themselves, as you will become convinced once we discover this concept.

And so I repeat: What is a constitution? What is the essence, the concept of a constitution?

A Useful Method of Analysis

We are still without this knowledge; we must find the answer by seeking it jointly. In order to find it let us apply a method which men should always use whenever they desire to obtain a clear understanding of something. This method is a very simple one, gentlemen. It consists in this, that we compare the thing which we seek to understand with something else of the same nature; and then try to determine, as clearly and sharply as we can, in what way they differ from each other despite their similarity. Applying this method, I now ask: What is the difference between a constitution and a law?

Constitution and law are obviously homogeneous, i.e., of the same nature. A constitution must possess the force of law; therefore, it must also be law. But it must be not only law, but something that is more than law. There is therefore a difference between the two. There are hundreds of facts which prove that a precise difference exists and that a constitution must be not simply law but something more than law. For example, you find nothing offensive in the fact that new laws are passed. On the contrary, you are aware that it is necessary to pass almost every year a larger or smaller number of new laws. And yet it is impossible to pass a single new law without thereby altering the existing legal relationships. A new law which would leave unaltered the existing legal order would be utterly meaningless and superfluous and would not be adopted. You thus find nothing offensive in changing laws, but, on the contrary, look upon this in general as the proper task of the governing bodies.

But as soon as your constitution is touched, you take offense and cry out: Hands off the constitution! Why the difference? This difference is so incontestable that some constitutions contain direct provisions against any change; others contain provisions that they can be amended by two-thirds instead of a mere majority vote of the law-making body; still others provide that the law-making body, even in conjunction with other governmental authorities, cannot amend the constitution but can only propose amendments, which can be (put into effect only by the election by the people of a new assembly of representatives, specially and solely for this purpose.

All these facts testify that, according to universal views, a constitution must be something more sacred, more powerful, more unchangeable than an ordinary law.

I therefore again ask: What differentiates a. constitution from a law?

The usual answer to this question reads: A constitution is not simply a law, like any other, it is the basic law of the land. And it is quite possible, gentlemen, that in this answer the truth lies hidden in an unclear form. But this form is so unclear that this answer can serve no .purpose at all. For another question arises immediately: What is the difference between law and basic law? Consequently, we are no further along than we were ‘before. We have merely obtained a new expression – basic few – which helps us not at all so long as we do not know what the difference is between basic law and other law.

The Difference Between Ordinary Law and Basic Law

Let us see if we cannot probe deeper into the matter by analyzing the ideas which are contained in the expression “basic law,” in other words, wherein basic law must differ from other law in order to justify its being called “basic law.”

A basic law must be:

  1. that kind of law which is more deep-going than any other, ordinary law; this is indicated by the expression basic; but it must also, as basic law, be:
  2. precisely the basis of other laws, i.e., the basic law must be the creative beginning for other ordinary laws in order for it to constitute the basis of the latter; consequently, basic law must be operative in all other ordinary laws;
  3. but something which has a basis cannot be either one thing or something else arbitrarily, it must be none other than what it is. Its basis will not permit it to be otherwise.

Only that which lacks a basis and which is therefore accidental, can be what it is, and also, perhaps, something else. On the contrary, everything which has a basis is necessarily that which it is. For example, the planets have a certain movement. This movement either has or does not have a basis which determines it. If it has not, then the movement is accidental, and may differ at any given moment. But if it does have a basis, namely, as the astronomers claim, the attractive force of the sun, then this already establishes that the movement of the planets is determined and regulated by a basis – the attractive force of the sun – and cannot be different from what it is. Consequently the term “basis” contains the idea of necessity, of an active operating force which necessarily makes whatever is “based upon it” that which it is.

Therefore, if a constitution is the basic law of the land, then it is something which we must define in greater detail, or as we have already discovered, it must be an active force which necessarily makes all other laws and juridical institutions in the land what they are, so that henceforth absolutely no other laws than just these can be passed – and this is for us the first glimmer of light, gentlemen.

Now, is there something in the nation, gentlemen – and with this question a full light gradually begins to break – is there in the nation something, some active force which is capable of exerting an influence upon all laws passed in the nation in such a way as to make them by and large what they are, necessarily so and not otherwise?

The Basis of All Constitutions

Of course, gentlemen, there is something like it, and this something is nothing else but – the actual relation of forces existing in a given society.

The actual relation of forces in a given society constitutes the actively operating force which determines all laws and juridical institutions of this society in such a way that they cannot be other than what they are In their essential characteristics.

I hasten to clarify this by means of a hypothetical situation. In the form in which I present it, this situation is, to be sure, quite impossible. But apart from the fact that, as we shall presently see, such a situation may occur in another form, the point is that it is not at all a question of whether something like this can take place, but merely that of examining through this hypothetical situation the nature of things that becomes revealed if its occurrence is assumed.

You know, gentlemen, that in Prussia only that has legal force which is published in the Legal Code. This code is printed in the Deckerschen Oberhofbuchdruckerei. The original texts of the laws are kept in certain state archives; printed collections of laws are kept in other archives, libraries and bookstores.

Now, let us assume that a terrible fire has occurred, something like the great fire in Hamburg, and that all of these state archives, libraries and bookstores, together with the Deckerschen Oberhofbuchdruckerei itself, have burned up; let us further assume that by a remarkable combination of circumstances the same thing has happened in all the cities of this kingdom, and that even the private libraries containing copies of the Legal Code have burned up, so that in all of Prussia not a single law has remained in its accredited form.

In this way, the country would be deprived of all its laws, and there would be nothing left to do except to pass new ones.

Do you think, gentlemen, that one would then be free to proceed arbitrarily and to pass whatever laws one wished, whatever kind one thought desirable? Let us see.

Let me assume that you would say: The laws have been lost, we shall pass new ones, and we shall no longer grant the monarchy the position it has heretofore enjoyed, or, even more, we shall grant it no position whatever.

A Hypothetical Situation

To this the king would merely reply: The laws may have been lost, but what of it? Actually, the army obeys my command, and marches wherever I order; actually, it is on my orders that the commanders of armories and barracks issue the cannon and send the artillery into the streets; and resting, as I do, on this actual force, I have no fear that you will grant me any other position than the one I desire.

You see, gentlemen, a king whom the army and cannons obey – this is part of a constitution!

Or I assume that you say: We are 18 million Prussians. Among these 18 million is a hardly perceptible handful of big landed aristocrats. We do not see why this insignificant handful of big landed aristocrats should be given as much influence as the rest of 18 million Prussians put together; nor why they should constitute a House of Lords who weigh the decisions of a House of Commons, elected by the entire nation, and are permitted to veto them as soon as these decisions are worth something, if such is their whim. I assume that you might speak in such a vein and say: We are all “Lords” and we do not want a special House of Lords.

Well, gentlemen, it is unquestionable that the big landed aristocrats would be unable to let loose their peasants against you. On the contrary, they would undoubtedly have their hands full saving themselves from their peasants.

But the big landed aristocrats have always exerted a great influence upon the king and the court, and thanks to this influence they could send out the army and cannon quite as easily as if this force were under their direct command.

So you see, gentlemen, a nobility which enjoys influence with the king and court – this is part of a constitution!

Or let me, on the contrary, assume that the king and the nobility decide to reinstitute the medieval guild order, not only for small handicrafts, as was attempted a few years ago, but in such scope as during the Middle Ages, i.e., in social production generally, end consequently, also in manufacture as well as machine-facture. You know, gentlemen, that under a medieval guild system large capital could not produce; that large scale factory production, machine production, would be impossible. Because under this system, for example, there existed demarcations fixed by law between various branches of labor, even between those most closely related to one another, and no manufacturer was permitted to combine two such branches. The plasterer could not fill up a hole; between blacksmiths and locksmiths there were endless litigations concerning the jurisdiction of their respective trades; the cotton printer could not hire a dyer. Furthermore, under the guild system, the quantity of production permitted a single manufacturer was also legally fixed, so that in each city, in each trade, each master-craftsman was permitted to employ only a fixed, legally designated and limited number of workers.

You see that, on the basis of these two considerations, large-scale production, production by machines, and a machine-system could not last a day under a guild system. Large-scale production unquestionably requires, first, the combination of various related branches of labor in the hands of one large capital; and, second, mass production and free competition, i.e., the free and unrestrained .employment of workers.

What would happen, if notwithstanding all this, an attempt was made to introduce the guild system today?

Social Forces Determine the Constitution

Messrs. Borsig, Egels, et al., the large cotton and silk manufacturers, etc., would shut down their factories and let their workers go. Even the railway boards would have to do the same. Commerce and industry would stop. A large number of handicraftsmen would – either voluntarily or because driven to it – dismiss their apprentices. This whole vast mass of people would swarm into the streets demanding bread and work. Behind them would stand the big bourgeoisie, using their influence to spur them on, encouraging them by their position, aiding them with funds – and such a struggle would ensue as would not leave victory with the army.

And so, gentlemen, you see that Borsig and Egels, the large industrialists in general, are – part of a constitution.

Or let me suppose that the government wanted to adopt a measure detrimental to the interests of large bankers. For example, the government would decide that the national bank shall not serve as it now does the large bankers and capitalists, who, even without this, already control all moneys and all credit and who alone can nowadays discount their Invoices in the national bank, that is, alone obtain credit there; and that the bank should not make credit cheap for them but should devote itself to extending credit to poor people, to the small and middle producers; and that therefore it was necessary to reorganize the national bank in such a way as would further this end. Would this take place, gentlemen?

True, gentlemen, this measure would not provoke an insurrection. Nevertheless, it would be impossible for the present government to institute it.

For from time to time, gentlemen, the government needs such large sums of money that it dares not raise them through taxation. In such circumstances, it finds a way out by eating up the funds of the future; i.e., it makes loans and issues state bonds to cover them. For this it needs the bankers. To be sure, in the long run the greatest part of the state bonds find their way into the hands of the entire propertied and rentier class of the nation. But this often takes a very long time. The government, however, needs the money at once and in one lump sum, or in a few installments, and for that it needs middlemen, agents who advance the full sum at once; who assume responsibility for getting the state ipaper they receive in exchange gradually into the hands of the public, and who in addition make a profit from the artificial rise in the price of these issues in the stock market. These middlemen are the big bankers and that is why the government cannot now enter into a quarrel with them.

So you see, gentlemen, the bankers Mendelsohn, Schickler, and the stock exchange in general are – part of a constitution!

Or I shall suppose that the government decided to promulgate a law, like the one in China which provides that if a son commits a theft the penalty falls on his father. Such a proposal would not succeed, for it would be opposed by public consciousness and general culture. Every government official, even the privy counsellors, would raise their hands in horror; even the members of the House of Lords would speak against it. You see therefore, gentlemen, within certain limits public consciousness and culture is likewise part of a constitution!

Culture and Tradition Are Social Forces

Or I shall suppose that the government decided to keep the nobility, the bankers, the large industrialists and the large capitalists satisfied, but to deprive the middle class and workers of their political freedom. Would that succeed, gentlemen?

Oh, of course, gentlemen, this would succeed for a time; we have already had the occasion to witness that this can be successfully accomplished; and we shall later have another occasion to take a look at it.

But, I suppose the following case: the project envisaged is not simply to deprive the middle class and the workers of their political but also of their personal freedom; i.e., it is proposed that they be declared not freemen but serfs or bondsmen of landowners, as was a condition in many places several centuries ago. Would that succeed, gentlemen?

No, this would not succeed, not even if the king, the nobility and the whole big bourgeoisie united behind it. For in this ease you would say: No! We would rather be killed than submit to this! The workers, without waiting for Borsig and Egels to close their factories, would pour Into the streets, the entire middle class would come to their assistance and, inasmuch as their joint resistance would be very hard to overcome, you see, gentlemen, that in the most extreme cases, all of you are part of a constitution!

The Real Constitution

We have now seen, gentlemen, what the constitution of a country is, namely: the relation of forces actually existing in the country.

But what is it that is usually called the constitution? What is the legal constitution? Now, gentlemen, you yourselves see what it is.

These actual relations of force are put down on paper, are given written form, and after they have been thus put down, they are no longer simply actual relations of force but have now become laws, judicial institutions, and whoever opposes them is punished!

It is now equally clear to you, gentlemen, how these actual relations of force are put down in written form, which turns them into legal relations.

Naturally they do not write down: Mr. Borsig is part of the constitution; Mr. Mendelsohn is part of the constitution, etc., But they express all this in a much more refined manner.

For instance, if it is desired to establish that a small number of large industrialists and capitalists shall have in the monarchy as much power as – and more than – all the middle-class citizens, workers and peasants put together, then this will by no means be written openly and clearly. To this end a law is issued like, for instance, the three-class election law of 1849, under which the population is divided into three electoral classes, grouped according to the amount of taxes paid, which are naturally determined by the amount of property they own.

According to the official lists drawn up in 1849 by the government, after passage of this three-class election law, there were in Prussia at the time 3,255,600 primary electors who fell as follows into the three electoral classes:

Belonging in the first class

   153,808 voters

Belonging to the second class

   409,945 voters

Belonging to the third class

2,691,950 voters

I repeat, these figures are taken from official lists.

You observe that 153,808 very rich people have as much political power in Prussia as 2,691,950 middle-class citizens, peasants and workers; and further, these 153,808 very rich people and the 409,945 moderately rich people who comprise the second class have exactly twice as much political power as the rest of the nation put together; so that 153,808 very rich together with a half of the 409,945 voters of the second class have more political power than the remaining half of the moderately rich second class together with 2,691,950 of the third class.

Class Relations and the Written Constitution

You thus see that in this way exactly the same result is obtained as would be the case if it were written into the constitution in such vulgar words as: A rich person shall have seventeen times as much political power as another citizen or as much as seventeen others.

Prior to the passage of this three-class election law, there was in force, in accordance with the law of April 8, 1848, a general election system under which every citizen, whether rich or poor, had an equal right to participate in determining the will and goal of the state. You see in this circumstance, gentlemen, the confirmation of what I observed earlier – that it is easy enough, unfortunately, to deprive you, workers and middle class citizens, of your political freedom so long as the right to your personal possessions, bodies and property, is not directly and drastically violated. You relinquished lightly your right to equal franchise and to my knowledge there has not since then been any agitation for the restoration of that right.

Further, if it is desired to provide in the constitution that a small number of noblemen shall have as much power as all the rich, well-to-do and propertyless – as much power as the voters in all three classes put together, i.e., the whole nation – one would again avoid phrasing it in so vulgar a way (for note well, gentlemen, once and for all, everything open and clear is vulgar) but would phrase it as follows: there shall be a House of Lords established from among the ancient landowners, whose agreement must be obtained for all decisions made by the members of the House of Commons, and thereby political power is given to a handful of landed aristocrats which outweighs the unanimous will of the nation, and all its classes.

And if it is further desired to provide that the King shall have personally as much power as – and even more than – all three electoral classes put together, than the whole nation, even with the landed aristocracy thrown in, then this is accomplished as follows:

In Article 47 of the constitution it is written: “The King makes appointments to all posts in the armed forces,” and Article 108 reads: “The army does not take an oath to the constitution.” And alongside of this article is erected a theory which is in principle founded on this article – that in relation to the armed forces the King occupies an entirely different position than in relation to all other State institutions; that in relation to the army he is not only King but something else, absolutely special, mysterious and unknowable, for which a special term is coined, “War Chief” (Kriegsherr); and because of these considerations it turns out that the House of Commons or the nation has no concern with the army, cannot interfere with its affairs and organization, but can only vote funds for it.

One must admit, gentlemen – truth comes first! – that this theory has an undeniable basis in Article 108 of the constitution. For once the constitution declares that the armed forces, unlike all other State institutions, including King and officers, need not take an oath to the constitution itself, then in principle it is recognized that the army stands outside the constitution, has nothing in common with it, in that it is related solely and exclusively to the person of the King and not to the nation.

The Source of King’s Power

Once this is established, the King enjoys not only as much as, but ten times more political power than the entire nation put together, even if the actual strength of the nation is ten, twenty, fifty times greater than that of the army. The reason for this seeming contradiction is very simple.

The King’s political instrument of power, the army, is organized, constantly mobilized, disciplined and ever ready to act; the power of the nation, on the contrary, even when it is far greater, is unorganized. The will of the nation, and especially the degree of determination which is necessary to implement this will, is not easily recognized by the people themselves; nobody therefore knows exactly how many will follow him. At the same time, the nation lacks those weapons of organized force, those very important constitutional props to which I have already referred – the cannon. True, they are paid for by notional funds; true they have been prepared and perfected only because of the science which springs from society – physics, technology, etc. Their very existence is proof of the great power of civil society, of the great successes of science, technique, manufacture, and skills of all kinds.

The Role of the Army Under a Monarchy

But here we must recall a verse from Virgil: Sic vos non vobis! You make it, but not for yourselves! For cannons are always made for the organized, force; therefore the nation knows that in case of a clash it will find these products of its power always arrayed against itself. That is why the numerically smaller but organized force often and for a long time is able to conquer the much greater but unorganized force of the nation until, through careful guidance and cultivation of the opportunities of the masses toward a growth of will and consciousness, the unorganizied super-power can be prepared to face the organized.

We now know the essence of both constitutions of the land, its real constitution – the actual relations of force existing in the country – and its written constitution which in contradistinction to the first may be called a scrap of paper.

It is clear that real constitutions have existed in every land and at all times, and there is nothing shallower or more misleading than the current notion that constitutions are peculiar to the modern age.

Every country in every age has therefore had a real constitution. What is peculiar to modern times is – and it is important always to bear this clearly in mind – not the actual but the written constitution – the piece of paper.

As a matter of fact, in modern times we witness a struggle in almost all the states to secure a written constitution which will formulate in a basic law, on a piece of paper, the principles upon which the institutions and governing practices of the land will rest.

What is the reason for this peculiar struggle of modern times?

The Modern Struggle for Written Constitutions

This is another important question; only by answering it can we learn how to undertake the drafting of a constitution, what to think about constitutions already attained and what attitude to take toward them. In short, only from the answer to this question can come an understanding of the art of making constitutions and all constitutional wisdom.

So I ask: What is the reason for the peculiar struggle of modern times to obtain written constitutions?

Well, what does it arise from?

Clearly, only from the fact that a change has occurred in the actual relation of forces in countries where such struggle occurs. If the relationships had remained stationary, if they persisted in their old form, it would be impossible and inconceivable that this society should feel impelled to formulate a new constitution. It would retain the old; at most, it would merely gather together the dispersed sections of its constitution.

How do changes take place in the actual relation of forces in society?

The Evolution of Absolute Monarchy

Let us imagine a thinly populated medieval state – like almost all old states were – under a Prince and with a nobility to whom most of the land belonged. Because of the sparse population, only an insignificant part can be engaged in industry and commerce, since the majority of the population is still needed to work on the land and to produce agricultural goods. Since the land is almost entirely owned by the nobility, the population seeks employment from the nobility and enters into various relations with the latter as vassals, serfs, bondsmen, hereditary tenants, etc. All these relationships express varying degrees of one and the same dependency of the people upon the nobility, and this dependency compels the population to serve as their vassals and to participate in their wars and feuds. On the surplus agricultural products of its estates, the nobility maintains in its castles, bodyguards and knights – warriors of all sorts. The Prince has, as against this power of the nobility, no other real power than the support of those nobles who voluntarily follow him – for he would have difficulty forcing them – and the as yet negligible assistance of a few, thinly populated towns.

What would the constitution of such a state be?

It would necessarily correspond to the actual relation of forces in the land.

The constitution would assign the nobility, as an estate, the first and, in every respect, the ruling position. Without the consent of the nobility, the Prince would be unable to demand a penny’s worth of taxes – his relation to the nobility would be that of a primus inter pares, the first among equals. And, gentlemen, this is exactly the kind of constitution that Prussia and most of the other states possessed during the Middle Ages.

Now let us suppose that the population begins to increase more and more rapidly; industry and manufacture begin to flourish and thus supply the necessary means of existence for a new growth in the population, which begins to fill the cities. Capital and monetary wealth begin to develop in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the urban guilds. What will happen now?

The growth of the city population, which is not only independent of the nobility but antagonistic to it, acts to the benefit of the Prince; it increases the supply of warriors who are at his command, and with the subsidies from urban citizens and the productive enterprises – who suffer from disorders arising out of constant feudal warfare; who long for order and security and a coordinated judicial system advantageous to trade and industry; and who therefore readily support the Prince with men and money – he can, when need arises, muster a military force far surpassing the forces of the nobility. Then the Prince begins to restrict more and more the power of the nobility. He takes away their right to make war.

If the nobility violates the law of the land, the Prince proceeds to demolish their castles; and, finally, in the course of time, industry increases monetary wealth and the country’s population to such a degree that the Prince is enabled to form a standing army; the Prince can move his regiments against the ruling estate, the nobility…He abolishes both the tax exemption of the nobility and its right to levy taxes on society.

Here you see how a change in the actual relation of forces brings about a change in the constitution and gives rise to the absolute monarchy.

The King has no need to write a new constitution; the monarchy is far too (practical to spend its time on that. The King has in his hands the actual instrument of power, the standing army which forms the real constitution of this society; and, in the course of time, the King and his followers themselves acknowledge this by referring to society as a “military state.”

The noblemen, no longer able to compete with the King, finally give up all idea of maintaining their own armed forces. They forget their former opposition to the King, they forget their ancient position of equality with the King; and most of them retire to their estates, there to draw pensions and contribute to the glory of the monarch.

The Rise of the Bourgeoisie

However, industry and commerce continue to develop, and as they prosper, the population grows larger and larger.

On the surface it appears that this progress works as before to the advantage of the King who is thereby enabled to increase his armed forces ...

But, finally, the development of civil society attains such vast proportions that it becomes impossible tor the King to maintain himself, even by means of an army on the same plane with the growing forces of the urban civilians.

A few figures will make this clear.

In 1657, Berlin had 20,000 residents. During this same period, the army numbered between 24,000 and 30,000 men.

In 1803, Berlin already had 153,070 residents. In 1819, sixteen years later, 192,646. In this same year the standing army numbered 137,639 men…As you see, the standing army increased four-fold. But the population of Berlin had increased more than nine-fold.

And now another, and even more extraordinary development begins.

In 1846, the population of Berlin rose to 389,308 – almost 400,000 – twice that of 1813. In twenty-six years, the population of the city had more than doubled ...

On the other hand, the standing army in 1846 numbered only 138,810 as against 137,639. It hardly grew since 1819, and did not in any way share in the enormous growth of the civilian population.

With this huge growth, the city population begins to consider Itself an independent political force. Hand in hand with this growth of the population goes an even greater growth in wealth and an equally tremendous growth of science, general education, public consciousness, culture – which also make up, as we know, a part of the constitution. The city residents begin to talk as follows: “We will no longer remain a docile mass led about by a King; we wish to rule ourselves and the King must govern and concern himself with our business only in the manner in which we want”

In short, the actual relation of forces in

society has again changed. In other words, the time has come for – March 18, 1848!

You see, gentlemen, the very situation arose which we had in the beginning assumed as hypothetical and impossible. We assumed that society had lost all its laws because of a fire. In reality they were destroyed not by fire, but by a storm.

“Das Volk stand auf.
Der Sturm brach los.”

The people rose, the storm broke loose.

Reasons for the Defeat of the 1848 Revolution

After a successful revolution in society, private rights remain inviolate, but all the laws relating to public fights are either overthrown or retain only a provisional character, and new laws have to be formulated.

The need thus arises for drafting a new and a written constitution. The King himself convoked a National Assembly in Berlin in order to promulgate a written constitution, or – as it was later said – that they come to an agreement with him concerning it.

We have now come to the question: What are the necessary conditions for a constitution which is good and stable?

From our entire presentation it clearly follows that one condition is indispensable, namely, the written constitution must correspond to the actual, i.e., existing relation of forces in the country. Whenever this is not true, an irrepressible conflict results, which cannot be avoided. And in this conflict the written constitution – the piece of paper – is invariably vanquished by the real constitution – the actual relation of forces in the country.

What course should have been pursued?

One should have, first of all, made not a written constitution but an actual constitution, i.e., brought about a change in the actual relation of forces in the country to the advantage of the citizens.

True, the events of March 18 demonstrated that the power of the nation was already greater than that of the standing army. After a long and bloody battle the troops were forced to retreat.

But I have already called your attention to the important difference between the power of an army and that of a nation, that is, the power of an army, although smaller numerically, is more actual over a given period of time than the power of a nation which far surpasses it.

This difference springs, as you will recall, from the fact that the power of the nation is unorganized while that of the army is organized, constantly drilled, and capable of taking the field at any moment against the nation, which is united for action only under the influence of great events and at rare moments.

Consequently, in order for the victory of March 18 not to have been an empty one for the people, the victorious moment should have been utilized to change the organization of the army in such a way as to make it impossible for the standing army to be used again as an instrument in the hands of the King against the nation.

The time spent in service by a soldier should, for instance, have been limited to six months, a period which military authorities recognize is long enough for a man to learn the military arts but not so long that he will develop a caste psychology. This brief period, furthermore, would result in a constant replenishment of the army from the people, thereby transforming it from a King’s army to a people’s army.

It should, in addition, have been stipulated that all lower ranking officers – at least through the rank of major – shall be elected by the men and not appointed, so that the officers’ posts be filled not in a spirit basically antagonistic to the people which acts to facilitate the transformation of the army into a blind instrument for the King’s power.

The army should also be subject – except in isolated purely military matters – to ordinary civilian courts, in order to keep it part of the people and not something apart, and tending to develop a caste spirit.

All armament which is intended for defense purposes – save those pieces which are absolutely necessary for drill purposes – should be kept in the custody of the civilian authorities elected by the people.

Why the Prussian Monarchy Survived

Of all of this, nothing was done in the spring and summer of 1848. And after this, can one wonder why the counter-revolution of November 1848 rendered the accomplishments of March meaningless? Certainly not, for this reaction was an inevitable sequel of the fact that no changes were effected in the actual real relation of forces.

The Kings, my friends, are much better served than you! The servants of Kings are not fine talkers, as are so many of the servants of the people. They are practical people, who instinctively understand what is essential. Herr von Manteuffel was a poor speaker. But he was a practical man! When, in November 1848, he disbanded the National Assembly and brought the cannons into the streets – what did he proceed to do first? To write down a reactionary constitution? Not at all. He knew that he could take his time with that. He actually gave you a pretty liberal written constitution in December 1848.

But with what did he begin in November? What was his first measure? Oh, gentlemen, you remember it, of course: he began by disarming the citizenry, by taking their arms away from them. You see, gentlemen, the first business of the victor, if he wishes to prevent hostilities from breaking out anew at any moment, is to disarm the vanquished.

At the beginning of our analysis we took great pains to clarify the essential nature of the constitution. Perhaps it may seem to some too painstakingly done. But you must have noticed that, once we grasped this essence, one after another the most surprising consequences and conclusions followed, and that now we have a much better, far clearer understanding of the matter than others have; indeed, we have arrived at conclusions which are directly contrary to the views which prevail in the public mind.

Let us briefly analyze a few of these conclusions.

I showed that in 1848 none of the necessary measures was taken which would have actually changed the relation of forces in the country – which would have transformed the army from an instrument of the monarchy to that of the people.

There was, incidentally, one proposal made which tended in this direction and which represented the first step on this road. This was the Stein proposal, which had as its object to force the cabinet to issue an order to the army aimed at removing all the reactionary officers from it.

But you will recall, gentlemen, that the National Assembly had no sooner adopted this proposal than the entire bourgeoisie and half the country cried out: “The business of the National Assembly is to draw up a constitution, not to wrangle with the cabinet, not to waste time with extraneous matters, and not to interfere with executive authorities.” “Draw up a constitution, only draw up a constitution” went the cry, as if there were a fire.

You see, the entire bourgeoisie and that half of the country which raised this cry, knew absolutely nothing about the essence of constitutions!

Written Constitution Must Reflect the Real Class Relations

To draw up a written constitution, that was the least important matter; this could have been done, if need be, in three days; this was the last thing that should have been taken up. It was done prematurely and therefore uselessly.

To transform the actual relation of forces in the country – to intervene in the executive power, to intervene in such a way, to transform it actually so that it could never again independently counterpose itself to the will of the nation – that was what was necessary – that was what should have been done in order to render a written constitution stable.

Inasmuch as the National Assembly began work on the written constitution too soon, it was not granted the time even to finish it, and it was driven away by means of the unbroken instruments of force of the executive power.

Second conclusion. Imagine that the National Assembly was not driven away and that it had actually succeeded in drafting and adopting a constitution.

Would that have altered matters vitally?

Not at all, gentlemen! And the proof of this lies In the facts themselves. The National Assembly was disbanded, but the King, using the documents left behind by that body, composed himself and proclaimed a constitution on December 5, 1848, which in its main points was actually the constitution we might have expected from the Assembly.

This constitution was granted by the King – not forced from him – but voluntarily granted by him after his victory. All the more reason why this constitution, it would appear, should be stable.

No, gentlemen! Utterly impossible! If you have an apple tree in your garden and you hang upon it a label upon which you write “this is a pear tree,” has the apple tree been thereby changed. No. And if you assembled all your household and all the residents of the county and loudly and ceremoniously swore: “this is a pear tree,” the tree would remain what it was and the next year would bear apples and not pears.

So with a constitution. It makes no difference what is written on a piece of paper so long as it contradicts the real state of things, the real relation of forces.

Meaningless Concessions

The King, in his piece of paper of December 5, 1848, granted quite a number of concessions, all of which, however, contradicted the actual constitution, the real relation of forces – the power which the King continued to hold unimpaired in his hands. For this reason the actual constitution had to impose itself step by step upon the written constitution with the same necessity that lies behind the law of gravity. Even though the constitution of December 5, 1848, was adopted by a revision commission, the King had to make the first change in it: the three-class election law of 1849. With the assistance of the Chambers established by this same electoral law, the subsequent essential changes were made in the constitution until the King swore to uphold it in 1850. And after he took the oath, the changes really began! Every year since 1850 is marked with such changes. No banner which has passed through a hundred battles is more ragged and shot with holes than our constitution!

Third conclusion. You know, gentlemen, that there is in this city a party whose official organ is the People’s Press (Volkszeitung) – a party which, I say, feverishly watches over this remnant of a flag, our tattered constitution; a party which because of this calls itself “the loyal adherents of the constitution,” and whose battle-cry is “Let us cling to the constitution! In God’s name, the constitution! Police! Help! Succor! It is doomed! We are doomed!”

Gentlemen, whenever and wherever you come upon a party which has as its battle-cry the tremulous plea, “Let us cling to the constitution!” – what can you deduce from this? I do not ask you about your intentions nor your desires. I ask only about your thoughts: what conclusions would you draw from such a spectacle?

Well, gentlemen, without being prophets, you would say with certainty that this constitution is on its last legs; it is as good as dead; a few years more, and it will have ceased to exist.

The reasons are simple. As long as a written constitution corresponds to the relation of forces in the nation, such cries will never be raised. Everyone stays three paces away from such a constitution and takes care not to approach closer. No one thinks of tangling with such a constitution; he will undoubtedly come away the worse for it if he does. Wherever the written constitution corresponds to the actually existing relation of forces, it will not occur to any party to take as its special battle-cry, “clinging” to it. When such a cry is heard, it is a certain and incontrovertible sign that it is a cry of terror; in other words, it is proof that there is something in the written constitution which contradicts the real constitution, the existing relation of forces. And where-ever such a contradiction exists, the written constitution is inevitably doomed – neither God nor shrieks can help!

It can be modified – to left or right – but it cannot survive. The very cry for preserving it will indicate this to a thinking person. It can be modified to the right by the government’s changing it in such a way that the power is thrown to the organized force of society. Or else the unorganized force in society rises up and demonstrates anew its superiority over the organized. In this case, the constitution will be changed to the left to the same degree as in the previous case to the right. But the constitution is lost in either case.

The Art and Wisdom of Drafting Constitutions

If, gentlemen, you not only carefully analyze the speech I have just had the honor to deliver to you, but also think through to all the conclusions which follow from it, you will acquire all constitutional art and constitutional wisdom.

Constitutional questions are first and foremost not questions of right but of force; the actual constitution of a nation lies in the real, actual relation of forces existing there, written constitutions are valid and stable only when they correctly express the actual relation of forces in a society – these are the principles you should remember.

Today I developed these principles only in respect to the military force – first, because time did not permit me to analyze other aspects and second, because the armed forces are the most weighty and decisive of all organized forces. But you understand that the same applies to the organization of the administration of law, government functionaries, etc. These also represent the organized instruments of force in society.

Remember this speech well, gentlemen, and you will know, if ever again you are put in a position where you yourselves can draft a constitution, how to go about it and how the task is really accomplished only through the changing of the actual relation of forces and not through the filling up of a sheet of paper.

Until then, for everyday use, you will also have gleaned from my speech, without my having said a word about it, what urgency has forced the new military reforms, concerning the increase of the armed forces, which are being demanded of you through parliament. You will he able now to lay your finger upon the innermost source from which these proposals spring.

The monarchy, gentlemen, has practical servants, not fine talkers, but such practical servants – it remains for me to wish that you had.

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Last updated on 29.5.2005