Heinrich Heine’s Lutèce

Letter XLIV (“Communism ... the Somber Hero”)

Source: Lutèce. Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, 1855, from the French edition of his Complete Works, supervised by Heine;
Translated: from the original for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2011.

Paris, June 20, 1842

In a country where vanity has so many zealous partisans, the electoral period will always be one of great agitation. And since the dignity of a being a deputy not only tickles pride but leads to the most lucrative posts and the greatest influence; since there is in play here not only ambition, but also avarice; since it is also a question of those material interests to which our era has dedicated a fervent cult, for these reasons the election of deputies is a veritable steeplechase, a horse race that to the foreign spectator appears more curious than satisfying. For it is not the most attractive and the best racers who appear on the turf of this political sport; it is not the generous qualities of strength, pure blood, and perseverance that carry the day, but strictly the agility of light feet. More than one noble charger whose nostrils breathed the most ardent bellicose courage and whose eyes shone with sparks of reason loses to some pitiful nag who was expressly prepared for victories in this career. Restive and presumptuous horses in this field almost immediately rear at the wrong time and stray on their gallop. Only well trained mediocrity reaches the goal. It goes without saying that if a Pegasus were admitted to the parliamentary race he would feel a thousand kinds of disgust, for the poor thing has wings and he could one day leap higher than the ceiling of the Palais Bourbon would allow.

But what difference does this make to us? What interests us is not the brouhaha of horse trading, the stamping and braying of egoism, the tumult of the most sordid interests dressing themselves in the most beautiful colors or the shouts of grooms and the dust of manure: all we care about is whether the elections will be to the advantage or the disadvantage of the ministry in power. We can not yet announce anything positive in this regard. And yet France’s fate, and perhaps that of the whole world, depends on the question of who will have a majority in the new Chamber. I don’t at all want to advance the idea that from among the new deputies their might come powerful fencers capable of pushing the movement to its furthest extremity. No, these new arrivals will only act through words and more words and fear action as much as their predecessors. Even the most determined of innovators in the Chamber doesn’t want to violently overthrow the existing state of affairs: he only wants to exploit to his benefit certain apprehensions of the powers that act on high and certain hopes that smolder in the lower ranks of society: the fear of the superiors and the appetite of the inferiors. But the momentary confusion, difficulties, and perplexities into which the government might fall as a result of these machinations could give the hidden powers, laying in ambush in the shadows, the signal to explode, and as always the revolution is waiting for a parliamentary initiative. The frightening wheel would then again be set in motion and we would this time see an antagonist who might show himself to be the most fearsome of all those who have entered into combat with the existing order. This antagonist is still maintaining his incognito, and he resides like a needy pretender in the cellars of official society, in those catacombs where, amidst death and decomposition, the new life germinates and blossoms.

Communism is the secret name of this formidable adversary, who posits the rule of the proletariat with all its consequences in opposition to the current regime of the bourgeoisie. There will be a horrific duel. How will it end? Only the gods and goddesses who mold the future know. For our part we only know that communism, though little talked about at present, and though it lives a sickly existence in hidden garrets on miserable straw, is even so the somber hero to whom an enormous, though transitory, role is reserved in the modern tragedy, and which is only waiting for its cue to come on stage. We must never lose this actor from sight, and from time to time we will send communiqués concerning the furtive rehearsals by which it is preparing its debut. Such notices will perhaps be more important than all the reports about electoral maneuvers, party quarrels, and cabinet intrigues.