Articles by Frederick Engels for The Northern Star 1847

The Prussian Constitution

Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 64;
Written: at the end of February 1847;
First published: in The Northern Star No. 489, March 6, 1847.
Signed: E.

At last this long-expected piece of workmanship has made its appearance! [51] At last — if we believe the Times, Globe, some French and some German papers — Prussia has passed over to the ranks of constitutional countries. The Northern Star, however, has already sufficiently proved that this so-called Constitution is nothing but a trap offered to the Prussian people to cheat them of the rights promised by the late king,’ at the time he wanted popular support. That this is the fact, that Frederick William tries by this so-called Constitution to obtain money without being obliged to make concessions to public opinion, is certain beyond all doubt. The democratic papers of all countries — in France, particularly the National and Réforme, nay, the ministerial Journal des Débats, agree in this opinion. The fettered German press itself stammers words which allow no other conclusion, but that the movement party in Prussia is quite aware of the sly intentions of their “open-hearted, generous” king. The question then is this: will the king succeed in his plans? Will the Central Assembly of Estates be either stupid or cowardly enough to guarantee a new loan, without securing to the people extended liberties, and thus give the king the means to continue the present system for an indefinite length of time?

We answer: No; they will not, they cannot.

The hitherto followed plan of government in Prussia was the consequence of the relative position of the nobility and the middle classes in Prussia. The nobility had lost too much of its former strength, wealth and influence, to dominate the king as formerly it had done. The middle classes were not yet strong enough to overcome the dead weight of the nobility, which cramped their commercial and industrial progress. Thus the king, representing the central power of the state, and supported by the numerous class of government officers, civil and military, besides having the army at his disposal, was enabled to keep down the middle classes by the nobility, and the nobility by the middle classes, by flattering now the interests of the one, and then those of the other; and balancing, as much as possible, the influence of both. This stage of absolute monarchy has been gone through by almost all the civilised countries of Europe, and in those most advanced it has now given place to the government of the middle classes.

Prussia, the most advanced of German countries, had hitherto wanted a middle class, wealthy, strong, united and energetic enough to shake off the domination of absolutism, and to crush the remains of feudal nobility. The two contending elements, nobility and middle classes, are, however, placed in such circumstances, that by the natural progress of industry and civilisation, the one (the middle classes) must increase in wealth and influence, while the other (the nobility) must decrease, impoverish and lose more and more its ascendancy. While, therefore the Prussian nobility and large landed proprietors, found themselves every year in a worse position, first, by the ruinous wars with France in the beginning of this century; then by the English Corn Laws, [52] which shut them out from the market of that country; then by the competition of Australia, in one of their chief productions, wool, and by many other circumstances — the middle classes of Prussia increased enormously in wealth, productive powers, and influence in general. The wars with France, the shutting out of English manufactured goods from the Continental markets, created manufacturing industry in Prussia; and when peace was re-established, the upstart manufacturers were powerful enough to force government to grant them protective duties (1818). Soon afterwards, the Zollverein was founded, a union which almost exclusively advanced the interests of the middle classes.[53] And, above all, the violent competitive struggle arising between the different trading and manufacturing nations during these last 30 years of peace, forced the somewhat indolent Prussian middle classes, either to allow themselves to be entirely ruined by foreign competition, or to set to work in good earnest, as well as their neighbours.

The progress of the middle classes was very little visible up to the year 1840, when the ascension to the throne of a new king [Frederick William IV] appeared to them the proper moment to show that, since 1815, things were rather changed in Prussia. I need not recapitulate how the middle-class movement has progressed since that time; how all parts of the kingdom acceded to it, until at last all the middle classes, a great part of the peasantry, and not a few of the nobility, joined in it. A representative constitution, liberty of the press, open courts of law, immovability of the judges, trial by jury — such were the demands of the middle classes. The peasantry or small landed proprietors saw very well — in the more enlightened parts of the kingdom, at least — that such measures were for their interests, too, being the only ones by which they could hope to free themselves from the remnants of feudality, and to have that influence upon the making of laws which it was desirable for them to possess. The poorer part of the nobility thought that the constitutional system might, perhaps, give them such a position in the legislature as their interests demanded; and that, at all events, this system could not be more ruinous to them than that under which they lived. It was principally the nobility of Prussia Proper and Posen, who, being severely oppressed by want of markets for their produce, acceded to the Liberal movement from such considerations.

The middle classes themselves got more and more into an uncomfortable position. They had increased their manufacturing and mining concerns, as well as their shipping, t o a considerable extent; they were the chief furnishers for the whole market of the Zollverein; their wealth and numbers had increased very much. But during the last ten or fifteen years the enormous progress of English manufactures and mining operations have threatened them with a deadly competition. Every glut in the English market threw large quantities of English goods into the Zollverein, where they were sold at prices more ruinous to the Germans than to the English, because these latter made, during the times of flourishing trade, large profits in the American and other markets, while the Prussians could never sell their produce anywhere but within the circle of their own line of customs. Their shipping was almost excluded from the ports of foreign nations, while ships of all flags entered the Prussian ports on equal conditions with the Prussians. Thus, although there is comparatively little capital in Prussia, there commenced a difficulty of investing this capital profitably. Trade appeared to be labouring under a continual pressure; factories, machinery, stock in trade, were slowly, but continually, depreciated; and this general uneasiness was for a moment only interrupted by the railway speculations, which, within the last eight years, were started in Prussia. These speculations, by raising the value of ready money, increased the depreciation of stock in trade, and were themselves, on an average, not very profitable, on account of the comparatively thin population and trade of the greater part of the country. They offered, however, a still better chance of profit than other industrial investments; and thus every one who could dispose of some capital engaged in them. Very soon these speculations assumed, as usual, a feverish character, and ended in a crisis which now for about a twelve-month has oppressed the Prussian money markets. Thus the middle classes found themselves in a very uncomfortable position in the beginning of the present year: the money markets under the pressure of an extraordinary want of coin; the manufacturing districts requiring more than ever those protective duties which the government refused to grant; the coast towns requiring navigation laws as the only means to relieve them; and, over and above all, a rise in the corn markets, which brought the country to a state approaching famine. All these causes of discontent operated at the same time, and more strongly so upon the people; the Silesian linen-weavers in the greatest distress; the cotton factories stopped; in the large manufacturing district of the Rhine almost all hands out of work, the potato crop mostly ruined, and bread at famine prices. The moment was evidently come for the middle classes to take the government out of the hands of an imbecile king, weak nobility, and self-conceited bureaucracy, and to secure it to themselves.

It is a curious fact, but which is repeated at every revolutionary epoch, that at the very moment when the leading class of a movement is most favourably placed for the accomplishment of that movement, the old worn-out government is reduced to beg the assistance of this same leading class. Thus in 1789, in France, when famine, bad trade, and divisions among the nobility pushed, so to say, the middle classes to a revolution — at that very moment the government found its money resources exhausted, and was reduced to begin the revolution by the convocation of the States-General.[54] Thus in 1847 in Prussia. At the very moment when the more indolent Prussian middle classes are almost forced by circumstances to change the governmental system, at that moment the king, by want of money, is forced to commence that change of system, and to convocate in his turn the Prussian States-General. It is indubitable that the States would offer him much less resistance than they will now, if the money market was easy, the factories at full work (which would be caused by a flourishing trade and ready sale, and consequent high prices for manufactured goods in England) and corn at a reasonably low price. But so it is: in times of approaching revolution, the progressive classes of society have always all chances on their side.

I have, during the course of 1845 and 1846, more than once shown to the readers of the Star, that the King of Prussia was in a very embarrassed financial situation; I have at the same time called their attention to the several clever plans by which his ministers sought to extricate him; and predicted that the whole affair must end by a convocation of the States-General. The event, then, was neither unexpected, nor, as it now is represented, caused by the free grace of his squandering majesty; nothing but sheer necessity, poverty and distress could move him to such a step, and there is not a child in Prussia but knows this. The only question, then, is this: — Will the Prussian middle classes, by investing a new loan with their guarantee, allow the king to go on as he has done hitherto and to disregard for another seven years their petitions and their wants?

We have already answered this question. They cannot do this. We have proved it from the situation of the respective classes, and we shall now prove it from the composition of the States-General themselves.

Members of high and low nobility311
Do. for towns and peasantry306

As the king has declared his intention to increase the members of the high nobility (80 in all) by new creations of peers, we may add to the nobility, about 30 more; 341 members of nobility, or government party. Deduct from this number the liberal fractions of the lower nobility, namely, all the nobility of Prussia Proper, two-thirds of that of Posen, and some members of the Rhenish, Silesian, Brandenburg and Westphalian nobility, say 70 liberal members, voting with the towns and peasantry, and the position of parties is as follows: —

Nobility, or government party271
Towns and peasantry, or liberal opposition376

Thus, even allowing that thirty or forty town or peasantry members from the remote districts should vote for the government, there will always be a liberal majority of from twenty-five to fifty votes remaining, and with a little energy on the part of the Liberals, it will be easy to meet every demand for money with another demand for liberal institutions. There is besides, no doubt, that, under. present circumstances, the people will support the middle classes, and by their pressure from without, which indeed is very much wanted, strengthen the courage and enliven the energies of those within.

Thus, the Prussian constitution, insignificant in itself, is, for all that, the beginning of a new epoch for that country, and for all Germany. It marks the downfall of absolutism and nobility, and the ascendancy of the middle classes; it marks the beginning of a movement which will very soon lead to a representative constitution for the middle classes, a free press, independent judges and trial by jury, and which will end God knows where. It marks the repetition of 1789 in Prussia. And if the revolutionary movement which now begins, will directly interest the middle classes only, it is yet not at all indifferent to the interests of the people. From the moment the power of the middle classes is constituted, from that moment begins the separate and distinct democratic movement. In the struggle against despotism and aristocracy, the people, the democratic party, cannot but play a secondary part; the first place belongs to the middle classes. From the moment, however, the middle classes establish their own government, identify themselves with a new despotism and aristocracy against the people, from that moment democracy takes its stand as the only, the exclusive movement party; from that moment the struggle is simplified, reduced to two parties, and changes, by that circumstance, into a “war to the knife”. The history of the French and English democratic parties fully proves this.

There is another circumstance to be remarked. The conquest of public power by the middle classes of Prussia will change the political position of all European countries. The alliance of the North will be dissolved. Austria and Russia, the chief spoliators of Poland, will be entirely isolated from the rest of Europe, for Prussia carries along with her the smaller states of Germany, who all have constitutional governments. Thus the balance of power in Europe will be entirely changed by the consequences of this insignificant constitution; the desertion of three-fourths of Germany from the camp of stationary Eastern Europe into that of progressive Western Europe. In February 1846, broke out the last Polish insurrection.[55] In February 1847, Frederick William convocates his States-General. The vengeance of Poland is drawing nigh!