Karl Marx and Frederick Engels 1848

On the Polish Question

Engels’ Speech

Source: MECW Volume 6, p 549;
Written: February 22, 1848;
First published: in March 1848 in: Célébration, à Bruxelles, du deuxième anniversaire de la Révolution Polonaise du 22 Février 1846, Bruxelles, 1848.


The insurrection whose anniversary we are celebrating today has failed. After some days of heroic resistance Cracow fell and the bleeding ghost of Poland, which had risen for a moment before the eyes of its assassins, descended again into its grave.

The Cracow revolution was a defeat, a very deplorable defeat. Let us render the last honours to the fallen heroes, lament their setback and offer our sympathy to the twenty million Polish people whom this failure has again enchained.

But, gentlemen, is that all we have to do? Is it enough to shed a tear on the tomb of an unhappy country and to pledge against its oppressors an implacable hatred, till now not very potent?

No, gentlemen! The anniversary of Cracow is not only a day of mourning, it is a day of rejoicing for us other democrats; for the defeat itself contains a victory, a victory whose fruits are ours to gather, while the results of the defeat are only transitory.

This victory is the victory of young democratic Poland over the old aristocratic Poland.

Yes, the latest struggle of Poland against its foreign oppressors has been preceded by a hidden struggle, concealed but decisive within Poland itself, a struggle of oppressed Poles against Polish oppressors, a struggle of democracy against the Polish aristocracy.

Compare 1830 [309] and 1846, compare Warsaw and Cracow. In 1830 the ruling class in Poland was as selfish, narrow-minded and cowardly in the legislative body as it was devoted, enthusiastic and courageous on the field of battle.

What did the Polish aristocracy want in 1830? To safeguard its own acquired rights with regard to the Emperor [Nicholas I]. It limited the insurrection to the little country which the Congress of Vienna was pleased to call the Kingdom of Poland [310]; it restrained the uprising in the other Polish provinces; it left intact the degrading serfdom of the peasants and the infamous condition of the Jews. If the aristocracy, in the course of the insurrection, had to make concessions to the people, it only made them when it was too late, when the insurrection had failed.

Let it be said clearly: the insurrection of 1830 was neither a national revolution (it excluded three-quarters of Poland) nor a social or a political revolution; it changed nothing in the internal condition of the people; it was a conservative revolution.

But within the conservative revolution, within the national government itself, there was one man who vigorously attacked the narrow views of the ruling class. He proposed really revolutionary measures before whose boldness the aristocrats of the Diet recoiled. By calling the whole of ancient Poland to arms, by thus making the war for Polish independence a European war, by emancipating the Jews and the peasants, by making the latter share in landed property, by reconstructing Poland on the basis of democracy and equality, he wanted to make the national cause the cause of freedom; he wanted to identify the interest of all peoples with that of the Polish people. Need I name the genius who conceived this plan, at once so vast and so simple? It was Lelewel.

In 1830, these proposals were continually rejected by the blind self-interest of the aristocratic majority. But these principles, ripened and developed by the experience of fifteen years of servitude, we saw inscribed on the flag of the Cracow uprising. At Cracow, it was clearly seen that there were no longer men who had much to lose; there were no aristocrats; every step that was taken bore the stamp of that democratic, I might almost say proletarian, boldness which has only its misery to lose and a whole country, a whole world, to gain. There, no hesitation, no scruples; the three foreign powers were attacked together; the freeing of the peasants, agrarian reform, the emancipation of the Jews were proclaimed, without caring for a moment whether this offended certain aristocratic interests.

The Cracow revolution wanted neither to re-establish ancient Poland nor to preserve what the foreign governments had let remain of the old Polish institutions; it was neither reactionary nor conservative.

No, it was even more hostile to Poland itself than to its foreign oppressors, hostile to the ancient Poland, barbarous, feudal and aristocratic, based on the serfdom of the majority of the people. Far from wanting to re-establish the ancient Poland, it aimed to overthrow it utterly, and to found on its ruins, with a wholly new class, with the majority of the people, a new Poland, modern, civilised and democratic, worthy of the nineteenth century, and which might be really the outpost of civilisation.

The difference between 1830 and 1846, the immense progress made within unhappy Poland itself, bleeding and torn; the Polish aristocracy completely separated from the Polish people and thrown into the arms of the oppressors of its country; the Polish people irrevocably committed to the democratic cause; and finally the class struggle, the motive force of all social progress, established in Poland as here, that is the victory of democracy proved by the Cracow revolution, that is the result which will bear fruit when the defeat of the insurgents has been avenged.

Yes, gentlemen, by the Cracow insurrection the Polish cause, from being national, as it was, has become the cause of all peoples; from a question of sympathy, as it was, it has become a question of interest of all democrats. Until 1846 we had a crime to avenge; henceforth we have allies to support, and we shall do it.

And it is above all our Germany which ought to congratulate itself on this explosion of democratic passion in Poland. We are, ourselves, on the eve of a democratic revolution; we shall have to fight barbarian hordes from Austria and Russia. Before 1846 we might have had doubts as to what side Poland would take if there were a democratic revolution in Germany. The Cracow revolution has removed all doubts. Henceforth the German people and the Polish people are irrevocably allied. We have the same enemies, the same oppressors, for the Russian government weighs on us as much as on the Poles. The first condition for the deliverance both of Germany and of Poland is the overturning of the present political state in Germany, the downfall of Prussia and Austria, the driving back of Russia beyond the Dniester and the Dvina.

The alliance of the two nations is therefore not by any means a beautiful dream, a charming illusion; no, gentlemen, it is an inevitable necessity resulting from the common interests of the two nations, and it has become necessary through the Cracow revolution. The German people, which until now had little of its own except words, will now have deeds to offer its Polish brothers; and just as we German democrats present here clasp hands with the Polish democrats, so the whole German people will celebrate its alliance with the Polish people on the very field of the first battle won in common over our common oppressors.