The Role of Force in History, Engels 1887

Chapter Five

Bismarck had reached his objective. His new Prussian-German Empire had been publicly proclaimed at Versailles, in Louis XIV’s splendid state hall. France lay defenceless at his feet; defiant Paris, which he himself had not dared touch, had been incited to the Commune uprising by Thiers and then crushed by the soldiers of the former imperial army returning from captivity. All European philistines admired Bismarck as they had admired Louis Napoleon, Bismarck’s model, in the fifties. With Russian help Germany had become the first power in Europe, and all power in Germany was concentrated in the hands of dictator Bismarck. Everything depended now on what he could do with that power. If he had so far carried out the unification plans of the bourgeoisie, even if not by bourgeois, but by Bonapartist methods, this matter was pretty well settled, and he now had to make his own plans, to show what ideas his own head could produce, and these had to find expression in the internal consolidation of the new empire.

German society is composed of big landowners, peasants, bourgeois, petty bourgeois and workers; these can in turn be grouped into three major classes.

Big landed property is in the hands of a few magnates (notably in Silesia) and a large number of middle landowners, most highly concentrated in the old Prussian provinces east of the Elbe. It is these Prussian Junkers who more or less dominate the entire class. They are farmers themselves, inasmuch as they entrust the cultivation of their estates for the most part to managers, and in addition they often own distilleries and beet-sugar refineries. Wherever possible, their landed property is entailed upon the family by right of primogeniture. The younger sons join the army or the civil service, so that an even less wealthy petty nobility made up of officers and civil servants clings to this petty landowning gentry and is supplemented over and above this through the intensive promotion of nobles from among the higher officers and civil servants of bourgeois origin. On the lower fringes of all this bunch of nobles, there naturally emerges a numerically parasitic nobility, a noble Lumpenproletariat, which lives on debts, dubious gambling, pushiness, begging and political espionage. This society in its totality forms the Prussian Junkers and is one of the main pillars of the old Prussian state. However, the landowning core of the Junkers themselves has feet of clay. The duty to live up to its status becomes more and more expensive every day; the support for the younger sons through the lieutenant and assessor stage, the marrying off of daughters, all costs money; and since all these are duties which push all other considerations into the background, it is no wonder that incomes are insufficient, that IOUs have to be signed or even mortgages have to be taken out. In short, Junkers stand always on the brink of the abyss; every misfortune, be it a war, a bad harvest or a commercial crisis, threatens to push them over the brink; and it is therefore no wonder that for well over a hundred years now they have been saved from ruin only by all sorts of state assistance and, in fact, continue to exist only thanks to state assistance. This artificially preserved class is doomed to extinction and no state assistance can keep it alive in the long run. But with it disappears also the old Prussian state.

The peasant is an element that is little active politically. In so far as he himself is a proprietor, he is going ever more to ruin because of the unfavourable production conditions of the allotment peasants, who cannot engage in stock-breeding, having been deprived of the old common Mark or community pasture. As a tenant, his position is even worse. Petty peasant production presupposes a predominantly subsistence economy, the money economy seals its doom. Hence the growing indebtedness, the massive expropriation by mortgage creditors, the recourse to domestic industry, so as just not to be evicted from his native soil. Politically, the peasantry is mainly indifferent or reactionary: on the Rhine it is ultramontane because of its old hatred for the Prussians, in other areas it is particularise or protestant-conservative. Religious feeling still serves this class as an expression of social or political interests.

We have already spoken about the bourgeoisie. From 1848 it experienced an unprecedented economic advance. Germany had increasingly participated in the vast expansion of industry following the 1847 commercial crisis, an expansion brought about by the establishment during that period of ocean steam navigation, the enormous extension of the railways and the discovery of gold in California and Australia. It was precisely the bourgeoisie’s striving for the abolition of the obstructions to trade caused by the system of small states and for a position off the world market equal to that of its foreign competitors that gave the impetus to Bismarck’s revolution. Now that French milliards were flooding Germany, a new period of feverish enterprise opened up before the bourgeoisie, during which it — by a crash on a national German scale — proved for the first time that it had become a big industrial nation. The bourgeoisie was even then the economically most powerful class among the population; the state had to obey its economic interests; the revolution of 1848 had given the state an external constitutional form within which the bourgeoisie could rule also politically and develop its domination. Yet it was still far from actual political domination. In the conflict it had not triumphed over Bismarck; the resolution of the conflict through the revolutionising of Germany from above had also taught it that, for the time being, the executive power was dependent on it, at best, in a very indirect form, that it could neither appoint nor dismiss ministers, nor dispose of the army. Besides, it was cowardly and limp in the face of an energetic executive power, but so were the Junkers, though this was more excusable in the case of the bourgeoisie because of the direct economic antagonism between it and the revolutionary industrial working class. There was no doubt, however, that it gradually had to destroy the Junkers economically, that it was the only propertied class which retained any prospect of a future.

The petty bourgeoisie consisted first of all of remnants of the medieval craftsmen, who had been represented on a larger scale in backward Germany than in the rest of Western Europe; secondly, of the down-and-out bourgeois; and thirdly, of elements of the propertyless population who had risen to be small merchants. With the expansion of large-scale industry, the existence of the entire petty bourgeoisie lost the last remnants of stability; changes of occupation and periodic bankruptcies became the rule. This once so stable class which had been the nucleus of the German philistines fell from its previous contentment, docility, servility, piety and respectability into wild decadence and dissatisfaction with the fate allotted to it by God. The remnants of the craftsmen loudly demanded the restoration of guild privileges, some of the others became mildly democratic men of Progress, some even grew closer to the Social-Democrats and in some instances directly joined the working-class movement.

Finally the workers. The agricultural workers, at least those in the east, still lived in semi-serfdom and could not be taken into account. On the other hand, Social-Democracy had made enormous progress among the urban workers and grew, to the extent that large-scale industry proletarianised the mass of the people and thereby exacerbated the class antagonism between the capitalists and the workers. Even if the Social-Democratic workers were for the time being still divided into two parties fighting each other, since the publication of Marx’s Capital, the fundamental differences between them had nevertheless as good as disappeared. Orthodox Lassalleanism, with its exclusive demand for “producer associations assisted by the state”, was gradually dying away and proved less and less capable of forming the nucleus of a Bonapartist state socialist workers’ party. The. harm wrought in this respect by individual leaders was rectified by the common sense of the masses. The union of the two Social-Democratic tendencies, which was delayed almost exclusively because of questions of personalities, was certain to take place in the near future. But even during the split and despite it, the movement was strong enough to strike fear into the industrial bourgeoisie and to paralyse it in its struggle against the government, which was still independent of it; and after 1848 the German bourgeoisie never rid itself of the Red spectre again.

The class structure underlay the party structure in parliament and in the provincial diets. The large landed estate owners and part of the peasantry formed the mass of the conservatives; the industrial bourgeoisie provided the Right wing of the bourgeois liberals — the National Liberals, while the Left wing comprised the weakened democratic party or so-called Party of Progress, which consisted of petty bourgeois supported by a section of the bourgeoisie and the workers. Finally, the workers had their independent party, the Social-Democrats, which included also some petty bourgeois.

A person in Bismarck’s position and with Bismarck’s past, having a certain understanding of the state of affairs, could not but realise that the Junkers, such as they were, were not a viable class, and that of all the propertied classes only the bourgeoisie could lay claim to a future, and that therefore (disregarding the working class, an understanding of whose historical mission we cannot expect of him) his new empire promised to be all the stabler, the more he succeeded in laying the groundwork for its gradual transition to a modern bourgeois state. Let us not expect of him what was impossible under the circumstances. An immediate transition to a parliamentary government with the decisive power vested in the Reichstag (as in the British House of Commons) was neither possible nor even advisable at that moment; Bismarck’s dictatorship in parliamentary forms must have seemed to him still necessary for the time being; and we do not in the least blame him for allowing it to survive for the moment, we only ask what good it was. And there can be hardly any doubt that paving the way for a system corresponding to the British constitution was the only way which offered the prospect of ensuring a sound basis and quiet internal development for the new empire. By leaving the larger part of the Junkers, who were beyond salvation anyway, to their inevitable doom, it still seemed possible to forge what remained of them with new elements into a class of independent big landowners, which would become only the ornamental élite of the bourgeoisie; a class to which the bourgeoisie, even at the height of its power, would have to grant state representation and with it the most lucrative positions and enormous influence. By granting the bourgeoisie political concessions, which anyway could not be withheld for any length of time (such at least should have been the argument from the standpoint of the propertied classes), by granting it these concessions gradually, and even in small and rare doses, the new empire would at least be steered onto a course which would enable it to catch up with the other, politically far more advanced West-European states, to shake off the last remnants of feudalism and philistine traditions which still held a firm grip on the bureaucracy, and, above all, to stand on its own feet by the time its by no means youthful founders departed this life.

This was not even difficult. Neither the Junkers nor the bourgeoisie possessed even average energy. The Junkers had proved this in the past sixty years, during which the state had constantly done what was best for them despite the opposition of these Don Quixotes. The bourgeoisie, also made malleable by its long prehistory, was still licking the wounds left by the conflict; Bismarck’s successes since then had further broken its power of resistance, and fear of the dangerously growing working-class movement did the rest. Under these circumstances, it would not have been difficult for the man who had put the national aspirations of the bourgeoisie into practice to keep any pace he desired in implementing its political demands, which were in any case very modest on the whole. It was only necessary for him to be clear about the objective.

From the point of view of the propertied classes, this was the only rational way. From the standpoint of the working class, it was obvious that it was already too late to set up bourgeois rule on a lasting basis. Large-scale industry, and with it the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, took shape in Germany at a time when the proletariat could enter the political scene as an independent force almost simultaneously with the bourgeoisie, that is, at a time when the struggle of the two classes has already begun, before the bourgeoisie has conquered exclusive or predominant political power. But even if the time for quiet and firmly founded rule by the bourgeoisie had already passed in Germany, it was still the best policy in 1870, in the interests of the propertied classes in general, to steer towards this bourgeois rule. For only in this way was it possible to abolish the abundant remnants of the times of decaying feudalism which continued to flourish in legislation and administration; only thus was it possible gradually to transplant all the achievements of the Great French Revolution to Germany, in short, to cut off Germany’s overlong old pigtail, and to place it deliberately and irrevocably on the road of modern development, to adapt its political system to its industrial development. When ultimately the unavoidable struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat set in, it would at least proceed under normal circumstances, in which everyone would realise what was at stake, and not in the state of disorder, obscurity, conflicting interests and perplexity we saw in Germany in 1848. The only difference being that this time the perplexity would be exclusively on the side of the propertied classes; the working class knows what it wants.

As things stood in Germany in 1871, a man like Bismarck was indeed compelled to pursue a policy of manoeuvring between the various classes. And to that extent he is not open to reproach. It is only a question of what aim that policy pursued. If, irrespective of the pace, it was aimed consciously and resolutely at the ultimate rule of the bourgeoisie, it was in harmony with historical development as far as this could be possible at all from the standpoint of the propertied classes. If it aimed at preserving the old Prussian state, at gradually Prussianising Germany, it was reactionary and doomed to ultimate failure. But if it only pursued the aim of preserving Bismarck’s rule, it was Bonapartist and bound to meet the same end as all Bonapartism.