Letter to August Bebel, November 18, 1884

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To August Bebel in Plauen near Dresden

London, 18 November, 1884[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

I had meant to write to you about the Rodbertus business but, now that my preface to The Poverty of Philosophy is to appear in the Neue Zeit, you will find the essentials set forth better there than could be done in a letter. The rest will follow later, in the preface to Capital, Book II.

There is, however, another point about which I should like to give you my opinion, and which seems to me more urgent.

The whole of the Liberal philistines have gained such a respect for us that they are screaming with one accord: Yes, if the Social-Democrats will put themselves on a legal basis and abjure revolution then we are in favour of the immediate repeal of the Socialist Law, There is no doubt, therefore, that this suggestion will at once be made to you in the Reichstag. The answer you give to it is important--not so much for Germany, where our gallant lads have given it in the elections, as for abroad. A tame answer would at once destroy the colossal impression produced by the elections.

In my opinion the case is like this :

Throughout the whole of Europe the existing political situation is the product of revolutions. The legal basis, historic right, legitimacy, have been everywhere riddled through and through a thousand times or entirely overthrown. But it is in the nature of all parties or classes which have come to power through revolution, to demand that the new basis of right created by the revolution should also be unconditionally recognised and regarded as holy. The right to revolution did exist--otherwise the present rulers would not be rightful--but from now onwards it is to exist no more.

In Germany the existing situation rests on the revolution which began in 1848 and ended in 1866. 1866 was a complete revolution. Just as Prussia only became anything by treachery and war against the German Empire, in alliance with foreign powers (1740, 1756, 1785), so it only achieved the German-Prussian Empire by the forcible overthrow of the German Confederation and by civil war. Its assertion that the others broke the Confederation makes no difference. The others say the opposite. There has never been a revolution yet which lacked a legal pretext--as in France in 1830 when both the king and the bourgeoisie asserted they were in the right. Enough, Prussia provoked the civil war and with it the revolution. After its victory it overthrew three thrones "by God's grace" and annexed their territories, together with those of the former free city of Frankfort. If that was not revolutionary I do not know the meaning of the word. And as this was not enough it confiscated the private property of the princes who had been driven out. That this was unlawful, revolutionary therefore, it admitted by getting the action endorsed later by an assembly--the Reichstag--which had as little right to dispose of these funds as the government.

The German-Prussian Empire, as the completion of the North German Confederation which 1866 forcibly created, is a thoroughly revolutionary creation. I make no complaint about that. What I reproach the people who made it with is that they were only poor-spirited revolutionaries who did not go much further and at once annex the whole of Germany to Prussia. But those who operate with blood and iron, swallow up whole states, overthrow thrones and confiscate private property, should not condemn other people as revolutionaries. If the Party only retains the right to be no more and no less revolutionary than the Imperial Government has been, it has got all it needs.

Recently it was officially stated that the Imperial Constitution was not a contract between the princes and the people but only one between the princes and free cities, which could at any time replace the constitution by another. The government organs which laid this down demanded, therefore, that the governments should have the right to overthrow the Imperial Constitution. No Exceptional Law was enacted against them, they were not persecuted. Very well, in the most extreme case we do not demand more for ourselves than is here demanded for the governments.

The Duke of Cumberland is the legitimate and unquestioned heir to the throne of Brunswick. The right claimed by Cumberland in Brunswick is no other than that by which the King of Prussia is seated in Berlin. Whatever else may be required of Cumberland can only be claimed after he has taken possession of his lawful and legitimate throne.

But the revolutionary German Imperial Government prevents him from doing so by force. A fresh revolutionary action. What is the position of the parties?

In November 1848 the Conservative Party broke through the new legal basis created in March 1848 without a tremor. In any case it only recognises the constitutional position as a provisional one and would hail any feudal-absolutist coup d'etat with delight.

The Liberal Parties of all shades co-operated in the revolution of 1848-1866, nor would they deny themselves the right to-day to counter any forcible overthrow of the constitution by force.

The Centre recognises the church as the highest power, above the state, a power which might in a given case, therefore, make revolution a duty.

And these are the parties which demand from us that we, we alone of them all, should declare that in no circumstances will we resort to force and that we will submit to every oppression, to every act of violence, not only as soon as it is merely formally legal--legal according to the judgment of our adversaries--but also when it is directly illegal.

Indeed no party has renounced the right to armed resistance, in certain circumstances, without lying. None has ever been able to relinquish this ultimate right.

But once it comes to the question of discussing the circumstances for which a party reserves to itself this right, then the game is won. Then one can talk nineteen to the dozen. And especially a party which has been declared to have no rights, a party therefore which has had revolution directly indicated to it from above. Such a declaration of outlawry can be daily repeated in the fashion it has once occurred. To require an unconditional declaration of this kind from such a party is sheer absurdity.

For the rest, the gentlemen can keep calm. With military conditions as they are at present we shall not start our attack so long as there is still an armed force against us. We can wait until the armed force itself ceases to be a force against us. Any earlier revolution, even if victorious, would not bring us to power, but the most radical of the bourgeoisie, and of the petty bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile the elections have shown that we have nothing to expect from yielding, i.e., from concessions to our adversaries. We have only won respect and become a power by defiant resistance. Only power is respected, and only so long as we are a power shall we be respected by the philistine. Anyone who makes him concessions can no longer be a power and is despised by him. The iron hand can make itself felt in a velvet glove but it must make itself felt. The German proletariat has become a mighty party; may its representatives be worthy of it.


F. E.

(Time for the post.)