Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, April 19, 1859

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 19 April 1859


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 40, p. 418;
First published: F. Lassalle. Nachgelassene Briefe und Schriften, Stuttgart-Berlin, 1922.

To Ferdinand Lassalle in Berlin

London, 19 April 1859[edit source]

Dear Lassalle,

I sent no separate acknowledgment of the £14 10/- because the letter was registered. But I should have written earlier had I not been plagued by a damned ‘cousin from Holland’, who laid claim to my surplus working time in the most cruel manner.

He is now gone, and so I can breathe again.

Friedländer has written to me. The terms are not as favourable as those originally communicated to you, but are nonetheless ‘respectable’. Once a few subsidiary points have been settled between us — which will, I think, be done in the course of this week — I shall write to him.

Here in England the class struggle is progressing in a most gratifying way. Unfortunately there is no longer any Chartist paper in existence and hence I had to give up literary collaboration with that movement about two years ago.

Now I come to Franz von Sickingen. D'abord, I must applaud both composition and action, and that’s more than one can say of any other modern German play. In the second instance, and aside from any reactions of a purely critical nature, the work excited me very much at the first reading and hence will induce this reaction to an even greater degree in more emotionally inclined readers. And that is another and very important aspect.

Now for the other side of the medal: Firstly — and this is purely a question of form — since you have chosen to write in verse, you could have put a touch more artistry into the iambics. However, though your neglecting to do so might well shock a professional poet, I regard it by and large as a merit, our breed of poetical epigones having retained nothing but formal polish. Secondly, the implicit conflict is not just tragic; it is the tragic conflict upon which the revolutionary party of 1848-49 justly foundered. Hence making it the fulcrum of a modern tragedy can only meet with my wholehearted approval. But then, I ask myself, is the theme in question suitable for the portrayal of that conflict? Balthasar may indeed imagine that had Sickingen not pretended that his rebellion was a knightly feud, but had instead raised the standard of opposition to the emperor and open war against the princes, he would have won. But are we able to share that illusion? Sickingen (and with him Hutten, more or less) went under, not because of his cunning, but because, as a knight and as representative of a declining class, he rebelled against existing reality, or rather against the new form of existing reality. Strip Sickingen of the appurtenances of the individual and his particular education, natural disposition, etc., and you have — Götz von Berlichingen. In this latter, miserable fellow the tragic opposition between knights on the one hand and emperor and princes on the other is adequately personified and that is why Goethe rightly made him his hero. In so far as Sickingen — and even Hutten up to a point, although in his case, as in that of all ideologists of a class, such assertions call for substantial modification — is fighting the princes (he turns against the emperor only because the emperor of knights has become the emperor of princes), he is, in fact, nothing more than a Don Quixote, if with some historical justification. The fact that he begins his rebellion in the guise of a knightly feud merely means that he begins it in knightly fashion. Were he to begin it in any other way, he would have to appeal directly and at the very outset to the towns and the peasants, i.e. the very classes whose development = the negation of knighthood.

Unless, therefore, you wished to reduce the conflict to no more than what is portrayed in Götz von Berlichingen — and such was not your plan — Sickingen and Hutten were bound to go under because they imagined themselves to be revolutionaries (which cannot be said of Götz) and, just like the cultivated Polish aristocracy of 1830, turned themselves on the one hand into the organs of modern ideas while on the other actually representing a reactionary class interest. The aristocratic representatives of revolution — behind whose catch-words of unity and liberty there still lingers the dream of the imperial past and of club-law — ought not in that case to monopolise the interest as you make them do; rather the representatives of the peasants (of these in particular) and of the revolutionary elements in the towns should provide an altogether significant and dynamic background. This would have enabled you to give expression in far greater measure precisely to the most modern ideas in their most unsophisticated form; whereas, in fact now, the dominant idea, apart from religious freedom, is civic unity. Then you would automatically have had to ‘Shakespearise’ more, whereas your principal failing is, to my mind, ‘Schillering’, i.e. using individuals as mere mouthpieces for the spirit of the times. Have not you yourself — like your Franz von Sickingen — succumbed, to some extent, to the diplomatic error of regarding the Lutheran-knightly opposition as superior to the plebeian-Münzerian?

Again, I miss what is characteristic in the characters. I except Charles V, Balthasar and Richard of Trier. And was there ever a time of more robust character traits than the 16th century? To my mind Hutten is, to far too great a degree, merely a representative of ‘enthusiasm’, which is boring. Wasn’t he also witty, an infernal wit, and hence hasn’t he been done a grave injustice?

The extent to which even your Sickingen — who, by the way, is portrayed much too abstractly — suffers as a result of a conflict that is quite independent of all his personal calculations is evident from the necessity he is in of urging friendship with the towns, etc., upon his knights and, on the other hand, from the satisfaction with which he himself imposes club-law upon those same towns.

To come down to details, I would censure the sometimes excessive preoccupation of individuals with themselves — the result of your predilection for Schiller. E.g. on p. 121, when Hutten is telling Marie the history of his life, it would have been quite natural to make Marie say:

‘The whole gamut of sensations’,

etc., up to the words,

‘And weighs more heavily on me than did the years’.

The preceding verses, from ‘They say’ to ‘grown older’, might follow at this point, but the comment, ‘The virgin in a single night matures into a woman’ (although showing that the love Marie knows is more than a mere abstraction), is completely pointless; still less should Marie have begun by reflecting upon her own ‘ageing’. After recounting all that she had said during the ‘one’ hour, she might have given general expression to her feelings in the phrase about her ‘ageing’. Again, what offends me in the lines that follow is: ‘I thought it was my right’ (i.e. happiness). Why give the lie to the ingenuous view of the world which Marie has hitherto professed to hold, by turning it into a doctrine of rights? Maybe some other time I shall give you my opinion in greater detail.

I consider the scene between Sickingen and Charles V to be particularly felicitous, although the dialogue on both sides is rather too much in the nature of pleading; also the scenes in Trier. Hutten’s lines about the sword I thought very fine.

Well, that’s enough for this time.

You have made my wife into a special admirer of your play. Only Marie doesn’t satisfy her.

Salut.

Your
K. M.

Apropos. There are some bad misprints in Engels’ Po and Rhine. I append a list of them on the last page of this letter.