Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung July 1848

The Agreement Debates on the District Estates
(Agreement Session of July 18)

Source: MECW Volume 7, p. 271;
Written: by Engels on July 25, 1848;
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 56, July 26, 1848.

Cologne, July 25. Among the many confused, purposeless and purely personal documents and negotiations that occur at the beginning of each session, we want to stress today two points.

The first one is the declaration by ex-Minister Rodbertus, submitted in writing to the President and repeated from the rostrum: It is true that he had put his name down as a speaker against Jacoby’s motion but, for all that, had wanted to speak only against its first part, which disapprove of the Frankfurt decision, and at the same time against the respective declaration of the Ministry made on July 4. As is known, the debate was broken off before Herr Rodbertus had the opportunity to speak.

The second point is a declaration by Herr Brodowski in the name of all Polish deputies made with regard to any possible declaration of the German-Polish delegates: He did not recognise the legality of the incorporation of a part of Posen into the German Confederation on the grounds of the treaties of 1815 and the declaration of the Provincial Estates, provoked by the King, against its admission into the Confederation. [179]

“I do not know of a subsequent legal way because the nation has not yet been consulted on it.”

Then follows the final debate on the address. As is known, the address was rejected amid shouts of the Left: “Twice repeated question of confidence!” and general laughter.

Now it was the turn of the committee’s report dealing with the motion of 94 deputies to rescind the authority of the District Estates to levy taxes.

We are going into this matter deliberately. It makes us recall once again a piece of genuine old-Prussian legislation, and the mounting reaction more and more holds up this legislation to us as a faultless model, while the Government of Action, not wanting to represent the Government of transition, becomes every day more of an unabashed eulogist for the Bodelschwingh Ministry.

By a series of laws, all of which are of more recent date than 1840, the District Estates have been authorised to decide upon taxes with binding effect for the inhabitants of the districts.

These District Estates are a marvellous example of old-Prussian “representation”. All the large landowning peasants of the district send three deputies. As a rule, every town sends one; but every squire is a member of the District Estates by virtue of his birth. Not at all represented are the workers and part of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns, and the small proprietors and non-established inhabitants in the countryside, who together form the overwhelming majority. These non-represented classes are nevertheless taxed by the deputies, namely by the gentlemen who are “members of the District Estates by virtue of their birth”; how and for which purposes we shall see presently.

These District Estates, who moreover are entitled to dispose quite independently of the district assets, are in decisions on taxation bound by the permission either of the Oberpräsident or of the King, and additionally, when they are divided and one estate votes in a different way, by the decision of the Minister of the Interior. One can see how cunningly the old Prussianism knew how to preserve the “vested rights” of the big landowners, but at the same time also the right of superintendence of the bureaucracy.

The fact that the right of superintendence of the bureaucracy exists only in order to prevent any encroachment by the District Estates on the rights of the officialdom and not in order to protect the inhabitants of the district, particularly those who are not represented at all, from encroachments by the District Estates, has been expressly recognised by the report of the central commission.

The report closes with the motion to rescind the laws which entitle the District Estates to levy taxes.

Herr Bucher, who gave the report, speaks to the motion. Precisely those decisions of the District Estates which most oppressed and embittered the non-represented ones, had been singled out by the local governments for confirmation.

“It is precisely a curse of the police state, which in principle has been abolished but which in fact unfortunately continues to exist to this day, that the higher the standing of an official or authority in this hierarchy of mandarins, the more they feel that they are able also to understand such detailed measures although they are that much further removed from local needs.”

The proposal was the more commendable since it was not constructive but merely destructive.

“It cannot be denied that up to now the Assembly has not been fortunate in its attempts at productive activity ... it might be advisable, therefore, to devote ourselves for the time being more to destructive activity.”

The speaker suggests accordingly that especially the reactionary laws issued since 1815 should be abolished.

This was too much. The reporter had not only denounced old Prussianism, bureaucracy and the District Estates, he had even cast an ironic side-glance at the products of the agreement debates so far. Here was a favourable opportunity for the Ministry. In any case, even out of consideration for the Court, it could not admit that only the laws issued by the present King [Frederick William IV] would be rescinded.

Herr Kühlwetter therefore rises.

“The District Estates are constituted in such a way that their Constitution will undoubtedly be changed because” — the whole business of estates altogether contradicts the principle of equality before the law? On the contrary! Merely “because now every squire is still a member of the District Estates by virtue of his birth, a town, however, no matter how many manors it may contain, is entitled to send only one deputy to the District Estates and the rural communities are represented by only three deputies”.

Let us take a look at the hidden plans of the Government of Action. The estate system had to be abolished in the central national representation, that could not be avoided. In the smaller areas of representation, however, that is in the local districts (perhaps also in the provinces?), the attempt will be made to preserve the representation by estates by doing away with only the most egregious advantages of the squirearchy over the burghers and peasants. That Herr Kühlwetter’s explanation cannot be interpreted in any other way emerges from the fact that the report of the central commission directly refers to the application of the principle of equality before the law in the district representation. Herr Kühlwetter, however, passes over this point in deepest silence.

Herr Kühlwetter has no objection to the content of the motion. He is merely asking whether it is necessary to give validity to the motion by “way of legislation”.

“The danger that the District Estates may abuse their right to tax is surely not so great.... The Government’s right of supervision is by no means so illusory as has been presented; it has always been exercised conscientiously and in that way ‘the lowest class of tax payers has been relieved from contributions as much as possible’.”

Of course! Herr Kühlwetter was a bureaucrat under Bodelschwingh and even at the risk of compromising the entire Government of Action he has to defend the past heroic deeds of the Bodelschwingh bureaucracy. We notice that Herr Hansemann was absent when his colleague Kühlwetter made him fraternise so much with Herr Bodelschwingh.

Herr Kühlwetter declares that he has already instructed all the local governments not to confirm any more taxation by the District Estates until further notice, and with that the purpose is surely achieved.

Herr Jentzsch spoils the Minister’s game by observing that it is the District Estates’ custom to assess the turnpike tolls, which benefit the manorial estates most, in accordance with the principles of the graduated tax from which the estates of the aristocracy are entirely exempted.

Herr Kühlwetter and Herr von Wangenheim, who is an interested party, attempt to defend the District Estates. In particular von Wangenheim, a justice of the Court of Appeal, District Estate of Saatzig, delivers a long eulogy on this laudable institution.

Deputy Moritz, however, again thwarts the effect. What good is Herr Kühlwetter’s instruction? If the Ministry should one day have to resign, the local governments would disregard the instruction. If we have laws as bad as these, I cannot see why we should not rescind them. And as far as the denied abuses are concerned,

“not only have the District Estates abused their authority to levy taxes by showing personal favouritism, by deciding upon expenditures which were not for the common good of the district, but they have even decided upon highway construction in the interest of certain individuals, of a privileged class.... The district town of Ruppin was to be connected to the railway line Hamburg-Berlin. Instead of letting the highway pass through the town of Wusterhausen, the local Government refused to let this highway run through this small, impoverished town — even though this town declared that it would pay the additional cost from its own funds — and on the contrary decided that the highway was to run through three estates of one and the same lord of the manor"!!

Herr Reichenbach calls attention to the fact that the Ministry’s instruction has no effect whatsoever upon the district assets which are entirely at the disposal of the District Estates.

The Minister replies with a few lame phrases.

Herr Bucher declares that in his opinion the Minister is by no means entitled to issue instructions, which in effect rescind existing laws. Only by legislation could an improvement he brought about.

Herr Kühlwetter stammers yet a few more incoherent words to defend himself, and then a vote is taken.

The Assembly adopts the motion of the central commission whereby the laws authorising the District Estates to levy taxes and dispose of the district assets are rescinded, with the addendum:

“decisions of the District Estates taken on the basis of these decrees notwithstanding”.

It is obvious that the “acts” of the Government of Action consist of police-type attempts at reaction and parliamentary defeats.

(To be continued)
[See Engels’ article “The Agreement Debate about the Valdenaire Affair"]