Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung April 1849

The Debate on the Law on Posters

Source: MECW Volume 9, p. 320;
Written: by Engels on April 21 and 23, 1849;
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 279 (second edition) and No. 283, April 22 and 27, 1849.

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 279 (second edition), April 22, 1849

Cologne, April 21. (The debate in the Chamber.) We return to the sitting of April 13. After the reply to Deputy Lisiecki’s question, the next item on the agenda was the debate on the law on posters.[253] After Herr Rohrscheidt had read the report of the Central Commission, Herr Wesendonck moved an amendment for the rejection of the government Bill en bloc.

Herr Arnim (Count) rose to speak. He said that the amendment was impermissible, being tantamount to a motion to proceed to the Order of the Day. But government Bills cannot be passed over in this way. That is established by the standing orders.

Now at last the gentlemen of the Left realise what the Right intended by para. 53 of the standing orders. In relation to government Bills the Chamber cannot resolve to proceed to the Order of the Day. This seemingly innocent provision, however, meant neither more or less than the following: you are not entitled to reject any government motion en bloc, but must debate every one of its paragraphs, even if there were a thousand of them.

But that was too much even for the Centre deputies. After a rather lengthy debate during which each of the sides displayed the greatest possible acumen in exegesis, the Chairman finally proceeded with the discussion by declaring Wesendonck’s amendment permissible.

The floor was taken by Herr Rupp, the great Rupp, who was suspended from his post, persecuted, at one time bounded by all the newspapers, and expelled from the Gustavus-Adolphus Union [254] of blessed memory. Herr Rupp delivered a speech after which, in the opinion of the Berlin National-Zeitung, which is no less great and no less enlightened than Herr Rupp, there remained little more for the Left to say, not only in the general debate but also in the special debate. Let us take a look at this exhaustive speech of pure reason delivered by Rupp, the Friend of Light.

This exhaustive speech is, indeed, a true product of the enlightened spirit, of the spirit of the “free communities”,[255] i.e. it exhausts nothing but the platitudes which can be uttered on the subject of posters.

Herr Rupp began his speech by pointing out the difference between the arguments in support of the law on posters put forward by the Government and the Central Commission. Whereas the Government presented the law as a mere police measure in the interests of road traffic and aesthetics, the Central Commission, which eliminated this clumsy Prussian trick, put the political motives in the foreground. This afforded wide scope for declamations by the enlightened preacher.

“Thus this Bill is indisputably one of the most important subjects for discussion by the present Assembly. Now we shall not want to say” (we shall not want to say!) “that it is so much (!) a matter of indifference to us whether there are a few more or a few less posters in the world, since (!) the lofty character of right and freedom consists precisely in the fact that even what seems to be most insignificant, when linked with it, immediately itself acquires a higher significance” !!

Having established the “lofty character” and “higher significance” of posters by this pastoral introduction, and having put his audience in a pious frame of mind, Herr Rupp could calmly give free rein to “the eternally clear, pure and smooth” stream of his pure reason. First of all, Herr Rupp made the exceedingly shrewd remark “that very often measures have been taken against imaginary dangers, with the result that real dangers are created”.

This platitude evoked delight and cries of “bravo” from the Left.

After this, Herr Rupp with equal profundity of thought pointed out that the Bill contradicts ... the imposed Constitution,[256] which Herr Rupp does not recognise at all!

It is a strange policy of the Left-to appeal to the imposed Constitution and to cite the kicks received in November as arguments against further kicks!

If the Government considers-Herr Rupp continued-that this Bill does not infringe freedom of the press, but only concerns the use of the streets and squares for the distribution of printed matter, then one could equally well say that freedom of the press prevailed also under the censorship, since it was not the use of the press but only the distribution of its products that was put under control.

One must have lived in Berlin under the censorship to appreciate the whole novelty of this proposition, which already years ago used to be current among all the pettifogging liberals, and which nevertheless was once more greeted by the Left with hilarity and cries of “bravo”.

Herr Rupp then quoted the article on freedom of the press in the imposed Constitution and proved in detail that Manteuffel’s Bill was in crying contradiction to the Manteuffel Constitution.

But, my dear Herr Rupp, tout bonhomme que vous êtes have you not yet realised that Manteuffel imposed the Constitution only in order subsequently to annul the few liberal phrases contained in it either by retaining the old gagging laws[257] or introducing new ones.

Indeed, Herr Rupp even went so far as to explain to the Right with some thoroughness that although later on, during the revision of the Constitution, they could include the law on posters in this Constitution, but at present they must reject it, otherwise they would be anticipating the revision of the Constitution!

As though the gentlemen of the Right were concerned with consistency, and not with putting the speediest end to the bad press, associations, agitation, commercial distrust, and other more or less revolutionary achievements!

To these weighty arguments, Herr Rupp then added the following banalities:

1) Posters are condemned because they spread agitation. But the prevention of agitation is not a matter for the state in which the rule of law prevails but for a police state.

2) I want a strong government. But a government that cannot tolerate agitation and posters is not a strong government.

3) Germans like to follow a leader.

4) The absence of posters did not prevent March 18 (“Neither horse, nor rider” — etc.).

5) Revolutions are the result of despotism.

From this Herr Rupp drew the conclusion that the law on posters must be rejected in the interests of Manteuffel.

“Gentlemen,” he exclaimed imploringly, “protect the Government from the self-deception to which this law, like every law of a police state, exposes it!”

According to Herr Rupp, the rejection of Manteuffel’s Bill would not be a vote of no confidence in Manteuffel, but, on the contrary, a vote of confidence in him. Herr Rupp wants Manteuffel to become the desired “strong government”, and for that reason he does not want to weaken Manteuffel by adopting the law on posters. You think Herr Rupp is joking? He has no such intention. Herr Rupp is a Friend of Light, and a Friend of Light never jokes. Friends of Light cannot tolerate laughter any more than their worthy cousin, Atta Troll.

But the last trump card Herr Rupp played set the crown on his whole speech.

“The rejection of this law will contribute not a little to calm that section of the population which cannot agree to recognise the Constitution prior to its revision.”

Herr Rupp’s concern is “to calm that section of the population” which has not yet reached the level of Manteuffel!

That, however, is the nature of the gentlemen of the Left! They are tired of turbulent movement and since they are now deputies and realise that they can do nothing against the sabre dictatorship, all they want is that the unpleasant questions of principle should at last be settled, the Constitution revised pro forma with a view to declaring it valid, and an oath of allegiance sworn to it, and “the revolution brought to an end”. Then a comfortable life will begin for them, a life of constitutional routine, declamation based on nothing, dealing with nothing, leading to nothing, intriguing, patronage, ministerial reshuffling etc.; that Olympian life of idleness and luxury which the Frenchmen of the type of Odilon, Thiers and Molé enjoyed for 18 years in Paris, and which Guizot liked to call the “play of constitutional institutions”. If only the unpleasant revolutionary movement were to recede somewhat, a Waldeck Ministry would indeed no longer be an impossibility! And after all the people are not yet mature enough for a republic!

After Herr Rupp’s speech precisely everything still remains to be said. It was a question in the first place not of restriction of the freedom of the press in general, but above all of restriction of the freedom of the press in regard to posters. What had to be done was to examine the effect of posters, to defend “street literature”, and most particularly to champion the right of the workers to the literature provided free of charge in the form of posters. It was not a matter of glossing over the right of agitation by means of posters, but frankly to champion that right. But Herr Rupp said not a word about this. The old phrases about freedom of the press which we had sufficient opportunity of examining in all its aspects during 33 years of censorship-these old phrases were once more trotted out by Herr Rupp at length in a solemn tone, and because he said everything that the gentlemen from the National-Zeitung know about the subject, that newspaper considers he has exhausted the subject.

After the “enlightened” Rupp, the “obscurantist” Riedel was given the floor. But Herr Riedel’s speech is too good to write about it in haste. A demain donc, citoyen Riedel!

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 283, April 27, 1849

Cologne, April 23. Deputy Riedel certainly delivered the most classic speech of the whole debate. Whereas some restraint was still being shown by the ministerial bench, whereas even Manteuffel still employed certain pseudo-constitutional phrases, and only the clumsy parvenu, von der Heydt, at times forgot his constitutional role, Herr Riedel from Barnim-Angermünde was not in the least embarrassed to speak as a dyed-in-the-wool representative of Uckermark. [258] Never before has an electoral constituency been so worthily represented as that of Herr Riedel.

Herr Riedel began by asking: what are posters? And he gave the answer:

“Posters in the proper meaning of the word are public statements intended to have a reassuring effect on people’s minds.”

That, according to Herr Riedel’s etymology, is the “definition” of posters.

For the time being we do not want to dispute with Herr Riedel about the derivation of the word “poster” [Plakat]. We only draw his attention to the fact that if he had read the Bill attentively, he could have saved himself all his etymological exertions. This Bill is concerned not only with “posters” but also with “pasted notices”, which “in the proper meaning of the word” are simply intended to be pasted up.

Instead of this, Herr Riedel expressed his righteous indignation at the most scandalous misuse of the word “poster”.

“As a rule, posters serve merely to inflame passions to kindle an impure fire of hatred or revenge particularly against the authorities.... As a rule, therefore, posters are precisely the opposite of what their name implies. Hence their use is usually a misuse” (i. e. a misuse of their name) “and therefore the question arises: Ought the local police authorities to help promote this mischief of posters?” (i.e. this misuse of the name “poster”). “Ought the police to make themselves in some measure the accomplices in the mischief caused by the misuse” (of the name) “of posters” (for notices which are in no way posters, i.e. reassuring notices)?

In short, ought posters in future to be employed “in accordance with their definition” (i. e. in accordance with the definition of the word “poster”) or not?

What a great mistake Manteuffel committed in ascribing the law on posters to motives concerned with police duties and beautifying the streets! What a mistake it was for the Central Commission to advocate the law for political reasons! The law is necessary-for etymological reasons and should really be entitled: a law to return the use of the word “poster” to the “proper meaning of the word”.

In this connection, however, the thorough Herr Riedel has committed a thorough blunder. If we, at the risk of boring our readers to death, were to enter into a discussion with Herr Riedel on etymology, we would, with Diez’s grammar in hand, prove to him that the derivation of the German word [Plakat] poster is not at all from the Latin placare, but is only a distortion of the French placard, which is connected with the French word plaque, which itself is of German origin. Hence Herr Riedel’s whole reassurance theory falls to the ground.

That, of course, is a matter of indifference to Herr Riedel, and rightly so. For this whole reassurance theory is merely a schoolmaster’s captatio benevolentiae behind which is an outright appeal to the fears of the propertied classes.

Posters “inflame passions”, they “kindle an impure fire of hatred or revenge particularly against the authorities”, they

“serve as a call to the unreasoning mass to demonstrations which menacingly violate order and go beyond the limits of legitimate freedom”.

And therefore posters must be prohibited.

In other words: the united feudal lords, bureaucrats and bourgeois successfully accomplished their coup d'état last autumn by force of arms, and now, with the help of the Chambers, want to impose on us the supplementary laws that are still required in order that these gentlemen can enjoy their victory in peace. They are heartily sick of “passions”, they will use every means to extinguish “the impure fire of hatred and revenge against the authorities”, who for them after all are the most desirable authorities in the world, to establish “order” and to restore “legitimate freedom” to the level that suits them. And what sort of level that is can be judged from the fact that Herr Riedel calls the great majority of the people an “unreasoning mass”?

Herr Riedel cannot find words bad enough to describe this “unreasoning mass”. He continues:

“These communications” (by means of posters) “are mostly read by just that class of people who are least of all accustomed to written communications, who are not able to test and judge the credibility of written communications with the caution and distrust that is of course displayed by the public accustomed to reading and acquainted with the deceptions of the press......

Who then form this unreasoning mass, this class least of all accustomed to written communications? Is it the peasants of Uckermark? By no means: since, firstly, they are the “backbone of the nation”, secondly, they do not read posters, and, thirdly, they elected Herr Riedel. Herr Riedel has in mind none but the urban workers the proletariat. Posters are a chief means of influencing the proletariat. By its very position the proletariat is revolutionary; being the class which is as much oppressed under a constitutional regime as under absolutism, the proletariat is quite prepared to take up arms again; it is precisely from the proletariat that the chief danger threatens, and therefore away with everything that could keep alive the revolutionary fervour in the proletariat!

And what is more conducive to keeping alive revolutionary fervour among the workers than posters, which convert every street corner into a huge newspaper in which workers who pass by find the events of the day noted and commented on, the various views described and discussed, and where at the same time they meet people of all classes and opinions with whom they can discuss the contents of the posters; in short, where they have simultaneously a newspaper and a club, and all that without costing them a penny!

It is just this, however, that the gentlemen of the Right do not want. And they judge correctly. For it is from the side of the proletariat that the greatest, indeed the sole danger threatens them; why should they, who hold the reins of power, not strive by every means to remove this danger?

No one could raise any objection to this. With God’s help we have been living for about six months under a sabre dictatorship. We do not harbour the slightest illusion about the fact of being in a state of open war against our enemies, or about the means by which alone our party can come to power. We shall not be so ridiculous as to make moral reproaches against the present ruling triple alliance of Junkers, bureaucrats and bourgeois because they strive in every way to enslave us. If the highly moral preacher’s tone and bombastic moral indignation of the wailers[259] were not in any case obnoxious to us, we would beware of such an empty phrase-mongering polemic if only because we still intend to take revenge on our enemies.

But what we find peculiar is that the gentlemen who are now in power, and who have an official majority, do not speak as frankly as we do. Herr Riedel, for example, is as genuine an Uckermark man as anyone could wish for and yet he could not refrain from asserting at the end of his speech:

“It has certainly never been my intention to put any kind of barrier in the way of free expression of opinion. I regard the spiritual struggle ... for the truth as a sacred right of free peoples, which no one may call in question.”

And in another passage Herr Riedel speaks of his wish

“to allow the distribution of posters on the same basis as that on which literary works in general can be distributed”.

What, after all the preceding explanations, are these phrases intended to mean? The existing government and the constitutional monarchy in general cannot nowadays remain in power in civilised countries, if the press is free. Freedom of the press, free competition between opinions means giving freedom to the class struggle in the sphere of the press. And the kind of order that they ardently desire is precisely the stifling of the class struggle, the gagging of the oppressed classes. Hence the party of law and order has to abolish free competition between opinions in the press; by means of press laws, bans etc., it must as far as possible ensure its monopoly of the market; it must, in particular, wherever possible directly suppress the literature provided free of charge in the form of posters and leaflets. The gentlemen are well aware of all this; why do they not say as much frankly?

In fact, Herr Riedel, why do you not propose immediate restoration of the censorship? There is no better means for repressing “passions”, extinguishing “the impure fire of hatred and revenge against the authorities”, and safeguarding “the limits of legitimate freedom"! Voyons, citoyen Riedel, soyons francs! After all, it will come to that in the end!

Herr Riedel resumed his seat. The floor was given to Simons, the Minister of Justice, barrister from Elberfeld, the offspring of a Wuppertal bourgeois family of an equal rank to that of von der Heydt.

Herr Simons set about his task with tremendous thoroughness. It is noticeable that he is still new to the Ministry of Justice.

Posters are pasted up in public streets and squares, said the Minister of Justice. Consequently

“one must look for the definition of public streets and squares"!!

True, Herr Riedel had established the “definition” and “proper meaning of the word” poster in a way deserving our thanks. But that is not the point at all. On the contrary, it is a question of the “definition of streets and squares”. And here the Minister of Justice wins immortal laurels.

Can one imagine a finer school for teaching the ABC than this Chamber where people argue seriously about the definition of streets and squares, about school-boyish points of grammar, and so forth?

What then is the “definition of streets and public squares"?

It is as follows: streets etc.

cannot “be made available for any random and public use”, because “such a definition of streets etc. cannot be proved"!

Hence the reason why we have a so-called Minister of Justice is precisely to give us such profound explanations. In fact, one understands now why Herr Simons found it embarrassing to be presented to the Chamber.

Of course, after such a brilliant performance, the remainder of the Minister’s speech is not worth mentioning. Under the cloak of remarkable erudition in French jurisprudence, Herr Simons brought out some forgotten recollections from his former practice as a Public Prosecutor. Then come statements like the following:

“This question of need must certainly (!) be given an affirmative answer, that at least (!!) is my opinion (!!!), bearing in mind the doubts (!!!!) that have been raised Finally, Herr Simons wanted

“to sanction the legal foundation for restricting posters”.

To sanction a foundation! Where did you learn such language, Herr Simons?

After such oratorical feats as those of Herr Riedel and Herr Simons, we cannot, of course, dwell on Herr Berends’ speech which followed them. Herr Berends correctly felt by instinct that the ban on posters was aimed directly against the proletariat, but his development of the theme was rather feeble.

The general debate came to an end. For rejecting the Bill en bloc there were 152 votes, and against it 152 votes. Among others of the Left who were absent without special permission was Herr Kyll from Cologne. If Herr Kyll had been present the Bill on posters would have been rejected out of hand. Hence we owe it to Herr Kyll that the Bill was adopted in part.

We shall not dwell on the special debate. Its result is well known: the itinerant traders in books have been placed under police surveillance.

For this they can thank Herr Kyll!