Weaver Revolt in Silesia
On July 4, weavers broke into the headquarters of the Zwanziger Brothers, a textile company in Peterswaldau, and destroyed everything. In the morning, the weavers, armed with makeshift weapons, left Peterswaldau and headed toward Langenbielau. When they arrived, they were met by Major Rosenberger and two companies of infantry. The troops opened fire and killed several bystanders. The weavers, incensed by the killings, managed to drive the soldiers away and continued on their destructive path.
Word arrived of an uprising in the Prussian region of Silesia, where on June 4, 1844, a group of weavers marched on the home of Prussian industrialists. Their demands for higher pay denied, the weavers stormed the house and destroyed it. The next day, as many as 5,000 weavers and their families burst into homes and factories, destroyed machines, and looted and ransacked residences and offices. The industrialists called in the Prussian military, which fired on the crowd, killing 35.
The revolt was the first of its kind involving industrial workers in Germany, and though it failed, Marx recognized in it the connection he sought between an impassioned proletariat, economics and the state. The driving force behind the rebellion was not an abstraction such as religion or ethnicity or a throne, as many had been in the past, but something much more tangible: bread.
Today Heinrich Heine is probably best known for his prediction, “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings”. Personally I’ve always preferred his slightly more lighthearted comment, “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged”.
In his day he was one of the most famous poets in Prussia and the Silesian Weavers is probably his most famous work. The weavers worked for incredibly low wages, and as the industrial revolution gathered pace were gradually made unemployed in ever-increasing numbers. Their landlords also took most of their wages, to the point where they were effectively being treated as slave labour. As a result they rebelled against the state in 1844. The uprising was crushed but marked one of the first times that organised workers really attempted to improve their lot in life by working together. As a result it still has a huge symbolic significance amongst socialist movements worldwide. The weavers inspired Heine to write his poem but also for Carl Wilhelm Huebner to paint the scene above.
The poem deals directly with the issue of workers rights and how they are exploited and oppressed by the rich. Heine suggests that a day of reckoning can not be long postponed, and that sooner or later the rich will be forced to make amends. In the poem monarchy, religion and nationalism are dismissed as being of little comfort then your family is starving and your rights are crushed underfoot. Heine was familiar with Karl Marx and it was Marx’s colleague and friend Friedrich Engels who first translated the poem into English.
I was thinking of the poem this week because of the ongoing events in Wisconsin in the US, and the dispute between local government and the trade unions. I think it’s always important to remember that certain rights were only won at great cost and therefore its important that we protect them as best we can.
Here is the full text of The Silesian Weavers:
In lightless eyes there are not tears.
They sit at the loom and gnash the gears.
Germany, we weave the cloth of the dead
Threefold be the curse we weave ’round your head
We’re weaving, we’re weaving.
A curse to the god to whom we knelt.
Through the winter’s cold, such hunger felt.
In the past we hoped, we waited, we cried
You’ve mocked us and poxed us and cast us aside
We’re weaving, we’re weaving.
A curse on the king of the empire,
Who would not quell our misery’s fire.
He took every penny we had to give
Then shot us like dogs with no right to live
We’re weaving, we’re weaving.
A curse on the cold, ruthless fatherland,
Where outrage and shame fester by your hand,
Where blossoms are trampled under your boot,
Where rot and decay are allowed to take root.
We’re weaving, we’re weaving.
The shuttle is flying, the weaving looms roar.
Day and night we weave with you at our door.
Old Germany, we weave the cloth of the dead.
Threefold be the curse we weave ’round your head.
We’re weaving, we’re weaving.
“Critical Marginal Notes on the Article The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian”,
dealing with the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844, was published in Vorwärts! It was directed against Ruge, who considered the Silesian uprising a futile revolt of the desperate poor. Marx, on the other hand, regarded it as the first major class action of the German proletariat against the bourgeoisie, a testimony to the broad revolutionary possibilities of the working class. Developing the idea he had already expressed in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher about the world-historical role of the proletariat, Marx pointed out that “it is only in the proletariat that” the German people “can find the dynamic element of its emancipation.”
Critical Notes on the Article:
“The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian”
Vorwarts!, No.64, August 10 1844
Particular circumstances make it necessary for me to declare that the present article is my first contribution to Vorwarts!
Now for the oracular utterances of the “Prussian” concerning the german workers.
The German poor (he observes wittily) are no cleverer than the poor Germans, i.e., they never look beyond their hearth, their factory or their district: they remain as yet untouched by the all-pervading spirit of politics.
In order to compare the situation of the German workers with that of the English and French workers, the “Prussian” should have compared the first formation, the beginnings of the French and English workers’ movement with the new-born German movement. He fails to do this. Hence his entire argument amounts only to the trivial observation that, e.g., industry in Germany is less advanced than in England, or that the start of a movement looks different from it later development. He had wished to speak of the specific nature of the German workers’ movement, but does not say a single word on the subject.
He should consider the matter from the correct vantage-point. He would then realize that not a single one of the French and English insurrections has had the same theoretical and conscious character as the Silesian weavers’ rebellion.
This first of the Weaver’s Song [by Heinrich Heine], that intrepid battle-cry which does not even mention hearth, factory, or district but in which the proletariat at once proclaims its antagonism to the society of private property in the most decisive, aggressive, ruthless and forceful manner. The Silesian rebellion starts where the French and English workers’ finish, namely with an understanding of the nature of the proletariat. This superiority stamps the whole episode. Not only were machines destroyed, those competitors of the workers, but also the account books, the titles of ownership, and whereas all other movements had directed their attacks primarily at the visible enemy, namely the industrialists, the Silesian workers turned also against the hidden enemy, the bankers. Finally, not one English workers’ uprising was carried out with such courage, foresight and endurance.
As for the German workers’ level of education or capacity for it, I would point to Weitling’s brilliant writings which surpass Proudhon’s from a theoretical point of view, however defective they may be in execution. What single work on the emancipation of the bourgeoisie, that is, political emancipation, can the bourgeoisie – for all their philosophers and scholars – put beside Weitling’s Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom? If we compare the meek, sober mediocrity of German political literature with this titanic and brilliant literary debut of the German workers; if we compare these gigantic children’s shows of the proletariat with the dwarf-like proportions of the worn-out political shoes of the German bourgeoisie, we must predict a vigorous future for this German Cinderella. It must be granted that the German proletariat is the theoretician of the European proletariat just as the English proletariat is its economist and the French its politician. It must be granted that the vocation of Germany for social revolution is as classical as its incapacity for political revolution. For just as the impotence of the German bourgeoisie is the political impotence of Germany, so too the capacity of the German proletariat – even apart from German theory – is the social capacity of Germany. The disparity between the philosophical and political development of Germany is nothing abnormal. It is a necessary disparity. Only in socialism can a philosophical nation discover the praxis consonant with its nature and only in the proletariat can it discover the active agent of its emancipation.
For the moment, however, I have neither time nor the will to lecture the “Prussian” on the relationship between German society and the social revolution and to show how this relationship explains, on the one hand, the feeble reaction of the German bourgeoisie to socialism and, on the other hand, the brilliant talents of the German proletariat for socialism. He can find the first rudiments necessary for an understanding of this phenomenon in my Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (in the Franco-German Yearbooks).
Thus the cleverness of the German poor stands in inverse ratio to the cleverness of the poor Germans. But people who make every object the occasion for stylistic exercises in public are misled by such formal activities into perverting the content, while for its part the perverted content stamps the imprint of vulgarity upon the form. Thus the “Prussian’s” attempt to discuss the workers’ unrest in Silesia in formal antithesis has led him into the greatest antitheses to the truth. Confronted with the initial outbreak of the Silesian revolt no man who thinks or loves the truth could regard the duty to play schoolmaster to the event as his primary task. On the contrary, his duty would rather be to study it to discover its specific character. Of course, this requires scientific understanding and a certain love of mankind, while the other procedure needs only a ready-made phraseology saturated in an overweening love of oneself.
Why does the “Prussian” treat the German workers with such disdain? Because he believes the “whole problem” – namely the plight of the workers – “to have been as yet untouched by the all-pervading spirit of politics.” He dilates on his platonic love for the spirit of politics as follows:
All rebellions that are sparked off by the disasterous isolation of men from the community and of their thoughts from social principles are bound to be suppressed amid a welter of blood and incomprehension. But once need produces understanding and once the political understanding of the German discovers the roots of social need then even in Germany these events will be felt to be the symptoms of a great upheaval.
First of all, we hope that the “Prussian” will permit us to make a stylistic comment. His antithesis is incomplete. The first half asserts: Once need produces understanding. The second half states: Once the political understanding discovers the roots of social need. The simple understanding of the first half of the antithesis becomes political understanding in the second, just as the simple need of the first half becomes the social need of the second. Why has our master of style weighted the two halves of his antithesis so unequally? I do not think that he has reflected on the matter. I shall reveal his correct instinct to him. Had he written: “Once social need produces political understanding and once political understanding has discovered the roots of social need” no impartial reader could have failed to see that this antithesis was nonsensical. To begin with, everyone would have wondered why the anonymous author did not link social understanding with social need and political understanding with political need as the most elementary logic would require? But let us proceed to the issue itself!
It is entirely false that social need produces political understanding. Indeed, it is nearer the truth to say that political understanding is produced by social well-being. Political understanding is something spiritual, that is given to him that hath, to the man who is already sitting on velvet. Our “Prussian” should take note of what M. Michael Chevalier, a French economist, has to say on the subject:
In 1789, when the bourgeoisie rose in rebellion the only thing lacking to its freedom was the right to participate in the government of the country. Emancipation meant the removal of the control of public affairs, the high civic, military, and religious functions from the hands of the privileged classes who had a monopoly of these functions. Wealthy and enlightened, self-sufficient and able to manage their own affairs, they wished to evade the clutches of arbitrary rule.
We have already demonstrated to our “Prussian” how inadequate political understanding is to the task of discovering the source of social need. One last word on his view of the matter. The more developed and the more comprehensive is the political understanding of a nation, the more the proletariat will squander its energies – at least in the initial stages of the movement – in senseless, futile uprisings that will be drowned in blood. Because it thinks in political terms, it regards the will as the cause of all evils and force and the overthrow of a particular form of the state as the universal remedy. Proof: the first outbreaks of the French proletariat. The workers in Lyons imagined their goals were entirely political, they saw themselves purely as soldiers of the republic, while in reality they were the soldiers of socialism. Thus their political understanding obscured the roots of their social misery, it falsified their insight into their real goal, their political understanding deceived their social instincts.
But if the “Prussian” expects understanding to be the result of misery, why does he identify “suppression in blood” with “suppression in incomprehension"? If misery is a means whereby to produce understanding, then a bloody slaughter must be a very extreme means to an end. The “Prussian” would have to argue that suppression in a welter of blood will stifle incomprehension and bring a breath of fresh air to the understanding.
The “Prussian” predicts the suppression of the insurrections which are sparked off by the “disasterous isolation of man from the community and of their thoughts from social principles.”
We have shown that in the Silesian uprising, there was no separation of thoughts from social principles. That leaves “the disasterous isolation of men from the community.” By community is meant here the political community, the state. It is the old song about unpolitical Germany.
But do not all rebellions without exception have their roots in the disasterous isolation of man from the community? Does not every rebellion necessarily presuppose isolation? Would the revolution of 1789 have taken place if French citizens had not felt disasterously isolated from the community? The abolition of this isolation was its very purpose.
But the community from which the workers is isolated is a community of quite different reality and scope than the political community. The community from which his own labor separates him is life itself, physical and spiritual life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human nature. Human nature is the true community of men. Just as the disasterous isolation from this nature is disproportionately more far-reaching, unbearable, terrible and contradictory than the isolation from the political community, so too the transcending of this isolation and even a partial reaction, a rebellion against it, is so much greater, just as the man is greater than the citizen and human life than political life. Hence, however limited an industrial revolt may be, it contains within itself a universal soul: and however universal a political revolt may be, its colossal form conceals a narrow split.
The “Prussian” brings his essay to a close worthy of it with the following sentence:
A social revolution without a political soul (i.e., without a central insight organizing it from the point of view of the totality) is impossible.
We have seen: a social revolution possesses a total point of view because – even if it is confined to only one factory district – it represents a protest by man against a dehumanized life, because it proceeds from the point of view of the particular, real individual, because the community against whose separation from himself the individual is reacting, is the true community of man, human nature. In contrast, the political soul of revolution consists in the tendency of the classes with no political power to put an end to their isolation from the state and from power. Its point of view is that of the state, of an abstract totality which exists only through its separation from real life and which is unthinkable in the absence of an organized antithesis between the universal idea and the individual existence of man. In accordance with the limited and contradictory nature of the political soul a revolution inspired by it organizes a dominant group within society at the cost of society.
We shall let the “Prussian” in on the secret of the nature of a “social revolution with a political soul": we shall thus confide to him the secret that not even his phrases raise him above the level of political narrow-mindedness.
A “social” revolution with a political soul is either a composite piece of nonsense, if by “social” revolution the “Prussian” understands a “social” revolution as opposed to a political one, while at the same time he endows the social revolution with a political, rather than a social soul. Or else a “social revolution with a political soul” is nothing but a paraphrase of what is usually called a “political revolution” or a “revolution pure and simple.” Every revolution dissolves the old order of society; to that extent it is social. Every revolution brings down the old ruling power; to that extent it is political.
The “Prussian” must choose between this paraphrase and nonsense. But whether the idea of a social revolution with a political soul is paraphrase or nonsense there is no doubt about the rationality of a political revolution with a social soul. All revolution – the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order – is a political act. But without revolution, socialism cannot be made possible. It stands in need of this political act just as it stands in need of destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organizing functions begin and its goal, its soul emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside.
Such lengthy perorations were necessary to break through the tissue of errors concealed in a single newspaper column. Not every reader possesses the education and the time necessary to get to grips with such literary swindles. In view of this does not our anonymous “Prussian” owe it to the reading public to give up writing on political and social themes and to refrain from making declamatory statements on the situation in Germany, in order to devote himself to a conscientious analysis of his own situation?