Frederick Engels

Centralisation and Freedom [171]

Written: in the first half of September 1842;
Source: MECW, Volume 2;
First published: in the Supplement to Rheinische Zeitung, September 18, 1842;
Marked with the sign ‘x’;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

At first sight it seems incomprehensible that in France a ministry like Guizot’s could last so long, that indeed it could come to power at all. Confronted by a Chamber with full power to appoint and remove ministers, by a free and influential press, by the freest institutions in Europe, by a concentrated public opinion strongly opposed to him, Guizot, Minister de l'étranger, has withstood this for almost two years, persecuted the press, defied public opinion, led the Chamber, dissolved it, convoked a new one, compromised France’s honour in the eyes of the great powers, and achieved in full measure the unpopularity which he has been courting. And the man who has done all this, who has robbed the French people of two years of their history, can boast of having such a strong party in the Chamber that only a forced coalition of the most directly opposed opinions can endanger him.

Guizot’s Ministry is the period of full bloom of the July government, the triumph of Louis Philippe, and the bitterest humiliation for all those who had expected the July [1830] revolution to bring the liberation of Europe. The principles of popular sovereignty, of a free press, of an independent jury, of parliamentary government, have practically been destroyed in France. Guizot’s Ministry has set the crown on the reactionary tendencies which have succeeded in reasserting themselves in France, and has brought openly into view the impotence of French liberalism in the face of Europe’s legitimate authorities.

The fact is well established. Reaction in the whole of Europe rejoices over it. The liberal party has continually to hear it said that France daily disavows her institutions, gives the lie to her history since 1789, elects Chambers the list of whose members is itself a lampoon on the July revolution, in short, that by every one of its actions the most liberal nation in Europe is betraying liberalism. And liberals, namely, the good-natured Germans, blush with shame and stammer a few uncouth excuses which they themselves do not take quite seriously, silently hope for a liberal Chamber, and secretly, quite stealthily, hope — for another July.

The fact can not only he admitted without prejudice to the principle of freedom, it must even be put in the forefront for the very sake of this principle. It has two causes; one of them has already often been put forward as an argument against the reactionaries by the bolder independent thinkers, namely, the half-heartedness and ambiguity of the French constitution, in which the principle of freedom is never explicitly formulated and implemented; the other is centralisation.

In spite of Cormenin’s pamphlets in spite of his brilliant and eloquent defence of French centralisation, the latter remains the chief cause of the retrogression of French legislation. Cormenin really proves nothing at all, although almost everything in his book is correct and good. For he does not base centralisation on the general laws of reason, but excuses it on the grounds of the special nature of the French national spirit and of the course of history.

Those are grounds which we can accept for the time being, for we have first of all to furnish the proof that such centralisation is irrational and therefore the cause of the effects mentioned above.

Centralisation, in the extreme form in which it prevails in France at present, is the state overstepping its bounds, going beyond its essential nature. The state is bounded, on the one hand, by the individual and, on the other hand, by world history. Both of these are harmed by centralisation. By assuming a right which belongs only to history, the state destroys the freedom of the individual. History has eternally had and will always retain the right to dispose of the life, the happiness, the freedom of the individual, for it is the activity of mankind as a whole, it is the life of the species, and as such it is sovereign; no one can revolt against it, for it is absolute right. No one can complain against history, for whatever it allots one, one lives and shares in the development of mankind, which is more than any enjoyment. How ludicrous it would be if the subjects of a Nero or a Domitian were to complain that they had not been born in an age like ours, when beheading or roasting alive does not happen so easily, or if the victims of medieval religious fanaticism were to reproach history because they did not live after the Reformation and under tolerant governments! As if without the suffering of some, the others could have made progress! Thus, the English workers, who at present have to suffer bitter hunger, have indeed the right to protest against Sir Robert Peel and the English constitution, but not against history, which is making them the standard-bearers and representatives of a new principle of right. The same thing does not hold good for the state. It is always a particular state and can never claim the right, which mankind as a whole naturally possesses in its activity and the development of history, to sacrifice the individual for the general.

Thus the centralised state, of course, commits an injustice when, as occurs in France and as Cormenin admits, it sacrifices the provinces to the centre and thus introduces an oligarchy, an aristocracy of locality which is no less unjust and irrational than the aristocracy of nobility and of money. Freedom is essentially conditioned by equality, and despite all égalité devant la loi, the difference between Parisians and provincials, as far as education, participation in popular sovereignty, and true, moral enjoyment of life are concerned, is nevertheless more than enough to obstruct the French institutions in their natural development towards complete freedom.

The history of centralisation in France, as everywhere else, goes parallel to that of absolutism. Louis XI was the founder of both; the Huguenot wars were the last significant attempt of the provinces to revolt against the hegemony of Paris, and from then on the supremacy of the capital over France has been generally recognised .172 For as soon as centralisation of the state takes place in earnest, there is bound to be local centralisation, the hegemony of the centre. As long as absolutism lasted only Paris profited by it, the provinces had to put up with the costs of the state and His Majesty’s arbitrariness. All culture, all esprit, all science from the whole of France was concentrated in Paris, existed for Paris; the press operated only in and for Paris; the money of the provinces, which the court drew towards itself, was squandered in and for Paris. This gave rise to that great disproportion in culture between Paris and the rest of the country which, with the fall of absolutism, developed in a form extremely disadvantageous for France. Centralisation alone made the revolution possible, in the way in which it eventually happened; but centralisation also had made the gulf between Paris and the rest of the country so great that Paris felt little concern for the welfare of the provinces as long as it itself was not affected by the general oppression. The estates of the realm [173] the representation of the oppressed country, not the city of Paris, began the work of revolution; only when the problems became matters of principle and the interests of the capital became involved did the latter take the initiative and dominate the course of events. But as a result the participation of the country slackened, and the country, and the representatives elected by it gave Napoleon by their apathy the opportunity to raise himself gradually to the imperial throne. Under the Restoration, when political parties developed, the same struggle between the country and the capital became evident; Paris soon achieved greater clarity of purpose and decided against the Bourbons and kingship by the grace of God; the country, with its lesser degree of education, put few liberals into the arena; it was largely apathetic and therefore favoured the existing regime or even fanatically supported the ancien régime. Hence the July revolution was made by Paris alone; the great mass of the indifferent were too indolent to rise against the capital and its new principle; the most uneducated regions of the country remained loyal to the Bourbons, but could do nothing to counter centralisation. Since then, however, almost every Chamber has allowed itself to be robbed of the gains of the July revolution one after another, and centralisation, besides other causes, was also responsible for this. For all parts of the country send their deputies to the Chambers and, in spite of controlled elections and bribery, each constituency demonstrates by its choice the degree of its political education. He who allows himself to be bribed and dictated to is certainly not himself free and resolute; hence he acts quite rightly when, by electing a ministerial deputy, he submits to the tutelage that falls to his lot. The contradiction between the July revolution and the Chambers of 1842 is the contradiction between the capital and the country. Through Paris, France can indeed make revolutions and create free institutions at a single stroke, but she cannot keep them. Anyone who is unable to understand the 1842 Chambers shows that he has confused Frenchmen and Parisians, that he has not realised the contradiction of centralisation.

Let us not be unjust! The contradiction from which centralisation suffers is undeniable; but let us also allow it the historical and rational right that is its duel Centralisation is — and this is its justification — the essence, the vital nerve, of the state. Every state must necessarily strive for centralisation; every state is centralised, from the absolute monarchy to the republic; America just as much as Russia. No state can do without centralisation, the federal state no more than the developed central state; as long as states exist, each state will have a centre, each citizen will perform his civic functions only by virtue of centralisation. Under this centralisation, communal administration, everything that affects individual citizens or corporations, can quite well be left free, and even must be left free, since because centralisation is concentrated in a single centre, because everything here forms a single unity, its activity must necessarily be general, its competence and powers embracing everything that is of general validity, but leaving free everything that concerns only this or that particular individual. From this follows the right of the central power of the state to promulgate laws, to control the administration, to appoint state officials, etc.; from this follows at the same time the principle that judicial power must by no means be connected with the centre but must be in the hands of the people — courts of law with juries — and that, as already said, communal affairs, etc., do not come within the competence of the centre, and so on.

The central nature of the state does not by the Way stipulate that some one person must be the central point, as in an absolute monarchy, but only that an individual occupies the central position, as in a republic the president may well do. For it should not be forgotten that the main thing is not the person in the centre, but the centre itself.

To return to our beginning. Centralisation is the principle underlying the state, yet centralisation necessarily compels the state to reach out beyond itself, to make itself — the particular — into something universal, ultimate and supreme, and to claim the authority and position that belongs only to history. The state is not, as it is held to be, the realisation of absolute freedom — otherwise the above dialectic of the state concept would be invalid — but merely the realisation of objective freedom. True subjective freedom, which has equal rights with absolute freedom, calls. for a different form of realisation than the state.