Protective Tariffs Or Free Trade System

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written June 1847


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 92;
Written: at the beginning of June 1847;
First published: in Deutsche-Brüsseler Zeitung June 10, 1847.

From the instant that lack of money and credit forced the King of Prussia to issue the Letters Patent of February 3 [1] no reasonable person could doubt any longer that the absolute monarchy in Germany and the “Christian-Germanic” management as it has hitherto existed, also known under the name of “paternal government”, had, in spite of all bristling resistance and sabre-rattling speeches from the throne, abdicated for ever. The day had now dawned from which the bourgeoisie in Germany can date its rule. The Letters Patent themselves are nothing but an acknowledgment, though still wrapped in a great deal of Potsdam mist and fog, of the power of the bourgeoisie. A good deal of this mist and fog has already been blown away by a little weak puffing from the United Diet, and very soon the whole Christian-Germanic misty phantom will be dissolved into its nothingness.

But as soon as the rule of the middle classes began, the first demand to be made was bound to be that the whole trade policy of Germany, or of the Customs Union,[2] should be wrested from the incompetent hands of German princes, their ministers, and arrogant, but in commercial and industrial matters utterly unimaginative and ignorant bureaucrats, and be made dependent upon and decided by those who possess both the necessary insight and the most immediate interest in the matter. In other words: the question of protective and differential tariffs or free trade must fall within the sole decision of the bourgeoisie.

The United Diet in Berlin has shown the Government that the bourgeoisie knows what it needs; in the recent tariff negotiations it was made clear to the Spandau System of Government [3] in pretty plain and bitter words, that it is incapable of grasping, protecting and promoting the material interests concerned. The Cracow affair[4] alone would have been sufficient to brand the foreheads of Holy-Alliance William [Frederick William IV] and his ministers with the stamp of the crudest ignorance of, or the most culpable treachery against, the welfare of the nation. To the horror of his all-highest Majesty and his Excellencies a host of other things came up for discussion, in the course of which royal and ministerial capabilities and discernment — living as well as defunct — could feel anything but flattered.

In the bourgeoisie itself, indeed, two different views dominate with regard to industry and trade. Nonetheless there is no doubt that the party in favour of protective, or, rather, differential tariffs is by far the most powerful, numerous and predominant. The bourgeoisie cannot, in fact, even maintain itself, cannot consolidate its position, cannot attain unbounded power unless it shelters and fosters its industry and trade by artificial means. Without protection against foreign industry it would be crushed and trampled down within a decade. It is quite easily possible that not even protection will help it much or for long. It has waited too long, it has lain too peacefully in the swaddling clothes in which it has been trussed so many years by its precious princes. It has been outflanked and overtaken on every side, it has had its best positions taken from it, while at home it peacefully let its knuckles be rapped and did not even have enough energy to rid itself of its partly imbecile, partly extremely cunning paternal schoolmasters and disciplinarians.

Now a new page has been turned. The German princes can henceforth only be the servants of the bourgeoisie, only be the dot over the “i” of the bourgeoisie. In so far as there is still time and opportunity for the latter’s rule, protection for German industry and German trade is the only foundation on which it may rest. And what the bourgeoisie wants and must want of the German princes, it will also be able to achieve.

There exists, however, alongside the bourgeoisie, a quite considerable number of people called proletarians — the working and propertyless class.

The question therefore arises: What does this class gain from the introduction of the protective system? Will it thereby receive more wages, be able to feed and clothe itself better, house itself more healthily, afford somewhat more time for recreation and education, and some means for the more sensible and careful upbringing of its children?

The gentlemen of the bourgeoisie who advocate the protective system never fail to push the well-being of the working class into the foreground. To judge by their words, a truly paradisiacal life will commence for the workers with the protection of industry, Germany will then become a Canaan “flowing with milk and honey” for the proletarians. But listen on the other hand to the free trade men speaking, and only under their system would the propertyless be able to live “like God in France”, that is, in the greatest jollity and merriment.

Among both parties there are still plenty of limited minds who more or less believe in the truth of their own words. The intelligent among them know very well that this is all vain delusion, merely calculated, furthermore, to deceive and win the masses.

The intelligent bourgeois does not need to be told that whether the system in force is that of protective tariffs or free trade or a mixture of both, the worker will receive no bigger wage for his labour than will just suffice for his scantiest maintenance. From the one side as from the other, the worker gets precisely what he needs to keep going as a labour-machine.

It might thus appear to be a matter of indifference to the proletarian, to the propertyless, whether the protectionists or the free traders have the last word.

Since, however, as has been said above, the bourgeoisie in Germany requires protection against foreign countries in order to clear away the medieval remnants of a feudal aristocracy and the modern vermin by the Grace of God, and to develop purely and simply its own proper, innermost essence (!) — then the working class also has an interest in what helps the bourgeoisie to unimpeded rule.

Not until only one class — the bourgeoisie — is seen to exploit and oppress, until penury and misery can no longer be blamed now on this estate, now on that, or simply on the absolute monarchy and its bureaucrats — only then will the last decisive battle break out, the battle between the propertied and the propertyless, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Only then will the field of battle have been swept clean of all unnecessary barriers, of all that is misleading and accessory; the position of the two hostile armies will be clear and visible at a glance.

With the rule of the bourgeoisie, the workers, compelled by circumstances, will also make the infinitely important advance that they will no longer come forward as individuals, as at the most a couple of hundreds or thousands, in rebellion against the established order, but all together, as one class, with its specific interests and principles, with a common plan and united strength, they will launch their attack on the last and the worst of their mortal enemies, the bourgeoisie.

There can be no doubt as to the outcome of this battle. The bourgeoisie will and must fall to the ground before the proletariat, just as the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy have received their coup de grace from the middle class.

With the bourgeoisie, private property will at the same time be overthrown, and the victory of the working class will put an end to all class or caste rule for ever.

  1. The motion of the Bishop of Autun (Talleyrand) — one of the representatives of the clergy who supported the decision of the deputies of the Third Estate to transform the States-General (a consultative organ based on social estates) into a National Assembly(later, the Constituent Assembly) — was designed to extend the powers of the Assembly. It proposed that the deliberations of the Assembly should no longer be restricted to matters mentioned in the Cahiers de doléances — lists of grievances and instructions given by the constituents of each estate to their deputies in connection with the convocation of the States-General (États généraux) — and that the deputies should have the right to decide each question according to their own judgment. Bailliages — bailiwicks in pre-revolutionary France, also electoral districts during the elections to the States-General; divisions des ordres — each bailliage was divided into three social estates: the nobility, the clergy and the Third Estate. The figure 431 is apparently a slip of the pen, for there were 531 divisions des ordres
  2. Jeu de paume — a tennis-court in Versailles. On June 20, 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate, who on June 17 proclaimed themselves a National Assembly, met in this building (because their official meeting-place had been closed by order of the King) and took a solemn oath not to separate until they had given France a constitution. Lit de justice — sessions of the French parliaments (the supreme judicial bodies in pre-revolutionary France) in the presence of the King. Orders by the King issued at these sessions had the force of law. The reference here is to the meeting of the States-General on June 23, 1789. At this meeting the King declared the decisions adopted by the Third Estate on June 17 null and void and demanded the immediate dispersal of the Assembly, but the deputies of the Third Estate refused to obey and continued their deliberations
  3. Jacquerie — French peasant revolt which took place in May and June 1358 and was supported by the poor in a number of cities. A peasant rebellion under the leadership of Wat Tyler flared up in England in the summer of 1381. It had the support of ‘ the lower strata of the London population, who opened the gates of the capital to the insurgents. Some demands of the latter, for example, the abolition of the Statute of Labourers, were also in the interest of the plebeian townsmen. Evil May Day — name given to the uprising of the poorer citizens of London on May 1, 1517. It was directed against the increasing power of foreign merchants and usurers. A peasant uprising under the leadership of Robert Kett (a local squire and owner of a tannery) took place between June and August 1549 in East Anglia. Among the insurgents were many unemployed weavers, ruined artisans and other destitute people. With the help of the town poor the insurgents seized Norwich
  4. This refers to events connected with the Chartist movement in England. When Parliament rejected their first Petition in July 1839, the Chartists attempted to call a general strike (a “sacred month”). At the beginning of November 1839 a rising of miners took place in South Wales, which was crushed by police and government troops. In July 1840, the National Charter Association was founded which united a considerable number of the country’s local Chartist organisations. In August 1842, after the second Petition had been rejected by Parliament, spontaneous action of the workers took place in many industrial regions of the country. In Lancashire and in a considerable part of Cheshire and Yorkshire the strikes were very widespread, and in a number of places they grew into spontaneous uprisings