The Economic Congress

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written September 1847

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 274;
Written: between September 19 and 22, 1847;
First published: in the Deutsche-Brüsseler Zeitung No. 76, September 23, 1847.

The International Congress of Economists held in Brussels on September 16-18, 1847 discussed the attitude towards the movement for the repeal of trade restrictions between individual countries started by the British Anti-Corn Law League (see Note 47).

The Communist League members headed by Marx attended the congress, intending to use it for open criticism of bourgeois economics and for defence of working-class interests.

Marx’s name was put on the official list of the congress participants (see Journal des économistes, t. XVIII, October 1847, p. 275).

During the congress a sharp controversy arose between the bourgeois majority and a group of Brussels Communists, especially after Georg Weerth’s speech criticising the free traders’ statements about the benefits of free trade to the working class. The organisers of the congress did not let Marx make his speech and closed the discussion. In reply to this Marx and Engels and their followers carried on the polemic with bourgeois economists in the democratic and proletarian press.

It is well known that here there are several lawyers, officials, doctors, rentiers, merchants, etc., who, under pretence of an Association pour le libre éhange (à l'instar de Paris) give one another instruction in the elements of political economy. For the last three days of the past week these gentlemen were swimming in bliss. They held their great congress of the greatest economists of all countries, they enjoyed the ineffable delights of hearing the truths of economics expounded, no longer front the mouths of a M Jules Bartels, a Le Hardy de Beaulieu, a Faider or Fader [Fader, from “fade”, dull, insipid, Faider, name of a participant in the economic congress] or other unknown celebrities, no, but from the mouths of the leading masters of the science. They were enraptured, enchanted, divinely happy, transported to the seventh heaven.

Less enraptured, however, were the masters of the science themselves. They had come prepared for an easy battle, and the battle was very hard for them; they believed that they had only to come, see and conquer, and they conquered only in the voting, whereas they were decisively defeated in the discussion on the second day, and only by means of intrigues did they avoid a new and still more decisive defeat on the third day. Even if their divinely happy public noticed nothing of all this, they themselves could not but feel it painfully.

We attended the congress. From the very beginning we had no particular respect for these masters of science, whose principal learning consists in continually contradicting one another and themselves with the greatest equanimity. But we confess that this congress robbed us of the last tiny vestige of respect we might have had for those with whose writings and speeches we were less well acquainted. We confess that we were astounded to have to hear such platitudes and insipidities, such universally familiar trivialities. We confess that we had not expected these men of science to be incapable of telling us anything more valuable than the first elements of economics, which might well be new for children of seven or eight, but which must be presumed to be common knowledge for adults, and in particular for members of Associations pour le libre échange. However, the gentlemen knew their public better than we.

The Englishmen comported themselves best at the congress. They had the greatest interest in the matter; they have the opening up of the continental markets at heart; for them the question of free trade is a matter of life and death. They showed this clearly enough, too; they, who nowhere speak anything but their English, condescended, in the interest of their beloved free trade to speak French. One could clearly see how powerfully the matter affected their purses. The Frenchmen performed in the manner of pure ideologists and scientific dreamers. They did not even distinguish themselves by any French esprit or originality of conception. But at least they spoke good French, and that is something one seldom hears in Brussels. — The Dutchmen were tedious and professorial. The Dane, Herr David, was quite incomprehensible. The Belgians for the most part played the role of passive listeners, or at any rate never transcended the limits of their national industry — contrefaçon. [imitation] And finally the Germans, with the exception of Weerth, who, however, spoke more as an Englishman than a German, formed the partie honteuse of the whole congress. The palm would have fittingly been theirs, if a Belgian had not after all conquered it for his nation.

First day. General discussion. Belgium opened it with M. Faider, who, in his entire behaviour, in his deportment and language, brought before us the whole of that strutting foppishness which gives itself such repulsive airs in the streets and promenades of Brussels. M. Faider peddled nothing but empty phrases, and hardly raised himself to the most elementary economic truths. Let us not detain ourselves with him for as long as he detained us with his outpourings of dishwater soup.

M. Wolowski, Professor etc. in Paris, mounted the rostrum. A smug, rhetorical, superficial, Frenchified Polish Jew, who has managed to combine in himself the bad qualities of all three nations with none of the good. M. Wolowski whipped up huge enthusiasm by means of a previously arranged, sophistically surprising speech. unfortunately, however, this speech was not M. Wolowski’s property, it was patched together from the Sophismes économiques of M. Frédéric Bastiat. This was naturally something the Brussels claqueurs could not know. — M. Wolowski regretted that a German protectionist would be opposing him and that the French protectionists had allowed the initiative to be taken from them in this way. For this he was punished. When concluding his speech M. Wolowski became comical in the highest degree. He came to speak of the working classes, to whom he promised golden ;mountains from free trade, and in whose name he made a hypocritically furious attack on the protectionists. Yes! He exclaimed, working himself up into a rhetorical falsetto, yes, these protectionists, “these people with nothing here which beats for the toiling classes” — here he pounded himself on his round little belly — these protectionists are the people who prevent us from fulfilling our most heartfelt wishes and help the workers out of their poverty! Unfortunately, his whole fury was too artificial to make any impression on the few workers who were present in the gallery.

Herr Rittinghausen from Cologne, the representative of the German fatherland, read out an infinitely tedious essay in defence of the protective system. He spoke as a true German. With the most pitiful grimaces in the world he lamented Germany’s sorry condition and its industrial impotence, and he downright beseeched the Englishmen that they might, after all, allow Germany to protect itself against their superior competition. Why, he said, gentlemen, you wish to give us freedom of trade, you wish us to compete freely with all nations, when we still have guilds almost everywhere, when we may not even compete freely among ourselves?

M. Blanqui, Professor, Deputy, and Progressive Conservative from Paris, author of a wretched economic history [Blanqui, Histoire de l'économie an politique en Europe] and other inferior books, principal pillar of the so-called École française of economics, answered Herr Rittinghausen. A well-fed, stand-offish man with a face in which hypocritical severity, unctuousness and philanthropy are repulsively blended. Knight of the Legion of Honour, that goes without saying. M. Blanqui spoke with the greatest possible volubility and the least possible wit, and this, naturally, was just the thing to impress the Brussels Free Traders. What he said is moreover ten times less significant than what he has previously written. Let us not detain ourselves with these empty phrases.

Then came Dr. Bowring, radical Member of Parliament and heir to the wisdom of Bentham, whose skeleton he owns. [1] He is himself a kind of Bentham skeleton. It was noticeable that the elections were over; Mr. Bowring no longer found it necessary to make concessions to the people, but spoke instead in the manner of a genuine bourgeois. He spoke fluent and correct French, with a strong English accent, and emphasised the effect of his words with the most vehement and droll gesticulations that we recall ever having seen. Mr. Bowring, the representative of the highly interested English bourgeoisie, declared that at last the time had come for all egoism to be cast aside and for each to establish his own prosperity on that of the others. Naturally the old economic “truth” cropped up that one can do more business with a millionaire and therefore make more out of him than out of the possessor of a mere thousand talers. — Finally, there was yet another inspired hymn to this ambassador from heaven, the smuggler.

After him spoke M. Duchateau, President of the Valendennes Association pour la protection du travail national defending, as a result of M. Wolowski’s provocation, the French protective system. He repeated, with great calm and lucidity, the well-known principles of the protectionists, in the quite correct opinion that these were sufficient to make the whole congress bitter for the free-trade gentlemen. He was undoubtedly the best speaker of the day.

Mr. Ewart, Member of Parliament, answered him, in almost incomprehensible French, with the stalest and most platitudinous shibboleths of the Anti-Corn-Law League, long since known by heart to almost every street urchin in England.

We mention M. Campan, a delegate from the Free Trade Society of Bordeaux, merely for the sake of the record. What he said was so insignificant that we can no longer recall a single word of it.

Colonel Thompson, Member of Parliament, reduces the question to a simple story — in a certain town there exist cab-drivers who make a journey for 1 1/2 francs. Now an omnibus is introduced, which makes the same trip for 1 franc. Thus the cab-driver would say that 1/2 franc per trip is withdrawn from trade. But is that true? Where does the 1/2 franc go to? Aha! the passenger will buy something else for it, perhaps pies, cakes or the like. Thus the half franc enters trade after all, and the consumer gets more satisfaction from it. Here we have the case of the protectionists, who defend the cab-driver, and that of the Free Traders, who wish to introduce the omnibus. The only thing that the good Colonel Thompson forgets is that competition soon eliminates this advantage of the consumer, and takes from him for one thing exactly what he gains on another.

The final speaker was M. Dunoyer, a Counsellor of State in Paris, author of several books, among others De la liberté du travail in which he accuses the workers of producing far too many children. He spoke with the vehemence proper to a Counsellor of State, and moreover very insignificantly. M. Dunoyer is a well-nourished ventru with a bald skull and the red, forward-thrusting face of a dog, he is evidently accustomed to brook no contradictions, but is by no means as terrifying as he would like to be. M. Blanqui said of his cheap invective against the proletariat: “M. Dunoyer tells the same hard truths to the people as did the Voltaires and Rousseaus to the princes in the last century.”

With this the general discussion was closed. We shall report on the discussion of the individual questions on the second and third days in the next issue.[2]

  1. An allusion to the fulfilment of Bentham’s will by John Bowring (Bentham bequeathed his body for use for scientific purposes)
  2. The report on other sittings of the congress was not published in the Deutsche-Brüssseler-Zeitung. On these see Engels’ article “The Free Trade Congress at Brussels” (this volume, pp. 282-90)