The Free Trade Congress at Brussels

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written September 1847


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 282;
Written: at the end of September 1847;
First published: in The Northern Star, No. 520, October 9, 1847 with an editorial note: “From Our German Correspondent”

On the 16th, 17th, and 18th of September, there was held here (Brussels) a congress of political economists, manufacturers, tradesmen, etc., to discuss the question of Free Trade. There were present about 150 members of all nations. There assisted, on the part of the English Free Traders, Dr. Bowring, M. P., Col. Thompson, M. P., Mr. Ewart, M. P., Mr. Brown, M. P., James Wilson, Esq., editor of the Economist, etc.; from France had arrived M. Wolowski, professor of jurisprudence; M. Blanqui, deputy, professor of political economy, author of a history of that science, [Blanqui, Histoire de l'économie an politique en Europe] and other works; M. Horace Say, son of the celebrated economists [Jean Baptiste Say]; M. Ch. Dunoyer, member of the Privy Council, author of several works upon politics and economy, and others. From Germany there was no Free Trader present, but Holland, Denmark, Italy, etc., had sent representatives. Señor Ramon de la Sagra, of Madrid, intended to come, but came too late. The assistance of a whole host of Belgian Free Traders need hardly be mentioned, it being a matter of course.

Thus the celebrities of the science had met to discuss the important question — whether Free Trade would benefit the world? You will think the discussions of such a splendid assembly — discussions carried on by economical stars of the first magnitude — must have been interesting in the highest degree. You will say that men like Dr. Bowring, Colonel Thompson, Blanqui and Dunoyer, must have pronounced speeches the most striking, must have produced arguments the most convincing, must have represented all questions under a fight the most novel and surprising imaginable. Alas! Sir, if you had been present, you would have been piteously undeceived. Your glorious expectations, your fond illusions would have vanished within less than an hour. I have assisted at innumerable public meetings and discussions. I heard the League pour forth their Anti-Corn-Law[1] arguments more than a hundred times, while I was in England, but never, I can assure you, never did I hear such dull, tedious, trivial stuff, brought forward with such a degree of self-complacency. I was never before so disappointed. What was carried on did not merit the name of a discussion — it was mere pot-house talk. The great scientific luminaries never ventured themselves upon the field of political economy, in the strict sense of the word. I shall not repeat to you all the worn-out stuff which was brought forward on the first two days. Read two or three numbers of the League or the Manchester Guardian, and you will find all that was said, except, perhaps, a few specious sentences brought forward by M. Wolowski, which he, however, had stolen from M. Bastiat’s (chief of the French Free Traders) pamphlet of Sophismes économiques. Free Traders did not expect to meet with any other opposition, but that of M. Rittinghausen, a German Protectionist, and generally an insipid fellow. But up got M. Duchateau, a French manufacturer and Protectionist — a man who spoke for his purse, just as Mr. Ewart or Mr. Brown spoke for theirs, and gave them such a terrible opposition, that on the second day of the discussion, a great number, even of Free Traders, avowed that they had been beaten in argument. They took, however, their revenge at the vote — the resolutions passed, of course, almost unanimously.

On the third day, a question was discussed which interests your readers. It was this: “Will the carrying out of universal Free Trade benefit the working classes?” The affirmative was supported by Mr. Brown, the South Lancashire Free Trader, in a lengthy speech, in English; he and Mr. Wilson were the only ones who spoke that language, the remainder all spoke French — Dr. Bowring, very well — Colonel Thompson, tolerably — Mr. Ewart, dreadfully. He repeated a part of the old League documents, in a whining tone, very much like a Church-of-England parson.

After him got up Mr. Weerth, of Rhenish Prussia. You know, I believe, this gentleman — a young tradesman whose poetry is well known and very much liked throughout Germany, and who, during several years’ stay in Yorkshire, was an eye-witness of the condition of the working people. He has a great many friends amongst them there, who will be glad to see that he has not forgotten them. As his speech will be to your readers the most interesting feature of the whole Congress, I shall report it at some length. He spoke as follows[2]:

“Gentlemen — You are discussing the influence of Free Trade upon the condition of the working classes. You profess the greatest possible sympathy for those classes. I am very glad of it, but yet I am astonished not to see a representative of the working classes amongst you! The monied classes of France are represented by a peer — those of England by several M.P.s. — those of Belgium by an ex-minister — and even those of Germany by a gentleman who gave us a faithful description of the state of that country. But where, I ask you, are the representatives of the working men? I see them nowhere; and, therefore, gentlemen, allow me to take up the defence of their interests. I beg to speak to you on behalf of the working people, and principally on behalf of those five millions of English working men, amongst whom I spent several of the most pleasant years of my life, whom I know and whom I cherish. (Cheers.) Indeed, gentlemen, the working people stand in need of some generosity. Hitherto they have not been treated like men, but like beasts of burden, nay — like merchandise, like machines; the English manufacturers know this so well, that they never say, we employ so many workmen, but so many hands. The monied classes, acting upon this principle, have never hesitated a moment to profit by their services as long as they require them, and then turn them out upon the streets, as soon as there is no longer any profit to be squeezed out of them. Thus the condition of these outcasts of modern society has become such, that it cannot be made worse. Look wherever you like; to the banks of the Rhone; into the dirty and pestilential lanes of Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham; on the hills of Saxony and Silesia, or the plains of Westphalia; everywhere you will meet with the same pale starvation, the same gloomy despair, in the eyes of men who in vain claim their rights and their position in civilised society.” (Great sensation.)

Mr. Weerth then declared his opinion to be, that the protective system in reality did not protect the working people, but that Free Trade — and he told it them plainly and distinctly, although he himself was a Free Trader — that Free Trade would never change their miserable condition. He did not at all join in the delusions of the Free Traders, as to the beneficial effects of the carrying out of their system upon the working classes. On the contrary, Free Trade, the full realisation of free competition, would force the working people as much into a keener competition amongst themselves as it would make capitalists compete more selfishly against each other. The perfect freedom of competition would inevitably give an enormous impulse to the invention of new machinery, and thus supersede more workmen than even now were daily superseded. It would stimulate production in every way, but for this very reason it would stimulate overproduction, overstocking of markets, and commercial revulsions, just in the same measure. The Free Traders pretended that those terrible revulsions would cease under a system of commercial freedom; why, just the contrary would be the case, they would increase and multiply more than ever. Possible, nay certain it was, that at first the greater cheapness of provisions would benefit the workpeople, — that a lessened cost of production would increase consumption and the demand for labour, but that advantage very soon would be turned into misery, the competition of the working people amongst themselves would soon reduce them to the former level of misery and starvation. After these and other arguments (which appeared to be quite novel to the meeting, for they were listened to with the greatest attention, although The Times reporter deigns to rid himself of them with the impudent but significant sneer — “Chartist commonplace” ["Free Trade Congress in Brussels” in The Times, September 20, 1847]), Mr. Weerth concluded as follows:

“And do not think, gentlemen, that these are but my individual opinions; they are the opinions, too, of the English working men, a class whom I cherish and respect, because they are intelligent and energetic men, indeed, (cheers, “by courtesy”) I shall prove that by a few facts. During full six years, the gentlemen of the League, whom we see here, courted the support of the working people, but in vain. The working men never forgot that the capitalists were their natural enemies; they recollected the League riots of 1842, [3] and the masters’ opposition against the Ten Hours Bill. It was only towards the end of 1845, that the Chartists, the Ante of the working classes, associated for a moment with the League, in order to crush their common enemy, the landed aristocracy. But it was for a moment only, and never were they deceived by the delusive promises of Cobden, Bright and Co., nor did they hope the fulfilment of cheap bread, high wages, and plenty to do. No, not for a moment did they cease to trust in their own exertions only; to form a distinct party, led on by distinct chiefs, by the indefatigable Duncombe, and by Feargus O'Connor, who, in spite of ail calumnies, — (here Mr. Weerth looked at Dr. Bowring, who made a quick, convulsive movement) — who, in spite of all calumnies, within a few weeks will sit upon the same bench with you in the House of Commons. [4] In the name, then, of those millions who do not believe that Free Trade will do wonders for them, I call upon you to seek for some other means to effectively better their condition. Gentlemen, I call upon you for your own interests. You have no longer to fear the Emperor of all the Russias; you dread not an invasion of Cossacks, but if you do not take care you will have to fear the irruption of your own workmen, and they will be more terrible to you than all the Cossacks in the world. Gentlemen, the workpeople want no more words from you, they want deeds. And you have no reason to be astonished at that. They recollect very well, that in 1830 and 31, when they conquered the Reform Bill for you in London, when they fought for you in the streets of Paris and Brussels, [5] that then they were courted, shaken hands with, and highly praised; but that when a few years after they demanded bread, then they were received with grape shot and the bayonet. (“Oh! no, no! yes, yes! Buzançais, Lyons.”)[6] I repeat, therefore, to you, carry your Free Trade, it will be well; but think, at the same time, about other measures for the working classes, or you will repent it.” (Loud cheers.)

Immediately after Mr. Weerth, up got Dr. Bowring to reply.

“Gentlemen,” said he, “I can tell you that the hon. member who has just sat down has not been elected by the English working people to represent them in this Congress. On the contrary, the English people generally have given us their suffrages for this purpose, and, therefore, we claim our places as their true representatives.”

He then went on to show the beneficial effects of Free Trade, as proved by the increased importation of articles of food into England since the introduction of last year’s tariff. [i.e., the lifting of heavy duties on imported corn in 1846] So many eggs, so many cwt. of butter, cheese, ham, bacon, so many heads of cattle, etc., etc.; who could have eaten all that if not the working people of England? He quite forgot, however, telling us what quantities of the same articles have been produced less in England since foreign competition has been admitted. He took it for granted that increased importation was a decisive proof of increased consumption. He never mentioned wherefrom the working people of Manchester, Bradford, and Leeds, who now walk the streets and cannot get work, wherefrom these men got the money to pay for this supposed increase of consumption and Free Trade comforts, for we never heard of the masters making them presents of eggs, butter, cheese, ham, and meat, for not working at all. He never said a word about the present depressed state of the trade, which in every public paper is represented as really unexampled. He seemed not to know that all the predictions of the Free Traders since the carrying of the measures have proved just the reverse of reality. He had not a word of sympathy for the sufferings of the working classes, but, on the contrary, represented their present gloomy condition as the brightest, happiest, and most comfortable they could reasonably desire.

The English working people, now, may choose betwixt their two representatives. A host of others followed, who spoke about every imaginable subject upon earth, except upon the one under discussion. Mr. M'Adam, M. P. for Belfast (?), spun an eternally long yarn upon flax-spinning in Ireland, and almost killed the meeting with statistics. Mr. Ackersdijk, a Dutch professor, spoke about Old Holland and Young Holland, the university of Liège, Walpole, and De Witt. M. Van de Casteele spoke about France, Belgium, and the ministry. M. Asher, of Berlin, about German patriotism and some new article he called spiritual manufacture. M. Den Tex, a Dutchman, about God knows what. At last, the whole meeting being half asleep, was awakened by M. Wolowski, who returned to the question and replied to Mr. Weerth. His speech, like all speeches delivered by Frenchmen, proved how much the French capitalists dread the fulfilment of Mr. Weerth’s prophecies; they speak with such pretended sympathy, such canting and whining of the sufferings of the working classes, that one might take it all for good earnest, were it not too flagrantly contradicted by the roundness of their bellies, by the stamp of hypocrisy deeply imprinted on their faces, by the pitiful remedies they propose and by the unmistakably striking contrast between their words and their deeds. Nor have they ever succeeded in deceiving one single working man. Then, up got the Duc d'Harcourt, peer of France, and claimed, too, for the French capitalists, deputies, etc., present the right of representing the French working people. They do so in the same way as Dr. Bowring represents the English Chartists. Then spoke Mr. James Wilson, repeating most brazen-facedly the most worn-out League arguments, in the drowsy tone of a Philadelphia Quaker.

You see from this, what a nice discussion it was. Dr. Marx, of Brussels, whom you know as by far the most talented representative of German Democracy, had also claimed his turn to speak. He had prepared a speech, which, if it had been delivered, would have made it impossible for the congressional “gents” to vote upon the question. But Mr. Weerth’s opposition had made them shy. They resolved to let none speak, of whose orthodoxy they were not quite sure. Thus, Messrs Wolowski, Wilson, and the whole precious lot spoke against time, and when it was four o'clock, there were still six or seven gentlemen who wanted to speak, but the chairman closed the discussion abruptly, and the whole set of fools, ignorants, and knaves called a congress of political economists, voted all votes against one (the poor German fool of a Protectionist aforesaid) — the Democrats did not vote at all — that Free Trade is extremely beneficial to the working people, and will free them from all misery and distress.

As Mr. Marx’s speech, although not delivered, contains the very best and most striking refutation of this barefaced lie, which can be imagined, and as its contents, in spite of so many hundred pages having been written pro and con upon the subject, will yet read quite novel in England, I enclose you some extracts from it.

Speech of Dr. Marx on Protection, Free Trade, and the Working Classes[edit source]

There are two sects of protectionists. The first sect, represented in Germany by Dr. List, who never intended to protect manual labour, on the contrary, they demanded protective duties in order to crush manual labour by machinery, to supersede patriarchal manufacture by modern manufacture. They always intended to prepare the reign of the monied classes (the bourgeoisie), and more particularly that of the large manufacturing capitalists. They openly proclaimed the ruin of petty manufacturers, of small tradesmen, and small farmers, as an event to be regretted, indeed, but quite inevitable, at the same time. The second school of protectionists, required not only protection, but absolute prohibition. They proposed to protect manual labour against the invasion of machinery, as well as against foreign competition. They proposed to protect by high duties, not only home manufactures, but also home agriculture, and the production of raw materials at home. And where did this school arrive at? At the prohibition, not only of the importation of foreign manufactured produce, but of the progress of the home manufacture itself. Thus the whole protective system inevitably got upon the horns of this dilemma. Either it protected the progress of home manufactures, and then it sacrificed manual labour, or it protected manual labour, and then it sacrificed home manufactures. Protectionists of the first sect, those who conceived the progress of machinery, of division of labour,, and of competition, to be irresistible, told the working classes, “At any rate if you are to be squeezed out, you had better be squeezed by your own countrymen, than by foreigners.” Will the working classes for ever bear with this? I think not. Those who produce all the wealth and comforts of the rich, will not be satisfied with that poor consolation. They will require more substantial comforts in exchange for substantial produce. But the protectionists say, “After all, we keep up the state of society as it is at present. We ensure to the working man, somehow or other, the employment he wants. We take care that he shall not be turned out of work in consequence of foreign competition.” So be it. Thus, in the best case, the protectionists avow that they are unable to arrive at anything better than the continuation of the status quo. Now the working classes want not the continuation of their actual condition, but a change for the better. A last refuge yet stands open to the protectionist. He will say that he is not at all adverse to social reform in the interior of a country, but that the first thing to ensure their success will be to shut out any derangement which might be caused by foreign competition. “My system,” he says, “is no system of social reform, but if we are to reform society, had we not better do so within our own country, before we talk about reforms in our relations with other countries?” Very specious, indeed, but under this plausible appearance, there is bid a very strange contradiction. The protectionist system, while it gives arms to the capital of a country against the capital of foreign countries, while it strengthens capital against foreigners, believes that this capital, thus armed, thus strengthened, will be weak, impotent, and feeble, when opposed to labour. Why, that would be appealing to the mercy of capital, as if capital, considered as such, could ever be merciful. Why, social reforms are never carried by the weakness of the strong, but always by the strength of the weak. But it is not at all necessary to insist on this point. From the moment the protectionists agree that social reforms do not necessarily follow from, and that they are not part and parcel of their system, but form quite a distinct question, from that moment they abandon the question, which we discuss. We may, therefore, leave them in order to review the effects of Free Trade upon the condition of the working classes. The problem: What will be the influence of the perfect unfettering of trade upon the situation of the working classes, is very easy to be resolved. It is not even a problem. If there is anything clearly exposed in political economy, it is the fate attending the working classes under the reign of Free Trade. All those laws developed in the classical works on political economy, are strictly true under the supposition only, that trade be delivered from all fetters, that competition be perfectly free, not only within a single country, but upon the whole face of the earth. These laws, which A. Smith, Say, and Ricardo have developed, the laws under which wealth is produced and distributed — these laws grow more true, more exact, then cease to be mere abstractions, in the same measure in which Free Trade is carried out. And the master ‘of the science, when treating of any economical subject, tells us every moment that all their reasonings are founded upon the supposition that all fetters, yet existing, are to be removed from trade. They are quite right in following this method. For they make no arbitrary abstractions, they only remove from their reasoning a series of accidental circumstances. Thus it can justly be said, that the economists — Ricardo and others — know more about society as it will be, than about society as it is. They know more about the future than about the present. If you wish to read in the book of the future, open Smith, Say, Ricardo. There you will find described, as clearly as possible, the condition which awaits the working man under the reign of perfect Free Trade. Take, for instance, the authority of Ricardo, authority than which there is no better. What is the natural normal price of the labour of, economically speaking, a working man? Ricardo replies, “Wages reduced to their minimum — their lowest level.” Labour is a commodity as well as any other commodity. [7] Now the price of a commodity is determined by the time necessary to produce it. What then is necessary to produce the commodity of labour? Exactly that which is necessary to produce the sum of commodities indispensable to the sustenance and the repairing of the wear and tear of the labourer, to enable him to live and to propagate, somehow or other, his race. We are, however, not to believe that the working man will never be elevated above this lowest level, nor that he never will be depressed below it. No, according to this law, the working classes will be for a time more happy, they will have for a time more than the minimum, but this surplus will be the supplement only for what they will have less than the minimum at another time, the time of industrial stagnation. That is to say, that during a certain space of time, which is always periodical, in which trade passes through the circle of prosperity, overproduction, stagnation, crisis — that, taking the average of what the labourer received more, and what he received less, than the minimum, we shall find that on the whole he will have received neither more or less than the minimum; or, in other words, that the working class, as a class, will have conserved itself, after many miseries, many sufferings, and many corpses left upon the industrial battle field. But what matters, that? The class exists, and not only it exists, but it will have increased. This law, that the lowest level of wages is the natural price of the commodity of labour, will realise itself in the same measure with Ricardo’s supposition that Free Trade will become a reality. We accept every thing that has been said of the advantages of Free Trade. The powers of production will increase, the tax imposed upon the country by protective duties will disappear, all commodities will be sold at a cheaper price. And what, again, says Ricardo? “That labour being equally a commodity, will equally sell at a cheaper price” — that you will have it for very little money indeed, just as you will have pepper and salt. And then, in the same way as all other laws of political economy will receive an increased force, a surplus of truth, by the realisation of Free Trade — in the same way the law of population, as exposed by Malthus, will under the reign of Free Trade develop itself in as fine dimensions as can possibly be desired. Thus you have to choose: Either you must disavow the whole of political economy as it exists at present, or you must allow that under the freedom of trade the whole severity of the laws of political economy will be applied to the working classes. Is that to say that we are against Free Trade? No, we are for Free Trade, because by Free Trade all economical laws, with their most astounding contradictions, will act upon a larger scale, upon a greater extent of territory, upon the territory of the whole earth; and because from the uniting of all these contradictions into a single group, where they stand face to face, will result the struggle which will itself eventuate in the emancipation of the proletarians.

  1. The reference is to the Repeal of the Corn Laws passed in June 1846. (On the Corn Laws see Note 28.) The movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws was led by the Anti-Corn Law League founded in 1838 by the Manchester manufacturers Cobden and Bright. Acting under the slogan of unrestricted free trade the League fought to weaken the economic and political position of the landed aristocracy and at the same time to reduce workers’ wages.
  2. The full text of Weerth’s speech (Engels quotes parts of it word for word, and gives a free account of others) was published in a number of newspapers, in particular, in French (the language in which it was delivered) in the Atelier Démocratique and in German in Die Ameise (Grimma) on October 15, 1847. The text published in Die Ameise is reproduced in the book: Georg Weerth, Sämtliche Werke, Zweiter Band, Berlin, 1956, S. 128-33. In some places the text differs from the passages cited by Engels. Apparently Engels recorded facts more exactly; in particular, in the first passage cited by him he corrected the number of the English proletariat (5 million instead of 3 million as in Weerth), and in the second passage the date on which the Chartists concluded an agreement with the free traders (1845 instead of 1843)
  3. The reference is to provocations on the part of the Anti-Corn Law League which sought to use for its own ends the workers’ unrest in the industrial districts of England in August 1842. (On the general strike of 1842 see Note 10.) The free traders encouraged the workers’ action during the first stage of the strike hoping to direct their movement towards the struggle for the repeal of the Corn Laws. However, the independent class and political character which this strike assumed as it became general led to the direct and active participation of the free trade bourgeoisie. in suppressing the movement. p. 2 8,7)
  4. The address of the Brussels Communist Correspondence Committee to the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor was written in connection with his victory at the Nottingham election meeting early in July 1846, when he stood for erection to the House of Commons. Voting at such meetings (up to 1872) was by show of hands, and all present took part in it. However, only “legitimate” electors (those having property and other qualifications) could take part in subsequent ballot — in which, consequently, candidates who had been outvoted by show of hands could be declared elected. Despite this anti-democratic system, O'Connor was duly elected to Parliament at the August 1847 ballot. The address of the Brussels Communists was read at a regular meeting of the Fraternal Democrats held on July 20, 1846 and was warmly received there (see The Northern Star No. 454, July 25, 1846).
  5. This refers to the movement for Parliamentary reform in England in 1830-31, to the July revolution of 1830 in France and the revolution of 1830-31 in Belgium which led to the separation of Belgium from Holland
  6. The reference is to the brutal suppression of workers’ risings in Lyons in 1831 and 1834 and to atrocities perpetrated by government troops against starving workers in Buzançais (Indre Department) who had looted corn shipments and storehouses belonging to profiteers early in 1847
  7. In their works of the 1840s and 1850s, prior to Marx having worked out the theory of surplus value, Marx and Engels used the terms “value of labour”, “price of labour”, “sale of labour” which, as Engels noted in 1891 in the introduction to Marx’s pamphlet Wage Labour and Capital, “from the point of view of the later works were inadequate and even wrong”. After he had proved that the worker sells to the capitalist not his labour but his labour power Marx used more precise terms. In later works Marx and Engels used the terms “value of labour power”, “price of labour power”, “sale of labour power”