Karl Marx

The Protectionists, The Free Traders and the Working Class [116]

Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 279;
Written: in the second half of September 1847;
First published: in Zwei Reden über die Freihandels- und Schutzzollfrage von Karl Marx, 1848.

The protectionists have never protected small industry, handicraft proper. Have Dr. List and his school in Germany by any chance demanded protective tariffs for the small linen industry, for hand loom-weaving, for handicraft production? No, when they demanded protective tariffs they did so only in order to oust handicraft production with machines and patriarchal industry with modern industry. In a word, they wish to extend the dominion of the bourgeoisie, and in particular of the big industrial capitalists. They went so far as to proclaim aloud the decline and fall of small industry and the petty bourgeoisie, of small farming and the small peasants, as a sad but inevitable and, as far as the industrial development of Germany is concerned, necessary occurrence.

Besides the school of Dr. list there exists in Germany, the land of schools, yet another school, which demands not merely a system of protective tariffs, but a system of import prohibition proper. The leader of this school, Herr v. Gülich, has written a very scholarly history of industry and trade, which has also been translated into French. Herr v. Gülich is a sincere philanthropist; he is in earnest with regard to protecting handicraft production and national labour. Well now! What did he do? He began by refuting Dr. List, proved that in List’s system the welfare of the working class is only a sham and a pretence, a ringing piece of hollow rhetoric, and then, for his part, he made the following proposals:

1. To prohibit the importation of foreign manufactured products;

2. to place very heavy import duties on raw materials originating abroad, like cotton, silk etc., etc., in order to protect wool and nationally produced linen;

3. likewise on colonial products, in order to replace sugar, coffee, indigo, cochineal, valuable timbers etc., etc., with national products;

4. to place high taxes on nationally produced machines, in order to protect handicraft production against the machine.

It is evident that Herr v. Gülich is a man who accepts the system with all its consequences. And what does this lead to? Not merely preventing the entry of foreign industrial products, but also hindering the progress of national industry.

Herr List and Herr v. Gülich form the limits between which the system moves. If it wishes to protect industrial progress, then it at once sacrifices handicraft production, labour; if it wishes to protect labour, then industrial progress is sacrificed.

Let us return to the protectionists proper, who do not share the illusions of Herr v. Gülich.

If they speak consciously and openly to the working class, then they summarise their philanthropy in the following words: It is better to be exploited by one’s fellow-countrymen than by foreigners.

I do not think the working class will be for ever satisfied with this solution, which, it must be confessed, is indeed very patriotic, but nonetheless a little too ascetic and spiritual for people whose only occupation consists in the production of riches, of material wealth.

But the protectionists will say: “So when all is said and done we at least preserve the present state of society. Good or bad, we guarantee the labourer work for his hands, and prevent his being thrown on to the street by foreign competition.” I shall not dispute this statement, I accept it. The preservation, the conservation of the present state of affairs is accordingly the best result the protectionists can achieve in the most favourable circumstances. Good, but the problem for the working class is not to preserve the present state of affairs, but to transform it into its opposite.

The protectionists have one last refuge. They say that their system makes no claim to be a means of social reform, but that it is nonetheless necessary to begin with social reforms in one’s own country, before one embarks on economic reforms internationally. After the protective system has been at first reactionary, then conservative, it finally becomes conservative-progressive. It will suffice to point out the contradiction lurking in this theory, which at first sight appears to have something seductive, practical and rational to it. A strange contradiction! The system of protective tariffs places in the hands of the capital of one country the weapons which enable it to defy the capital of other countries; it increases the strength of this capital in opposition to foreign capital, and at the same time it deludes itself that the very same means will make that same capital small and weak in opposition to the working class. In the last analysis that would mean appealing to the philanthropy of capital, as though capital as such could be a philanthropist. In general, social reforms can never be brought about by the weakness of the strong; they must and will be called to life by the strength of the weak.

Incidentally, we have no need to detain ourselves with this matter. From the moment the protectionists concede that social reforms have no place in their system and are not a result of it, and that they form a special question — from this moment on they have already abandoned the social question. I shall accordingly leave the protectionists aside and speak of Free Trade in its relationship to the condition of the working class.