Speech in Elberfeld

Blanca Alaníz, series Día de los muertos en La Merced number 3, Analog photography, Mexico City, 2021.


Excerpt from the recently edited book “Outline for a Critique of Political Economy and Other Youth Texts”


At our last meeting I was criticized for having taken my examples and my proofs almost exclusively from foreign countries, mainly from England. They said that France and England have nothing to do with us, that we live in Germany and that it is our business to prove the necessity and excellence of communism to Germany. At the same time, we were criticized for not having made the historical necessity of communism clear enough.

This is entirely correct and we could not proceed otherwise. It is not possible to prove a historical necessity in as short a time as it takes to demonstrate the congruence of two triangles; it can only be proved by studying and delving into broad assumptions. However, today I want to make my contribution to undoing these two criticisms; I will try to prove that communism – if it is not a historical necessity – is an economic necessity for Germany.

Let us first examine the current social situation in Germany. It is common knowledge that there is a lot of poverty among us. Silesia and Bohemia spoke for themselves. With regard to poverty in the region around the Moselle and in the Eifel mountain region, the Rheinische Zeitung already reported something. In the Metalliferous Mountains [Erzgebirge] Great misery reigns from time immemorial. The situation is no better in the Senne region and in the flax-producing districts of Westphalia. Complaints come from all parts of Germany, and you wouldn't expect anything else. Our proletariat is numerous and must be so, as we will necessarily see from the most superficial analysis of our social situation.

It is in the nature of the thing that in industrial districts there must be a large proletariat. Industry cannot subsist without a large number of workers who are entirely at its disposal, who work exclusively for it and renounce any and all other livelihoods; in a state of competition, industrial occupation precludes any other occupation. That is why, in all industrial districts, we find a proletariat too numerous, too evident to be denied.

– On the other hand, many people claim that, in the agricultural districts, there would be no proletariat. But how is this possible? In regions where large landholdings predominate, such a proletariat is necessary, the large economies need serfs and serfs, they cannot subsist without proletarians. In regions where large estates are parceled out, it is also not possible to avoid the emergence of a dispossessed class; the properties are parceled out up to a certain point and, thereafter, the parceling ceases; and as only one of the family will be able to assume the property, the others will become proletarians, workers without possessions. In such cases, subdivision usually advances to the point where the property is too small to feed a family, and then a class of people is formed which, like the middle class in cities, constitutes the transition between the possessing class and the poor. dispossessed class, prevented from taking up another occupation by its possession, and yet unable to live on it. In this class, too, great misery reigns.

This proletariat will necessarily increase, which is confirmed for us by the growing impoverishment of the middle classes, about which I spoke at length eight days ago, and by the tendency of capital to concentrate in few hands. I certainly don't need to go back to these points today and only observe that those causes that continually generate and multiply the proletariat will remain the same and will bring about the same consequences as long as there is competition.

Under all circumstances the proletariat will not only necessarily continue to exist, but will also continually expand, becoming an ever more threatening power in our society, as long as we continue to produce each on its own and in opposition to the others. However, the proletariat will reach a stage of power and understanding in which it will no longer tolerate the weight of the entire social edifice resting permanently on its shoulders, in which it will demand a more homogeneous distribution of burdens and social rights; and then – if human nature does not change by then – it will no longer be possible to avoid a social revolution.

This question has not even been addressed by our economists. They are not concerned with distribution, but only with the generation of national wealth. However, let's abstract for a moment from the fact that, as we have seen, a social revolution is itself a consequence of competition; let us examine the individual forms in which competition takes place, the different economic possibilities for Germany, and see what the necessary consequence of each is.

Germany, or rather the German Customs Union, currently has a tariff of the type juste-milieu. Our tariffs are too low to be protective tariffs and too high to allow free trade. Thus, three possibilities are presented: either we start to adopt full freedom of trade, or we protect our industry with sufficient tariffs, or we maintain the current system. Let's check each case.

If we proclaim freedom of trade and repeal our tariffs, all our industry, with the exception of a few branches, would be ruined. In that case, there would be no more of our cotton spinning, mechanical weaving, most branches of the cotton and wool industry, important branches of the silk industry, almost all of the extraction and processing of iron. Workers who would suddenly lose their livelihood in all these branches would throw themselves en masse upon agriculture and the ruins of industry, pauperism would everywhere spring up from the ground, the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few would be accelerated by this crisis, and, judging by the events in Silesia, the consequence of this crisis would be a social revolution.

Or we institute protective tariffs. These have recently become the center of attention of most of our industrialists and, therefore, deserve a closer analysis. Mr. List systematized the wishes of our capitalists, and I will stick to that system adopted as a credo by almost all of them. Mr. List proposes gradually increasing protective tariffs that eventually reach a level high enough to secure the domestic market for manufacturers; tariffs will remain for a while at this high level and then, gradually, they will be reduced again, so that finally, after a series of years, all protection ceases. Suppose that plan is carried out, that rising customs duties are enacted.

Industry will rise, idle capital will pour into industrial enterprises, the demand for workers will grow and with it wages will rise, the shelters of the poor will empty, and everything will point to the beginning of a flourishing economy. This will last until our industry has expanded enough to supply the domestic market. Furthermore, it will not be able to expand, because as it cannot secure either the market internal without protection, it will achieve nothing in neutral markets against foreign competition. This is the moment, in Mr List's opinion, when the domestic industry will already be strong enough to be able to afford such protection, and the reduction [of tariffs] could begin.

Let's grant that for a moment. Rates are reduced. If this does not happen in the first tariff reduction, in the second or third, the protection will certainly reach such a low level that the foreign industry, let's say the English industry, will be able to compete with ours in the German market. Mr List wants just that. But what will be the consequences of this? From that moment on, German industry will have to endure all the fluctuations and crises of British industry.

As soon as the overseas markets are saturated with English goods, the English will do what they are doing now, and which Mr List describes so excitingly, namely, they will dump all their stocks on the German market as it is the most accessible. and, thus, they will convert the Customs Union into their “baubles warehouse”. English industry will soon recover, because it will have the whole world as a market and because the whole world will not be able to do without it, while German industry will not be indispensable even for its market and will have to fear competition from the English in its own home, suffering from the excess of English goods offered to its consumers during the crisis.

Then our industry will have to suck up to the last drop all the bad periods of English industry, while it will be able to participate only modestly in its periods of glory - in short, we will be at the same point where we are now. And, to get to the bottom line right away, there will be the same depressed state in which the semi-protected branches now find themselves, then one establishment after another will fail without new ones arising, our machines will become obsolete without our being able to replace them with new ones. and better, standstill will turn into retrogression, and, as Mr List himself asserts, one branch of industry after another will deteriorate and finally disappear. But then we will have a numerous proletariat created by industry, a proletariat deprived of its livelihood, its work; and then, gentlemen, this proletariat will demand that the possessing class provide it with work and feed it.

This is what will happen if protective tariffs are reduced. Let's assume that they are not reduced, that they remain as they are, waiting for competition among domestic manufacturers to make them illusory so that they then decrease. The consequence of this will be this: German industry will stop as soon as it is able to completely supply the internal market. New establishments will not be necessary, as existing ones will be sufficient to supply the market, and new markets, as already stated, are out of the question as long as protection is needed.

However, an industry that no longer expands cannot improve either. It will park both outside and inside. The improvement of machinery will not exist for her. You will not be able to throw away the old machines and you will not find establishments that can make use of the new ones. Meanwhile, other nations will move forward and the paralysis of our industry will represent yet another setback.

Soon the English will be enabled by their progress to produce so cheaply that they will be able to compete in our market with our backward industry. although protection tariffs and, given that, in the war of competition, as in any war, the strongest wins, our definitive defeat is certain. Then the situation will be the same as I described a moment ago: the artificially generated proletariat will demand of the haves something that they cannot do as long as they want to remain exclusively possessors, and there will be the social revolution. Now there is still a possibility, namely the very unlikely case that we Germans will succeed, with the help of protective tariffs, in making our industry capable of competing against the unprotected British.

Let's assume that this happens; what will be the consequence of this? As soon as we begin to compete with the British in foreign, neutral markets, a life-or-death war will break out between our industry and British industry. The English will do what they can to keep us out of the markets hitherto supplied by them; they will have to because they are being attacked at their very source of life, at their most vulnerable point. And with all the means at their disposal, with all the advantages of a centuries-old industry, they will be able to defeat us.

They will keep our industry restricted to our market and make it parked there – then the same thing that was explained just now will happen: we will park, the English will advance and our industry, in its inevitable decay, will not be able to feed the proletariat. artificially generated; there will be social revolution.

Supposing, however, that we manage to beat the British in neutral markets, appropriating their outlets, one by one; what would we have gained in this practically impossible case? At best, we would take the same industrial path that England took before us, and sooner or later we would arrive at the point where England finds itself now, namely, on the eve of a social revolution. But chances are it wouldn't take that long. The constant victories of German industry would necessarily ruin English industry, which would only accelerate the impending massive uprising of the proletariat against the English possessing classes.

The shortage of food that would quickly set in would drive the English workers to revolution and, as things are now, such a social revolution would have tremendous repercussions in the countries of the continent, especially in France and Germany, which would be even stronger if an artificial proletariat had been generated by the intensified industry in Germany. Such a revolution would soon assume European dimensions and unkindly upset our manufacturers' dreams of an industrial monopoly from Germany.

But the possibility of English and German industry existing side by side is already precluded by the principle of competition. I repeat that every industry has to move forward so as not to be left behind and disappear; it needs to expand, conquer new markets, and, in order to move forward, it needs to be continuously incremented through new establishments. However, given that, since the opening of China, new markets have not been conquered, only existing ones have been explored better, that is, given that in the future the expansion of the industry will be slower than until now, from now on England will be able to tolerate a far less competitor than has been the case until now. To protect its industry from decline, it needs to curb the industry of every other country; for England, securing an industrial monopoly ceased to be a question of more or less profit and became a question of survival.

In any case, the war of competition between nations is already much more violent, much more decisive than the war between individuals, because it is a concentrated war, a mass war, which can only end with the complete victory of one part and the complete defeat of the other. For that very reason, such a war between us and the British, whatever the result, would not be advantageous either for our industrialists or for the British, but, as I explained a moment ago, would only bring about a social revolution.

Gentlemen, accordingly, we have seen what Germany can expect both from commercial freedom and from the system of protection in all possible cases. We would still have an economic possibility, namely, maintaining the customs tariffs of the juste-milieu currently in effect. But we saw earlier what the consequences of this would be. Our industry would inevitably succumb, branch after branch, the workers in industry would lose their livelihood, and when the shortage of bread reached a certain degree, they would launch into a revolution against the possessing classes.

Therefore, you see confirmation, also in detail, of what I explained at the beginning, starting from competition in general, namely, that the inevitable consequence of the social relations prevailing between us, under all conditions and in all cases, will be a social revolution. With the same certainty with which, from established mathematical principles, we can develop a new theorem, we can also deduce from the prevailing economic relations and from the principles of political economy an imminent social revolution.

However, let's take a closer look at this revolution: in what form will it take place, what will its results be, how will it differ from the violent revolutions that have occurred so far? A social revolution, gentlemen, is something quite different from the political revolutions we've had up to now; it does not turn, like the latter, against monopoly property, but against the monopoly of property; a social revolution, gentlemen, is a frank war of the poor against the rich. And a war like this, in which all the impulses and all the causes come into play frankly and openly which, in the historical conflicts we have hitherto had, have obscurely and covertly formed their basis, a war like this actually threatens to be more violent and bloodier than all its predecessors.

The result of this war could be twofold. Either the party that rebels attacks only the appearance and not the essence, only the form and not the thing itself, or it aims at the thing itself and attacks the evil at the root. In the first case, private property will continue to exist and will only be distributed differently, so that the causes that brought about the present state of affairs will continue to exist and, sooner or later, will necessarily return to bring about a similar state of affairs and a new revolution. . But, gentlemen, would that be possible?

Where is a revolution that has not really imposed the principle from which it started? The English Revolution imposed both the religious and political principles that led Charles I to fight them; the French bourgeoisie, in its war against the nobility and the old monarchy, conquered everything it wanted, put an end to all the abuses that led it to revolt. And should the revolt of the poor cease before abolishing poverty and its causes? This is not possible, gentlemen, as to assume such a thing would be contrary to all historical experience. The worker's level of education, especially in England and France, does not allow us to admit this possibility either.

There is nothing left but the alternative, namely, that the future social revolution will also attack the real causes of want and poverty, of inscience and crime, and that it will therefore implement real social reform. And this can only happen through the proclamation of the communist principle. Just observe, gentlemen, the ideas that move the worker in countries where the worker also thinks; look at the different factions of the workers' movement in France and tell me if they are not all communists; go to England and listen to the proposals that are made to the workers to improve their situation and tell me if they are not all based on the principle of community property; study the different systems of social reform and see how many of those you find are not communists?

Of all the systems that still have some importance today, the only non-communist is that of Fourier, who turned his attention more to the social organization of human activity than to the distribution of its products. All these facts justify the conclusion that a future social revolution will end in the execution of the communist principle and hardly admit any other possibility.

If these inferences are correct, gentlemen, the social revolution and practical communism will be the necessary result of the prevailing relations - therefore, we will have to deal, first of all, with the measures that will allow to avoid a violent and bloody revolution of the social conditions . And there is only one way to do this, namely the peaceful introduction or at least the preparation of communism. Therefore, if we do not want the bloody solution of the social problem, if we do not want the ever-increasing contradiction between the formation and living conditions of our proletarians to reach its climax, in which, according to all the experiences we have of human nature, the what will resolve this contrast is brutality, despair and the thirst for revenge, then, gentlemen, we must deal seriously and without prejudice with the social question; so we have to make it our business to contribute to the humanization of the situation of modern helots.

And if perhaps, to some of you, it may seem that the elevation of the social condition of the hitherto humiliated classes could not happen without the lowering of their living conditions, consider that it is a matter of creating this living condition for all human beings, that everyone can freely develop their human nature, live with their neighbor in humanized relationships, without having to fear a violent shock to their living conditions; consider that what some individuals will have to sacrifice is not the truly human enjoyment of life, but only the appearance of enjoyment of life generated by our perverse conditions, something that goes against the very reason and the very heart of those who now rejoice in these apparent prerogatives .

In no way do we want to destroy truly human life with all its conditioning and needs, so much so that, on the contrary, we want to establish it as such. And if you, even apart from that, just want to consider what our current state of affairs will inevitably lead to, what labyrinth of contradictions and disorders it will lead us to, then you will certainly consider that it is worth studying the social question seriously and deep. And if I can motivate them to do that, the purpose of my talk will have been fully achieved.

*Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), socialist/communist theorist and activist, is the author, among other books of The origin of the family, private property and the state (Boitempo).



Friedrich Engels. Outline for a Critique of Political Economy and Other Youth Texts. Translation: Nélio Schneider. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 292 pages.


See this link for all articles