Frederick Engels

The Internal Crises

Written: on November 30, 1842;
First published: in the Rheinische Zeitung Nos. 343 and 344, December 9 and 10, 1842;
Marked with the sign ‘x’;
Source: MECW Volume 2;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

Rheinische Zeitung No. 343, December 9, 1842

London, November 30. Is a revolution in England possible or even probable? This is the question on which the future of England depends. Put it to an Englishman and he will give you a thousand excellent reasons to prove that there can be no question at all of a revolution. He will tell you that at the moment certainly England is in a critical situation, but thanks to her wealth, her industry and her institutions, she has the ways and means to extricate herself without violent upheavals., that her constitution is sufficiently flexible to withstand the heaviest blows caused by the struggle over principles and can, without danger to its foundations, submit to all the changes forced on it by circumstances. He will tell you that even the lowest class of the nation is well aware that it only stands to lose by a revolution, since every disturbance of the public order can only result in a slow-down in business and hence general unemployment and starvation. In short, he will offer you so many clear and convincing reasons that finally you will believe things are really not so very bad in England, and that people on the Continent are indulging in all kinds of fantasies about the situation of this state, which will burst like soap-bubbles in face of obvious reality and a closer acquaintance with the facts. And this is the only possible opinion if one adopts the national English standpoint of the most immediate practice, of material interests, i. e., if one ignores the motivating idea, forgets the basis because of the surface appearance, and fails to see the wood for the trees. There is one thing that is self-evident in Germany, but which the obstinate Briton cannot be made to understand, namely, that the so-called material interests can never operate in history as independent, guiding aims, but always, consciously or unconsciously, serve a principle which controls the threads of historical progress. It is therefore impossible that a state like England, which by virtue of its political exclusiveness and self-sufficiency has finally come to lag some centuries behind the Continent, a state which sees only arbitrary rule in freedom and is up to the neck in the Middle Ages, that such a state should not eventually come into conflict with the intellectual progress that has been made in the meantime. Or is that not the picture of the political situation in England? Is there any other country in the world where feudalism retains such enduring power and where it remains immune from attack not only in actual fact, but also in public opinion? Is the much-vaunted English freedom anything but the purely formal right to act or not to act, as one sees fit, within the existing legal limits? And what laws they are! A chaos of confused, mutually contradictory regulations, which have reduced jurisprudence to pure sophistry, which are never observed by courts of law since they are not in accord with our times; regulations which allow an honest man to be branded as a criminal for the most innocent behaviour, as long as public opinion and its sense of justice sanctioned it. Is not the House of Commons a corporation alien to the people, elected by means of wholesale bribery? Does not Parliament continually trample underfoot the will of the people? Has public opinion on general questions the slightest influence on the government? Is not its power restricted merely to isolated cases, to control over the courts of law and administration? These are all things which even the most obdurate Englishman cannot totally deny, and can such a state of things persist?

But let us leave aside questions of principle. In England, at any rate among the parties which are now contending for power, among the Whigs and Tories, people know nothing of struggles over principles and are concerned only with conflicts of material interests. It is only fair, therefore, to do justice to this aspect as well. England is by nature a poor country which, apart from her geographical position, her iron and coal mines and some lush pasture-land, has no fertility or other natural riches. She is, therefore, entirely dependent on trade, shipping and industry, and through them she has succeeded in rising to her present heights. By the very nature of things, however, a country which has adopted this course can remain at the heights it has reached only by constantly increasing industrial output; any halt here would be a step backward.

Further, a natural consequence of the premises of the industrial state is that, in order to protect the source of its wealth, it has to keep out the industrial products of other countries by means of prohibitive import duties. But since the home industry raises the prices of its products in step with the import duties on foreign products, this makes it necessary also to increase import duties constantly, in order that foreign competition shall continue to be eliminated, in accordance with the accepted principle. Hence the result would be a two-sided process going on to infinity, and this alone reveals the contradiction inherent in the concept of the industrial state. But we do not need these philosophical categories to show the contradictions in which England is enmeshed. Other people besides the English industrialists have something to say on the question of the two kinds of increase — production and import duties — that we have just considered. In the first place, there are the foreign countries, which have their own industry and do not need to turn themselves into an outlet for English products; and then there are the English consumers, who refuse to reconcile themselves to this endless increase in import duties. That is precisely how matters stand as regards the development of the industrial state in England. Foreign countries do not want English products since they themselves produce what they need, while English consumers unanimously demand the abolition of the protective tariffs. From the above, it is clear that England is caught in a twofold dilemma which the industrial state as such is incapable of solving; this is also confirmed by direct observation of the existing state of affairs.

First of all, on the question of import duties, it is admitted even in England that the lower grades of almost all types of goods are produced better and more cheaply by German and French factories; the same holds good for numerous other commodities where the English lag behind the Continent. If the system of protective tariffs were abolished, England would immediately be flooded with them, and English industry would thereby be dealt a fatal blow. On the other hand, the export of machinery from England is freely permitted at present, and since England so far has no rivals in the manufacture of machinery, the Continent, with the help of English machines, is becoming increasingly capable of competing against England. Further, the system of protective tariffs has undermined England’s state revenue, and for this reason alone the tariffs must be abolished. Is there any way out of this situation for the industrial state?

Rheinische Zeitung No. 344, December 10, 1842

As regards the market for English products, Germany and France have stated sufficiently clearly that they are no longer ready to sacrifice their own industry to please England. German industry especially has in any case made such progress that it has nothing to fear from English industry. The continental market is lost for- England. Only America and her own colonies remain for her, and only in the latter is she safeguarded against foreign competition by her navigation laws. [181] But the colonies are far from being large enough to consume all the products of England’s immense industry, while everywhere else English industry is being increasingly ousted by the German and French. The blame for this, of course, does not lie with English industry, but with the system of protective tariffs, which has made the prices of all prime necessity s, and with them wages, disproportionately high. But these wages also make the prices of English products extremely high compared with those of continental industry. Thus, England cannot escape the necessity of restricting her industry. But this is as little realisable as the transition from the system of protective tariffs to free trade. For although industry makes a country rich, it also creates a class of unpropertied, absolutely poor people, a class which lives from hand to mouth, which multiplies rapidly, and which cannot afterwards be abolished, because it can never acquire stable possession of property. And a third, almost a half, of all English people belong to this class. The slightest stagnation in trade deprives a considerable part of this class of their bread, a large-scale trade crisis leaves the whole class without bread. When such a situation occurs, what is there left for these people to do but to revolt? By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact.

So far it is not conscious of the fact. The English proletarian is only just becoming aware of his power, and the fruits of this awareness were the disturbances of last summer. [182] The nature of these disturbances was quite misunderstood on the Continent. At any rate, people wondered whether the matter might not take a serious turn. But there was no question of that for anyone who saw the events on the spot. In the first place, the whole thing was based on an illusion; because a few factory owners wanted to reduce wages, all the workers in the cotton, coal and iron areas thought that their position was endangered, which was not the case at all. Moreover, the whole affair was unprepared, unorganised and without leadership. The strikers had no definite aim, still less were they united on the nature and method of the action to be taken. Hence, at the slightest resistance on the part of the authorities they became irresolute and unable to overcome their respect for the law. When the Chartists took over the leadership of the movement and proclaimed the People’s Charter to the assembled crowds, it was already too late. The only guiding idea vaguely present in the minds of the workers, and of the Chartists as well, with whom it had, in effect, originated, was that of revolution by legal means — in itself a contradiction, a practical impossibility — in their efforts to achieve which they failed. The very first measure jointly undertaken by all — stopping the factories — was forcible and illegal. In view of the inconsistent character of the whole undertaking, it would have been suppressed at the very outset if the administration, for whom it came as a complete surprise, had not been equally irresolute and resourceless. Nevertheless, insignificant military and police forces sufficed to hold the people in check. In Manchester one saw thousands of workers trapped in the squares by four or five dragoons, each of whom blocked one of the exits. The “legal revolution” had paralysed everything. Thus the whole thing fizzled out; every worker returned to work as soon as his savings were used up and he had no more to eat. However, the dispossessed have gained something useful from these events: the realisation that a revolution by peaceful means is impossible and that only a forcible abolition of the existing unnatural conditions, a radical overthrow of the nobility and industrial aristocracy, can improve the material position of the proletarians. They are still held back from this violent revolution by the Englishman’s inherent respect for the law; but in view of England’s position described above there cannot fail to be a general lack of food among the workers before long, and then fear of death from starvation will be stronger than fear of the law. This revolution is inevitable for England, but as in everything that happens there, it will be interests and not principles that will begin and carry through the revolution; principles can develop only from interests, that is to say, the revolution will be social, not political.