Works of Frederick Engels 1849

Letters From France

Source: MECW Volume 10, p. 17-20;
Written: Paris, December 20th, 1849;
First published: in The Democratic Review in January 1850.

When publishing the series of articles Letters from France the editor of The Democratic Review, Harney, tried to present them as reports received directly from Paris. At the same time, the articles were based not only on French material, but on British press reports and other information (private letters to Engels from Paris, and reports by a member of the Communist League, Ferdinand Wolff, who had been expelled from Paris and came to London in December 1849).

The fourth letter of the series was written by Engels while Marx was working on the third chapter of The Class Struggles in France (March 1850), which appeared in instalments in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Politisch-okonomische Revue. The facts and appraisal of the events given in Letters from France often coincide with what Marx wrote about France in The Class Struggles (the footnotes give references to relevant places), in the third international review (see this volume, pp. 507-09 and 516-25) and later in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (present edition, Vol. 11). Coincidence of thought and of approach testifies to the fact that Letters from France reflected Marx's and Engels' common point of view. The numbers of the letters have been supplied by the editors of this edition.

The great question of the day is the excise upon "potable liquors" now under discussion in the National Legislative Assembly. This question is of such importance, and contains, in fact, in itself, so much of the whole present situation, that it will not be amiss to devote to it the whole of this letter.

The tax on potable liquors is of very old date. It formed one of the principal features of the financial system under the monarchy of the eighteenth century, and one of the main grievances of the people at the time of the first revolution. It was done away with by that revolution. But Napoleon restored it in a somewhat modified shape about the year 1808, at a time when, forgetting his revolutionary origin, he made the establishment of his dynasty in the midst of the ancient European royal families, his principal aim. The tax was so exceedingly obnoxious to the people, that at the downfall of Napoleon, the Bourbon family promised its immediate repeal, and Napoleon himself, at St. Helena, declared it had been that tax more than anything else which caused his fall, by setting against him the whole of the South of France. The Bourbons, however, never thought of redeeming their promise, and the tax remained as before up to the revolution of 1830, when, again, its abolition was held out to the country. This promise was no more fulfilled than the preceding one; and thus the excise existed when the revolution of 1848 broke out. The provisional government,[27] instead of immediately repealing it and substituting for it a heavy income-tax upon the large capitalists and landed proprietors, only promised either its repeal, or at least its revision; the Constituent Assembly even went so far as to continue the tax altogether. It was only in the last days of its existence, when royalism was rifer than ever, that the "honest" and "moderate" members of that Assembly voted the repeal of the tax on potable liquors, to take effect from the 1st of January, 1850.

It is clear that the tax in question belongs essentially to the monarchical traditions of France. Repealed as soon as the mass of the people got the upper hand, it was restored as soon as either the aristocracy or the Bourgeoisie, represented by a Louis XVIII or a Louis Philippe, held the reins of government. Even Napoleon, though in many points opposed to both aristocracy and Bourgeoisie, and overthrown by the conspiracy of both--even the great Emperor thought himself obliged to re-establish this feature of the ancient traditions of Monarchical France.

The tax in itself weighs very unequally upon the different classes of the nation. It is a grievous burden upon the poor, while upon the rich the pressure is exceedingly light. There are about twelve millions of wine-producers in France; these pay nothing upon their consumption of wine, it being of their own growing; there are, further, eighteen millions of people inhabiting villages and towns under 4,000 inhabitants, and paying a tax from 66 centimes to 1 fr. 32 centimes per 100 litres of wine; and there are, finally, some five millions inhabiting towns of more than 4,000 inhabitants, and paying upon their wine the droit d'octroi,[28] levied at the gate of the town, and varying in the different localities, but at all events incomparably higher than what is paid by the preceding class. The tax, further, falls quite as heavy upon the most inferior as upon the higher-priced wines; the hectolitre which sells at 2, 3, 4 francs, and the one sold at 12 to 1,500 fr., both pay the same tax; and thus, while the rich consumer of choice champagne, claret, and Burgundy, pays almost nothing, the working man pays to the government upon his inferior wine a tax of 50, 100, and, in some cases, 500 or 1,000 per cent upon the original value. Of the revenue derived by this tax, 51 millions of francs are paid by the poorer classes, and 25 millions only by the wealthier citizens. There cannot, under such circumstances, exist the slightest doubt that this tax is exceedingly injurious to the production of wine in France. The principal markets for this produce, the towns, are to the wine-producer so many foreign countries where he has to Pay, before bringing his produce to sale, a regular custom-house duty of from 50 to 1,000 per cent ad valorem. The other part of the market, the open country, is at least subject to a duty of from 20 to 50 per cent of the original value. The inevitable consequence of this is the ruin of the wine-growing parts of the country. It is true the production of wine has been augmenting in spite of the tax, but the population has outgrown this augmentation at a far quicker rate.

Why, then, has it been possible to keep up under the middle-class government such an obnoxious tax as this? In England, you will say, even Cobden and Bright would have swept it away long ago. And so they would. But in France, the manufacturers never found a Cobden or a Bright who stood up for their interests with invincible tenacity, nor a Peel to give way to their claims.[29] The French financial system, although so much vaunted by the majority of the Assembly, is the most confused and artificial, mixtum compositum, that ever was imagined. None of the reforms carried in England since 1842 were attempted in France under Louis Philippe. Postage Reform was considered almost as blasphemy in the blessed time of Guizot. The tariff was, and is now, neither a free-trade nor a mere revenue, nor a protectionist, nor a prohibitive tariff, but contains something of all, except free-trade. Old prohibitions and high duties, that for many years have been to no purpose, nay, that are decidedly injurious to trade, are to be found in all parts of the tariff. Yet no one dared touch them. Local taxation, in all towns of more than 1,000 inhabitants, is indirect, and collected upon the produce brought into town. Thus the freedom of trade even in the interior is interrupted every ten or fifteen miles by a sort of inland-custom-house.

This state of things, disgraceful even to a middle-class government, remained untouched: from different causes. With all this oppressive taxation, with-receipts of 1,400 or 1,500 millions of francs, there was a deficit at the end of every year, and a loan after every fourth or fifth year. The stockjobbers of the Paris Bourse found an inexhaustible source of profit-making, jobbing, and peddling in this, low state of the Public Exchequer. They and their associates formed the majority in the two Chambers, and were thus the real dominators of the state, and always demanding fresh supplies of money. Financial Reform, besides, could not have been effected without sweeping measures, which would have brought the budget to its equilibre, changed the allotment of taxes, and, besides taxing these stockjobbers themselves, given a greater political weight to other fractions of the middle classes. And what consequences such a change would have had under the worm-eaten government of Louis Philippe you may judge, from the comparatively trifling pretext which led to the revolution of February.[30]

That revolution brought into office no man able to reform the financial system of France. The gentlemen of the National,[31] who took possession of that department, felt themselves borne down by the weight of-the deficit. Many attempts were made at bit-by-bit reform; all proved abortive, excepting the abolition of the tax upon salt and the Postage Reform. At last, in a fit of despair, the Constituent Assembly voted the repeal of the wine tax, and now the "honest" and "moderate" men of order[32] in the present precious Assembly restore it! Nay, more: the Minister intends restoring the salt tax, and re-augmenting the Postage; so that the old financial system, with its eternal deficiences and difficulties, and consequent absolute sway of the Paris Bourse, with its jobbing, peddling, and profitmongering, will very shortly be restored in France.

The people, however, do not seem likely to submit quietly to a measure which restores a heavy tax upon an article of prime necessity for the poor, while it almost exempts the rich. Social democracy has spread wonderfully over the agricultural districts of France; and this measure will convert the remainder of the millions who, twelve months ago, voted for that ambitious blockhead, Louis Napoleon. The country once won for social democracy, there will be very few months, nay, weeks, indeed, ere the Red Flag floats from the Tuileries and the Elysee-National.[33] Then only will it be possible to radically upset the old, oppressive financial system, by at one stroke doing away with the National Debt, by introducing a system of direct, progressive taxation; and by other measures of a similarly energetic character.


27 The reference is to the French Provisional Government formed on February 24, 1848, as a result of the overthrow of the July monarchy. Most ministerial posts were held by moderate republicans (Lamartine, Dupont de l'Eure, Cremieux, Arago, Marie, and two members of the oppositional Republican Party, which was associated with Le National--Marrast and Garnier-Pages). There were, besides, three leaders of the petty-bourgeois party of democrats and socialists grouped round La Reforme--Ledru-Rollin, Flocon and Louis Blanc--and also a mechanic, Albert (real name Martin). The Provisional Government existed till May 10, 1848, when it was replaced by the Executive Commission set up by the Constituent National Assembly.

28 Droit d'octroi--a right, originating from feudal times, of cities to levy tolls on imported consumer goods. It was repealed in 1791 during the French Revolution, but later reintroduced on some foodstuffs (salt, wine, fish, etc.).

29 The reference is to the repeal in June 1846 of the Corn Laws by the Peel Government in the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie.
The Corn Laws (first introduced in the fifteenth century) imposed in the interests of landowners high import duties on agricultural produce in order to maintain high prices for these products on the home market. The struggle between the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy over the Corn Laws ended in their repeal.

30The revolution of February 1848 in France was sparked off by the authorities' prohibition of a banquet organised by the opposition and fixed for February 22 and of a peaceful demonstration in support of the freedom of assembly.

31 The party of the National included moderate republicans, under Armand Marrast, who were supported by the industrial bourgeoisie and a section of liberal intellectuals associated with it; in the 1840s the adherents of this party grouped around the newspaper Le National.
The most prominent representatives of this trend in the Provisional Government were Marrast, editor of Le National, and Garnier-Pages, Minister of Finance.

32 At the elections to the French Legislative Assembly held on May 19, 1849, the monarchist groups--the Legitimists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists who had formed the party of Order, gained the majority.

33 Tuileries--the royal palace in Paris; prior to the February revolution, the residence of Louis Philippe. The Elysee-National--the residence (from December 1948) of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the French Republic.