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Political Position of the Swiss Republic[73]

Frederick Engels

London, May 1, 1853

Royal families formerly used to employ whipping-boys, who had the honor of receiving condign punishment on their profane backs, whenever any of the scions of royalty had committed an offense against the rules of good behavior. The modern European political system continues this practice, in a certain degree, in the erection of small intermediate States, which have to act the scapegoat in any domestic squabble by which the harmony of the "balance of power" may be troubled. And in order to enable these smaller States to perform this enviable part with suitable dignity, they are, by the common consent of Europe "in Congress assembled"[74], and with all due solemnity, declared "neutral". Such a scapegoat, or whipping-boy, is Greece— such is Belgium and Switzerland. The only difference is this that these modern political scapegoats, from the abnormal conditions of their existence, are seldom quite undeserving of the inflictions they are favored with.

The most conspicuous of this class of States has of late been Switzerland,

Quicquid delirant reges, plectuntur—[a]

the Swiss. And wherever the people of any European State came into collision with their rulers, the Swiss were equally sure to come in for their share of the trouble; until since the beginning of this year, Switzerland, after having made itself gratuitously contemptible to the revolutionary party, has been placed in a sort of interdict by the rulers of Continental Europe. Squabbles about refugees with the Emperor Bonaparte, for whose sake Switzerland once came very near risking a war; squabbles with Prussia on account of Neuchâtel; squabbles with Austria about Tessinese and the Milan insurrection[75]; squabbles with the minor German States about subjects which nobody cares for; squabbles on all hands, threatening notes, expulsions, passport chicanes, blockades, raining down upon poor Switzerland thick as hailstones in a storm, and yet, such is human nature, the Swiss are happy, contented and proud in their own way, and feel more at home in this shower of abuse and insult, than if the political horizon was cloudless and bright.

This honorable political position of Switzerland is, by the popular mind of Europe, rather vaguely and clumsily expressed in the common saying: Switzerland has been invented by the rulers of Europe in order to bring republican governments into contempt; and certainly, a Metternich or Guizot may have often said: If Switzerland did not exist, we should have to create it. To them, a neighbor like Switzerland, was a real god-send.

We cannot be expected to repeat the multifarious charges brought of late, against Switzerland and Swiss institutions, by real or would be revolutionists. Long before the movements of 1848, the organs of the revolutionary Communist party of Germany analyzed that subject, they showed why Switzerland, as an independent State, must ever be lagging behind in the march of European progress, and why that country, with all its republican shows, will ever be reactionary at heart[b]. They were even violently attacked, at that time, by divers democratic spouters and manufacturers of clandestine declamation, who celebrated Switzerland as their "model-republic," until the model institutions were once tried upon themselves. The subject is now as trite as can be; nobody disputes the fact, and a few words will suffice to put the matter in its true light.

The mass of the Swiss population follow either pastoral or agricultural pursuits; pastoral, in the high mountains, agricultural wherever the nature of the ground admits of it. The pastoral tribes, for tribes you may call them, rank among the least civilized populations of Europe. If they do not cut off heads and ears like the Turks and Montenegrins, they perform acts of hardly less barbarity by their judicial assemblies; and what cruelty and beastly ferocity they are capable of, the Swiss mercenaries at Naples and elsewhere have proved[76]. The agricultural population is quite as stationary as the pastoral; they have nothing in common with the agricultural population of the American Far West, whose very aliment is change, and who clear every twelvemonth an amount of land far larger than all Switzerland. The Swiss peasant, tills the patch of ground his father and grandfather tilled before him; he tills it in the same slovenly way as they did; he earns about as touch as they did; he lives about as they did, and consequently he thinks very nearly in the same way as they did. Had it not been for feudal burdens and imposts levied upon them, partly by aristocratic families, partly by patrician corporations in the towns, the Swiss peasantry would always have been quite as stationary in t heir political existence as their neighbors, the cowherds, are up to the present day. The third components of the Swiss people, the industrial population, although necessarily far more advanced in civilization than the two classes mentioned before, yet live under circumstances which exclude them in a great degree from the progressive giant impulse which the modern manufacturing system has imparted to Western Europe. Steam is hardly known in Switzerland; large factories exist in a few localities only; the cheapness of labor, the sparseness of the population, the abundance of small mountain-streams fit for mills; all these and many other circumstances tend to produce a petty and sporadic sort of manufactures mixed up with agricultural pursuits, the most eligible industrial system for Switzerland. Thus watch-making, ribbon-weaving, straw-plaiting, embroidery, &c. are carried on in several cantons, without ever creating or even increasing a town; and Geneva and Basle, the richest, and with Zurich, the most industrial towns, have hardly increased for centuries. If, then, Switzerland carries on her manufacturing production almost exclusively upon the system in practice all over Europe before the invention of steam, how can we expect to find other than corresponding ideas in the minds of the producers; if steam has not revolutionized Swiss production and intercommunication, how could it overthrow the hereditary ways of thinking?

The Hungarian Constitution bears a certain resemblance to that of Great Britain, which circumstance has been turned to good account by Magyar politicians, who thence would make us jump to the conclusion that the Hungarian nation is almost as advanced as the English; and yet there are many hundreds of miles and of years between the petty tradesman of Buda and the Cotton lord of Lancashire, or between the traveling tinker of the Puszta[c] and the Chartist working-man of a British manufacturing metropolis. Thus, Switzerland would give itself the airs of a United States on a smaller scale; but barring the superficial resemblance of political institutions, no two countries are more unlike than ever-moving, ever-changing America, with a historical mission whose immensity people on both sides of the Atlantic are but just beginning to divine, and stationary Switzerland, whose never-ending petty distractions would result in the perpetual round-about motion within the narrowest circle, were she not in spite of herself dragged forward by the industrial advance of her neighbors.

Whoever doubts this, will be satisfied after a perusal of the history of Swiss railways. Were it not for the traffic from south to north moving round Switzerland on both sides, not a railroad would ever have been constructed in that country. As it is, they are made twenty years too late.

The French invasion of 1798, and the French revolution of 1830, gave occasion to the peasantry to throw off their feudal burdens; to the manufacturing and trading population to throw off the mediaeval yoke of patrician and corporative control. With this progress the revolution of Cantonal Government was completed. The more advanced cantons had obtained constitutions to suit their interests. 'This Cantonal revolution reacted upon the Central Representation Assembly[d] and Executive. The party vanquished in the individual cantons was here strong; the struggle was fought over again. The general political movement of 1840-'47, which everywhere in Europe brought about preliminary conflicts, or prepared decisive collisions, was in all second- and third-rate States thanks to the jealousies of the great powers—favorable to the opposition, which may be described as the middle-class party. It was the case, too, in Switzerland; the moral support of Britain, the indecision of Guizot, the difficulties which kept Metternich at bay in Italy, carried the Swiss over the Sonderbund war[77]; the party which had been victorious in the liberal cantons in 1830, now conquered the Central Powers. The revolutions of 1848 made it possible for the Swiss to reform their feudal constitutions in accordance with the new political organization of the majority of the cantons[78]; and now we may say that Switzerland has attained the highest political development of which she, as an independent State, is capable. That the new federal constitution is quite adequate to the wants of the country, the constant reforms in the monetary system, the means of communication, and other legislative matters affecting the industry of the country, abundantly show; but, alas! these reforms are of a nature that any other State would be ashamed of, on account of the mass of traditionary nuisances, and the antediluvian state of society, the existence of which, up to that date, they disclose.

What, at most, can be said in favor of the Swiss Constitution 1848 is this: that by its enactment the more civilized portion of the Swiss declared themselves willing to pass, to a certain extent, from the Middle Ages into modern society. Whether, however, they will at any time be able to do away with privileged trades' corporations, guilds, and such-like mediaeval amenities, must remain very doubtful to any one who has the least knowledge of the country, and who has seen in a single instance the strenuous efforts with which respectable "vested interests" oppose even the most matter-of-course reform.

Thus we see the Swiss, true to their character, moving on quietly in their own restricted domestic circle while the year 1848 uprooted all the stability of the European Continent around them. The revolutions of Paris, of Vienna, of Berlin, of Milan, were by them reduced to as many levers of Cantonal intrigue. The European earthquake had even for the radical Swiss no other interest but this—that it might vex some conservative neighbor by upsetting his crockery. In the struggle for Italian independence Sardinia solicited an alliance with Switzerland, and there is no doubt that an addition to the Sardinian army of 20 or 30,000 Swiss would have very soon driven the Austrians out of Italy. When 15,000 Swiss in Naples were fighting against Italian liberty it certainly might be expected that Switzerland, in order to maintain her boasted "neutrality", should send an equal number to fight for the Italians; but the alliance was rejected and the cause of Italian independence was lost as much through Swiss as through Austrian bayonets. Then came the disasters of the revolutionary party, and the wholesale emigration from Italy, from France, from Germany, to the neutral Swiss soil. But there neutrality ceased; Swiss radicalism was satisfied with what it had achieved, and the very insurgents, who, by holding in check the tutors and natural superiors of Switzerland, the absolutist governments of the Continent, had enabled the Swiss to carry out their internal reform undisturbed these very insurgents were now treated in Switzerland with every possible insult and turned out of the country at the first bidding of their persecutors. Then began that series of degradation and insult which one neighboring government after another heaped upon Switzerland, and which would make the blood of every Swiss boil if Swiss nationality had any foundation and Swiss independence any existence other than in boast or fame.

Never has such treatment been offered to any people as the Swiss have been made to submit to by France, Austria, Prussia, and the minor German States. Never were demands half as humiliating made upon any country, without being resented by a struggle for life or death. The surrounding Governments, by their agents, presumed to exercise the office of Police upon the Swiss territory; they exercised it not only over the refugees, but over the Swiss Police officers also. They laid complaints against subaltern agents, and demanded their dismissal; they even went so far as to hint at the necessity of changes in the Constitutions of several cantons. As for the Swiss Government, to every bolder demand, it gave an humbler reply; and whenever its words breathed a spirit of opposition, its acts were sure to make up for it by increased subserviency. Insult after insult was pocketed, command after command was executed, until Switzerland was brought down to the lowest level of European contempt, till she was more despised than even her two "neutral" rivals, Belgium and Greece. And now, when the demands of her chief assailant, Austria, have reached that hight of impudence which even a statesman of the temper of M. Druey could hardly swallow, without some show of resistance now, in her most recent, most spirited notes to Vienna, she shows how far she is reduced.

The champions of Italian independence, men who, far from showing any wicked Socialist or Communist tendencies, would, perhaps, not even go to the length of wishing for Italy the same Constitution as that under which Switzerland lives, men who have and make no claim to the demagogical celebrity even of Mazzini, are there treated as assassins, incendiaries, brigands, and upsetters of all social order. As to Mazzini, the language is of course far stronger; and yet everybody knows that Mazzini, with all his conspiracies and insurrections, is as much a supporter of social order, as at present constituted, as M. Druey himself. Thus, the result of the whole exchange of notes is, that, in principle, the Swiss give in to the Austrians. How, then, is it to be expected they will not give in in practise?

The fact is this: Any bold and persistent Government can get from the Swiss what it likes. The isolated life which the mass of them lead, deprives them of all sense of their common interest as a nation. That a village, or a valley, or a canton should stick together is no wonder. But, to stick together as a Nation for a common purpose, be what it may, they never will. In all invasions, as soon as the danger becomes serious, as in 1798, one Swiss has betrayed the other, one canton abandoned the next. The Austrians have expelled 18,000 Tessinese from Lombardy, without any cause. The Swiss make a great outcry about it and collect money for their unfortunate confederates. Now, let Austria hold out, and continue to prohibit the return of these Tessinese, and in a very short time you will see a wonderful change in Swiss opinion. They will get tired of collecting money, they will say that the Tessinese always meddled in Italian politics and deserved no better; in fact they are no true Swiss confederates (Keine guten Eidgenossen). Then the expelled Tessinese will settle in the other cantons of Switzerland and "turn the natives out of employment." For in Switzerland a man is not a Swiss, but a native of such and such a canton. And when that comes to pass then you will see our brave confederates muster up their indignation, then you will see intrigues of all sorts directed against the victims of Austrian despotism, then you will see the Tessinese Swiss as much hated, persecuted, calumniated as the foreign refugees were during their time in Switzerland, and then Austria will obtain everything she wants and a great deal more if she takes the trouble to ask for it.

When the nations of Europe have recovered their faculty of free and normal action they will take into consideration what is to be done with these petty "neutral" States, which while subservient to counter-revolution when it is ascendant, are neutral and even hostile to every revolutionary movement and yet pass themselves off as free and independent Nations. But, perhaps, by that time, not a trace will be left of these excrescences of an unsound body.

Written about April 26, 1853
First published in the New-York Daily
Reproduced from the New-York Tribune, No. 3770, May 17, 1853 and
in Daily Tribune abridged form in German in Die Reform, Nos. 18 and 19, June 1 and 4, 1853
Signed: Karl Marx


[a] Q. Horatii Flacci, Epistolarum, Liber Primus, Epistola II, Ad Lollium; the line ends with "Achivi"—Achaeans.—Ed.

[b] The reference is to Engels' article "The Civil War in Switzerland", Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, November 1847 (see present edition, Vol. 6, pp. 367-74).—Ed.

[c] Hungarian steppe.—Ed.

[d] The Federal Diet.—Ed.

[73] This article constitutes the main part of Engels' correspondence included by Marx in their common report (see Note 70 ↓). The editors of the New-York Daily Tribune published the article under the date-line "May 1", but actually it was written not later than April 26 and sent by Marx to New York on the 29th of that month. The article was printed under the heading "Switzerland" and entitled "Political Position of This Republic". In this edition the title of the article has been changed in accordance with its publication in the German and Russian editions of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels.

The article was published in German with slight abridgements, under the title "Switzerland", in the New York newspaper Die Reform of June 1 and 4, 1853. The editorial note to the article gave Marx as its author. Following this Die Reform began to publish translations or renderings of Marx's articles printed in the New-York Daily Tribune. The main part in popularising Marx's articles through Die Reform was played by Joseph Weydemeyer and Adolph Cluss, former members of the Communist League.

[70] Marx sent this article to the New-York Daily Tribune together with Engels' article on Switzerland, written at his request and posted to him from Manchester on April 26, 1853, as one report. The editors divided the material into two parts and published them as separate articles. (Marx later wrote of this in his letters to Engels of June 2 and 29, 1853.) The first article comprised the text written by Marx after he had received Engels' article and the beginning of Engels' report describing the separatist putsch of clerical and conservative elements in the Freiburg canton in the spring of 1853. The bulk of Engels' report was published as a separate article, signed by Marx; in another issue (see below "Political Position of the Swiss Republic"). In this volume the articles are given as published in the afternoon and evening editions of the New-York Daily Tribune.

[74] A reference to the Vienna Congress (September 1814-June 1815). On March 20, 1815 the main powers participating in the Congress signed a declaration guaranteeing "permanent neutrality" to Switzerland.

[75] Switzerland was drawn into a conflict with France (December 1851-January 1852) over Louis Bonaparte's demand for the expulsion from Switzerland of French republican refugees, opponents of the Bonapartist coup d'état of December 2, 1851. As in 1836, when the July monarchy staged military demonstrations threatening Switzerland with war for granting asylum to French refugees—Louis Bonaparte among them—the Swiss Government was again compelled to make major concessions to France.

In the eighteenth century the principality of Neuchâtel and Valangin (in German: Neuenburg and Vallendis) was under Prussian rule. It was ceded to France in 1806, during the Napoleonic wars. In 1815, by a decision of the Vienna Congress, it was incorporated- into the Swiss Confederation as the 21st canton, while remaining a vassal of Prussia. On February 29, 1848 a bourgeois revolution in Neuchâtel put an end to Prussian rule and a republic was proclaimed. Prussia, however, laid constant claims to Neuchâtel up to 1857, which led to a sharp conflict with the Swiss Republic, and only pressure from France forced her to renounce these claims officially.

In 1853 a dispute arose between Switzerland and Austria over the Italian refugees residing in the Swiss canton of Tessin (Ticino), who had taken part in the national liberation movement in Italy and fled to Switzerland from the Italian provinces under Austrian rule after the unsuccessful uprising in Milan of February 6, 1853 (see Note 19 ↓).

[19] A reference to the Milan insurrection started on February 6, 1853 by the followers of the Italian revolutionary Mazzini and supported by Hungarian revolutionary refugees. The aim of the insurgents, who were mostly Italian workers, was to overthrow Austrian rule, but their conspiratorial tactics led them to failure. Marx analysed it in a number of articles (see present edition, Vol. 11, pp. 508-09, 513-16 and 535-37).

[76] From the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the Swiss cantons concluded agreements with the European states for the supply of Swiss mercenaries. The reference here is to agreements signed in 1848 by the canton of Berne and some other cantons with the counter-revolutionary government of Ferdinand II, King of Naples. The use of Swiss troops against the revolutionary movement in Italy aroused profound indignation among the Swiss progressive public, which eventually led to the annulment of these agreements.

[77] The Sonderbund—a separatist union formed by the seven economically backward Catholic cantons of Switzerland in 1843 to resist progressive bourgeois reforms and defend the privileges of the Church and the Jesuits. The decree of the Swiss Diet of July 1847 on the dissolution of the Sonderbund served as a pretext for the latter to commence hostilities against the other cantons early in November. On November 23, 1847, the Sonderbund army was defeated by the federal forces. Even after the defeat of the Sonderbund its adherents among the Catholic clergy, the patrician upper strata in the towns, and the conservative section of the peasantry made attempts to seize power in separate cantons.

[78] A reference to the Constitution of the Swiss Confederation adopted on September 12, 1848. The new Constitution ensured a measure of centralisation, changing a confederation of cantons (the confederation treaty of 1814 sanctioned by the Congress of Vienna greatly restricted the power of central government) into a federative state. In place of the former Swiss Diet a new legislative body, a Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung) was set up consisting of two chambers—the National Council and the Council of States. Executive power was vested in the Federal Council whose Chairman acted as President of the Republic.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.86-92), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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