Karl Marx Acquitted of Encouraging Tax Resistance in Germany

The more I uncover about historical examples of tax resistance campaigns and campaigners, the more there seems to be to uncover. By accident, while reading a book unrelated to my tax resistance research a few days ago, I found a reference to Karl Marx promoting a tax resistance campaign in Germany.

Germany was a chaos of uprisings in , and its rulers and taxers had only the most dubious legitimacy, as the first popularly elected parliament had been shut down by the royal and military aristocracy before they could enact something resembling a Constitution.

That parliament responded by ruling, unanimously, that the government was officially out of business:

So long as the National Assembly is not at liberty to continue its sessions in Berlin, the Brandenburg cabinet has no right to dispose of government revenues and to collect taxes.

Karl Marx, via his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published this decree, adding: “From today, therefore, taxes are abolished! It is high treason to pay taxes. Refusal to pay taxes is the primary duty of the citizen!”

, the paper issued a further appeal (signed by Marx and two others):

The Rhenish District Committee of Democrats calls upon all democratic associations in the Rhine Province to have the following measures decided upon and carried through:

  1. Since the Prussian National Assembly itself has ruled that taxes are not to be paid, their forcible collection must be resisted everywhere and in every way.
  2. In order to repulse the enemy the local militia must be organized everywhere. The cost of weapons and ammunition for impecunious citizens is to be defrayed by the community or by voluntary contributions.
  3. The authorities are to be asked everywhere to state publicly whether they recognize the decisions of the National Assembly and intend to carry them out. In case of refusal committees of public safety are to be set up, and where possible this should be done with the consent of the local councils. Local councils opposed to the Legislative Assembly should be re-elected by a universal vote.

This was pretty straightforwardly a declaration of revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary, depending on your perspective) war via an outpouring of passive verbs. The aristocrats & generals, who got the jump on Marx and his militias and seized political power, took Marx to court, but were unable to convince a jury to convict. (Edmund Wilson, in whose book To The Finland Station I first learned about this case, writes that “the effect [of Marx’s defense] on the jury was so great that Marx was thanked on their behalf by the foreman for his ‘extremely informative speech.’ ”)

, Marx gloated:

Quite apart from the question whether the decision on the refusal to pay taxes is legally valid or not the document [the appeal] obviously presented an example of incitement to revolt and to civil war. The accused also did not conceal that the word “enemy” (see Paragraph 2) should be understood as the internal enemy, the armed might of the Government. Nevertheless the state authorities, despairing of a conviction under this article of the Code, have selected a milder indictment: the call for rebellion and resistance to the agents of state power…

Hence the case turned only on the political question: whether the accused were authorised by the decision of the National Assembly on the refusal to pay taxes to call in this way for resistance to the state power, to organise an armed force against that of the state, and to have government authorities removed and appointed at their discretion.

After a very brief consultation, the jury answered this question in the affirmative.

Marx’s “extremely informative” defense that he delivered to the jury is also available on-line.

You may wonder why Karl Marx was so concerned with the legitimacy of governments and democratically-elected parliaments and Constitutional reforms and such. It’s not what one typically thinks of as Marxist concerns. From the looks of things, this was just a sort of strategic camouflage: Marx had picked up the bullhorn of a bourgeois democratic reform movement because he saw it as the necessary next step toward his real goal, which had nothing to do with bourgeois democracy.