Friedrich Engels’ “The Civil War in Switzerland” (1847)

Engraving of William Tell

While I appreciate Said more than most of the subsequent post-colonial theorists, this article alone should dispel the myth of Marx’s and Engels’ alleged Eurocentrism or chauvinism, as supposedly evidenced in their writings on the traditional societies of India and Algiers. Here Engels writes with more scorn and contempt about traditional society in Switzerland, in the heart of Europe, than anything either of them wrote about non-European societies.

At last the ceaseless bombast about the “cradle of freedom,” about the “grandsons of William Tell and Winkelried,” about the heroic victors of Sempach and Murten is being brought to an end.  At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the centre of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress.

It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.  As long as the democrats concentrated on the virtue, the happiness, and the patriarchal simplicity of these Alpine shepherds, they themselves still appeared in a reactionary light.  Now that they are supporting the struggle of civilized, industrial, modern-democratic Switzerland against the crude, Christian-Germanic democracy of the primitive, cattle-breeding cantons, they represent progress everywhere, now the last reactionary glimmer disappears, now they show that they are learning to understand the meaning of democracy in the 19th century.

There are two regions in Europe where old Christian-Germanic barbarism has retained its most primitive form, almost down to acorn-eating — Norway and the High Alps, especially Ur-Switzerland.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland still provide us with genuine examples of that breed of men who once beat the Romans to death in good Westphalian style with clubs and flails in the Teutoburg Forest.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland are democratically organized. But there are many varieties of democracy and it is very necessary that the democrats of the civilized countries should at last decline responsibility for the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss forms of democracy.

The democratic movement in all civilized countries is, in the last analysis, striving for the political domination of the proletariat. It therefore presupposes that a proletariat exists, that a ruling bourgeoisie exists, that an industry exists which gives birth to the proletariat and which has brought the bourgeoisie to power.

There is nothing of all this either in Norway or in Ur-Switzerland. In Norway, we have the very famous peasant regiment (bonde-regimente); in Ur-Switzerland a number of rough shepherds who, despite their democratic constitution, are ruled by a few big landowners, Abyberg, etc., in patriarchal fashion. A bourgeoisie only exists in exceptional cases in Norway, and not at all inUr-Switzerland. The proletariat is practically non-existent.

The democracy prevailing in civilized countries, modern democracy, has thus nothing whatever in common with Norwegian or Ur-Swiss democracy. It does not wish to bring about the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss state of affairs but something absolutely different. Let us nevertheless look a little closer at this primitive-Germanic democracy and deal first with Ur-Switzerland, which is what above all concerns us here.

Is there a German philistine who does not rave about William Tell, the liberator of his Fatherland; a schoolmaster who does not celebrate Morgarten, Sempach, and Murten along with Marathon, Plataea, and Salamis; a hysterical old maid who does not go into raptures over the strong leg calves and sturdy thighs of the chaste Alpine youths? The glory of Ur-Swiss valor, freedom, skill, and strength has been endlessly praised in verse and prose from Aegidius Tschudi to Johannes von Müller, from Florian to Schiller.  The carbines and cannons of the twelve cantons now provide a commentary on these enthusiastic panegyrics.

The Ur-Swiss have drawn attention to themselves twice during the course of history. The first time, when they freed themselves gloriously from Austrian tyranny; the second at the present time, when they march off to fight in God’s name for the Jesuits and the Fatherland.

On closer examination, the glorious liberation from the talons of the Austrian eagle does not look at all good. The House of Austria was progressive just once in the whole of its career; this was at the beginning of its existence when it allied itself with the urban petty bourgeoisie against the nobility, and sought to found a German monarchy.  It was progressive in the most philistine of ways but it was progressive nonetheless.  And who opposed it most resolutely? The Ur-Swiss.  The struggle of the Ur-Swiss against Austria, the glorious oath on the Grütli, Tell’s heroic shot, the eternally memorable victory at Morgarten, all this was the struggle of stubborn shepherds against the onward march of historical development, the struggle of obstinate, rooted local interests against the interests of the whole nation, the struggle of crude ignorance against enlightenment, of barbarism against civilization.  They won their victory over the civilization of the time, and as a punishment they were excluded from all further civilization.

As if this were not enough, these simple, stiff-necked shepherds were soon punished in a quite different way.   They escaped the domination of the Austrian nobility only to come under the yoke of the petty bourgeois of Zurich, Lucerne, Berne, and Basel.  These had already noted that the Ur-Swiss were just as strong and as stupid as their oxen.  They agreed to join the Swiss Confederation and stayed peacefully at home behind their counters while the thick-headed Alpine shepherds fought out all their battles with the nobility and the princes for them.  This is what happened at Sempach, Granson, Murten, and Nancy.  In return, these people were allowed to arrange their internal affairs as they wished and so they remained in blissful ignorance of how they were being exploited by their dear fellow-Confederationists.

Since then nothing much has been heard of them.  They busied themselves in all piety and propriety with milking the cows, with cheese-making, chastity and yodeling.  From time to time they had folk assemblies at which they divided into horn-men, claw-men, and other animal-like groups, and these gatherings never ended without a hearty, Christian-Germanic fight.  They were poor but pure in heart, stupid but pious and well-pleasing to the Lord, brutal but broad-shouldered and had little brain but plenty of brawn. From time to time there were too many of them and then the young men went off on their “travels,” i.e., enlisted in foreign armies where they displayed the most steadfast loyalty to the flag no matter what happened.  One can only say of the Swiss that they let themselves be killed most conscientiously for their pay.

The greatest boast of these burly Ur-Swiss was that from time immemorial they had never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the customs of their forefathers, that they had retained the simple, chaste, upright, and virtuous customs of their fathers unsullied throughout the centuries. And this is true. Every attempt at civilization was defeated by the granite walls of their mountains and of their heads.  From the days when Winkelried’s first ancestor led his cow, with the inevitable little pastoral bell round its neck, on to the virgin pastures of the Vierwaldstätter Lake, up to the present day, when the latest descendant of Winkelried has his gun blessed by the priest, all houses have been built in the same way, all cows milked in the same way, all pigtails plaited in the same way, all cheeses prepared according to the same recipe, all children made in the same way.  Here, in the mountains, is Paradise, here the Fall of Man has not yet come to pass.  And should some innocent Alpine lad happen to find his way to the great outside world and allow himself to be tempted for a moment by the seductions of the big cities, by the artificial charms of a decadent civilization, by the vices of sinful countries, which have no mountains and where corn thrives — his innocence is so deep-rooted that he can never quite succumb.  A sound strikes his ear, just two of those notes of the Alpine cowherd’s call that sound like a dog’s howling, and he falls on his knees, weeping and overwhelmed with remorse, and at once tears himself from the arms of seduction and will not rest until he lies at the feet of his old father! “Father, I have sinned against my ancient mountains and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

In recent times two invasions against these artless customs and primitive power have been attempted.  The first was by the French in 1798. But these French, who spread a little civilization everywhere else, failed with these Ur-Swiss.  No trace of their presence has remained, they were unable to eliminate one single jot of the old customs and virtues.  The second invasion took place about twenty years later and did at least bear a little fruit. This was the invasion of English travellers, of London lords and squires and the hordes of chandlers, soap-manufacturers, grocers and bone merchants who followed them.  This invasion at least ended the old hospitality and transformed the honest inhabitants of the Alpine huts, who previously hardly knew what money was, into the most mean and rascally swindlers anywhere to be found.  But this advance made no impact at all on the old simple customs.  This not so very virtuous chicanery fitted in perfectly with the patriarchal virtues of chastity, skill, probity, and loyalty.  Even their piety suffered no injury; the priests were delighted to give them absolution for all the deceptions practiced on British heretics.

But it now looks as if all this moral purity is about to be thoroughly stirred up.  It is to be hoped that the punitive detachments will do their best to finish off all the probity, primitive power, and simplicity. Then moan, you philistines! For there will be no more poor but contented shepherds whose carefree peace of mind you might wish for yourselves on Sundays after you have made your cut out of selling coffee made of chicory and tea made of sloe leaves during the other six days of the week.  Then weep, you schoolmasters, for there will be an end to your hopes for a new Sempach-Marathon and other classical feats.  Then mourn, you hysterical virgins over thirty, for those six-inch leg calves, the thought of which solaced your solitary dreams, will soon be gone — gone the Antinous-like beauty of the powerful “Swiss peasant lads,” gone the firm thighs and tight trousers which attract you so irresistibly to the Alps.  Then sigh, tender and anaemic boarding-school misses, who when reading Schiller’s works delighted in the chaste but oh so powerful love of the agile chamois hunters, for all your fond illusions are lost and now there is nothing left for you but to read the works of Henrik Steffens and fall for the frigid Norwegians.

But no more of that.  The Ur-Swiss must be fought with weapons quite different from mere ridicule.  Democracy has to settle accounts with them about matters quite different from their patriarchal virtues.

Who defended the Bastille on July 14, 1789 against the people who were storming it? Who shot down the workers of the Faubourg St. Antoine with grape-shot and rifle bullets from behind safe walls? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried.

Who defended the traitor Louis XVI on August 10, 1792 from the just wrath of the people, in the Louvre and the Tuileries? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the Neapolitan revolution of 1798 with the help of Nelson? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who re-established the absolute monarchy in Naples — with the help of Austrians — in 1823? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who fought to the last on July 29, 1830, again for a treacherous king 10 and again shot Paris workers down from the windows and colonnades of the Louvre? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the insurrections in Romagna in 1830 and 1831, again along with the Austrians, with a brutality which achieved world notoriety? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

In short, who holds the Italians down, to this day, forcing them to bow to the oppressive domination of their aristocrats, princes and priests; who was Austria’s right hand in Italy, who enables the bloodhound Ferdinand of Naples to keep a tight rein on his anguish-stricken people to this very moment, who has been acting as his executioners to this day carrying out the mass shootings he orders? Always, again and again, Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, again and again, the grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried!

In one word, wherever and whenever a revolutionary movement broke out in France either directly or indirectly advantageous to democracy, it was always Ur-Swiss mercenaries who fought it to the last, with the utmost resolution.  And especially in Italy these Swiss mercenaries were always the most devoted servants and handy men of Austria.  A just punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle!

One should not think that these mercenaries were the refuse of their country, or that they were disavowed by their fellow- countrymen.  Have not the people of Lucerne had a statue hewn out of the rock at their city gates by the pious Icelander Thorvaldsen, depicting a huge lion, bleeding from an arrow wound, covering the Bourbon fleur-de-lis with his paw, faithful unto death, in memory of the Swiss who died at the Louvre on August 10, 1792?  This is the way Sonderbund honors the venal loyalty of its sons.  It lives by the trade in human beings and glorifies it.

Can the English, French, and German democrats have had anything in common with this kind of democracy?

Through its industry, its commerce and its political institutions, the bourgeoisie is already working everywhere to drag the small, self-contained localities which only live for themselves out of their isolation, to bring them into contact with one another, to merge their interests, to expand their local horizons, to destroy their local habits, strivings and ways of thinking, and to build up a great nation with common interests, customs and ideas out of the many hitherto mutually independent localities and provinces.  The bourgeoisie is already carrying out considerable centralization.  The proletariat, far from suffering any disadvantage from this, will as a result rather be in a position to unite, to feel itself a class, to acquire a proper political point of view within the democracy, and finally to conquer the bourgeoisie.  The democratic proletariat not only needs the kind of centralization begun by the bourgeoisie but will have to extend it very much further.  During the short time when the proletariat was at the helm of state in the French Revolution, during the rule of the Mountain party, it used all means — including grape-shot and the guillotine — to effect centralization.  When the democratic proletariat again comes to power, it will not only have to centralize every country separately but will have to centralize all civilized countries together as soon as possible.

Ur-Switzerland, on the other hand, has never done anything but obstruct centralization; with really brutish obstinacy it has insisted on its isolation from the whole outside world, on its local customs, habits, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, and seclusion.  It has stood still in the centre of Europe at the level of its original barbarism, while all other nations, even the other Swiss, have gone forward.  It stands pat on cantonal sovereignty with all the obduracy of the crude primitive Germans, that is, on the right to be eternally stupid, bigoted, brutal, narrow-minded, recalcitrant and venal if it so wishes, whether its neighbors like it or not.  If their own brutish situation comes under discussion, they no longer recognize such things as majorities, agreements, or obligations.  But in the 19th century it is no longer possible for two parts of one and the same country to exist side by side without any mutual intercourse and influence.  The radical cantons affect the Sonderbund, the Sonderbund affects the radical cantons, where, too, very crude elements still exist here and there.  The radical cantons are, therefore, interested in getting the Sonderbund to abandon its bigotry, narrow-mindedness and obduracy, and if it won’t, then its self-will must be broken by force; and this is what is happening at this moment.

The civil war which has now broken out can only help the cause of democracy.  Even though there is still a great deal of primitive Germanic crudity to be found in the radical cantons, even though a peasant, or a bourgeois regiment, or a mixture of both is concealed behind their democracy, even though the most civilized cantons still lag behind the development of European civilization and really modern elements only rise to the top slowly here and there, this is no great help to the Sonderbund.  It is necessary, urgently necessary, that this last bastion of brutal, primitive Germanism, of barbarism, bigotry, patriarchal simplicity, and moral purity, of immobility, of loyalty unto death to the highest bidder, should at last be destroyed.  The more energetically the Swiss Diet sets to work and the more violently it shakes up this old nest of priests, the more claim it will have on the support of all really resolute democrats, and the more it will prove that it understands its position.  But of course the five great powers are there and the radicals themselves are afraid.

As far as the Sonderbund is concerned, it is significant that the true sons of William Tell have to beg the House of Austria, Switzerland’s hereditary foe, for help just when Austria is baser, viler, meaner, and more hateful than ever.  This is yet another part of the punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle and the much boasting that went with it.  And for the cup of punishment to be filled to the brim Austria itself has to be in such a pass that it could not give William Tell’s sons any help whatever.

Written about November 10, 1847

First published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung No. 91, November 14, 1847

Mike Ely at the Platypus International Convention, March 31, 2012: Communism and this moment

Originally posted over at Kasama on May 13, 2012

The Kasama Project

State of the left: three great arcs and a beginning
Talk to the Platypus conference plenary, March 31

How people radicalize
Q & A, Platypus conference plenary, March 31

“Breaking with illusions and old models
Q & A, Platypus conference plenary, March 31

After the death watch over social-democracy
Q & A, Platypus conference plenary, March 31

Several people have asked for a written text of this talk. We have added below the notes from which Mike spoke. It is not a transcript of the  talk…it is the prepared text, and so is somewhat different from the spoken talk itself.

Three Revolutionary Arcs & This Moment for Communists

Trayvon Martin is dead.  Let’s start there.

He was stalked on the street like dangerous animal and shot in the heart by a crazed, armed wannabe cop.

That’s bad enough.

Then all the machinery of this society conspired to protect him.  The police chief of Sanford arrived to oversee it personally.  Zimmerman was never arrested.  He was released — obviously no danger to the community — and left to cook up elaborate lies with his father, a well-connected retired judge.

And (in ways amazing to many of us watching) Trayvon was killed again — portrayed as a drug user, wannabe gangster, as the violent aggressor, and someone who should be watched, suspected, and contained.

Or consider this: that in the United States, a central question in the U.S. election has become whether states should, once again, be allowed to criminalize birth-control — and if the availability of birth control to young women is only state approval of their right to carry out an immoral lifestyle.  And while the Republicans pick over such madness, the Democrats celebrate — because this frees them of any necessity to defend the right to abortion, which is under massive assault by law, propaganda and budget.

Young women are blown away that their private parts and sexual choices are the target of wholesale attempts at reactionary social control.

Well, don’t be surprised.

If you want a sense of the need for revolution in the U.S. — just look there. Or at the ongoing U.S. and Israeli threats at Iran, here the phrase “nothing is off the table” means that millions of Iranian people go to bed each night wondering if they will be incincerated.

Read the rest at the Kasama Project’s website

Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo


Image: Photograph of the Paris barricade during the
1871 Commune, taken by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg


On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History
(2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full video of the interview can be found here.

Ross Wolfe:
How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, respectively, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another — paid and unpaid labor — isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either. Continue reading

Has #Occupy entered “Phase Three”?

Part of the Platypus contingent at May Day in New York, 2012

I do wonder: Do the coordinated international May Day marches signal a kind of end to the so-called “second phase” of #Occupy, and perhaps the beginning of a “phase three”? My suspicion is that they do, but I’d like to hear other people’s opinions.

Generally speaking, I would mark this second phase as lasting from roughly either the November 15th sequence of evictions or the N17 demonstrations, through “the winter of our discontent” (i.e., decentralization, the breakdown of the chronically dysfunctional GA/Spokescouncil models, and the shift to planning for International Workers’ Day), all the way up to its culmination in the May 1 marches.

The first phase, of course, I’d date from September 17th-November 15th actual large-scale occupation of physical spaces. There was a prehistory to the occupation of Zuccotti Park that was not insignificant, certainly. Not just the Arab Spring or the European anti-austerity protests, but also the actual planning committees throughout August.

Participating in the May Day march in New York two days ago, my hope was that it marked more of a new beginning than a definitive end.  It is perhaps too early to tell what the future may bring.  But I remain somewhat hopeful.

Platypus signs at May Day in New York, 2012

Continue reading