During the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the royal and military aristocracy prohibited the first popularly elected parliament from assembling, and that parliament responded by declaring the government 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!" Marx was later prosecuted for promoting tax resistance, but was acquitted after arguing that it was not illegal to promote tax resistance against an illegal government.
The idea that Marx was in favour of progressive taxation emerges only in the Communist Manifesto as a preliminary measure towards the extinction of the state. Unfortunately this error of judgement has costed very dear to Marx because it is the one that has stuck with ideologues of all stripes.
The passages here presented try to show that Marx was not keen on taxation as state socialists and state liberals would make us to believe.
No Tax Payments!
by Karl Marx
Cologne, November 16. All the Berlin newspapers, with the exception of the Preussische Staats-Anzeiger, Vossische Zeitung, and Neue Preussische Zeitung, have failed to arrive.
The Civil Guard in the wealthy south-western district of Berlin has been disarmed, but only there. It is the same battalion that dastardly murdered the engineering workers on October 31. The disarming of this battalion strengthens the popular cause.
The National Assembly was again driven out of the Kolnische Rathaus by force of arms. It assembled then in the Mielenz Hotel, where finally it unanimously (by 226 votes) passed the following resolution on the non-payment of taxes:
"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.
"This decree comes into force on November 17.
"The National Assembly, November 15."
From today, therefore, taxes are abolished! It is high treason to pay taxes. Refusal to pay taxes is the primary duty of the citizen!
(Neue Rheinische Zeitung n°145, November 1848)
The Trial of the Rhenish District Committee of Democrats
by Karl Marx
Gentlemen, the public prosecutor has described the refusal to pay taxes as a measure "which shakes the foundations of society". The refusal to pay taxes has nothing to do with the foundations of society.
Generally speaking, why do taxes, the granting or the refusal of taxes, play such an important role in the history of constitutionalism? The reason is very simple. Just as serfs purchased privileges from the feudal lords with ready money, so did entire nations purchase privileges from feudal monarchs with ready money. Monarchs needed money for their wars with foreign nations and especially for their struggle against the feudal lords. The more trade and industry developed the greater grew their need for money. But the third estate, the middle classes, grew to the same extent and disposed of increasing financial resources; and in the same degree they purchased liberties from the monarchs by means of taxes. To make sure of these liberties they retained the right at definite intervals to renew the monetary obligations, i.e., the right to vote or to refuse to vote taxes. You can trace the details of this development especially well in English history.
In medieval society, therefore, taxes were the only bond between the emerging bourgeois society and the ruling feudal state, a bond which compelled the state to make concessions to bourgeois society, to meet its needs and adjust itself to its growth. In modern states this right to grant and refuse taxes has been turned by bourgeois society into a means of controlling the government, the body administering its common interests.
You will find therefore that partial tax refusal is an integral part of every constitutional mechanism. This type of tax refusal operates whenever a budget is rejected. The current budget is voted only for a definite period; moreover after being prorogued the chambers must be reconvened after a very short interval. It is thus impossible for the Crown to make itself independent. Rejection of a budget means a definite tax refusal if the cabinet does not win a majority in the new chamber or if the Crown does not nominate a cabinet in accordance with the wishes of the new chamber. The rejection of a budget is therefore the parliamentary form of a refusal to pay taxes. This form could not be employed in the conflict under consideration because a constitution did not yet exist, but had first to be produced.
But a refusal to pay taxes as it occurred here, a refusal which not only rejects a new budget but prohibits even the payment of current taxes, is by no means exceptional. It happened very frequently in the Middle Ages. Even the old German Imperial Diet and the old feudal Diets of Brandenburg passed resolutions refusing to pay taxes. Nor is there any lack of examples in modern constitutional states. The refusal to pay taxes led in Britain in 1832 to the downfall of Wellington's cabinet. And in Britain it was not Parliament which decided to refuse taxes, but the people which proclaimed and carried out this decision on its own authority. Britain, however, is the historic land of constitutionalism.
Far be it from me to deny that the English revolution, which brought Charles I to the scaffold, began with a refusal to pay taxes or that the North American revolution, which ended with the Declaration of Independence from Britain, started with a refusal to pay taxes. The refusal to pay taxes can be the harbinger of unpleasant events in Prussia too. It was not John Hampden, however, who brought Charles I to the scaffold, but only the latter's own obstinacy, his dependence on the feudal estates, and his presumptuous attempt to use force to suppress the urgent demands of the emerging society. The refusal to pay taxes is merely a sign of the dissidence that exists between the Crown and the people, merely evidence that the conflict between the government and the people has reached a menacing degree of tensity. It is not the cause of the discord or the conflict, it is merely an expression of this fact. At the worst, it leads to the overthrow of the existing government, the existing political system. The foundations of society are not affected by this. In the present case, moreover, the refusal to pay taxes was a means of society's self-defense against a government which threatened its foundations.
(Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 231 and 232, 1849)
Taxes and state bureucracy
Taxes are the life source of the bureaucracy, the army, the priests, and the court – in short, of the entire apparatus of the executive power. Strong government and heavy taxes are identical. By its very nature, small-holding property forms a basis for an all-powerful and numberless bureaucracy. It creates a uniform level of personal and economic relationships over the whole extent of the country. Hence it also permits uniform action from a supreme center on all points of this uniform mass. It destroys the aristocratic intermediate steps between the mass of the people and the power of the state. On all sides, therefore, it calls forth the direct intrusion of this state power and the interposition of its immediate organs. Finally, it produces an unemployed surplus population which can find no place either on the land or in the towns and which perforce reaches out for state offices as a sort of respectable alms, and provokes the creation of additional state positions. By the new markets which he opened with bayonets, and by the plundering of the Continent, Napoleon repaid the compulsory taxes with interest. These taxes were a spur to the industry of the peasant, whereas now they rob his industry of its last resources and complete his defencelessness against pauperism. An enormous bureaucracy, well gallooned and well fed, is the “Napoleonic idea” which is most congenial to the second Bonaparte. How could it be otherwise, considering that alongside the actual classes of society, he is forced to create an artificial caste for which the maintenance of his régime becomes a bread-and-butter question? Hence one of his first financial operations was the raising of officials’ salaries to their old level and the creation of new sinecures.
(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Chapter VII)
State debts and taxation
As the national debt finds its support in the public revenue, which must cover the yearly payments for interest, &c., the modern system of taxation was the necessary complement of the system of national loans. The loans enable the government to meet extraordinary expenses, without the tax-payers feeling it immediately, but they necessitate, as a consequence, increased taxes. On the other hand, the raising of taxation caused by the accumulation of debts contracted one after another, compels the government always to have recourse to new loans for new extraordinary expenses. Modern fiscality, whose pivot is formed by taxes on the most necessary means of subsistence (thereby increasing their price), thus contains within itself the germ of automatic progression. Overtaxation is not an incident, but rather a principle. In Holland, therefore, where this system was first inaugurated, the great patriot, DeWitt, has in his “Maxims” extolled it as the best system for making the wage labourer submissive, frugal, industrious, and overburdened with labour.
The great part that the public debt, and the fiscal system corresponding with it, has played in the capitalisation of wealth and the expropriation of the masses, has led many writers, like Cobbett, Doubleday and others, to seek in this, incorrectly, the fundamental cause of the misery of the modern peoples.
(Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, 1867).
Taxes equal state
That, in fact, by the word "state" is meant the government machine, or the state insofar as it forms a special organism separated from society through division of labor, is shown by the words "the German Workers' party demands as the economic basis of the state: a single progressive income tax", etc. Taxes are the economic basis of the government machinery and of nothing else. In the state of the future, existing in Switzerland, this demand has been pretty well fulfilled. Income tax presupposes various sources of income of the various social classes, and hence capitalist society. It is, therefore, nothing remarkable that the Liverpool financial reformers — bourgeois headed by Gladstone's brother — are putting forward the same demand as the program.
(Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875)