Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1800

The Closed Commercial State

Source: Socialist Thought. A documentary History, edited by Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1964;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Preliminary Explanation of the Title

The juridical state is made up of a closed mass of men who are subject to the same laws and to the same supreme coercive power. Now, this mass of men ought to be confined to mutual commerce and industry, between themselves and for themselves, and whoever is not subject to this same legislation and coercive power, ought to be excluded from any participation in these transactions. They would then form a commercial state, in fact, a closed commercial state, just as they now form a closed juridical state.

To His Excellency
the most confidential minister of state of the Prussian Kingdom
and Knight of the Order of the Red Eagle
Herr von Struensee,
From the author

May your excellency permit me to place before you, in accordance with the custom of the writers of dedications of former times, my thoughts about the purpose and chances for success of a work that I here publicly dedicate to you as a memento of my desire to do you honor. – Casaubonus, at the beginning of his edition of Polybius, freely discoursed with Henry IV about the study of the ancients, and about the usual prejudices regarding this study. Permit me then, your Excellency, to discourse thus freely with you, before the eyes of the public, on the relationship between the theoretician of politics and the practitioner.

The latter have in all eras granted to the former the right to expound their ideas on the organization and administration of states, without otherwise paying very much heed to these ideas and without having very seriously informed themselves on the subject of the Platonic republics and Utopian constitutions. To be sure, one must grant the reproach of immediate inapplicability that has always been made to the proposals of political theorists; and it is certainly no dishonor to the formulators of these proposals that they have only remained among themselves in an ideal world and have either said as much, or demonstrated it with their deeds. For, just as it is certain that there is order, consequence and precision in their thoughts, so also is it certain that their prescriptions are appropriate only to the state of things that they have assumed or invented, to which their general rules can be applied, as in an arithmetic example. The practitioner of politics does not find this presumed situation directly around him, but finds rather something quite different. It is no wonder that he concludes that the prescription that has nothing to do with this immediate situation does not suit him.

But the philosopher, if he regards his science not as a mere game, but as something serious, will never concede or suppose the absolute inapplicability of his proposals; for, if such were the case, he would then undoubtedly turn his time to something more useful, instead of devoting it to something that he knows to be a mere game of ideas. He will maintain that, if his prescriptions are not immediately applicable when they are proposed in purely theoretical form, they nevertheless apply in their highest generality to everything, even though not to any particular thing, and that for an actual given situation, they need only be made more specific – just as a knowledge of the general relationship among the sides and angles of a triangle does not help a man to know the length or degree of a single side or angle in a field, so that he must always use some kind of measuring-stick and compass; but once he knows the general relationships in this particular situation, he can then arrive at the rest through pure calculation, instead of having to go through the task of measuring.

This process of further specifying the general rule that is to be applied to pure public law is what, in my opinion, the science which I am about to define consists of. I call this science politics; and I hold it to be the business of speculative philosophers as such (for it goes without saying that the practitioner of politics could just as easily be a speculative philosopher – and that perhaps the opposite could be true also). For a treatise that proclaims itself to be political, the accusation that its proposals are inapplicable, and proof that this is so, would be more dishonorable than would be the case for a work in public law. For truly, in my opinion, politics, which is certainly just a science and not a set of practical procedures, does not proceed from a particular state, for if it did, then there would be no general politics, but only particular politics for England, for France, for Prussia, and furthermore, only particularly for these states in the year 1800, and only particularly in the autumn of the year 1800, and so on. But politics proceeds rather from the situation which can be said to be common to just about all the states of the great European republic in this era. The practitioner of politics must always apply the ever-general rule in the particular situation, and must apply it a little differently in every particular situation; the general rule thus keeps coming nearer to the application.

If a political program were to be worked out on the basis of this idea, in conjunction with an exact comprehension of the present situation, and on the basis of solid principles of public right, with their exact consequences, it would not appear useless to anyone, in my opinion, except the pure empiric, who has no faith generally in ideas or calculations, but holds only to the affirmations of immediate experience. He would reject this program as containing no facts, but only ideas and suppositions of fact – in a word, because it would not be history. Such a politician has stored up in his memory a number of cases and successful measures that others have taken before him in similar situations. Whatever happens to him, he thinks of this or that situation which occurred in the past, and conducts himself like this or that politician, after dragging up one after another from the grave and setting them up anew for his own generation; he thus assembles his political career out of greatly varied fragments from very different men, without himself adding anything to it. One need only ask such a man, who was being imitated by the men who first applied the measures that are now being sanctioned and imitated by him, and upon what principle they relied in seizing upon those measures – previous experience, or calculation? One must remember that everything that is now old, was at some time new, and that the human species could not possibly have fallen so low in recent times that only memory and the capacity for imitation have remained to it. He would have to be shown that the progress of the human species, which has taken place without his help and which he cannot stop, has wrought so many changes that it has become necessary to work out measures entirely different from any that bad ever been thought of in previous times. One could hold up in opposition to him an historical study that would perhaps be instructive, dealing with the question whether more evil has been produced in the world by daring innovations, or by a passive attachment to ancient measures that are no longer either sufficient or applicable.

Whether the present treatise has lived up to the abovementioned demands for an examination of the foundations of politics, the author will not attempt to answer by himself. In the face of its proposal to close the commercial state in the same fashion that the juridical state is closed, and of the decisive means to this end – the elimination of world currency and its replacement by national currencies – it is quite clear that no state that does not have to accept this proposal will want to do so, and that such a state will not have the promised advantages of this measure; that the proposal would thus be undecided upon, and, therefore, would never be carried out, since whatever men cannot decide upon comes to be considered impossible of execution. The grounds for this unwillingness, well-thought out or not, will be that Europe has, in the field of commerce, great advantages over the rest of the world; that it takes the resources and products of the rest of the world for itself, to an extent far greater than what its own resources and products could provide; that each European state, no matter how unfavorable may be its balance of trade with the other European states, nevertheless derives some advantage from this common exploitation of the rest of the world, and never gives up the hope that it can swing the balance of trade in its favor and thus derive a still greater advantage from the present arrangement. All these advantages it would surely have to forsake if it were to step out of the great European community of commerce. In order to do away with this ground for unwillingness, it must be demonstrated that a relationship like that of Europe with the rest of the world, which is not founded upon right and equity, cannot possibly endure. This demonstration lies outside the limits of my present task. But even if it were carried out, someone could still say to me: “Until now, at least, this relationship has endured – the submission of the colonies to the mother countries has endured, the slave-trade has endured – and we shall not see any of them come to an end in our own lifetime. For as long as they last, then, let us take advantage of them; the era in which these things are to be abolished can work out for itself how to set things aright. The men of that time can try to see if they can profit in some way from your ideas. We can have no desire for your goal, and therefore have no need for any advice as to how to achieve it.” I admit that I have no answer to this.

The author therefore resigns himself to the possibility that this project may remain a mere academic exercise without any success in the real world; a link in the chain of the system that he is developing little by little. He will be satisfied if, in making this system known to others, he gives them occasion to think more deeply about these matters, and perhaps leads one or two men from the spheres beyond which no one at present would ever want to go, to some useful and applicable discovery; and he limits himself to these aims quite specifically and after mature reflection. ...