The Labor Question (November 1853)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 28 November 1853

Written on November 11-12, 1853
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune
First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 3936, November 28, 1853;
reprinted in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 888, November 29, 1853
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.460-463), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
Collection(s): New York Tribune

The fact that Marx used the material published in The People's Paper for November 12, 1853 in his article datelined November 11, 1853 shows that either this issue of the newspaper appeared earlier than the date which it bears or, which is more likely, Marx had access to this and other material in advance. This article, as can be seen from the entry in Marx's notebook, was dispatched to the New York Daily Tribune together with Engels's article "The Russian Defeats" as a single report. However, the newspaper editors divided it in two parts and published Engels' text as a leader and the text written by Marx as a separate article under his signature in the issue of November 28.

London, Friday, Nov. 11, 1853

Golden opportunities, and the use made of them, is the title of one of the most tragi-comical effusions of the grave and profoundEconomist[1]. The "golden opportunities" were, of course, afforded by free trade, and the "use" or rather "abuse" made of them refers to the working classes.

"The working classes, for the first time, had their future in their own hands! The population of the United Kingdom began actually to diminish, the emigration carrying off more than its natural increase. How have the workingmen used their opportunity? What have they done? Just what they used to do formerly, on every recurrence of temporary sunshine, married and multiplied as fast as possible. [...] At this rate of increase it will not be long before emigration is effectually counterbalanced, and the golden opportunity thrown away."

The golden opportunity of not marrying and not multiplying, except at the orthodox rate allowed by Malthus and his disciples! Golden morality this! But, till now, according to The Economist itself, population has diminished, and has not yet counterbalanced emigration. Overpopulation, then, will not account for the disasters of the times.

"The next use the laboring classes should have made of their rare occasion ought to have been to accumulate savings and become capitalists. [...] In scarcely one instance do they seem to have [...] risen, or begun to rise, into the rank of capitalists. [...] They have thrown away their opportunity."

The opportunity of becoming capitalists! At the same time The Economist tells the workingmen that, after they had at last obtained ten per cent. on their former earnings, they were able to pocket 16s. 6d. a week instead of 15s. Now, the mean wages are too highly calculated at 15s. per week. But never mind. How to become a capitalist out of 15 shillings a week! That is a problem worthy of study. The workingmen had the false idea that in order to ameliorate their situation they must try to ameliorate their incomes. "They have struck," says The Economist, "for more than would have done them any service." With 15 shillings a week they had the very opportunity of becoming capitalists, but with 16s. 6d. this opportunity would be gone. On the one hand workingmen must keep hands scarce and capital abundant, in order to be able to force on the capitalists a rise of wages. But if capital turns out to be abundant and labor to be scarce, they must by no means avail themselves of that power for the acquisition of which they were to stop marrying and multiplying. "They have lived more luxuriously." Under the Corn Laws, we are told by the same Economist, they were but half-fed, half-clothed, and more or less starved. If they were then to live at all, how could they contrive to live less luxuriously than before? The tables of importation were again and again unfolded by The Economist, to prove the growing prosperity of the people and the soundness of the business done. What was thus proclaimed as a test of the unspeakable blessings of free trade, is now denounced as a proof of the foolish extravagance of the working classes. We remain, however, at a loss to understand how importation can go on increasing with a decreasing population and a declining consumption; how exportation can continue to rise with diminishing importation, and how industry and commerce can expand themselves with imports and exports contracted.

"The third use made of the golden opportunity should have been to procure the best possible education for themselves and their children, so as to fit themselves for the improvement in their circumstances, and to learn how to turn it to the best account. Unhappily, we are obliged to state that [...] schools have seldom been so ill attended, or school fees so ill paid."

Is there anything marvellous in this fact? Brisk trade was synonymous with enlarged factories, with increased application of machinery, with more adult laborers being replaced by women and children, with prolonged hours of work. The more the mill was attended by the mother and the child, the less could the school be frequented. And, after all, of what sort of education would you have given the opportunity to the parents and their children? The opportunity of learning how to keep population at the pace described by Malthus, says The Economist. Education, says Mr. Cobden, would show the men that filthy, badly ventilated, overstocked lodgings, are not the best means of conserving health and vigor. As well might you save a man from starving by telling him that the laws of Nature demand a perpetual supply -of food for the human body. Education, says The Daily News, would have informed our working classes how to extract nutritive substance out of dry bones how to make tea cakes of starch, and how to boil soup with devil's dust.

If we sum up then the golden opportunities which have thus been thrown away by the working classes, they consist of the golden opportunity of not marrying, of the opportunity of living less luxuriously, of not asking for higher wages, of becoming capitalists at 15 shillings a week, and of learning how to keep the body together with coarser food, and how to degrade the soul with the pestiferous doctrines of Malthus.

On Friday last Ernest Jones visited the town of Preston to address the factory-hands locked out of the mills, on the labor question. By the appointed time at least 15,000 persons (the Preston Pilot estimates the number at 12,000) had assembled on the ground, and Mr. Jones, on proceeding to the spot, was received with an enthusiastic welcome[2]. I give some extracts from his speech:

"Why have these struggles been? Why are they now? Why will they return? Because the fountains of your life are sealed by the hand of Capital, that quaffs its golden goblet to the lees and gives the dregs to you. Why are you locked out of life when you are locked out of the factory? Because you have no other factory to go to—no other means of working for your bread. [...] What gives the capitalist this tremendous power? That he holds all the means of employment.... The means of work is, therefore, the hinge on which the future of the people turns.... It is a mass movement of all trades, a national movement of the working classes, that can alone achieve a triumphant result.... Sectionalize and localize your struggle and you may fail—nationalize it and you are sure to win."

Mr. George Cowell in very complimentary terms moved, and Mr. John Matthews seconded, a vote of thanks to Ernest Jones for his visit to Preston and the services he was rendering to the cause of labor.

Great exertions had been made on the part of the manufacturers to prevent Ernest Jones visiting the town; no hall could be had for the purpose, and bills were accordingly printed in Manchester convening an open-air meeting. The report had been industriously circulated by some self-interested parties, that Mr. Jones was going to oppose the strike, and sow division among the men, and letters had been sent that it would not be personally safe for him to visit Preston.

  1. The Economist, No. 532, November 5, 1853.—Ed.
  2. When describing Jones and other speakers at the meeting in Preston on November 4, 1853, Marx closely followed the article "Immense Demonstration at Preston" published in The People's Paper, No. 80. The quotation from Jones' speech is given according to that article.—Ed.