The creation of a vast new class of property-less proletarians as described in Chapter 27 presented immediate difficulties because there was not enough wage-labour to employ so many people (Marx 1990: 898):
“On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wanted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own goodwill to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.” (Marx 1906: 806).Marx surveys this legislation in England as follows:
(1) “Henry VIII. 1530: Beggars old and unable to work receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then to swear an oath to go back to their birthplace or to where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour.’ … In 27 Henry VIII. the former statute is repeated, but strengthened with new clauses. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off ; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal” (Marx 1906: 806).The process proceeded as follows:
(2) “Edward VI.: A statute of the first year of his reign, 1547, ordains that if anyone refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth and such refuse meat as he thinks fit He has the right to force him to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains. If the slave is absent a fortnight, he is condemned to slavery for life and is to be branded on forehead or back with the letter S; if he runs away thrice, he is to be executed as a felon” (Marx 1906: 806).
(3) “Elizabeth, 1572: Unlicensed beggars above 14 years of age are to be severely flogged and branded on the left ear unless some one will take them into service for two years; in case of a repetition of the offence, if they are over 18, they are to be executed, unless some one will take them into service for two years; but for the third offence they are to be executed without mercy as felons.” (Marx 1906: 807).
(4) “James I: Any one wandering about and begging is declared a rogue and a vagabond. Justices of the peace in petty sessions are authorised to have them publicly whipped and for the first offence to imprison them for 6 months, for the second for 2 years. Whilst in prison they are to be whipped as much and as often as the justices of the peace think fit . . . Incorrigible and dangerous rogues are to be branded with an E, on the left shoulder and set to hard labour, and if they are caught begging again, to be executed without mercy. These statutes, legally binding until the beginning of the 18th century, were only repealed by 12 Ann, c. 23.” (Marx 1906: 807–808).
“Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.It is interesting here to note Marx’s view of wages in capitalism:
It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of nature. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.” (Marx 1906: 808–809).
“The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements.” (Marx 1990: 899).The narrow limits, as Marx explains in Chapter 25 and elsewhere, are around the subsistence wage, the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour power.
But, in the early stages of capitalism, there was no such equilibrium process to control wages and workers, and so capitalists needed state power to do so:
“It is otherwise during the historic genesis of capitalist production. The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the state to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e., to force them within the limits suitable for surplus-value making, to lengthen the working-day and to keep the labourer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation.These laws fixed a scale of wages and punished the payment of wages higher than the legal limit (Marx 1990: 901).
The class of wage-labourers, which arose in the latter half of the 14th century, formed then and in the following century only a very small part of the population, well protected in its position by the independent peasant proprietary in the country and the guild-organization in the town. In country and town master and workman stood close together socially. The subordination of labour to capital was only formal—i.e., the mode of production itself had as yet no specific capitalistic character. Variable capital preponderated greatly over constant. The demand for wage-labour grew, therefore, rapidly with every accumulation of capital, whilst the supply of wage-labour followed but slowly. A large part of the national product, changed later into a fund of capitalist accumulation, then still entered into the consumption fund of the labourer.
Legislation on wage-labour, (from the first, aimed at the exploitation of the labourer and, as it advanced, always equally hostile to him), is started in England by the Statute of Labourers, of Edward III., 1349. The ordinance of 1350 in France, issued in the name of King John, corresponds with it. English and French legislation run parallel and are identical in purport. So far as the labour-statutes aim at compulsory extension of the working-day … .” (Marx 1906: 809–810).
Organised labour was also made illegal:
“All combinations, contracts, oaths, &c., by which masons and carpenters reciprocally bound themselves, were declared null and void. Coalition of the labourers is treated as a heinous crime from the 14th century to 1825, the year of the repeal of the laws against Trades' Unions. The spirit of the Statute of Labourers of 1349 and of its offshoots, comes out clearly in the fact, that indeed a maximum of wages is dictated by the State, but on no account a minimum.” (Marx 1906: 810–811).Such laws to regulate wages and to forbid workers’ combinations were re-issued in the 16th and 18th centuries (Marx 1990: 901–902).
Eventually, some of these laws were repealed, but Marx thought that even in the late 19th century British law still inhibited trade union activity:
“Finally, in 1813, the laws for the regulation of wages were repealed. They were an absurd anomaly, since the capitalist regulated his factory by his private legislation, and could by the poor-rates make up the wage of die agricultural labourer to the indispensable minimum. The provisions of the labour statutes as to contracts between master and workman, as to giving notice and the like, which only allows of a civil action against the contract-breaking master, but on the contrary permit a criminal action against the contract-breaking workman, are to this hour (1873) in full force. The barbarous laws against Trades’ Unions fell in 1825 before the threatening bearing of the proletariat. Despite this, they fell only in part. Certain beautiful fragments of the old statute vanished only in 1859. Finally, the act of Parliament of June 29, 1871, made a pretence of removing the last traces of this class of legislation by legal recognition of Trades Unions. But an act of Parliament of the same date (an act to amend the criminal law relating to violence, threats, and molestation), re-established, in point of fact, the former state of things in a new shape. By this Parliamentary escamotage the means which the labourers could use in a strike or lock-out were withdrawn from the laws common to all citizens, and placed under exceptional penal legislation, the interpretation of which fell to the masters themselves in their capacity as justices of the peace. Two years earlier, the same House of Commons and the same Mr. Gladstone in the well-known straightforward fashion brought in a bill for the abolition of all exceptional penal legislation against the working-class. But this was never allowed to go beyond the second reading, and the matter was thus protracted until at last the ‘great Liberal party,’ by an alliance with the Tories, found courage to turn against the very proletariat that had carried it into power. Not content with this treachery, the ‘great Liberal party’ allowed the English judges, ever complaisant in the service of the ruling classes, to dig up again the earlier laws against ‘conspiracy,’ and to apply them to coalitions of labourers. We see that only against its will and under the pressure of the masses did the English Parliament give up the laws against Strikes and Trades’ Unions, after it had itself, for 500 years, held, with shameless egoism, the position of a permanent Trades’ Union of the capitalists against the labourers.” (Marx 1906: 812–813).Despite Marx’s negative views on the ability of trade unions to organise under 19th century laws, the fact remains that organised labour became more and more powerful under capitalism.
A major economic phenomenon that Marx badly missed was the increasing downwards nominal wage rigidity in the later 19th century.
For example, Hanes (1993) concludes that 19th century American nominal wages had already become relatively inflexible by the 1890s (Hanes 1993: 733–734).
This development was not so much the consequence of organised, formal trade union activity, because, generally speaking, US trade unions were weak in the late 19th century in terms of numbers and membership, and they faced hostility from the courts and government, and even when they existed they could not generally create binding legal employment contracts with employers, because the courts did not recognise them (Hanes 1993: 750–751).
But the informal organised labour activity still had a powerful effect. Hanes (1993: 751) contends that strikes were still a widespread phenomenon amongst non-unionised workers, and that the spread of large-scale manufacturing firms with large masses of workers was, paradoxically, a major factor that allowed informal labour organisation and industrial strife: eventually industrial capitalists decided it was too costly to regularly reduce money wages in recessions, and so increasing money wage rigidity was accepted by private firms (Hanes 1993: 733–734). A similar phenomenon probably happened in Britain.
But, once again, Marx missed this trend and the reality of rising real wages in 19th century capitalism.
Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Hanes, Christopher. 1993. “The Development of Nominal Wage Rigidity in the Late 19th Century,” The American Economic Review 83.4: 732–756.
Harvey, David. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso, London and New York.
Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.
Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, London.