Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

page 11. PRIMARY ACCUMULATION
Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards
Acts of Parliament to force down wages [3/3]


PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards -- Acts of Parliament to force down wages

By the sixteenth century the position of the workers had become much worse than in the fourteenth. Money wages had risen, but not proportionally to the depreciation of the currency and the corresponding rise in the prices of commodities. Real wages, therefore, had fallen. Nevertheless the laws for keeping wages down remained in force, together with the prescription of ear-clipping and branding for those "whom no one is willing to take into service." By chapter 3 of the Statute of Apprentices, passed in the fifth year of Elizabeth, justices of the peace had been empowered to fix wages and to modify them according to the season of the year and the price of commodities. Under James I these labor regulations were extended to weavers, spinners, and workers of all kinds. In the reign of George II the laws against combinations of workers were made applicable to all manufactures.

In the manufacturing period, properly so-called, the capitalist method of production had made so much headway that legal regulation of wages had become impracticable and superfluous; still, it was thought advisable to keep the old weapons in the arsenal for use should necessity arise. . . .

How completely circumstances had changed meanwhile is shown by something quite unprecedented that happened in the Lower House. Although for more than four hundred years that assembly had been passing laws prescribing a maximum beyond which wages must on no account rise, we now find, in 1796, Whitbread advocating the legal fixation of a minimum wage for agricultural workers. . . .

At length, in 1813, the laws for the regulation of wages were repealed. They had become a ridiculous anomaly now that the capitalists ruled their factories by private legislation; and now that, through the instrumentality of the poor rate, the wages of the landworkers were supplemented to reach an indispensable minimum. The provisions of the labor statutes regarding contracts between masters and wage workers, concerning notice and the like, which allow a worker to bring proceedings in a civil court only when a master breaks his contract, while permitting criminal proceedings to be taken against a worker who does the same thing, are in force. The barbarous laws against combination were abolished in 1825, thanks to the threatening attitude of the proletariat. Nevertheless, the abolition was incomplete. . . .At length parliament, by the Act of June 29, 1871, made a pretense of removing the last traces of this class legislation by the legal recognition of trade unions. But an Act of the same date, entitled An Act to Amend the Criminal Law relating to Violence, Threats, and Molestation, substantially reestablished the old state of affairs in a new form. By this parliamentary sleight of hand, the means available to the workers during a strike or a lock-out were withdrawn from the field of the laws applying to citizens in general, and subjected to exceptional penal legislation, the interpretation of which was placed in the hands of the factory owners, in their capacity of justices of the peace. . . .

We see that only with reluctance, and under pressure from the masses, did the English parliament repeal the laws against strikes and trade unions, after having for five centuries, with unblushing selfishness, itself played the part of a permanent trade union of capitalists directed against the workers. . . .