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

Struggle for a Normal Working Day
Laws to Enforce the Extension of the Working Day, Passed from the Middle of the Fourteenth to the End of the Seventeenth Century

THE WORKING DAY: struggle for a normal working day; laws to enforce the extension of the working day, passed from the middle of the 14th to the end of the 17th century

. . . When there is a boom on the stock exchange every one who takes part in the swindle knows that sooner or later the crash will come, but each man hopes that the disaster will involve his neighbors, after he himself has gone into safe shelter with a goodly share of loot. "After me, the deluge!" is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.

Capital, therefore, is reckless as regards illness or premature death of the workers, unless forced to pay heed to these matters, forced by social compulsion. When complaints are voiced regarding physical and mental degeneration, early death and the tortures of overwork, the capitalists answer: "Why should these things trouble us, since they increase our profits?" From a broad viewpoint, however, such matters do not depend upon the good will or the evil will of individual capitalists. Owing to free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production hold sway irresistibly over every individual capitalist.

The establishment of a normal working day is the outcome of centuries of struggle between capitalist and worker. The history of this struggle shows two conflicting trends. Compare, for instance, the British factory legislation of our own time [c. 1867] with the English Labor Statutes from the fourteenth century to well on into the middle of the eighteenth century. Whereas modern factory legislation curtails the working day by legal compulsion, the Labor Statutes were designed to lengthen it compulsorily. Of course the claims put forward by capital in its infant state when it had only just come into being -- when it could not secure a sufficiency of surplus labor by the mere force of economic circumstances, when it established its right to absorb surplus labor only with the aid of State power -- these early claims seem modest in comparison with the concessions which it is reluctantly forced to make in its maturity. Centuries must pass ere the "free" worker, under stress of the developed method of capitalist production, voluntarily agrees (i.e., is compelled by social conditions) to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity for labor, his birthright, for a mess of pottage. . . .

Throughout the greater part of the eighteenth century, down to the period when large-scale industry began, capital in England had not yet succeeded in getting possession of the whole of the worker's week in return for the payment of the weekly value of his labor power, -- except in the case of the agricultural laborers. The fact that they could live for a whole week upon the wages of four days did not seem to the workers any reason why they should work the other two weekdays for the capitalist. One section of English economists, writing in the interests of capital, denounced this obstinacy in the most savage terms; another section defended the workers. . . .

This is what Postlethwayt has to say: "I must beg leave to differ in sentiment from those great politicians who contend for the perpetual slavery of the working people of this kingdom; they forget the vulgar adage 'all work and no play'.". . .Were they obliged to toil all the year, six days in the week, in a repetition of the same work, might it not blunt their ingenuity, and render them stupid instead of alert and dexterous; and might not our workmen lose their reputation instead of maintaining it by such eternal slavery? . . .And what sort of workmanship could we expect from such hard-driven animals?

. . . The author of the Essay on Trade and Commerce replies:

. . ."Our populace have adopted a notion that as Englishmen they enjoy a birthright privilege of being more free and independent than workers in any other country in Europe. Now, this idea, as far as it may affect the bravery of our troops, may be of some use; but the less the manufacturing poor have of it, certainly the better for themselves and for the State.". . .With this end in view, and for the purpose of "extirpating idleness, debauchery, and excess," of promoting a spirit of industry, of "lowering the price of labor in our manufactories and easing the lands of the heavy burden of poor's rates," our faithful champion of capital advocates a well-tried means.

The workers who become dependent on public support, paupers in a word, are to be confined in "an ideal workhouse." Such an ideal workhouse must be made "a House of Terror," and not an asylum for the poor, not a place "where they are to be plentifully fed, warmly and decently clothed, and where they do but little work." In this "House of Terror," this "ideal workhouse," the poor "shall work 14 hours in a day, allowing proper time for meals, in such manner that there shall remain 12 hours of neat labor.". . . .

The "House of Terror" for paupers, of which capitalists were already dreaming in 1770, came into existence a few years later in the shape of a gigantic Workhouse for the industrial workers. It was called a factory. The ideal paled before the reality. . . .