The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx

5. The Working-Day

Under given conditions – the level of the productivity of labour, the needs of the working class, etc. – the necessary labour-time is a definite magnitude. In our example we have assumed this magnitude to be a hours. It goes without saying that under no mode of production could the working-day be less than the necessary working-time. It must be longer than the latter under the capitalist mode of production. The longer the surplus labour-time, the greater – other conditions being equal – the rate of surplus-value. The capitalist endeavours to extend the working-day as much as possible. Most of all he would like to keep the worker working for 24 hours without interruption. [1]

But the worker eventually collapses if he is not allowed a pause for rest, for sleep, and for meals. The capitalist, however, endeavours to shorten these pauses as much as possible, and to claim the services of the worker during the whole of the remaining time. Labour-power cannot be separated from the labourer, and during the whole time that the use-value of labour-power belongs to the capitalist, the person of the labourer also belongs to him. Every minute of the labour-time which the worker employs for himself appears to the capitalist as theft from his own capital. But precisely because labour-power and the labourer are indissolubly bound up with each other, the interest of the latter demands the greatest possible shortening of labour-time. During the production process he is only a part of capital; under the capitalist mode of production he does not become a man until he has ceased working. But by the side of this moral motive for the shortening of the labour-time, there also exists a material motive. Capital strives to take more than is due to it according to the rules of commodity exchange.

If the capitalist buys the daily labour-time at its value, its use-value is only accorded him for one day; that is, he may utilise the labour-power daily for only so long as would not impair the recuperation of the worker. If any one purchases the yield of an apple tree, and, with the object of extracting as much profit as possible from the tree, not only shakes down the apples, but also saws off a branch, in order to utilise the wood, he breaks the contract into which he has entered; in future years the tree will not yield as much fruit as formerly. The same thing happens if the capitalist causes the worker to work excessively long hours. This is done at the expense of the worker’s capacity for work and duration of life. If, consequent upon overwork, the worker’s capacity for work is reduced from forty to twenty years, this means that capital has on an average used up the use-values of two working days in one day; capital has paid the worker for the labour-power of one day, and appropriated the labour-power of two days. The capitalist preaches to the workers thrift, and even prudence, the while he makes them waste the sole thing they possess, their labour-power. [2]

We are not dealing here with the capitalist as a private person, but as the representative of the capitalist mode of production whose commands he executes, irrespective of whether he is influenced by personal greed or is driven by competition.

We perceive here an antagonism between the interests of the working class and of the capitalist class. The former strives to shorten the working-day as much as possible, the latter to lengthen it as much as possible. The result of the division between the two classes is a struggle which is still going on to-day, but which commenced centuries ago and was historically of the highest significance. In this struggle the working proletarians recognised the solidarity of their interests; it was the chief driving force behind the consolidation of the workers as a class and the development of the Labour Movement as a political movement. The most important among the practical results of this struggle up to date is the State regulation of the length of the working-day, the normal working-day.

In England, the motherland of modern industry, the conditions and causes of this struggle developed the soonest and in the most acute forms, and there earlier than elsewhere the struggle broke out. “The English factory workers were the prize fighters not only of the English, but, of the modern working class generally, just as their theorists first threw down the gauntlet to the theorists of capital.” The struggle over the length of the working day and its causes, are nowhere to be followed so distinctly as in England, whose Press, parliamentary debates, commissions of inquiry, and official reports, especially those of the factory inspectors, have furnished such ample material as is to be found in no other State, a material which was unique when Marx completed the first part of Capital in 1868.

Marx has therefore only described in detail the struggle for the normal working-day as it was fought out in England. His exposition is supplemented by Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. This book only deals with conditions up to the year 1844, that of Marx only up to 1866. Nevertheless, their descriptions of the struggle for the normal working-day possess more than a mere historical interest. The conditions which they describe, the tricks and subterfuges practised by capital in order to prolong the working-day as much as possible, or to render its enforced curtailment illusory, the attitude of political parties and of the working class towards these machinations – all this is so typical that the corresponding later development on the Continent seems only to be an echo of the English. The conditions which Engels described in the ’forties and Marx in the ’sixties were in active operation in the ’eighties and ’nineties. The scanty material, the private investigations and official information concerning German and Austrian industrial conditions, which came to light in the last two decades of the last century, was nothing but an eloquent illustration of the contentions of Capital.

Marx says in his preface that he has given so large a space in the first volume of his work “to the history, the details, and the results of English factory legislation,” because one nation may and should learn from another, and because their own interests dictated to the ruling classes the removal of all legally removable hindrances to the free development of the working class. Moreover, Marx’s demonstrations have not been entirely without result. The facts which he adduced were so striking, so irrefutable, that they could not fail to make an impression, not only upon the working class, but also upon the reflecting members of the ruling classes. The progress of factory legislation in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany are not least due to the effect which Capital produced.

But the number of reflecting members of the bourgeoisie and of those who are not dominated by class prejudices is still slight, as is also the influence of the working class, and the prepondering impression made on us in reading the sections of Capital devoted to factory legislation is not one of satisfaction with what has been achieved, but of shame at the colossal ignorance which still prevails among us concerning factory legislation and which made it possible for opinions to be uttered in European Parliaments which had long since been refuted in England by the logic of facts.

It is impossible to give here a detailed account of what is set forth in Capital concerning the working-day. We recommend everybody who can do so to study in Capital itself the details of the conditions in the English branches of industry where the working-day was unrestricted by law, such as night-work, the relay system, and finally the struggle for the normal working-day. There are no better weapons for labour protection legislation than the eighth and thirteenth chapters of Capital.

Even to-day, nearly sixty years after the appearance of the first volume of Capital, its arguments are always readable, because, although many facts have altered, the fundamental principles remain unchanged.

Generally speaking, we are able to trace two antagonistic tendencies with respect to the State regulation of the working-day in England. From the fourteenth to the end of the seventeenth century laws wore passed for the prolongation of the working-day. From the beginning of the nineteenth the tendency of legislation has been in the direction of its curtailment.

At the beginning of the development of the capitalist mode of production capital was still too weak to extract a respectable quantity of surplus-value from the worker by the mere pressure of economic conditions. Even in the eighteenth century complaints were raised that the industrial workers of England only worked four days a week, as they earned sufficient in this time to keep them for the whole week. In order to depress wagon and prolong the working-time, it was then proposed to shut up vagabonds and beggars in a workhouse, which should be a House of Terror. In this “House of Terror” the working-day was to be twelve hours.

A hundred years later, in the “century of humanity,” it was ascertained by a Commission of Inquiry that in the Staffordshire potteries children of seven were employed day after day for fifteen hours at a stretch.

Capital no longer needed compulsory legislation and the House of Correction to compel the workers to perform surplus-labour; it had become an economic power to which the workers were obliged to submit. From the last third of the eighteenth century onwards a veritable race after surplus-labour commenced in England, one capitalist attempted to outbid another in the immoderate extension of the labour-time.

The working class decayed fearfully, both physically and morally; it visibly degenerated from year to year; even the constant recruitment of vigour through the emigration of agricultural workers into the factory districts could not check the process of destruction. “The cotton industry is ninety years old,” Mr. Ferrand was able to exclaim in the House of Parliament in 1863. “In three generations of the English race it has used up nine generations of cotton spinners.”

The manufacturers did not allow themselves to be disconcerted by this. In spite of the rapid consumption of human life, there was no diminution in the labour-power at their disposal: from the countryside, from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, the candidates for death flocked in multitudes to the English factory districts and to London, driven from their homes by the decay of domestic industry, and the transformation of arable land into pasture, etc.

Although the prospect of the extinction of the population of England did not prevent the manufacturing-class as such from extending the working-day, it was bound to arouse the solicitude of English statesmen, who did not belong to the manufacturing class, and even the solicitude of the far-seeing members of this class itself. What would become of England, what would become of English industry if her population were so unceasingly absorbed by capitalism.

Just as it became necessary in all capitalist States to impose as many restrictions as possible upon the devastation of woods and forests by capital, so the necessity imposed itself of setting limits to the callous exploitation of the national labour-power. The statesmen who perceived this necessity were urged forward by the English Labour Movement, the first modern movement of this kind.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Robert Owen had put forward the demand for a limitation of the working-day, and actually introduced into his factory a working-day of 10½ hours, which was attended by great success. The Labour Movement, which rapidly grew after the eighteen twenties and was organised as the Chartist Party after 1835, extorting one concession after another from the ruling classes of England, had set before it as its chief object universal suffrage and the 10-hour working-day.

With what obstinacy and bitterness the struggle was pursued, how capitalists and lawyers exerted all their ingenuity to render nugatory every concession extorted, with what courage and what energy the factory inspectors championed the cause of the working class, even against the State Ministers – above all Leonard Homer, whose memory should be cherished by every worker; how the Free Traders promised the workers the 10-hour working-day so long as they needed their support, only to break their promise in the most cynical manner once they had carried out the abolition of the Corn Laws; how finally the threatening attitude of the workers compelled the fixing of the 10-hour working-day for certain categories of labour, at least – all this is described fully and vividly, with abundant quotations, in Capital.

With the beginning of the ’fifties the English Labour Movement passed into smoother waters. It could not escape the reaction of the defeat of the working class in Paris, as well as of the momentary overthrow of the Revolution upon the entire Continent. On the other hand, the essentials of the aims of the Chartist Movement were being realised more and more, and at the same time English industry entered upon a period of great prosperity, at the expense of the industry of other countries, into the whirlpool of which the English working class was also drawn, so that it came to imagine that an identity existed between the interests of English Capital and English Labour as against foreign Capital and Labour.

Nevertheless, English factory legislation made steady progress, even during this peaceful period. By the Act of the 27th May, 1878, the whole of the legislation between 1802 and 1874, which comprised sixteen different factory Acts, was simplified and codified. The most important advance represented by this Act consisted in the removal of the distinction between factory and workplace. Since then Labour protection has applied not merely to factories, but also to smaller workplaces, and to a certain extent to domestic industry. The protection of this law does not extend to adult men, but only to children, young persons, and women. The Act of 1878 was then improved by a series of further Acts, amongst which the Acts of 1891 and 1901 wore specially important. Children under 12 years of age are entirely excluded from industrial labour Children from 12 to 14 may only work daily half as long as young persons (from 14 to 18 years) and women. For the latter the weekly labour-time amounts to 60 hours, except for textile factories, in which only 56 hours are permitted. Sunday work is prohibited for protected persons, as well as work on Christmas Day and Good Friday. Moreover, young persons have the right to an annual holiday of 8 half and 4 whole days, half of which, at least, must be granted between the 15th March and the 1st October.

The effect of these laws in the majority of cases was to limit the working-time of men to 10 hours, where the latter were employed with women and children. But how necessary is an extension of the protection to men is shown by the miserable plight of the English workers in such unprotected branches of labour as, owing to the absence of favourable conditions do not form a favoured class, an aristocracy of labour.

The consequences of the normal working week were surprisingly favourable. By it the working class of England was actually saved from destruction, and English industry from stagnation. Far from hindering the development of industry, the introduction of the 10-hour day was followed by a colossal, hitherto unprecedented, expansion of English industry. The normal working-day has become a national institution in the country of Manchesterdom, and nobody any longer dreams of subverting it. The manufacturers themselves, who at first combated with all their energy the introduction and then the enforcement of the normal working-day, later on proudly smote their breasts and declared it to be one of the foundations of the superiority of English industry over that of the European Continent.

The example of England and the development of capitalism with its consequences in Continental countries created in the latter the necessity for a regulation of labour-time, which was then carried out in a more or less thorough manner, according to the strength of the Labour Movement and the insight of the ruling political parties.

The most far-reaching among the Continental laws for the protection of labour was decidedly that of republican Switzerland. The Federal Act of the 23rd March, 1877, which supplanted the various Cantonal Factory Acts – so far as the latter existed at that time – established an 11-hours working-day for all workers employed in factories. It went farther than the English law, which did not protect adult men; it remained behind this law in so far as it fixed the maximum labour-time at 11 instead of 10 hours, and left the smaller workplaces and domestic industry outside its scope. Children under 14 might not work in factories at all; for children between 14 and 16 the period of instruction together with work in the factory might not exceed 11 hours.

France revived her first factory Act in 1841. This Act fixed the daily labour-time of children between 8 and 12 at 8 hours, that of children between 12 and 16 at 12 hours. But miserable as this law was, it remained a dead letter, as also did the 12-hour normal working-day for all workplaces and factories, which was passed into law in 1849 under the pressure of the Revolution. It made no provision for inspectors to supervise the execution of the law. It was not until the Act of the 19th May, 1874, that a serious beginning was made with labour protection legislation. This Act prohibited all child labour under the age of 10 and for certain branches of industry under the age of 12. The working-day of children between 10 and 12 was limited to 6 hours, that of young persons between 12 and 16 to 12 hours. For the execution of this law State factory inspectors were appointed, with local committees to support them.

In 1892 this Act was improved. The employment of children under 12 was prohibited, the maximum working-day for children between 12 and 18 was fixed at 10 hours, for young persons between 16 and 18, at 11 hours daily or 60 hours weekly at the most, for adult woman workers at 11 hours.

Repeated attempts to substitute a 10-hour for the 11-hour working day broke down on the opposition of the Senate. Eventually Millerand succeeded in effecting a compromise. By the Act of the 30th March, 1900, the working-day was fixed at 10 hours for all classes of workers in factories where women and children work together with men, but this improvement was purchased at the expense of the children. For the working-day was fixed at an equal length for all classes of workers, including children of 12. During the first two years after the Act came into force the working-day was 11 hours; during the following two years 10½ hours, and then the 10-hours day was really enforced. Temporarily the labour-time of the workers most needing protection, the children, was even prolonged.

In Austria the 11-hours normal working-day for factories has existed since the 11th June, 1885, albeit with the proviso that the Minister of Commerce is permitted to prolong the working-day by one hour for certain branches of industry. This exception frequently tended to become the rule.

Children under 12 might not be employed in regular industrial work (even in the smaller workplaces). The maximum working-day was fixed at 8 hours for young persons. It seems that for the learned members of the Austrian and many other parliaments childhood ends at 12 years, and then the child becomes a “young person.”

German labour protection legislation was no better than that we have so far surveyed. The industrial legislation responsible for the labour protection regulations which were in force until recently dated from May, 1891.

In accordance with these regulations, children under 13 might not be employed in factories, children between 13 and. 14 might not work more than 6 hours, between 14 and 16 not more than 10 hours daily. A normal working day of 11 hours was fixed for woman workers over 16 years of age. The supplementary law for the regulation of industry of 1908 at least brought women the 10-hours day. Such were the laws protecting labour in the most important States of Europe prior to the war.

In the decades before the war efforts were made from time to time to impart an international character to the movement for the regulation of the working-day. First of all the workers of Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, and other countries discussed this principle, and in course of time the Governments were induced to take up the question.

The Federal Council of Switzerland was the first. Government to pronounce in favour of international labour protection. Its endeavours to interest other Governments in this matter broke down over the hostile attitude of the German Government. To Bismarck the normal working-day was a bogey. The fall of the Iron Chancellor cleared the path for the progress of labour protection legislation in Germany; the new policy seemed for some time to be aiming at drastic social reforms. Among others, the idea of international labour protection legislation was taken up. The Emperor Wilhelm II summoned a conference of representatives of European States to Berlin in March, 1890, for the discussion of this idea. As is well known, the conference produced no result.

On the other hand, the international action of the workers in favour of the 8-hour day, inaugurated by the Paris International Congress of 1889, speedily assumed the dimensions of a world-wide movement. The May Day celebrations became an occasion for imposing and rejoicing demonstrations of the international militant proletariat.

Its tenacious struggle was eventually crowned with success. The Washington Agreement of the year 1919, to which almost all important States are parties, raised the 8-hour day to the level of an international law. It is true that the ratification of this agreement in the most important economic countries has been prevented by the reaction which followed the revolutionary waves of the years 1917-1919. The United States have completely withdrawn from the League of Nations, and therefore from the International Labour Office, which supervises the enforcement of the Washington resolutions, and neither Great Britain, nor Germany, nor France have pronounced the formal ratification. The reactionary pressure in Germany was even strong enough to compel an infraction of the 8-hour day; yet a reverse movement may even now be detected there. Apart from this exception, which will shortly be a thing of the past, the 8-hour day, which lately seemed to be an ideal only attainable after the lapse of a long time, has become an international foot. It signifies one of the most important steps towards the emancipation of the working class.


[1] During the Austrian Parliamentary Inquiry into Labour Conditions in 1883, it transpired that weavers worked from Saturday morning to Sunday morning in various sheds in Brünn

[2] Marx quotes a passage from an article by Dr. Richardson in the Social Science Review, 1863. It states: “In Marylebone, blacksmiths die at the rate of 31 per thousand per annum, or 11 above the mean of the male adults of the country in its entirety. The occupation, instinctive almost as a portion of human art, unobjectionable as a branch of human industry, is made by mere excess of work, the destroyer of the man. He can strike so many blows per day, walk so many steps, breathe so many breaths, produce so much work, and live on average, say of fifty years; he is made to strike so many more blows, to walk so many more steps, to breathe so many more breaths per day, and to increase altogether a fourth of his life. He meets the effort; the result is, that producing for a limited time a fourth more work, he dies at 37 for 50.”

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.