Works of Frederick Engels 1850

The Ten Hours' Question[215]

Source: MECW Volume 10, p. 271-276;
Written: London, between February 8 and 20, 1850;
First published: The Democratic Review, March 1850.

It has generally been the habit of the champions of the working classes to meet the argument of the free-trading middle classes, of what is called the "Manchester School",[216] by mere indignant comments upon the immoral and impudently-selfish character of their doctrines. The working man, ground down to the dust, trodden upon, physically ruined and mentally exhausted by a haughty class of money-loving mill-lords, the working man, certainly, would deserve his fate if he did not feel his blood mount into his cheeks upon being very coolly told that he is doomed for ever to serve as a piece of machinery, to be used and misused as it suits his lord, for the greater glory and the more rapid accumulation of capital; and that it is under this condition only that the "ascendancy of his country" and the existence of the working class itself can be made to continue. Were it not for this feeling of passionate, revolutionary indignation, there would be no hope for proletarian emancipation. But it is one thing to keep up the manly spirit of opposition among the working people, and another to meet their enemies in public debate. And here mere indignation, the mere outburst of a violent feeling, though ever so justified, will not do. It is argument which is required. And there is no doubt but that even in cool argumentative discussion, that even on their own favourite field of political economy, the free-trading school will easily be beaten by the supporters of the working men's interest.

As to the barefaced impudence with which the free-trading manufacturers declare the existence of modern society dependent upon their continuing to heap up wealth from the blood and sinews of the working people, we will say only one word. At all periods of history the vast majority of the people have been, in some shape or another, mere instruments for enriching the privileged few. In all past times, however, this bloodsucking system was carried on under the cover of various moral, religious, and political pretexts; priests, philosophers, lawyers, and statesmen told the people that they were handed over to misery and starvation for their own good, and because it was God's ordinance. Now, on the contrary, the free-traders boldly declare--"You, working men, are slaves, and shall remain slaves, because only by your slavery can we increase our wealth and comforts; because we, the ruling class of this country, cannot continue to rule without you being slaves." Now, then, the mystery of oppression has, at last, come out; now, at last, thanks to the free-traders, the people can clearly perceive their position; now, at last, the question is fairly, mistakenly put--Either we, or you! And therefore, just as before the false friend we prefer the open foe, so to the canting philanthropic aristocrat we prefer the brazenfaced free-trader, before Lord Ashley we prefer Quaker Bright.

The Ten Hours' Bill was carried after a long and violent struggle, which had gone on for forty years in parliament, on the platform, in the press, and in every factory and workshop in the manufacturing districts. On the one side the most heart-rending pictures were produced, of children stunted in their growth and murdered; of women torn from their homes and little ones; of entire generations infected with lingering disease; of human life sacrificed by wholesale, and human happiness destroyed upon a national scale; and all this to enrich a few already over-rich individuals. And there was no fiction about it; all of it was fact, stubborn fact. Yet no one dared to ask that this infamous system should be done away with; it was only asked to limit it in some degree. On the other side came forward the cool, heartless, political economist, the paid servant of those who fattened upon this system, and proved by a series of conclusions, as undeniable and as stringent as the rule of three, that, under penalty of "ruining the country", there was no means of interfering in any way with this system.

It must be confessed, the advocates of the factory-workers never could confound, and even very seldom dared to grapple with the argument of the political economists. The reason is that under the present social system, as long as capital is in the hands of the few, to whom the many are obliged to sell their labour, these arguments are as many facts--facts as undeniable as those brought forth by their opponents. Yes, under the present social system, England, with all classes of her population, is entirely dependent upon the prosperity of her manufactures; and that prosperity, under the present system, is entirely dependent upon the most unlimited freedom of buying and selling, and of turning to the greatest possible profit all the resources of the country.

Yes, the only means to keep up anything like this manufacturing prosperity, upon which now the very existence of the empire depends, is, under the present system, to produce more every year at less expense. And how produce more at less expense? First, by making the instrument of production--the machine and the working man--work more this year than last; secondly, by superseding the hitherto usual method of production by a new and more perfect one, that is to say, superseding men by improved machinery; thirdly, by reducing the cost of the working man, in reducing the cost of his sustenance (free trade in corn, etc.), or in merely reducing his wages to the lowest possible level. Thus, in all cases, the working man is the loser--thus, England can only be saved by the ruin of her working people! Such is the position--these are the necessities, to which the progress of machinery, the accumulation of capital, and consequent home and foreign competition, have reduced England.

Thus the Ten Hours' Bill, considered in itself, and as a final measure, was decidedly a false step, an impolitic, and even reactionary measure, and which bore within itself the germ of its own destruction. On the one hand it did not destroy the present social system, and on the other it did not favour its development. Instead of forcing the system onwards to its utmost limits, to a point where the ruling class would find all their resources exhausted, to that point where the dominion of another class--where a social revolution would become necessary--instead of that, the Ten Hours' Bill was intended to screw back society to a state superseded, long ago, by the present system. This becomes quite evident, if we only look at the parties who forced the bill through parliament against the opposing free-traders. Was it the working classes, whose agitated state, whose threatening demeanour, carried it? Certainly not. Had it been so, the working people might have carried the Charter many a year ago. Besides, the men who, among the working classes, took the lead in the short-time movement, were anything but threatening and revolutionary characters. They were mostly moderate, respectable, church-and-king men. They kept aloof from Chartism, and inclined mostly towards some sort of sentimental Toryism. They never inspired dread to any government. The Ten Hours' Bill was carried by the reactionary opponents of free trade, by the allied landed, funded, colonial and shipping interest; by the combined aristocracy and those portions of the bourgeoisie who themselves dreaded the ascendancy of the free-trading manufacturers. Did they carry it from any sympathy with the people? Not they. They lived, and live, upon the spoils of the people. They are quite as bad, though less barefaced and more sentimental, than the manufacturers. But they would not he superseded by them, and thus, from hatred towards them, they passed this law which should secure to themselves popular sympathy, and, at the same time, arrest the rapid growth of the manufacturers' social and political power. The passing of the Ten Hours' Bill proved not that the working classes were strong, it proved only that the manufacturers were not yet strong enough to do as they liked.

Since then, the manufacturers have virtually secured their ascendancy, by forcing free trade in corn, and in navigation, through parliament. The landed and the shipping interests have been sacrificed to their rising star. The stronger they grew, the more they felt the fetters imposed upon them by the Ten Hours' Bill. They openly set it at defiance; they re-introduced the relay system; they forced the Home Secretary to issue circulars," by which the factory inspectors were ordered not to notice this breach of the law; and when, at last, the growing demand for their produce made the remonstrances of some troublesome Inspectors insupportable, they brought the question before the Court of Exchequer, which, by one single judgment, destroyed, to the last vestige, the Ten Hours' Bill. Thus the fruit of forty years' agitation has in one day been annihilated by the rising strength of the manufacturers, aided by one single flush of "prosperity" and "growing demand"; and the judges of England have proved that they, not less than parson, attorneys, statesmen, and political economists, are but the paid servants of the ruling class, be it the class of landlords, of fund-lords, or of mill-lords.

Are we, then, opposed to the Ten Hours' Bill? Do we want that horrible system of making money out of the marrow and blood of women and children to continue? Certainly not. We are so little opposed to it, that we are of opinion that the working classes, the very first day they get political power, will have to pass far more stringent measures against over-working women and children than a Ten Hours', or even an Eight Hours' Bill. But we contend that the bill, as passed in 1847, was passed not by the working classes, but by their momentary allies, the reactionary classes of society, and followed, as it was, by not a single other measure to fundamentally alter the relations between Capital and Labour, was an ill-timed, untenable and even reactionary measure.

But if the Ten Hours' Bill be lost, yet the working classes will be the gainers in this case. Let them allow the factory lords a few moments of exultation, in the end it will be they who will exult, and the factory-lords who will lament. For--

Firstly. The time and exertions spent in agitating so many years for the Ten Hours' Bill is not lost, although its immediate end be defeated. The working classes, in this agitation, found a mighty means to get acquainted with each other: to come to a knowledge of their social position and interests, to organise themselves and to know their strength. The working man, who has passed through such an agitation, is no longer the same he was before; and the whole working class, after passing through it, is a hundred times stronger, more enlightened, and better organised than it was at the outset. It was an agglomeration of mere units, without any knowledge of each other, without any common tie; and now it is a powerful body, conscious of its strength, recognised as the "Fourth Estate", and which will soon be the first.

Secondly. The working classes will have learned by experience that no lasting benefit whatever can be obtained for them by others, but that they must obtain it themselves by conquering, first of all, political power. They must see now that under no circumstances have they any guarantee for bettering their social position unless by Universal Suffrage, which would enable them to seat a Majority of Working Men in the House of Commons. And thus the destruction of the Ten Hours' Bill will be an enormous benefit for the Democratic movement.

Thirdly. The virtual repeal of the act of 1847 will force the manufacturers into such a rush at overtrading that revulsions upon revulsions will follow, so that very soon all the expedients and resources of the present system will be exhausted, and a revolution made inevitable, which, uprooting society far deeper than 1793 and 1848 ever did, will speedily lead to the political and social ascendancy of the proletarians. We have already seen how the present social system is dependent upon the ascendancy of the manufacturing capitalists, and how this ascendancy is dependent upon the possibility of always extending production and, at the same time, reducing its cost. But this extended production has a certain limit: it cannot outdo the existing markets. If it does, a revulsion follows, with its consequent ruin, bankruptcy, and misery. We have had many of these revulsions, happily overcome hitherto by the opening of new markets (China in 1842), or the better exploring of old ones, by reducing the cost of production (as by free trade in corn). But there is a limit to this, too. There are no new markets to be opened now; and there is only one means left to reduce wages, namely, radical financial reform and reduction of the taxes by repudiation of the national debt. And if the free-trading mill-lords have not the courage to go the length of that, or if this temporary expedient be once exploded, too, why, they will die of repletion. It is evident that, with no chance of further extending markets, under a system which is obliged to extend production every day, there is an end to mill-lord ascendancy. And what next? "Universal ruin and chaos," say the free-traders. Social revolution and proletarian ascendancy, say we.

Working men of England! If you, your wives, and children are again to be locked up in the "rattle-boxes" for thirteen hours a-day, do not despair. This is a cup which, though bitter, must be drunk. The sooner you get over it the better. Your proud masters, be assured, have dug their own graves in obtaining what they call a victory over you. The virtual repeal of the Ten Hours' Bill is an event which will materially hasten the approaching hour of your delivery. Your brethren, the French and German working men, never were satisfied with Ten Hours' Bills. They wanted to be entirely freed from the tyranny of Capital. And you--who have, in machinery, in skill, and in comparative numbers, far more materials at hand to work out your own salvation, and to produce enough for all of you --surely you will not be satisfied to be paid off with a small instalment. Ask, then, no longer for "Protection for Labour", but boldly and at once struggle for that political and social ascendancy of the proletarian class which will enable you to protect your labour yourselves.


215 The Ten Hours' Bill, the struggle for which had been waged for many years, was passed by Parliament in 1847, against a background of the sharply intensified contradictions between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie generated by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In revenge against the industrial bourgeoisie. a section of the Tory M.P.s supported the Bill. Its provisions applied only to children and women. Nevertheless, many manufacturers evaded it in practice. Engels also discussed the ten-hour working day in earlier writings, in particular in his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England. In the present article he took it up in connection with a fresh campaign against the Ten Hours' Bill launched by manufacturers, who worked in different ways to secure its de facto annulment.

The article, written for the Chartist journal The Democratic Review, evoked a lively response in the British working-class press. In its survey of the journal, The Northern Star wrote (No. 645, March 2, 1850): "The Ten Hours' Question is the title of an article which is sure to excite great interest, and, possibly, some discussion. We venture to predict that, while it will not greatly please those who are purely and simply Ten Hours Bill-men, it will meet with more than the approval of those who are 'Ten Hours Bill-men, and Something more. It is an article which all classes may read with advantage, although, most likely, it will call down on its author's head the hot indignation of those who live by speculating in the labour and making profit of the blood and sinews of the wealth-producers."

Both this article and the article "The English Ten Hours' Bill" published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Politisch-okonomische Revue show that Marxist political economy had not yet been fully developed. This was reflected in a certain underestimation of the struggle for shorter working hours and of the positive effects of legal limitation of the working day. Marx and Engels gave an exhaustive description of the Ten Hours' Bill in their later works. See, e.g., Marx's Inaugural Address of the international Working-Men's Association and Capital.

216 The Manchester School--a trend in economic thought reflecting the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. It advocated Free Trade and non-interference by the state in economic affairs. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Free Traders constituted the Left wing of the Liberal Party in England.