Skip to Content

Book Review: 'The Real Rights of Man - Political Economies for the Working Class, 1775-1850'

Early critics of capitalism

'The Real Rights of Man: Political Economies for the Working Class, 1775-1850', by Noel Thompson, Pluto Press, 1998.

Between 1775 and 1850 Britain was transformed from a country of largely rural communities into a nation built on industrial capitalism. In 1791 Tom Paine's Rights of Man argued for universal political rights. But as early as 1793 Thomas Spence's The Real Rights of Man countered with the claim that political rights were grounded in economic power. For Spence, the question was no longer about "what form of government is most favourable to liberty" but:

"which system of society is most favourable to existence and capable of delivering us from the deadly mischief of great accumulation of wealth which enables a few unfeeling monsters to starve whole nations."

This is a history of the struggle for an anti-capitalist, but not necessarily pro-socialist, political economy. Anti-capitalist writers such as Spence, William Ogilvie, William Cobbett and Thomas Hodgskin were reactionaries who wanted to retreat from urban squalor to the rural idyll. They were not opposed in principle to class society but to the way "unequal exchange" drove the newly created working class into poverty. Their political economy (not pseudo-scientific "economics") explained working class poverty as the result of a failure of workers to get the full value of what they produced. The "unequal exchange" meant employers paid wages less than the value of the product and so were cheating workers.

Robert Owen attempted to rectify "unequal exchange" by establishing a number of producer and consumer co-operatives around the country, linked by labour exchanges. The guiding principle of these labour exchanges was that goods were exchanged according to their value as measured by labour time, with non-circulating labour notes used to facilitate the exchange of goods. In this way, it was believed, there would be equal exchange and no exploitation. However, these co-operatives were short-lived and had difficulty in providing even basic provisions for exchange against labour notes.

According to Noel Thompson:

"the problems of valuing goods in terms of labour time meant that errors were made and, inevitably, there were goods undervalued in relation to their market equivalents that were quickly purchased, while there were others that were overvalued and just as rapidly accumulated in the exchanges. Only where the labour exchanges replicated the market valuation were there no such problems. In effect, therefore, market price rapidly exerted its hegemony over labour values."

A distinctively socialist political economy did not emerge until the Chartist movement. Ernest Jones, for example, dismissed the demand for "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work", which was to ask for:

"a golden slavery instead of an iron one. But that golden chain would soon be turned to iron again, for if you still allow the system of wages slavery to exist, labour must be still subject to capital, and if so, capital being its master, will possess the power and never lack the will to reduce the slave from his fat diet down to fast-day fare!"

Even though Jones was a friend of Marx and Engels, he and other Chartist leaders still saw exploitation originating in the sphere of exchange, as "unequal exchange." It was not until after the period under review that Marx provided a proper explanation of exploitation: exploitation takes place in the sphere of production. Workers generally get the full value of what they have to sell, their "labour power" or capacity to work sold as a commodity, which the employers buy and put to work. But the employers can extract labour greater than the equivalent of that wage or salary. This is the source of profit that is realised when the commodities are sold. A wage or salary is the market-determined price of the commodity labour power. Generally no cheating is involved: exploitation is the normal function of the capitalist economy.

LEW