Marx on Free Trade
A speech delivered before the Democratic Association of Brussels, at its public meeting, Januay 9th, 1848.
Reprinted from “The Poverty of Philosophy.” (Twentieth Century Press, Ltd., London, 1900).
GENTLEMEN : – The Repeal of the Corn Laws in Eng land is the greatest triumph of Free Trade in the nineteenth century. In every country where manufacturers discuss Free Trade, they have in mind chiefly Free Trade in corn or raw material generally. To burden foreign corn with protective duties is infamous, it is to speculate on the hunger of the people.
Cheap food, high wages, for this alone the English Free Traders have spent millions, and their enthusiasm has already infected their continental brethren. And, generally speaking, all those who advocate Free Trade do so in the interests of the working class.
But, strange to say, the people for whom cheap food is to be procured at all costs are very ungrateful. Cheap food is as ill reputed in England as is cheap government in France. The people see in these self-sacrificing gentlemen, in Bowring, Bright & Co., their worst enemies and the most shameless hypocrites.
Everyone knows that in England the struggle between Liberals and Democrats takes the name of the struggle between Free Traders and Chartists. Let us see how the English Free Traders have proved to the people the good intentions that animate them.
This is what they said to the factory hands : –
“The duty on corn is a tax upon wages ; this tax you pay to the landlords, those medieval aristocrats ; if your position is a wretched one, it is only on ac count of the high price of the most indispensable articles of food.”
The workers in turn asked of the manufacturers : –
“How is it that in the course of the last thirty years, while our commerce and manufacture has immensely increased, our wages have fallen far more rapidly, in proportion, than the price of corn has gone up ?
“The tax which you say we pay the landlords is about three pence a week per worker. And yet the wages of the hand-loom weaver fell, between 1815 and 1843, from 28s. per week to 5s., and the wages of the power-loom weavers, between 1823 and 1843, from 20s. per week to 8s. And during the whole of the time that portion of the tax which you say we pay the landlord has never exceeded three pence. And, then, in the year 1834, when bread was very cheap and business lively, what did you tell us ? You said, ‘If you are poor, it is only because you have too many children, and your marriages are more productive than your labor !’
“These are the very words you spoke to us, and you set about making new Poor Laws, and building work houses, those Bastilles of the proletariat.”
To this the manufacturers replied : –
“You are right, worthy labourers ; it is not the price of corn alone, but competition of the hands among themselves as well, which determines wages.
“But just bear in mind the circumstance that our soil consists of rocks and sandbanks only. You surely do not imagine that corn can be grown in flowerpots ! If, instead of wasting our labour and capital upon a thoroughly sterile soil, we were to give up agriculture, and devote ourselves exclusively to commerce and manufacture, all Europe would abandon its factories, and England would form one huge factory town, with the whole of the rest of Europe for its agricultural districts.”
While thus haranguing his own working men, the manufacturer is interrogated by the small tradesınen, who exclaim : –
“If we repeal the Corn Laws, we shall indeed ruin agriculture ; but, for all that, we shall not compel other nations to give up their own factories, and buy our goods. What will the consequences be ? I lose my customers in the country, and the home market is destroyed.”
The manufacturer turns his back upon the working men and replies to the shopkeeper : –
“As to that, you leave it to us ! Once rid of the duty on corn, we shall import cheaper corn from abroad. Then we shall reduce wages at the very time when they are rising in the countries where we get our corn. Thus in addition to the advantages which we already enjoy we shall have lower wages and, with all these advantages, we shall easily force the Continent to buy of us.”
But now the farmers and agricultural labourers join in the discussion.
“And what, pray, is to become of us ? Are we to help in passing a sentence of death upon agriculture, when we get our living by it ? Are we to let the soil be torn from beneath our feet?”
For all answer the Anti-Corn Law League contented itself with offering prizes for the three best essays upon the wholesome influence of the repeal of the Corn Laws on English agriculture.
These prizes were carried off by Messrs. Hope, Morse and Greg, whose essays were distributed broadcast throughout the agricultural districts. One of the prize essayists devotes himself to proving that neither the tenant farmer nor the agricultural labourer would lose by the repeal of the Corn Laws, and that the landlord alone would lose.
“The English tenant farmer,” he exclaims, “need not fear repeal, because no other country can produce such good corn so cheaply as England. Thus, even if the price of corn fell, it would not hurt you, because this fall would only affect rent, which would go down, while the profit of capital and the wages of labour would remain stationary.”
The second prize essayist, Mr. Morse, maintains, on the contrary, that the price of corn will rise in consequence of repeal. He is at infinite pains to prove that protective duties have never been able to secure a remunerative price for corn.
In support of his assertion he quotes the fact that, wherever foreign corn has been imported, the price of corn in England has gone up considerably, and that when no corn has been imported the price has fallen extremely. This prize-winner forgets that the importation was not the cause of the high price, but that the high price was the cause of the importation. In direct contra diction of his colleague he asserts that every rise in the price of corn is profitable to both the tenant farmer and labourer, but does not benefit the landlord.
The third prize essayist, Mr. Greg, who is a large manufacturer and whose work is addressed to the large tenant farmers, could not afford to echo such silly stuff. His language is more scientific. He admits that the Corn Laws can increase rent only by increasing the price of corn, and that they can raise the price of corn only by inducing the investment of capital upon land of inferior quality, and this is explained quite simply.
In proportion as population increases, it inevitably follows, if foreign corn cannot be imported, that less fruitful soil must be placed under cultivation. This involves more expense and the product of this soil is consequently dearer. There being a demand for all the corn thus produced, it will all be sold. The price for all of it will of necessity be determined by the price of the product of the inferior soil. The difference between this price and the cost of production upon soil of better quality constitutes the rent paid for the use of the better soil.
If, therefore, in consequence of the repeal of the Corn Laws, the price of corn falls, and if, as a matter of course, rent falls along with it, it is because inferior soil will no longer be cultivated. Thus the reduction of rent must inevitably ruin a part of the tenant farmers.
These remarks were necessary in order to make Mr. Greg’s language comprehensible.
“The small farmers,” he says, “who cannot support themselves by agriculture must take refuge in manufacture. As to the large tenant farmers, they cannot fail to profit by the arrangement : either the landlord will be obliged to sell them land very cheap, or leases will be made out for very long periods. This will enable tenant farmers to invest more capital in their farms, to use agricultural machinery on a larger scale, and to save manual labour, which will, moreover, be cheaper, on account of the general fall in wages, the immediate consequence of the repeal of the Corn Laws.”
Dr. Bowring conferred upon all these arguments the consecration of religion, by exclaiming at a public meeting, “Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.”
It ma be easily understood that all this cant was not calculated to make cheap bread attractive to working men.
Besides, how should the working men understand the sudden philanthropy of the manufacturers, the very men still busy fighting against the Ten Hours Bill, which was to reduce the working day of the mill hands from twelve hours to ten ?
To give you an idea of the philanthropy of these manufacturers I would remind you of the factory regulations in force in all their mills.
Every manufacturer has for his own private use a regular penal code by means of which fines are inflicted for every voluntary or involuntary offence. For instance, the hand pays so much when he has the misfortune to sit down on a chair, or whisper, or speak, or laugh ; if he is a few moments late ; if any part of a machine breaks, or he turns out work of an inferior quality, &c. The fines are always greater than the damage really done by the workman. And to give the workman every opportunity for incurring fines the factory clock is set forward, and he is given bad material to make into good stuff. An overseer unskilful in multiplying infractions of rules is soon discharged.
You see, gentlemen, this private legislation is enacted for the especial purpose of creating such infractions, and infractions are manufactured for the purpose of making money. Thus the manufacturer uses every means of reducing the nominal wage, and even profiting by accidents over which the workers have no control.
And these manufacturers are the same philanthropists who have tried to persuade the workers that they were capable of going to immense expense for the sole and express purpose of improving the condition of these same working men ! On the one hand they nibble at the workers’ wages in the pettiest way, by means of factory regulations, and, on the other, they are prepared to make the greatest sacrifices to raise those wages by means of the Anti-Corn Law League.
They build great palaces, at immense expense, in which the League takes up its official residence. They send an army of missionaries to all corners of England to preach the gospel of Free Trade ; they print and distribute gratis thousands of pamphlets to enlighten the working man upon his own interests. They spend enormous sums to buy over the press to their side. They organise a vast administrative system for the conduct of the Free Trade movement, and bestow all the wealth of their eloquence upon public meetings. It was at one of these meetings that a working man cried out : –
“If the landlords were to sell our bones, you manufacturers would be the first to buy them, and to put them through the mill and make flour of them.”
The English working men have appreciated to the fullest extent the significance of the struggle between the lords of the land and of capital. They know very well that the price of bread was to be reduced in order to reduce wages, and that the profit of capital would rise by as much as rent fell.
Ricardo, the apostle of the English Free Traders, the leading economist of our century, entirely agrees with the workers upon this point. In his celebrated work upon political economy he says : –
“If instead of growing our own corn… we discover a new market from which we can supply ourselves… at a cheaper price, wages will fall and profits rise. The fall in the price of agricultural produce reduces the wages, not only of the labourer employed in cultivating the soil, but also of all those employed in commerce or manufacture.”
(Socialist Standard, May 1924)