Marx on Free Trade
Do not believe, gentlemen, that it is a matter of indifference to the working man whether he receives only four francs on account of corn being cheaper, when he had been receiving five francs before.
Have not his wages always fallen in comparison with profit ? And is it not clear that his social position has grown worse as compared with that of the capitalist ? Beside which he loses actually. So long as the price of corn was higher and wages were also higher, a small saving in the consumption of bread sufficed to procure him other enjoyments. But as soon as bread is cheap, and wages are therefore low, he can save almost nothing on bread for the purchase of other articles.
The English working men have shown the English Free Traders that they are not the dupes of their illusions or of their lies ; and if, in spite of this, the workers have made common cause with the manufacturers against the landlords, it is for the purpose of destroying the last remnant of feudalism, that henceforth they may have only one enemy to deal with. The workers have not miscalculated, for the landlords, in order to revenge themselves upon the manufacturers, have made common cause with the workers to carry the Ten Hours Bill, which the latter had been vainly demanding for thirty years, and which was passed immediately after the repeal of the Corn Laws.
When Dr. Bowring, at the Congress of Economists, drew from his pocket a long list to show how many head of cattle, how much ham, bacon, poultry, etc., is imported into England, to be consumed — as he asserted — by the workers, he forgot to state that at the same time the workers of Manchester and other factory towns were thrown out of work by the beginning of the crisis.
As a matter of principal in political economy, the figures of a single year must never be taken as the basis for formulating general laws. We must always take the average of from six to seven years, a period during which modern industry passes through the successive phases of prosperity, overproduction, crisis, thus completing the inevitable cycle.
Doubtless, if the price of all commodities falls — and this is the necessary consequence of Free Trade — I can buy far more for a franc than before. And the working man’s franc is as good as any other man’s. Therefore Free Trade must be advantageous to the working man. There is only one little difficulty in this, namely that the workman, before he exchanges his franc for other commodities, has first exchanged his labour for the money of the capitalist. If in this exchange he always received the said franc while the price of all other commodities fell, he would always be the gainer by such a bargain. The difficulty does not lie in proving that the price of all commodities falling more commodities can be bought for the same sum of money.
Economists always take the price of labour at the mo ment of its exchange with other commodities, and altogether ignore the moment at which labour accomplishes its own exchange with capital. When it costs less to set in motion the machinery which produces commodities, then the things necessary for the maintenance of this machine, called workman, will also cost less. If all commodities are cheaper, labour, which is a commodity too, will also fall in price, and we shall see later that this commodity, labour, will fall far lower in proportion than all other commodities. If the working man still pins his faith to the arguments of the economists, he will find, one fine morning, that the franc has dwindled in his pocket, ( and that he has only five sous left.
Thereupon the economists will tell you :–
“We admit that competition among the workers will certainly not be lessened under Free Trade, and will very soon bring wages into harmony with the low price of commodities. But, on the other hand, the low price of commodities will increase consumption, the larger consumption will increase production, which will in turn necessitate a larger demand for labour, and this larger demand will be followed by a rise in wages.
“The whole line of argument amounts to this : Free Trade increases productive forces. When manufactures keep advancing, when wealth, when the productive forces, when, in a word, productive capital increases, the demand for labour, the price of labour, and consequently the rate of wages, rises also.”
The most favourable condition for the working man is the growth of capital. This must be admitted : when capital remains stationary, commerce and manufacture are not merely stationary but decline, and in this case the workman is the first victim. He goes to the wall before the capitalist. And in the case of the growth of capital, under the circumstances, which, as we have said, are the best for the working man, what will be his lot? He will go to the wall just the same. The growth of capital implies the accumulation and the concentration of capital. This centralization involves a greater division of labour and a greater use of machinery. The greater division of labour destroys the especial skill of the labourer ; and by putting in the place of this skilled work labour which any one can perform, it increases competition among the workers.
This competition becomes more fierce as the division of labour enables a single man to do the work of three. Machinery accomplishes the same result on a much larger scale. The accumulation of productive capital forces the industrial capitalist to work with constantly increasing means of production, ruins the small manufacturer, and drives him into the proletariat. Then, the rate of interest falling in proportion as capital accumulates, the people of small means and retired tradespeople, who can no longer live upon their small incomes, are forced to look out for some business again and ultimately to swell the number of proletarians. Finally, the more productive capital grows, the more it is compelled to produce for a market whose requirements it does not know—the more supply tries to force demand, and consequently crises increase in frequency and in intensity. But every crisis in turn hastens the concentration of capital, adds to the proletariat. Thus, as productive capital grows, competition among the workers grows too, and grows in a far greater proportion. The reward of labour is less for all, and the burden of labour is increased for at least some of them.
(Socialist Standard, June 1924)