Marx on Free Trade
Mr. Bowring’s speech is the more remarkable because the facts quoted by him are correct, and the phrases with which he seeks to palliate them are characterized by the hypocrisy common to all Free Trade discourses. He represents the workers as means of production which must be.superseded by less expensive means of production, pretends to see in the labour of which he speaks a wholly exceptional kind of labour, and in the machine which has crushed out the weavers an equally exceptional kind of machine. He forgets that there is no kind of manual labour which may not any day share the fate of the hand-loom weavers.
“The constant aim and tendency of every improvement of mechanism is indeed to do entirely without the labour of men, or to reduce its price, by superseding the labour of the adult males by that of women and children, or the work of the skilled by that of the unskilled workman. In most of the throstle mills, spinning is now entirely done by girls of sixteen years and less. The introduction of the self-acting mule has caused the discharge of most of the (adult male) spinners, while the children and young persons have been kept on.”
The above words of the most enthusiastic of Free Traders, Dr. Ure,a are calculated to complete the confessions of Dr. Bowring. Mr. Bowring speaks of certain individual evils, and, at the same time, says that these individual evils destroy whole classes; he speaks of the temporary sufferings during a transition period, and does not deny that these temporary evils have implied for the majority the transition from life to death, and for the rest a transition from a better to a worse condition. When he asserts, farther on, that the sufferings of the working class are inseparable from the progress of industry, and are necessary to the prosperity of the nation, he simplysays that the prosperity of the bourgeois class presupposes as necessary the suffering of the labouring class.
All the comfort which Mr. Bowring offers the workers who perish, and, indeed, the whole doctrine of compensation which the Free Traders propound, amounts to this—
You thousands of workers who are perishing, do not despair ! You can die with an easy conscience. Your class will not perish. It will always be numerous enough for the capitalist class to decimate it without fear of annihilating it. Besides, how could capital be usefully applied if it did not take care to keep up its exploitable material, i.e., the workingmen, to be exploited over and over again?
But, then, why propound as a problem still to be solved the question: What influence will the adoption of the Free Trade have on the condition of the working class? All the laws formulated by the political economists from Quesnay to Ricardo, have been based upon the hypothesis that the trammels which still interfere with commercial freedom have disappeared. These laws are confirmed in proportion as Free Trade is adopted. The first of these laws is that competition reduces the price of every commodity to the minimum cost of production. Thus the minimum of wages is the.natural price of labour. And what is the minimum of wages? Just so much as is required for production of the articles absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the worker, for the continuation, by hook or by crook, of his own existence and that of his class.
But do not imagine that the worker receives only this minimum wage, and still less that he always receives it. No, according to this law, the working class will sometimes be more fortunate, will sometimes receive something above the minimum, but this surplus will merely make up for the deficit which they will have received below the minimum in times of industrial depression. That is to say that within a given time which recurs periodically, in other words, in the cycle which commerce and industry describe while passing through the successive phases of prosperity, overproduction, stagnation, and crisis, when reckoning all that the working class has had above and below mere necessaries, we shall see that, after all, they have received neither more nor less than the minimum; i.e., the working class will have maintained itself as a class after enduring any amount of misery and misfortune, and after leaving many corpses upon the industrial battle-field.
(Socialist Standard, February 1926)