Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische Revue 1850

The English Ten Hours’ Bill

Source: MECW Volume 10, p. 288;
Written: in March 1850;
Signed: Frederick Engels;
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Politisch-Íkonomische Revue No. 4, 1850.

Engels revised the article The Ten Hours’ Question, published in the Chartist The Democratic Review, going into greater detail of the struggle for the Ten Hours’ Bill, for this article published in the Revue, for the benefit of German readers.

The workers of England have suffered a significant defeat, and from a direction from which they had least expected it. A few weeks ago the Court of Exchequer, one of the four highest courts of law in England, pronounced a judgment by which the main provisions of the Ten Hours’ Bill enacted in 1847 are as good as abolished.[225]

The history of the Ten Hours’ Bill provides a striking example of the peculiar mode of development of class antagonisms in England and therefore deserves closer investigation.

We know how, with the rise of large-scale industry, there arose a quite new and infinitely callous exploitation of the working class by the factory owners. The new machines rendered the labour of grown men superfluous; their supervision demanded women and children, who were much more suited to this occupation than the men and simultaneously cheaper to employ. Thus industrial exploitation at once took possession of the whole of the worker’s family and locked it up in the factory; women and children had to work day and night without a break until they were overcome by utter physical exhaustion. The pauper children of the workhouses became a regular article of trade with the growing demand for children; four-year-olds and even three-year-olds were auctioned off by the score in the form of apprenticeship contracts to the highest bidding manufacturers. The callously brutal exploitation of children and women at that time-an exploitation which did not let up so long as there was a muscle, a sinew or a drop of blood left to extract profit from-still remains a vivid memory for the older generation of English workers, and not a few of them bear this memory in the form of a crooked spine or a mutilated limb, and they all bear their thoroughly ruined health with them wherever they go. The fate of the slaves in the worst of the American plantations was golden in comparison with that of the English workers in that period.

Very soon measures had to be taken by the state to curb the manufacturers’ utterly ruthless frenzy for exploitation, which was trampling all the requirements of civilised society underfoot. These first legal restrictions were, however, extremely inadequate and were soon circumvented. Only half a century after the introduction of large-scale industry, when the stream of industrial development had found a regular course for itself, only in 1833 was it possible to bring in an effective law that to some extent curbed at least the most blatant excesses.

As early as the beginning of this century a party had been formed under the leadership of a number of philanthropists which demanded the legal limitation of labour time in the factories to ten hours. This party, which, under Sadler in the twenties and after his death under the leadership of Lord Ashley and R. Oastler, continued its agitation up to the actual passing of the Ten Hours’ Bill, gradually united under its banner, besides the workers themselves, the aristocracy and all the factions of the bourgeoisie hostile to the manufacturers. This association of the workers with the most heterogeneous and reactionary elements of English society made it necessary for the Ten Hours agitation to be pursued quite separately from the revolutionary agitation of the workers. It is true that the Chartists were for the Ten Hours’ Bill to the last man; they were the mass, the chorus, in all the Ten Hours meetings; they made their press available to the Ten Hours Committee. But not a single Chartist agitated officially in conjunction with the aristocratic or bourgeois Ten Hours men, or sat on the Short Time Committee in Manchester. This Committee was exclusively composed of workers and factory overseers. But these workers were completely broken, exhausted by work, placid, god-fearing, respectable folk who felt a pious abhorrence towards Chartism and socialism, who held throne and altar in due respect and who, too crushed to hate the industrial bourgeoisie, only retained the capacity for humble veneration of the aristocracy, which at least deigned to interest itself in their misery. The working-class Toryism of these Ten Hours people was the echo of that first opposition of the workers to industrial progress which attempted to restore the old patriarchal situation and whose most energetic manifestations of life did not go beyond the smashing of machines. just as reactionary as these workers were the bourgeois and aristocratic chiefs of the Ten Hours party. They were without exception sentimental Tories, for the most part romantic ideologues revelling in the memory of vanished, patriarchal forms of hole-and-corner exploitation with their train of religiosity, domesticity, virtue and narrow-mindedness, and with their stable, traditionally inherited ways. One look at the revolutionary maelstrom of industry and their narrow skulls were seized with dizziness. Their petty-bourgeois frame of mind was horrified in the presence of these new forces of production shooting up with magical suddenness, flushing away in a few years the hitherto most venerable, most inviolable, most essential classes of society and replacing them with new, hitherto unknown classes whose interests, whose, sympathies and whose whole way of living and thinking stood in contradiction to the institutions of the old English society. These soft-hearted ideologues did not fail to take the field from the standpoint of morality, humanity and compassion against the pitiless harshness and ruthlessness with which this process of upheaval asserted itself, and to oppose to it as their social ideal the stability, the stagnant comfort and moral complacency of dying patriarchalism.

Whenever the Ten Hours question attracted public attention these elements were joined by all sections of society whose interests were suffering and whose existence was being threatened by the industrial upheaval. The bankers, stockjobbers, shipowners and merchants, the landed aristocracy, the big West Indian landowners and the petty bourgeoisie joined forces more and more at such times under the leadership of the Ten Hours agitators.

The Ten Hours’ Bill provided splendid terrain for these reactionary classes and factions to combine with the proletariat against the industrial bourgeoisie. While significantly restricting the rapid development of the wealth, the influence, and the social and political power of the manufacturers, it gave the workers merely material, indeed exclusively physical advantages. It protected their health from being too rapidly ruined. But it gave them nothing which could make them dangerous to their reactionary allies; it neither gave them political power nor altered their social position as wage-labourers. On the contrary, the Ten Hours agitation kept the workers still under the influence and partly under the leadership of these propertied allies of theirs, which they had been more and more striving to draw away from since the Reform Bill[226] and the rise of the Chartist agitation. It was quite natural, especially at the start of the industrial upheaval, that the workers, who were in direct conflict only with the industrial bourgeoisie, should ally themselves with the aristocracy and the other factions of the bourgeoisie by whom they were not directly exploited and who were also struggling against the industrial bourgeoisie. But this alliance adulterated the labour movement with a strong reactionary admixture which is only gradually disappearing; it reinforced significantly the reactionary element within the labour movement-those workers whose trade still belongs to manufacture and is thus itself threatened by industrial progress, like for instance the handweavers.

It was thus a piece of good fortune for the workers that in the confused period of 1847, when all the old parliamentary parties were dissolved and the new ones had not yet taken shape, the Ten Hours’ Bill was finally passed. It was passed in a series of most confused votes, directed apparently only by chance, in which no party voted compactly and consistently except the decidedly Free Trade manufacturers on the one hand and the fanatically protectionist landowners on the other. It got through as a piece of chicanery that the aristocrats and a faction of the Peelites and the Whigs put over on the manufacturers to avenge themselves for the great victory which these had wrested from them in the repeal of the Corn Laws.[227]

The Ten Hours’ Bill not only gave the workers the satisfaction of an indispensable physical need, by protecting their health to some extent from the manufacturers’ frenzy for exploitation, it also liberated the workers from their alliance with the sentimental dreamers, from their solidarity with all the reactionary classes of England. The patriarchal drivel of an Oastler, or the moving assurances of sympathy from a Lord Ashley could find no more listeners once the Ten Hours’ Bill ceased to provide point to these tirades. Only now did the labour movement concentrate wholly on achieving the political rule of the proletariat as the prime means of transforming the whole of existing society. And here it was faced by the aristocracy and the reactionary factions of the bourgeoisie, only shortly before still the allies of the workers, as so many raging enemies, as so many allies of the industrial bourgeoisie.

Thanks to the industrial revolution, industry, by which England conquered the world market and held it in subjugation, had become the decisive branch of production for England. England stood and fell with industry, rose and declined with its fluctuations. With the decisive influence of industry, the industrial bourgeoisie, the manufacturers, became the decisive class in English society, and the political rule of the industrialists, the removal of all social and political institutions standing in the way of the development of large-scale industry became a necessity. The industrial bourgeoisie got down to the task. The history of England from 1830 until now is the history of the victories which it has one after the other achieved over its united reactionary opponents.

Whereas the July Revolution in France brought the finance aristocracy to power, the Reform Bill in England, which was carried immediately afterwards in 1832, marked the fall of the finance aristocracy. The Bank, the creditors of the national debt and the stock-exchange speculators, in a word the money-dealers to whom the aristocracy was deeply in debt, had hitherto held almost exclusive sway in England under the brightly chequered mantle of the electoral monopoly. The further large-scale industry and world trade developed, the more intolerable their rule became, despite individual concessions. The alliance of all other factions of the bourgeoisie with the English proletariat and the Irish peasantry toppled them. The people threatened a revolution, the bourgeoisie gave the Bank its notes back en masse and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. The finance aristocracy yielded at the right moment; its flexibility saved England from a February Revolution.

The Reform Bill gave all the propertied classes of the country, right down to the smallest shopkeeper, a share in political power. All the factions of the bourgeoisie were thus given a legal ground on which they could establish their claims and assert their power. The same struggles of the individual factions of the bourgeoisie among themselves which have been fought out under the Republic in France since the June victory of 1848, have in England been fought out in Parliament since the Reform Bill. It goes without saying that the conditions being quite different the consequences in the two countries are also different.

The industrial bourgeoisie, once it had conquered the terrain for parliamentary struggle with the Reform Bill, could not help gaining victory upon victory. The aristocratic appendages of the financiers were sacrificed to it in the limitation of sinecures, the paupers in the Poor Law of 1833 ‘[228] and the tax exemption of the financiers and landowners in the tariff reductions and the introduction of income tax. With the victories of the industrialists the number of their vassals increased. Wholesale and retail trade became their tributaries. London and Liverpool fell to their knees before Free Trade, the Messiah of the industrialists. But with their victories their requirements and their demands also grew.

Modern large-scale industry can only exist provided it expands incessantly, continually conquers new markets. The boundless facility of production on the most massive scale, the unceasing development and improvement of machinery, and the consequent uninterrupted displacement of capital and labour power, force it to do so. Any stoppage here can only mean the beginning of ruin. But the expansion of industry is conditioned by the expansion of markets. And since industry at its present level of development increases its forces of production at a rate disproportionately faster than that at which it can increase its markets, there arise periodical crises in which, due to the excess of means of production and products, circulation in the commercial body suddenly comes to a standstill and industry and trade are almost totally immobilised until the glut of products has found an outlet in new channels. England is the focus of these crises, whose crippling effects unfailingly reach into the most distant, most obscure corners of the world market, and everywhere drag a significant part of the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie down into ruin. From such crises, which moreover bring home most tangibly to every section of English society its dependence on the manufacturers, there is only one means of escape: expanding markets, either by conquering new ones or by exploiting the old ones more thoroughly. Apart from the few exceptional cases, like China in 1842, in which a hitherto stubbornly closed market is burst open by force of arms,[229] there is only one means of opening up new markets and exploiting old ones more thoroughly by industrial methods-by cheaper prices, that is, by reducing production costs. Production costs are reduced by new and more highly perfected modes of production, by cutting profit or by cutting wages. But the introduction of more highly perfected modes of production cannot provide a way out of the crisis since it increases production and thus itself makes new markets necessary. There can be no question of reducing profit in a crisis when everyone is glad to sell even at a loss. The same goes for wages, which are furthermore, like profit, determined by laws that are independent of the will or the intentions of the manufacturers. And yet wages form the principal component of the production costs, and their permanent reduction is the only means of expanding markets and escaping from the crisis. Wages will fall, however, if the workers’ necessities of life are produced more cheaply. But in England the cost of the workers’ necessities of life was raised by the protective tariffs on corn, English colonial products, etc., and by indirect taxes.

Hence the stubborn, vigorous and universal agitation by the industrialists for Free Trade and particularly for the abolition of the corn tariffs. Hence the characteristic fact that since 1842 every crisis in trade and industry has brought them a fresh victory. With the abolition of the corn tariffs the English landowners were sacrificed to the industrialists, with the abolition of the differential tariffs on sugar, etc., the landowners in the colonies, with the abolition of the Navigation Acts[230] the shipowners. At the present moment they are agitating for limitation of state expenditure and a reduction of taxes, as well as for the admission to the franchise of that section of the workers which offers the surest guarantees. They wish to draw new allies into Parliament in order to conquer so much the more quickly direct political power for themselves, by means of which alone they can get rid of the traditional appendages of the English state machine, now emptied of meaning but very expensive, the aristocracy, the Church, the sinecures and the semi-feudal system of jurisprudence. Undoubtedly the new trade crisis, which is now imminent, and which to all appearances will coincide with new and great collisions on the Continent, will bring with it at least this step forward in England’s development.

In the midst of these uninterrupted victories of the industrial bourgeoisie, the reactionary factions succeeded in forging the chains of the Ten Hours’ Bill for it. The Ten Hours’ Bill was passed at a moment of neither prosperity nor crisis, in one of those in-between periods in which industry is still labouring sufficiently under the consequences of over-production to be able-to set only a part of its resources in motion, in which the manufacturers themselves therefore do not allow full-time working. At such a juncture, when the Ten Hours’ Bill limited competition among the manufacturers themselves, and only at such a juncture could it be tolerated. But this juncture soon gave way to renewed prosperity. The empty markets demanded new supplies; speculation rose again and doubled demand; the manufacturers were unable to work their factories hard enough. The Ten Hours’ Bill now became an intolerable fetter upon industry, which now more than ever needed the most complete independence and the most unrestricted disposal of all its resources. What would become of the industrialists during the next crisis if they were not permitted to exploit the brief period of prosperity with all their might? The Ten Hours’ Bill had to succumb. If the strength to revoke it in Parliament was lacking, then ways had to be found for getting round it.

The Ten Hours’ Bill limited the labour time of young people under the age of eighteen and of all female workers to ten hours daily. Since these and children are the decisive categories of workers in the factories, the necessary consequence was that the factories were able to work only ten hours daily. The manufacturers, however, when the boom made an increase in the labour time a necessity for them, found a way out. As hitherto with children under fourteen, whose labour time is even more restricted, they engaged a few more women and young people than before for assistance and replacement. In this way they could make their factories and their adult workers work thirteen, fourteen or fifteen hours at a stretch, without a single individual covered by the Ten Hours’ Bill working more than ten hours daily. This conflicted partially with the letter of the law, but it conflicted still more with the spirit of the law and the intention of the legislators; the factory inspectors complained, the justices of the peace were divided and gave contradictory judgments. The higher the level of prosperity the more loudly the industrialists protested against the Ten Hours’ Bill and against the interventions of the factory inspectors. The Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, ordered the inspectors to tolerate the relay or shift system. But many of them, with the support of the law, did not allow themselves to be deterred by this. Finally a sensational case was taken right up to the Court of Exchequer, and this court pronounced for the manufacturers. With this decision the Ten Hours’ Bill has been abolished in practice, and the manufacturers have once again become the complete masters of their factories; in time of crisis they are able to work two, three or six hours, and in time of prosperity thirteen to fifteen hours, and the factory inspector no longer has any right to interfere.

If the Ten Hours’ Bill was advocated mainly by reactionaries and carried exclusively by reactionary classes, we can see here that in the mode in which it was carried it was a thoroughly reactionary measure. England’s whole social development is bound up with the development, the progress of industry. All institutions which inhibit this progress, which limit it or wish to regulate and rule it according to extraneous standards, are reactionary, untenable, and must succumb to it. The revolutionary force which has made child’s play of dealing with the whole patriarchal society of old England, with the aristocracy and the finance bourgeoisie, will indeed not permit itself to be dammed up within the moderate course of the Ten Hours’ Bill. All the attempts of Lord Ashley and his comrades to restore the fallen Bill by means of an authentic interpretation will be unproductive or, in the most favourable case, will only achieve an ephemeral and delusive result.

And nevertheless the Ten Hours’ Bill is indispensable for the workers. It is a physical necessity for them. Without the Ten Hours’ Bill this whole generation of English workers will be physically ruined. But there is a vast difference between the Ten Hours’ Bill demanded by the workers today and the Ten Hours’ Bill which was propagated by Sadler, Oastler and Ashley and passed by the reactionary coalition in 1847. The workers have learnt the value of an alliance with reaction from the brief existence of the Bill, from its easy annihilation — a simple court decision, not even an Act of Parliament, was all that was needed to annul it — and from the subsequent behaviour of their reactionary former allies. They have learnt the use of passing separate partial measures against the industrial bourgeoisie. They have learnt that the bourgeois industrialists are still in the first instance the class which alone is capable of marching at the head of the movement at the present moment, and that it would be a vain task to work against them in this progressive mission. For this reason, in spite of their direct and not in the least dormant hostility towards the industrialists, the workers are now much more inclined to support them in their agitation for the complete implementation of Free Trade, financial reform and extension of the franchise, than to allow themselves to be decoyed once again by philanthropic allurements to the banner of the united reactionaries. They feel that their day can only come when the industrialists have worn themselves out, and hence their instinct is correct in hastening the process of development which will give the industrialists power and thus prepare their fall. But because of this they do not forget that in the industrialists they are bringing to power their own direct enemies, and that they can achieve their own liberation only through toppling the industrialists and conquering political power for themselves. The annulment of the Ten Hours’ Bill has once more proved this to them in the most striking fashion. The restoration of this Bill can only have any significance now under the rule of universal franchise, and universal franchise in an England two-thirds of whose inhabitants are industrial proletarians means the exclusive political rule of the working class with all the revolutionary changes in social conditions which are inseparable from it. The Ten Hours’ Bill demanded by the workers today is thus quite different from the one which has just been overruled by the Court of Exchequer. It is no longer an isolated attempt to cripple industrial development, it is a link in a long chain of measures which will revolutionise the whole of the present form of society and gradually destroy the class antagonisms which have hitherto existed; it is not a reactionary measure, but a revolutionary one.

The de facts suspension of the Ten Hours’ Bill, in the first instance by the manufacturers on their own initiative and then by the Court of Exchequer, has above all contributed to shortening the period of prosperity and hastening the crisis. Whatever hastens crises, however, simultaneously hastens the pace of development in England and its next goal, the overthrow of the. industrial bourgeoisie by the industrial proletariat. The means available to the industrialists for expanding their markets and averting crises are very limited. Cobden’s reduction of state expenditure is either mere Whiggish jargon or equals, even if it should only help for a moment, a complete revolution. And if it is executed in the most extensive and most revolutionary fashion — as far as the English industrialists can be revolutionary — then how will the next crisis be met? It is evident that the English industrialists, whose means of production have a power of expansion incomparably superior to that of their outlets, are rapidly approaching the point where their expedients will be exhausted and where the period of prosperity which now still divides every crisis from its successor will disappear completely under the weight of the excessively increased forces of production; where the only thing still separating the crises will be brief periods of a dull, half-comatose industrial activity and where industry, trade and the whole of modern society must necessarily perish from a superfluity of unusable life force on the one hand and total emaciation on the other, if this abnormal situation did not bear within itself its own remedy and the development of industry had not simultaneously engendered the class which alone can assume the leadership of society — the proletariat. The proletarian revolution will then be inevitable, and its victory certain.

This is the regular, normal course of events, produced, with a necessity which cannot he averted, by the totality of the present conditions of society in England. It will soon be seen to what extent this normal process may be shortened by collisions on the Continent and revolutionary upsurges in England.

And the Ten Hours’ Bill?

From the moment the limits of the world market itself become too narrow for the full unfolding of all the resources of modern industry, when the latter requires a social revolution to regain free scope for its energies-from this moment on the limitation of labour time is no longer reactionary, it is no longer a brake on industry. On the contrary, it will he introduced quite of its own accord. The first consequence of the proletarian revolution in England will be the centralisation of large-scale industry in the hands of the state, that is, the ruling proletariat, and with the centralisation of industry all the conditions of competition, which nowadays bring the regulation of labour time into conflict with the progress of industry, fall away. And thus the only solution to the Ten Hours question, as to every question depending on the antagonism between capital and wage labour, lies in the proletarian revolution.


225 On February 8, 1850 the Court of Exchequer acquitted a group of manufacturers accused on violating the Ten Hours’ Bill, creating a precedent tantamount to repealing the Bill. As a result of resistance by workers, a further bill was passed on August 5, 1850 fixing a 10 1/2 hour working day for women and juveniles and setting the time when work was to begin and end.

226 The Reform Bill of 1832 was directed against the monopoly of the landed and financial aristocracy and gave Parliamentary representation to the industrial bourgeoisie, thanks to agitation by the workers and petit-bourgeoisie.

227 The Corn Laws were first introduced in the 15th and 16th century to impose tariffs on the import of corn to protect landowners by maintaining high prices for corn on the home market. In June 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed by the Peel Government.

228 In the 1830s and 1840s a series of laws against trading in jobs and granting sinecures to aristocrats were passed in Britain. The Poor Laws adopted in England in 1834 provided for only one form of relief for the able-bodied poor: workhouses with a prison-like regime in which the workers were engaged in unproductive, monotonous and exhaustive labour. The people called these workhouses “Bastilles for the poor”.

229 The Nanking Treaty of 1842

230 The Navigation Acts of 1651 and subsequent years set up a system for Asian, African or American produce to be imported for consumption into the United Kingdom and its colonies only in ships under the British national flag, and for European produce to be carried either in English ships or in those belonging to the exporting country. These laws were repealed in 1854.