Ernest Belfort Bax

After the Eight Hours’ Bill

(30 April 1892)

After the Eight Hours Bill, Justice, 30th April 1892, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Now that eight-hour aspirations seem within measurable distance of realisation, it is highly necessary to point out the insufficiency of an Eight Hours’ Bill by itself; to secure to the workmen all that is expected of it, necessary though it may be as part of a larger measure. What is the dread of the undisciplined and untutored worker with regard to eight hours? What does he tell you when you broach the subject to him? That he fears that reduced hours of work mean reduced wages, and the forcing down of his already meagre standard of living to a still lower level. Is this fear altogether ungrounded? Is it the mere outcome of want of understanding of the question? We can only say that the objection has never to our knowledge been satisfactorily answered. Friends of the Eight Hours’ movement seem in their enthusiasm to lose sight sometimes of the course of capitalistic development in the past, and to ignore the inevitable fact that capitalism will create a new “reserve army of labour,” through the application of new labour-saving machinery and the consequent inevitable casting off of the surplus hands. They feel confident that an Eight-Hours’ law would speedily cause wages to rise by lightening the pressure of competition through the absorption of surplus labour which the measure would cause, this absorption of itself solving the question of the “unemployed.” Now, granting that the temporary effect of the new law would be the absorption of this surplus labour-power, and assuming an indefinite time to elapse before the disturbance of the equilibrium by new machinery, there are yet other consequences of a more immediate character, which, I venture to think, are not sufficiently taken into account.

In the first place, the lightening of competition would depend, as to its degree, upon the number of trades affected by the new law. It is generally admitted that it could not comprehend all trades. The difficulty which it would have to contend with in the case of piece-work done in the worker’s home, that is to say, in those trades in which sweating is mostly practised, is conceded. The reply, however, usually is, that such trades would speedily become extinct, owing to the supervised factory of the new regime, with its shorter hours and healthier conditions, absorbing those previously engaged in them. This might possibly be the case, given sufficient time, but, if it were, the effect of the raising of wages by the lightening of competition among the workers must of necessity be considerably neutralised, leaving out of account the fact that by the time this consummation was reached, new machinery would be certainly coming into use to throw new and old bands alike upon the streets. If the attractiveness of tile eight-hour factory should, as is expected, draw to itself a flood of labour from the house industries, the effective demand for factory operatives would very soon be filled up even without any improvements in methods of production, and the full force of the “iron law of wages” would again be felt, or, in other words, wages. would again fall to the old subsistence level.

But what is to prevent, even before this takes place, a combination amongst manufacturers to keep down wages artificially? Nothing whatever. Or, again, supposing wages to rise in full accordance with the expectations of eight-hour advocates, would the Ahriman of Capitalism be so guileless as not to take the rise out at the other end in the shape of a “corner” on the wholesale manufactured article, which, if carried out in all “necessaries” would effectually reduce the purchasing power, of money in proportion to, or probably more than in proportion to, the said rise in wages? I trow not. Yet, again; what is to hinder, for that matter, both the results spoken of from taking place simultaneously? It seems strange that these things should not have struck the attention of some, at feast, of those who make “eight hours” the sole plank in the working-class programme. While fully recognising the excellence of an international eight-hour day, I have always been convinced of the futility of such a law taken alone. No, the eight hours’ law can assuredly only be made effectual if the foregoing objections to it are met, and they can only be met by uniting with it another measure which would definitely undermine the evils at present resulting from the practically unlimited power of monopoly:

This supplementary measure is of twofold character, and consists in the establishment of a minimum wage for all trades, or at least for all leading trades, and of a maximum price for such commodities as may be considered necessaries of life. It would thereby become illegal to pay less than the minimum wage, or to sell at more than the maximum price. Hence it would be impossible for starvation-wages to be paid in any industry, and equally impossible for any ring, corner or monopoly whatever to deprive the workers of the products of their labour. The maximum price would be fixed so as to allow the smallest margin of profit upon the sale of the product, this margin being calculated in a definite ratio to the payment of the minimum wage. The profit would, in fact, be reduced to the lowest point at which it would be worth anyone’s while to conduct a business at all. [1] The effect would, of course, be to concentrate industrial and commercial undertakings. more and more under the control of the big, capitalist and of the syndicate, since the small man could not carry on his business on such terms. The way would thus be prepared for the economic goal of modern Socialism - the assumption by the organised democratic state of the control of the means of production and distribution. So long, as industrial and commercial operations are split up among thousands of individually independent small capitalists, this goal is unattainable. These latter must first of all be eliminated before the whole productive wealth of the community can come under the control of the workers themselves. The complete communisation to which we Socialists look forward cannot be arrived at per saltum, but requires a longer or a shorter series of steps, and meanwhile no weapon could be more effective than the “maximum and minimum,” not merely for controlling special monopolies and crushing attempts at creating others, but for furthering economic development in the desired direction generally.

There are some who incline to favour a “minimum wage,” but who “kick at” a “maximum price.” Such surely forget that the capitalist could here just as easily as in the case of a rise in wages compelled by a workmen’s combination, or by any other cause, take his old profits out at the other end by raising the price of the manufactured article. No one, nowadays, pretends that juridical action alone can directly produce any fundamental economic change, but it can certainly put the capitalist in a tight place, and the special advantage of the measures proposed is that they admit of being strengthened or relaxed without violent disturbance of the status quo.

One objection raised against the “maximum” by old-fashioned economists and by those Socialists who have the “disjecta membra” of the old-fashioned economy clinging to them, is that it would drive capital out of the trades subject to the measure into other trades not so subject. The answer is obvious. If all trades involving necessaries of life were under the “maximum,” the flow of capital into other trades involving luxuries - that is, commodities not required by all, but which all or most could do without if desirable, and which are only consumed by a relatively small section of the people - would soon be checked by reason of the fact that these trades would speedily be glutted, and capital would, be forced back into trades where the “maximum” prevailed. The capitalist would thus have to be content with the modest profit the “maximum “ allowed him.

No one can call the “maximum,” at least, an untried scheme. It was by means of the “maximum” that the working-classes of France were kept alive in that fearful period of real scarcity - the revolutionary years 1793-1794, an epoch, notwithstanding, of which Carlyle truly says: - “There is no period to be met with in which the general twenty-five millions of France suffered less,” with the suppression of the “maximum” by the Reaction, starvation made its re-appearance.

That the enactment of the “maximum and minimum” should be hotly opposed by those interested in the unlimited domination of wealth is natural, but that it should be eyed askance by a Democrat, not to say Socialist, who has outlived the economic superstition of laissez faire that legislative interference with private enterprise is wicked and that, like the Sabbath-breaking of two generations ago, it always leads to a bad end, is an anomaly only to be explained on the principle of what the anthropologists call “unconscious survival in culture” - such a survival as makes some hesitate to sit thirteen at table, or to undertake important business on Fridays.

We await the time, not far distant, when the workers will demand the regulation of buying and selling - whether of their own labour or of its product - in their own interest and in that of their class, with even more unanimity than they now demand the legal enactment of a working day of eight hours.


E. Belfort Bax



1. It is obvious that this would have to be arranged on a “sliding scale” by a board of experts elected from each trade.


Last updated on 5.6.2004