Karl Marx in the New York Daily Tribune 1853

On the Labor Contract


Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: by Marx: “Financial Failure of Government.– Cabs.–Ireland.–The Russian Question”;
First Published: in the New York Daily Tribune, July 29, 1853;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Strike” is the order of the day. During the present week 5,000 miners have struck in the northern coal district; 400 to 500 journeymen corkcutters in London; about 2,000 laborers employed by the different wharfingers on the Thames; the police force at Hull, similar attempts being made by the City and general Metropolitan Police; and finally the bricklayers employed at St. Stephens, under the very nose of Parliament.

“The world is becoming a very paradise for laborers. Men are becoming valuable,” exclaims The Times, In order to reduce that paradise to terrestrial dimensions, the mill-lords of Lancashire have formed an association, for mutually assisting and supporting each other against the demands of the people. But not content with opposing combination to combination, the bourgeoisie threaten to appeal to the interference of law — of law dictated by themselves. In what manner this is done may be inferred from the following expectorations of The Morning Post, the organ of the liberal and amiable Palmerston.

If there is a piece of wickedness which pre-eminently deserves to be punished with an iron hand, it is the system of strikes.... What is wanted is some stringent and summary mode of punishing the leaders and chief men of these combinations.[...] it would be no interference with the freedom of the labor market to treat these fellows to a flogging.... It is idle to say that this would interfere with the labor market. As long as those who supply the labor market refrain from jeopardizing the interests of the country, they may be left to make their own terms with the employers.

Within a certain conventional limit, the laborers shall be allowed to imagine themselves to be free agents of production, and that their contracts with their masters are settled by mutual convention; but that limit passed, labor is to be openly enforced upon them on conditions prescribed by Parliament, that permanent Combination Committee of the ruling classes against the people.

Source: Marx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971.

Like the world in general, we are assured that Ireland in particular is becoming a paradise for the labourer, in consequence of famine and exodus. Why then, if wages really are so high in Ireland, is it that Irish labourers are flocking in such masses over to England to settle permanently on this side of the “pond,”[41] while they formerly used to return after every harvest? If the social amelioration of the Irish people is making such progress, how is it that, on the other hand, insanity has made such terrific progress among, them since 1847, and especially since 1851? Look at the following data from “the Sixth Report on the District Criminal and Private Lunatic Asylums in Ireland”:

1851Sum total of admissions in Lunatic Asylums.2,584(1,301 males and 1,283 females.)
1852 2,662(1,276 males and 1,386 females.)
March, 1853 2,870(1,447 males and 1,423 females.)

And this is the same country in which the celebrated Swift, the founder of the first Lunatic Asylum in Ireland,[42] doubted whether 90 madmen could be found.


41. Marx means the Irish Sea.

42. Jonathan Swift bequeathed his entire fortune to the building of a lunatic asylum in Dublin. It was opened in 1757.