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Labor Action, 28 May 1945


Frederick Engels

Socialist Thoughts

The Evil of the Wages System

(April 1881)


From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 22, 28 May 1945, p. 3.
Originally published in The Labour Standard, London, 4 April 1881.
Reprinted from The British Labor Movement, by Friedrich Engels.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is another excerpt from Frederick Engels on problems of the working class dealt with in the pamphlet The Labor Movement.

The struggle of the laborer against capital, we said. That struggle does exist, whatever the apologists of capital may Say to the contrary. It will exist so long as a reduction of wages remains the safest and readiest means of raising profits; nay, so long as the wage system itself shall exist. This very existence of trades unions is proof sufficient of the fact; if they are not made to fight against the encroachments of capital what are they made for? There is no use in mincing matters. No milksop words can hide the ugly fact that present society is mainly divided into two great antagonistic classes – into capitalists, the owners of all the means for the employment of labor, on one side; and working men, the owners of nothing but their own working power, on the other. The produce of the labor of the latter class has to be divided between both classes, and it is this division about which the struggle is constantly going on. Each class tries to get as large a share as possible; and it is the most curious aspect of this struggle that the working class, while fighting to obtain a share only of its own produce, is often enough accused of actually robbing the capitalist!

But a struggle between two great classes of society necessarily becomes a political struggle. So did the long battle between the middle or capitalist class and the landed aristocracy; so also does the fight between the working class and these same capitalists. In every struggle of class against class, the next end fought for is political power; the ruling class defends its political supremacy, that is to say, its safe majority in the Legislature; the inferior class fights for first a share, then the whole of that power, in order to become enabled to change existing laws in conformity with their own interests and requirements. Thus the working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People’s Charter, which was to give it that political power; it was defeated, but the struggle had made such an impression upon the victorious middle class that this class, since then, was only too glad to buy a prolonged armistice at the price of ever-repeated concessions to the working people.

Now, in a political struggle of class against class, organization is the most important weapon. And in the same measure as the merely political or Chartist organization fell to pieces, in the same measure the trade union organization grew stronger and stronger, until at present it has reached a degree of strength unequalled by any working class organization abroad. A few large trade unions, comprising between one and two millions of working men, and backed by the smaller or local unions, represent a power which has to be taken into account by any government of the ruling class, be it Whig or Tory.

Labor and the Vote

According to the traditions of their origin and development in this country, these powerful organizations have hitherto limited themselves almost strictly to their function of sharing in the regulation of wages and working hours. and of enforcing the repeal of laws openly hostile to the workmen. As stated before, they have done so with quite as much effect as they had a right to expect. But they have attained more than that – the ruling class, which knows their strength better than they themselves do, has volunteered to them concessions beyond that. Disraeli’s Household Suffrage gave the vote to at least the greater portion of the organized working class. Would he have proposed it unless he supposed that these new voters would show a will of their own – would cease to be led by middle class Liberal politicians? Would he have been able to carry it if the working people, in the management of their colossal trade societies, had not proved themselves fit for administrative and political work?

That very measure opened out a new prospect to the working class. It gave them the majority in London and in all manufacturing towns, and thus enabled them to enter into the struggle against capital with new weapons, by sending men of their own class to Parliament. And here, we are sorry to say, the trade unions forgot their duty as the advanced guard of the working class. The new weapon has been in their hands for more than ten years, but they scarcely ever unsheathed it. They ought not to forget that they cannot continue to hold the position they now occupy unless they really march in the van of the working class. It is not in the nature of things that the working class of England should possess the power of sending forty or fifty working men to Parliament and yet be satisfied for ever to be represented by capitalists or their clerks, such as lawyers, editors, etc.

More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the consciousness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wages system itself. This knowledge, once generally spread amongst the working class, the position of trades unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organizations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organization, of the working class as a whole.

Political Action

Thus there are two points which the organized trades unions would do well to consider; firstly, that the time is rapidly approaching when the working class of this county will claim, with a voice not to be mistaken, its full share of representation in Parliament, Secondly, that the time also is rapidly approaching when the working class will have understood that the struggle for higher wages and short hours, and the whole action of trade unions as now carried on is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means, but only one of several means toward a higher end: the abolition of the wages system altogether.

For the full representation of labor in Parliament, as well as for the preparation of the abolition of the wages system, organizations will become necessary, not of separate trades, but of the working class as a body. And the sooner this is done the better. There is no power in the world which could for a day resist the British working class organized as a body.

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