How do today’s complaints stack up against the working conditions of Marx’s day?
As I sat with a friend of mine, the conversation changed to a debate that is rarely solved at a bar: is capitalism good or evil? My friend has not read Karl Marx or studied Communism, but somehow, he still knew the script. “People today (in America) work in the most horrendous conditions.” “When you buy from those big companies the money doesn’t go to the workers it goes straight into the pockets of the CEOs.”
During this heated exchange, my friend felt he had done a fine job of attacking capitalism and decrying the plight of the American worker. He left in a huff and climbed into his brand new $40,000 pickup without saying goodbye.
Granted, not everyone suspicious of capitalism feels exactly the same way as this young man, but the general sentiment is the same: being in the proletariat is terrible, and the bourgeoisie get all the benefit. I had recently finished reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and I was amazed at how much Marx was embedded in this man’s thinking. How is it that the complaints that Karl Marx expressed in Das Kapital in 1867 are still being voiced today?
Das Kapital (or Capital, A Critique of Political Economy) is where Marx lays out his surplus theory of labor. It asserts that wealthy people get wealthy by over-working their employees and keeping the profit for themselves. This stands in contrast to the idea that wealthy people get wealthy by providing a service or product that people are willing to pay for as well as creating an environment where people choose to work.
Part of Marx’s goal in Kapital was to show how truly wretched life was for workers during his day. To his credit he does a fantastic job. Assuming that his reporting was accurate, sections of Kapital offer a nightmarish look into 1800s factory life. Worst of all were the lives of children. Marx gives the example of a boy named William Wood who was 9 years old. “He came to work every day in the week at 6 a.m. and left off about 9 p.m.”That means a 9-year-old boy (roughly 4th grade) was working 15-hour days, more than a 100-hour work week. A 12-year-old boy named J. Murray worked with 8-9 other boys beginning at 4:00am or 6:00am, often working all night for “3 shillings and sixpence” (roughly less than $10). In 1860, a magistrate named Broughton Charlton reported that “Children of nine or ten years are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, or four o’clock in the morning and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven, or twelve at night…”.
Today’s readers can hardly imagine our children doing factory work. Today, my 10-year-old daughter, like most children in Westernized countries, goes to school at 8:15 in a climate-controlled environment with ventilation, electricity, a hot lunch, books, carpet, and recess. She comes home at 3:15 and goes to dance. I understand that even that is not available to everyone, but I am extremely grateful for the life she has today. I can sympathize with Marx when he says, “Dante would have found the worst horrors of his Inferno surpassed in this manufacture.”
Now, if we could somehow bring Marx into this century and give him a tour to show him how children live today, what would he say? Would he want people to continue to complain or be grateful?
Today I would go so far as to say we have “cured” these evils. There are laws protecting children from working in dangerous conditions. For example, 14–15-year-olds can’t work more than 3 hours on a school day.Minors are forbidden from dangerous jobs such as milling, mining, operating a forklift, or even working “on or near a roof.” That is not to say there are no more problems facing children that we need to address. We can give Marx credit for addressing these issues, but I imagine Marx could only dream of a society where children are protected and treated so well as they are today.
Life was not great for adults in Marx’s day, either. Marx records the Factory Act of 1850, which set limits on the workday in his time.
The Factory Act…allows for the average working-day 10 hours, i.e. for the first 5 days 12 hours from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., including 1/2 an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner, and thus leaving 10 1/2 working hours, and 8 hours for Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., of which 1/2 an hour is subtracted for breakfast. 60 working hours are left, 10 1/2 for each of the first 5 days, 7 1/2 for the last.
During Marx’s day, matchmakers were working 12–15-hour days. Railroad workers might work “40 or 50 hours without a break.”Marx praises the Committee of the English Government in Ireland which limited the workday to 12 hours.
The Committee believe that any constant work beyond 12 hours a-day encroaches on the domestic and private life of the working man, and so leads to disastrous moral results, interfering with each man’s home, and the discharge of his family duties as a son, a brother, a husband, a father.
If Marx believed that a 12-hour workday was sufficient, what would he say of America? If Marx could see that today’s average American works a 40-hour week and only 5.4 hours on a weekend day, would he tell us to stop complaining and be grateful we have it so good?
Not only did people work long hours, they also worked dangerous jobs. In the district of Stoke, many found employment in the pottery industry. “2/5 of the whole deaths are the result of pulmonary diseases among the potters,” Marx wrote.I cannot imagine 40% of fatalities coming from one workplace today. Potters also suffered “stunted growth,” were described as being “phlegmatic and bloodless,” suffered from “dyspepsia and disorder of the liver and kidneys.”
One of the most dangerous and taxing jobs was to be a baker. “Journeymen bakers … rarely reach the age of 42.”Their long hours and exposure to dangerous additives to the bread was more of a drain on the human body than we can imagine today. My father worked with his father as a baker for a while. He has recounted to me the very early hours and long days that I have never had to endure. My father is 72 years old and is living out his retirement.
Today the most dangerous job in America is logging. Loggers make a modest average salary of $41,000 per year. The death rate for loggers is 111 per 100,000.Those deaths are tragic, and we sympathize with families and friends of these individuals.
Now, Marx is no fan of factory work, and we can understand why. In 1861 in Woolstanton, it was reported that the death rate for manufacturers was 726 out of 100,000.That’s 6.5 times more deadly than the most deadly job in America today. Marx even upholds the lower death ratio of “healthy agricultural districts” as a desirable goal: 305 out of every 100,000. It’s still nearly three times safer to be a logger in America today than a farmer (the safe job) in Marx’s day. In fact, the country with the most worker fatalities today is Azerbaijan, with a workplace fatality rate of 58 per 100,000. The most dangerous place in the world to work today is still light years beyond from the conditions Marx was lamenting.
Grumbling or Gratitude?
So, what would Marx say if he saw life today? Would Marx tell all those touting anti-capitalism rhetoric to be silent and be grateful that working conditions for the proletariat have become better than he could ever dream? I imagine not.
Gratitude doesn’t seem to be in the Marxist or Communist vocabulary. That seems, rather, to rest on complaints. Christians can find some common ground here, as we believe in the curse of the fall: work is corrupted by sin and there will always be thorns and thistles. We should always strive to help people thrive in the workplace.
We also need some gratitude. My purpose here is not to say that life is perfect and that there’s no issues that need to be addressed. But if all we have to say is that “life is awful because some people have to work harder than others,” that’s not really a critique so much as a complaint. It seems to me that the central idea of Marxism is not the surplus theory of labor, or the plight of the proletariat, or even the selfish greed of the bourgeoisie. It’s the desire to complain.
lives in North Dakota with his wife Brittany and their children Aiden and Gwen. He has been a pastor, youth leader, and high school teacher of Bible and apologetics.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/gratuitous-grumblings