Re: An Interview with Karl Marx

by The Inmate

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

—Karl Marx, Capital

Inmate:  Mr. Marx, thank you for coming back from the dead for this interview.  That can’t be easy.

Marx:  It’s not.

Inmate: I know the U.S. is probably not the place you would have chosen to come back to, but, nonetheless, welcome.

Marx:  Thank you for inviting me.  You are a Marxist?

Inmate:  No, no.  I’m The Inmate, but regardless of one’s political views everyone owes you a great debt.  The research you did concerning the abuse of employees by employers during the 19th century was absolutely incredible.  I would like you to give a brief synopsis of chapter 10 from your book, Capital.

Marx: “The Working Day,” as I recall it.

Inmate:  You could have called it “The Working Day and Night.”

Marx:  Very true.  When one considers the length of the working day the first consideration should be the limitations of the laborers:  all people must sleep, all people must eat . . .

Inmate: And all people must go to the bathroom and take afternoon naps on hammocks after some good beer?

Marx: A good German beer.

Inmate: Of course.

Marx:  Next come moral considerations: laborers should have time for intellectual, educational and social pursuits.  The most important struggle between capital and labor is how long the working day should be.  During the times I wrote about it ranged from 12 to 18 hours.  Wallpaper manufacturers worked their employees from 6 in the morning until 10 at night–sometimes longer.  At one such factory the average weekly hours for both children and adults was about 80.

Inmate: 80?  For adults and children?

Marx:  Yes, 80.  J. Lightbourne, a 13 year old boy said, “We worked last winter till 9(evening), and the winter before till 10.  I used to cry with sore feet every night last winter.”

Inmate:  It seems almost impossible that people could be treated like that.  How did they survive?

Marx:   They didn’t.  Dr. J. T. Arledge wrote, “They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived . . .”

Inmate:  It was horrible.

Marx:  More than horrible.  Dante could not have imagined anything like it.  Charles Parsons, a surgeon from the same institution, wrote that a manufacturer’s “great success is accompanied with the physical deterioration, wide-spread bodily suffering, and early death of the workpeople . . . by whose labour and skill such great results have been achieved.”  The average age of death for many of the laborers during this time period was 40.  Not only the overwork, but the adulterated food contributed to this.  In London the bread contained alum, sand, dead black-beetles, cobwebs and discharge from abscesses.  There’s your capitalism.

Inmate: With all due respect, I would call it “irresponsible capitalism.”

Marx: All capitalism is irresponsible.

Inmate:  Too bad you did not live to see the results of Marxism.  But respectfully, Mr. Marx, even you wrote about Robert Owen who in 1810 limited the working day to 10 hours in his factories and provided education for children.

Marx: I would not call him a capitalist.

Inmate: Semantics.  Anyway, I don’t want to argue.  Was there a connection between death and overwork?

Marx: In some instances it was the largest contributing factor.  A milliner, who died at age 20, averaged 16 1/2 hours a day, sometimes 30 hours without a break.

Inmate:  What does a milliner do?

Marx:  A milliner designs, makes or sells hats.  Miss Walkley drank sherry, port or coffee to keep going.  Upon her death the doctor wrote, “Mary Anne Walkley had died from long hours of work in an overcrowded workroom, and a too small and badly-ventilated bedroom.”

Inmate:  Did employers realize what they were doing?

Marx: Of course they did, but they cared more about profits and had little respect for working people.  One man put it thus: “The labouring people should never think themselves independent of their superiors.”

Inmate: Was anything done?

Marx:  There were the Factory Acts of 1833, 1844 and 1847 which, it should be remembered, only limited the hours of women and children, but not men over 18.  The standard day lasted from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.  Men could be worked longer.  In many cases a relay system was instituted to get around the laws.

Inmate:  What was that?

Marx:  Employers would shift women and children from one factory to another or from one job to another so there was no way for government authorities to keep accurate records of who was working and how long.

Inmate:  When did hours decrease?

Marx: In 1866, in America, The General Congress of Labour at Baltimore put forth the idea of the eight hour day.  In Paris, in 1855, they limited the working day to 12 hours.  English Factory Inspector, R. J. Saunders wrote: “Further steps towards a reformation of society can never be carried out with any hope of success, unless the hours of labour be limited, and the prescribed limit strictly enforced.”  It was always a struggle.  It always will be.

Inmate: Thank you, Karl.  Your contribution to this area of history is immense.

Marx:  Let us hope this never happens again.

Note: Unfortunately, similar work conditions continue in many areas of the world: child labor, forced overtime, slave wages and, in worst case scenarios, forced confinement for labor.


works cited:

  • Marx, Karl, Capital,  translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, revised with additional translation by Marie Sachey and Herbert Lamm, in Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J. Adler, William Gorman, et. al., Editors, William Benton, Publisher, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1988, Vol. 50.
  • Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume 1,  translated by Ben Fowkes, Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, London, England, 1976.

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