Friedrich Engels
Original publication:

“A Fair Day’s Wages for a Fair Day’s Work” (1881)

8 minutes | English | Marx & Engels

From The Labour Standard, originally in English.

This has now been the motto of the English working-class movement for the last fifty years. It did good service in the time of the rising Trades Unions after the repeal of the infamous Combination Laws in 1824 [1]; it did still better service in the time of the glorious Chartist movement, when the English workmen marched at the head of the European working class. But times are moving on, and a good many things which were desirable and necessary fifty, and even thirty years ago, are now antiquated and would be completely out of place. Does the old, time-honoured watchword too belong to them?

A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work? But what is a fair day’s wages, and what is a fair day’s work? How are they determined by the laws under which modern society exists and develops itself? For an answer to this we must not apply to the science of morals or of law and equity, nor to any sentimental feeling of humanity, justice, or even charity. What is morally fair, what is even fair in law, may be far from being socially fair. Social fairness or unfairness is decided by one science alone — the science which deals with the material facts of production and exchange, the science of political economy.

Now what does political economy call a fair day’s wages and a fair day’s work? Simply the rate of wages and the length and intensity of a day’s work which are determined by competition of employer and employed in the open market. And what are they, when thus determined?

A fair day’s wages, under normal conditions, is the sum required to procure to the labourer the means of existence necessary, according to the standard of life of his station and country, to keep himself in working order and to propagate his race. The actual rate of wages, with the fluctuations of trade, may be sometimes above, sometimes below this rate; but, under fair conditions, that rate ought to be the average of all oscillations.

A fair day’s work is that length of working day and that intensity of actual work which expends one day’s full working power of the workman without encroaching upon his capacity for the same amount of work for the next and following days.

The transaction, then, may be thus described — the workman gives to the Capitalist his full day’s working power; that is, so much of it as he can give without rendering impossible the continuous repetition of the transaction. In exchange he receives just as much, and no more, of the necessaries of life as is required to keep up the repetition of the same bargain every day. The workman gives as much, the Capitalist gives as little, as the nature of the bargain will admit. This is a very peculiar sort of fairness.

But let us look a little deeper into the matter. As, according to political economists, wages and working days are fixed by competition, fairness seems to require that both sides should have the same fair start on equal terms. But that is not the case. The Capitalist, if he cannot agree with the Labourer, can afford to wait, and live upon his capital. The workman cannot. He has but wages to live upon, and must therefore take work when, where, and at what terms he can get it. The workman has no fair start. He is fearfully handicapped by hunger. Yet, according to the political economy of the Capitalist class, that is the very pink of fairness.

But this is a mere trifle. The application of mechanical power and machinery to new trades, and the extension and improvements of machinery in trades already subjected to it, keep turning out of work more and more “hands”; and they do so at a far quicker rate than that at which these superseded “hands” can be absorbed by, and find employment in, the manufactures of the country. These superseded “hands” form a real industrial army of reserve for the use of Capital. If trade is bad they may starve, beg, steal, or go to the workhouse [2]; if trade is good they are ready at hand to expand production; and until the very last man, woman, or child of this army of reserve shall have found work — which happens in times of frantic over-production alone — until then will its competition keep down wages, and by its existence alone strengthen the power of Capital in its struggle with Labour. In the race with Capital, Labour is not only handicapped, it has to drag a cannon-ball riveted to its foot. Yet that is fair according to Capitalist political economy.

But let us inquire out of what fund does Capital pay these very fair wages? Out of capital, of course. But capital produces no value. Labour is, besides the earth, the only source of wealth; capital itself is nothing but the stored-up produce of labour. So that the wages of Labour are paid out of labour, and the working man is paid out of his own produce. According to what we may call common fairness, the wages of the labourer ought to consist in the produce of his labour. But that would not be fair according to political economy. On the contrary, the produce of the workman’s labour goes to the Capitalist, and the workman gets out of it no more than the bare necessaries of life. And thus the end of this uncommonly “fair” race of competition is that the produce of the labour of those who do work, gets unavoidably accumulated in the hands of those that do not work, and becomes in their hands the most powerful means to enslave the very men who produced it.

A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work! A good deal might be said about the fair day’s work too, the fairness of which is perfectly on a par with that of the wages. But that we must leave for another occasion. From what has been stated it is pretty clear that the old watchword has lived its day, and will hardly hold water nowadays. The fairness of political economy, such as it truly lays down the laws which rule actual society, that fairness is all on one side — on that of Capital. Let, then, the old motto be buried for ever and replaced by another:

Possession of the means of work —
raw material, factories, machinery —
by the working people themselves.

[1] On June 21, 1824, under mass pressure, Parliament repealed the ban on the trade unions by adopting “An Act to repeal the Laws relative to the Combination of Workmen, and for other Purposes therein mentioned” (the reference is to the repeal of “An Act to prevent unlawful Combinations of Workmen 12th July 1799”). However, in 1825 it passed a Bill on workers’ combinations (“An Act to repeal the Laws relating to the Combination of Workmen, and to make other Provisions in lieu thereof 6th July 1825”) which, while confirming the repeal of the ban on the trade unions, at the same time greatly restricted their activity. In particular, mere agitation for workers to join unions and take part in strikes was regarded as “compulsion” and “violence” and punished as a crime. — MECW 

[2] The Poor Law adopted in England in 1834 provided for only one form of relief for the able-bodied poor workhouses with a prison-like regime in which the workers were engaged in unproductive, monotonous and exhausting labour. The people called the workhouses “Bastilles for the poor.” — MECW