Karl Marx: Earning a Living or Slaving Away?

Over the past two centuries one political philosopher has divided people more than any other: Karl Marx died today in 1883. You either love him or you hate him. But to simply reject or accept en bloc the ideas of this great man is to do him (and yourself) a disservice.  Although I am not a disciple of Marx, there are occasions where I find his ideas are right, or at least enlightening.  I’d like to take just one, wage slavery; as a Civic Republican anything which deals with slavery attracts my immediate attention!

Although Marx used it as a fundamental plank in his theory, the comparison between wage earners and slavery is an old one, being mentioned by the great Roman Republican theorist Cicero. In his De Officils he says:

…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

Cicero’s view that wage earners were dominated by their masters was also common in Seventeenth Century England where many radicals (including Levellers) regarded them as having foregone their freeborn status and thus to be disenfranchised. In their defence, this was long before the industrial revolution changed the sheer scale and nature of earning a wage.  Later, Tom Paine took a more collective approach to try and eliminate the problem of wage slavery by support through state funds.

Marx viewed it as a socioeconomic issue and took a class approach to its analysis. His point was a good one. If economic conditions forced workers to be dependant upon the grace and mercy of employers then they are in a position of slavery. So what actions correct this balance. There are many, but some are obvious. Firstly the common practice of blacklisting to prevent workers changing employer is still with us.  Secondly, individual employer-employee contracts with the possibility of arbitrary sacking or release (Zero hours, Short term etc) without the counterbalance of the possibility of collective action can engender the sort of wage slavery which Marx railed against. Furthermore, reasonable access to industrial tribunals is essential. The Government’s action in ever restrictive Trade Union law is to be condemned and opposed. The solidarity which Junior Doctors are showing to their cause is a shining beacon!

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