First Wage-labor Law (England, 1349)

glevy at glevy at
Sat Sep 2 07:55:38 MDT 1995

Ken wrote that he was "amazed at the simple elegance of historical
materialism" and then quoted a section from Ch. 28 0f _Capital_, Vol. 1
and concluded that the passage meant:

> That is, the first wage laws set a MAXIMUM (not a minimum) wage. The idea
> was to secure employers a set surplus value. And they would stay on the
> books until 1825, I believe...

Then Ken looked at a general history book and found the following entry:
>      "Black Death kills a third of population of England."

I don't know that I would agree, though, with the idea that the theory of
historical materialism has a "simple elegance." It is true that many
Marxists have tended to use that historical outlook in a "simple" way,
i.e. by attempting to deduce an explanation for a concrete historical
event directly from a series of general ideas and propositions. I don't
find the importance of the "black death" to events in 1349 to be a
contradiction to historical materialism or to what Marx was arguing in
the quote that Ken selected. Of course, population changes and disease
have an effect on state policy. Marx, after all, read more than a few
historical works as well.

Historical materialism, if it is to be meaningful, must leave room for
how all of the variables that affect economic and social reality can
concretely change that reality. The "Black Death" was a historically
specific development, but it was also something that in 1349 affected
many different aspects of reality.

Let me give an analogy concerning class struggle and wages. We would all
agree that personal character and relationships are not the primary
relations that govern, in general, wage changes and determine outcomes of
class confrontations.  Yet, ...

In 1941, there was a pivotal and bitter struggle in US labor history --
the strike by the UAW against Ford Motor Company. For many years the UAW
had been trying to organize Ford and Ford had a whole department of goons
(the "service department" led by the infamous Harry Bennett) that was
used against the UAW. Ford said that unions were the "worst thing
that ever struck the earth" and vowed that he would never recognize the

When on 4/1/41, the company fired the entire UAW grievance committee, a
spontaneous walkout began. The UAW had to reach out to the black workers
at Ford, for this strike to be successful. One has to remember that since
the time of Ford's $5 day, many black leaders and workers had considered
that Ford was a help to their community. The UAW, with the support of
many black leaders, were successful in this regard. The ranks solidified
and would not be divided by race, but there was still the force of the
state and Ford's private army to reckon with.

Ultimately, as we all know, the strike was won.  Why?  There were many
factors. The desire by Ford not to lose lucrative defense contracts and
the belief that public opinion had turned the tide against him were some
factors.  Another factor was this: after a bloody confrontation where
gory pictures were put on the front page of local newspapers, Ford's
wife told him point-blank that if he didn't settle the strike and
recognize the UAW -- SHE WOULD LEAVE HIM!

Almost immediately, Ford not only settled but offered the UAW some
concessions they WEREN'T  EVEN ASKING FOR -- like the closed shop and
automatic dues checkoff. Ford  slyly remarked regarding these
concessions: "That will make us their  bankers, won't it? Then they can't
get along without us. They'll need us just as bad as we need them."

Our personal relationships can be able to affect our own lives and since
individuals can be able to impact history, why can't personal
relationships in *some concrete instances* affect history? This isn't a
refutation of historical materialism -- it is a development which that
philosophy allows for and embraces. So too the "Black death." Diseases
are affected by social institutions and they, in turn, under certain
circumstances, change those institutions. It's all about dialectics and


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