First Wage-labor Law (England, 1349)

Zodiac zodiac at
Sat Sep 2 17:49:15 MDT 1995


>>      "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."

Marx was anything but shallow. And I certainly didn't intend to imply
historical materialism was simple, but rather has, at its foundation, a
simple elegance.

In this case, I was sharing my own "amusement" at finding such a
straightforward answer to my original question: "What was the _primary_
reason for England passing anti-labor legislation in 1349?" It would be
hard to be more direct than that single line I found.

> 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.

You are right. "Vulgar" Marxists will use a Mechano-set application of the
theory. Such people usually depend heavily on the over-quoted "preface" to
a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (the relevant section
of which I attach below).

Of course, people rely often on that preface because rarely was Marx ever
so succinct in condensing his theory into a tight journalistic summation.

> 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.

I'm not sure what you are saying in this sentence...

Do you agree that it is no coincidence that at the very same moment laws
were instituted to establish a maxmimum wage the labor market shrank

While I agree with you that people and happenstance can have great effect
in history, I don't know that a comparison of a 1941 strike in the
auto-industry is convincing in making a point about the Black Death. Yes,
maybe King Edward's wife was whispering in his ear the whole time, just
like Ford -- but you're going to have to go pretty far to convince me that
the horrific and sudden extermination of a full third of a population by
something as paranoia-invoking as a plague compares to the whims of a
couple of people.

> 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?

I agree, Jerry. They do. And they always have. And they always will.



Marx's "Preface" to A _Contribution To The Critique of Political Economy_

     "The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me
     was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law; the
     introduction to this work being published in the
     _Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher_ issued in Paris in 1844.  My
     inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor
     political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the
     basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that
     on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life,
     the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and
     French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term
     "civil society"; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has
     to be sought in political economy.

     The study of this, which I began in Paris, I continued in Brussels,
     where I moved owing to an expulsion order issued by M. Guizot.  The
     general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became
     the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.

     In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter
     Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely
     relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the
     development of their material forces of production.  The totality of
     these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of
     society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political
     superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social

     The mode of production of material life conditions the general
     process of social, political and intellectual life.  It is not the
     consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their
     social existence that determines their consciousness.

     At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of
     society come into conflict with the existing relations of production
     or -- this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms -- with the
     property relations within the framework of which they have operated
     hitherto.  From forms of development of the productive forces these
     relations turn into their fetters.  Then begins an era of social
     revolution.  The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or
     later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

     In studying such transformations it is always necessary to
     distinguish between the material transformation of the economic
     conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision
     of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or
     philosophic -- in short, ideological forms in which men become
     conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not
     judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot
     judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on
     the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the
     contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between
     the social forces of production and the relations of production.

     No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces
     for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior
     relations of production never replace older ones before the material
     conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of
     the old society.  Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks
     as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show
     that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for
     its solution are already present or at least in the course of

     In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois
     modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the
     economic development of society.  The bourgeois mode of production
     is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production --
     antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an
     antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of
     existence -- but the productive forces developing within bourgeois
     society create also the material conditions for a solution of this
     antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with
     this social formation.

Engels reviewed the Critique for _Das Volk_ in the August 6 1859 issue.
He wrote:

     [Quoting Marx in the preface] "It is not the consciousness of men
     that determines their existence, but their social existence that
     determines their consciousness." This proposition is so simple that
     it should be self-evident to anyone not bogged down in idealist
     humbug.  But it leads to highly revolutionary consequences not only
     in the theoretical sphere but also in the practical sphere.

     --- from list marxism at ---


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