Marx-Engels Correspondence 1855
Source: MECW Volume 39, p. 511;
First published: F. Lassalle, Nachgelassene Briefe und Schriften, 1922.
This letter would have been written a week ago had not my wife been delivered of a world citizen (female) [Eleanor] and the consequent trouble left me little spare time, as you can readily imagine. However, both mother and daughter are doing well.
It is not very pleasant, mon cher to write in such a small [...] au fond, all one can do is produce miniature dunghills. Mais [n'importe] that the [...] should consider [...] and make no literary pretensions, while also hoping that none will be made.
As regards the various economic questions you put to me, so far as I know there are as yet no compilations, whether official or scientific. Official figures for corn imports are, of course, to be found in the board of trade tables. But nothing else. Undoubtedly there will now be a plethora of works on these matters. A period of crisis in England is also one of theoretical research. I shall at the earliest opportunity compile something for you from my note-books, in which I have collected all sorts of statistical information from various sources. For the present, merely the following, of a quite general nature:
Imports of Wheat and Flour
|Wheat as wheat|
(reduced to quarters)
Thus 8,285,000 [qrs] of wheat imported during the first 2 years of free trade, and 2,226,000 in the form of flour, in all 10,511,000, or an average of more than 5 million quarters over the 2 years. This amounts to far more than 1/6 of total consumption, reckoned at 1 quarter per person per year.
Now, can it be said that annual consumption increased to that extent? This clearly depends on the answer to another question: whether the same amount of wheat was produced in England as heretofore? This again can only be answered when we are in possession of the agricultural statistics, upon which work has only just begun. As regards Ireland and Scotland, we know that considerable amounts [of the land] have been turned over to pasture, etc., since the abolition of the corn tariffs. As regards England, no conclusion can be reached at present save by induction. If in England, a considerable area of land had not been withdrawn from cultivation, how came it that e.g. this year, despite a very good harvest, corn prices are higher than in the protectionist year, 1839, for instance, although the loss of imports from abroad in no way compensates for the difference between a good and a bad harvest, between, say, that of 1854 and that of 1853? How the tendency to withdraw land from cultivation has spread under free trade — mainly, no doubt, by turning it over to pasture — is evident from the following table, an official one (for Ireland):
|1854 (up till November)|
|Decrease in Cereals||91,233|
|Green Crops (Potatoes, roots etc.)||710|
|Total decrease in cultivated land||128,575|
Last year (1853), on the other hand, the total decrease was only 43,867 acres. Making, for both years taken together, 172,442. This is all the more striking as the demand for all agricultural produce has risen in the past 2 years.
Now as regards the ‘hands’ employed in agriculture, we know that, of the 300,000 people who have emigrated every year from Great Britain since 1852, the great majority consisted of agricultural workers. We know that in 1853 the population decreased for the first time instead of increasing. Finally, the best proof that the number of agricultural hands has greatly decreased is that in 1853 wages in rural areas rose for the first time since 1815 and that mechanical reapers were more or less generally introduced in order to depress them again.
(Incidentally, I would point out that the free import of foreign corn has given England’s agronomy a tremendous impetus.)
What [influence] free trade has had on the price of industrial [products] is absolutely impossible to assess from the material so far available. In the woollen and linen industry, for example, the fluctuations dependent on raw material can hardly have been affected in any way by the repeal of the corn-laws. On the whole I believe that the history of prices from 1849 to 1854 will show that the price-relations between all manufactured products and grain, as well as between individual branches of industry and the corresponding raw materials remained the same before and after the repeal of the Corn Laws (likewise the variations within each group).
As for wages in the factories (figures another time), it can be proved beyond doubt that the repeal of the Corn Laws, 1. has had no influence whatever on absolute wages, 2. has contributed to depress relative wages. In the year of crisis wages [had] been depressed. They were not raised in the relatively good years 1849-52 (the latter included, at least up to the last 1/3 of the year). Why weren’t they raised? Because the price of foodstuffs had fallen. In the course of 1852 the great emigration began, while on the other hand demand rose appreciably in the United States, Australia, India, etc. The workers then demanded a 10 per cent rise in wages and for a short time, while prosperity was at its height (until about August 1853), were able to achieve it in almost the majority of branches of industry. However, as you know, they were soon deprived of this 10 per cent rise — remember, e.g., the Preston strike although corn prices were on average higher in 1853 and 1854 than in the protectionist years 1843-45 and 1830-37. Hence the rise in wages — a very temporary rise, for already short time is being worked again and, generally speaking, the crisis has begun — is in no way attributable to free trade, but corresponds wholly to the rise that takes place in all years of prosperity. In fact free trade simply meant that from 1849 to 1852 wages did not rise. Since it was possible to buy more food with the same wages, these were not increased. What did show a relative increase, therefore, was profits. Hence relative wages, i.e. wages in relation to profits, have in fact fallen — a result which I showed to be inevitable in a pamphlet [Speech on the Question of Free Trade] (French) written as long ago as 1847.
Of course, one cannot deny that the repeal of the Corn Laws may have in some degree contributed (together with the adjustment of the sugar tax, the raising of restrictions on shipping and the repeal of the protective tariffs on British North American timber) to creating new, or enlarging existing, markets for British manufactures abroad. For instance, in the United States the tendency to legislate in favour of free trade was certainly due partly to the repeal in England. However, too much importance should not be attached to this, since there was a decrease in English exports e.g. to Russia, whose exports to England increased enormously as a result of the repeal. In general, it would appear that, relatively speaking, Europe’s importance as a market for English goods is steadily diminishing; since in 1854, 60 per cent of total exports (I mean total exports of British products, disregarding re-exports) were absorbed by the United States, Australia and India alone, a figure which does not include Britain’s colonies outside Europe (excepting India).
I have jotted down the above information to provide a very general answer to your questions. I shall see what I can find in the way of definite statistical material in my note-books. As already mentioned, books will no doubt only begin coming out now...