May 15, 2022

Marx: ‘Working Day’ and Class Struggle

Sanjay Roy

THE struggle to define the working day as Marx described in Capital I was a protracted and concealed civil war between the capitalists and the working class spanning for more than half a century. For capital, the consumption of labour from the labour-power shouldn’t face any limit of time. The longer the constant capital or machines put to work, the greater will be the possibility of extracting surplus value from the workers. Hence freedom of capital has been synonymous with slavery or working to death for workers and limiting working hours was seen as something immoral and an escape from work. Marx writes: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”

In his graphic description of the condition of workers in England culled out from reports of city magistrates and factory inspectors, Marx described how children, women and adult men had to work longer hours extending to fifteen to sixteen hours a day and in some industries for particular periods even up to twenty hours. Pottery, lace making, block-printing, wallpaper industry, blacksmith and bakery workers faced inhuman working conditions leading to drudgery, severe illness, physical distortions even premature death. From the middle of the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth-century capitalist class was able to impose unlimited work hours without any legal limits so to say. Having control over the life of the worker and extracting as much surplus as possible was some sort of ‘white slavery’ introduced in England. It was only in the Factory Act of 1833, that it was ascertained that the legal maxim of working hours will be 15 for workers of age 13 to 18 and beyond that nothing was mentioned. In fact, dodging the factory acts in subsequent versions, circumventing all rules and stipulations barring the employment of children beyond certain hours and below a certain age, using relay works and fraud to avoid work hour limits and so on were the various means of class assault on labour by the capitalists that continued for more than half a century.

Workers resisted those moves and several episodes of struggle more or less stabilised the working day to 12 hours during 1844-47. Only at the beginning of the century close to World War I, the ten-hour working day was established in most European countries although the United States and New Zealand implemented a 48-hour week at that time. In the case of America, it was a result of the workers’ movement that converged with the American Civil War and its eight-hour working day agitation and declaration adopted by the General Congress of Labour held at Baltimore in 1866.


Legal limits to working hours actually set limits to the production and appropriation of absolute surplus value. In a working day, the worker produces value equivalent to that of subsistence in a part of the working day and the rest part of the work produces a value which is appropriated as surplus by the capitalist. Hence keeping the necessary labour time, that is hours required to produce the value equivalent to subsistence, more or less unchanged if the working hours can be extended then surplus extraction increases. Therefore, restricting the working day to certain hours restricts the freedom of capital to reap absolute surplus value. In response to this legal norm, the capitalists of the world reacted back in various ways. One is the introduction of technologies that reduces the necessary labour time required to produce the value equivalent of the subsistence and hence extending the surplus labour time and surplus value with the working day remaining unchanged. This can be achieved also by increasing the intensity of work. These are means of increasing what Marx called relative surplus-value.

The other means of continuing with the prolonged working hours could be excluding certain segments of work from the purview of legal norms, such that extraction of surplus continues in primordial forms. Informality and undocumented workers and migrants constitute the vast majority of the workforce across the world who could be easily exploited as they are put aside of formal-legal norms of employment. Interestingly, prolonged working hours in Europe at that time became a social concern demanding collective intervention through legislation. This is precisely because capitalism requires a continuous stream of supply of able-bodied workers to keep the accumulation process going. This may not be a concern for the individual capitalist but for the class as a whole, maintaining the supply of workers and their reproduction is a pre-requisite for continued production of surplus. Therefore, criticism of overwork particularly of women and children was raised from non-working class quarters as well. Premature death and unhealthy workers tend to increase the replenishing cost of the labour-power and hence capitalist State beyond a point accommodated the limit of working hours. In other words, the right to leisure not only got a social sanction but also came to be considered as ‘productive’.


The ILO Convention Hours of Work: Industry Convention 1919 defines the ‘working-day’ as eight-hour a day and 48-hours a week, which was extended to all but agricultural workers in the Hours of Work (Commerce and Offices) Convention 1930. In fact, by the 1920s most of the industries in Europe and America instituted the norm of a 40-hour week. During the inter-war years, the rights of workers, and limits to working hours were widely accepted including the institutions for collective bargaining. But this was turned upside down at the end of the 70s once again when capital faced the crisis of profitability and tried to resolve it through fresh attacks on workers of the world by dismantling existing rights. What is significant is that the capitalist class was successful in articulating the needs of their class interest as something good for the sake of enhancing productivity, efficiency and competitiveness of industries, in their respective countries. The neoliberal State actively intervened in creating a market society by dislodging all existing institutions that voice cooperation and collective concerns.

The results were visible across the world: workers’ productivity increased much faster while their real wages grew slower than the pace of productivity growth, giving rise to a declining share of the working class in GDPs of countries. This was complemented by a political and cultural milieu of work ethic that creates social sanction for forcing workers to work longer hours in subhuman conditions if that augments competitiveness. In fact, in many sectors, the work-time and life-time of the worker collapse into one and the notion of the ‘working day’ simply evaporates allowing capital to increase both absolute and relative surplus-value.

True that work processes also change over time and flexibility in time becomes important, particularly for women workers, part-time and task-based work where there are trade-offs between work time and family time as well as between work and education. Flexibility in work however may not come with increased autonomy and several studies show part-time work together with unpaid family work increased the intensity of work and overwork for women. Also, workers engaged in employment based on transitory or instantaneous contracts face greater vulnerability and lower wages compelling them to work longer hours to make both ends meet.

It becomes amply clear that the norms of the working day, minimum wages or that of collective bargaining were accepted by the capitalist class, not on the basis of some moral or civilizational justice and hardly we find a legal action been taken against any employer who violates any of these norms nor do we see much uproar in regard to gross violation of human rights in such working conditions. The matter is plain and simple. It is the class struggle that determines the protection and erosion of workers’ rights including the limits of the working day in a capitalist society. The pivotal norm of capitalism is that it is a society meant to enhance the surplus of propertied non-workers by the exploitation of property-less workers and all other moral or humane concerns are subservient to the grand rule of capital accumulation. In the words of Marx in Capital I: “As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour.”