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Marx's View of the Division of Labor

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Tags Labor and WagesPolitical TheoryValue and Exchange


[Reprinted from Free Market Economics: A Basic Reader, compiled by Bettina G. Greaves.]

The division of labor is a subject which has fasci­nated social scientists for millennia. Before the ad­vent of modem times, philosophers and theolo­gians concerned themselves with the implications of the idea. Plato saw as the ultimate form of soci­ety a community in which social functions would be rigidly separated and maintained; society would be divided into definite functional groups: warriors, artisans, unskilled laborers, rulers. St. Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, went so far as to describe the universal Church in terms of a body: there are hands, feet, eyes, and all are under the head, Christ. Anyone who intends to deal seriously with the study of society must grapple with the question of the division of labor. Karl Marx was no exception.

Marx was more than a mere economist. He was a social scientist in the full meaning of the phrase. The heart of his system was based on the idea of human production. Mankind, Marx asserted, is a totally autonomous species-being, and as such man is the sole creator of the world in which he finds himself. A man cannot be defined apart from his labor: "As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce."1 The very fact that man rationally organizes production is what dis­tinguishes him from the animal kingdom, accord­ing to Marx. The concept of production was a kind of intellectual "Archimedean point" for Marx. Every sphere of human life must be interpreted in terms of this single idea: "Religion, family, state, law, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law."2 Given this total reliance on the concept of human labor, it is quite understandable why the division of labor played such an important role in the overall Marx­ian framework.

Property vs. Labor

Marx had a vision of a perfect human society. In this sense, Martin Buber was absolutely correct in including a chapter on Marx in his Paths in Utopia. Marx believed in the existence of a society which preceded recorded human history. In this world, men experienced no sense of alienation because there was no alienated production. Somehow (and here Marx was never very clear) men fell into pat­terns of alienated production, and from this, pri­vate property arose.3 Men began to appropriate the products of other men's labor for their own pur­poses. In this way, the very products of a man's hands came to be used as a means of enslaving him to another. This theme, which Marx an­nounced as early as 1844, is basic to all of Marx's later economic writings.

Under this system of alienated labor, Marx ar­gued, man's very life forces are stolen from him. The source of man's immediate difficulty is, in this view, the division of labor. The division of labor was, for Marx, the very essence of all that is wrong with the world. It is contrary to man's real essence. The division of labor pits man against his fellow man; it creates class differences; it destroys the unity of the human race. Marx had an almost the­ological concern with the unity of mankind, and his hostility to the division of labor was therefore total (even totalitarian).

Class Warfare

Marx's analysis of the division of labor is remark­ably similar to Rousseau's.4 Both argued that the desire for private property led to the division of labor, and this in turn gave rise to the existence of separate social classes based on economic differ­ences. The Marxist analysis of politics relies com­pletely upon the validity of this assumption. With­out economic classes, there would be no need for a State, since a State is, by definition, nothing more than an instrument of social control used by the members of one class to suppress the members of another.5 Thus, when the proletarian revolution comes, the proletarian class must use the State to destroy the remnants of bourgeois capitalism and the ideology of capitalism. The opposition must be stamped out; here is the meaning of the famous "ten steps" outlined in the Communist Manifesto. Once the opposition is totally eradicated, there will be no more need for a State, since only one class, the proletariat, will be in existence. "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an associa­tion in which the free development of each is the condition for the development of all."6

Marx actually believed that in the communist society beyond the Revolution, the division of la­bor would be utterly destroyed. All specialization would disappear. This implies that for the pur­poses of economic production and rational eco­nomic planning, all men (and all geographical areas) are created equal. It is precisely this that Christians, conservatives, and libertarians have al­ways denied. Marx wrote in The German Ideology (1845–46):

... in communist society, where nobody has one ex­clusive sphere of activity but each can become ac­complished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shep­herd or critic.7

A Utopian Ideal

A more utopian ideal cannot be encountered in serious economic literature. While some commen­tators think that Marx later abandoned this radical view, the evidence supporting such a conclu­sion is meager. Marx never explicitly repudiated it (although the more outspoken Engels did, for all intents and purposes). Even if Marx had abandoned the view, the basic problems would still remain. How could a communist society abandon the spe­cialization of labor that has made possible the wealth of modem industrialized society and at the same time retain modem mass production meth­ods? How could the communist paradise keep man­kind from sliding back into the primitive, highly unproductive, unskilled, low capital intensity pro­duction techniques that have kept the majority of men in near starvation conditions throughout most of human history?

The whole question of economic production "be­yond the Revolution" was a serious stumbling stone for Marx. He admitted that there would be many problems of production and especially dis­tribution during the period of the so-called "dicta­torship of the proletariat." This period is merely the "first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society."8 Marx never expected great things from this society. However, in the "higher phase of communist society," the rule of economic justice shall become a reality: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!''9 This will be easy to accomplish, since the vast quantities of wealth which are waiting to be released will be freed from the fetters and re­straints of capitalist productive techniques. As Mises has pointed out, "Tacitly underlying Marx­ian theory is the nebulous idea that natural factors of production are such that they need not be economized."10 Maurice Cornforth, the Marxist philosopher, confirms Mises' suspicion that Marx­ists see all scarcity as a product of institutional de­fects rather than as a basic fact of the order of the world in which we live:

The eventual and final abolition of shortages consti­tutes the economic condition for entering upon a com­munist society. When there is socialized production the products of which are socially appropriated, when science and scientific planning have resulted in the production of absolute abundance, and when labour has been so enlightened and organized that all can without sacrifice of personal inclinations contribute their working abilities to the common fund, every­one will receive a share according to his needs.11

Who Shall Plan?

A critical problem for the Marxist is the whole question of communist planning: How is production to be directed? By what standards should the society allocate scarce resources? Whatever Marx's personal dreams were concerning the abolition of scarcity, resources are not in infinite supply. It is because of this very fact that society must plan production. Marx saw this activity as basic to the definition of man, yet this very activity implies the existence of scarcity, a peculiar paradox for Marx­ism. The fact remains that automobiles do not grow on trees. Someone must decide how many auto­mobiles should be produced in comparison with the number of refrigerators. Planning is inherent in all economic production, and Marx recognized this: "Modem universal intercourse can be con­trolled by individuals, therefore, only when con­trolled by all."12 But how can they "all" register their preferences? If there is no private property (and, therefore, no free market economy), and if there is no State planning — no political planning — ­then who decides which goods are to be produced and which goods are not? Murray Rothbard has stated this dilemma quite accurately:

Rejecting private property, especially capital, the Left Socialists were then trapped in an inner contra­diction: if the State is to disappear after the Revolu­tion (immediately for Bakunin, gradually "withering" for Marx), then how is the "collective" to run its property without becoming an enormous State itself, in fact even if not in name? This was the contradic­tion which neither the Marxists nor the Bakunists were ever able to resolve.13

The Problem of Scarcity

The need to coordinate production implies the existence of scarcities which the production is de­signed to alleviate. If everyone had all he desired at the moment of wanting it, production would be unnecessary. Raw materials must be fashioned in­to goods or indirectly into services, and these goods shipped from place to place. Such actions require time (interest on the investment of capital goods), planning (profit for success and loss for failure), and labor (wages). In short, production demands planning. No society is ever faced with the problem "to plan or not to plan." The issue which confronts society is the question of whose plan to use. Karl Marx denied the validity of the free market's plan­ning, since the free market is based upon the pri­vate ownership of the means of production, includ­ing the use of money. Money, for Marx, is the crys­tallized essence of alienated production; it is the heart of capitalism's dynamism. It was his fervent hope to abolish the use of money forever.14 At the same time, he denied the validity of centralized planning by the State. How could he keep his "as­sociation" from becoming a State? The Fabian writer, G. D. H. Cole, has seen clearly what the de­mand for a classless society necessitates: "But a classless society means, in the modern world, a so­ciety in which the distribution of incomes is collec­tively controlled, as a political function of society itself. It means further that this controlled distri­bution of incomes must be made on such a basis as to allow no room for the growth of class differ­ences."15 In other words, given the necessity of a political function in a supposedly stateless world, how can the Marxists escape the warning once of­fered by Leon Trotsky: "In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat."16

Ultimately, the acceptance of the existence of scarcity must be a part of any sane social analysis. In contrast to this Rousseauian-Marxian view of the division of labor stands both the traditional Christian view and the libertarian view of Pro­fessor Mises. Men have a natural propensity to con­sume. If unrestrained, this tendency might result in looting, destruction, and even murder.

The Need to Produce

The desire to consume must be tempered by a willingness to produce, and to exchange the fruits of production on a value for value received basis. Each person then consumes only what he has earned, while extending the same right to others. One of the chief checks on men's actions is the fact of economic scarcity. In order to extract from a resisting earth the wealth that men desire, they are forced to cooperate. Their cooperation can be vol­untary, on a free market, or it can be enforced from above by some political entity.

Scarcity makes necessary an economic division of labor. Those with certain talents can best serve their own interests and society's interests by con­centrating their activities in the areas of produc­tion in which they are most efficient. Such special­ization is required if productivity is to be in­creased. If men wish to have more material goods and greater personal services, they must choose occu­pations in which they can become effective pro­ducers. Those who favor a free market arrange­ment argue that each man is better equipped than some remote board of supervisors to arrange his own affairs and choose his own calling according to his desires, talents, and dreams. But whether the State directs production or the demand of a free market, the specialization of labor is manda­tory. This specialization promotes social harmony; the division of labor forces men to restrain their hostile actions against each other if. they wish to have effective, productive economic cooperation.

In this perspective, the division of labor pro­motes social unity without requiring collective uni­formity. It acknowledges the existence of human differences, geographical differences, and scarcity; in doing so, it faces the world in a realistic fashion, trying to work out the best possible solution in the face of a fundamental, inescapable condition of man. In short, the cause of economic scarcity is not the "deformed social institutions" as the so­cialists and Marxists assert; it is basic to the human condition. While this does not sanction total spe­cialization, since man is not a machine, it does de­mand that men acknowledge the existence of real­ity. It does demand that the division of labor be accepted by social theorists as a positive social benefit.17

A Faulty Premise

Anyone who wishes to understand why the Marx­ian system was so totally at odds with the nine­teenth century world, and why it is so completely unworkable in practice, can do no better than ex­amine Marx's attitude toward the division of labor. It becomes obvious why he always shied away from constructing "blueprints for the communist paradise" and concentrated on lashing the capital­ist framework: his view of the future was utopian. He expected man to be regenerated by the violence of the Revolution. The world beyond would be fundamentally different: there would be no scarc­ity, no fighting, and ultimately, no evil. The laws of that commonwealth would not be comformable with the laws that operate under bourgeois cap­italism. Thus, for the most part, Marx remained silent about the paradise to come. He had to. There was no possible way to reconcile his hopes for the future with the reality of the world. Marx was an escapist; he wanted to flee from time,  scarcity, and earthly limitations. His economic analysis was directed at this world, and therefore totally critical; his hopes for the future were uto­pian, unrealistic, and in the last analysis, religious. His scheme was a religion — a religion of revolution.

  • 1. The German Ideology (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), p. 32.
  • 2. "Private Property and Communism," The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, edited by Dirk J. Struik (New York: International Publishers, 1964), p. 136.
  • 3. "Estranged Labor," ibid., pp. 116–17.
  • 4. J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in G.D.H. Cole (ed.), The Social Contract and Discourses (London: Dent, 1966), esp. pp. 195–208. Cf. Robert A. Nesbet, "Rousseau and Totalitarianism," Journal of Politics, V (1943), pp. 93–114.
  • 5. German Ideology, pp. 44–45.
  • 6. The Communist Manifesto (1848), in Marx-Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languagues Publishing House, 1962), I, p. 54. For a critique of this view of the State, see my study Marx's Religion of Revolution (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1968), p. 112.
  • 7. German Ideology, pp. 44–45.
  • 8. Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), in Marx-Engels Selected Works, II, p. 24. This is one of the few places in which Marx presented some picture of the post-Revolutionary world.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (New Haven: Yale, [1922] 1951; London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 164.
  • 11. Maurice Cornforth, Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1965), p. 237.
  • 12. German Ideology, p. 84.
  • 13. Murray N. Rothbard, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," Left and Right, 1 (1965), p. 8.
  • 14. "On the Jewish Question," (1843–44), in T.B. Bottomore, Karl Marx: Early Writings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 34–40.
  • 15. G. D. H. Cole, The Meaning of Marxism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, [1948] 1964), p. 249.
  • 16. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), quoted by F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944), p. 119.
  • 17. Mises, Socialism, pp. 60–62.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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