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The Meaning of Work: A Marxist Perspective

This is a reconstruction from notes of a talk given at the Third North American Christian–Marxist Dialogue held in May 1982 at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. At the opening session, during which this talk was given, a Christian perspective was presented by Monsignor George Higgins.

Marxists may be expected to have few disagreements about the meaning of work in the past and present. The same cannot be said, however, about work in the future. Since I will be talking about work under socialism and communism as well as in history, what I am presenting here is a Marxist perspective, not the Marxist perspective.

A very good illustration of how subjective views and class bias can influence one’s view of work in a socialist society is found in the once popular and influential utopian novel Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy. This book appeared in 1888 in the midst of a period of rapid industrialization, growing concentration of economic power, and violent class struggle. Bellamy imagined that the trust-building of his time would eventually lead to the concentration of all capital into the hands of one giant corporation. This would simplify the shift of ownership of all the means of production to the state, which would then apply the rules of reason to create a well-ordered, egalitarian society. Such a scenario of a painless, peaceful transition and the design of a just social order captured the public’s imagination here and abroad. Not since Uncle Tom’s Cabin had so influential a novel appeared in this country. Millions of copies of the book were sold, many readers were converted to socialist ways of thought, “Bellamy Clubs” sprung up across the land, and ideas introduced in the book contributed greatly to the program of the Populist Party.

Bellamy used a simple and by now familiar literary device to introduce his utopia. The hero, Julian West, arises from a hypnotic sleep in the year 2000 to find himself in a United States where classes, exploitation, and money have disappeared, and where all enjoy the living standards of the well-to-do middle class of nineteenth-century Boston. As West locates himself in the new world, the reader learns how the good society was supposed to have been reached and how it operates.

What is relevant for the present discussion is Bellamy’s treatment of work in his utopia, since he carries over to his dream of the future characteristic bourgeois attitudes to work and leisure. Work is a burden. At best, it should be avoided. But if that is not possible, it should be gotten over with as early in life as possible so that more of one’s lifetime can be enjoyed in leisure. Thus in Looking Backward everyone is obligated to join the army of workers at age 21, toiling at “common-labor” tasks during the first three work years. Thereafter, one is free to choose an occupation, subject to some government restrictions. Compulsory labor service ends at age 45, after which the good life of cultivated ladies and gentlemen of leisure can begin.

In all fairness, Bellamy does not denigrate work as such. It is his celebration of leisure that typifies the mentality of the bourgeoisie in capitalist society and upper classes throughout history. Adam Smith, the great theoretician of the capitalist economy, is much more explicit when, in a different context, he defines work as an activity requiring the worker to give up “his tranquility, his freedom, and his happiness.” Wages, according to Smith, are the reward the laborer receives for his or her sacrifices. How utterly different is the Marxist perspective! Look at the scorn Marx heaps on Smith for this negative attitude to work:

In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou labor! was Jehovah’s curse on Adam. And this is labor for Smith, a curse. “Tranquility” appears as the adequate state, as identical with “freedom” and “happiness.” It seems quite far from Smith’s mind that the individual, “in his normal state of health, strength, activity, skill, facility,” also needs a normal portion of work, and of the suspension of tranquility. Certainly, labor obtains its measure from the outside, through the aim to be attained and the obstacles to be overcome in attaining it. But Smith has no inkling whatever that the overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity—and that, further, the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies, and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits—hence as self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labor. He is right, of course, that, in its historic forms as slave-labor, serf-labor, and wage-labor, labor always appears as repulsive, always as external forced labor; and not-labor, by contrast, as “freedom and happiness.” This holds doubly: for this contradictory labor; and relatedly, for labor which has not yet created the subjective and objective conditions for itself…in which labor becomes attractive work, the individual’s self-realization, which in no way means that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement….Really free working…is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intensive exertion. The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion, as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject, which appears in the production process, not in a merely natural, spontaneous form, but as an activity regulating all the forces of nature. Adam Smith, by the way, has only the slaves of capital in mind.*

Marx and Engels saw work as central to human existence. This theme is developed by Engels in his unfinished essay, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” where he maintains that labor “is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.”H This speculation by Engels on the evolution of human beings focuses on the idea that walking on two feet freed the use of the hand and made possible its development for complex tasks. The specialization of the hand in turn led to labor, the mastery over nature, and the differentiation of the human species. Labor brought people together under conditions “where they had something to say to each other.” Thus, with labor came speech and the stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of human beings. Further evolution along this path led to society:

By the combined functioning of hands, speech organs, and the brain, not only in each individual but also in society, men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set for themselves and achieve higher and higher aims. The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified. Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle­raising; then came spinning, weaving, metal-working, pottery and navigation…trade, industry, art, and science.*

Along with the growing complexity of society, however, came private property, the separation of people into classes, and a social division of labor—all of which deeply altered the meaning of work. Differences in environment led to differences in the way people worked and in the things they made. The type of soil and the availability of animals, fish, forests, ores, coal, waterfalls, etc., influenced the means of production and subsistence of each community. Nature provided both the opportunities and the fetters. Yet within these constraints it was nevertheless the social factor that increasingly determined the organization of work and the distribution of its products.

The First Social Division of Labor

In the earliest forms of social organization, family and kinship relations set the pattern for the way different tasks were undertaken or assigned. There are various theories—or shall we say speculations?—about how this low-technology mode of production based on personal relations and production for use (rather than for exchange) gave way to the dominance of exchange, private property, and an increasingly rigid division of labor. According to Engels, the early “natural” division of labor eventually “undermines the collectivity of production and appropriation, elevates the appropriation of products by individuals into the general rule and thus creates exchange between individuals….Gradually, commodity production becomes the dominating form” (Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State [New York: International Publishers, 1972], 237). But whatever the precise sequence of these developments, it is clear that the division of labor based on private property and exchange became the dominant characteristic of economic life.

For Marx and Engels the primary, decisive division is that between town and country. As Marx put it:

The foundation of every division of labor that is well developed, and brought about by the exchange of commodities, is the separation between town and country. It may be said that the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis. (Capital, vol. 1 [Moscow: Progress Publishers], 333)

The differentiation of town and country arises of course from the division between agricultural and industrial and commercial labor. Eventually other separations take place, as between industrial, commercial, and financial activities within the cities. But what needs to be understood is that the town-country antithesis encompasses much more than merely city vs. farm. Thus as nations evolve, regional differences emerge and become ossified. Today, even in the most advanced industrial countries, conflicts and contrasts exist between, on the one hand, regions that specialize in industry, commerce, and finance, and, on the other, those that engage primarily in agriculture. Furthermore, with the progress of international trade and empire-building by the industrially and militarily superior capitalist nations, an international division of labor is created and reproduced (by the use of force and the “normal” operations of the market) between the core countries (“town”) and those of the periphery (“country”).

To be sure, new social formations and advances in productive forces alter particular aspects of the way people become separated by job specialization and life style. Still, there are two features common to all the variations in the social division of labor: (1) It always coincides with a particular set of hierarchical relations between individuals, social groups, and, in certain periods in history, nations—whether associated with patriarchalism, slavery, castes, estates, or modern classes. And (2) it is always taken over, shaped, and reproduced by and for a dominant social group, generally comprising those who own or control the primary means of production.

When the social formation operates through slavery, castes, estates, or guilds, the distribution of occupations is usually rigidly controlled and tends to be hereditary. But even in an environment of individualism and a “free” labor market, the range of occupational opportunities is kept within narrow bounds. In this type of social system, the main means of production are owned and controlled by a relatively small class of capitalists from whom most people must seek employment in order to live. Ultimately, what kinds of jobs are available and how labor is divided are directly or indirectly determined by the self-interest of the owners and managers of capital.

The Second Division of Labor

The hierarchical structures accompanying the town/country antithesis entail a second major division that works to perpetuate differences among people, i.e., the separation of mental and manual labor. The roots of this contradiction and its psychological reinforcement go far back in time. Note, for example, how Socrates views manual work and the manual worker:

What are called the mechanical arts carry a social stigma and are rightly dishonored in our cities. For these arts damage the bodies of those who work at them or have charge of them, by compelling the workers to a sedentary life, by compelling them, indeed, in some cases to spend the whole day by the fire. This physical degeneration results also in deterioration of the soul. Furthermore, the workers at these trades simply have not got the time to perform the offices of friendship or citizenship. Consequently they are looked upon as bad friends and patriots. And in some cities, especially the warlike ones, it is not legal for a citizen to ply a mechanical trade.*

Socrates clearly reflects the attitudes and ideology of upper-class free citizens in a society where slaves are extensively engaged in manual tasks. But the debasement of physical labor is typical not only of social systems based on various forms of forced labor; it is common to all class societies. As Veblen explained:

The distinction between exploit and drudgery is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honorable, noble; other employments which do not contain this element of exploit, and especially those which imply subservience or submission, are unworthy, debasing, ignoble. The concept of dignity, worth, or honor, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and class distinctions…. (Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class [New York: Random House, 1934], 15)

Veblen’s “exploit” differs from Marxist usage of the term. What he is referring to is the wide spectrum of non-manual activities. The thrust of his classification is to identify the “exploit” social groups that emerged as soon as manual workers could produce a surplus of means of subsistence for chieftains, nobles, priests, large landowners, merchants, capitalists, military personnel, rulers of governments, etc. To be sure, the “exploit” category in this sense includes many useful and non­exploitative occupations. But what is important is that the objective elements creating and perpetuating divisions and subdivisions of manual and non-manual workers—private property, exploitative class structures, and the state—are reinforced by a subjective, supportive social psychology and ideology that separates people and their work according to degrees of inferiority and superiority.

The particular types of ranking will of course vary over time. Deep-seated biases, however, carry over from one social system to another. Thus, the traditional submission of women to men and the identification of women’s work in and out of the home with drudgery has suited the interests of many exploiting classes right down to our own time. Similarly, the racism that served the U.S. slavemasters over a hundred years ago has persisted as an instrument of oppression and discrimination, in the main restricting blacks to the most insecure, lowest-status, and least-remunerative jobs.

Division of Labor and Modern Industry

The upper classes have at all times been concerned with recruiting, disciplining, and maintaining a labor force. This is as true for capitalist as for feudal and slave societies. Even though today the wage system may seem to be a fixed, self­regulating institution, it is so because of a long history of struggle during which the combination of economic and state pressures forged a working class dependent on wages for its livelihood. The harshest forms of coercion took place when capitalist relations were imposed on colonial territories. But the making of an industrial proletariat in the “civilized” nations was no bed of roses either:

Because of the nature of eighteenth-century British society within which modern industrialism arose, because of the bitterly competitive nature of the market facing the typical manufacturer, because of the alienation from work involved in the change, and because, after all, they faced the employers as enemies within the distributive system of a capitalist economy, the modern industrial proletariat was introduced to its role not so much by attraction or monetary rewards, but by compulsion, force and fear. It was not allowed to grow as in a sunny garden; it was forged, over a fire, by the powerful blows of a hammer….The typical framework is that of dominance and fear, fear of hunger, of eviction, of prison for those who disobey the new industrial rules. Hitherto, the experience of other countries at a similar stage of development has not, in essentials, been very different. (Sidney Pollard, The Genesis of Modern Management [Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1968], 243)

The changeover to wage labor greatly altered the way of life and the meaning of work for formerly independent farmers and craftspeople. In seventeenth-century England work for wages was looked on as a form of enslavement. Not only were many factories constructed like poorhouses and prisons, but the work discipline imposed in these shops also presupposed prison­like practices. In the pre-industrial period the time devoted to work was determined by the task to be performed and by natural conditions (weather for farmers, tides for fishers, etc.). Work, leisure, and religious festivals were intertwined, with little demarcation between “work” and “life.”* The factory system, on the other hand, created an entirely new work discipline, with time and task rigidly imposed by overseers.

Capitalism also introduces a new stage in the division of labor. In addition to the earlier social division of labor, the production process is itself fractionalized. The extensive use of machinery routinizes the different segments of manufacturing to which a worker is tied, in effect transforming the worker into an appendage of the machine he or she tends. These changes are brilliantly examined in Harry Braverman’s classic, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974). Bringing Marx’s analysis of the labor process in Volume I of Capital up to date, Braverman explains:

Labor power [in a capitalist society] has become a commodity. Its uses are no longer organized according to the needs and desires of those who sell it, but rather according to the needs of its purchasers, who are, primarily, employers seeking to expand the value of their capital. And it is the special and permanent interest of these purchasers to cheapen this commodity. The most common mode of cheapening labor power is exemplified by the Babbage principle: break it up into its simplest elements. And as the capitalist mode of production creates a working population suitable to its needs, the Babbage principle is, by the very shape of this “labor market,” enforced upon the capitalists themselves.

Every step in the labor process is divorced, so far as possible, from special knowledge and training and reduced to simple labor. Meanwhile, the relatively few persons for whom special knowledge and training are reserved are freed so far as possible from the obligations of simple labor. In this way, a structure is given to all labor processes that at its extremes polarizes those whose time is infinitely valuable and those whose time is worth almost nothing. This might even be called the general law of the capitalist division of labor. It is not the sole force acting upon the organization of work, but it is certainly the most powerful and general. Its results, more or less advanced in every industry and occupation, give massive testimony to its validity. It shapes not only work, but populations as well, because over the long run it creates that mass of simple labor which is the primary feature of populations in developed capitalist countries. (82–83)

The apt subtitle of Braverman’s book reads: “The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.” It is important to understand that it isn’t only the alienation and dehumanization of the labor process itself that debases work in a capitalist society. The insecurity, the frequency of unemployment, the demanding aspects of the search for work, the growing employment in wasteful and socially harmful occupations, not to mention the meager rewards for the mass of workers—all contribute to the degradation of labor in our time. It is therefore no wonder that Studs Terkel, who interviewed a broad range of workers across the country about their jobs, reported in the introduction to his fascinating book Working (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972):

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fist fights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is above all (or beneath all) about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us….

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality too is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken or unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book….

For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent. The blue­collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot-welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steelworker. “A monkey can do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. “I’m an object,” says the high­fashion model. Blue-collar and white call upon the identical phrase, “I’m a robot.”…

Nora Watson [an interviewee] may have said it most succinctly. “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”*

Marx and Work under Socialism

For Marx, a prime aim of socialism would be to eliminate the miseries of work and the way of life arising from capitalism. But, as is well known, he devised no blueprint for such a society. The future would be shaped in the process of revolution, influenced by historical circumstances and in response to the experience gained by the working classes as they engaged in the revolutionary transformation of state and society. Nevertheless there were features that would be essential to the revolution by the exploited: the abolition of classes and private property in the means of production in favor of social control of production. This necessarily implied, in the Marxist framework, the dissolution of all forms of the division of labor that were created by and integral to the existence of private property and classes. How central this point was to Marx’s thinking can be seen in his vision of what could and should be the ultimate aim of a communist society:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of individuals under the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished, after labor has become not merely a means to live but has become itself the primary necessity of life, after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. (Critique of the Gotha Program)

It should be emphasized that Marx saw this ideal as being realized only after a long process, since the new social order “emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” What he did not deal with are the obstacles to achieving the ultimate goal if the “birthmarks of the old society” become encrusted in the new. This problem has become clearer as a result of the experience of those countries that have undergone social revolutions. It is now evident that the persistence, after the revolution, of the division of labor between intellectuals and workers, between administrators and the masses, and between city and country leads to the perpetuation of conflicts of interest between sectors of society along with the spirit of competition and individualism. No doubt Mao Tse-tung was deeply impressed by this experience, since he repeatedly emphasized the need to pay attention to the elimination of the major differences among the people if socialism is to progress.

But what about the ultimate vision that Marx left to us? Is it within the realm of reason to hold on to such an ideal? There isn’t time on this occasion to explore this question in all its ramifications. I would like, however, to point out that behind this vision lie two assumptions, one that is dealt with in the writings of Marx and Engels and another that to the best of my knowledge they ignored.

A basic assumption of the realizability of the communist goal is that human nature is not constant for all time: that acquisitive drives, individualism, and competition are not biological givens. The fact that people do change in their social behavior and attitudes is at the very core of the theory of historical materialism: although “men are products of circumstances and upbringing and therefore changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing” it should not be forgotten “that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator himself must be educated” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach). The support for this proposition comes from a study of history and especially from investigations of anthropologists. “Herr Proudhon does not know,” Marx wrote in the Poverty of Philosophy, “that all history is but the continuous transformation of human nature.”

A frequently met objection to the communist vision is the claim that people will work only if driven by an economic motive. Yet this notion is refuted by many of the primitive societies we know about, where non-economic work incentives predominate: social responsibility, tradition, desire for prestige, and pleasure in craftsmanship. Given the record of past changes in people’s attitudes to the community and to their work, it is reasonable to assume that human nature will adapt, and adapt with enthusiasm, to a social order based on cooperation, elimination of a rigid division of labor, and the opportunity for a fuller development of the individual.

But involved here is a second assumption concerning the nature of the needs of the people—a subject to which Marx and Marxists have paid little heed. If the needs of the people are limitless, and especially if they generate a passion for consumption such as that which characterizes the advanced capitalist nations of the West, then it would seem that the prospects for achieving the higher stage of communism are very poor indeed. The problem is not merely the earth’s limited resources, though that alone should provide enough reason for skepticism. Limitless expansion in search of an ever higher material standard of living on a world scale could only result in the replication of the worst features of class society. The drive for an incessant increase in production of an ever wider assortment of goods would entail, among other things, continuation of a rigid division of labor, concentration of manufacturing in large enterprises and huge cities. At the same time, equality in distribution would have to go by the board. In the absence of limits on need, there would be no practical way to satisfy every consumer’s desire: limited production possibilities would necessarily entail inequality of distribution, along with intensification of conflicts between privileged and deprived sectors.*

What all this adds up to is that a necessary condition for a truly communist society is a total departure from the culture of capitalism and consumerism. This would mean a wholly new approach to the design of cities and villages, transportation, location of industry, technology, and much more. Above all, the new culture would have to be grounded in a view of people’s needs and a way of life that would be consistent with the maintenance of a cooperative and egalitarian society.

Although, as noted above, Marxists have neglected the question of needs and the requirements of a new culture, it is true that these concerns are very much present in a famous utopian novel by a Marxist: William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). In a sense this book can be considered an answer to Edward Bellamy. Morris was disturbed by Bellamy’s ideas, as can be seen from a review he wrote of Looking Backward:

[Bellamy] tells us that every man is free to choose his own occupation and that work is no burden to anyone, the impression which he produces is that of a huge standing army, tightly drilled, compelled by some mysterious fate to unceasing anxiety for the production of wares to satisfy every caprice, however wasteful and absurd, that may cast up among them….I believe the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of man’s energy by the reduction of labor to a minimum, but rather to a reduction of pain in labor to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be pain….In this part of his scheme, therefore, Mr. Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking (with obvious failure) some incentive to labor to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only one, whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to happy and useful labor must be pleasure in the work itself. (The Commonweal [January 22, 1889], as cited in A. L. Morton, The English Utopia [London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1952], 155)

The utopian novel Morris writes a year later is, as might be expected, strikingly different from Bellamy’s. He does not provide a complete prescription for all aspects of the new society, nor does he pretend that his is the only and necessary shape of the future. Rather, it is an expression of a personal preference for the kind of world he would like to live in. Yet, in contrast to Bellamy, Morris displays a sense of history, an understanding that social transformations come about as the result of bitter class struggles, and an awareness of potential changes in human nature and social relations. What is of special interest in the present context is his emphasis on the satisfaction that can be derived from work. But this can be realized only in an environment of a simplified way of life and a release from the pressures of artificially stimulated wants. Big cities disappear in Morris’s new world, to be replaced by villages, woodlands, and meadows. Under these simpler conditions, the rigid division of labor disappears as people have time and interest to learn many skills. Above all, he emphasizes the satisfactions that can be derived from manual skills, handicrafts, and the creativity that can thereby be achieved.

What is especially interesting about News from Nowhere is not that the author provides us with the answers we need for today’s complex world. Since his solutions concern the distant future, they can only be utopian in essence. The real solutions will have to be provided by history. On the other hand, the issues he introduces about the quality of life, work, and culture in a classless society deserve attention. They have the merit of suggesting ideas that can influence the way today’s struggles for a better life should be conducted.