All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1969

Marx’s View of the Division of Labor

Gary North is a member of the Economists’ National Committee on Monetary Policy and is the author of Marx’s Religion of Revolu­tion (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1968), from which this article has been adapted.

The division of labor is a sub­ject which has fascinated social scientists for millennia. Before the advent of modern 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 modern industrial­ized society and at the same time retain modern 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.”¹º 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.”

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: “Modern 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 must be 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.” 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 conformable 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. 1969

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. Nisbet, “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 Languages 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.

10Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, [1922] 1951), p. 164.

11 Maurice Cornforth, Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1965), p. 327.

12 German Ideology, p. 84.

13 Murray N. Rothbard, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” Left and Right, I (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.



Culture vs. Barbarism

Culture strives to establish a boundary between itself and bar­barism. The manifestations of barbarism are called “crimes.” But existing criminology is insufficient to isolate barbarism. It is insufficient because the idea of “crime” in existing criminology is artificial, for what is called crime is really an infringement of “existing laws,” whereas “laws” are very often a manifestation of barbarism and violence. Such are the prohibiting laws of differ­ent kinds which abound in modern life.

The number of these laws is constantly growing in all countries and, owing to this, what is called crime is very often not a crime at all, for it contains no element of violence or harm. On the other hand, unquestionable crimes escape the field of vision of criminol­ogy, either because they have not the recognized form of crime or because they surpass a certain scale. In existing criminology there are concepts: a criminal man, a criminal profession, a criminal society, a criminal sect, a criminal caste and a criminal tribe, but there is no concept of a criminal state, or a criminal government, or criminal legislation. Consequently the biggest crimes actually escape being called crimes.

P. D. OUSPENSKY, A New Model of the Universe 

  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.