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Essay: Division of labor – Marx and Engels criticize Smith

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  • Published: 15 December 2019*
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  • Words: 842 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)
  • Tags: Marxism essays

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Abstract: In this essay, I argue that Marx and Engels view history from a much more complex and specific perspective than Adam Smith does by considering the form of production and cooperation as well as the distribution of the product into the concept of the division of labor. First, I briefly explain Smith’s notion of the division of labor. Second, I claim how Marx believes that the development of the forces of production inevitably leads to the division of labor and the division of labor causes the decay of relations of productions. Marx and Engels therefore see history as a succession of the division of labor. I then analyze how Marx argues that to abolish the “estrangement”, the division of labor would be negated in the end to achieve “the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’” which is the precondition of communism (GI, 161).

Word count: 700

Adam Smith explains the division of labor as well as its consequences for individuals and the society in a relatively straight-forward way. He defines the division of labor as the work “divided into a much greater number of parts” (WoN, 8). In his point of view, human beings’ propensity to trade and self-interested nature drive the division of labor to develop. Smith believes that the division of labor improves dexterity, efficiency and innovation. Although it might cause stupification for individuals, it would eventually lead to the universal opulence within a well-governed society (WoN). Overall, Smith regards the division of labor as the essential necessity of the universal opulence in a society.

However, Marx and Engels criticize Smith’s notion of the division of labor and examine the division of labor in a more complex way by considering who produces the surplus with what and who owns or controls the surplus. In other words, Marx and Engels analyze the forces of production – who does what with whom and with what, and the relations of production – who gets what from whom and how.

Firstly, the development of the forces of production inevitably leads to the division of labor. “And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (GI, 160). The division of labor promotes the development of individual ability and the individual therefore creates more and more productive forces that produce more and more social wealth and bring together a huge material power traction the progress of society. But this kind of material power not only does not translate into the individual strength, but oppresses people and causes them to completely succumb to the division of labor.

Secondly, the division of labor causes the decay of relations of productions. “The division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another” (GI, 160). One class arises, which governs, oppresses, and exploits all other classes. “The division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity – enjoyment and labor, production and consumption – devolve on different individuals” (GI, 159). The division of labor causes the class inequality. One class only consumes but does not produce, while the other class only works without enjoyment. It eventually leads to class antagonisms and struggles, which could be one of the factors of the progress of human history, but more often, is the destructive factor. The class differentiation lead to the exploitation of the ruling class and the resistance of the ruled class, which causes an emergence of a new division of labor that inevitably lead to a more intense class confrontation. Thus, this destructive power will gradually increase with the development of division of labor.

Marx and Engels therefore see history as a succession of the division of labor. The division of labor shows the origin of “estrangement” from the development level of the forces of production, while private ownership shows that the realization of “estrangement” is in certain social relations. Marx analyzes the division of labor and its relation with the forces of production as well as the relations of production to obtain the conclusion that the human history development is impelled by the transformation and the development of the forces of production as well as the relations of production.

Marx then pointed out that “estrangement” is only a historical phenomenon accompanied by capitalist private ownership. It is not an eternal social phenomenon. It can be only formed and developed when the development of the forces of production reaches a certain stage under private ownership, in which the individual and the means of production are separated. Therefore, like the emergence of “estrangement”, its elimination is also historically inevitable. Marx states that there are two practical premises to abolish “estrangement”, which create the seed of communism (GI, 161).

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