Red Theory: The Contradiction Between Mental and Manual Labor


From the very origin of class society, when the productive forces developed to the point of producing a surplus beyond mere subsistence, the contradiction between intellectual and manual labor has been a feature of productive relations. Broadly speaking, this means that the majority of people toil physically, while a small minority do intellectual work, such as science and art or planning and administration. Historically, this contradiction arose alongside the contradiction between town and country, especially when the towns of former slave societies came to dominate society.

However, it is not true that this division between intellectual and manual labor exists only between exploiting and exploited classes. From the beginning, in ancient societies, many slaves were given mental tasks, and even today this contradiction persists between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers. More and more labor in advanced monopoly capitalist states is engaged in intellectual labor, especially as capital is exported to oppressed nations. And, as the productive forces progress and the instruments of production become technically more complex, the technical knowledge required of workers also increases.

To say that the work is manual should not mean that it is unskilled or simple. But generally speaking, when we talk about mental work in the United States, we’re talking about jobs ranging from office workers and teachers to scientists, technicians, programmers, and engineers. These are often jobs that take place behind a desk. When we talk about manual labor, we are talking about jobs including everything from factory workers and farm workers to construction workers, truck drivers, cooks, warehouse workers, retail and service workers. , etc. Often these workers are on their feet all day.

For an example of how this is playing out, today we see the issue of reopening and working from home as part of how this contradiction has played out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers doing mental work have been able to work from home and are now forced to return to the office, while those doing manual work have never worked from home. For mental workers, remote work has meant reduced travel time and expense and more time with family, but also longer hours, blurring of work and family life, and isolation from their coworkers. For manual workers, there have been higher infection rates as they were unable to isolate from each other during the peak of the pandemic, as well as greater economic pressures, particularly in trade retail and the service sector, prompting some to reopen.

Thus, this contradiction is a source of confusion and an obstacle to the unity of the working class. Part of this stems from a failure to understand that class is fundamentally about our material relationship to the means of production. It is not uncommon for those engaged in manual labor to see themselves as the “real workers” and mistakenly identify mental workers as part of the exploiting classes. It works both ways as ‘white collar’ workers often tend to identify with the so-called ‘middle class’ even though they own no means of production and are exploited just like their brothers and sisters. “blue collar”. Class is not about income, but about exploitation. This is one of the many ways the ruling class divides the working class against itself. Unionization, and therefore class struggle, helps to break down these divisions and teaches broad worker solidarity through practice. The class struggle creates class consciousness.

It is important to note that the contradiction between mental and manual labor has existed throughout class society. It will also continue to exist as a non-antagonistic contradiction under socialism. Both Marx and Lenin were of the opinion that as socialism progressed towards communism, the antagonism between intellectual and manual labor would be eliminated.

One of the results of the development of the productive forces is the reduction in the amount of physical labor required to meet the needs of society. In capitalist society, this leads to crises of overproduction and economic stagnation, as more is produced with less labor and workers cannot afford to buy all that has been produced. To make this more concrete, consider the issue of automation. As it stands, automation essentially means robots replacing human workers. Capitalists like it because they can reduce labor costs. But this has the effect of increasing unemployment and driving down wages, which means that people cannot afford to buy what is produced by increased automation, which fuels overproduction and economic crisis.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, this problem was keenly felt by the working class. Some workers took to sabotaging and destroying machinery because they saw the role mechanization and automation played in driving unemployment. The Luddites of the textile industry of 19th century England devoted themselves to destroying the machines they feared would displace them. But breaking the forces of production is ultimately a futile effort, as it fails to resolve the main contradiction that is at the root of the problem.

In fact, it is a problem caused by capitalist relations of production. When these relations are revolutionized, the productive forces will be freed from the chains imposed on them by the concentrated and private accumulation of wealth. Socialist distribution will allow the advanced productive forces not only to reduce the amount of physical labor necessary to satisfy the needs of society, but they will do so without causing crises of overproduction.

Automation should liberate people from toil, and that is exactly what it will do within the framework of socialist relations of production. More people will not be pushed into unemployment by automation, but rather will be free to pursue higher levels of education, to become doctors, artists and engineers. This will have the effect of gradually reducing manual labor in society in general, but without destroying the livelihood of the workers themselves. We are able to produce far more than we need as a society. It is simply hoarded by the rich or simply destroyed. Socialism means that as the need for manual labor is reduced by the advance of the productive forces, the social distribution of wealth will mean the progressive elimination of this contradiction.

Sharon D. Cole