Red Theory: The Role of Labor in the Development of Human Society


The cornerstone of historical materialism is class struggle as the engine of historical change. So what is the role of labor in historical development?

In Dialectic of nature, Engels argues that what really sets humanity apart from other animals is that we seek to change our environment, rather than simply use it as it is given to us. In other words, what sets humanity apart is our construct of tools, the instruments of production that we use to affect the world. But we cannot choose these instruments arbitrarily. We inherit them from the society in which we were born, and we gradually develop and improve them. The early production of tools represents the beginning of work, and the further development and improvement of tools and the technique of their use enables the further development of human society.

In the beginning, the instruments of production were very simple and consisted of objects like hunting and fishing instruments. According to Engels, this led to the mastery of fire and the early domestication of animals:

“Agriculture has been added to hunting and cattle-raising; then come spinning, weaving, metallurgy, pottery and navigation. With commerce and industry, art and science finally appeared. The tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics appeared, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind: religion.

Engels argues that the dominant conception of history privileges the work of the mind over the work of laboring hands because of the division that has arisen between mental and manual labor: “The mind that planned the work was able, at a very early stage of the development of society (for example, already in the primitive family), to have the planned work carried out by hands other than his own.

Thus, social progress has been falsely attributed to the function of the ideas of great thinkers rather than to our material activity in production. It was not until Marx and Engels developed their materialist conception of history that this misconception of historical development was corrected. It is not the ideas of great thinkers that play the main role in changing the material world, but the material world and our activity in it that shape our ideas.

This division between mental and manual labor is important, and the various divisions of labor are generally the cornerstone of how labor works in the story. We will talk more about this division of labor later, but for now emphasize that we are talking about the separation and specialization of tasks in production. In German ideology, Marx and Engels write: “The degree of development of the productive forces of a nation is demonstrated most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labor has been pushed. In other words, the more advanced the productive forces, the more complex the division of labor.

The earliest forms of human society had relatively simple productive forces. Because the productive forces were not very advanced, they did not require an advanced division of labor. As the productive forces developed and became more and more complex, the division of labor also became more complex. But this division of labor is also the source of class development. As Marx and Engels said, “the different stages of development of the division of labor are so many different forms of property, that is to say, the existing stage of the division of labor also determines the relations of individuals among themselves with regard to material resources”. , instrument and product of work. The division of labor leads to a certain point that the means of production – i.e. the instruments and objects of labor, i.e. the tools and natural resources – are separated from those who do the work, because ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of only a few members of society.

Under capitalism, the division of labor is extremely complex, and the contradiction between social production and private accumulation at the heart of it leads to ever deeper crises of overproduction and ever sharper class antagonism between capitalists and capitalists. workers. The only way forward is proletarian revolution.

This brings us to a crucial point: the decisive role of the masses in history. Mao Zedong put it succinctly when he said, “The people, and the people alone, are the driving force of world history.” Within the forces of production themselves, as agents of production who wield the instruments of production, the masses play the decisive role. And similarly, when the relations of production become decisive for the productive forces, i.e. when they become impediments to their further advancement and a revolutionary situation arises, then also the conscious activity of the masses plays a decisive role. Che Guevara said it another way: “Revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to drop it. Therefore, Marxist-Leninists must understand that the most important aspect of their work is organizational, ideological and educational work, using the mass line among the workers and the oppressed, for the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.

Whenever the relations of production impede the development of the productive forces, an economic crisis occurs. The economic crisis in itself is not enough to change society. The exploited classes must fight to revolutionize the relations of production, that is to say the class relations of society.

When a capitalist crisis intensifies, the economic crisis will become a political crisis when the working class realizes that it cannot live in the old way and the ruling class realizes that it can no longer govern in the old way. But to take advantage of this revolutionary moment, workers and the oppressed must develop their class consciousness and their organization. This means building a new Marxist-Leninist communist party, capable of leading trade unions and mass organizations, and developing the united front against monopoly capitalism with the strategic alliance of the multinational working class and oppressed nationalities at its center. Only then can we seize time.

This is the very essence of the role of labor in human history. We work to meet our material needs, creating and developing tools to help us change the world around us. As our tools and the techniques with which we wield them become more advanced, our division of labor must also evolve accordingly. The class struggle flows from this fundamental materialist fact. The symbol of communism is the hammer and the sickle because these are the tools of the workers and the peasants, the tools which built the old society, the weapons which will dismantle it, and the tools which will build the new society. This is the historical mission of the working class: to overthrow capitalism, and by building socialism, to put an end to all exploitation.

Sharon D. Cole