On the ‘abolition of labour’

First, from Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, pp.292-3

“The labor process itself is the life of the proletariat. Abolition of the negative ordering of labor, alienated labor as Marx terms it, is hence at the same time the abolition of the proletariat.

The abolition of the proletariat also amounts to the abolition of labor as such. Marx makes this an express formulation when he speaks of the achievement of revolution. Classes are to be abolished ‘by the abolition of private property and of labor itself.’ Elsewhere, Marx says the same thing: ‘The communistic revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labor.’ And again, ‘the question is not the liberation but the abolition of labor.’ The question is not the liberation of labor because labor has already been made ‘free’; free labor is the achievement of capitalist society. Communism can cure the ‘ills’ of the bourgeois and the distress of the proletarian only ‘by removing their cause, namely, “labor.”

These amazing formulations in Marx’s earliest writings all contain the Hegelian term Aufhebung, so that abolition also carries the meaning that a content is restored to its true form. Marx, however, envisioned the future mode of labor to be so different from the prevailing one that he hesitated to use the same term ‘labor’ to designate alike the material process of capitalist and of communist society. He uses the term ‘labor’ to mean what capitalism actually understands by it in the last analysis, that activity which creates surplus value in commodity production, or, which ‘produces capital.’ Other kinds of activity are not ‘productive labor’ and hence are not labor in the proper sense. Labor thus means that free and universal development is denied the individual who labors, and it is clear that in this state of affairs the liberation of the individual is at once the negation of labor.

An ‘association of free individuals’ to Marx is a society wherein the material process of production no longer determines the entire pattern of human life. Marx’s idea of a rational society implies an order in which it is not the universality of labor but the universal satisfaction of all individual potentialities that constitutes the principle of social organization. He contemplates a society that gives to each not according to his work but his needs. Mankind becomes free only when the material perpetuation of life is a function of the abilities and happiness of associated individuals.”

Marcuse is mainly drawing from Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology, where they discuss in detail the relationship between the division of labour, private property and its necessary overcoming as the historical task of the proletariat. For example:

“In all previous revolutions the mode of activity always remained unchanged and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, which is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc., within present society;” (MECW Vol. 5 p. 52)

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn assumes an independent existence as against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of life predetermined, and have their position in life and hence their personal development assigned to them by their class, thus becoming subsumed under it. This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labour and can only be removed by the abolition of private property and of labour itself. We have already indicated several times that this subsuming of individuals under the class brings with it their subjection to all kinds of ideas, etc.” (ibid, 77)

“The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.” (ibid 77-78)

“Thus, while the fugitive serfs only wished to have full scope to develop and assert those conditions of existence which were already there, and hence, in the end, only arrived at free labour, the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, have to abolish the hitherto prevailing condition of their existence (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to then), namely, labour. Thus they find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the state; in order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the state.” (ibid 80)

“Only at this [post-revolutionary] stage does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations. The transformation of labour into self-activity corresponds to the transformation of the previously limited intercourse into the intercourse of individuals as such. With the appropriation of the total productive forces by the united individuals, private property comes to an end. Whilst previously in history a particular condition always appeared as accidental, now the isolation of individuals and each person’s particular way of gaining his livelihood have them- selves become accidental.” (ibid 88)

“The modern state, the rule of the bourgeoisie, is based on freedom of labour. The idea that along with freedom of religion, state, thought, etc., and hence “occasionally” “also” “perhaps” with freedom of labour, not I become free, but only one of my enslavers—this idea was borrowed by Saint Max himself, many times, though in a very distorted form, from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Freedom of labour is free competition of the workers among themselves. Saint Max is very unfortunate in political economy as in all other spheres. Labour is free in all civilised countries; it is not a matter of freeing labour but of abolishing it.” (ibid 205)

“It follows from what was said above against Feuerbach that previous revolutions within the framework of division of labour were bound to lead to new political institutions; it likewise follows that the communist revolution, which removes the division of labour, ultimately abolishes political institutions ; and, finally, it follows also that the communist revolution will be guided not by the “social institutions of inventive socially-gifted persons”, but by the productive forces.” (ibid 380)

“We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc.—that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We have also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour become fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-round development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all-embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-round fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property and of the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world intercourse.” (ibid 438-9)

From an interview with Moishe Postone, whose basic argument has been reformulated in his numerous publications, and is nicely encapsulated here:

“My reformulation of the central categories of Marx’s critique of political economy was influenced in part by the massive global historical transformations since 1973. Retrospectively, from the vantage point of the early 21st century, we can see more clearly that capitalism has existed in a number of different historical configurations – for example, 19th century liberal capitalism, 20th century state-centric “Fordist” capitalism and, now, neo-liberal global capitalism. This indicates that capitalism’s history cannot be adequately grasped as a linear development. It also, more importantly, indicates very strongly that capitalism’s most basic features cannot be identified completely with any of its more specific historical configurations.

I attempted, through a close reading of the most fundamental categories of Marx’s critique of political economy, to grasp the most basic features of capitalism – those that characterize the core of the social formation through its various historical configurations. On that basis I argued that traditional Marxism took basic features of liberal capitalism – the market and private ownership of the means of production – to be the most fundamental features of capitalism in general. Relatedly, it regarded the category of labor as the standpoint from which capitalism was criticized. Capitalism became identified with the bourgeoisie; socialism with the proletariat.

According to my interpretation, however, far from being the standpoint of the critique of capitalism, labor in capitalism constitutes the central object of Marx’s critique and is at the heart of Marx’s core categories of commodity and capital. I argued that, at the heart of the social formation is a historically specific form of social mediation constituted by labor – namely, value. This form of mediation (which is also a form of wealth) is at the same time a historically specific form of domination that can be expressed through, but is not identical with, class domination. It is abstract, without any specific locus, and is also temporally dynamic. This form of domination, which appears as external necessity, rather than as social, generates both the mode of producing in capitalism as well as its intrinsically dynamic character. It is, of course, impossible to even begin to go into the complexity of the issues involved, but several important implications are that industrial production, which historically comes into being under capitalism, does not represent the foundation of socialism, but is intrinsically capitalist; that the problem with growth in capitalism is not only that it is crisis-ridden, but that its very form of growth itself is problematic; that the existence of the bourgeois class is not the ultimate defining feature of capitalism and that state capitalism (briefly described by Marx as early as 1844) can and has existed; finally, that the proletariat is the class whose existence defines capitalism , and that the overcoming of capitalism involves the abolition, not the glorification, of proletarian labor.

Traditional Marxism had already become anachronistic in a variety of ways in the 20th century. It was unable to provide a fundamental critique of the forms of state capitalism referred to as “actually existing socialism.” Moreover, its understanding of emancipation appeared increasingly anachronistic, viewed from the constituted aspirations, needs, and motivating impulses that became expressed in the last third of 20th century by the so-called “new social movements.” Whereas traditional Marxism tended to affirm proletarian labor and, hence, the structure of labor that developed historically, as a dimension of capital’s development, the new social movements expressed a critique of that structure of labor, if at times in an underdeveloped and inchoate form. I argue that Marx’s analysis is one that points beyond the existing structure of labor.”

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