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Red Theory: The role of labor in the development of human society

By J. Sykes

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

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels argues that what truly distinguishes humanity from other animals is that we seek to change our environment, rather than merely use it as it is given to us. In other words, what distinguishes humanity is our construction of tools, the instruments of production which we use to affect the world. But we don’t get to arbitrarily choose these instruments. We inherit them from the society that we are born into, and gradually build upon and improve them. The early production of tools represents the beginning of labor, and the further development and improvement of the tools and the technique of their use allows for the further development of human society.

At first the instruments of production were very simple and consisted of things like hunting and fishing implements. According to Engels, this led to the mastery of fire and the early domestication of animals:

“Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle raising; then came spinning, weaving, metalworking, pottery and navigation. Along with trade and industry, art and science finally appeared. Tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind – religion.”

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

Thus, social progress was deceptively ascribed to the function of the ideas of great thinkers instead of to our material activity in production. It wasn’t until Marx and Engels developed their materialist conception of history that this misconception of historical development was corrected. It isn’t the ideas of great thinkers that play the primary role in changing the material world, but the material world and our activity in it that shapes our ideas.

This division between mental and manual labor is important, and the various divisions of labor generally are a cornerstone of how labor functions in history. We’ll talk more about this division of labor later, but for now let’s emphasize that we are talking about the separation and specialization of tasks in production. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels write, “How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labor has been carried.” In other words, the more advanced the productive forces, the more complex the division of labor.

Early 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 were developed further and they became more and more complex, so too did the division of labor become more complex. But this division of labor is also the source of the development of classes. As Marx and Engels put it, “The various stages of development in the division of labor are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e. the existing stage in the division of labor determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labor.” The division of labor leads at a certain point to the means of production – that is the instruments and objects of labor, i.e., the tools and natural resources – being separated from those who do the work, as the ownership of the means of production are concentrated in the hands of only a few members of society.

With 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 deepening crises of overproduction, and ever sharpening class antagonism between the capitalists and the 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 motive force in the making of world history.” Within the forces of production themselves, as the agents of production who wield the instruments of production, the masses play the decisive role. And likewise, when the relations of production become decisive over the productive forces, that is, when they become fetters on their further advancement and a revolutionary situation is at hand, then too the conscious activity of the masses plays a decisive role. Che Guevara said this another way: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” Therefore, Marxist-Leninists must understand that the most important aspect of their work is organizational, ideological and educational work, utilizing the mass line among working and oppressed people, for the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.

Whenever the relations of production hinder the development of the productive forces an economic crisis results. The economic crisis itself isn’t enough to change society. The exploited classes must fight to revolutionize the relations of production, that is, 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 it can no longer rule in the old way. But in order to take advantage of this revolutionary moment, working and oppressed people must develop their class consciousness and organization. This means building a new Marxist-Leninist communist party, capable of leading 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 core. Only this way can we seize the time.

This is the essence of the role of labor in human history. We work to fulfill 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, so too must our division of labor advance to match. Class struggle follows from this basic materialist fact. The symbol of communism is the hammer the sickle because these are the tools of the workers and the peasants, the tools that built the old society, the weapons that will dismantle it, and the tools that will build the new society. This is the historic mission of the working class: to overthrow capitalism, and by building socialism, to end all exploitation.

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