International Division of Labor

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

International Division of Labor


the highest form of the social and territorial division of labor; the specialization of countries in the production of particular types of products, which they use for exchange. The need for the international division of labor and its extent are determined by the level of development of a society’s productive forces. The character of the international division of labor, like that of other forms of economic relations between countries, is decisively influenced by the relations of production prevailing in those countries. The international division of labor is of central importance for the expansion of trade between countries and constitutes the objective basis for the development of the world market.

In the early stages of the development of human society only certain elements of the international division of labor existed— elements related to the different natural conditions in different countries. Advanced forms of the international division of labor appeared in the age of industrial capitalism. The rise of large-scale mechanized industry led to greater differentiation in production and to the development of specialization and cooperation that transcended national boundaries. The international division of labor was promoted by the increased demand of industrial countries for massive quantities of agricultural products and raw materials, which were supplied to them by the economically less developed states. As Marx and Engels observed, large-scale industry “produced world history for the first time, insofar as it made all civilized nations and every individual member of them dependent for the satisfaction of their wants on the whole world, thus destroying the former natural exclusiveness of separate nations” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 60).

The capitalist international division of labor promotes the growth of the productive forces of society and the more complete utilization of the material resources of various countries on the basis of scientific and technological advances. At the same time, it is characterized by profoundly antagonistic contradictions, which are the result of the exploitative quality of capitalism. The capitalist division of labor develops spontaneously. The law of value functions as the regulating factor in its development. Different conditions of production are compared in an intense competitive struggle on the world market between the capitalists of different countries. In this struggle the level of technology, which has a decisive impact on production costs, is the most important factor. Natural conditions also have some importance in determining whether certain products are competitive on the world market. When bourgeois governments take measures to artificially promote exports or pursue policies aimed at protecting the domestic market from the influx of more competitive goods and creating relatively favorable conditions for the growth of domestic production, they are playing a very important role in making commodities more competitive on the world market. The capitalist international division of labor develops through competitive struggle and is inherently unstable.

The development of the international division of labor in the late 19th century was partly the result of the destruction of small-scale handicraft production in many of the economically less developed countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where it was not protected by the local governments and could not withstand the competition of cheaper industrial goods from Western Europe. Consequently, the less developed countries became suppliers of agricultural goods and raw materials. In the epoch of imperialism the export of capital has a decisive influence on the international division of labor. Capital is exported from the advanced capitalist countries, increasing the specialization of the economically underdeveloped countries in the production of food and raw materials. The international monopolies, which divide the world capitalist market among themselves, also affect the international division of labor. Under capitalism the international division of labor is shaped by noneconomic as well as by economic factors. The rise of the capitalist colonial system was accompanied by the destruction of the traditional economic structures of the colonies, which were forced to produce primarily those commodities needed by the monopolies.

There are a number of reasons for the distorted nature of the international division of labor under capitalism. On the one hand, a narrow group of industrially developed imperialist powers arises, and in them a complex variety of interrelated branches of industry develop. In the less important imperialist countries, which become more specialized within the international division of labor, there is a narrower range of branches of industry than in the major imperialist countries. On the other hand, a number of countries are singled out and turned into agricultural and raw materials appendages of the industrially developed imperialist powers. The economies of many developing countries are particularly distorted because they specialize in only one or two agricultural goods or raw materials. The one-sided specialization of certain countries acts as a brake on their economic growth, puts them at a disadvantage on the world capitalist market, and makes it easier for the imperialist powers to plunder them by means of unequal trade relations. In objective terms the capitalist international division of labor is a mechanism to keep the back-ward countries in a dependent relationship with the industrially advanced states.

The international division of labor is an instrument for the imperialist exploitation of the peoples of the colonial, semicolonial, and dependent countries. The monopolies take for themselves all the advantages of the international division of labor. By tying different countries together economically, the development of the international division of labor under capitalism leads to the internationalization of production and is a major element in the formation of the world capitalist economy.

One aspect of the general crisis of capitalism is the crisis of the capitalist system of the international division of labor. The countries that chose to build socialism broke away from this system, and a new kind of international division of labor—the international socialist division of labor—took shape. The collapse of the colonial system has introduced new elements into the international division of labor. The newly sovereign states are concentrating on building up their national economies, on developing more varied economic structures, and on industrialization. The role of the newly independent countries in the international division of labor has changed. The demand on the world market for raw materials and agricultural products, in which these countries specialized, has declined with the advance of the scientific and technological revolution. In the early 1970’s the developing countries, where two-thirds of the population of the capitalist world lives, accounted for only about a tenth of capitalist industrial production, even though they produced almost 50 percent of the capitalist world’s petroleum and more than 30 percent of its metal ores. More than 80 percent of the exports of the developing countries are raw materials and agricultural goods. In view of the new trends on the world market, the monopolies in the imperialist powers are trying to participate in the establishment of new processing industries and of modern and even ultra-modern industries in the developing countries and are investing their capital in these industries. In an effort to oppose the policies of the imperialist powers, which are aimed at preserving imperialist domination over the newly independent countries, the former colonies have chosen to expand their economic ties with the socialist states and are also developing mutual economic cooperation. A number of groups of developing countries have become economically integrated and have taken measures toward industrial specialization and cooperation, further developing the division of labor among them.

The international division of labor among advanced capitalist countries has intensified as a result of the rise in the volume of production and in the variety of goods produced. The division of labor between advanced and colonial countries usually involves different branches of industry, whereas the division of labor among industrially developed countries usually entails specialization within particular branches of industry. The latter has been promoted by the increased flow of capital from one country to another, by the formation of giant international trusts that encourage specialization and cooperation among their subsidiaries in different countries, and by the increasingly common practice of firms making agreements on industrial specialization and cooperation. The international division of labor is also increasing within the framework of economically integrated groups of capitalist countries, such as the Common Market.

In addition to the two types of international division of labor —socialist and capitalist—there is a world division of labor that includes the economies of countries that belong to both world economic systems. It is very important to the world division of labor that, owing to the scientific and technological revolution, industrial specialization transcending the individual state as well as each of the two opposing world economic systems has become economically feasible. The world division of labor is also influenced by geographic factors, especially the uneven distribution of natural resources, climatic differences, and other regional differences that affect agriculture.

As stated in the Comprehensive Program for the Further Extension and Promotion of Cooperation and Development of Socialist Economic Integration Among the Members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the international socialist division of labor has been designed with the worldwide division of labor in mind. The COMECON countries will continue to develop economic and scientific and technological ties with other countries, regardless of their social and state systems. The expansion of economic relations between the socialist and developing countries has led to an intensified division of labor between them. In a number of developing countries industrial plants have been built with assistance from the socialist states, in anticipation of sales of goods to the USSR and other countries.

The international division of labor between the socialist and capitalist countries has developed further as a result of the expansion of trade between them on the basis of long-term contracts. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the USSR signed contracts with a number of Western European countries for the delivery of natural gas and with Japan for the development of forest resources in the Far East. Such cooperation is mutually advantageous and gives rise to a division of labor between countries for a relatively long period. Agreements on industrial specialization and cooperation between economic organizations in the socialist countries and capitalist firms are also becoming more common. The expansion of economic ties between the socialist and capitalist countries, based on the developing world-wide division of labor, is laying the foundation for continued peaceful coexistence.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. Soch.,2nd ed., vol. 3, pp. 54-61.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 425-28.
Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 3. Ibid., vol. 25, part 2, pp. 259-63.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3, pp. 55-58.
Lenin, V. I. “O vnutrennei i vneshnei politike Respubliki: Otchet VTsIK i SNKh na IX Vserossiiskom s“ezde Sovetov.” Ibid., vol. 44, pp. 304-305.
Rymalov, V. V. Raspad kolonial’noi sistemy i mirovoe kapitalisticheskoe khoziaistvo. Moscow, 1966.
Faminskii, I. P. Mirovoe kapitalisticheskoe khoziaistvo i uglublenie ego krizisa v sovremennykh usloviiakh. Moscow, 1966.
Senin, M. V. Razvitie mezhdunarodnykh ekonomicheskikh sviazei. Moscow, 1968.
Braslavskii, I. M. Mirovoe kapitalisticheskoe khoziaistvo i mezhdunarodnye ekonomicheskie otnosheniia. Kiev, 1968.
Vosproizvodstvo proizvoditel’nykh sil v usloviiakh nauchno-tekhnicheskoi revoliutsii i mezhdunarodnogo sotsialisticheskogo razdeleniia truda. Moscow, 1970. Chapters 16, 17.
Novikov, R. A., and Iu. V. Shishkov. Mezhdunarodnaia kooperatsiia kapitalisticheskikh firm. [Moscow, 1972.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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