Necessary Labor

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Necessary Labor


the labor expended by workers in material production to create necessary product.

In the development of social production, the ratio between necessary and surplus labor changes in a definite historical and logical sequence as the dimensions of surplus labor vary with change in the magnitude of necessary labor, not the other way around. Necessary labor is expended to reproduce labor-power—that is, to satisfy essential needs—while surplus labor extends beyond these needs (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, pt. 2, pp. 385–86).

The qualitative features of necessary labor are determined by the level of development of social production in a given socioeconomic system. In the primitive communal system, where labor productivity was extremely low, virtually all labor was necessary and secured only the most minimal, meager means of existence. In systems where there is class conflict, the various ways of coercing work and acquiring surplus product are determined above all by the level of development attained by the forces of production. But in all such systems, necessary labor occupies only a part of the working day. The remaining part constitutes surplus labor, and its result is appropriated by the exploiting classes. The ratio between surplus labor and necessary labor expresses the degree, or norm, of exploitation. Within the frame-work of the working day, the exploiting classes try to reduce necessary labor and increase surplus labor and thus lower the standard of living of the working people and increase their own incomes.

In the slaveholding system, the labor of the slave was divided into necessary and surplus labor, but this division was concealed; the entire product created by the slave went to the slaveholder and therefore all the slave’s labor appeared as surplus labor. Under feudalism the division of the peasant’s labor into necessary and surplus labor appeared in open form. During necessary working time, the peasant worked his own farm, thus ensuring his own existence and that of his family. At other times the peasant worked in the feudal lord’s fields, creating surplus product for appropriation without compensation by the lord in the form of land rent. Under capitalism the division of the hired worker’s labor into necessary and surplus is concealed by wages, which superficially appear to be payment for total labor. All traces of the division of the working day into necessary and surplus working time are erased, and unpaid labor appears to be compensated. In fact, the wage payment corresponds to only part of the value of the product created by the worker—namely, the portion created by necessary labor. This portion fluctuates in size, close to the value of labor-power, which is determined in turn by the costs of production and of reproduction of the worker himself—that is, the sum of essential means of existence required by the worker and his family on a regular basis, from year to year (ibid., vol. 26, pt. 1, p. 14).

Under socialism the division of labor into necessary and surplus labor is preserved, but with the elimination of the capitalist form of production the antagonism between the two forms of labor is eliminated and necessary labor expands in scope. The basic economic law of socialism causes a constant rise in the well-being of the people. This is ensured both by absolute growth in the necessary product created through necessary labor and used in personal consumption by the production workers and by an increase in the surplus product created through surplus labor and used to satisfy the needs of all society, which necessarily means the needs of each member of society.


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