Opposition Between Mental and Physical Labor

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Opposition Between Mental and Physical Labor


the antithesis between the interests of individuals engaged in physical and mental work. The opposition between mental and physical labor appeared at the stage of the social division of labor when private property became dominant and antagonistic classes evolved, that is, at the time of the formation of slaveholding societies. The general reason for the appearance and persistence of this opposition is the relative underdevelopment of productive forces that has existed throughout the antagonistic period of human history and that has inevitably led to a social division of labor in which the majority of the population performs physical labor while a small segment of society belonging to the ruling class supervises the work and is engaged in government affairs, science, and art. K. Marx and F. Engels stressed that “division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 30).

This does not mean that the exploiting classes have had an absolute monopoly over intellectual labor. In slaveholding societies, where any kind of labor was considered unworthy of a free man, many slaves were entrusted with mental work and were trained as scientists, doctors, educators, and artists. In feudal society the antagonistic contradictions between mental and physical labor intensified as the opposition between city and countryside developed. Mental labor became the monopoly of the nobility and the clergy.

The separation between the intellectual forces of production and manual labor, as well as the transformation of these forces into the dominance of capital over labor, culminates under capitalism. As productive forces develop, an intelligentsia—people professionally engaged in mental work—evolves. Most of its members are drawn from the ruling classes. The development of society’s productive forces requires educated and cultured workers. In struggling for its rights, the working class gains a shorter workday and greater opportunities for obtaining an education: the general educational and cultural-technical level of the working class rises.

Today, the dividing line between the exploited and exploiting classes does not coincide with the division between physical and mental labor. Under capitalism, many of those engaged in mental work are also exploited, notably lower- and middle-level technicians, engineers, researchers, and office employees. The present level of the productive forces, marked by the mechanization and automation of production, objectively requires the fusion of physical and mental labor and creates conditions for eliminating the opposition between mental and physical labor. However, capitalist production relations prevent the abolition of this opposition because they tend to reinforce the existing antagonistic class structure and strengthen the ruling elite as a caste.

The classics of Marxism-Leninism have shown that the opposition and the contradiction between mental and physical labor are historically transitory. Under socialism, the abolition of the exploiting classes, the creation of social property, and the changes in the nature of labor, as well as in the cultural-technical level of the working class and peasantry, have led to the abolition of the opposition between mental and physical labor and the creation of new relations between the working class, peasantry, and intelligentsia.

Nevertheless, certain important nonantagonistic socioeconomic differences between mental and physical labor continue to exist in the first phase of communism. There are five major differences, which may be stated as follows.

(1) The nature of the labor performed by those engaged in mental work usually differs considerably from the kind of work done by people performing physical labor, although there are occupations and fields of specialization in which both types of labor are intermeshed.

(2) The cultural-technical level (general and specialized education) of the majority of people doing mental work is higher than that of individuals performing physical labor. In the USSR, for example, an average of 624 persons out of a thousand performing chiefly physical labor have received a higher or secondary education. Among those engaged primarily in mental work, an average of 960 out of a thousand are graduates of secondary or higher schools (1973).

(3) Those engaged in mental work who hold managerial jobs in production enterprises, administrative offices, and research organizations receive a higher salary for their qualitatively more complex work than workers performing physical labor. The living standard and cultural level of this segment of the mental labor force also differ from those of workers performing physical labor.

(4) Although the entire population has equal access to education and to cultural and scientific achievements, the intelligentsia takes advantage of them to a greater extent. The development of an educational system designed to strengthen the ties between higher education and production, the introduction of compulsory ten-year secondary education, and particularly the increase in the salaries of low- and middle-income working people play an important role in assuring more equal educational opportunities for all young people. Working people move much more easily from one social group to the other under socialism than under capitalism. The higher qualifications and rising cultural-technical level of the broad masses indicate the shift of working people to groups with higher job qualifications and with higher and more diverse intellectual interests.

(5) A number of nonantagonistic contradictions between those engaged in mental work and workers performing physical labor are associated with the relations between supervisors and supervisees during production. These contradictions are being overcome by involving the masses in the management of production and by developing the diverse forms of participation of workers’ collectives in production through expanding the rights of trade unions and enhancing the role of production conferences and workers’ meetings.

K. Marx and V. I. Lenin attached great importance to the abolition of the opposition between mental and physical labor and indicated the conditions necessary to resolve the problem. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx predicted that the opposition between mental and physical labor would completely disappear only at the highest stage of the development of communist society. Lenin also adhered to this view. He wrote that the intelligentsia would continue to constitute a separate social stratum “until we have reached the highest stage of development of communist society” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 44, p. 351).

The Maoists’ petit bourgeois Utopian ideas on eliminating the differences between mental and physical labor have nothing in common with Marxist-Leninist theory. The forcible measures adopted by the Maoist leadership—compelling the scientific-technical and other strata of the intelligentsia to endlessly perform industrial and agricultural labor, banishing educated youth and students to the countryside, and creating work camps for the “re-education” of workers’ cadres—constitute the realization of barracks communism ideology. Such practices hinder the growth of labor productivity, the improvement of workers’ skills, and the development of production, science, and culture.

The elimination of the basic differences between mental and physical labor is a complex socioeconomic problem. Its resolution is taking place during the building of a communist society and depends on such socioeconomic processes as (1) a change in the nature of the social division of labor, the gradual reduction and final abolition of semiskilled physical labor, and the termination of one-sided specialization in either physical or mental work; (2) a rise in the cultural-technical level of workers and peasants; (3) a rise in the cultural level and in the level of physical development of all working people; (4) the gradual merging—.through a fundamental change in the nature and development level of the productive forces—of the functions of mental and physical labor into a higher synthesis, communist labor; and (5) the reduction of social differences in working and living conditions, followed by the complete disappearance of these differences owing to the growth of labor productivity and increasing prosperity. The development of the scientific and technological revolution has accelerated these processes.

At a certain stage of the higher phase of communism the socioeconomic differences between mental and physical labor will be abolished, and the level of general and specialized education that working people receive will be so high that there will be no need to maintain groups of individuals specializing exclusively in the management of production and other social spheres. The regulation of society and production will also exist under advanced communism, but it will be carried out by highly qualified individuals in rotation. Lenin predicted that in this future society “all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing” (ibid., vol. 33, p. 116; vol. 38, p. 320). The Program of the CPSU states that “action must be taken to reduce the staff of paid government officers and to assure that ever greater numbers of people will acquire leadership skills and that work in the state apparatus will, in the future, cease to be a special profession” (1974, p. 105).

The historical problem of the abolition of the fundamental differences between mental and physical labor can only be solved under communism.


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Marx, K. Kapital. Ibid., vol. 23.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revotiulsiia. In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ na i Vserossiiskom s”ezde kommunistov —uchashchikhsia 17 aprelia 1919.” Ibid., vol. 38.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.