Productive Labor

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Productive Labor


labor that incorporates in a finished product more labor-time than is expended to produce the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of labor power. K. Marx wrote: “Only that labor power is productive which confers more value than it possesses” (in K. Marx and F. Engels Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 26, part 1, p. 134). Whatever the mode of production, productive labor is labor that creates a surplus product. The creation of a surplus product constitutes the material foundation for the development of a society, regardless of its social form. By creating a surplus product under the prevailing system of production relations, productive labor realizes the goal of the mode of production.

Under capitalism, the production of surplus value is the essence of productive labor. The general form taken by surplus value is profit. Therefore, productive labor assumes the form of wage labor, which creates profit. The source of surplus value is quite clearly revealed, whereas that of profits is hidden. In capitalist society any labor that is directly exchanged for capital and that produces profit assumes the form of productive labor, which may include any type of human activity organized along capitalistic lines. Marx wrote that under capitalism “a writer is a productive worker not because he produces ideas but because he enriches the bookseller who publishes his works—that is, he is productive precisely to the extent that he is a hired worker for a capitalist” (ibid., p. 139).

In Soviet economics there are two basic interpretations of productive labor—a limited interpretation and a broader one. Adherents of the narrow interpretation define productive labor as labor that creates material wealth within a system of historically determined social relations. Proponents of the broader interpretation argue that labor may be productive not only in material production but also in the nonproductive sphere, if it is subordinate to the dominant production relations. They assert that labor in the nonproductive sphere, like labor in material production, creates a surplus product. Both interpretations are one-sided. Marx asserted that labor is productive from the point of view of its social form, if it is expended for the realization of society’s goals in material production or in the nonproductive sphere. According to Marx, even though the artist does not make any contribution to the national income, he is a productive worker if he is hired by and produces a profit for a capitalist.

Under socialism, productive labor is labor that is organized along socialist lines and that creates both a necessary product and a surplus product, thus realizing the goal of the socialist mode of production. As is well known, the goal of the socialist mode of production is to increase the prosperity of all members of society and promote the comprehensive development of the individual. This goal is achieved by the production of material wealth, which satisfies the physical and cultural needs of society, and by the production of nonmaterial, primarily cultural wealth in the nonproductive sphere. Therefore, the labor of workers in the nonproductive sphere assumes the form of productive labor if it contributes to the material well-being and comprehensive development of the individual, thereby realizing the goal of socialist society. However, material production, which serves as the basis for education, public health, and culture, remains the foundation of society.


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