Social Labor

Social Labor


(1) Human activity directed toward the satisfaction of the economic needs of society. Within the concept of social labor, separate treatment is given to the category of socially organized labor, that is, activity included in the social division of labor. Social labor that does not come under the social division of labor has the purpose of meeting its own needs; it constitutes a reserve for the future expansion of the social division of labor. Socially organized labor is the foundation of social production and the national economy. Its result is the aggregate social product. The main spheres of application of social labor are material production, the nonproduction sector, and the household economy.

(2) Social labor describes one of the essential attributes of labor: the inseparable link between purposeful human activity and the social form of human existence. As Marx wrote: “And lastly from the moment that men work for one another in any way, their labor assumes a social form” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 81).

Labor is always social, because individual workers or producers’ collectives can only set goals that reflect their position in society and can only engage in production by using accumulated social resources, for example, means of production and labor power.

Different modes of production give social labor different forms. In the primitive-communal stage, the social nature of labor and its results were manifested directly in the form of joint labor, which subsequently became typical of the patriarchal economy also. In slaveholding and feudal societies the social character of labor was expressed in other forms, but as a rule these were still directly collective forms of labor. In regard to feudalism, Marx wrote: “Here the particular and natural form of labor, and not, as in a society based on the production of commodities, its general abstract form, is the immediate social form of labor. … No matter, then, what we may think of the parts played by the different classes of people themselves in this society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor appear, at all events, as their own mutual personal relations” (ibid., pp. 87–88). Consequently, one cannot speak of direct forms of social labor at these stages of development without making allowance for the fact that the social division of labor and the cooperation of labor within society were still relatively undeveloped, and economic links within national economies and between peoples were not sufficiently strong. In an economy based on commodity production, the social character of labor is masked because the various types of labor are so differentiated from each other that they appear at first hand to be private forms of labor, and their social interconnection is expressed only indirectly, through the sale and purchase of commodities.

Under capitalism the contradiction between the social essence of labor and its private form of organization becomes extremely acute. Advances in production make the private capitalist form of appropriation (exploitation of wage labor) an unacceptable form of social labor and objectively create a demand for the replacement of private ownership with social ownership. Social ownership imparts a planned character to money-commodity relations, and this predetermines the fundamental qualitative difference between social labor under socialism and social labor under capitalism.

As production becomes truly socialized, social labor is gradually transformed once again into direct social labor. This process culminates under communism, when social labor becomes fully and unqualifiedly social: “The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labor and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution” (ibid., p. 89).


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20. (Section entitled “Political Economy.”)


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