division of labor

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division of labor

division of labor, in economics, the specialization of the functions and roles involved in production. Division of labor is closely tied with the standardization of production, the introduction and perfection of machinery, and the development of large-scale industry. Among the different categories of division of labor are territorial, in which certain geographical regions specialize in producing certain products, exchanging their surplus for goods produced elsewhere; temporal, in which separate processes are performed by different industrial groups in manufacturing one product, as the making of bread by farmers, millers, and bakers; and occupational, in which goods produced in the same industrial group are worked by a number of persons, each applying one or more processes and skills. Modern mass-production techniques are based on the last type. The proficiency attained through experience at one task and the time saved by concentration on one phase of an operation are such that the total production is many times what it would be had each worker made the complete article. The classic example is that given by Adam Smith, advocate of free trade (of which the division of labor is the underlying principle), in which 10 men, each performing one or more of the 18 operations necessary to make a pin, together produce 48,000 pins a day, whereas working separately they could not make 200. Problems created by the division of labor include the monotony of concentration on routine tasks, technological unemployment for people whose skills are not in demand, and eventually chronic unemployment if the economy does not expand quickly enough to reabsorb the displaced labor. Each variant of the division of labor has its own peculiar problems of distribution.


See R. A. Brady, Organization, Automation, and Society (1961); E. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (tr. 1965); H. R. Bowen and G. L. Mangum, ed., Automation and Economic Progress (1967); T. Kiss, International Division of Labour in Open Economies (1971).

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Division of Labor


the qualitative differentiation of labor activity during the development of society, resulting in the emergence and coexistence of different types of labor activity. There are various forms of division of labor, corresponding to the level of development of the productive forces and the character of production relations. The exchange of activity is a manifestation of the division of labor.

The division of labor exists within society and within enterprises. These two basic types of division of labor are interrelated and are mutually conditioned. K. Marx called the division of social production into major genera (for example, farming and industry) the general division of labor. The division of the genera into species and subspecies (for example, the division of industry into sectors) is called the particular division of labor, and the division of labor within an enterprise, the singular division of labor. These three categories of the division of labor are inseparable from the occupational division of labor, which reflects specialization among workers. The term “division of labor” is also used to signify production specialization in one country and among countries—that is, territorial (geographic) and international division of labor.

The division of labor has been interpreted in different ways by the social sciences. In antiquity, writers such as Isocrates and Xenophon emphasized its positive significance for the growth of labor productivity. Plato viewed the division of labor as the basis for the existence of different castes and as the primary cause of the hierarchical structure of society. Representatives of classical bourgeois political economy, especially A. Smith, who originated the term “division of labor,” noted that division of labor leads to tremendous progress in the development of the productive forces. At the same time, they pointed out that it turns the worker into a limited being. One of the principal arguments in J.-J. Rousseau’s condemnation of civilization was a protest against the transformation of people into one-sided individuals as a result of the division of labor. J. C. F. von Schiller, the first romantic critic of the capitalist division of labor, noted the profound contradictions in the system but saw no way to eliminate them. He took the “whole and harmonious human being” of ancient Greece as his ideal. Although the Utopian socialists recognized the necessity and usefulness of the division of labor, they sought ways to eliminate its harmful consequences for human development. Saint-Simon proposed the goal of organizing a coordinated system of labor that would demand a close interrelationship among its parts and make them dependent on the whole. C. Fourier proposed that activity be varied in order to maintain an individual’s interest in labor.

Apologies for the division of labor were characteristic of bourgeois social thought in the mid-19th century. A. Comte and H. Spencer noted the beneficial effect of the division of labor on social progress, but they viewed its negative effects as necessary and natural costs. E. Durkheim attributed the negative consequences of the division of labor to disruptive external influences.

In contemporary bourgeois sociology there are two trends. On the one hand, the apology for the capitalist division of labor persists. On the other hand, the division of labor is criticized, and the emphasis is placed on its role as one of the main factors in the depersonalization and transformation of the individual into a faceless element in mass society and into an object of manipulation by the industrial system of capitalism, by bureaucratic organizations, and by the state. However, liberal bourgeois critics of the capitalist division of labor, including the Americans E. Fromm, D. Riesman, W. White, C. Wright Mills, A. Toffler, and C. Reich, propose naïve, Utopian formulas for eliminating the flaws in the capitalist system.

Marxism-Leninism provides a genuinely scientific evaluation of the division of labor and notes its historical inevitability and progressive character. Moreover, Marxism-Leninism points out the contradictions in the antagonistic division of labor in an exploitative society and reveals the only correct ways to eliminate them. In the early phase of the development of society, there was a natural division of labor by sex and age. As the instruments of production became more complex and the forms of human influence on nature increased, human labor was qualitatively differentiated, and certain types of labor were isolated or distinguished. There was an obvious purpose underlying this process: the division of labor led to rising labor productivity. V. I. Lenin wrote: “To increase the productivity of human labor in, for instance, the making of some part of a whole product, the production of that part must be specialized, must become a special one concerned with mass production and, therefore, permitting (and engendering) the employment of machines, etc.” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 95). From this Lenin concluded that the specialization of social labor is “by its very nature as infinite as technical developments” (ibid).

Production is inconceivable without cooperation among people. This gives rise to the distribution of activities. K. Marx wrote: “That this necessity of distributing social labor in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular form of social production, but can only change the form it assumes, is self-evident” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 32, pp. 460-61). The forms of the distribution of labor are directly expressed in the division of labor, which also determines the existence of historically defined forms of property. Marx and Engels wrote: “The various stages of development in the division of labor are just so many different forms of property, that is, the existing stage in the division of labor determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labor” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 20).

The distribution of people in production, which is related to increasing specialization, may be carried out consciously, in conformity with a plan, or it may assume a spontaneous, antagonistic character. In primitive communes the process of distributing people in production was planned. The instruments of labor were strictly individualized at that time, but it was not yet possible to break down labor and the use of its results. The low productivity of labor precluded the separation of an individual from the commune.

Throughout history, production may be described as the process in which people interpose an instrument of production between themselves and the object of labor, while they themselves become a direct component of the production process. Therefore, from the period of the primitive commune, the individualization of the instruments of labor caused people to become “attached” to these instruments and to certain types of differentiated activity. However, since all the members of the primitive commune had common interests, this “attachment” was natural, and it was considered justified and reasonable.

As the instruments of production developed, relatively isolated labor by individuals became useful and necessary. More productive instruments made it possible for families to exist independently. Thus, direct social labor, which prevailed in the primitive communes, gave way to private labor. Characterizing the rural commune as a transitional form in the development toward full private property, Marx observed that the labor of individuals in the rural commune had become isolated and private and that these qualities of communal labor were the reason for the emergence of private property. “But the most important thing is parcellized labor, the source of private acquisition” (K. Marx, ibid, vol. 19, p. 419).

Engels remarked that in precapitalist formulations, “the instruments of labor—land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool—were the instruments of labor of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker…. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself…. His property in the product was, therefore, based upon his own labor” (ibid., pp. 21l, 213).

As a result of the splitting up of labor, its transformation into private labor, and the appearance of private property, individuals developed opposing economic interests, social inequality emerged, and society developed spontaneously, entering the antagonistic period of its history. People were attached to specific instruments of labor and to different types of increasingly differentiated work, regardless of their will and consciousness and owing to the blind necessity of the development of production. This is the principal characteristic of the antagonistic division of labor, which is not an eternal condition inherent in the nature of people but a historically transitory phenomenon.

The antagonistic division of labor leads to the alienation of the human being from all other types of activity, except the comparatively narrow sphere of his labor. Social relations, as well as the material and nonmaterial values created by people, elude people’s control and begin to dominate them. Marx and Engels wrote: “The division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural, evolved society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily but naturally divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 31).

This situation can be brought to an end only if two indispensable conditions are met. First, the means of production must be transferred from private to public ownership as the result of a socialist revolution, and the spontaneous development of society must be ended. Second, the productive forces must reach a level of development at which people are no longer bound to strictly defined instruments of labor and types of activity, and at which they cease to be direct agents of production. Two radical changes are associated with these conditions. First, people cease to be isolated in labor, which becomes directly social in the fullest sense of the word. Second, labor becomes genuinely creative. It is transformed into the technological use of science, with the subject operating alongside the immediate process of production and mastering, directing, and controlling it. These are the two necessary conditions for attaining the complete freedom, comprehensive development, and self-affirmation of man as an intelligent natural being.

Marx pointed out that productive labor should at the same time be a form of self-realization for the worker. “In material production labor can assume such a character only when (1) its social character is given and (2) it has a scientific character, where it also represents common labor and is manifested in the exertion of a person not as a natural force trained in a certain way but as a subject operating in the production process, not in a purely natural, spontaneously established form, but in the form of activity controlling all the forces of nature” (ibid., vol. 46, part 2, p. 110). Of course, labor processes will inevitably continue to grow more specialized as man’s influence on nature broadens. For example, biologists will always differ from geologists in the object and type of their activity. Nonetheless, like all members of society, both biologists and geologists will engage in freely chosen, creative labor. All people will cooperate, complementing each other and acting as genuine creators—that is, as subjects who are intelligently controlling the forces of nature and society.

The shortening of the workday and the tremendous increase in leisure time will enable people to participate in their favorite activities (art, science and sports, for example), in addition to their professional creative labor. Thus, the one-sidedness resulting from the antagonistic division of labor will be completely overcome, ensuring the comprehensive and free development of all the people.


History. The condition determining the division of labor is the growth of a society’s productive forces. “How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labor has been carried” (K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., vol. 3, p. 20). The development and differentiation of the instruments of production play a determining role in deepening the division of labor. In turn, the division of labor promotes the development of the productive forces and the growth of labor productivity. There is a direct relationship between the accumulation of production know-how and labor skills and the degree of division of labor and specialization of workers. Technological progress is inextricably connected with the development of the social division of labor.

The growth and deepening of the division of labor also influence the development of production relations. The first major social division of labor—the separation of herding tribes—emerged in primitive communal society, creating the conditions for regular exchange among tribes. Engels wrote: “Under the given general historical conditions, the first great social division of labor, by increasing the productivity of labor, that is, wealth, and enlarging the field of production, necessarily carried slavery in its wake. Out of the first great social division of labor arose the first great division of society, into two classes—masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited” (ibid., vol. 21, p. 161).

With the emergence of the slaveholding system, the second major social division of labor developed, on the basis of the further growth of the productive forces. Handicrafts became separate from farming, marking the beginning of the separation of the city from the countryside and the emergence of an opposition between them. The separation of handicrafts from farming signified the birth of commodity production. The further development of exchange led to the third major social division of labor: the separation of trade from production and the emergence of the merchants. The opposition between mental and physical labor emerged in the epoch of slavery. The territorial and occupational divisions of labor also originated in antiquity.

The origin and development of machine industry were accompanied by a significant deepening in the social division of labor and by the spontaneous formation of new sectors of production. Among the most important manifestations of the socialization of labor under capitalism is specialization, or the increase in the number of sectors of industrial production. Under the conditions of capitalism, the division of labor also emerges in enterprises. The spontaneous development of the division of labor under capitalism aggravates the antagonistic contradictions between the social character of production and private appropriation of the product, between production and consumption, and so forth. Describing the antagonistic basis for the development of the division of labor under capitalism, Marx wrote: “The division of labor implies from the outset the division of the conditions of labor, of tools and materials …, and thus, also, the division between capital and labor…. The more the division of labor develops and accumulation grows, the sharper are the forms assumed by this process of differentiation” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 66).

The development of capitalism causes the economic convergence of various peoples and the development of the international division of labor. Under the conditions of capitalism, however, this progressive tendency is realized by the subordination of some peoples to others, as well as by oppression and exploitation.

Under socialism a fundamentally new system of division of labor, appropriate to the socialist economic system, is established. On the basis of the social ownership of the means of production and the elimination of the exploitation of man by man, the exploitative foundations of the division of labor are abolished, and the differences between mental and physical labor and between the city and the countryside are gradually diminished. One of the necessary conditions for expanded socialist reproduction is the division of labor in conformity with a plan. In the USSR and the other countries of the world socialist system, the system of the division of labor is inextricably connected with the structure of socialist society. Under socialism, the division of labor operates as a form of cooperation and mutual assistance among people who are free from exploitation.

The social division of labor under socialism is manifested in a number of forms: the division of labor among sectors of social production and particular enterprises; the territorial division of labor; and the division of labor among individual workers, which is related to the division of labor in enterprises. As a result of the development of socialist production in conformity with the basic economic law of socialism and the law of the planned proportional development of the national economy, the sectors of socialist production grow steadily, old sectors are differentiated, and new ones emerge. The planned division of labor among sectors and enterprises gives socialist society tremendous advantages over the capitalist economic system.

The socialist economy makes changes in the division of labor in enterprises and among people of different occupations and specializations. Under the conditions of socialism there is rapid improvement in the cultural and technical level of workers and kolkhoz members, as well as in their qualifications.

Comprehensive polytechnical education and the transition to universal secondary education ensure the members of socialist society a free choice of occupations and make it easier to combine and change specializations and occupations. At the same time, polytechnical education does not preclude vocational training and specialization by members of society. The possibility of freely choosing an occupation helps transform labor into a prime human need. This is one of the conditions for the transition to a higher phase of communism.

A fundamentally new international socialist division of labor, which differs radically from the international division of labor in the capitalist economic system, has developed among the countries of the world socialist system, in the course of cooperation by equal states moving toward the same goal: building communism. The international socialist division of labor facilitates the elimination of the economic backwardness and onesided economic development inherited by some countries from capitalism. It also strengthens the economic independence of these countries, accelerating their economic development, and making possible the more rapid improvement of the people’s well-being. In the present stage, the socialist economic division of labor is undergoing further development and is growing deeper through socialist economic integration.


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