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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism
and the Division of Labor

Murray N. Rothbard


We conclude that freedom and its concomitant, the widening division of labor, are vital for the flowering of each individual, as well as the literal survival of the vast bulk of the world's population. It must give us great concern, then, that over the past two centuries mighty social movements have sprung up which have been dedicated, at their heart, to the stamping out of all human differences, of all individuality.

It has become apparent in recent years, for example, that the heart of the complex social philosophy of Marxism does not lie, as it seemed to in the 1930s and 40s, in Marxian economic doctrines: in the labor theory of value, in the familiar proposal for socialist state ownership of the means of production, and in the central planning of the economy and society. The economic theories and programs of Marxism are, to use a Marxian term, merely the elaborate "super-structure" erected on the inner core of Marxian aspiration. Consequently, many Marxists have, in recent decades, been willing to abandon the labor theory of value and even centralized socialist planning, as the Marxian economic theory has been increasingly abandoned and the practice of socialist planning shown to be unworkable. Similarly, the Marxists of the "New Left" in the United States and abroad have been willing to jettison socialist economic theory and practice. What they have not been willing to abandon is the philosophic heart of the Marxian ideal?not socialism or socialist planning, concerned anyway with what is supposed to be a temporary "stage" of development, but communism itself. It is the communist ideal, the ultimate goal of Marxism, that excites the contemporary Marxist, that engages his most fervent passions. The New Left Marxist has no use for Soviet Russia because the Soviets have clearly relegated the communist ideal to the remotest possible future. The New Leftist admires Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung not simply because of their role as revolutionaries and guerrilla leaders, but more because of their repeated attempts to leap into communism as rapidly as possible. [6]

Karl Marx was vague and cloudy in describing the communist ideal, let alone the specific path for attaining it. But one essential feature is the eradication of the division of labor. Contrary to current belief, Marx's now popular concept of "alienation" had little to do with a psychological sense of apartness or discontent. The heart of the concept was the individual's "alienation" from the product of labor. A worker, for example, works in a steel mill. Obviously, he himself will consume little or none of the steel he produces; he earns the value of his product in the shape of a money-commodity, and then he happily uses that money to buy whatever he chooses from the products of other people. Thus, A produces steel, B eggs, C shoes, etc., and then each exchanges them for products of the others through the use of money. To Marx this phenomenon of the market and the division of labor was a radical evil, for it meant that no one consumed any of his own product. The steelworker thus became "alienated" from his steel, the shoemaker from his shoes, etc.

The proper response to this "problem," it seems to me, is: "So what?" Why should anyone care about this sort of "alienation?" Surely the farmer, shoemaker, and steelworker are very happy to sell their product and exchange it for whatever products they desire; deprive them of this "alienation" and they would be most unhappy, as well as dying from starvation. For if the farmer were not allowed to produce more wheat or eggs than he himself consumes, or the shoemaker more shoes than he can wear, or the steelworker more steel than he can use, it is clear that the great bulk of the population would rapidly starve and the rest be reduced to a primitive subsistence, with life "nasty, brutish, and short." [7]But to Marx this condition was the evil result of individualism and capitalism and had to be eradicated.

Furthermore, Marx was completely ignorant of the fact that each participant in the division of labor cooperates through the market economy, exchanging for each other's products and increasing the productivity and living standards of everyone. To Marx, and differences between men and, therefore, any specialization in the division of labor, is a "contradiction," and the communist goal is to replace that "contradiction" with harmony among all. This means that to the Marxist any individual differences, any diversity among men, are "contradictions" to be stamped out and replaced by the uniformity of the antheap. Friedrich Engels maintained that the emergence of the division of labor shattered the alleged classless harmony and uniformity of primitive society, and was responsible for the cleavage of society into separate and conflicting classes. Hence, for Marx and Engels, the division of labor must be eradicated in order to abolish class conflict and to usher in the ideal harmony of the "classless society," the society of total uniformity. [8]

Thus, Marx foresees his communist deal only "after the enslaving subordination of individuals under division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished." [9]To Marx the ideal communist society is one where, as Professor Gray puts it, "everyone must do everything." According to Marx in The German Ideology,

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. [10]

And the Marxist, August Bebel, consistently applied this dilettantish notion to the role of women:

At one moment a practical worker in some industry she is in the next hour educator, teacher, nurse; in the third part of the day she exercises some art or cultivates a science; and in the fourth part she fulfills some administrative function. [11]

The concept of the commune in socialist thought takes on its central importance precisely as a means of eradicating individual differences. It is not just that the commune owns all the means of production among its members. Crucial to the communal ideal is that every man takes on every function, either all at once or in rapid rotation. Obviously, the commune has to subsist on no more than a primitive level, with only a few common tasks, for this ideal to be achieved. Hence the New Left commune, where every person is supposed to take turns equally at every task; again, specialization is eradicated, and no one can develop his powers to the full. Hence the current admiration for Cuba, which has attempted to stress "moral" rather than economic incentives in production, and which has established communes on the Isle of Pines. Hence the admiration of Mao, who has attempted to establish uniform urban and rural communes, and who recently sent several million students into permanent exile into the frontier agricultural areas, in order to eliminate the "contradiction between intellectual and physical labor." [12] Indeed, at the heart of the split between Russia and China is Russia's virtual abandonment of the communist ideal in the face of China's "fundamentalist" devotion to the original creed. The shared devotion to the commune also accounts for the similarities between the New Left, the Utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, [13] and the communist anarchists, a wing of anarchism that has always shared the communal ideal with the Marxists. [14]

The communist would deny that his ideal society would suppress the personality of every man. On the contrary, freed from the confines of the division of labor, each person would fully develop all of his powers in every direction. Every man would be fully rounded in all spheres of life and work. As Engels put it in his Anti-D?hring, communism would give "each individual the opportunity to develop and exercise all his faculties, physical and mental, in all direction ..." [15] And Lenin wrote in 1920 of the "abolition of the division of labor among people ... the education, schooling and training of people with an all-round development and an all-round training, people able to do everything. Communism is marching and must march toward this goal, and will reach it...." [16]

This absurd ideal?of the man "able to do everything"?is only viable if (a) everyone does everything very badly, or (b) there are only a very few things to do, or (c) everyone is miraculously transformed into a superman. Professor Mises aptly notes that the ideal communist man is the dilettante, the man who knows a little of everything and does nothing well. For how can he develop any of his powers and faculties if he is prevented from developing any one of them to any sustained extent? As Mises says of Bebel's Utopia,

Art and science are relegated to leisure hours. In this way, thinks Bebel, the society of the future "will possess scientists and artists of all kinds in countless numbers." These, according to their several inclinations, will pursue their studies and their arts in their spare time.... All mental work he regards as mere dilettantism.... But nevertheless we must inquire whether under these conditions the mind would be able to create that freedom without which it cannot exist.
Obviously all artistic and scientific work which demands time, travel, technical education and great material expenditure, would be quite out of the question. [17]

Every person's time and energy on the earth are necessarily limited; hence, in order to develop any of his faculties to the full, he must specialize and concentrate on some rather than others. As Gray writes,

That each individual should have the opportunity of developing all his faculties, physical and mental, in all directions, is a dream which will cheer the vision only of the simple-minded, oblivious of the restrictions imposed by the narrow limits of human life. For life is a series of acts of choice, and each choice is at the same time a renunciation....
Even the inhabitant of Engels' future fairyland will have to decide sooner or later whether he wishes to be Archbishop of Canterbury or First Sea Lord, whether he should seek to excel as a violinist or as a pugilist, whether he should elect to know all about Chinese literature or about the hidden pages in the life of the mackerel. [18]

Of course, only way to resolve this dilemma is to fantasize that the New Communist Man will be a superman. The Marxist, Karl Kautsky, asserted that in the future society "a new type of man will arise ... a superman ... an exalted man." Leon Trotsky prophesied that under communism.

... man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical ... The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights new peaks will arise. [19]

In recent years, communists have intensified their efforts to end the division of labor and reduce all individuals to uniformity. Fidel Castro's attempts to "build Communism" in the Isle of Pines, and Mao Tse-Tung's Cultural Revolution, have been echoed in miniature by the American New Left in numerous attempts to form hippies communes and to create organizational "collectives" in which everyone does everything without benefit of specialization. [20] In contrast, Yugoslavia has been the quiet despair of the communist movement by moving rapidly in the opposite direction?toward every-increasing freedom, individuality, and free-market operations?and has proved influential in leading the other "communist" countries of Eastern Europe (notably, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) in the same direction. [21]

[6] The New Left, for example, ignores and scorns Marshall Tito despite his equally prominent role as Marxian revolutionary, guerrilla leader, and rebel against Soviet Russian dictation. The reason, as will be seen further below, is because Tito has pioneered in shifting from Marxism toward an individualistic philosophy and a market economy.

[7] It is difficult, of course, to see how intangible services could be produced at all without "alienation." How can a teacher teach, for example, if he is not allowed to "alienate" his teaching services by providing them to his students?

[8] Thus, see Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, 1947), pp. 306, 328.

[9] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 10.

[10] Quoted in Gray, The Socialist Tradition, p. 328. Gray amusingly adds: "A short weekend on a farm might have convinced Marx that the cattle themselves might have some objection to being reared in this casual manner, in the evening."

[11] August Bebel, in Women and Socialism. Quoted in Mises, Socialism, p. 190n.

[12] A recent news report disclosed that China has now softened its assault on intellectual labor. The policy of interchanging students and workers seems to have worked badly, and it has been found that "a lack of teachers and of technical training has hampered industrial development and production in recent years." Furthermore, "workers appear often to have been not tempered but softened by their exposure to a more sedentary life as many students, rather than finding life on the farm rewarding, fled China or killed themselves." Lee Lescase, "China Softens Attitude on Profs. School Policy," The Washington Post (July 23, 1970), p. A12.

[13] On the Utopian socialists, see Mises, Socialism, p. 168.

[14] It is probably that Mao's particular devotion to the communist ideal was influenced by his having been an anarchist before becoming a Marxist.

[15] Quoted in Gray, The Socialist Tradition, p. 328.

[16] Italics as Lenin's. V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (New York: International Publishers, 1940), p. 34.

[17] Mises, Socialism, p. 190.

[18] Gray, The Socialist Tradition, p. 328.

[19] Quoted in Mises, Socialism, p. 164.

[20] Thus, one of the major criticisms of the New Left journal, The Guardian, by its rebellious split-off, The Liberated Guardian, was that the former functioned in the same way as any "bourgeois" magazine, with specialized editors, typists, copyreaders, business staff, etc. The latter is run by a "collective" in which, assertedly, everyone does every task without specialization. The same criticism, along with the same solution, was applied by the women's caucus which confiscated the New Left weekly, Rat. Some of the "Women's Liberation" groups have been so extreme in the drive to extirpate individuality as to refuse to identify the names of individual members, writers, or spokesmen.

[21] Thus, a shock to orthodox communists throughout the world was the 1958 Program of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, which declared that the individual's "personal interest ... is the moving force of our social development ... The objectivity of the category of personal interest lies in the fact that [Yugoslavia] socialism ... cannot subject the personal happiness of man to any ulterior `goals' or `higher aims,' for the highest aims of socialism is the personal happiness of man." From Kommunist (Belgrade), August 8, 1963. Quoted in R. V. Burks, "Yugoslavia: Has Tito Gone Bourgeois?" East Europe (August, 1965), pp. 2-14. Also see T. Peter Svennevig, "The Ideology of the Yugoslav Heretics," Social Research (Spring, 1960), pp. 39-48. For attacks by orthodox communists, see Shih Tung-Hsiang, "The Degeneration of the Yugoslav Economy Owned by the Whole People," Peking Review (June 12, 1964), pp. 11-16; and "Peaceful Transition from Socialism to Capitalism?" Monthly Review (March, 1964), pp. 569-590.

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