The Marxian view of work
Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature.
(Marx 1969; emphasis in original)
Few scholars can claim to have written more on the subject of work and labour than Karl Marx.1 His ideas on work permeated most aspects of his philosophical, economic, and political thought. For Marx, work was not just an economic activity performed for extrinsic reasons. It was also an essential human activity that could be a source of creative fulﬁlment and self-actualisation. With his long-time friend and co-writer Fredrick Engels, Marx explained how capitalism had come to ‘alienate’ workers from their work, leading them to suﬀer great personal harm in the course of meeting their basic material needs. In Marx’s view, capitalism had to be abolished, if work was to once again become a central part of human life. Marx, importantly, was a critic of classical economics. He resisted the support
given by the classical economists to capitalism. There were, indeed, important insights to be gained from the classical school, such as the recognition of the importance of labour as the source of value. Yet it was necessary to transcend classical political economy to gain a full understanding of the capitalist economy. Marx noted, in particular, how the classical economists failed to provide a proper theorisation of work and labour. They were guilty of seeing only the negative aspects of work, andwere unable to relate such aspects to the capitalist system of work. Further, they had not realised the potential for work to be made into a positive and creative activity by the removal of capitalism. As was noted in Chapter 3, Marx was also critical of some ‘utopian’ writers of the nineteenth century. These writers had done a good thing in promoting the case against capitalism; however, they had failed to oﬀer a ‘scientiﬁc’ understanding of the movement from capitalism to socialism and communism. The purpose of this chapter is to examine some of the central aspects of
the conception of work and labour found in the writings of Marx. In
addition to focusing on Marx’s key concept of ‘alienation’ and his explanation of the nature and transformation of work under capitalism, attention will be given to his views on what work could be like in a future communist society. The following discussion on Marx does not pretend to be exhaustive or comprehensive; in particular, it does not fully engage with the vast secondary literature on Marx and Marxism. Rather, the aim is to provide a summary account of Marx’s analysis of work. In the ﬁnal part of the chapter, some critical discussion is oﬀered on more recent debates surrounding the Marxian view of work, especially those sparked by the seminal work of Braverman. In addition, weak or undeveloped aspects of Marx’s writings on work and labour are identiﬁed.