Capital I. Chapter 14: The Division of Labour and Manufacture.

Manufacture takes two fundamental forms, the finished article being produced: 1) by  assembling parts made independently and in relative isolation; 2) or by “a series of connected processes and manipulations.” (p. 461) The first form, Marx calls ‘heterogeneous’, and the second, ‘organic’.

In Marx’s time, watchmaking was a classic example of heterogeneous manufacture characterised, in that each individual part of a watch mechanism was produced by workers specialising in producing just that part, and the different parts being finally assembled “into one mechanical whole.” In this form of manufacture, it “is a matter of chance . . . whether the specialized workers are brought together in one workshop or not . . . [and] while in Geneva there exist large watch factories, i.e. establishments where the specialized workers co-operate under the control of a single capitalist”, even here, “the dial, springs and case are seldom made in the factory itself.” (p. 462)

By contrast, organic manufacture in “its perfected form, produces articles that go through connected phases of development, go step by step through a series of processes” (p. 463), all or most of which, because of the very nature of the processes involved, must occur in the one workshop or factory. In this kind of manufacture, the different stages in the production process, which under the first kind formerly took place sucessively and/or in different workshops, can now occur simultaneously under the same roof. “Hence a greater quantity of commodities is produced in the same period.” Although “[t]his simultaneity . . . arises from the general co-operative form of the process as a whole . . . manufacture not only finds the conditions for co-operation ready to hand; it also, to some extent, creates them by sub-dividing handicraft labour.” This is only accomplished “by riveting each worker to a single fraction of the work” and by connecting each fractional piece of work to form a continuous series. (p. 464)

“It is clear that the direct mutual interdependence of the different pieces of work, and therefore of the workers, compels each one of them to spend on his work no more than the necessary time. This creates a continuity, a uniformity, a regularity, and order, and even an intensity of labour, quite different from that found in an independent handicraft or even in simple co-operation. The rule that the labour-time expended on a commodity should not exceed the amount socially necessary to produce it is . . . in general . . . enforced from the ouside by the action of competition”, whereas “[i]n manufacture . . . the provision of a given quantity of the product in a given period of labour is a technical law of the process of production itself.” (p. 465)

“The division of labour under the system of manufacture not only simplifies and multiplies the qualitatively different parts of society’s collective worker, but also creates a fixed mathematical relation or ratio which regulates the quantitative extent of those parts – i.e. the relative number of workers, for each special function. Thus alongside the qualitative articulation, the division of labour develops a quantitative rule and a proportionality for the social labour process.” (p. 465) Thus, when output is to be increased, the capitalist can easily calculate how many workers in the different categories appropriate to the different parts of the production process are needed.

“The collective worker, formed out of the combination of a number of individual specialized workers, is the item of machinery specifically characteristic of the manufacturing period.” (p. 468) “After the various operations”, previously all performed by the one category of skilled tradesperson, “have been separated, made independent and isolated, the workers are divided, classified and grouped according to their predominant qualities” and any new skills developed “are by nature fitted only for limited and special functions.” (p. 468-469)

“The one-sidedness . . . of the specialized individual worker become perfections when he is part of the collective worker” and “[s]ince the various functions performed by the collective worker can be simple or complex, high or low, the individual labour-powers [belonging to individual workers] . . . require different degrees of training, and must therefore possess very different values. Manufacture therefore develops a hierarchy of labour-powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages.” (p. 469) “Alongside the gradations of the heirarchy, there appears the simple separation of the workers into skilled and unskilled.” The patterns in this area of the division of labours are always changing, e.g., “[t]he relative devaluation of labour-power caused by the disappearance or reduction of the expenses of apprenticeship directly implies a higher degree of valorization of capital; for everything that shortens the necessary labour-time required for the reproduction of labour-power, extends the domain of surplus labour.” (p. 470)

The Division of Labour in Manufacture, and the Division of Labour in Society (p. 470 ff)

In this section, Marx ‘touches lightly’ on “the relation between the division of labour in manufacture, and the social division of labour which forms the foundation of all commodity production.” He notes that “[t]he division of labour within society develops from one starting-point”, (an economic one) and that “the corresponding restriction of individuals to particular vocations or callings develops from another starting-point, diametrically opposed to the first.” (p. 471) This second starting-point of the division of labour is socially, rather than purely economically based, has its origins in the family and tribe, and is based on gender and age, etc. In the first case, exchange brings into relation different productive spheres “originally distinct from and independent of one another.” It thus converts them “into more or less interdependent branches of the collective production of a whole society.” But in the other case, where the “physiological” division of labour, e.g. on the basis of gender and age, is the starting-point, “the particular organs of a compact whole become separated from each other and break off”, this “process of disintegration” receiving “its main impetus from the exchange of commodities with foreign communities.” (p. 472)

“The foundation of every division of labour which has attained a certain degree of development, and has been brought about by the exchange of commodities, is the separation of town from country.” (p. 472) Moveover, “[j]ust as a certain number of simultaneously employed workers is the material pre-condition for the division of labour within manufacture, so the number and density of the population, which here corresponds to the collection of workers together in one workshop, is a pre-condition for the division of labour within society.” (p. 474)

“The colonial system and the extension of the world market, both of which form part of the general conditions for the existence of the manufacturing period, furnish us with rich materials for displaying the division of labour in society.” (p. 474)

“The division of labour within society is mediated through the purchase and sale of the products of different branches of industry, while the connection between the various partial operations in a workshop is mediated through the sale of the labour-power of several workers to one capitalist, who applies it as combined labour-power. The division of labour within manufacture presupposes a concentration of the means of production in the hands of one capitalist; the division of labour within society presupposes a dispersal of those means among many independent producers of commodities.” (p. 475-476) Within the workshop, the division of labour is proportional regarding the number and type of worker allocated to each specific operation – and thus can be calculated with relative accuracy — whereas in society the division of labour is relatively unplanned and subject to the caprice of producers, and to the fluctuations of the market. Within the workshop, the division of labour “implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men”, while in society, it “acknowledges no authority other than that of competition”, or of the “coercion exerted by the pressure of reciprocal interests”. (p. 476-477)

“While the division of labour in society at large, whether mediated through the exchange of commodities or not, can exist in the most diverse economic formations of society, the division of labour in the workshop, as practised by manufacture, is an entirely specific creation of the capitalist mode of production.” (p. 480)

The Capitalist Character of Manufacture (p. 480 ff)

The division of labour in manufacture makes an increase in the number of workers under the control of one capitalist “a technical necessity”. Moreover, “an increase in the variable component of capital necessitates an increase in its constant component too, i.e. . . . [in] workshops, implements, etc., and . . . in raw material”. . . [T]he transformation of the social means of production and subsistence into capital must keep extending.” (p. 480)

Manufacture revolutionises the labour of the individual, such that “[n]ot only is the specialized work distributed among the different individuals, but the individual himself is divided up, and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail operation”. Hence, manufacturing workers become “living automatons”. (p. 481)

“During the manufacturing period proper, i.e. the method in which manufacture is the predominant form taken by capitalist production, the full development of its own peculiar tendencies comes up against obstacles from many directions”, especially from skilled trades workers. “Since handicraft skill is the foundation of manufacture, and since the mechanism of manufacture as a whole possesses no objective framework which would be independent of the workers themselves, capital is constantly compelled to wrestle with the insubordination of the workers.” (p. 489-490) But “[i]t is machines that abolish the role of the handicraftsman as the regulating principle of social production. Thus, on the one hand, the technical reason for the lifelong attachment of the worker to a partial function is swept away. On the other hand, the barriers placed in the way of the domination of capital by this same regulating principle now also fall.” (p. 491)

Questions (ch. 14)

1. Although Marx regards the division of labour in manufacture as “a specific creation of the capitalist mode of production” (p. 480), it can also exist in planned economies (e.g. in the old Soviet Union). Should it exist under socialism and if so, in what form?

2. The division of labour in manufacture as Marx describes and analyses it seems to be true of “Fordist” systems of production. How true is it of of post-Fordist systems?

3. How much, if any, of Marx’s account of division of labour in manufacture still valid?


8 Responses to “Capital I. Chapter 14: The Division of Labour and Manufacture.”

  1. 1 jonathon 8 March 2010 at 5:28 am

    Your first question assumes a counter-position between the USSR and the ‘Free World’: that only the latter was a mode of capitalist society. The latter however was under the law of value like any other capitalist society: the labour performed within Russia – and the satellites – had to compete on the world market with the – now triply free – labour in the West. Beginning with Raya Dunayevskaya, the fiction that the USSR had overcome the law of value has been shown to be false. The basis of Russian society was the exploitation of labour and its separation from means of labour (the juste eternelle of state ownership, aside). The command (not planned) society existing in Russia during the twentieth century was simply a mode of capital accumulation, different in degree rather than kind to modes of accumulation in the West. How this relates to the question of the division of labour and the coming of the ‘polyvalent worker’ I’m unsure.

  2. 2 jonathon 10 March 2010 at 3:23 am

    So in this chapter Marx actually mentions the dreaded ‘Asiatic Mode of production’. This is an instance of an obvious limitation in his text. In a way it shows the trace of a certain historicism in Marx. Part of Marx wanted to show the development of ‘civilisation’ and therefore he engaged in a periodisation and classification of different modes of production; he slips into a certain teleology with this. At the same time his actual science wasn’t teological at all, concepts like this rather represent remnants of an older and redundant way of thinking – as in his difficulting in thinking through what he means by simple/ average/ unskilled labour. The point is to view Marx’s text as an incomplete break with redundant ways of thinking – he was unable to finish writing capital, as we know.

    I also think that the ‘asiatic mode of production’ is a very minor issue with the text. Marx’s actual study is of Western European societies (and one in particular), he isn’t engaged in a study of the development of societies other than these (and really he is only talking about England). I think that this bad concept isn’t a central concept in Capital. The book doesn’t fall or succeed on the basis of Marx’s understanding of, particularly, Indian history. So while this is one of the many problems that are simply part of a text written when it was written, both in terms of the predjudices of its historical context and the fact that Marx never completed his intellectual revolution, it isn’t a very significant issue in the text (it may well be a huge issue for anyone looking at the ways India was represtented by white europeans in this period – or what dogmatic readings of Marx might do with this bad concept).

  3. 3 khatun 15 March 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Jonathon, by insisting that the bits of Marx which are problematic are irrelevant to the ‘central concepts’ of Marx’s ideas, you are keeping on insisting that the issues that Marx was sketchy on are marginal to understanding capitalism today. Marx was dodgy on women’s and colonised people’s experience of capital. If you keep saying that drawing attention to these things is a waste of time then you are relegating ‘Asia’ and ‘women’ to the margins of future marxist thinking. There is no need to defend Marx to this group of people reading him (at least not me). We all agree his critique of capital is fundamental to understanding Capital and society today. But what future direction do we take Marx in is the question i am interested in.

  4. 4 jonathon 16 March 2010 at 3:18 am

    I don’t think that your line of argument is correct. By saying that aspects of Marx are problematic, I am in no way saying that the realities he is trying to describe are unproblematic and can be ignored; or, as you say, are a ‘waste of time’.

  5. 5 Paul 17 March 2010 at 10:12 pm


    I agree with you, Dunayevskaya, Callinicos et al. that the USSR and the other so-called socialist countries are/were forms of capitalism, albeit with special and varying characteristics. Posing my first question in this way was partly to bring out precisely this point.

  6. 6 Paul 17 March 2010 at 10:29 pm

    I agree with Khatun on these questions; neglecting the bits of Marx that imply, or seem to imply a marginalisation in the theory of the role of women, gender, and ethnicity in capitalism tends to lead to a neglect of these issues in practice. How Marx viewed Asian, indigenous and other (non-European) cultures, based on information available to him at the time, and the Eurocentric basis of 19th century anthropology, is problematic and needs to be taken account of.

    How this should happen in our discussions needs to be addressed.

  7. 7 Ab Glider Reviews 27 June 2013 at 3:12 am

    Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author.I will remember to bookmark your blog and may come back down the road. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great posts, have a nice evening!

  8. 8 Ahmed karkoura 8 December 2015 at 4:45 am

    SO, how does the division of labour change over time and what drives these changes in Marx’s opinion?

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