Labor is work. It is a fundamental part of human existence; whether we do it for a boss, for each other, or for ourselves, we must do it in order to survive. Labor which makes products is known as production. The relations that people enter into in order to do this labor are called production relations.

According to Marx, labor can and should be a fulfilling, rewarding, creative experience. Under relations of economic domination such as slavery, serfdom, or capitalist wage-employment, it tends to be experienced rather differently. One of the main goals of socialism and communism is to put people back in control of their own labor.

The labor movement organises workers to get better wages and working conditions from capitalists.

Labor parties in politics represent the interests of workers, at least in theory.

Factory despotism

While the relations between business enterprises in capitalism are non-authoritarian and each is on, at least in theory, equal legal footing, the opposite is true within the enterprise, where relations are authoritarian andhierarchical, with owner at the top and worker at the bottom.

`Whereas capitalism develops the division of labour between industries in society in a non-authoritative and anarchical order, it contrastingly develops the detailed division of labour inside the workshop in an authoritative order.' — Makoto Itoh, The Basic Theory of Capitalism, p 146 (cites Capital vol I, p 477: tr. Fowes & Fernbach, Penguin 1976).

Marx spoke of the `factory despotism' imposed upon the workers at their places of work in capitalism. Socialism, he said, would eliminate this ugly situation:

`this discipline will become superflous under a social system in which the labourers work for their own account.' — Capital, vol. III [Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959], p. 83, cited in Bettleheim 1978, footnote, p. 45.

One of the aims of the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 in China, was to eliminate bourgeois managerial forms – `factory despotism' – that persisted after the 1949 Revolution. Managers, although officially `socialist', were still using authoritarian, hierarchical command methods rather than fostering worker self-management. The Marxist Charles Bettleheim (1978) wrote about this problem in China, and also what he saw as a similar problem in the Soviet Union.

Further reading

  • Bettleheim, Charles, 1978. `The Great Leap Backward' (describes the Dengist takeover in China in the late 1970s), in China after Mao, an exchange of opposing views by Bettleheim and Neil Burton published by Monthly Review Press.
  • Itoh, Makoto, 1988. The Basic Theory of Capitalism.
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