Marx on directly social labor

[I am posting this piece I wrote in 2005 because I believe it sheds light on current debates on interpreting Marx and Marxist-Humanism. It was originally published in Interim Discussion Bulletin #1, January 2006, News and Letters Committees. I will be posting a series of articles from 2004-2007 that were part of the debate then, which my opponents never answered except with serious misrepresentations.  Some points refer implicitly or explicitly to these misrepresentations.]

Marx on directly social labor

by Franklin, Memphis, December 2005

Let’s ground our discussion of “directly social labor” in an exploration of what Karl Marx wrote about it. Let’s examine first of all how he used the term in Capital, Vol. I, his most important theoretical work. Other texts should be considered in relationship to how Marx wrote about it in Capital.[1]

To begin, let’s consider that “directly social labor” is not some transhistorical concept. It is not a fixed form to which we can compare the labor in any given society. Rather, to every society there pertains a directly (or “immediately”) social form of labor specific to that society. In the section on fetishism, in seeking to illuminate the mystery of commodities by comparing their production to other forms of production, Marx writes about feudalism:

The natural form of labor, its particularity–and not, as in a society based on commodity production, its universality–is here its immediate social form. [What is translated here as “immediate social form” is exactly the same German phrase that is translated elsewhere as “directly social form.”] (Vintage ed., p. 170; Kerr ed., p. 89)

Or, as Marx wrote in the first edition of Capital:

The yardstick for “socialness” must be taken from the nature of the relations peculiar to each mode of production, not from conceptions alien to it.[2]

With this in mind, let’s turn to the “third peculiarity,” which has caused so much confusion among Marxists. In the section on the elementary form of value, Marx digs into the dialectic of the value-form, showing that all the contradictions that would develop with the money-form and with capitalist production exist in embryo in the simple value-form and therefore in the commodity-form. He outlines three “peculiarities” of the equivalent form. In each of these peculiarities, whose analysis paves the way for the analysis of the fetish character of commodities, Marx reveals something becoming the form of its opposite.

The first peculiarity is that use-value becomes the form of manifestation of value. The second peculiarity expresses alienated labor: concrete labor–instead of standing on its own as self-realizing human activity (human power) that (a) is a direct expression of human needs, which becomes at a higher development (b) human power that is its own end–becomes only the form of manifestation of alienated abstract labor, which appears as a force external to the subject.

The third peculiarity is a corollary of the second. Private labor becomes the form of its opposite, labor in directly (or immediately) social form:

Since, however, this concrete labor, tailoring, counts as merely the expression of undifferentiated human labor, it possesses the form of equality with another labor, the labor contained in the linen. Therefore, although it, like all other commodity-producing labor, is private labor, it is nevertheless labor in directly social form. That is why it presents itself in a product that is directly exchangeable with another commodity. It is thus a third peculiarity of the equivalent form that private labor becomes the form of its opposite, labor in directly social form.[3]

But what is “labor in directly social form”? From the above one understands that, in commodity production, the form of equality with another labor is the directly social form, and it results in its product being directly exchangeable with another commodity. Marx expands on this when he gets to the general form of value, where he uses linen as the example of the general equivalent (which is a precursor to the money-form, so if you find it confusing, think of money as the universal form of appearance of abstract labor, and therefore of equality of all kinds of labor):

The physical form of the linen counts as the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state, of all human labor. Weaving, the private labor which produces linen, acquires as a result a general social form, the form of equality with all other kinds of labor…the general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor….In this manner the labor objectified in the values of commodities [is presented as] … the reduction of all kinds of actual labor to their common character of being human labor in general, of being the expenditure of human labor-power. (Vintage ed., pp. 159-60; Kerr ed., p. 77)

What was defined in the elementary form of value as the directly social form of labor, “the form of equality with another labor,” has developed in the general form into “the form of equality with all other kinds of labor,” which, Marx points out, is the form of appearance of abstract labor. (Therefore, in the elementary form of value, any commodity that served as equivalent–that is, every commodity that was exchanged–embodied labor in its directly social form; but in the general form of value this is only true of the general equivalent.)

And when we get to money, we see that money’s “natural form” is “the directly social incarnation of all human labor,” “the directly social form of realization of human labor in the abstract” (Vintage ed., pp. 230, 241; Kerr ed., pp. 149, 159).

A quick look at the first edition of Capital may shed some light on this, since it goes into more detail on “directly social form” of commodities.[4] Here Marx writes of the general form of value:

As the directly social materialization of labor, linen, the general equivalent, is the materialization of directly social labor, while the other commodity bodies…are the materializations of indirectly social labors.[5]

Thus the private labor that went into producing the commodity that is the general equivalent “becomes the immediate and general form of appearance of abstract human labor, and thus labor in directly social form.”[6] This is true because, as Marx wrote in later editions, “within this world the general human character of labor forms its specific social character” (Vintage, p. 160; Kerr, p. 78).

The “directly social labor” in these passages is directly social precisely because it is the socially objective form of manifestation of abstract labor. In it abstract labor, which pertains to the sphere of essence of commodity production, appears. (Another reason why the study of directly social labor cries out to be brought to the level of the Notion.)

This directly social labor is social in the sense corresponding to what has sometimes been referred to as “indirectly social labor” (vs. “directly”)–that is, it is mediated by the functioning of value in the value-form of exchange. This type of direct sociality is specific to commodity production; it is not a natural term. It is that sort of value-mediated sociality of which private labor becomes a form in the third peculiarity.[7] Why, then, is it “directly (immediately) social”? Marx writes that it is because it “possesses the form of equality with another labor.” Within the value-form, the equality is immediate, and the mediation by value is submerged within this immediacy–it was hard labor for the classical political economists to discover that it was mediated by value, a form taken by labor. As Hegel insists, everything is both mediated and immediate, so we must be careful not to counterpose the mediacy and immediacy in undialectical fashion. In the section on fetishism, Marx’s primary critique of the classical political economists is that they never got to the question of WHY labor assumed this form of value. They recognized this form of equality (as a reality, unlike Aristotle) and understood that it was an immediately social relationship (even if a relationship between things), and they discovered that the equality was at bottom an equality of labor.

Thus, it would seem necessary to follow the development on to what Marx had in the first edition as the fourth peculiarity, i.e., the fetish character of commodities: (1) social relations between humans appear in the form of social relations between things and material relations between persons; (2) concrete individual human activity, labor, appears as value, a (social) property of a physical object, or a social objectivity with a physical objective body (a commodity). It is there that Marx develops the sociality of labor in a new way that can only come to be in the new society: freely associated labor, which is the absolute opposite of the fetish character of commodities, whose directly social form of labor conceals the alienated objectification of individual labor. Here is where Marx explicitly presents the whole of which private vs. social labor is part.

This passage from the section on fetishism suggests that it further develops the contradiction expressed in the third peculiarity:

…the labor of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labor of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things. (Vintage ed., pp. 165-66; Kerr ed., p. 84)

But, according to Marx, there is another sense in which directly social labor exists in capitalist society, in which relations between individual workers’ labor really do “appear as direct social relations between persons in their work” on an increasing scale.[8] An undialectical approach would assume that this is as an inconsistent or arbitrary use of terminology, and thereby justify separating Marx’s use of the phrase “directly social labor” from his alleged concept of directly social labor (which concept is only discovered in passages that do not use the phrase). Let’s consider the matter more closely.

The two senses in which labor becomes social in capitalist society are not in separate compartments. They are in contradiction with each other. Marx explains how capital does not immediately change the mode of production when it first subordinates labor (the formal subsumption of labor under capital). But then it increasingly alters the organization and technology of the labor process, bringing about constant revolutions in production as it develops the real subsumption of labor under capital. One key aspect of this is the socialization of labor, which begins with what Marx analyzes in Chapter 13 of Capital, Vol. I, “Cooperation.” Labor is being socialized in the direct process of production. In several places Marx calls this “directly social labor.” (In Chapter 13 he refers to it as “directly social or communal labor”–Vintage ed., p. 448; Kerr ed., p. 363.)

The dual use of the phrase is not a question of two completely different issues. Rather, it reflects the dual, contradictory nature of the sociality of labor in capitalist society. In other words, the duality does not come from the terminology but from reality. On the one hand, the ongoing socialization of labor develops “the productive powers of directly social, socialized (i.e., collective) labor”[9] which Dunayevskaya grasps as “a new power, namely, the collective power of masses” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 109)–and she relates this power to the experience of the Paris Commune and the questions of fetishism and freely associated labor. (Recall how the “third peculiarity” is a step on the way to the full development of the analysis of the fetish character of commodities.) On the other hand, this new power of socialized labor is confined within the value-form, under which labor is transformed into social labor whose only specific feature is that it is abstract human labor; and this transformation is accomplished through the labor process that has been reshaped to make real the subsumption of living labor under dead labor–which gives impetus to the worker’s quest for universality. The contradiction between the two sides of labor’s sociality under capitalism is expressed in the way the function of this “power of social labor”

is confined to the production of value. It cannot release its new, social, human energies so long as the old mode of production continues. Thus the nature of the cooperative form of labor power is in opposition to the capitalist integument, the value-form. (Marxism and Freedom, p. 93)

This duality, as comprehended by Dunayevskaya, points to both the material basis for the new society and the subjective force (the new power) without which the new society cannot be realized. Breaking down the duality is not a question that will wait until the “first phase,” but rather, is a perspective for what happens beginning immediately after the conquest of power.[10]

Marx’s critique of Gray’s “labor money” explicitly poses a relationship between the two senses of directly social labor:

[Gray] assumed that commodities could be directly compared with one another as products of social labor. But they are only comparable as the things they are….But as Gray presupposes that the labor time contained in commodities is immediately social labor time, he presupposes that it is communal labor time or labor time of directly associated individuals. (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW 29:321)

In the slightly different language of Capital: because Gray assumed that commodities could all be directly exchangeable, he presupposed that they contained labor in directly social form. According to Marx, this is not possible in bourgeois production, where only the labor contained in the general equivalent is directly social, in that its product is directly exchangeable. For all labor to take a directly social form, none of it can take the directly social form found in commodity production; it has to take a different directly social form. This has to be founded on “communal labor-time or labor-time of directly associated individuals”–or what Marx expresses in Capital as “directly socialized labor,” “directly social or communal labor.” That is to say, it depends on the freeing of socialized labor from its value-integument.

Take a look at how Marx reformulates this argument in Capital. He cites this very passage in the first footnote in Chapter 3, “Money”:

The question why money does not itself directly represent labor-time…is the question[11] why private labor cannot be treated as its opposite, directly social labor. I have elsewhere discussed exhaustively the shallow utopianism of the idea of “labor money” in a society founded on the production of commodities. [Here Marx cites CCPE, MECW 29:320ff.] On this point I will only say further that Owen’s “labor money,” for instance, is no more “money” than a theater ticket is. Owen presupposes directly socialized labor, a form of production diametrically opposite to the production of commodities. (Vintage ed., p. 188n1; Kerr ed., p. 106n1)

Note the two different phrases, “directly social labor” (unmittelbar gesellschaftliche Arbeit) and “directly socialized labor” (unmittelbar vergesellschaftete Arbeit–translated in the Kerr edition as “directly associated labor”). The first is clearly a reference to the directly social form discussed in the third peculiarity. The second undoubtedly is a new formulation of the earlier statement, “he presupposes that it is communal labor-time or labor-time of directly associated individuals.” The word vergesellschaftete and its variant vergesellschaftung are the words Marx uses for socialization of labor in Chapters 15, 16, and 32 of Capital–that is, the second sense of directly social labor as outlined above. They are also used in the section on Fetishism, referring to pre-capitalist “directly associated labor” (unmittelbar vergesellschafteter Arbeit, p. 171; Kerr, p. 89) and [post-capitalist] freely associated people (frei vergesellschafteter Menschen, p. 173; Kerr p. 92)–bringing us back once again to the close connection of the two senses of directly social labor, the fetish character of commodities, and freely associated labor.

Formal logic, which rejects contradictions generally, would insist that the two senses must be separated, because of the following question: If “directly socialized labor,” as a form of production, is “diametrically opposite to the production of commodities,” then how can it be that “socialization of labor” proceeds apace in capitalist society? First, to say that the latter exists, operates, and is developing within a society is obviously not the same as to say that it is the form of production within that society. Second, Marx’s great emphasis in Chapter 32, “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” is on the contradiction of the socialization of labor and centralization of the means of production with their capitalist integument, together with the revolt of the working class, begetting the negation of the negation–the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the foundation of a new society. What is the basis of the new form of directly social labor, if not the socialization of labor and the self-activity of workers taking control of the labor process, starting the day after the conquest of power–or earlier, as we learned from the Spanish Revolution?

That does involve freely associated labor, which is Marx’s most precise development of what would liberate directly social labor from its capitalist integument.  It is fruitless to dismiss that as “political alone,” and then treat the directly social labor of the new society as if it were not an aspect of freely associated labor. Why cut ourselves off from what has been developed in the Marxist-Humanist body of ideas, which shows freely associated labor (not directly social labor as such) to be how Chapter 1 enters the dialectic of the Notion, which to Dunayevskaya is the sphere of the objective and subjective paths to freedom? In Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, she writes that Marx recreated Notion with his section on fetishism and its absolute opposite, freely associated labor (p. 189), which she characterizes as “a look forward at what will follow capitalism” (p. 140). She adds that humanity

enters the realm of freedom after the overthrow of capitalism when ‘freely associated men’ take destiny into their own hands, and it is not only the fetishism of commodities which vanishes but the whole perverse system. Having leaped into that absolute opposite of capitalist society–that is to say, having projected a society of new human relations–it is clear that…we are, indeed, dealing with notional concepts. (p. 145)

It is here that Dunayevskaya refers to the genuine aufhebung of capitalist society and its myriad contradictions, including that between private labor and labor in (bourgeois) directly social form. The stress on the dialectic of the Notion reminds us that, as Marxist-Humanists, we are not only looking for and projecting the need for technical, political, and economic changes, but philosophic new beginnings, without which the new society will never get the chance to be born in the first place.


[1] The Grundrisse, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and other writings on the way to Capital have to be considered, at least provisionally, as not being as precisely developed as Capital, and thus must be considered in relationship to what is in the latter. As for the Critique of the Gotha Program, the term “directly social labor” never occurs there.

[2] “Der Maßstab der ‘Gesellschaftlichkeit’ muß aus der Natur der jeder Produktionsweise eigenthümlichen Verhältnisse, nicht aus ihr fremden Vorstellungen entlehnt werden.”

[3] Because of the defects in both the Fowkes and the Moore-Aveling translations, I’ve done my own from the 4th German edition, checked against the French. See Kerr edition, p. 68, and Vintage edition, pp. 150-51. Note that “unmittelbar,” the word translated as “direct” or “directly,” also means “immediate” or “immediately,” as it is generally rendered in translations of Hegel’s writings.

[4] The post-Paris Commune editions have a shorter discussion of the “directly social form,” but more of an emphasis within that part on abstract vs. concrete labor–without separating “directly social form” from abstract labor in any edition–and, as Raya Dunayevskaya showed, a much more developed discussion of the fetish character of commodities. Thus it would seem essential to develop any discussion of “directly social labor” in strict relationship to the dual character of labor and to the fetish character of commodities and its absolute opposite, freely associated labor. Those have always been, of course, categories of the utmost importance to Marxist-Humanism. Too many Marxists have assumed that private vs. directly social labor is the most important contradiction, the ground, whereas Marxist-Humanism takes seriously Marx’s statement that the dual character of labor, abstract and concrete, was his original contribution and the pivot upon which a clear comprehension of political economy turns.

[5] “Als unmittelbar gesellschaftliche Materiatur der Arbeit ist die Leinwand, das alllgemeine Aequivalent, Materiatur unmittelbar gesellschaftlicher Arbeit, während die andern Waarenkörper, welche ihren Werth in Leinwand darstellen, Materiaturen nicht unmittelbar gesellschaftlicher Arbeiten sind.”

[6] “Dadurch wird letztere [einer ausschließlichen Art Privatarbeit, hier der Leineweberei] die unmittelbare und allgemeine Erscheinungsform abstrakter menschlicher Arbeit und so Arbeit in unmittelbar gesellschaftlicher Form.”

[7] This helps explain the translation error in both Fowkes and Moore-Aveling. Both have it as private labor “takes” rather than “becomes” the form of labor in directly social form. Unlike concrete labor and use-value, “private labor” appears to be something to be abolished in post-capitalist society, whereas “social labor” always had a nice ring to socialists. Even when it is translated correctly, there is a temptation for socialists to line up private labor along with abstract labor and value as the things that will be eliminated with private property, while directly social labor pertains to “an organized economy,” in the words of I.I. Rubin (for example), an economist at Russia’s Marx-Engels Institute who was killed in Stalin’s purges. See Chapters 11 and 13 of Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, where he equates directly social labor with “direct social organization of labor,” and sees as “the central problem of [Marx’s] economic theory, the opposition between private and social labor.” Like Bukharin, Rubin unfortunately did not break with the Second International’s fetishization of “organized” economy as the opposite of capitalism, which, under Stalin, was transformed into fetishism of the Plan. The fact that some form of social organization would planfully allocate and distribute concrete labor seems to be decisive to Rubin, while the participation of workers in not only labor but decision-making seems to be entirely unspoken in his concept.

These aspects of Rubin’s writings underscore the importance of Urszula [Wislanka]’s point at the Plenum that the abolition of private labor, like the abolition of private property, is no guarantee of the new society. The Plan of state-capitalist Poland embodied Rubin’s “direct social organization of labor.” We may note that, while others mentioned “directly social labor” in passing, Urszula’s was the only extended discussion of it at the Plenum. Thus, it is a matter of astonishment to read in [comments by Peter Hudis in] the 10/2/2005 REB minutes in what is presented as if it is a discussion of the Plenum:

“When we began our in-depth study of [Marx’s] Critique of the Gotha Program in 2004, its content was so ‘new’ to many of us that some argued that Marx never used the concept of ‘directly social labor’ and that the phrase had been invented by members of News and Letters Committees. No one argues that today, however.”

Considering that the fictitious argument about the phrase being invented is a mere straw-person deployed to sidestep the actual arguments challenging a particular interpretation of the phrase, it should be no surprise that “no one argues today” by repeating the words that others tried to shove into their mouths. (The reference to “‘new'” content as the alleged reason for disagreeing is also a way to sidestep the issues by instead impugning the motives of those who differ, implying that it is an irrational, emotional response–much like [Hudis’s] now dropped accusation of “formalism.”) The attempt to present the challenged interpretation as if no one any longer argues with it flies in the face of both the record of discussion at the Plenum, and the appearance in a July 2005 pre-Plenum bulletin of my piece, “A Note on Directly Social Labor and Freely Associated Labor.” [to be posted here soon]

[8] This is explored in more depth in my July 2005 pre-Plenum bulletin article, “A Note on Directly Social Labor and Freely Associated Labor.” [to be posted here soon]

[9] Vintage ed. of Vol. I of Capital, p. 1024. This is from a draft of Capital.

[10] Workers’ control of production is not the entirety of social revolution, but it is indispensable, both as a qualitative advance in the socialization of labor and as a heavy blow to the value-form, as Dunayevskaya repeatedly pointed out, as in Philosophy and Revolution, p. 237:

The crucial element, then, was the masses’ confidence that they, and not dead things, whether machines or lack of machines, shape the course of history. The spontaneity of their united action did indeed deliver blows to the law of value, that is, took decision-making concerning production out of the hands of the rulers. Precisely because the African masses did, at the start, feel they were not only muscle but reason, holding destiny in their own hands, there emerged what Marx in his day called a new energizing principle.

Recall the main point of Charles Denby’s response to Angela Terrano in Workers Battle Automation:

No doubt the new society will create other ways to produce. But the road to that new society can begin in no other way than by changing the conditions of labor, which means, in the first place, control of production.

Workers’ control of production means workers themselves decide what they produce, how much they produce, the conditions under which they work. They decide all questions. [emphasis in the original]

As these passages highlight, the question of workers making decisions is crucial. That is one indispensable aspect of the process of breaking down the division between mental and manual labor, before, during, and after the revolution (See Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization’, p. 107). [This footnote responds to Andrew Kliman’s dismissive attitude to workers’ control of production and decision-making, and his absurd claim that speaking of breaking down the division between mental and manual labor before, during, and after the revolution meant conflating the “before” and the “after.”]

[11] I had to tweak Fowkes’s translation here, because it does not convey the sense that “it is (or comes down to) the same question,” which comes across clearly in the German and French and in the Kerr edition.

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