Karl Marx
The Poverty of Philosophy
Chapter Two: The Metaphysics of Political Economy

Division of labour and Machinery


The division of labour, according to M. Proudhon, opens the series of economic evolutions.


Good side of the division of labour “Considered in its essence, the division of labour is the manner in which equality of conditions and intelligence is realized.”
(Tome I, p. 93.)
Bad side of the division of labour “The division of labour has become for us an instrument of poverty.”
(Tome I, p. 94.)

“labour, by dividing itself according to the law which is peculiar to it, and which is the primary condition of its fruitfulness, ends in the negation of its aims and destroys itself.”
(Tome I, p. 94.)
Problem to be solved To find the “recomposition which wipes out the drawbacks of the division, while retaining its useful effects."
(Tome I, p. 97.)


The division of labour is, according to M. Proudhon, an eternal law, a simple, abstract category. Therefore the abstraction, the idea, the word must suffice for him to explain the division of labour at different historical epochs. Castes, corporations, manufacture, large-scale industry, must be explained by the single word divide. First study carefully the meaning of "divide", and you will have no need to study the numerous influences which give the division of labour a definitive character in every epoch.

Certainly, things would be made much too easy if they were reduced to M. Proudhon’s categories. History does not proceed so categorically. It took three whole centuries in Germany to establish the first big division of labour, the separation of the towns from the country. In proportion, as this one relation of town and country was modified, the whole of society was modified. To take only this one aspect of the division of labour, you have the old republics, and you have Christian feudalism; you have old England with its barons and you have modern England with its cotton lords. In the 14th and 15th centuries, when there were as yet no colonies, when America did not yet exist for Europe, when Asia existed only through the intermediary of Constantinople, when the Mediterranean was the centre of commercial activity, the division of labour had a very different form, a very different aspect from that of the 17th century, when the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the French had colonies established in all parts of the world. The extent of the market, its physiognomy, give to the division of labour at different periods a physiognomy, a character, which it would be difficult to deduce from the single word divide, from the idea, from the category.

“All economists since Adam Smith,” says M. Proudhon, “have pointed out the advantages and drawbacks of the law of division, but insist much more on the first than on the second, because that was more serviceable for their optimism, and none of them has ever wondered what could be the drawbacks to a law.... How does the same principle, pursued vigorously to its consequences, lead to diametrically opposite results? Not one economist before or since A. Smith has even perceived that here was a problem to elucidate. Say goes to the length of recognizing that in the division of labour the same cause that produces the good engenders the bad.”

[Vol. I, pp. 95-96]

Adam Smith goes further than M. Proudhon thinks. He saw clearly that

“the difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour.”

[Vol. I, p. 20]

In principle, a porter differs less from a philosopher than a mastiff from a greyhound. It is the division of labour which has set a gulf between them. All this does not prevent M. Proudhon from saying elsewhere that Adam Smith has not the slightest idea of the drawbacks produced by the division of labour. It is this again that makes him say that J. B. Say was the first to recognize “that in the division of labour the same cause that produces the good engenders the bad.” [Vol. I, p. 96]

But let us listen to Lemontey; Suum cuique.[34]

“M. J. B. Say has done me the honour of adopting in his excellent treatise on political economy the principle that I brought to light in this fragment on the moral influence of the division of labour. The somewhat frivolous title of my book [35] doubtless prevented him from citing me. It is only to this motive that I can attribute the silence of a writer too rich in his own stock to disavow so modest a load.”

(Lemontey, Oeuvres completes,
Vol. I, p. 245, Paris 1840)

Let us do him this justice: Lemontey wittily exposed the unpleasant consequences of the division of labour as it is constituted today, and M. Proudhon found nothing to add to it. But now that, through the fault of M. Proudhon, we have been drawn into this question of priority, let us say again, in passing, that long before M. Lemontey, and 17 years before Adam Smith, who was a pupil of A. Ferguson, the last-named gave a clear exposition of the subject in a chapter which deals specifically with the division of labour.

“It may even be doubted, whether the measure of national capacity increases with the advancement of arts. Many mechanical arts... succeed best under a total suppression of sentiment and reason; and ignorance is the mother of industry as well as superstition. Reflection and fancy are subject to err; but a habit of moving the hand, or the foot, is independent of either. Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most, where the mind is least consulted, and where the workshop may, without any great effort of imagination, be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men....

“The general officer may be a great proficient in the knowledge of war, while the skill of the soldier is confined to a few motions of the hand and the foot. The former may have gained what the latter has lost....

“And thinking itself, in this age of separations, may become a peculiar craft.”

(A. Ferguson, An Essay on the History of of Civil
Society , Edinburgh 1783 [Vol. II, pp. 108, 109, 110])

To bring this literary survey to a close, we expressly deny that “all economists have insisted far more on the advantages than on the drawbacks of the division of labour.” It suffices to mention Sismondi.

Thus, as far as the advantages of the division of labour are concerned, M. Proudhon had nothing further to do than to paraphrase the general phrases known to everybody.

Let us now see how he derives from the division of labour, taken as a general law, as a category, as a thought, the drawbacks which are attached to it. How is it that this category, this law implies an unequal distribution of labour to the detriment of M. Proudhon’s equalitarian system?

“At this solemn hour of the division of labour, the storm winds begin to blow over humanity. Progress does not take place for all in an equal and uniform manner.... It begins by taking possession of a small number of the privileged.... It is this preference for person on the part of progress that has for so long kept up the belief in the natural and providential inequality of conditions, has given rise to castes, and hierarchically constituted all societies.”

(Proudhon, Vol.I, p.94)

The division of labour created castes. Now, castes are the drawbacks of the division of labour; thus, it is the division of labour that has engendered the drawbacks. Quod erat demonstrandum. [Which was to be proved.] Will you go further and ask what made the division of labour create castes. hierarchical constitutions and privileged persons? M. Proudhon will tell you: Progress. And what made progress? Limitation. Limitation, for M. Proudhon, is acceptance of persons on the part of progress.

After philosophy comes history. It is no longer either descriptive history or dialectical history, it is comparative history. M. Proudhon establishes a parallel between the present-day printing worker and the printing worker of the Middle Ages; between the man of letters of today and the man of letters of the Middle Ages, and he weighs down the balance on the side of those who belong more or less to the division of labour as the Middle Ages constituted or transmitted it. He opposes the division of labour of one historical epoch. Was that what M. Proudhon had to prove? No. He should have shown us the drawbacks of the division of labour in general, of the division of labour as a category. Besides, why stress this part of M. Proudhon’s work, since a little later we shall see him formally retract all these alleged developments?

“The first effect of fractional labour,” continues M. Proudhon, “after the depravation of the soul, is the prolongation of the shifts, which grow in inverse ratio to the sum total of intelligence expended.... But as the length of the shifts cannot exceed 16 to 18 hours per day, the moment the compensation cannot be taken out of the time, it will be taken out of the price, and the wages will diminish.... What is certain, and the only thing for us to note, is that the universal conscience does not assess at the same rate the work of a foreman and the labour of a mechanic’s assistant. It is therefore necessary to reduce the price of the day’s work; so that the worker, after having been afflicted in his soul by a degrading function, cannot escape being struck in his body by the meagreness of his remuneration.”

[Vol. I, pp. 97-98]

We pass over the logical value of these syllogisms, which Kant would call paralogisms which lead astray.

This is the substance of it:

The division of labour reduces the worker to a degrading function; to this degrading function corresponds a depraved soul; to the depravation of the soul is befitting an ever-increasing wage reduction. And to prove that this reduction is befitting to a depraved soul, M. Proudhon says, to relieve his conscience, that the universal conscience wills it thus. Is M. Proudhon’s soul to be reckoned as a part of the universal conscience?

Machinery is, for M. Proudhon, “the logical antithesis of the division of labour,” and with the help of his dialectics, he begins by transforming machinery into the workshop.

After presupposing the modern workshop, in order to make poverty the outcome of the division of labour, M. Proudhon presupposes poverty engendered by the division of labour, in order to come to the workshop and be able to represent it as the dialectical negation of that poverty. After striking the worker morally by a degrading function, physically by the meagreness of the wage; after putting the worker under the dependence of the foreman, and debasing his work to the labour of a mechanic’s assistant, he lays the blame again on the workshop and the machinery for degrading the worker “by giving him a master,” and he completes his abasement by making him “sink from the rank of artisan to that of common labourer.” Excellent dialectics! And if he only stopped there! But no, he has to have a new history of the division of labour, not any longer to derive the contradictions from it, but to reconstruct the workshop after his own fashion. To attain this end he finds himself compelled to forget all he has just said about division.

labour is organized, is divided differently according to the instruments it disposes over. The hand-mill presupposes a different division of labour from the steam-mill. Thus, it is slapping history in the face to want to begin by the division of labour in general, in order to get subsequently to a specific instrument of production, machinery.

Machinery is no more an economic category than the bullock that drags the plough. Machinery is merely a productive force. The modern workshop, which depends on the application of machinery, is a social production relation, an economic category.

Let us see now how things happen in M. Proudhon’s brilliant imagination.

“In society, the incessant appearance of machinery is the antithesis, the inverse formula of the division of labour: it is the protest of the industrial genius against fractional and homicidal labour. What, actually, is a machine? A way of uniting different portions of labour which had been separated by the division of labour. Every machine can be defined as a summary of several operations.... Thus, through the machine there will be a restoration of the worker.... Machinery, which in political economy places itself in contradiction to the division of labour, represents synthesis, which in the human mind is opposed to analysis.... Division merely separated the different parts of labour, letting each one devote himself to the speciality which most suited him; the workshop groups the workers according to the relation of each part to the whole.... It introduces the principle of authority in labour.... But this is not all; the machine or the workshop, after degrading the worker by giving him a master, completes his abasement by making him sink from the rank of artisan to that of common labourer.... The period we are going through at the moment, that of machinery, is distinguished by a special characteristic, the wage worker. The wage worker is subsequent to the division of labour and to exchange.”

[Vol. I, pp. 135, 136, and 161]

Just a simple remark to M. Proudhon. The separation of the different parts of labour, leaving to each one the opportunity of devoting himself to the speciality best suited to him – a separation which M. Proudhon dates from the beginning of the world – exists only in modern industry under the rule of competition.

M. Proudhon goes on to give us a most “interesting genealogy,” to show how the workshop arose from the division of labour and the wage worker from the workshop.

1) He supposes a man who “noticed that by dividing up production into its different parts and having each one performed by a separate worker,” the forces of production would be multiplied.

2) This man, “grasping the thread of this idea, tells himself that, by forming a permanent group of workers selected for the special purpose he sets himself, he will obtain a more sustained production, etc.” [Vol. I, p. 161]

3) This man makes a proposal to other men, to make them grasp his idea and the thread of his idea.

4) This man, at the beginning of industry, deals on terms of equality with his companions who later become his workmen.

5) “One realizes, in fact, that this original equality had rapidly to disappear in view of the advantageous position of the master and the dependence of the wage-earner.” [Vol. I, p. 163]

That is another example of M. Proudhon’s historical and descriptive method.

Let us now examine, from the historical and economic point of view, whether the workshop of the machine really introduced the principle of authority in society subsequently to the division of labour; whether it rehabilitated the worker on the one hand, while submitting him to authority on the other; whether the machine is the recomposition of divided labour, the synthesis of labour as opposed to its analysis.

Society as a whole has this in common with the interior of a workshop, that it too has its division of labour. If one took as a model the division of labour in a modern workshop, in order to apply it to a whole society, the society best organized for the production of wealth would undoubtedly be that which had a single chief employer, distributing tasks to different members of the community according to a previously fixed rule. But this is by no means the case. While inside the modern workshop the division of labour is meticulously regulated by the authority of the employer, modern society has no other rule, no other authority for the distribution of labour than free competition.

Under the patriarchal system, under the caste system, under the feudal and corporative system, there was division of labour in the whole of society according to fixed rules. Were these rules established by a legislator? No. Originally born of the conditions of material production, they were raised to the status of laws only much later. In this way, these different forms of the division of labour became so many bases of social organization. As for the division in the workshop, it was very little developed in all these forms of society.

It can even be laid down as a general rule that the less authority presides over the division of labour inside society, the more the division of labour develops inside the workshop, and the more it is subjected there to the authority of a single person. Thus authority in the workshop and authority in society, in relation to the division of labour, are in inverse ratio to each other.

The question now is what kind of workshop it is in which the occupations are very much separated, where each worker’s task is reduced to a very simple operation, and where the authority, capital, groups and directs the work. How was this workshop brought into existence? In order to answer this question, we shall have to examine how manufacturing industry, properly so-called, has developed. I am speaking here of that industry which is not yet industry, with its machinery, but which is already no longer the industry of the artisans of the Middle Ages, nor domestic industry. We shall not go into great detail: we shall merely give a few main points to show that history is not to be made with formulas.

One of the most indispensable conditions for the formation of manufacturing industry was the accumulation of capital, facilitated by the discovery of America and the import of its precious metals.

It is sufficiently proved that the increase in the means of exchange resulted in the depreciation of wages and land rents, on the one hand, and the growth of industrial profits on the other. In other words: to the extent that the propertied class and the working class, the feudal lords and the people, sank, to that extent the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, rose.

There were yet other circumstances which contributed simultaneously to the development of manufacturing industry: the increase of commodities put into circulation from the moment that trade had penetrated to the East Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope; the colonial system; the development of maritime trade.

Another point which has not yet been sufficiently appreciated in the history of manufacturing industry is the disbanding of the numerous retinues of feudal lords, whose subordinate ranks became vagrants before entering the workshop. The creation of the workshop was preceded by an almost universal vagrancy in the 15th and 16th centuries. The workshop found, besides, a powerful support in the many peasants who, continually driven from the country owing to the transformation of the fields into pastures and to the progress in agriculture which necessitated fewer hands for the tillage of the soil, went on congregating in the towns during whole centuries.

The growth of the market, the accumulation of capital, the modification in the social position of the classes, a large number of persons being deprived of their sources of income, all these are historical preconditions for the formation of manufacture. It was not, as M. Proudhon says, friendly agreements between equals that brought men into the workshop. It was not even in the bosom of the old guilds that manufacture was born. It was the merchant that became head of the modern workshop, and not the old guildmaster. Almost everywhere there was a desperate struggle between manufacture and crafts.

The accumulation and concentration of instruments and workers preceded the development of the division of labour inside the workshop. Manufacture consisted much more in the bringing together of many workers and many crafts in one place, in one room under the command of one capital, than in the analysis of labour and the adaptation of a special worker to a very simple task.

The utility of a workshop consisted much less in the division of labour as such than in the circumstances that work was done on a much larger scale, that many unnecessary expenses were saved, etc. At the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch manufacture scarcely knew any division of labour.

The development of the division of labour supposes the assemblage of workers in a workshop. There is not one single example, whether in the 16th or in the 17th century, of the different branches of one and the same craft being exploited separately to such an extent that it would have sufficed to assemble them all in one place so as to obtain a complete, ready-made workshop. But once the men and the instruments had been brought together, the division of labour, such as it had existed in the form of the guilds, was reproduced, necessarily reflected inside the workshop.

For M. Proudhon, who sees things upside down, if he sees them at all, the division of labour, in Adam Smith’s sense, precedes the workshop, which is a condition of its existence.

Machinery, properly so-called, dates from the end of the 18th century. Nothing is more absurd than to see in machinery the antithesis of the division of labour, the synthesis restoring unity to divided labour.

The machine is a unification of the instruments of labour, and by no means a combination of different operations for the worker himself.

“When, by the division of labour, each particular operation has been simplified to the use of a single instrument, the linking up of all these instruments, set in motion by a single engine, constitutes – a machine.”

(Babbage, Traite sur l’économie des machines [et des manufactures], Paris 1833 [p.230])

Simple tools; accumulation tools; composite tools; setting in motion of a composite tool by a single hand engine, by man; setting in motion of these instruments by natural forces, machines; system of machines having one motor; system of machines having one automatic motor – this is the progress of machinery.

The concentration of the instruments of production and the division of labour are as inseparable one from the other as are, in the political sphere, the concentration of public authority and the division of private interests. England, with the concentration of the land, this instrument of agricultural labour, has at the same time division of agricultural labour and the application of machinery to the exploitation of the soil. France, which has the division of the instruments, the small holdings system, has, in general, neither division of agricultural labour nor application of machinery to the soil.

For M. Proudhon the concentration of the instruments of labour is the negation of the division of labour. In reality, we find again the reverse. As the concentration of instruments develops, the division develops also, and vice versa. This is why every big mechanical invention is followed by a greater division of labour, and each increase in the division of labour gives rise in turn to new mechanical inventions.

We need not recall the fact that the great progress of the division of labour began in England after the invention of machinery. Thus, the weavers and spinners were for the most part peasants like those one still meets in backward countries. The invention of machinery brought about the separation of manufacturing industry from agricultural industry. The weaver and the spinner, united but lately in a single family, were separated by the machine. Thanks to the machine, the spinner can live in England while the weaver resides in the East Indies. Before the invention of machinery, the industry of a country was carried on chiefly with raw materials that were the products of its own soil; in England – wool, in Germany – flax, in France – silks and flax, in the East Indies and the Levant – cottons, etc. Thanks to the application of machinery and of steam, the division of labour was about to assume such dimensions that large-scale industry, detached from the national soil, depends entirely on the world market, on international exchange, on an international division of labour. In short – the machine has so great an influence on the division of labour, that when, in the manufacture of some object, a means has been found to produce parts of it mechanically, the manufacture splits up immediately into two works independent of each other.

Need we speak of the philanthropic and providential aim that M. Proudhon discovers in the invention and first application of machinery?

When in England the market had become so far developed that manual labour was no longer adequate, the need for machinery was felt. Then came the idea of the application of mechanical science, already quite developed in the 18th century.

The automatic workshop opened its career with acts which were anything but philanthropic. Children were kept at work at the whip’s end; they were made an object of traffic and contracts were undertaken with the orphanages. All the laws on the apprenticeship of workers were repealed, because, to use M. Proudhon’s phraseology, there was no further need for synthetic workers. Finally, from 1825 onwards, almost all the new inventions were the result of collisions between the worker and the employer who sought at all costs to depreciate the worker’s specialized ability. After each new strike of any importance, there appeared a new machine. So little indeed did the worker see in the application of machinery a sort of rehabilitation, restoration – as M. Proudhon would say – that in the 18th century he stood out for a very long time against the incipient domination of the automaton.

“Wyatt,” says Doctor Ure, “invented the series of fluted rollers... (the spinning fingers usually ascribed to Awkright)....

“The main difficulty did not, to my apprehension, lie so much in the invention of a proper self-acting mechanism... as in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton. But to devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Awkright.”

[Vol. I, pp. 21-22, 23]

In short, by the introduction of machinery, the division of labour inside society has grown up, the task of the worker inside the workshop has been simplified, capital has been concentrated, human beings have been further dismembered.

When M. Proudhon wants to be an economist, and to abandon for a moment the “evolution of ideas in serial relation in the understanding,” then he goes and draws erudition from Adam Smith, from a time when the automatic workshop was only just coming into existence. Indeed, what a difference between the division of labour as it existed in Adam Smith’s day and as we see it in the automatic workshop! In order to make this properly understood, we need only quote a few passages from Dr. Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures.

“When Adam Smith wrote his immortal elements of economics, automatic machinery being hardly known, he was properly led to regard the division of labour as the grand principle of manufacturing improvement; and he showed, in the example of pin-making, how each handicraftsman, being thereby enabled to perfect himself by practice in one point, became a quicker and cheaper workman. In each branch of manufacture he saw that some parts were, on that principle, of easy execution, like the cutting of pin wires into uniform lengths, and some were comparatively difficult, like the formation and fixation of their heads; and therefore he concluded that to each a workman of appropriate value and cost was naturally assigned. This appropriation forms the very essence of the division of labour....

“But what was in Dr. Smith’s time a topic of useful illustration, cannot now be used without risk of misleading the public mind as to the right principle of manufacturing industry. In fact, the division, or rather adaptation of labour to the different talents of men, is little thought of in factory employment. On the contrary, wherever a process requires a peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn as soon as possible from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is placed in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating, that a child may superintend it.

“The principle of the factory system then is, to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or gradation of labour among artisans. On the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled, was usually the most expensive element of production... but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines.

“By the infirmity of human nature it happens, that the more skilful the workman, the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to become, and, of course, the less fit a component of a mechanical system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great damage to the whole. The grand object therefore of the modern manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to reduce the task of his workpeople to the exercise of vigilance and dexterity – faculties, when concentrated to one process, speedily brought to perfection in the young.

“On the gradation system, a man must serve an apprenticeship of many years before his hand and eye become skilled enough for certain mechanical feats; but on the system of decomposing a process into its constituents, and embodying each part in an automatic machine, a person of common care and capacity may be entrusted with any of the said elementary parts after a short probation, and may be transferred from one to another, on any emergency, at the discretion of the master. Such translations are utterly at variance with the old practice of the division of labour, which fixed one man to shaping the head of a pin, another to shaping the head of a pin, and another to sharpening its point, with the most irksome and spirit-wasting uniformity, for a whole life....

“But on the equalization plan of self-acting machines, the operative needs to call his faculties only into agreeable exercise.... As his business consists in ending the work of a well-regulated mechanism, he can learn it in a short period; and when he transfers his services, from one machine to another, he varies his task, and enlarges his views, by thinking on those general combinations which result from his and his companions’ labours. Thus, that cramping of the faculties, that narrowing of the mind, that stunting of the frame, which were ascribed, and not unjustly, by moral writers, to the division of labour, cannot, in common circumstances, occur under the equable distribution of industry....

“It is, in fact, the constant aim and tendency of every improvement in machinery to supersede human labour altogether, or to diminish its cost, by substituting the industry of women and children for that of men; of that of ordinary labourers for trained artisans.... This tendency to employ merely children with watchful eyes and nimble fingers, instead of journeymen of long experience, shows how the scholastic dogma of the division of labour into degrees of skill has been exploded by our enlightened manufacturers.”

(Andre Ure, Philosophie des manufactures ou economie industrielle, Vol.I, Chap. 1 [pp. 34-35])

What characterizes the division of labour inside modern society is that it engenders specialized functions, specialists, and with them craft-idiocy.

“We are struck with admiration,” says Lemontey, “when we see among the Ancients the same person distinguishing himself to a high degree as philosopher, poet, orator, historian, priest, administrator, general of an army. Our souls are appalled at the sight of so vast a domain. Each one of us plants his hedge and shuts himself up in his enclosure. I do not know whether by this parcellation the field is enlarged, but I do know that man is belittled.”

What characterizes the division of labour in the automatic workshop is that labour has there completely lost its specialized character. But the moment every special development stops, the need for universality, the tendency towards an integral development of the individual begins to be felt. The automatic workshop wipes out specialists and craft-idiocy.

M. Proudhon, not having understood even this one revolutionary side of the automatic workshop, takes a step backward and proposes to the worker that he make not only the 12th part of a pin, but successively all 12 parts of it. The worker would thus arrive at the knowledge and the consciousness of the pin. This is M. Proudhon’s synthetic labour. Nobody will contest that to make a movement forward and another movement backward is to make a synthetic movement.

To sum up, M. Proudhon has not gone further than the petty-bourgeois ideal. And to realize this ideal, he can think of nothing better than to take us back to the journeyman or, at most, to the master craftsman of the Middle Ages. It is enough, he says somewhere in his book, to have created a masterpiece once in one’s life, to have felt oneself just once to be a man. Is not this, in form as in content, the masterpiece demanded by the trade guild of the Middle Ages?