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Future Socialist Society

John Molyneux

The Future Socialist Society

6. The transformation of work

Work is central to human life, to the life of the individual and the life of society. It was through work, through productive labour, that the human species first differentiated itself from other animals. It is the experience of work that is the main factor in shaping the personality of each individual. The way in which a society works to produce goods is the foundation of all its social and political relations.

Yet under capitalism work is overwhelmingly a negative experience for the vast majority of people – that is for the working class. It is destructive of health and destructive of spirit. Work is fragmented to the point where people are required to specialise all their lives in the endless repetition of narrow mechanical tasks. It is exhausting, humiliating and, above all, boring. It produces luxury, leisure and culture for the capitalists, but stunted personalities and stunted lives for workers.

The transformation of work is therefore a central task of the socialist revolution. In the long run it is the most important task of all.

The first steps of the revolution – the nationalisation of industry under workers’ control – will lay the basis for this transformation by ending the exploitation and the pursuit of profits that make work the way it is at present. From the start, the experience of work will be changed by workers’ control.

It will put a stop to the daily humiliations that workers suffer at the hands of bosses, managers and supervisors of all kinds. It will make safety at work the first, rather than last, priority, and add enormously to the interest of the job.

But at the outset the actual labour performed – the minding of machines, the digging of coal, the typing of letters, etc. – will, of necessity, be roughly as it is under capitalism. As the productive forces develop, however, all this will change completely – a change which will involve three interlinked processes.

Firstly, the working week will be systematically reduced. Under capitalism advances in technology are used to displace workers. We see the combination of millions of workers on overtime and millions on the dole. With socialist planning, the total work required will be shared equally and every technological advance will lessen the amount of physical work that is needed.

This is crucial – not only because it will reduce physical hardship, but also because it will free workers to develop educationally and culturally and to take an active part in the general running of society in all its aspects.

Secondly, automation will be used to eliminate the most unpleasant and menial jobs. Given that under capitalism it is already possible to put rockets on the moon or Mars, it takes little imagination to see how refuse disposal, street and office cleaning, much of housework, mining and production line work could be automated.

Thirdly, the division of labour will be progressively overcome. The division of labour has two main aspects. On the one hand, there is the all pervasive division between mental and manual labour – between planners and planned, controllers and controlled – which arose with, and coincides with, the division of society into classes of exploiters and exploited. On the other hand, there is the breaking up of the productive process into smaller and smaller tasks totally lacking in skill, interest, or creativity, which is particularly the product of capitalist industrialisation.

It is the combination of the factors outlined above – workers’ control, reduced compulsory labour time, and automation – that will eradicate both aspects of the division of labour.

Everyone will become both a producer and a planner of production. Everyone will have the time, the energy and the education to participate in the collective shaping of the environment – work which will require the fusion of artistic, scientific, technical and social knowledge, and which will be a collective, creative process.

In these conditions work will become – in Marx’s words – ‘not only a means of life, but life’s prime want’. It will cease to be a wearisome necessity and become a positive pleasure – a means of individual and collective human expression.

Human beings are not naturally lazy. Observe the closest we can get to that mythical being, a ‘natural’ person – a baby or young child – and you will see they overflow with curiosity, energy and enthusiasm for learning, for activity and for life. It is capitalism, oppression and alienated labour that wear people down, demoralise and break them, destroy their energy and convince them that life is best spent with their feet up in front of the television.

Look at the immense effort many working class people put into their hobbies, or into the labour and trade union movement. It is not difficult to see how – when work is for themselves and not for a class of exploiters, and when it is varied and interesting – the time will come when no physical or direct economic compulsion will be necessary to ensure that socially necessary labour is performed.

Socialism will bring together, in its higher stages, the habit of performing stimulating and creative work, the planning of production to meet human need, the development of science and technology, and the free distribution of an abundant supply of goods.

Once it does, there will be no obstacle to society inscribing on its banners the ultimate socialist principle: ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.’

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Last updated: 15 November 2015