Chapter III: Economic Evolutions – First Period – The Division of Labour

The fundamental idea, the dominant category, of political economy is VALUE.

Value reaches its positive determination by a series of oscillations between supply and demand.


In society, on the contrary, as well as in the mind, so far from the idea reaching its complete realisation at a single bound, a sort of abyss separates, so to speak, the two antinomical positions, and even when these are recognised at last, we still do not see what the synthesis will be. The primitive concepts must be fertilised, so to speak, by burning controversy and passionate struggle; bloody battles will be the preliminaries of peace. At the present moment, Europe, weary of war and discussion, awaits a reconciling principle; and it is the vague perception of this situation which induces the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences to ask, “What are the general facts which govern the relations of profits to wages and determine their oscillations?” in other words, what are the most salient episodes and the most remarkable phases of the war between labour and capital?[8]

If, then, I demonstrate that political economy, with all its contradictory hypotheses and equivocal conclusions, is nothing but an organisation of privilege and misery, I shall have proved thereby that it contains by implication the promise of an organisation of labour and equality, since, as has been said, every systematic contradiction is the announcement of a composition; further, I shall have fixed the bases of this composition. Then, indeed, to unfold the system of economic contradictions is to lay the foundations of universal association; to show how the products of collective labour come out of society is to explain how it will be possible to make them return to it; to exhibit the genesis of the problems of production and distribution is to prepare the way for their solution. All these propositions are identical and equally evident.


Considered in its essence, the division of labour is the way in which equality of condition and intelligence is realised. Through diversity of function, it gives rise to proportionality of products and equilibrium in exchange, and consequently opens for us the road to wealth; as also, in showing us infinity everywhere in art and Nature, it leads us to idealise our acts, and makes the creative mind — that is, divinity itself, mentem diviniorem — immanent and perceptible in all workers.

Division of labour, then, is the first phase of economic evolution as well as of intellectual development: our point of departure is true as regards both man and things, and the progress of our exposition is in no wise arbitrary.

But, at this solemn hour of the division of labour, tempestuous winds begin to blow upon humanity. Progress does not improve the condition of all equally and uniformly, although in the end it must include and transfigure every intelligent and industrious being. It commences by taking possession of a small number of privileged persons, who thus compose the elite of nations, while the mass continues, or even buries itself deeper, in barbarism. It is this exception of persons on the part of progress which has perpetuated the belief in the natural and providential inequality of conditions, engendered caste, and given an hierarchical form to all societies. It has not been understood that all inequality, never being more than a negation, carries in itself the proof of its illegitimacy and the announcement of its downfall: much less still has it been imagined that this same inequality proceeds accidentally from a cause the ulterior effect of which must be its entire disappearance.

Thus, the antinomy of value reappearing in the law of division, it is found that the first and most potent instrument of knowledge and wealth which Providence has placed in our hands has become for us an instrument of misery and imbecility. Here is the formula of this new law of antagonism, to which we owe the two oldest maladies of civilisation, aristocracy and the proletariat: Labour, in dividing itself according to the law which is peculiar to it, and which is the primary condition of its productivity, ends in the frustration of its own objects, and destroys itself, in other words: Division, in the absence of which there is no progress, no wealth, no equality, subordinates the worker, and renders intelligence useless, wealth harmful, and equality impossible.

All the economists, since Adam Smith, have pointed out the advantages and the inconveniences of the law of division, but at the same time insisting much more strenuously upon the first than the second, because such a course was more in harmony with their optimistic views, and not one of them ever asking how a law can have inconveniences. This is the way in which J.-B. Say summed up the question:

“A man who during his whole life performs but one operation, certainly acquires the power to execute it better and more readily than another; but at the same time he becomes less capable of any other occupation, whether physical or moral; his other faculties become extinct, and there results a degeneracy in the individual man. That one has made only the eighteenth part of a pin is a sad account to give of one’s self: but let no one imagine that it is the worker who spends his life in handling a file or a hammer that alone degenerates in this way from the dignity of his nature; it is the same with the man whose position leads him to exercise the most subtle faculties of his mind... On the whole, it may be said that the separation of tasks is an advantageous use of human forces; that it increases enormously the products of society; but that it takes something from the capacity of each man taken individually.”[9]

What, then, after labour, is the primary cause of the multiplication of wealth and the skill of workers? Division.

What is the primary cause of intellectual degeneracy and, as we shall show continually, civilised misery? Division.

How does the same principle, rigorously followed to its conclusions, lead to effects diametrically opposite? There is not an economist, either before or since Adam Smith, who has even perceived that here is a problem to be solved. Say goes so far as to recognise that in the division of labour the same cause which produces the good engenders the evil;[10] then, after a few words of pity for the victims of the separation of industries, content with having given an impartial and faithful exhibition of the facts, he leaves the matter there. “You know,” he seems to say, “that the more we divide the workers’ tasks, the more we increase the productive power of labour; but at the same time the more does labour, gradually reducing itself to a mechanical operation, stupefy intelligence.”

In vain do we express our indignation against a theory which, creating by labour itself an aristocracy of capacities, leads inevitably to political inequality; in vain do we protest in the name of democracy and progress that in the future there will be no nobility, no bourgeoisie, no pariahs. The economist replies, with the impassability of destiny: You are condemned to produce much, and to produce cheaply; otherwise your industry will be always insignificant, your commerce will amount to nothing, and you will drag in the rear of civilisation instead of taking the lead. — What! among us, generous men, there are some predestined to brutishness; and the more perfect our industry becomes, the larger will grow the number of our accursed brothers!..... — Alas!..... That is the last word of the economist.

We cannot fail to recognise in the division of labour, as a general fact and as a cause, all the characteristics of a LAW; but as this law governs two orders of phenomena radically opposite and destructive of each other, it must be confessed also that this law is of a sort unknown in the exact sciences, — that it is, strange to say, a contradictory law, a counter-law, an antinomy. Let us add, in anticipation, that such appears to be the identifying feature of social economy, and consequently of philosophy.

Now, without a RECOMPOSITION of labour which shall obviate the inconveniences of division while preserving its useful effects, the contradiction inherent in the principle is irremediable. It is necessary, — following the style of the Jewish priests plotting the death of Christ, — it is necessary that the poor should perish to secure the proprietor his fortune, expedit unum hominem pro populo mori. I am going to demonstrate the necessity of this decree; after which, if the parcellaire worker[11] still retains a glimmer of intelligence, he will console himself with the thought that he dies according to the rules of political economy.

Labour, which ought to give scope to the conscience and render it more and more worthy of happiness, leading through parcellaire division to prostration of mind, dwarfs man in his noblest part, minorat capitis, and throws him back into animality. Thenceforth the fallen man labours as a brute, and consequently must be treated as a brute. This sentence of Nature and necessity society will execute.


Everywhere, then, in public service as well as free industry, things are so ordered that nine-tenths of the workers serve as beasts of burden for the other tenth: such is the inevitable effect of industrial progress and the indispensable condition of all wealth. It is important to look well at this elementary truth before talking to the people of equality, liberty, democratic institutions, and other utopias, the realisation of which involves a previous complete revolution in the relations of workers.


End Notes

[8] As can be seen, Proudhon was well aware of the class nature of capitalism and the conflicts it produces. Marx, on the other hand, takes Proudhon’s use of a high-level abstraction to prove one thing to mean that Proudhon ignores the reality of class society: “What then . . . is the Prometheus resuscitated by Proudhon? It is society, it is social relations based on the antagonism of classes . . . Efface these relations and you have extinguished the whole of society, and your Prometheus is nothing more than a phantom . . . If then, in theory, it suffices to interpret, as M. Proudhon does, the formula of the surplus of labour in the sense of equality without taking into account of the actual conditions of production, it must suffice, in practice, to make among the workers an equal distribution of wealth without changing anything in the actual conditions of production.” (109-10) (Editor)

[9] Treatise on Political Economy

[10] Cf. Marx: “Proudhon… say[s] that J.-B. Say was the first to recognise ‘that in the division of labour the same cause which produces good engenders evil.’” (140) Marx then quotes numerous economists showing that Say was not the first to recognise this fact, something that Proudhon did not claim.

[11] Parcellaire as in divided, fragmented, compartmentalised. In other words, labour which is subject to extensive division of labour. For example, Adam Smith’s example in The Wealth of Nations of a worker who makes one nineteenth of a pin). (Editor)