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Red Theory: The contradiction between mental and manual labor

By J. Sykes |
June 5, 2022
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Since the very origin of class society, when the productive forces developed to the point of producing some surplus beyond bare subsistence, the contradiction between mental and manual labor has been a characteristic of productive relations. Broadly speaking this means that the majority of people toil away physically, while a small minority conducts intellectual labor, such as science and art or planning and administration. Historically, this contradiction arose alongside the contradiction between town and country, specifically when the cities of the ancient slave societies came to dominate society. 

However, it isn’t the case that this division between mental and manual labor only exists between the exploiting and exploited classes. From the very beginning, in ancient societies, many slaves were given mental tasks, and even today this contradiction persists between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers. More and more of the labor force in advanced monopoly capitalist states is engaged in mental labor, especially as capital is exported to the oppressed nations. And, as the productive forces advance and the instruments of production become more technically complex, the technical knowledge required of workers increases as well. 

To say that labor is manual shouldn’t be taken to suggest that it is unskilled or uncomplicated. But generally speaking, when we are talking about mental labor in the U.S., we’re talking about jobs ranging from clerical workers and teachers, to scientists, technicians, programmers, and engineers. Often these are jobs that take place behind a desk. When we talk about manual labor, we are talking about jobs consisting of everything from factory workers and farm laborers, to construction workers, truckers, cooks, warehouse workers, retail and service workers, and so on. Often these workers are on their feet all day.

For an example of how this plays out, today we see the question of reopening and working from home as one element of how this contradiction unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers doing mental labor have been able to work from home and are now being forced to return to the office, whereas those who do manual labor never worked from home. For mental workers, remote work has meant a reduction in travel time and expense and more time spent with family, but also longer hours, a blurring between work life and home life, and isolation from their fellow workers. For manual workers there have been greater infection rates as they weren’t able to isolate from each other during the peak of the pandemic, along with greater economic pressures, especially in retail and the service sector, driving a push from some to reopen.

So, this contradiction is a source of confusion and an obstacle to working class unity. This comes partly from a failure to understand that class is fundamentally about our material relationship to the means of production. It is not uncommon for those engaged in manual labor to see themselves as the “real workers” and to misidentify mental workers as a part of the exploiting classes. This works both ways as “white collar” workers often tend to identify themselves with the so-called “middle class” even though they don’t own any means of production and are exploited just the same as their “blue collar” siblings. Class isn’t about income, but about exploitation. This is one of the many ways that the ruling class divides the working class against itself. Unionization, and therefore class struggle, helps to break down these divisions and teaches broad working-class solidarity through practice. Class struggle creates class consciousness. 

It is important to note that the contradiction between mental and manual labor has existed throughout class society. It will continue to exist as a non-antagonistic contradiction under socialism as well. Marx and Lenin both held the view that as socialism advanced to communism, the antagonism between mental and manual labor would be eliminated. 

One result of the development of the productive forces is the reduction of the amount of physical labor required to meet the needs of society. In capitalist society, this brings with it crises of overproduction and economic stagnation, as more is produced by less labor and the workers cannot afford to buy all that has been produced. To make this more concrete, consider the issue of automation. As things stand, automation basically means that robots are replacing human workers. Capitalists like this because they can reduce labor costs. But this has the effect of increasing unemployment and depressing wages, meaning that people can’t afford to buy what is being produced by increased automation, feeding into overproduction and economic crisis. 

In the early days of the industrial revolution this problem was acutely felt by the working class. Some workers took to sabotage and the destruction of the machinery because they saw the role mechanization and automation were having on driving unemployment. The Luddites in the textile industry in 19th century England devoted themselves to destroying the machines that they feared would displace them. But breaking the forces of production is a futile effort in the end, as it fails to address the principal contradiction that is at the root of the problem. 

In fact, this is a problem caused by capitalist relations of production. When those relations are revolutionized the productive forces will be freed from the fetters placed upon them by the concentrated, private accumulation of wealth. Socialist distribution will allow for the advanced productive forces not only to reduce the amount of physical labor necessary to fulfill society’s needs, but they will do so without causing crises of overproduction. 

Automation should free people from toil, and under socialist relations of production it will do exactly that. More people will not be thrust by automation into unemployment, but will instead be freed to pursue higher levels of education, become doctors, artists and engineers. It will have the effect of gradually reducing manual labor in society at large, but without destroying the livelihood of the workers themselves. We are able to produce much more than we as a society need. It is merely hoarded by the rich or simply destroyed. Socialism means that as the necessity for manual labor is reduced by the advance of the productive forces, social distribution of wealth will mean the step-by-step elimination of this contradiction.