Social labour

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The K25 uranium enrichment plant built during the Manhattan Project - an example of social labour on a massive scale.

Social labour is a term used by Marxists to refer to labour performed by groups of individuals or "production for the market." Social labour can be divided into two categories: indirect and directly associated. The opposite of social labour would be private labour or production for individual use.

Indirectly social labour

The labour in a developed market economy is indirectly social. This means that the labour performed by separate producers within a market economy is interdependent but appears spontaneously rather than as the result of a conscious plan. In The ABC of Communism, Bukharin & Preobrazhensky explained the concept like so:

"Let us suppose that there are an artisan named John and a peasant named George. John the artisan, a bootmaker, takes boots to the market and sells them to George, and with the money which George pays for them he buys bread from George. When John went to the market he did not know that he would meet George there, nor did George know that he would meet John; both men simply went to the market. When John bought the bread and George bought the boots, the result was that George had been working for John and John had been working for George, although the fact was not immediately obvious. The turmoil of the market place conceals from people that in actual fact they work for one another and cannot live without one another. In a commodity economy, people work for one another, but they do so in an unorganized manner and independently of each other, not knowing how necessary they are to one another."[1]

In Capital, Marx described the process:

"We see here, on the one hand, how the exchange of commodities breaks through all local and personal bounds inseparable from direct barter, and develops the circulation of the products of social labour; and on the other hand, how it develops a whole network of social relations spontaneous in their growth and entirely beyond the control of the actors."[2]

Indirectly social labour, lacking any conscious plan, is regulated in a market economy by the Law of Value.
Marx explains:

"Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish. And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour. It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. The only thing that can change, under historically differing conditions, is the form in which those laws assert themselves. And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself in a state of society in which the interconnection of social labour expresses itself as the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products. Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself."[3]


  • Market economies are characterised by indirectly social labour.
  • In a market economy the total labour of society is mutually dependent but spontaneously organised.
  • The Law of Value regulates the distribution of labour in a market economy.
Ancient Egyptians performing various types of work during a harvest.

Directly associated labour

Directly associated labour (or labour in common) is a term used by Marx to describe labour that is both social but also consciously distributed between various activites to fulfill the needs of the producers. Goods are produced for use and not for exchange.

In Capital, Marx explains:

"For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour, we have no occasion to go back to that spontaneously developed form which we find on the threshold of the history of all civilised races. We have one close at hand in the patriarchal industries of a peasant family, that produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen, and clothing for home use. These different articles are, as regards the family, so many products of its labour, but as between themselves, they are not commodities."[4]

Marx notes that social labour in a socialist society would also be directly associated:

"Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community... The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution."[5]

Marx later notes that directly associated labour is,

"...a form of production that is entirely inconsistent with the production of commodities."[6]


  • Patriarchal and simple (non-commodity) economies are charactised by directly associated labour.
  • A future socialist society would also employ directly associated labour.
  • Directly associated labour is distributed in accordance with a plan and not by the Law of Value.