November 20, 2022

Socialism and Emancipation of Labour

Sanjay Roy

MARX’S unique concept of ‘mode of production’ implies production not in the narrow technological sense but a comprehensive unity of concrete relations between humans and nature captured by means of production and that between human beings themselves who consciously participate in the social processes of production defining production relations.

Mode of production as a conceptual category helps us analyse the empirical regularities of history. It never assumes a pure form, rather a dominant mode of production articulates with different coexisting mix of modes given the objectivity of history in particular space and time. Transformation of societies are not about automatic playing out of pre-determined ‘stages’ but involves conscious human interventions in opting for and defining of alternatives in particular junctures.

History has never been a linear story of subjects emerging out of victories of successive modes of production but much more complex and cumbersome than that. It has been punctuated by successes and failures, victories and defeat at the same time. More so the abstract features of a mode of production assume various political, ideological and cultural modes of appearance in different countries given their stages of economic development, class struggle and culture of social engagement. Despite the fact that capitalism is generally linked with the idea of liberal democracy but currently a very small part of the capitalist world adheres to constitutional democracy, rather we see autocratic as well as theocratic regimes, military-oligarchic rule or fascism under the façade of electoral democracy. Putin’s Russia and the fragmentation of Eastern European countries also add new variants to this vector of regimes within the broad rubric of capitalism. The liberals were happy to see the demise of socialism in these countries and now they may be celebrating peoples’ empowerment in erstwhile socialist countries! Christopher Arthur was right saying ‘a negation of capital that fails to go beyond capital is necessarily a negation of capital that falls behind capital.’


The premise of scientific socialism has been the materiality of contradictions that emerge within capitalism. It was a negation of pre-Marx socialist ideas that invoked moral grounds or looked up to generosity of the educated elite. Instead scientific socialism is the thesis of emancipation of the working class by themselves and emancipation not only from exploitation but also from the drudgery imposed upon the worker through alienating labour from the production process. The distortion of labour by confining human abilities into alienated repetitive tasks increases profits and efficiency for the capital but incessantly degenerates the human being within labour.

The process of alienation of labour is further articulated in capitalism through fetishisation of commodities through market. The social existence and interdependence of individuals within society is realised only through the negation of the social existence. People see themselves as isolated buyers or sellers of commodities. The value relation which defines the social contributions of individuals in capitalism is based on an abstraction of concrete labour on the basis of social average and this process actually lends comparability between different labours independent of their concrete forms. In other words, it reduces evaluation of human creation into unilineal time dimension and measures contributions on the basis of a metrics of social average defined by competition. Human beings see themselves as competitors as alienated from each other rather than realising themselves as part of the social labour that create the vector of goods and services they use.

Labour according to Marx is ‘indirectly’ social in capitalism and in socialism it has to be ‘directly social’. This simply means that the social unity has to exist prior to the exchange between (wo)men instead of the opposite that social identity being realised through market exchange as it uses to be in capitalism. Collective ownership of the means of production is the first step to resituate labour into its community and this was actualised by socialist countries by a policy of full employment and arrangements of enhancing wage and social security adopted by the socialist state.

But the essential purpose of uprooting capital relations does not end with state ownership of means of production. Capital relation indicates the alienation of direct producer from the means of production. Capital is not defined by its physical attributes as it is the case in bourgeois economics. Machines, land, building or money do not have some intrinsic features of capital rather they become capital in a particular social context. And capital relation may assume different ‘personifications’ of capital, private or state. In Capital III while discussing modern credit system and banking and also in the context of joint stock companies, Marx identified the separation of owners of means of production and its users. It was, according to Marx, the essence of class ownership assuming phenomenal form. Hence abolition of capital relations doesn’t end by establishing collective ownership of means of production rather it is the beginning of it. In fact, this is supposed to inaugurate a long drawn process of ending the class rule of capital and reunite the direct producers with the means of production.


In Grundrisse, Marx discussed the process of transformation and the ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ of capitalism as an organic system. In the first phase of ‘formal subsumption of labour’, capital establishes control over pre-capitalist production processes but the materiality of pre-capitalist production continues to exist and hence reversal to pre-capitalist order is possible. In the advance phase of ‘real subsumption of labour’, capital creates its own content by revolutionising the production structure, creating factories and large scale production when an independent artisan becomes an appendage to the ‘collective labour’ organised by capital. Capitalism emerges as an organic system: ‘In the completed bourgeois system, every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition; this is the case with every organic system.’

In the same vein, transformation to socialism involves a protracted process of not only having control over the capitalist production structures but it has to create its own content where production would be based on active participation of direct producers. It relies on collective ethics, reciprocal responsibility and solidarity. A different social metabolism or organic unity has to evolve where capital relations surviving on the basis of alienation of labour would lose its material content. There would be no labour as such. The exploitation of men by men ends and a process of determining value of labour power loses its relevance as labour power seizes to be a commodity. The ‘collective labour’ becomes the owner and possessor of the means of production and the individual contributes to the social output. People not only contributing to production as passive actors but actively participating in the decision making process and this defines the core of authentic democratic practice. It is far beyond merely exercising voting rights at regular intervals as is the case in constitutional democracy, rather participation in the life process of the society becomes the precondition of creative engagement of individuals within the society.

The erstwhile socialist countries could set examples of a different order which not only attracted the working people of the world but also resulted in considerable change in the rights and entitlements of workers even in capitalist countries due to the rise of welfare state which came as a response to contain socialism in the capitalist world. It could encourage anti-imperialist liberation struggles and offer an alternative pole to newly independent countries helping them break the clutches of imperial power. It could show spectacular economic growth in an otherwise European backyard, commitment to full employment, a consistent rise in wages and improvement of working conditions which were in some respect unmatched to any contemporary advanced capitalist country.

But increase in the standard of living of workers was not accompanied by a continuous process of ensuring direct producers’ participation in the decision making process. Instead workers became passive receivers, the managers or possessors of means of production aspired to become owners of private property and the political elite who controlled the resources of the state became alienated from the working people at large. The greatest human experiment of consciously creating new society faced a setback due to a contestation between workers, managers and owners and capital relations rebounded back with the aid of internal and external pro-capitalist forces. The struggle to get rid of capital relations and of ending exploitation and alienation of labour however didn’t stop there. Building socialism would advance learning from past mistakes towards ending capital relations based on authentic democracy where workers would not be passive receivers but creators of their own future.