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Engels On Skilled And Unskilled Labour

By Thomas Riggins

25 November, 2010

In Chapter Six ('Simple and Compound Labour') of Part Two of his classic work Anti-Dühring, Frederick Engels addresses a charge made by the German professor Eugen Dühring to the effect that in his work Das Kapital Marx has made a major blunder which amounts to a socially dangerous heresy regarding socialism. What could this heresy be?

Dühring says that Marx's theory of value is only the common theory that all values are the result of labour and measured by labour-time. But Marx sheds no light on the difference between skilled and unskilled labour. In fact Marx is wrong when he tries to explain the difference by saying one person's labour can be worth more than another's because it has more average labour-time compounded within it. See below where Engels says Marx has no such conception regarding the "worth" of labour.

Dühring says that all labour-time is of absolutely equal value but one worker can have another's labour-time hidden within his own. For example, when I use a hammer made by another to do my work. The reason Marx can't see this, and actually thinks, one person's labour may be worth more than another's is his prejudice against giving the same value to the labour-time of a porter and to that of an architect. He also refers to Marx's theory as hazy lucubrations.

Engels tells us that the wrath of Dühring has been brought forth by a passage in Das Kapital (it is found in section two of Chapter One of Vol. 1) in which Marx distinguishes between skilled and unskilled labour. It runs as follows: "But the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general. And just as in society, a general or a banker plays a great part, but mere man, on the other hand, a very shabby part, so here with mere human labour. It is the expenditure of simple labour power, i.e., of the labour power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual. Simple average labour, it is true, varies in character in different countries and at different times, but in a particular society it is given. Skilled labour counts only as simple labour intensified, or rather, as multiplied simple labour, a given quantity of skilled being considered equal to a greater quantity of simple labour. Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone. The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard, are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom. For simplicity’s sake we shall henceforth account every kind of labour to be unskilled, simple labour; by this we do no more than save ourselves the trouble of making the reduction."

The main thing to notice is that Marx is talking about measuring the value of commodities that their producers exchange with one another in a simple society of commodity production. There is no such thing as "absolute value" involved and Marx is only setting up his definitions and categories in this first chapter of Das Kapital. Here he only states the relation between simple and compound labour, or skilled and unskilled labour. Engels remarks that this process of reducing skilled to unskilled labour in order to quantify it as a measure of value, at this point, "can only be stated but not as yet explained." Dühring is jumping the gun.

Not only that, but, Engels maintains, labour itself can have no value because value "is nothing else than the expression of the socially necessary human labour materialized in an object." Labour is the measure of value and speaking of the value of labour is like speaking of the weight of heaviness. Here Engels remarks on Dühring's "brazenness" in his assertion earlier that Marx thought the labour time of one person was more valuable than that of another and that labour has a value. It was Marx "who first demonstrated that labour CAN have NO value, and why it cannot" [it is the measure of value not value itself].

This notion of Marx's is very important for socialism, Engel insists, as it is crucial for the socialist goal of liberating labour power "from its status as a COMMODITY." It is also the clue to the view, unlike Dühring's that distribution and production are completely separate departments within capitalism, that distribution will be geared to the interests of production and that production itself will be governed, reciprocally, "by a mode of distribution which allows ALL members of society to develop, maintain and exercise their capacities with maximum universality."

Dühring is simply wrong if he thinks every worker creates the same amount of value in the same amount of time. One worker works faster, another slower, one has more skill, another less, that is why an average has to be arrived at which is the basis of the notion of "socially necessary labour time." This is also why the slogan "Equal wages for equal labour time" is really a bit utopian. Unions of course demand equal hourly wages for all workers in the the same job grade because of the difficultly of measuring the value that each worker actually creates. Now that some unions have agreed to a two tier wage system even they are tacitily admitting the impracticability of "Equal wages for equal labour time." Anyway women and minorities and nonunionists have often been paid less for the same labour time. This results in a tendency for union wages to decline, as we now see happening. If working people only understood the socialist model of economics they would never tolerate the treatment dolled out to them by the owning class.

How will the distinction between unskilled (simple) and skilled (compound) labour be handled under socialism? Engels says that under private production the costs of training a worker to become a skilled worker is paid for by private individuals and so they reap the rewards. A trained slave sells for more money and a skilled worker gets a higher wage.

However, under socialism the cost of training is borne by society [or the state]. The worker therefore has no right to higher pay for the extra values he creates. The extra value is reaped by society and used for general social purposes (education, medical care, food subsidies, the fire department, etc). This explains why medical doctors in socialist societies are seen as underpaid. They are not. The state paid for their skill and they work for fair wages, not having astronomical debts to pay off to private lenders, etc. Another slogan bites the dust here as it is not possible to adhere to it in either capitalism or socialism and that is the worker's demand that they should get "the full proceeds of labour." Under socialism the full preceeds of labour are collectively distributed throughout society on the basics of social needs. It is only in this sense that the workers can receive the "full" proceeds of their labour.

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs online.