This paper consider the differing theories of Marx, Engels and Emile Durkheim. It argues that the former hold a vision of the future based on the overcoming of wage labour, whereas Durkheim perceives a future society in which the extension of the division of labour brings about universal fraternity. It locates class struggle at the heart of Marx and Engel’s theory of history and describes it as the motor of the transition to a communist world. It then shows Durkheim’s belief in the transition to an organic solidarity predicated on refinements in social harmony by the division of labour. Finally, it argues that Marx and Engels may accuse Durkheim of failing to understand the historically specific nature of the capitalist division of labour, and that the latter may reply that the former ignore the benefits of this social structure and fetishize and idealist notion of struggle and the necessity of what they term communism.

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For Marx and Engels, the vision of the future was one in which a capitalist system of wage labour had been overcome and in which the realm of “freedom” had been entered. Crucial to this understanding is the belief that each form of social organization can be represented as being historically specific. As such, “Capital, Volume Three” Marx writes that the capitalist mode of production is “a historically determined form of the social process of production in general” (1978, 439). What makes the current mode of production capitalist is the way in which labour, specifically “surplus” labour, is managed. Marx insists that under capitalism surplus labour exists for the sake of the production of surplus value and that it therefore expresses nothing but the domination of one class by another. In contrast to this, a society founded on freedom rather than necessity would consists of the common ownership of the means of production and would consist of “associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control instead of being ruled by it..” (441). It is this simultaneous emphasis on freedom from the necessity of labour and on the rationalization of the society capable or organizing common ownership that constitutes Marx’s vision of a communist society.

For Durkheim, contemporary society can be classified as one in which “negative solidarity” predominates. This solidarity can understood as being constitutive of individual rights in which “everything that is granted to some is necessarily given up by others” (2013, 94). Such rules necessarily force an individual to “act in accordance with ends that are not his own” (177). These rules, however, can only have moral efficacy and generate solidarity if they are reflected in the general will of a population and if they are related to a genuine feeling of brotherhood. As such, Durkheim envisages a future society in which individual cultural differences have subsumed under one system of law stemming from fraternity, and that the ever increasing formation of “larger societies will draw us closer to that goal” (315). As such, while Marx envisages a fundamental change in production, Durkheim conceives of an osmosis into a potentially homogeneous culture of universal laws.

For Marx and Engels, the entry into a new society can only be achieved through class struggle, which in its contemporary form is the struggle of the proletariat; i.e. those who must labour within the means of production, against the bourgeoisie who legally own such means. Such struggle is presented in “The Communist Manifesto” as the objective content of the history of “all hithero existing society” (473). In its modern class relations are expressed by the propertyless life of the proletariat and, as such, tt is through their seizure of the means of production that a communist social form may emerge. Durkheim doe not posses such a dialectical notion of progression, and he rather perceives a mode of gradual change. This change is effected through the development of the division of labour in society, a development that generates a process whereby people who would otherwise have had no contact are brought together and whereby a “coaslecence” occurs, “that renders the social substance free to enter upon new combinations” (201). It is these new combinations that are brought about by the advance of the division of labour which are capable of generating new forms of solidarity and legal recognition. Indeed, Durkheim argues that this division itself is capable of generating harmony as it isolates individuals from work outside of their social role, and also intensifies this work. As such, the process leads to a “social cohesion” which can hypothetically be projected into a future society based on fraternity (308).

The essential criticism that Marx and Engels would level again Durkheim is that he does not understand the dynamics of capitalist production, nor does he understand the progression of history. For the former, the division of labour is symptomatic of a specific class relation, and a specific mode of producing capitalist surplus value. To make it the source of social harmony is only to make the idea of such harmony commensurate with the fantasy of bourgeois order. Durkheim may well respond with the suggestion that Marx and Engels fail to see the actual benefits that the capitalist division of labour brings in terms of production and social harmony. He may also argue that they assume a qualitative leap must be made into a communist society where there is little evidence to suggest that such a leap will ever occur.

  • Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labour. Translated by Steven Lukes. Palgrave MacMillan: London, 2013.
  • Marx, Karl & Engel Friedrich. The Marx – Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. W. W. Norton & Company: New York & London, 1978.