This paper was originally read and discussed at a New Left Summer School

writing in Conviction two years ago, Iris Murdoch expressed the hope that “the Socialist movement should most explicitly bring back into the centre of its thinking its original great sources of inspiration and reflection: the problem of labour”. It is a matter of some concern that this hope has not as yet been adequately sustained. Indeed the only original contributions to the study of work or labour have come, on the whole, from intellectuals of the middle ground, erstwhile radicals, whose perception of what is wrong is seldom matched by any but the most fuzzy or irrelevant alternative solutions. On the Left the problems of control and participation have continued to excite attention, and at times have almost seemed to attain the status of a universal panacea. But until some attempt has been made to relate these problems, along with their accompanying solutions, to the underlying problem of work itself, there will always remain some suspicion of a possible irrelevance or lack of connection, some hint of hiding behind the slogans of a tradition which requires not rediscovery but reinterpretation.

Socialism begins as a critique: the discussion of work in a socialist society originates in the analysis of the nature and meaning of work under capitalism. Such a negative origin need not, as is frequently supposed, be intellectually barren. In the essay cited at the beginning of this paper, Murdoch points out that “what we see as wrong and our ability to express what is wrong in a profound, subtle and organised way, will influence our conception of a solution”. For Murdoch, the resurrection of the problem of labour, and specifically the transformation of labour “from something senseless which forms no real part of the personality of the labourer into something creative and significant”, is seen as a means of reorganising capitalist society. I wish to shelve this question for the moment and concentrate instead on the specific accusations levelled by socialists, past and present, against the nature of work under capitalism.

There are three major sources of complaint or accusation: the nature of work done, the conditions under which it is done and the effect of both on the society as a whole. For historical and perhaps also psychological reasons, these three sources have not always been carefully distinguished. Consequently it has been all too easy to offer as a solution to the general problem of the meaningfulness of work, some policy, programme or organisation which is an answer to only one area of accusation. One thinks in particular of the widespread emphasis on workers’ control in recent years. Schemes for increasing the participation in or control of industrial decisions on the part of all members of the producing organisations are directly relevant only to those aspects of present discontents which spring from working conditions or, more explicitly, from the social systems which obtain both in the individual plant and in industry as a whole. They suggest or embody a total reorganisation of the power relations within industrial society, the supplanting of a fundamentally autocratic social structure— however paternal it may be—by a democratic egalitarian system of equal rights and shared responsibilities. They imply, also, social control over the product and the surplus.

Now this democratisation of power may well be justifiable in its own right. It may—and to some extent must—alleviate such symptoms of unrest in work which spring from the social situation within which work is done. But there is no a priori reason to expect that it will of itself solve problems which arise from the nature of work itself in modern industrial societies. It would of course, be possible to hold—as Marx did (and not without justification at the time)—that there is nothing inevitable about the nature of work under industrialisation: that deficiencies in its present character are an indirect consequence of the power structure of capitalist society, with its limited and inhuman aims of maximum profit and minimum cost; and that, once this power structure is destroyed and power democratised, the way to a more humanist approach to work is automatically opened up. But clearly it might be equally possible to maintain—and I think this would have William Morris’s sympathy—that it is industrialisation itself which is the villain of the piece and capitalism at fault only in so far as it provided the framework within which industrialisation emerged. In this case workers control would only hold the answer to the meaninglessness of work itself if it resulted in an attack on industrial society as such, and not just as the capitalists’ playground.

It may be as well then to start a critique of work by considering the work process. What is the root of our objection here and what moral and psychological assumptions lie behind it? Some clue lies in the adjectives we tend to use in describing our present situation. We talk of work being “unsignificant”, “senseless”, “forming no real part of the personality of the labourer”, “dehumanising”, denying the worker the possibility of “being what a human being can be; achieving full gratification of human needs, fulfilling himself”. These sentiments, vague but charged, were brilliantly endorsed, or perhaps one should say inaugurated, by Marx:

“Labour is external to the worker, i.e. it does not belong to his essential being (so) that in his work (the worker) does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore, only feels himself outside his work and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self sacrifice, of mortification.” (“Estranged Labour”, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 72.)