Marx’s and Durkheim’s Social Theory on Labor Division

The socio political climate of the1800s was characterized by an increase in class struggle. Consequently, thinkers, both reformists and revolutionary, came up with theories to explain the ever increasing struggles within the society. They sought to explain the role that capitalism played in the provenance of the class struggles. Consequently, Marx and Durkheim tried to analyze the relationship between the classes and how deficiencies in the class relationships could lead to societal disorder and hence ills within the society. This paper intends to compare Marx’s approach with Durkheim’s and ascertain that if appropriately organized, class relations (division of labor) could be a blessing and not an avenue to social rot.

Marx’s approach on class relations and hence division of labor is characterized by disapproval and ire. According to Marx, all forms of social problems stem directly from the system of capitalism. He argued that problems of modernity would persist for as long as the capitalistic structures existed. As a result, he advocated for the destruction of the systems in order to destroy the foundations of social ill. In his argument, a solution that would solve the perils faced by workers in the capitalist-worker relations would help greatly in the solving of modern world problems. He argued that the current system allowed for a capitalist-worker relationship that promoted exploitation, alienation and finally expansion, which, in his words were the core causes of social ills (Lemert 30).

Considering the labor theory, Marx argued that the capitalistic system promoted exploitation of the worker because from its systematic approach, the end results of his labor were alienated from him. By alienating the end product of his labor from him, the worker was subjected to exploitation. This was particularly true because the only possession the worker had was his labor. However, the capitalistic system did not give the worker possession of the end product of his labor. After a hard day’s toil, the product of his labor belonged to the capitalist. Marx points out that the ultimate objective of the capitalist is maximizing on his profit. This drives him to pay the worker only what is enough for him to survive. The rest/surplus belongs to him. As a result, the worker’s labor becomes undervalued. It carries much weight in the eyes of the capitalist than the worker himself. With the increase in production, the capitalist amasses more surplus end products of the worker’s labor. The increasing surplus is pumped into the system again expanding the system and created more workers who increase the capitalist’s income. It was from this theory that the proletariat working class continuously remained under the exploitation of the bourgeoisie. Apart from being alienated from the products of his labor, the worker is alienated from his fellow human, his productive activity and from his potential as a productive human being. The alienation is so deep that the worker absolutely forgets that it is his labor that is producing the commodity in question (Marx refers to this as the fetishism of commodity). Eventually, the worker is completely made to think that the social value is created by the market forces. In the event, the true relationships between the producers as individuals is completely hidden (Lemert 35).

Technically, Marx assumes a revolutionary approach to the issue of division of labor. To him, the only way of solving the problems of modernity which stem from social classes was through destruction of the capitalistic system as a whole. This is as a result of the principles that operate the system which put the worker at a disadvantage while greatly benefiting the capitalist. Eventually, the worker becomes alienated from himself and from the rest of the world. The aspect of estranged labor appears in the fact that the worker’s physical and mental wellbeing being is not developed by the labor. In essence, labor is supposed to nurture and develop the physical and mental capacity of the worker. However, Marx argues that the capitalistic system plays opposite to this principle. He argues that due to lack of the nurturing aspect, the worker does not develop any intimate relationship with his work. Eventually, lack of intimacy with one’s work explains the aspect of estranged labor (Lemert 35).

How does one become estranged to himself? Marx argues that in the capitalistic system, a worker becomes alienated or estranged to himself. This happens because capitalistic systems estrange the worker from his labor. In the system, the labor belongs to the capitalist, who pays the worker not the value of his labor but a value that he feels could be adequate for his survival. Because the worker’s labor is his only possession and it does not belong to him but to the capitalist, the work becomes the object of the capitalist. He becomes enslaved to labor which belongs to the capitalist. Therefore, the worker becomes the slave of the capitalist who owns the labor. He therefore lives not for himself but for his labor…his employer, the capitalist (Lemert 36).

On the other hand, Durkheim takes a less emotive approach to the issue of class and labor divisions. Durkheim argues that division of labor is the glue that cements the society. Through labor, the society would be able to increase its production and hence wealth. Unlike Marx who sees division of labor as the beginning of social ills, Durkheim sees the division of labor as a moral phenomenon in which solidarity was established in the modern society as opposed to traditional ones. In the traditional societies, the form of solidarity of which Durkheim refers to as mechanical solidarity was cemented by the identity of members. However, the economic, political and social needs of the modern society called for differentiation of roles. The organic solidarity of the modern society would only survive if the different roles interdependently accommodated each other. Therefore, Durkheim believed that division of labor was replacement of the traditional form of solidarity to accommodate the modern needs that called for interdependence. However, Durkheim goes ahead to argue that in very complex societies, the issue of division of labor can lead to a situation referred to as anomie. This anomic state is the provenance of social ills (Lemert 71).

Considering the two approaches towards social stratification and division of labor, it becomes evident that division of labor can lead to both good and bad for a society. Unfortunately this situation cannot be avoided; the society will by all means remain stratified. Borrowing from Durkheim’s perspective, the mechanical form of solidarity was functional in traditional societies. During those times, the needs of the society were simple and could be met by simple means of survival. However, the current society is characterized by complex forms of relating. This means that as long as we are existing in the current society, we cannot avoid stratification and hence division of labor. This is the force that keeps the society together. By trying to resist it, the society must either revert to traditional lifestyles or keep the system. This is true considering that division of labor leads to variability of skills that eventually differentiate roles that assist in the meeting of the needs of the society (Lemert 72).

On the other hand, Marx is not completely on the wrong by advocating for a revolution against the capitalistic system. The truth is that stratification has led to the exploitation of the worker. It is true that most of the workers are not given the dues that are equivalent to their input. What they receive is a little cash that can assist them to pay rent, buy food, educate their families and save very little. Eventually, the workers end up to a state of alienation, also referred to as estrangement. With estrangement, everything in life becomes meaningless. The worker starts living only for his wage. The wage becomes everything. It is the wage, which does not really measure up to the labor input that preoccupies the worker’s mind.

The current economic environment clearly reflects Marx’s conception of the ills of capitalism. Many people in the cities all over the world wake up every morning to head to their places of work. They have no idea that what they do is the exact creation of the commodity. For instance, families of dairy industry workers experience protein deficiency health complications because they can barely afford milk in their house. The truth is that they don’t even realize that it is their labor that produces dairy products on the shelves in the supermarkets. The true conception is that the products are supposed to be theirs; however, the capitalistic system has denied them what is rightfully theirs and given them to the capitalists. The dairy industry workers are hence forced to purchase these goods because they belong to the other people. With the capitalists controlling every important sector of the economy, the workers tend to earn a little money that is eventually paid to another capitalist. For instance, a dairy industry worker earns a wage from his labor. This wage is spent in total on food (food stores owned by capitalists), rent (houses owned by capitalists), education for his children (education sectors owned by the capitalists) transportation (also owned by capitalists, et cetera. At the end of the day, all his salary has gone back to the hands of the capitalists. The system eventually expands with several other workers are employed in one of the sectors mentioned above as demand for their products goes higher.

Furthermore, the accepted standards of success in the society are defined by principles that maintain the status quo. They define status that continues exploiting the worker. The society has generally accepted that success is defined by a good education that leads to a good career. What is a good career? Labor. In the name of career, workers are enslaved to their capitalistic employees that eventually remain at the helm of the political economy. In the name of career, men and women have forgotten their families, not because they wish so, but because their circumstances do not allow them time for their families. They cannot get any extra time to spend with their families. Children are brought up with the television and the Internet as their teachers. The societal moral fabric is hence torn and left wanting. Men have no time for their women and vice versa. Their time is only for their work and their career.

What does such a life lead to? It leads to insufficient integration in the social organism. Most families that are supposed to be the ultimate unit of integration fail to meet the expected roles. Members in the society tend to indulge in unacceptable activities in the society because they do not find the attachment of one individual with the other due to weakened solidarity (Lemert 72). The weakened solidarity results into weakened regulations that govern individual conduct. Durkheim thus evidences this by the increase in the rate of suicide in industrial countries. The two types of suicide mentioned by Durkheim (egoistic and anomic suicides) have one thing in common. They both occur as a result of weakened social norms that act as the glue which sticks together the social fabric and hence restrain behaviors that are asocial. When the norms get weak, individuals tend to behave in very unlikely manners.

Considering the two positions, what conclusion can best suite the situation? It is clear that the society cannot survive without social cohesion. This is according to Durkheim. Cohesion in this situation is the norms that define people’s behavior. On the other hand, the modern society exists only by organic solidarity which is characterized by division of labor. On their part, division of labor leads to exploitation of the workers by the capitalist according to Marx. The effect of labor division as a negative aspect to social solidarity is not only advocated by Marx but also Durkheim who says that an increase in complexity of the rules of relationship between the layers might lead to anomie. This will eventually lead to all the ills of the society and increased suicides.

It is therefore appropriate that an approach that puts in consideration the inevitability of labor division while accepting that this could lead to social ills is developed. Practically, such a strategy will not take the Marxist revolutionary approach. Instead, emphasis will be laid on Durkheim’s reformist approach where proper measures will be taken so as to ensure that the division of labor does not harm one group of people while promoting the wellbeing of others. How can this happen? This can only be true if a better measure of value is approached. This measure of value should not be one sided as characteristic in the capitalistic economy. Instead, value should be mutually accepted not just by the capitalists but also the worker. When the worker and the capitalist come to a mutual understanding of the value of labor, they will come up with a better compensation strategy that will eventually eradicate the issue of estranged labor. By getting the value of their labor, the workers will start to develop an intimacy between them and their work. The products of their labor will then belong to them because its actual value will have been determined. Those who own the means of production (capitalists) will then discuss with the workers on how they will share the returns. With good earnings not just in terms of money, the workers will be able to feed their families and live a comfortable life without straining. They will cease to be so conscious about their work and have time to associate with other people. As a result this will have eradicated alienation from fellow humans.


Lemert, Charles. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. New York: Westview Press, 1999.