Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: The Development of the Division of Labour - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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5: The Development of the Division of Labour - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Development of the Division of Labour
In so far as the individual becomes a social being under the influence of blind instinct, before thought and will are fully conscious, the formation of society cannot be the subject of sociological inquiry. But this does not mean that Sociology must shift the task of explaining the origins of society on to another science, accepting the social web of mankind as a given fact. For if we decide—and this is the immediate consequence of equating society and division of labour—that the structure of society was incomplete at the appearance of the thinking and willing human being and that the constructive process is continuous throughout history, then we must seek a principle which makes this evolution intelligible to us. The economic theory of the division of labour gives us this principle. It has been said that the happy accident which made possible the birth of civilization was the fact that divided labour is more productive than labour without division. The division of labour extends by the spread of the realization that the more labour is divided the more productive it is. In this sense the extension of the division of labour is economic progress: it brings production nearer to its goal—the greatest possible satisfaction of wants, and this progress is sociological progress also, for it involves the intensification of the social relation.
It is only in this sense, and if all teleological or ethical valuation is excluded, that it is legitimate to use the expression “progress” sociologically in historical inquiry. We believe that we can observe a certain tendency in the changes of social conditions and we examine each. single change separately, to see whether and how far this assumption is compatible with it. It may be that we make various assumptions of this kind, each of which corresponds in like measure to experience. The problem next arises of the relations between these assumptions, whether they are independent of each other or whether they are connected internally. We should then have to go further, and define the nature of the connection. But all that this amounts to is a study, free from valuation and based on a hypothesis, of the course of successive changes.
If we disregard those theories of evolution that are naively built up on value judgments, we shall find, in the majority of the theories claiming to interpret social evolution, two outstanding defects which render them unsatisfactory. The first is that their evolutionary principle is not connected with society as such. Neither Comte’s law of the three stages of the human mind nor Lamprecht’s five stages of social-psychical development gives any clue to the inner and necessary connection between evolution of the mind and evolution of society. We are shown how society behaves when it has entered a new stage, but we want to know more, namely by what law society originates and transforms itself. The changes which we see as social changes are treated by such theories as facts acting on society from outside; but we need to understand them as the workings of a constant law. The second defeat is that all these theories are “stage” theories (Stufentheorien). For the stage-theories there is really no such thing as evolution, that is, no continuous change in which we can recognize a definite trend. The statements of these theories do not go beyond establishing a definite sequence of events; they give no proof of the causal connection between the stages constituting the sequence. At best they succeed in establishing parallels between the sequence of events in different nations. But it is one thing to divide human life into childhood, youth, maturity, and old age, it is another to reveal the law which governs the growth and decay of the organism. A certain arbitrariness attaches to every theory of stages. The delimitation of the stages always fluctuates.
Modern German economic history has undoubtedly done right in making the division of labour the basis of its theory of evolution. But it has not been able to free itself from the old traditional scheme of development by stages. Its theory is still a stage-theory. Thus Bücher distinguishes the stage of the closed domestic economy (pure production for one’s own use, barterless economy), the stage of town economy (production for clients, the stage of direct exchange), and the stage of national economy (production for markets, the stage of the circulation of goods).23 Schmoller differentiates the periods of village economy, town economy, territorial economy, and state economy.24 Philippovich distinguishes closed domestic economy and trade economy, and within trade economy he finds the period of the locally limited trade, the period of trade controlled by the state and limited to the state area, and the period of free trade (developed national economy, Capitalism).25 Against these attempts to force evolution into a general scheme many grave objections have been raised. We need not discuss what value such classification may have in revealing the characteristics of clearly defined historical epochs and how far they may be admitted as aids to description. At any rate they should be used with great discretion. The barren dispute over the economic life of the nations of antiquity shows how easily such classifying may lead to our mistaking the shadow of scholastic word-splitting for the substance of historical reality. For sociological study the stage theories are useless.26 They mislead us in regard to one of the most important problems of history—that of deciding how far historical evolution is continuous. The solution of this problem usually takes the form either of an assumption, that social evolution—which it should be remembered is the development of the division of labour—has moved in an uninterrupted line, or by the assumption that each nation has progressed step-by-step over the same ground. Both assumptions are beside the point. It is absurd to say that evolution is uninterrupted when we can clearly discern periods of decay in history, periods when the division of labour has retrogressed. On the other hand, the progress achieved by individual nations by reaching a higher stage of the division of labour is never completely lost. It spreads to other nations and hastens their evolution. The fall of the ancient world undoubtedly put back economic evolution for centuries. But more recent historical research has shown that the ties connecting the economic civilization of antiquity with that of the Middle Ages were much stronger than people used to assume. The Exchange Economy certainly suffered badly under the storm of the great migration of peoples, but it survived them. The towns on which it depended, were not entirely ruined, and a link was soon made between the remnants of town-life and the new development of traffic by barter.27 In the civilization of the towns a fragment of the social achievements of antiquity was preserved and carried over into the life of the Middle Ages.
Progress in the division of labour depends entirely on a realization of its advantages, that is, of its higher productivity. The truth of this first became fully evident through the free-trade doctrines of the physiocrats and the classical eighteenth-century political economy. But in rudiments it is found in all arguments favouring peace, wherever peace is praised, or war condemned. History is a struggle between two principles, the peaceful principle, which advances the development of trade, and the militarist-imperialist principle, which interprets human society not as a friendly division of labour but as the forcible repression of some of its members by others. The imperialistic principle continually regains the upper hand. The liberal principle cannot maintain itself against it until the inclination for peaceful labour inherent in the masses shall have struggled through to full recognition of its own importance as a principle of social evolution. Wherever the imperialistic principle is in force peace can only be local and temporary: it never lasts longer than the facts which created it. The mental atmosphere with which Imperialism surrounds itself is little suited to the promotion of the growth of the division of labour within state frontiers; it practically prohibits the extension of the division of labour beyond the political-military barriers which separate the states. The division of labour needs liberty and peace. Only when the modern liberal thought of the eighteenth century had supplied a philosophy of peace and social collaboration was the basis laid for the astonishing development of the economic civilization of that age—an age branded by the latest imperialistic and socialistic doctrines as the age of crass materialism, egotism and capitalism.
Nothing could be more perverted than the conclusions drawn in this connection by the materialistic conception of history, which represents the development of social ideology as dependent on the stage of technical evolution which has been attained. Nothing is more erroneous than Marx’s well-known saying: “The handmill produces a society with feudal lords, the steam-mill a society with industrial capitalists.”28 It is not even formally correct. To try and explain social evolution through the evolution of technique is merely to side-track the problem without in any way solving it. For on such a conception, how are we to explain technical evolution itself?
Ferguson showed that the development of technique depends on social conditions, and that each age gets as far in technique as is permitted by the stages it has reached in the social division of labour.29 Technical advances are possible only where the division of labour has prepared the way for their application. The mass manufacturing of shoes presupposes a society in which the production of shoes for hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings can be united in a few enterprises. In a society of self-sufficing peasants there is no possible use for the steam mill. Only the division of labour could inspire the idea of placing mechanical forces at the service of manufacture.30
To trace the origin of everything concerned with society in the development of the division of labour has nothing in common with the gross and naive materialism of the technological and other materialistic theories of history. Nor does it by any means signify, as disciples of the idealistic philosophy are apt to maintain, an inadmissible limitation of the concept of social relations. Neither does it restrict society to the specifically material. That part of social life which lies beyond the economic is indeed the ultimate aim, but the ways which lead to it are governed by the law of all rational action; wherever they come into question there is economic action.
[23. ]Bücher, Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft, First collection, 10th ed. (Tübingen, 1917), p. 91.
[24. ]Schmoller, Grundriss der allgemeinen Volkswirtschaftslehre (Munich, 1920), Vol. II, pp. 760 ff.
[25. ]Philippovich, Grundriss der politischen Ökonomie, Vol. I, 11th ed. (Tübingen, 1916), pp. 11 ff.
[26. ]On the stages theory see also my Grundprobleme der Nationalökonomie (Jena, 1933), pp. 106 ff. Publisher’s Note: In English, Epistemological Problems of Economics, trans. George Reisman (Princeton. N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1960). The reference to pp. 106 ff. in this footnote in the German book is to the essay “Sociology and History” (pp. 68-129) in the English translation, especially the section starting on p. 108.
[27. ]Dopsch, Wirtschaftliche und soziale Grundlagen der europäischen Kulturentwicklung (Vienna, 1918), Vol. I, pp. 91 ff.
[28. ]Marx, Das Elend der Philosophie, p. 92. In the formulations which Marx later on gave to his conception of history he avoided the rigidity of this earliest version. Behind such indefinite expressions as “productive forces” and “conditions of production” are hidden the critical doubts which Marx may meanwhile have experienced. But obscurity, opening the way to multitudinous interpretations, does not make an untenable theory tenable. Publisher’s Note: In the English edition p. 105.
[29. ]Ferguson, Abhandlung über die Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, trans. Dom (Jena, 1904), pp. 237 ff.; also Barth, Die Philosophie der Geschichte als Soziologie, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1915), Part I, pp. 21 578 ff.
[30. ]All that remains of the materialist conception of history, which appeared with the widest possible claims, is the discovery that all human and social action is decisively influenced by the scarcity of goods and the disutility of labour. But the Marxists can least admit just this, for all they say about the future socialist order of society disregards these two economic conditions.