[Marxism] Marx's concept of mode of production

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Tue Jun 8 15:45:51 MDT 2004

As far as I know, Marx often used the term "mode of production"
(Produktionsweise, the "way of producing") loosely, but basically I think he
meant by it a specific combination (or articulation) of social relations of
production (Produktionsverhaltnisse) and forces of production

A social relation, generally speaking, is a relation between individuals
insofar as they belong to a social group, a relation between social groups,
or between an individual and a social group - of course, normally Marx has
in mind co-operative relations and "groups" which are social classes, but
these relations could also pertain to institutionally defined groups,
kinship groups, ethnic groups, tribal groups and suchlike.

For Marx, "society" referred not to an aggregate of individuals, but instead
to the sum total of social relations and interdependencies objectively
existing among members of a human community.

The social relations pertaining to the mode of production are principally:

- institutionalised ownership and allocative relations,
- co-operative work relations,
-  relations between social classes
- kinship relations governing the reproduction of the species

which are usually encoded in social norms and rules stating rights and
duties, which are legally enforced by a communal authority or governmental

The forces of production include

- the means of production (tools and equipment, technology, materials,
- human labour-power itself (arbeitskraft, force du travail, labor force)
- the technical co-ordination, management and engineering involved in

Marx's argument is essentially that:

1.  the specific mode of production of an economic community provides the
social and technical framework for how labor-time is allocated and divided
2. the mode of production implies specific relations between people, and
between people and nature, which are necessary for survival and population
3.  the development and growth of the productive forces causes the social
relations of production eventually to rupture and change,
4. after a transitional epoch in which the social norms for producing and
distributing wealth are contested by social classes with conflicting
interests, a new combination of production relations and productive forces
emerges, capable of reproducing its own initial conditions, and thus forming
a new, relatively stable social order and economic structure in which the
relations of production, distribution and consumption form a cohesive,
integrated, organic totality.
5. the specific mode of production fundamentally determines or shapes the
mode of distribution and consumption by defining ownership rights to
material wealth, even although the mode of distribution and consumption also
influence the characteristics and development of the mode of production.
6. capital existed in commercial trade as intermediary between producers and
consumers long before the capitalist mode of production emerged, i.e. long
before it became possible to accumulate capital directly from the sphere of
production itself;
7.  the capitalist mode of production is historically unique, insofar as it
universalises market relations, and thereby separates "the economy" out as a
distinct sphere, with its own objective dynamics expressed in value and
price relations. Another way of putting this is that the law of value
becomes the dominant regulative principle of economic organisation as a
whole, whereas previously it existed only as a regulative principle in
economic exchange;
8.  transitions are possible within a mode of production, through technical
change and changing social relations, creating new organisational forms
which however remain contained within the structure of the existing mode of
9. as one mode of production gradually displaces another, different modes of
production can co-exist, either as a sort of hybrid of different forms of
social organisation, or quite separately.
10. Social change in human history is alternately evolutionary and
revolutionary, i.e. sometimes incremental, and sometimes takes the form of a
rapid qualitative change, because different processes of change develop
semi-autonomously from each other, yet at a certain point cannot continue
without a major qualitative change in the social set-up as a whole.

This view is different from liberal or structural-functionalist theories of
"technological determinism", because neither the forces of production nor
the relations of production which emerge, are simply the result of
technological change. Which technologies become generally adopted, depends
partly on what the social framework in which they are invented permits or

And obviously ownership obligations, rights, claims and entitlements cannot
be purely technically determined, they are a socially determined outcome of
conflicts and agreements, reflecting competing interests or compromises of
different social classes.

Marx remarked quite explicitly that history does nothing, it is real living
people who make history, and history is nothing but the outcome of their
actions (the dialectical concept of history is one in which the present
connects the past and the future).
But people cannot make history just as they please, they make it under given
conditions, and the mode of production by which they live, "overdetermines"
those conditions, it defines what they can and cannot do; therefore, while
history is open-ended, not just anything can happen either, because given
the mode of production that exists now, the future possibilities for change
are delimited thereby. Some latent possibilities may be historically
realised, others may not, and some possibilities are ruled out.

Marx sketched briefly some of the great epochs in the economic formation of
society, defined by distinct modes of production, punctuated by
revolutionary changes, but it is a moot point whether he was completely
correct about this. For example, his concept of an "Asiatic mode of
production" doesn't do much justice to what we know now about the economic
history of it (cf. the works by Krader and Blaut).

Very often an interpretation has been imputed to Marx according to which he
believed that one mode of production necessarily led to another, in a linear
movement of law-governed progress by historical stages, but there is no
textual evidence for this. Marx's argument is precisely that conflicts
between new productive forces and existing production relations are
expressed in the struggles between different groups and social classes, and
these do not necessarily have any one possible outcome, that depends on how
people act, and what exactly the outcomes of their struggles are. At most
you could say that given existing conditions, some outcomes are more likely
than others, considered within a given interval of time.

Marx's "laws of motion" (he mentions quite a few in Das Kapital) refer
rather to the necessary conditions, relationships, tendencies and dynamics
involved in how society actually reproduces the conditions of its own
existence, given the physical necessity that people can neither stop
producing, nor stop consuming, if they are to survive, grow and prosper.

This is a dialectical view of history, which, while it affirms that history
is an open-ended process, also says not just anything can happen, and that
some things are more likely to happen than others, given the necessary
social and physical prerequisites for human survival and growth.

This dialectical view makes a social science possible, because it affirms
that human history is not a probabilistic chaos, but a process governed by
necessary relations of cause and effect which are knowable, and to some
extent at least predictable, because human beings created and perpetuated
them, and because human beings are capable of understanding themselves and
their relations sufficiently to change them consciously.

Some followers of Marx have seen the USSR-type of society as indicative of a
new mode of production, others have interpreted it more as a historically
transitional form of society which could develop into a full-fledged
socialism or into capitalism, and yet others saw it as a kind of state
capitalism. Debate about this has been morally and politically highly
charged, because it had implications for the questions of

(1) whether it was a progressive development, and if so how or in what
(2) whether this type of society should be politically defended, or what
should be defended about it.
(3) if USSR-type societies were "socialist", whether this was a desirable
socialism or not.

But the debate was rarely of great quality, because

(a) it often skipped over a thorough, systematic, objective and critical
inquiry into much more important questions, namely "what is socialism",
"what are socialist forms of association", and "how can humanity best
advance towards a socialist commonwealth."
(b) it typically did not investigate USSR-type societies in a conscientious,
empirical and systematic way, both because of language difficulties, and
because only limited independent, critical social scientific inquiry was
permitted in USSR-type societies themselves since the party-state held a
monopoly of political power and curbed free inquiry.
(c) it did not elaborate systematically a theory of socialist ethics which
is based on the actual practice of the working classes.

Consequently a lot of the discussion is based on the idea that USSR-type
societies did or did not conform to some kind of ideal, or else that
"actually existing socialism" was as close as it is possible to get to that
ideal. But this is basically just apologetics.

Personally I take the view that USSR-type societies represented a
transitional historical epoch caused by the dissolution of the previous
modes of production, and the emergence of a new one, which could not however
fully secure the conditions for its own social reproduction in a stable and
lasting way, both for internal reasons (lack of civil freedoms permitting
genuine popular sovereignty as the basis for an acceptable "social
contract") and external reasons (imperialist aggression and economic

They were definitely "socialist" in the sense of aspiring towards a more
egalitarian allocation of resources, but at the same time it would be wrong
to say (as Makoto Itoh has noted in his book Political Economy of Socialism)
that there is only one kind of socialism possible - Marx and Lenin
themselves were fully aware of this, i.e. the fact that the unresolved
social question and gradual erosion of bourgeois society generates a wide
variety of different socialist ideologies and practices, some more militant
than others (cf. e.g. Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Vol. 4:
The Critique of Other Socialisms). But whether this view is correct or not
isn't so important, what is much more important is the questions (a), (b)
and (c) I mentioned above.


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