Mode of production

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A painting of an 18th century forge that features a water-powered hammer. The use of water-power was characteristic of feudal Europe. Water-power would later give way to coal and oil as industrialization occurred. New sources of energy have played a major role in successive modes of production.

The mode of production of a society is the sum of two of its characteristics: its forces of production (i.e. what productive methods are available to it) and its relations of production (i.e. how people organise themselves economically). Together these form the material base of this society. When the contradictions between productive forces and relations become too severe, there is an eventual breaking point, referred to as a social revolution.

Marx's Concept

As early as 1845, Marx and Engels attempted to describe the concept in a manuscript not published until assembled by David Ryazanov in 1932:

"The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship. By social we understand the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a “productive force.” Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society, hence, that the “history of humanity” must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange."[1]

These ideas would be echoed in a later manuscript by Marx:

"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life."[2]

New Interpretations

Paul Cockshott has argued that Marx's ambiguous use of the term has led to a misunderstanding among contemporary Marxists. According to Cockshott,

"The mode of production is the physical process by which production is carried out, this includes the types of tools used and the forms of cooperation in the labour process so it is not the same as the 'productive forces', but neither does it include the property relations. The property relations are constrained to be compatible with the mode of production, but are not part of it.

"[Marx] says that capitalist production relations pre-exist the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist relations of exploitation promote the use of machinery as part of the struggle against labour, and in this way revolutionise the mode of production - the actual way that labour process operates."[3]

Evidence for this interpretation can be seen when Marx describes social life as being conditioned by the production of material life, as Marx describes above. Further evidence can be found when Marx seems to distinguish between capitalism's social relations or the production of surplus value and the "mode of production" proper.

"The reader will bear in mind that the production of surplus-value, or the extraction of surplus-labour, is the specific end and aim, the sum and substance, of capitalist production, quite apart from any changes in the mode of production, which may arise from the subordination of labour to capital."[4]

Role of technology

See also: Base and superstructure
A depiction of a desert compound utilizing an underground nuclear reactor to power an onsite desalination plant, and hydrogen production facility capable of providing a source of heat to produce steel, cement, and fertilizer.

As early as 1847, Marx realized the important role that technology played in human society by connecting it - via the process of production - to man's social existence.

"The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with the material productivity, produce also principles, ideas, and categories, in conformity with their social relations."[5]

Paul Cockshott, following Marx's concept, has proposed a schema of successive modes of production that coincide with successive sources of power, i.e. technology capable of transforming energy into physical work.

  • Slavery - muscle power
  • Feudalism - water power
  • Capitalism - steam power
  • Socialism - electrical power[6]

The Russian Marxist, Alexander Bogdanov, likewise drew a parallel between the mode of production and its main energy source. In Bogdanov's work A Short Course of Economic Science, the chapter about socialist society begins with a description of this relationship.

"With regard to the first part of the machine - the source of motive power - we have already indicated the tendency, viz., the transition from steam to electricity, the most flexible, the most plastic, of all the powers of nature. It can easily be produced from all the others and be converted into all the others; it can be divided into exact parts and transmitted across enormous distances. The inevitable exhaustion of the main sources of steam power, coal and oil, leads to the necessity of the transition to electricity, and this will create the possibility of making use of all waterfalls, all flowing water (even the tides of the oceans), and the intermittent energy of the wind which can be collected with the aid of accumulators, etc. A new and immeasurably rich source of electrical energy, has also been indicated viz., atomic energy, which is contained in all matter. Its existence has been scientifically proved, and its use even begun, although in a very small scale where it automatically releases itself (e.g. radium and other similar disintegrating elements). Methods for systematically releasing this energy have not yet been discovered; the new higher scientific technique will probably discover these methods and united humanity [will] possess inexhaustible stocks of elemental power."[7]

Historical modes of production in Europe

See also: Historical materialism

For European society, Marxist historiography draws out a series of consecutive modes of production, separated by periods of instability and revolution.

Primitive communism

Main article: Primitive communism

Transition into slavery

Ancient slavery

Main article: Ancient slavery

Transition into feudalism


Main article: Feudalism

Transition into capitalism

Main article: Bourgeois revolution


Main article: Capitalism

Paul Cockshott argues that the term capitalist mode of production, as used by Marx, has different contextual meanings. Marx's use of the term may refer to:

  • Production of commodities
  • Extraction of surplus value
  • Manufacture - division of labour
  • Machine industry - specifically capitalist production[8]

More concretely, Cockshott has argued that Marx's use of the phrase capitalist mode of production was intended to reference capitalism's specific industrial stage or physical process of production. Cockshott explains:

"[The] capitalist mode of production is the factory system, the system of powered machinery carrying out production supervised by workers. The point to emphasize is that capitalism actually revolutionizes the [material] mode of production."[9]

Transition into socialism

Main article: Socialist revolution


Main article: Socialism

Paul Cockshott approaches the question by asking, "If machine industry is a specifically capitalist mode of production, what is the socialist mode? Does socialism not base itself on machine industry too?" Cockshott's answer focuses on sources of energy and power. Capitalism has been defined by a dependence on fossil fuel. The depletion of these resources may cause a 'terminal crisis' of capitalism, implying that future socialist societies would rely on purely renewable energy sources such as solar and/or nuclear.[10]