Mode of production

In the writings of Karl Marx and the Marxist theory of historical materialism, a mode of production (in German: Produktionsweise, meaning "the way of producing") is a specific combination of the following:

  • Productive forces: these include human labour power and means of production (e.g. tools, productive machinery, commercial and industrial buildings, other infrastructure, technical knowledge, materials, plants, animals and exploitable land).
  • Social and technical relations of production: these include the property, power and control relations governing society's productive assets (often codified in law), cooperative work relations and forms of association, relations between people and the objects of their work and the relations between social classes.

Marx regarded productive ability and participation in social relations as two essential characteristics of human beings and that the particular modality of these relations in capitalist production are inherently in conflict with the increasing development of human productive capacities.[1]

A precursor to this concept was Adam Smith's concept of mode of subsistence, which delineated a progression of society types based on the way in which society's members provided for their basic needs.[2]

Significance of concept

According to Marx, the combination of forces and relations of production means that the way people relate to the physical world and the way people relate to each other socially are bound up together in specific and necessary ways. People must consume to survive, but to consume they must produce and in producing they necessarily enter into relations which exist independently of their will.

For Marx, the whole secret of why/how a social order exists and the causes of social change must be discovered in the specific mode of production that a society has. He further argued that the mode of production substantively shaped the nature of the mode of distribution, the mode of circulation and the mode of consumption, all of which together constitute the economic sphere. To understand the way wealth was distributed and consumed, it was necessary to understand the conditions under which it was produced.

A mode of production is historically distinctive for Marx because it constitutes part of an organic totality (or self-reproducing whole) which is capable of constantly re-creating its own initial conditions and thus perpetuate itself in a more or less stable ways for centuries, or even millennia. By performing social surplus labour in a specific system of property relations, the labouring classes constantly reproduce the foundations of the social order. A mode of production normally shapes the mode of distribution, circulation and consumption and is regulated by the state.

New productive forces will cause conflict in the current mode of production. When conflict arises, the modes of production can evolve within the current structure or cause a complete breakdown.

Process of socioeconomic change

The process by which social and economic systems evolve is based on the premise of improving technology. Specifically, as the level of technology improves, existing forms of social relations become increasingly insufficient for fully exploiting technology. This generates internal inefficiencies within the broader socioeconomic system, most notably in the form of class conflict. The obsolete social arrangements prevent further social progress while generating increasingly severe contradictions between the level of technology (forces of production) and social structure (social relations, conventions and organization of production) which develop to a point where the system can no longer sustain itself and is overthrown through internal social revolution that allows for the emergence of new forms of social relations that are compatible with the current level of technology (productive forces).[3]

The fundamental driving force behind structural changes in the socioeconomic organization of civilization are underlying material concerns—specifically, the level of technology and extent of human knowledge and the forms of social organization they make possible. This comprises what Marx termed the materialist conception of history (see also materialism) and is in contrast to an idealist analysis, which states that the fundamental driving force behind socioeconomic change are the ideas of enlightened individuals.

Tribal and neolithic modes of production

In classical Marxism, the two earliest modes of production were those of the tribal band or horde, and of the neolithic kinship group.[4] Tribal bands of hunter gatherers represented for most of human history the only form of possible existence. Technological progress in the Stone Age was very slow; social stratification was very limited (as were personal possessions, hunting grounds being held in common);[5] and myth, ritual and magic are seen as the main cultural forms.[6]

With the invention of agriculture at the Neolithic Revolution, and accompanying technological advances in pottery, brewing, baking and weaving within neolithic settlements,[7] came a modest increase in social stratification,[8] with property held in hierarchical kinship groups or clans.[9]

Animism was replaced by a new emphasis on gods of fertility;[10] and a move from matriarchy to patriarchy (arguably) took place at the same time.[11]

Asiatic mode of production

The Asiatic mode of production is a controversial contribution to Marxist theory, first used to explain pre-slave and pre-feudal large earthwork constructions in India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys (and named on this basis of the primary evidence coming from greater "Asia"). The Asiatic mode of production is said to be the initial form of class society, where a small group extracts social surplus through violence aimed at settled or unsettled band and village communities within a domain. It was made possible by a technological advance in data-processing – writing, cataloguing and archiving[12] - as well as by associated advances in standardisation of weights and measures, mathematics, calendar-making and irrigation.[13]

Exploited labour is extracted as forced corvee labour during a slack period of the year (allowing for monumental construction such as the pyramids, ziggurats and ancient Indian communal baths). Exploited labour is also extracted in the form of goods directly seized from the exploited communities. The primary property form of this mode is the direct religious possession of communities (villages, bands, and hamlets, and all those within them) by the gods: in a typical example, three-quarters of the property would be allotted to individual families, while the remaining quarter would be worked for the theocracy.[14] The ruling class of this society is generally a semi-theocratic aristocracy which claims to be the incarnation of gods on earth. The forces of production associated with this society include basic agricultural techniques, massive construction, irrigation, and storage of goods for social benefit (granaries). Because of the unproductive use of the creamed-off surplus, such Asiatic empires tended to be doomed to fall into decay.[15]

Antique or ancient mode of production

The antique or ancient mode of production is similar to the Asiatic mode, but differentiated in that the form of property is the direct possession of individual human beings. Additionally, the ruling class usually avoids the more outlandish claims of being the direct incarnation of a god and prefers to be the descendants of gods, or seeks other justifications for its rule. Ancient Greek and Roman societies are the most typical examples of this mode. The forces of production associated with this mode include advanced (two field) agriculture, the extensive use of animals in agriculture and advanced trade networks.

Feudal mode of production

The feudal mode of production is the third mode of production and the second exploitative mode of production by the systems of the West between the fall of the classical European culture and the rise of capitalism, though similar systems existed in most of the world. The primary form of property is the possession of land in reciprocal contract relations, namely that the possession of human beings as peasants or serfs is dependent upon their being entailed upon the land. Exploitation occurs through reciprocated contract (though ultimately resting on the threat of forced extractions). The ruling class is usually a nobility or aristocracy. The primary forces of production include highly complex agriculture (two, three field, lucerne fallowing and manuring) with the addition of non-human and non-animal power devices (clockwork and wind-mills) and the intensification of specialisation in the crafts—craftsmen exclusively producing one specialised class of product.

Capitalist mode of production

The introduction of the capitalist mode of production spans the period from mercantilism to imperialism and is usually associated with the emergence of modern industrial society. The primary form of property is the possession of objects and services through state guaranteed contract. The primary form of exploitation is wage labour (see Das Kapital, wage slavery and exploitation). The ruling class is the bourgeoisie, which exploits the proletariat. Capitalism may produce one class (bourgeoisie) who possess the means of production for the whole society and another class who possess only their own labour power, which they must sell in order to survive (see wage labour). The key forces of production include the overall system of modern production with its supporting structures of bureaucracy and the modern state and above all finance capital.

Socialist mode of production

Socialism is the mode of production which Marx considered will succeed capitalism, and which will itself ultimately be succeeded by communism - the words socialism and communism both predate Marx and have many definitions other than those he used, hwoever - once the forces of production outgrew the capitalist framework.[16]

The Marxist definition of socialism is a mode of production where the sole criterion for production is use-value and therefore the law of value no longer directs economic activity. Marxist production for use is coordinated through conscious economic planning,[17] while distribution of economic output is based on the principle of to each according to his contribution. The social relations of socialism are characterized by the working class effectively owning the means of production and the means of their livelihood, either through cooperative enterprises or by public ownership or private artisanal tools and self-management, so that the social surplus accrues to the working class and society as a whole.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels deliberately wrote very little on socialism, neglecting to provide any details on how it might be organized on the grounds that, until the new mode of production had itself emerged, all such theories would be merely Utopian: as Georges Sorel put it, “to attempt to erect an ideological superstructure in advance of the conditions of production on which it must be built...would be un-Marxist”.[18] Nevertheless numerous social scientists and neoclassical economists have used Marx's theory as a basis for developing their own models of socialist economic systems; and the Marxist view of socialism served as a point of reference during the socialist calculation debate.

Communist mode of production

Communism is the final mode of production, anticipated to arise inevitably from socialism due to historical forces. Marx did not speak in detail about the nature of a communist society, which he would describe interchangeably with the words socialism and communism. He did however refer briefly in the Critique of the Gotha Programme to the full release of productive forces in "the highest phase of communist society...[when] society will be able to inscribe on its banner: ‘From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs'”.[19]

Articulation of modes of production

In any specific society or country, different modes of production might emerge and exist alongside each other, linked together economically through trade and mutual obligations. To these different modes correspond different social classes and strata in the population. For example, urban capitalist industry might co-exist with rural peasant production for subsistence and simple exchange and tribal hunting and gathering. Old and new modes of production might combine to form a hybrid economy.

However, Marx's view was that the expansion of capitalist markets tended to dissolve and displace older ways of producing over time. A capitalist society was a society in which the capitalist mode of production had become the dominant one. The culture, laws and customs of that society might preserve many traditions of the preceding modes of production, thus although two countries might both be capitalist, being economically based mainly on private enterprise for profit and wage labour, these capitalisms might be very different in social character and functioning, reflecting very different cultures, religions, social rules and histories.

Elaborating on this idea, Leon Trotsky famously described the economic development of the world as a process of uneven and combined development of different co-existing societies and modes of production which all influence each other. This means that historical changes which took centuries to occur in one country might be truncated, abbreviated or telescoped in another. Thus, for example, Trotsky observes in the opening chapter of his history of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that "[s]avages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between these two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning". Thus, old and new techniques and cultures might combine in novel and unique admixtures, which cannot be understood other than by tracing out the history of their emergence.

See also


  1. Marx, Grundrisse. (English Translation)
  2. New Voices on Adam Smith, by Leonidas Montes, Eric Schliesser. Routledge, March 2006. P 295.
  3. Mode of Production.
  4. M Hardt ed., The Jameson Reader (Oxford 2000) p. 46-7
  5. J Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (Penguin 2012) p. 13-1
  6. M Hardt ed., The Jameson Reader (Oxford 2000) p. 47
  7. G Childe, What Happened in History (Penguin 1954) p. 60-2
  8. J Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (London 2012) p. 15-17
  9. M Hardt ed., The Jameson Reader (Oxford 2000) p. 47
  10. Y Harari, Sapiens (London 2011) p. 235-7
  11. M Hardt ed., The Jameson Reader (Oxford 2000) p. 51
  12. Y Harari, Sapiens (London 2011) p. 137 and p. 145
  13. G Childe, What Happened in History (Penguin 1954) p. 117-125
  14. G Childe, What Happened in History (Penguin 1954) p. 94-5
  15. A R Burn, Persia and the Greeks (Stanford 1984) p. 565
  16. E H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 2 (Penguin 1971) p. 11
  17. E H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 2 (Penguin 1971) p. 15-6
  18. Quoted in E H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 2 (Penguin 1971) p. 13
  19. Quoted in E H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 2 (Penguin 1971) p. 12

Further reading

  • Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism.
  • Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State.
  • G.E.M. De Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests.
  • Chris Harman, A People's History of the World.
  • Barry Hindess & Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-capitalist modes of production. London: Routledge, 1975.
  • Lawrence Krader, The Asiatic Mode of Production; Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx.
  • Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory.
  • Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View.
  • George Novack, Understanding History: Marxist Essays.
  • Fritjof Tichelman, The Social Evolution of Indonesia: The Asiatic Mode of Production and its Legacy.
  • W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere, ed., Old Modes of Production and Capitalist Encroachment.
  • Charles Woolfson, The Labour Theory of Culture.
  • Harold Wolpe, ed. The articulation of modes of production.
  • Michael Perelman, Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity.
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