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Red theory: The role of the forces of production

By J. Sykes |
May 22, 2022
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Up to now we have studied dialectical materialism and given a general overview of its application to history, historical materialism. Now let’s look more closely at some of the core concepts that make up Marxism’s materialist conception of history, starting with the forces of production. 

Any social system, whether we are talking about capitalism, socialism, feudalism, or what have you, has a particular mode of production upon which it is based. What do we mean by a mode of production? Simply put, it is a way of producing. A mode of production is the historically constituted way in which production is carried out. 

The mode of production is a complex structure made up of two contradictory aspects: the forces of production, and the relations of production. Here let's look closely at the forces of production, what they consist of and the role they play in this contradiction. 

Fundamentally, the forces of production consist of the agents of production on the one hand, and the means of production on the other. The means of production consist of the instruments of production, that is, the tools, factories, and so on, along with the objects of production, that is, the raw material and natural resources that are transformed through the labor process into goods. The agents of production are the workers themselves, who work to transform the objects of production (raw materials, etc.) through their use of the instruments of production (tools, equipment, etc.). The main thing is the people. Without their labor the hammers don’t hammer, the machines don’t run, and the fruits and vegetables spoil in the fields. 

Each mode of production has productive forces that are unique to that historical mode, and that have come to exist historically, as the result of what came before it. The productive forces don’t appear out of thin air but are built upon the productive forces that preceded them. This means that we can’t jump around, just as we couldn’t have simply decided to develop steel without first having learned to smelt iron. 

Why is the development of the productive forces important? Basically, the productive forces coincide with the productive capacity of society. Thus, the development of the productive forces represents the growth of society’s productive power. In other words, their advancement means an increase in the ability of society to eliminate scarcity. As the productive forces advance, so too does the social division of labor, meaning less labor on the part of individuals can produce more overall. This division of labor brings with it certain relations of production. The relations of production are the concrete relations that people enter into in the activity of production, and in class society these are property relations. They are relationships of ownership and power. 

The contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production is at the heart of any given mode of production. Typically, the forces of production play the principal, determining role. However, the productive forces can advance only so far under particular relations of production, and since those in power will not willingly alter the relations of production, the system as a whole is driven into crisis. At this point the relations of production play the determining role and must be revolutionized to alleviate the crisis and allow the forces of production to continue to advance. This is what we see take place whenever there is an era of social revolution that brings us from one mode of production to the next. 

Marx and Engels explain the determining role of the forces of production in their book, The German Ideology

“It is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, … slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and … in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions…”

This is certainly true, but it is essential that this not be understood in a metaphysical way. Many have been led astray by believing that socialism could only ever follow after the forces of production were fully developed by capitalism. This vulgar historicism formed the philosophical basis of the opportunism that came to dominate the Second International and led them to deny the progressive character of anti-colonial struggles and to insist that socialism had to arise in the developed capitalist countries first. For them, Marxism had lost its scientific character and had become a dogma. This also formed the basis of Trotskyism’s claim that socialism couldn’t possibly be consolidated in the Soviet Union, but that it depended on the revolutions in Western Europe for its success. Looking back at this cornerstone of Trotskyism today, it seems laughable. 

The fact is, this vulgar, Eurocentric interpretation of Marxism entirely misses the point. For Marx and Engels, the object of their study was capitalism and its genesis in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean that every society should proceed everywhere in the same linear way, through the same set of metaphysically distinct, predetermined stages. Such a view runs contrary to materialist dialectics and the necessity for the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. In the real world different modes of production exist unevenly, side by side, and, in fact, influence each other in complex ways. Capitalism, though it began in Europe, quickly became a system of exploitation whose talons reached all over the globe. Capitalism forces itself onto the underdeveloped world through the export of capital by imperialism, and the use of the weapons of war.

Lenin’s analysis of the rise of imperialism made one point crystal clear: it has the effect of locking the productive forces of the oppressed nations into a state of underdevelopment, dependency and stagnation. Therefore, Lenin analyzed that imperialism created a situation where the “weak links” in the imperialist chain, that is, the underdeveloped nations, were ripe for revolutions. These nations were “weak links” precisely because these revolutions would undermine the strength of the monopoly capitalists who relied on the super-exploitation of the oppressed nations as a life-support system for capitalism in its state of chronic crisis and decay. Indeed, these were pressure points where the dialectical identity of imperialism as an all-encompassing global system could be ruptured. Then, having broken the fetters of imperialist underdevelopment, newly formed socialist countries in the developing world could, through socialist construction, work to methodically advance their newly liberated productive forces. By doing this they created the conditions necessary to revolutionize the relations of production step by step. This is precisely the process we’ve seen take place in countries like Cuba, China, and many others, where Marxist-Leninists have led and consolidated victorious socialist revolutions.

This is essentially the historical role of the forces of production. The development of the productive forces drives forward the advancement of the social division of labor and forms the basis of the development from one mode of production to the next. In our next article we’ll look at the other aspect of the mode of production. We will examine the relations of production, and the ways in which they can hasten or hinder the development of the productive forces.