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Red Theory: The relations of production

By J. Sykes |
May 31, 2022
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Now that we’ve nailed down what we mean by forces of production, let’s talk about the other aspect of the mode of production: the relations of production. Remember that the forces of production are comprised of the means of production (the instruments of production, such as factories and tools, and the objects of labor, like raw materials, land and natural resources) and the agents of production (the workers themselves and their techniques of labor).

The relations of production, on the other hand, refers to the concrete relations people enter into in the process of production. In other words, the division of labor and the way that production is organized, the ownership of the means of production, and the distribution of the products of labor.

Historical materialism uses these concepts to show how we got from pre-capitalist society to the current historical period we find ourselves in, capitalism. By doing this, Marxism lays bare the true class relations at the core of every aspect of our lives, and the materialist laws that govern them. These relations of production, in class society, are property relations. They are therefore governed by who owns the means of production, and as a result who dictates how the products of labor are distributed. The capitalists don’t own the means of production merely because they decided to, however. Things are the way they are because of a long historical process.

In pre-class society, when the instruments of production consisted of tools for hunting, fishing and gathering food, the only real divisions of labor corresponded to gender and age. As the productive forces developed in pre-class society, the first great social division of labor occurred: the separation of the pastoral, cattle-raising tribes from the other clan groups around them. The pastoral tribes, by developing animal husbandry and domestication, were able to form a basis for exchange. As the pastoral tribes developed agriculture they settled into definite, separate communities. The development of agriculture led some families to produce more than others on the basis of the fertility of the land they held. This allowed for the accumulation for the first time of a surplus.

Along with these developments came the development of private property, patriarchal family structures to secure the inheritance of property from generation to generation, and class society. These separate communities formed the basis of exchange as well as conflict. With the conquest of one community by its neighbors, along with forced labor to cover debts and punish crimes against properties, also came the introduction of slavery, the first great class division between masters and slaves. Thus the ancient slave societies for the first time developed within the superstructure the “state” as a tool of class rule.

Meanwhile, tools for working the land were fashioned in stages, out of more and more durable materials, as people learned to shape stone, then to smelt metals. In this way, agriculture and handicrafts became separated. This was the second great social division of labor. This separation was required by the technological specialization of metallurgy. The division of production into these two basic branches, agriculture and industry, in turn leads to the production of commodities, that is, the production of goods purely for exchange. With the development of handicrafts and commodity production comes the formation of towns as centers of handicraft production and trade.

As Friedrich Engels writes in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, “Civilization consolidates and intensifies all these existing divisions of labor, particularly by sharpening the opposition between town and country (the town may economically dominate the country, as in antiquity, or the country the town, as in the middle ages), and it adds a third division of labor, peculiar to itself and of decisive importance: it creates a class which no longer concerns itself with production, but only with the exchange of the products – the merchants.”

We see, then, that the early development of the productive forces brought with it three great divisions of labor in the development of class society: 1) the division of the pastoral tribes from the other, non-cattle-raising tribes, which is the genesis of private property and class society; 2) the division of agriculture from the handicraft industry, which brings with it the separation of town and country, and finally, 3) the division of production from commerce.

As the division of labor developed, the class relations of society changed along with them. Once private ownership and accumulation of wealth were established, slavery was just around the corner. Slavery pushed forward mining and agriculture, facilitating the rise of the ancient city-states. Further advances in the forces of production eventually demanded that the relations of production be revolutionized in order for the productive forces to develop further. With the rise of feudalism, slavery was no longer suitable, so it was forced to give way to serfdom, which in turn, eventually was overthrown by the bourgeoisie in favor of wage labor. Each of the changes in the relations of productions was demanded by the development of the productive forces. As Marx put it, the relations of production became “fetters” on the productive forces, driving the system to stagnation and crisis. Whenever this happens, social revolution inevitably follows.

Of course, within the complex contradictions of any given mode of production, more than one type of production relation may exist at a time, but one type of productive relations will be dominant. The rise of feudalism in Europe saw a turn away from slavery in favor of serfs, who were themselves invested in the land, their tools, and the handicrafts that developed from that. As capitalism arose and brought with it the industrial revolution, serfdom became a fetter on modern industry, which required a different division of labor with a more technical and skilled workforce concentrated around the factories. But capitalism was also born from colonialism, as the age of exploration led to what Marx called “primitive accumulation,” where the capitalist colonists plundered the Americas, Africa and Asia, engaging once more in enslavement and genocide of the people in the lands that they colonized. The enslavement of Africans, in particular, was pivotal to developing capital during the early stage of capitalism. In the United States, from its founding up until the Civil War, developing industrial wage-labor existed alongside the enslavement of Africans. The Civil War only partially resolved the contradiction between Northern industrial capitalism and the Southern slave economy. Once Radical Reconstruction was overthrown, African Americans in the South were locked into semi-feudal relations of production as one of U.S. imperialism’s oppressed nations.

In capitalism, the dominant relations of production are defined by wage-workers who are no longer bound as serfs and who possess the skill and education required to operate machinery. The productive forces and the division of labor that goes along with them have developed to such an extent that once again the relations of production have become fetters upon their development, leading to stagnation and crisis. In our forthcoming articles on political economy, we’ll go deeply into the nature of capitalist exploitation, how the capitalists steal their wealth from the surplus labor of the workers, by only paying them for a portion of the labor power they expend, and through this appropriation of surplus-value, generate their profits and their wealth at the workers’ expense. And we will explain how this contradiction between social production and private appropriation leads to chronic cycles of crises of overproduction when the workers can no longer afford to buy what they produce. In our next articles, we’ll look more closely at the divisions of labor in society and the contradictions that they bring with them, beginning with the division between mental and manual labor.

It should be reiterated that the determining role of the productive forces over the relations of production means that the relations of production arise from, accelerate, and eventually limit, the process of the development of the productive forces historically. If we think of the productive forces as a railroad track that guides progress through history, then, as Marx said in The Civil War in France, “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” The revolutionary struggle of the exploited against the exploiters is what changes the relations of production and allows the productive forces to advance. Only this way can we move beyond capitalist misery and build socialism.

This is the power of dialectical and historical materialism. The ideologists of capitalism would have us believe that capitalism is human nature and that it has always existed and will always exist. On the contrary, Marxism shows us how all this exploitation and misery has arisen historically, and likewise how we can be rid of them. Marxism-Leninism gives us a revolutionary weapon that exposes the true exploitative nature of the capitalist system that the ruling class tries to obscure behind smoke and mirrors, and teaches us the laws that will lead to capitalism’s ultimate demise.

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