[OPE] Question to Marxologists: Mode of production

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Thu Aug 28 2008 - 16:10:28 EDT

I'm not a Marxologist, but evidently the concept of "mode of production" first surfaces in Marx's 1844 manuscripts, e.g.:

 "We have seen what significance, given socialism, the wealth of human needs acquires, and what significance, therefore, both a new mode of production and a new object of production obtain"

It is more explicitly defined (as I recall the handwriting is by Friedrich Engels) in the first part of The German Ideology:

"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life. The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production. (...) The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and internal intercourse. (....) The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e. the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labour. (...) etc.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm

Engels also refers to the concept in an 1847 piece of his:

"Herr Heinzen... may, of course, not know that the property relations of any given era are the necessary result of the mode of production and exchange of that era." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/09/26.htm

It is referred to rhetorically also in The Communist Manifesto:

"The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property - historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production - this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm

The concept of "productive forces" was in fact adapted by Marx and Engels from Adam Smith, who had referred in The Wealth of Nations to "the productive powers of labour".

The concept of "relations of production" (property relations pertaining to productive assets, work relations, relations between producers and products) seems to be originally developed by Marx out of a critique of Proudhon's philosophy. Thus Marx writes:

"Economists express the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labor, credit, money, etc., as fixed, immutable, eternal categories. M. Proudhon, who has these ready-made categories before him, wants to explain to us the act of formation, the genesis of these categories, principles, laws, ideas, thoughts. Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical movement which gave them birth. (...) Economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production (...) M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02.htm

Marx never formally defined the concept of "mode of production" as such (in general, analytically) in other writings as far as I know, though in the introduction to the Grundrisse he notes that it also involves relations of distribution; economic life as a whole is said to comprise production, distribution, circulation and consumption, forming a self-producing totality. 

This idea resurfaces in Capital Vol. 3 chapter 51 where Marx discusses "relations of production and relations of distribution". I discuss this briefly here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relations_of_production#Relations_of_production_and_relations_of_distribution 

In "Capital", Marx defines capitalist production in Vol. 3 as the unity or totality of production (discussed in Vol. 1, where Marx sets out the elements of the labour process in chapter 7) and the circulation of products, money and capital through trade (discussed in Vol. 2). That is because capitalist production is "generalised commodity production" in which the production of products is subordinated to the circulation of capital. 

Louis Althusser and Gerald Cohen are not a reliable guide to Marx & Engels's concept, because they are strongly influenced (1) by structural-functionalist sociology in which the active human subject who makes his own history and creates his own relations, disappears from view, and (2) by Stalinist productive force determinism, which separates the forces and relations of production, such that linearly first the productive forces develop, and then the relations of production change. 

The ideology of productive force determinism in history (analogous to liberal-technocratic modernization economics) is mainly derived from the passage from The Poverty of Philosophy cited previously and from a quote from Marx's 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

"The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters." (etc.)http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

Cohen's argument then is that, if we cannot tidily specify the general causal relationship between forces and relations of production, and between base and superstructure, then a distinctive Marxist theory of historical dynamics is impossible, since then anything can cause anything else and the materialist approach cannot guide research. But Marx and Engels themselves rejected a "general Marxist philosophy of history" such as mooted by Althusser and Cohen, because, as they already argued in The German Ideology, "Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production." That would involve a "science of history", not a philosophy of history or a superhistorical "world schematism". 

Marx emphasized this again and again, for example in 1877 he wrote:

"events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/11/russia.htm

Engels similarly complained about vulgar schematism in 1890:

"The materialist conception of history has a lot of [false friends] nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late 1870s: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist." (...) In general, the word "materialistic" serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_08_05.htm

Already in their polemic The Holy Family, Marx and Engels had rejected the notion of historicism (a grand teleology or grand functionalist design of history), stating that  "'History does nothing... It is people, real, living people who do all that... "history" is not, as it were, a person apart, using people as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of people pursuing their aims" http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch06_2.htm#history


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