Mode of Production

views updated May 23 2018

Mode of Production





The term mode of production derives from the work of Karl Marx (18181883), and the concept has played a significant role in subsequent Marxist theory. Mode of production refers to the varied ways that human beings collectively produce the means of subsistence in order to survive and enhance social being. Marx believed that human history could be characterized by the dominant modes of production. In this sense the term refers to a specific economic system. Marx was interested in doing two things: providing an analytical framework for defining specific modes of production and locating those modes in terms of a theory of historical development. That being said, he never developed these two points in a consistent or systematic manner, and thus there are both ambiguities and contradictions contained in his writings (not unlike his treatment of social class). Nonetheless, the basic contours of what he was getting at are clear.


Any particular mode of production is the result of the distinctive articulation of a system that involves specific relations of production and forces of production. The relations of production define specific social relations predicated on the mode of appropriation of surplus labor and a specific institutionalized practice concerned with the distribution of the means of production. Social relations are primarily defined in terms of social classes, which form the basis of the structural system that regulates human relationships. These relations become codified in law and in more general terms legitimated by the hegemonic ideology. Forces of production define the labor process itself wherein raw materials are transformed into determinate products. Factors that affect the forces of production include raw materials, the personal activity of people (labor), and the instruments used to transform raw materials into products. Of particular note in assessing the level of development of the forces of production is the nature of the technologies, machines, and scientific advances being deployed in the productive process.

While the forces of production and relations of production together constitute the economic structural base of a particular mode of production, the political and ideological institutional apparatus shapes its superstructure. One of the enduring problems in deciphering Marxs understanding of the relationship between the economic base and the superstructure is that at times he lends credence to both those who positively depict his theory of economic determinism and those who critically accuse it. These internal contradictions are reflected in the subsequent historical development of Western Marxism, where, for example, the leaders of the Third International offer a decidedly economistic version of Marxism while Antonio Gramsci (18911937), Georg Lukács (18851971), and members of the Frankfurt School accord considerable autonomy to culture. Marx devoted considerably more attention throughout his work to the economic base and comparatively less attention to the superstructure, which accounts in part for the difficulty in deciphering how he understood the relationship between the two. Despite these rather different emphases, few would object to Louis Althussers (19181990) position, which accords relative autonomy to the superstructure while arguing that in the last instance it is economic factors that are most determinative in either perpetuating any particular mode of production or setting the stage for the emergence of a new mode of production.


Marx used the concept of modes of production as a clas sificatory tool to describe and differentiate various economic systems in historical terms. He also used it, problematically as it turns out, to account for historical materialisms dialectical stages of development. As with his analyses of class structure, he did not offer a consistent portrait of the number of modes of production that can be found throughout human history. He employs different terminology in different passages and it is not always clear whether some terms are meant to be synonyms for, subsets of, or qualitatively distinct from other terms. Thus, one can find the following adjectives used at various places to describe modes of production: communal, simple property, independent peasant, state, slave, ancient, feudal, capitalist, socialist, and communist. That being said, most subsequent commentators have identified four modes of production that are the most developed in Marxist thought: Asiatic, slavery/ancient, feudalism, and capitalism. These are examples of class societies and as such need to be located in terms of Marxs threefold schema of history, which involves the movement from the pre-class societies characteristic of the earliest human societies that existed before recorded history to the class societies of which these four are the most significant, and leading in the future (whether Marx thought this was inevitable or merely a potentiality is open for debate) to a post-class society that was variously identified as socialism or communism. Of particular note is the fact that the Asiatic mode of production stands not simply geographically apart from the other types, which can be identified with stages of European history, but as a distinct civilization. Marx thought that the Asiatic mode existed in societies that were historically static, lacking the class consciousness and conflict necessary for development to occur. External factors would be required to effect change.

Marxs primary focus was on class societies, and in particular on capitalism. Indeed, it is fair to say that his major preoccupation, certainly during the mature period of his life that commenced when he settled in London, was on understanding the particular characteristics and contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, he had comparatively little to say about pre-class and post-class societies. Although both modes of production can be characterized as communistic, he differentiated them, referring to the former as primitive communism. The post-class mode of production he wished for did not entail a return to the former state of communism; rather, it represented a qualitatively new mode of production, but one that was indebted to the unleashing of industrial productive forces brought about by capitalism. In other words, in the general thrust of his work, it was clear that communism was only possible once the productive forces of capitalism had been unleashed and developed. For Marx, the difference between the two was that pre-class societies were defined in terms of an undif-ferentiated unity, while the communism of the future would find a new form of societal unity predicated on differentiation. What he had in mind was something akin to Émile Durkheims (18581917) portrayal of the division of labor in society, with pre-class society being an instance of mechanical solidarity and post-class society a case of organic solidarity.

Marx, the advocate of communism, wrote very little about what such a mode of production would look like, contending that its particular contours would be the product of those who create it. His unwillingness to describe communism, aside from stressing that it entailed abolishing private ownership of the means of production, was in part intended to contrast his work to that of those he dubbed utopian socialists. He faulted them for failing to see the historical connections between capitalism and communism and for simultaneously being inattentive to the significance of social classes and to class conflict.

In various works, Marx discusses the importance of class divisions in the Asiatic, ancient, and feudal modes of production. Marx accorded a privileged role to social classes, and in so doing downplayed the significance of other key divisions, such as gender and race. While any specific mode of production would be characterized by an ensemble of different social classes, in all class societies, two would be central: the economically dominant class that wields control and ownership of the means of production, and the class that most directly confronts the dominant class in an antagonistic relationship. Thus, at the introduction to The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels depict all of (recorded) history as entailing class conflict, pitting master against slave in the ancient mode of production, lord against serf in the feudal mode, and capitalist or bourgeoisie against the worker or proletariat in capitalism.

Marx attempted, with rather limited success, to explain the transition from one mode of production to another. He saw two factors at workthe development of the forces of production and class conflictbut they are not adequately integrated into a coherent theory of social change. This is evident in his treatment of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which generally fails to take into account the class struggle between the two key classes involved. Instead, he discusses such matters as population growth, the advent of European colonialism, and new techniques of warfare. Quite correctly, peasant revolts are not seen as a significant factor in the demise of feudalism. Neither is the development of productive forces.


The primary focus for Marx was capitalism itself, and he was less interested in explaining its rise than in offering an account of how it worked and where it was headed. In this regard, he argued that built into capitalist economies is a necessity on the part of capitalists to constantly revolutionize the means of production. In this regard, he viewed capitalism as a progressive, and indeed revolutionary, economic system. At the same time, however, it could only function by exploiting and alienating the worker, thereby creating an inherently conflict-ridden relationship. In this mode of production, the worker was not only perceived as oppressed by the capitalist, but was also seen as an agent of the social change that could lead to the emergence of the communist mode of production. This would occur only if a class-conscious proletariat organized successfully to challenge and overthrow the domination of capital.

As with his understanding of the dialectical character of historical change, Marxs claim that the proletariat was a universal class derived from his reinterpretation of Hegelian theory. According to Marx, what made the proletariat a universal class was that it had no interest in preserving itself as a class, and as such it had the capacity to act in the interests of society as a whole. When the proletariat acts in its own self-interest in challenging the capitalist class, it is not to strengthen its position within capitalism, but to eliminate itself as a class by eliminating the socially antagonistic or contradictory class relations that characterize capitalism.

More than a century after Marxs death, the emergence of a classless society has not been realized. Attempts to forge classless economic systems that arose out of societies that at the moment of revolution were not capitalistRussia and Chinafailed in that attempt. Whether this means that Marx, despite his own efforts to resist it, actually succumbed to utopianism is an open question. What is clear is that at this particular historical juncture capitalism remains hegemonic. That being said, it is too early to determine whether the new class (composed of managers, professionals, and the intelligentsia) will challenge its hegemony and whether capitalisms crisis tendencies can in the long run be overcome.

SEE ALSO Althusser, Louis; Anderson, Perry; Bourgeoisie; Capitalist Mode of Production; Class; Class Conflict; Conjunctures, Transitional; Exploitation; Feudal Mode of Production; Forces of Production; Frankfurt School; Gramsci, Antonio; Lukacs, Georg; Managerial Class; Marx, Karl; Marxism; New Class, The; Slave Mode of Production


Elster, Jon. 1986. An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1965. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Trans. Jack Cohen; ed. E. J. Hobsbawm. New York: International Publishers. (Orig. pub. 18571958.)

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1848.)

Richards, Alan. 1986. Development and Modes of Production in Marxian Economics: A Critical Evaluation. London: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Russell, James W. 1989. Modes of Production in World History. London: Routledge.

Wolpe, Harold, ed. 1980. The Articulation of Modes of Production: Essays from Economy and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Peter Kivisto

mode of production

views updated May 29 2018

mode of production Within Marxist theory, this is the constitutive characteristic of a society or social formation, based on the socio-economic system predominant within it–for example capitalism, feudalism, or socialism.

Mode of production was conventionally defined in terms of the interaction of the relations and forces of production; that is, the system of ownership of the means of production, and the level of development of the latter. For Karl Marx, this formed the foundation or base of all social systems, and from it other social, economic, ideological, and political relations were derived. Considerable debate took place within Marxism as to how far the other areas of social activity–the superstructure—could be derived from the socio-economic base, or mode of production, and how far they enjoyed an autonomy. Friedrich Engels remarked that the economic sphere was determinant ‘in the last instance’, summing up this ambiguity, and initiating an unresolved debate about the relative autonomy of the political and ideological realms.

Marxism also analysed societies in which more than one mode of production was present, either because the society was in transition from one to the other, or because subordinate modes survived or were even maintained by the dominant one through a process of ‘articulation’ of modes of production—as for example in the case of slavery within the early capitalism of the Americas, or capitalist sectors within predominantly socialist societies.