One of many reasons dialectical materialism is deemed incomprehensible is because it formulates concepts based on relationality. Due to that unique philosophical nature, the interpretation of the concepts which disregards their relationality has been contributing to the ambiguity of dialectical materialism. However, ambiguity is the least harm such misinterpretation causes. The interpretation disregarding the relationality between concepts has a political impact in the real world: the idealistic understanding of Marx’s concepts of productive forces and production relations and the reduction of dialectical materialism into vulgar materialism created a baleful notion of Marxism: economic determinism.
Not to mention, such a misinterpretation has mislead people to think that socialism is simply about state control of the economy; and, or worse, planted a false vision that socialism will just magically appear when the productive forces reach a certain level. This kind of interpretation stems from a myopic understanding of productive force and production relation.
The consequence of misunderstanding the concepts of productive forces and production relations is detrimental to Marxist revolutionary theory, for it induces one to deny dialectical materialism as a theory of social formations and thereby making it impossible to formulate a correct political strategy. Hence, the correct interpretation of productive forces and production relations and a unified understanding of those two is vital for both theoretical and political purpose.
The main goal of this article is to clarify the inconsistent understanding of productive force and production relations and to utilize dialectical materialism as a theory of social formation. To achieve this goal, the classical economic definition of productive forces (a ratio between the input and output of products) will be divested; and the theoretical shortfall of the definition will be exposed. The definition of productive forces will be stated prior to production relations, so that readers can easily understand production relations in accordance with productive forces. The relation between productive forces and production relations will be delineated last, since the unification of the two defines the type of social formation and affirms dialectical materialism as a theory of social formation.
Some argue that productive force is a ratio between the input and output of products. Frankly, this definition underpins the mainstream economic theory of corporate productivity. The definition may sound truthful at first, for it sounds cogent and is quite easily understandable. The definition indeed holds its validity when it is used to analyze the productivity of a corporation. However, the definition falls short in analyzing the total productive force of a capitalist society. Meaning, the “productivity” refers only to an isolated, individual corporation. Hence, the definition forgoes the social nature of productivity and bases its theoretical premise on the productivity of an individual corporation. If one were to apply such a concept to analyze the current productive force of capitalistic society, he/she must be delusional enough to think that there is only one corporation existing in the current society. As most concepts of capitalist economics do, the definition of productive force not only falls short as an analytical tool but also serves as an ideological tool for the capitalist class: it conceals the social nature of labor with the nature of capital. Consequently, the productivity of a corporation seems to represent the productivity of capital and thereby it conceals the importance of the social nature of labor and lionizes the role of capitalists who make the ‘rational’ choice of maximizing the ratio between the input and output of products.
To overcome the limitation of the classical economics definition and to achieve clarity in the definition of productive force, we should start our analysis from the fundamental premise of economy or the reproduction of human living existence: labor. In German Ideology Marx states:
“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx, German Ideology, History: Fundamental Condition)
Humans establish a certain relation with nature while modifying it through labor processes. Accordingly, the relation that humans establish with nature, using tools and means of production operated through human labor, is a relation we call productive force (G.A. Kozlov, J. Stalin).
Marx further delineates about the relation between human and nature in Capital:
“Labor is first a process between man and nature, a process by which man mediates, regulates, and controls his metabolism with nature through his own actions. He confronts the natural materials as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces that belong to his own body, his arms and legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the natural materials in a from useful for his own life. While acting upon external nature and changing it, he also changes his own nature.” (Marx I, 1986, 283).
Accordingly, this labor process consists of the following three elements: (1) purposeful activity, that is work itself, (2) the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work (Marx I, 1986, 284). Hence, productive force is the force used by humans to modify nature in a form useful for their own life. In this perspective productive force can be defined as the relation between the means of production (objects of labor and the means of labor) and producers and their labor.
The definition of productive force being the relation between the means of production and producers may sound vague at first. However, it is very crucial to realize that every concept derived from dialectical materialism represent a certain relation. This does not only hold true for productive force as a concept, but also for capital. For instance, capital, as a concept, does not represent a certain amount of money or products, but the capital relation; i.e. the relation between capital and labor. The development of capital logically infers the proliferation of capital relations (Louhnarbeit). Needless to say, the reproduction of capital means the reproduction of the relation of capital.
Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspect of a continuous connected process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces capitalist relations of production; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage laborers. (Marx I, 1986, 724) One can extrapolate form this notion that capital presupposes labor and labor presupposes capital. So, in this sense, capital and labor are the two opposite aspects of the same relation (Lohnarbeit). Only through an analysis of the same relation which represents two opposites we can then talk about the so called ‘unity of opposites’ and ‘transformation into the opposite’. This is how “relationality” works in dialectical materialism: two opposites representing different aspects of the same relation. With this in mind let us go back to our analysis of productive force.
As stated earlier, productive force is also a concept that represents a certain relation: the relation between the means of production and producers. This definition is opposite to the one that states productive force is just a sum of some material elements used in production (such as tools and/or machines). The definition of productive force which reduces the relation between the means of production and producers to the sum of material elements forgoes the true nature of the one of productive force’s constituents: the means of labor. The means of labor, so long as they provide an objective condition for labor, are innate with their own social nature. Meaning, how they are used in society defines the nature of the means of production and predicates the objective condition of labor. Hence, the means of labor, as a part of productive force, when understood as a part of exerting material force during production, not through the historical and sociological relation it establishes with producers, cannot be correctly comprehended. Marx expresses this notion in Capital: “It is true, every machine is a combination of those simple powers, no matter how they may be disguised. From the economic standpoint however this explanation is useless, because it lacks the historical element.” (Marx I, 1986, 493)
Productive force is the relation between the means of production and producers; and the means of labor are innate with their own social nature. Accordingly, by analyzing the historical and sociological role of the means of labor, we can then correctly comprehend the relation between the means of production and producers (i.e. productive force). However, to grasp this productive force concept clearly, it should be understood in relation with production relation. Without understanding the relation between those two concepts, neither of them makes sense. Hence, the following will be a delineate of how productive force is related with production relation ( i.e. how the relation between the means of production and producers relates to production relation).
Social division of labor
As stated earlier, productive force represents a relation that cannot be reduced to the sum of its material elements. It represents the relation between producers and the means of production. This relation is accordingly mediated by the physical process of labor. Yet ‘labor’ is abstract by itself and it only gains its particularity from the social formation to which it belongs. Hence, it is pivotal to analyze what kind of labor mediates the relation between the means of production and producers in society prior to analyzing the relation between productive force and production relation.
Labor is always innate with its particularity, meaning the way labor is organized is different in every social formation. Nevertheless, all modes of labor share a commonality, that it is always social. Labor is social in the sense that it is a collective process and organized under certain conditions of production for the purpose of reproducing humans’ living existence. This social nature of labor is innate with the special attribute that individual labor does not have. Collective and organized labor emanates the social productive force slumbers in the lap of individual labor. For example, it would be impossible to build a skyscraper by an individual laborer (even a single burger from the scratch, for that matter); however, when laborers are organized and exerts the material force residing in social labor, it is not at all impossible to build a skyscraper. Hence, we can conclude that the labor which is social and mediates the relation between the means of production and producers is another constituent of productive force.
As mentioned earlier, the mode of labor is different in every social formation; and it has been changing throughout the history. The mode of labor accordingly has been developing in the way that the one branch of labor is divided from the other branch, and the specialization of each individual division of labor followed. But, how has this change come about? It seems as if producers are organized in a different way for the sole purpose of increasing efficacy in production. This may be true in the sense that the well-developed social division of labor increases efficiency in production, but the purpose of increasing efficiency is not the primary cause that conditions the mode of labor.
The fundamental condition that predicates the mode of labor is the objective condition of production. In other words, the means of production objectively condition how labor is organized. This, however, does not mean that the means of production are the facilitator of how labor is organized. Indeed a thing (the means of production) does not summon humans to a production site and order them to work. The summoning of workers and ordering them to establish a relation with the means of production thereby applying the social nature of labor to the means of production is done by the one who legally owns the means of production. Hence, the mode of labor is objectively conditioned by the means of production and by the one who owns the means of production. Yet, this phenomenon of ‘the one who owning the means of production is not an a priori stance (and do note that this ‘the one who owns the means of production’ infers the one who does not), it actually is, before it conditions the mode of labor, the direct result of the mode of labor itself: the way how labor is organized gives arise to various forms of ownership: “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. (German Ideology. Production and Intercourse.) This ownership which arises from the division of labor predicates the relation between the ones who own the means of production and those who do not, which is a production relation. This production relation is the facilitator that enables specific mode of labor to mediate the relation between the means of production and producers. Hence, productive force and production relation have a mutual regulatory relation, in that the means of production objectively conditions how labor is organized; and the mode of labor predicates the relation between the ones who own the means of production and who does not (i.e. production relation); and this production relation is the facilitator enabling the specific mode of labor to mediate the relation between the means of production and producers (i.e. productive force).
To be very concise, the relation between productive force and production relation is not just a mutual regulatory relation. Productive force and production relation are in a dialectical relation in that the former transforms into the latter, and vice versa (Lee, 2010). Meaning that the productive force, which is the relation between the means of production and producers mediated by a specific form of labor, transforms into its opposite when the mode of labor is significantly changed. However, this does not elicit that changes in production relation, hence a radical political change in the ownership of the means of production, is automatically going to be fomented by the development in the means of production. As I have stated, productive force is the “relation” between the means of production and producers; accordingly, this relation is not just defined by the means of labor itself, but also by the production relation that which imposes a specific sociological and economical condition on the productive force. This production relation, which is the relation between the proprietor of the means of production and producers, always manifests itself in the political arena. Its first manifestation appeared as the legal right of private property, which resulted in dissembling the essence of capitalistic production relation with a legal veil.
Hence, we must actively remind ourselves that production relation does not limit its presence in production, but also exists in the political arena. We must not idly wait for the revolution to come in the expectation of productive force being in incongruence with its production relation in one day. Yes. The incongruence between productive force and production relation can happen and will appear as an economic crisis. However, as long as the working class is not aware of its manifestation and does not take the chance of intensifying its contradiction through a political means, the capitalist class will find a way to nullify the contradiction as it always has been.
So far has been an exposition of productive force and production relation. Now it seems ever more important to understand Marx’s concepts within the realm of dialectical materialism, or through the rationality that binds concepts together. Disregarding the relation between concepts and blindly isolating the definition of one concept form other induces one to deny dialectical materialism as a philosophical means to change the world and thereby creating a spawning pool of ineffective and counterproductive political tactics. Hence, the correct theoretical understanding of concepts through dialectical materialism should be the corner stone of formulating correct political tactics.
G.A. Kozlov ed., Political Economy: Capitalism, Progress Publishers, 1977. P. 15
J.Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, International Publisher 1975. P.28
Karl Marx. German Ideology. Marxists Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2014.
Karl Marx. Capital. 1 Vol. (London): Penguin, 1986. Print.
Lee Jin Kyung. Theory of Social Formation and Social Science. Green Be, 2010.
Louhnarbeit und Kapital, MEW. Bd. 6, S.408