Mode of Production in Marxism

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 17, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The term mode of production describes the social relations through which human labor is used to transform their surroundings and resources into products using methods such as tools and knowledge.
  • Eric Wolf, the originator of the term, believed that there were distinct periods in human history dominated by certain modes of production. Nonetheless, there are different societies today that show different production modes.
  • Wolf posited three modes of production: kinship production, tributary production, and capitalism. Later scholars added additional modes, such as petty capitalism and socialism.
  • Kinship production is characterized by labor that is carried out primarily for subsistence and organized according to close, often familial, social relations.
  • Tributary production, meanwhile, consists of a ruling class and a producing class where the producing class gives the ruling class some percentage of their goods. The ruler class generally did not reinvest these goods beyond their ranks, and the level of organization of tributary production systems varied greatly.
  • Capitalist production is characterized by employers and employees. Unlike the kinship or tributary modes of production, those producing goods neither own the means, or things that they use to carry out production, nor do they keep the value of the goods they produce.
  • Modes of production are differentiated from means of production in that modes of production refer to the specific organization of economic production in a given society and include the means of production used by a given society.

History and Overview

In Marxism, as well as more current anthropological studies of economic life, the term mode of production describes the social relations through which human labor is used to transform energy from nature into usable products using tools, skills, organization, and knowledge.

The first person to use the term mode of production was the anthropologist Eric Wolf, who was influenced heavily by Marx.

In his sardonically-titled book, Europe and the People without History (1982), Wolf showcases the powerful, global, and transforming influence of post-Columbian European expansion and colonization in places far from the continent. 

Marxian anthropologists use the concept of mode of production as a tool to understand the relationships between materials in societies — and even as a way of accounting for why people in different positions in society have different ideas about their society and how it works. 

Relations and Forces of Production

Scholars have said that there are anywhere between three and six modes of production. In "Europe and the People without History," Wolf focuses on three modes of production and their interaction throughout the world after 1400: kinship (or household), tributary (or Asiatic), and capitalist (Wolf, 1982). 

The mode of production is the way in which the relations between the owners and non-owners of the means of production, as well as the forces of production themselves, are organized, which distinguishes one type of society from another.

In Marxist terms, the mode of production is central to understanding the nature of a particular society.

Each of these modes of production has two components: the means or forces of production (labor, instruments, and raw material) and the relations of production.

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Marx's formulation of the mode of production as constituted by the dialectical relationship between productive forces and productive relations

The means of production, also called the forces of production, are all of the knowledge and materials used in production besides human labor. These means can change over time with the evolving scientific and technical knowledge of a society.

Relations of production are the limited sets of roles that people find themselves in, and which they must take on, when they participate in production. These roles are strategic, defining each other by their associated rights and duties.

In Marxism, the relations of production represent the ways in which capitalists and workers interact with each other, on a group level rather than an individual level. For example, the working class react to the conditions of work which the employers impose on them generallt.

According to Marxism, the relations between workers and non-workers are essentially antagonistic.

Anthropologists who carry out Marxian analysis use relations of productions as the fundamental unit that they observe in examining societies. 

Domestic or Kinship Production

The domestic, or kin-ordered, mode of production most often describes the lives of foragers and small-scale subsistence farmers.

These people have social structures that are more egalitarian than those characterizing the other modes of production — even if these structures are still shaped by age- and gender-based forms of inequality.

The kinship mode of production links people who are alike, even if not necessarily genetically. On a technical level, kinship systems continually place people, born and recruited, into social relations which permit some people to organize other peoples' labor to do what has to be done to nature to stay alive generation after generation.

In the domestic mode of production, labor is organized on the basis of how people are related to each other: kinship. Subsistence farmers produce food for their family's own consumption, rather than to sell.

In this family-based production system, one group — like the men — may clear the fields while the entire family works together to plant seeds. Children may protect the crops and men may weed and harvest the crops before the women work to dry and store the corn. The mothers and daughters may then grind the corn and use it to create food that the family consumes at each meal (Gates, 1996). 

Similarly, Foraging societies are characterized by the collective ownership of the primary means of production — the resources used to produce goods, lower rates of social domination, and sharing. For example, in the Namibian Dobe Ju society, people live in small groups consisting of siblings and their spouses and children.

Typically, women in this society forage for plants while men hunt. The resources are then pooled between family groups and distributed to other members as necessary. These roles, however, are not rigid: women may kill animals, and men may spend time collecting plant foods, even when hunting (Gates, 1996). 

Tributary Production (Feudalism)

The tributary mode of production, meanwhile, exists in social systems that are divided into classes of rulers and subjects. These subjects — say, farmers or shepherds — produce for themselves and their families while also giving a proportion of their goods or labor to their rulers.

This mode of production — often named Feudalism after the fact — characterizes many pre capitalist societies. Scholars believe that tributary modes of production emerged from combinations of chiefdoms (From the kinship system), agriculture, and warfare.

In feudal societies for example, the feudal aristocracy did not control the forces of production directly, which remained under the control of the peasantry, but through the monopoly of physical force they were able to appropriate the produce of those forces of production and distribute them as the aristocracy saw fit.

Feudal societies exist on the premise that the labor of non-kin must support the lives of the rulers. These societies share several features (Gates, 1996):

  1. The dominant units of production are communities organized around kinship.
  2. The state's society depends on the local communities, and the tribute that people give to the state is used by the ruling class rather than being exchanged or reinvested.
  3. Producers and rules often have an adversarial relationship.
  4. Production is controlled politically, rather than through the direct control of the means of production.

The extent to which these tributarial productions were organized varies from society to society. In some tributary systems, the rulers can even participate in the large-scale organization of production.

For example, the ancient Chinese tributary system resulted in large state-organized projects such as flood control, canals, irrigation, and roads. Additionally, the Chinese system was unusual in that the composition of the ruling class was determined on the basis of literature examinations that any male could apply to take, regardless of the status of his parents. Other examples of tightly-organized tributary systems include dynastic Egypt, the pre-Columbian Inca Empire, and Imperial China and Imperial Rome. Meanwhile, feudal Europe, medieval Japan, and pre-colonial Bali were considered to have loosely organized tributary systems (Gates, 1996). 

Capitalist Mode of Production

Capitalism is the most recent, albeit most familiar mode of production in modern society. The capitalist mode of production first emerged during the North American and Western European industrial revolution during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Gates, 1996). 

In capitalism, an entrepreneur buys or rents all of the materials — what Marxists would call the factors of production — that they need but do not already own. These can include money, raw materials, machines, land, buildings, energy, and patents.

The entrepreneur then hires workers through a labor market to do the work. The businessperson can then pay the workers after they have sold the goods they have made with their materials and machines, and can decide what to do with the remaining profit — such as whether to consume or reinvest, and in what ways. 

The major power dynamic in capitalism is between employers and employees. This became especially apparent in early 18th century England, where industrial, factory production made capitalism on a large scale a realistic possibility for the first time. 

The factor that distinguishes capitalism from kinship and tributary production is the private property that the capitalist class owns. In these other modes of production, workers generally own their means of production — such as their tools or the land they farm.

However, in capitalism, workers usually do not own the factories they work in or the businesses they work for. In order to survive, they must sell their labor to other people: the capitalists (Gates, 1996). 

By keeping wages low, capitalists can sell the fruits of the worker's l;abor for more than the cost of producing their products. In effect, this means that workers are separated from the means of production in a way they are not in either the domestic or tributary modes.

In the domestic and tributary modes of production, workers also retain control over the goods they produce and their labor, meaning that they can decide when and when not to work. This is not true in capitalism — employees generally cannot decide whether they would like to show up at work each day. 

This means that, to do their work, employees must physically eat work with their bodies and minds. Marxists believe that labor is not a factor of production, even if society acts as though there are markets for labor just as there are markets for all other factors of production.

Instead, labor is a human activity, inseparable from the person carrying it out. In capitalism, the entrepreneur is entitled to the value of labor that he does not pay back to workers because he has initiated and others have accepted the contracts leading to production. This is supported by the legal systems of the country where he resides. 

Petty Capitalist Production

Commodities are goods and services produced deliberately for markets rather than for the consumption of a producer. Petty capitalists are people who produce commodities through businesses that are organized on principles of kinship.

The growth of these businesses is limited by the requirements and demands of the government. These petty capitalists can cooperate with governmental institutions to resent and resist governmental constraints on market activity. Ultimately, this activity is intended to benefit the state.

Petty capitalism is differentiated from capitalism not in relation to the state, but in their relations to labor. In capitalism, laborers are hired in markets.

Meanwhile, in petty capitalism, several kinds of labor exploitation, such as child labor, slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeship, castess, and so fourth are available. The relations of production to these two modes have led some analysts to argue that they are transitional phases leading to capitalism. 

Some scholars have argued that the petty capitalist mode of production is subordinate to the tributary mode because in the tributary mode, the state itself insists on maintaining kinship relations as the foundation of production, with the surplus being transferred to the state (Gates, 1996). 

Socialism

Socialism can be considered to be the fifth mode of production, though it remains largely theoretical. Although there have been several attempts to establish socialism on small and large scales, classless societies engaged in production were not common outcomes of these experiments.

Socialism often faced violent opposition by both the owners of capitalism — who would no longer be able to profit from or direct investment — and tribute-extracting state managers, who would need to be responsible to the citizens of societies (Gates, 1996).  

Modes vs. Means of production

A mode of production refers to the specific organization of economic production in a given society. The term is newer and includes the means of production used by a given society, such as factories, machines, and raw materials.

The means of production has two broad categories: the instruments of labors, and the subjects of labor. The instruments of labor include the tools, factories, infrastructure, and so on required to produce goods, while the subjects of labor refer to natural resources and raw materials. In industrialized society, the means of production can also include factories and mines. 

Meanwhile, mode of production refers to the ways that people produce the means to survive. Wolf and Marx (1982) believed that human society could be characterized by periods of different dominant modes of production.

Modes vs. Means of production

A mode of production refers to the specific organization of economic production in a given society. The term is newer and includes the means of production used by a given society, such as factories, machines, and raw materials.

The means of production has two broad categories: the instruments of labor, and the subjects of labor. The instruments of labor include the tools, factories, infrastructure, and so on required to produce goods, while the subjects of labor refer to natural resources and raw materials. In an industrialized society, the means of production can also include factories and mines. 

Meanwhile, mode of production refers to the ways that people produce the means to survive. Wolf and Marx (1982) believed that human society could be characterized by periods of different dominant modes of production.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 17). Mode of Production in Marxism. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/mode-of-production-definition.html

References

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Gates, H. (1996). China's Motor: a thousand years of petty capitalism. Cornell University Press.

Jessop, R. (1990). Mode of production. In Marxian economics (pp. 289-296). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Marx, K. (1967). The Communist Manfesto, trans. Samuel Moore and Engels.

Marx, K., Cohen, J., & Hobsbawm, E. J. (1966). Pre-capitalist economic formations. Science and Society, 30(3).

Modes and Means of Production. (2021, July 22). https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/56423

Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the People without History. Univ of California Press.

Wolpe, H. (1980). The Articulation of Modes of Production: Essays from Economy and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.