Understanding the decline of a mode of production (I)

3. The Relevance of Productive Forces to Capitalism

Having seen the theory in general, let us look at what Marx had to say regarding the role of the productive forces in capitalism because as I have said, we need to identify the specific features of capitalism to understand both its process of ascendancy and decline.

“There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production. Although limited by its very nature, it strives towards the universal development of the forces of production, and thus becomes the presupposition of a new mode of production, which is founded not on the development of the forces of production for the purpose of reproducing or at most expanding a given condition, but where the free, unobstructed, progressive and universal development of the forces of production is itself the presupposition of society and hence of its reproduction; where advance beyond the point of departure is the only presupposition.” (1)

Marx is here saying that capitalism has a specific characteristic, “the universal development of productive forces” and that this characteristic enables society to grow sufficiently to lay the basis for a revolution which creates a communistic society. One of capitalism’s most important features is its dynamism. Its capacity to expand and grow is based on wage labour which enables capitalists and capitalism to profit enormously and use that wealth (and time) to focus on technological, productive, scientific, and social science advances. No previous society had the capacity to develop either technical progress nor social theory/understanding as they just changed too slowly.

In this respect capitalism has to be understood as very different to the previous modes of production which developed slowly over millennia.

They were stable societies that had very little self awareness and where philosophic or academic skills were constrained within religious concepts. Technology developed slowly step by step through hunter-gatherer systems to sedentary agricultural farming. Slave societies gradually developed building, weaponry, clothing technologies and in fact, Greek and Roman societies developed the basic elements of technologies such as steam, hydraulics and even mechanical computers, that they just could not apply to production; they remained as playthings for the ruling classes and were lost following their demise.

Feudalism improved agricultural technologies and techniques as well as weaponry. Capitalism began by centralising productive and administrative institutions and, by generating an accumulation of money and freeing up labour from legal constraints of the past, it became what has been and remains the most technologically dynamic society in history. Here again we should note that the productive forces play an active role in this history of capitalism, it is the level of technology and the capacities of a “free” workforce that enables future development.

Capitalism is therefore very different to previous modes of production which is why Luxemburg et al. called them natural economies and called capitalism a commodity economy. It is therefore totally inappropriate to expect capitalism to behave in the same way as previous societies when it comes to analysing its ascendancy and decline. It has specific characteristics which need investigation and identification.

The means – unconditional development of the productive forces of society – comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.” (2)

What is more these are not isolated statements that could be put down as mistakes or a lack of clarity, Marx holds firm to this explanation of social development and returns on many occasions to the theme. This next quote is from Wage Labour and Capital:

“We thus see that the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production.” ( 3)

And again in Theories of Surplus Value:

“Over-production is specifically conditioned by the general law of the production of capital: to produce to the limit set by the productive forces, that is to say, to exploit the maximum amount of labour with the given amount of capital, without any consideration for the actual limits of the market or the needs backed by the ability to pay; and this is carried out through continuous expansion of reproduction and accumulation, and therefore constant reconversion of revenue into capital…” (4)

And here is another confirmation of Marx’s view of historical materialism from Capital, Volume 3:

“The contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, however, lies precisely in its tendency towards an absolute development of the productive forces, which continually come into conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves, and alone can move.” (5)

As you can see from these quotes, Marx is basing the development of society on the conditions that the growth of the productive forces generates. His historical materialism is based not on the development of relations of production determining the forces of production but on the forces of production impacting upon the relationships that are generated.

“It is surely obvious that when capitalism comprises of small scale craft industries there is no need for example for mass distribution mechanisms, Personnel and Wages Departments, management theories etc but these conditions changed as capital developed the capacity to produce in factories on a mass scale with powered machinery and large numbers of workers. Thereupon there came about a need for far more complex organisational structures within businesses and in society as whole. Large factories came about because of the change in technological capacities not because there were masses of workers waiting at the gates.

The modern division of labour is determined by the modern instruments of labour, by the character, description and combination of machines and tools, ie by the technical apparatus of capitalist society.” (6)

The technological and social developments then led to what Lenin and Bukharin termed monopoly and finance capital when the concentration and centralisation of capital created new institutions and new business structures as the nation state became fully formed (this will be further explained in the second part of this text) at the end of the 19th Century. The nation state took ever greater control over the management of the national economy and became the foundation for what we call today state capitalism. These technological and social developments therefore led to drastic changes taking place in capital’s relations of production.

C.Mcl. has been dismissive of the idea that economic growth, despite it being just another economic factor, can be present in any way in the period of decadence of capitalism. However as we have seen there are specific features to capitalism that differentiate it from previous modes of production and one is that ongoing growth is essential to capitalism.

So now we have the concept that capital can or must keep growing in both its ascendant and decadent periods and that therefore decadence must be analysed differently to the traditional view that C.Mcl. and the ICC present.

Lenin was also clear that imperialism represented the decay of the capitalist system but it would not prevent the growth of the productive forces.

“It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency (i.e. of capitalism) to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a greater or lesser degree, now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital (Britain).” (7)

C.Mcl. rejects all these arguments to support his limited view of historical materialism. I shouldn’t have to point this out but it is one of the things that both C.Mcl. and the ICC apparently fail to understand, i.e. that accumulation of capital means the economy is growing and without accumulation, it is not capitalism! And the outcome that is apparent, certainly over the past few decades, is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is not an empty slogan: Neo-liberalism since the 1990s, quantitative easing from 2008, the reactions to the Covid pandemic have all seen to it that the privileged are better off from all that government support and the rich soak up the cash that is pumped into the economy via banks and financial markets, because all it does is make the assets they hold increase in value. By feeding the financial industries it further stimulates new profits for the rich because they can make greater profits on the financial markets than can be obtained through investing in industry.

This brings us to one more major element of Marx’s analysis of capital that has been ignored.

Next page: The Relevance of

the Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall


1 Marx, 1857-61: Grundrisse, Notebook 6.

2 Marx, 1894: Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15.

3 Marx, 1847: Wage Labour and Capital.

4 Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 17-14.

5 Marx Capital Volume 3 , Chapter 15.

6 Bukharin, 1921: Historical Materialism.

7 Lenin, 1916: Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter 10.

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