Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

In Struggle!

Productive forces

First Published: In Struggle! No. 226, November 11, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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In early 1952, in the context of the debates taking place around the writing of a political economy handbook, Stalin wrote:

Some comrades deny the objective character of laws of science, and of laws of political economy particularly, under socialism. They deny that the laws of political economy reflect law-governed processes which operate independently of the will of man. They believe that in view of the specific role assigned to the Soviet state by history, the Soviet state and its leaders can abolish existing laws of political economy and can “form”, “create”, new laws.

These comrades are profoundly mistaken. It is evident that they confuse laws of science, which reflect objective processes in nature or society, processes which take place independently of the will of man, with the laws which are issued by governments, which are made by the will of man, and which have only juridical validity. But they must not be confused.

Marxism regards laws of science – whether they be laws of natural science or laws of political economy – as the reflection of objective processes which take place independently of the will of man. Man may discover these laws, get to know them, study them, reckon with them in his activities and utilize them in the interests of society, but he cannot change or abolish them. Still less can he form or create new laws of science![1]

Here, Stalin takes up the main idea in the central theory of Marxism on the determinant character of objective material conditions in the evolution of societies[2]. He states that in 1952, the Soviet leaders could neither abolish nor modify the laws of political economy. He could have said the same thing for the Polish, Albanian or Chinese leaders or even for the Canadian or American leaders.

But what has become of the liberation of human kind which was to happen with socialism for which people made revolution and which often cost thousands of lives? What difference is there between socialism and capitalism if in both cases society is confronted with economic processes which are independent of human will and which determine the political organization of society and even the ideologies which prevail?

This is a major question, and a serious one. It is a question which is present in all the major debates which have shaken the communist movement since Marx. It was present in the mid-18th century. Later it appeared in the debates between the Leninists, on one hand, and the “leftists” and Trotskyists on the other, notably when the NEP was introduced. And, closer to home, it is at the heart of the debates between Stalinists and those who defend the “theory of productive forces”.[3]

Today, again, this question is the object of debates within the communist movement and among those who have a basic interest in Marxism. It is often around the question of the relation between the development of the productive forces and the relations of production that different points of view appear. So, as a first step, let us try to better understand the concept of productive forces.

What are the “productive forces”?

Unless we are mistaken, neither Marx nor Engels ever formulated a precise definition of “productive forces”. This is undoubtedly not an accident. Since they were dialecticians and not metaphysicists, they were more concerned with the relation between things, and their transformation, than with their inclusion in a static and fixed formula which would inevitably reduce one’s comprehension of them.

Stalin, in his criticism “Concerning the errors of comrade L.D. Yaroshenko”, describes the productive forces as “the relations of men to nature” in opposition to the relations of production which he defines as “the relations of men to one another in the process of production”.[4] These definitions have the advantage of drawing out a striking distinction between the “productive forces” and the “productive relations”, but the first needs to be more developed.

The notion of “productive forces” covers a reality with a great diversity of factors and elements, including the division of labour and even certain elements of nature, including population growth.[5]

We should thus consider that the productive forces are composed of all the factors which contribute to the productive activity of human beings. Tools and machines are productive forces, as are factories, means of transportation and communications, technology and science. The productive forces also include the concentration of production in large factories and the social division of labour which allows for the more intensive use of machines.

And productive relations?

But, since Engels stated ’ and history has shown it! – that the historic mission of capitalism is to develop the productive forces, because capital is increased as productivity increases, should we not consider that the production relations are also a part of the productive forces? It could be tempting to answer yes to this question, and Yaroshenko felt that, under socialism, production relations are indeed part of the productive forces. Other people, in opposition to Yarenshenko, feel however that under socialism the production relations are no longer dominated by the productive forces. They say the opposite is true. They believe that socialist revolution has led to the domination of the subjective factors over the objective ones.

We should examine these positions more closely. But first, let us return to the question of the confusion between “productive forces” and “production relations”. We feel that this confusion is due to a non-dialectical understanding of the entire question of the development of the productive forces.

The central thesis of Marxism is that there is a necessary correspondence in the relation between the production relations which characterize a given society and the level or the development of the productive forces in that same society. In other words, the type of social organization which humans give themselves at a given time is not the product of their will alone, but it is a product of the state of development of their capacity to produce the goods needed for their survival. What is important to understand is that it is not so much what the productive forces are composed of which is important, but rather the reality of their historic development.

So, rather than trying to add together all the machines, techniques and social relations to have a so-called concrete representation of the productive forces, we should consider that the concept (notion, mental representation) of the “development of the productive forces” designates the empirically observable fact according to which, throughout the different ages, human beings have developed their capacity to produce and that they have reduced the work time needed for their own reproduction.

Marx formulated this phenomenon in the following terms:

By increase in the productiveness of labour, we mean, generally, an alteration in the labour-process, of such a kind as to shorten the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity, and to endow a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use-value (or more goods).[6]

It is clear from this passage that the development of the productive forces basically consists of the increase in the productivity of labour or, in other words, the fact that society has reached the point where it can produce the same quantity of goods with a lesser quantity of labour.

All of this finally appears to be quite simple: the development of the productive forces is the increase in the productivity of human labour, in the productive capacity of humans. But this simplicity rapidly becomes less clear if, considering the factors which historically, led to this development, we end up establishing an equation between “productive forces” and the factors in question. These factors can be material (tools, machines), intellectual (science, technology) or economic (the relations of production).

Because we say that the production relations can contribute to the development of the productive forces, this does not mean we can say that the production relations are themselves productive forces. No more than the observation that the sun contributes to the ripening of an apple allows us to say that an apple is nothing more than sun and water around a seed!

We will have to come back to this question. We will see how in the same way that the sun ripens an apple but can end up burning it if it is too strong, the relations of production can help the development of the productive forces, but also block them. And then, new relations of production become necessary so that the productive forces can continue their development.


[1] Stalin, “Remarks on economic questions connected with the November 1951 discussion” in Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1972, p. 1-2

[2] We briefly dealt with this question in “For a materialist understanding of history”, IN STRUGGLE!, no. 212, August 5, 1980, pp. 12-13

[3] On this subject, other than Stalin’s criticisms of Yaroshenko, who Stalin says, claims Mat “under socialism the production relations are part of the productive forces” (in Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., op. cit. p. 59) we have little knowledge of things written on the “theory of productive forces”. Any readers with more informntiou should inform us of their sources.

[4] Stalin, op. cit. p. 65

[5] See Marx, Capital, Book III, section III, Vol. VIII and Economic Works

[6] Capital, Vol 1, section IV, chapter XII, International Publishers, New York