This educational material has been prepared as part of the course “The Political Economy of Capitalism”.
2. Social production.
We know that there are many different sciences. Some study nature – physics, biology, zoology, botany, etc. And others study human society – history, literature, etc.
Each of these sciences studies a particular aspect of society. There are many such sides. But the leading role in the life of society is played by the relations that arise between people in the process of production of material goods.
Why? Because people can live and do things only if they have food, clothing, shelter and other material possessions which they need to survive in this world. These goods do not fall from the sky – they are produced by people themselves. The thing is that while all animals simply find everything they need for life in nature, humans cannot be satisfied with just the things they are able to find – we won’t survive this way. To survive in the natural world, human beings must produce things they need in order to survive – grow grain, breed cattle, make pottery, weave cloth and so on.
However, people do not produce material goods alone, but together. Even the most primitive form of production by primitive people, hunting, was only possible through a united effort of many members of the primitive society. This is why production is always of a communal nature.
Human labour must be expended in order to make the production of material goods possible. Labour is the expedient human activity of producing the things we need.
Sometimes people talk about the ‘labour’ of bees, ants or beavers. But that is incorrect. Labour is only characteristic of human beings. Animals can’t engage in any purposeful activity, i.e. activity with a pre-determined goal. The biggest thing they can do is adapt instinctively to the existing natural conditions.
To produce something, you must have that which you produce from and that which you produce with. It means objects and tools.
What a person is working on is called the object of labour. The objects of labour can be given by nature itself or can be man-made. But even when they are man-made, they are still based initially on a natural product.
Objects of labour that are given by nature itself in a ready-made form are, for example, wood, coal seams in a mine, oil, ore, gas extracted from the depths of the earth, and so on.
Man-made objects of labour are those which have been subjected to prior processing, such as petrol, paraffin and other substances obtained from oil in a petroleum refinery. Such items of labour are called raw materials or crude materials.
Developments in science and technology have created, and continue to create, new items of labour, such as so-called synthetic materials. They have a number of advantages over natural products: they are very resilient and, at the same time, have a number of new properties that are useful to humans and allow us to make products that better suit the needs of people.
A person, acting on the objects of labour, with the help of the means of labour produces from them what society needs. The means of labour include, first of all, the means of production – machines, machine tools, equipment, etc., as well as production buildings, warehouses, canals, roads, transport. Also included here are pipelines, vessels, tanks and other objects, which Marx called ‘the vascular system of production’.
The main role in the means of production belongs to the instruments of production, by means of which people actively act on the objects of labour, remaking them to satisfy their needs. These implements were called by Marx ‘the bones and muscles of production’. They serve as an indicator of technical progress, a measure of human power over nature.
By instruments of production it is also possible to evaluate the nature of socio-economic relations of this or that period in human history. Marx wrote: “Economic epochs are differentiated not by what is produced, but by how it is produced and by what means of labour”.
So, a person uses means of labour and objects of labour in the working process. Together, they constitute the means of production.
No production without the means of production is possible. But the means of production alone cannot create material goods. Only human beings can set in motion machines, machines, harvesters, etc., and use them to work on the objects of labour.
The means of production and the people who have the knowledge, the know-how and the manual skills that set the means of production in motion are called the productive forces of society. The higher the level of the productive forces, the greater the degree of man’s dominion over nature. People who create material goods are the decisive productive force of society.
Since production is always of a social nature – people work together to create some kind of material products, in the process of production they must enter into certain relations with each other. These relations, which develop between people in the process of production, are called production relations.
Take, for example, the production of cars. In order to produce cars, you have to own or build a factory. Let us suppose that this factory belongs to a capitalist. In order to manufacture cars, the capitalist hires workers. A certain relationship is established between the owner of the factory, and thus all the machinery in the factory, and the workers – a relationship of capitalist exploitation. The workers work for the capitalist, because all the products produced in the factory belong to the owner of the factory and the profit made from the sale of the cars also goes into his pocket.
It turns out that the relations of production depend on the form of ownership of the means of production.
The relations of production are not established arbitrarily. They may say that the workers work for the capitalist of their own free will. That is formally true. But in bourgeois society, all factories, plants, railways etc. are in the hands of private owners, while the workers are deprived of all these means of production and simply have to go to work for the capitalist enterprises in order to survive. It turns out that the workers have no free will (or “freedom of choice” as they say nowadays) of their own! They cannot not be hired by the capitalists to work, because these are the objective conditions of their existence.
Production relations are reflected in the whole life of society. In particular they determine the relations between people which arise in connection with the distribution of the products being produced in society. The nature of distribution depends on the social form of production. If production is capitalist, then the distribution of material goods is in the interests of the bourgeoisie class reigning in society, and if it is socialist, as it was in the USSR, then in the interests of the masses, to whom the means of production belonged in the Soviet Union.
Hence, in order to find out what is the nature of production relations in a given country, we must find out to whom the means of production belong. The form of ownership of the means of production determines the position of the classes in society, the exchange and distribution of the material wealth created in the process of production.
The relations of production and the productive forces together constitute the mode of production.
Since even the most perfect instrument of labour produces nothing by itself and, at the same time, humans can produce nothing without the means and objects of labour, it follows that in order for the process of production of material goods to take place we have to put the labour force and the means of production together. And this inevitably leads to the emergence of relations between people, relations of production. It follows that the productive forces and production relations cannot exist separately from one another, and only in their unity and interaction does this or that mode of production of material wealth exist.
However, their role in the development of the mode of production is not the same. The leading place here belongs to the productive forces. They are flexible and malleable, capable of very rapid development, and their development and change, especially the appearance of new instrument of labour, is inevitably reflected in production relations – they change too. The result is a revolution in the whole mode of production, a change in the whole social order.
But relations of production, developing in the wake of changes in the forces of production, are far from being passive. When they are progressive, they accelerate the development of the productive forces. If they become outdated, they turn from forms of development of productive forces into their fetters.
The relations between people arising in the process of production, exchange and distribution of material goods (economic social relations) constitute the basis of society, its pillar. On its basis, the political and legal superstructure and various forms of social consciousness arise and develop. In general, the basis and superstructure characterise this or that socio-economic formation.
In the history of human society, five successive socio-economic formations have been known:
- primitive communal,
- and communist.
The communist formation passes through two phases in its development: the lowest one – socialism, and the highest one – communism itself.
The change of one socio-economic formation to another occurs not at somebody’s will, but due to the action of objective economic laws.