Productive Forces

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Productive Forces


the system of subjective (human) and objective elements through which the “exchange of substances” between human beings and nature is accomplished in social production.

The productive forces express people’s active relationship with nature—their material and intellectual mastery of it and their development of its riches. During this interaction with nature the conditions for human existence are reproduced, and human beings emerge and develop—a process that accelerates as one socioeconomic formation gives way to another. The productive forces, which consititute the leading aspect of each mode of production, are the basis for the development of society.

Specific production relations correspond to every stage in the development of the productive forces. The production relations are the social form assumed by the movement of the productive forces. As they develop, the productive forces come into conflict with the existing production relations, which are converted from forms promoting the development of the productive forces into fetters impeding their development. At this point, under the conditions of antagonistic social formations, the epoch of social revolution begins, and there is an upheaval in the economic structure of society and in its legal and political superstructure.

Society’s principal productive forces are people—the participants in social production, or the workers and the toiling masses in general (K. Marx and F. Engels, vol. 46, part 1, p. 403; V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38, p. 359). The potential of social production is ultimately determined by people’s production experience and knowledge, by their diligence, initiative, and capacity for work; by the level they have attained in their personal development; and by the tasks they set for themselves. Marx referred to the development of the productive power of all individuals as the true wealth of society. The productive forces of various epochs are distinguished primarily by the position of the toiling masses in the system of productive forces.

Through the purposeful expenditure of labor power in labor activity, human beings “objectify” or embody themselves in the material world. The material elements of the productive forces (the means of production and the means of consumption) are the product of human reason and labor. The means of production include the means of labor, which transmit human influence to nature, and the objects of labor, to which human labor is applied. The most important components of the means of labor are the instruments of labor (for example, tools, devices, and machines). The instruments of labor constitute not only the “bones and muscles” of modern production but also an increasing part of its regulatory system. Among the means of labor are pipe systems and various receptacles (the “vascular system” of production), industrial buildings, roads, canals, power grids, and means of communication. The means of labor, especially the instruments of labor, are a measure of the level of development of labor power and, to a certain extent, an index of the relations associated with the performance of labor. The means of labor have a tremendous feedback effect on the development of labor power.

The means of production, which are created by subdivision I, constitute society’s material and technical basis and its productive wealth. In some sectors of the national economy (agriculture, for example), land is used as a means of labor. In other sectors (extractive industry) it is an object of labor. In all sectors, however, land serves as a production area. The universal object of human labor is all of nature. The power of human productive forces is multiplied by the harnessing of natural forces, such as electricity, atomic energy, light, wind, and water. The development of human labor power and the growing extent to which the worker is equipped with the means of production are the main factors in the historical process of the increasing productivity of labor, one of the universal laws of the development of the productive forces.

Through the purposeful expenditure of effort in consumer activity outside of production, human beings and society as a whole “disobjectify” the material world, assimilating material and nonmaterial values. In the integrated process of the exchange of substances between human beings and nature, a leading and determining role is played by the material and technical basis, by labor activity, and by production, which creates the material and nonmaterial conditions for the development of consumer activity and cultural and everyday necessities. However, this does not diminish the independent significance of consumer activity, especially in the context of the scientific and technological revolution, when the total expenditure of labor power exceeds the hours of work spent in production. Through consumer activity labor power is reproduced, the foundation is laid for the cultural and physical development of human beings, new generations are formed, and new personality traits emerge. The historical tendency of the development of this aspect of the productive forces was described by Lenin as the law of increasing requirements and the growth of social consumption (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 101–02; vol. 4, pp. 48–49). In antagonistic socioeconomic formations, this law operates spontaneously.

In their ascending development, the productive forces assume three increasingly complex forms known as natural, social, and universal productive forces. These forms are manifested during the historical development of society in three consecutive stages of development: primary, or archaic, productive forces; secondary, or antagonistic, productive forces; and communist productive forces (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, pp. 400–21). According to the universal law of the development of the productive forces, the material possibilities for a later form arise and develop in the depths of the preceding form, but the later form becomes dominant only at a new stage in the development of society (Marx, ibid., vol. 47, p. 461).

The natural productive forces of labor, or the natural conditions of labor productivity, which are characteristic of the lowest level of the productive forces, can be entirely reduced to the nature of human beings (racial characteristics, for example) and to natural environmental forces, or natural wealth in the means of subsistence and the means of labor (Marx, ibid., vol. 23, p. 521; seePRIMITIVE COMMUNAL SOCIETY).

The social productive forces of labor emerged as a result of the historical development of the combination and division of labor—that is, as a result of the increasingly social character of labor. The profoundly antagonistic character of the secondary productive forces was evident in the fact that intellectual labor, nonmaterial production, and the higher forms of the consumption of material and cultural goods were established for the few, at the price of the most burdensome and sometimes destructive labor of the masses, who were deprived of access to cultural attainments (Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 23, p. 81; vol. 20, p. 185; vol. 12, p. 724; vol. 3, pp. 30–31).

The development of the secondary productive forces goes through ascending stages, giving rise to the three antagonistic socioeconomic formations (the slaveholding, feudal, and capitalist formations). Through their labor and through the class struggle, the toiling masses overcome the obstacles presented during each stage of the ascending development of the productive forces. Within a particular socioeconomic formation, the productive forces may go through several technological stages (Marx, in Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 47, p. 461). For example, the capitalist productive forces go through the stages of simple cooperation, manufacture, large-scale machine industry, assembly-line production, and automated production. The technological form of the productive forces most adequate for capital was large-scale machine industry, the spread of which forced out feudal relations and consolidated the rule of the capitalist mode of production. The international development of the social productive forces was accelerated with the rise of a world market and, later, with the rise of capitalist economic integration (seeINTEGRATION, ECONOMIC).

Universal productive forces, a qualitatively new form, are characterized by the domination of the forces of nature by the developing social individual, with the aid of science, which Marx defined as “universal social knowledge,” the “universal powers of the human cranium,” and the “universal intellect” (in Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 46, part 2, pp. 214–15). The universal form of the productive forces has developed since the mid-20th century, in the course of the scientific and technological revolution, which is fundamentally different under capitalism and under socialism. Even under 19th-century capitalism, science emerged as a direct productive force and as the most fundamental form of wealth. Science functions as a product and as a producer of wealth and as both ideal and practical wealth (ibid., p.33).

During industrialization the first forms in which science and industry were combined (complex means of production and machine technology) tremendously reinforced the power and dominance of embodied labor (capital) over living wage labor. This was manifested in “a monstrous disproportion between the labor time expended and the product of that labor,” leading to the creation of “the material conditions for a new world” (ibid, vol. 46, part 2, p. 213; vol. 9, p. 230). The highest form of this process, which emerged in the second half of the 20th century, is the automation of production and the large-scale use of electronic computers.

Technological progress pushes “human labor more and more into the background” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 78). At the same time, new human needs and interests create new spheres for the application of human labor, which has been driven out of other spheres. Moreover, new human needs and interests create new economic sectors, which are industrialized. The requirements associated with the development of the second form for combining science with industry (the assembly-line organization of mass production) were the chief factor in the extreme intensification of the conflict among the imperialist powers for mass markets, sources of raw materials, and spheres for capital investments. This conflict gave rise to tremendous clashes and to world wars. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the realization of the possibilities inherent in the assembly-line technique of mass production gave a powerful impetus to the scientific and technological revolution. The effect of the combination of science with industry, which has developed rapidly under the conditions of the scientific and technological revolution, has been reflected in rapid changes in the quality, types, models, and variety of finished products and in the creation of new objects of labor. The increase in leisure time and the expansion of nonmaterial production (education, culture, and recreation) have given tremendous impetus to the main aspect of the influence of science on production—the embodiment of social knowledge in the worker. This leads to the highest possible development of the individual under antagonistic class society. The retardation and deformation of the development of the productive forces—a result of the domination of capital—are comprehensively revealed, and the class struggle of the proletariat against outdated production relations rises to a qualitatively new level.

The retardation of the development of the productive forces by obsolete production relations is also manifested in the coexistence under capitalism of the most backward and the most advanced forms and levels of the productive forces. Most of the earth’s population is still employed in simple physical labor, without machines. Even in the late 1960’s, the hoe and the wooden plow remained the chief implements of labor for almost 1 billion people. Approximately 60 percent of the economically active population of the developing countries were illiterate, and the majority of women still labored under conditions of domestic slavery. In the Third World, however, the liberation movement has shaken the political and economic structures hindering the development of the productive forces.

The principal motive forces behind the development of the productive forces in antagonistic class society are the class struggle, revolution, and the creativity of the masses, who prepare themselves to master, develop, and apply the achievements of science and technology. Lenin wrote: “Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will” (ibid., vol. 30, p. 314). Only revolution fundamentally alters the position of the exploited class in the system of the productive forces and raises this system to a new level of development. According to Marx, it is precisely the personal development of the working people that is, to a significant degree, the criterion for assessing social progress (in Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 27, pp. 402–03).

The productive forces that constitute the basis for the communist formation are characterized by the complete triumph of the universal productive forces—the active and creative control by science of all aspects of social production, the comprehensive transformation of social production in conformity with the requirements of science, and the most rapid possible, comprehensive development of the individual. The comprehensive development of each member of society is completely realized, for the comprehensive development of each is the greatest of the productive forces and the condition for the development of all. However, this new stage of the productive forces begins with a mixture of social and universal productive forces, the “legacy” of capitalism.

The socialist revolution subordinates the development of production to the requirements of the scientific analysis of society, and it introduces a new social formation on the basis of the existing technological conditions of production and the existing level of labor productivity. The revolution implies not only the transformation of production relations but also a qualitatively new situation in the inner structure of the productive forces, since the position of the working people changes, and they gain access to education, culture, and purposeful productive and social activity. This is the guarantee for the development of the tremendous potential of the new productive forces and for the creation of the much higher level of labor productivity necessary for the victory of the new social system (Lenin, ibid., vol. 39, p. 21).

The new, socialist production relations become an important factor in accelerating the development of the productive forces. The success of the policy of socialist industrialization, as well as the development of science and culture in the socialist countries, has quickly raised the collective worker and the material and technical basis for socialism to the level necessary for the solution of the fundamental problems of the scientific and technological revolution. As a result of the universal introduction of the scientific organization of labor, as well as the introduction of a compulsory ten-year general education for all the working people, new forms and a new scope have been attained in the development of power engineering (including atomic energy), in the comprehensive provision of machinery for all branches of the national economy, in the use of chemicals, and in automation and the use of cybernetics in the material and technical basis for society. The rapid expansion of the cultural and everyday necessities and of the spheres of services and nonmaterial production reflects the main line of the Communist Party, which is aimed at shaping and satisfying the increasing material and cultural needs of all strata of the working people and at accelerating the comprehensive, harmonious development of the individual. As Marx pointed out, the increase in leisure time and the enrichment of the masses with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind are the most important conditions for the creation of productive forces adequate for the communist social formation (Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 46, part 2, pp. 216–17, 221). The internationalization and integration of the productive forces of the socialist countries, in conformity with economic plans, accelerates the process by which the productive forces of the future communist society develop.


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Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Ibid., vol. 4.
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Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. Ibid., vol. 23.
Marx, K. Ekonomicheskie rukopisi 1857–1859 godov. Ibid., vol. 46, parts 1–2.
Marx, K. Ekonomicheskaia rukopis’ 1861–1863, ch. 3. Ibid, vol. 47.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, sec. 3, ch. 2. Ibid., vol. 20.
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Lenin, V. I. “Velikii pochin.” Ibid., vol. 39.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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