relations of production

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The Communist Manifesto
Das Kapital
Sociology and Anthropology
Class consciousness
Commodity fetishism
Cultural hegemony
Human nature
Relations of production
Marxian economics
Labour power
Law of value
Means of production
Mode of production
Productive forces
Surplus labour
Surplus value
Transformation problem
Wage labour
Anarchism and Marxism
Capitalist mode of production
Class struggle
Dictatorship of the proletariat
Primitive accumulation of capital
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Proletarian internationalism
World Revolution
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Georg Lukcs
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Criticisms of Marxism
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Relations of production (German: Produktionsverhaltnisse) is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx in his theory of historical materialism and in Das Kapital. Beyond examining specific cases, Marx never defined the general concept exactly. It is evident, though, that it refers to all kinds of social and technical human interconnections involved in the social production and reproduction of material life. "Social" denotes belonging, group membership and co-operative activity (in Latin, 'socius' means comrade, companion or associate). "Technical" refers here to a relationship between producers and objects worked upon.


A social relation can be defined, in the first instance, as
  • a relation between individuals insofar as they belong to a group, or
  • a relation between groups, or
  • a relation between an individual and a group
The group could be an ethnic or kinship group, a social institution or organisation, a social class, a nation or gender etc.

A social relation is therefore not simply identical with an interpersonal relation or an individual relation, although all these types of relations presuppose each other. A social relation refers to a common social characteristic of a group of people.

Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members.

Social relations of production in Marx's sense refer to
  • (often legally encoded) ownership & control relations pertaining to society's productive assets,
  • the way people are formally and informally associated within the economic sphere of production, including as social classes,
  • work relations (including household labor),
  • socio-economic dependencies between people arising from the way they produce and reproduce their existence,
  • the quantitative proportions of different aspects of the sphere of production, considered from the point of view of society as a whole.
The totality of social relations of production constitute the social structure of the economy, which according to Marx determine how incomes, products and assets will be distributed.


In Das Kapital, Marx illustrates the concept of relations of production with reference to Edward Gibbon Wakefield's theory of colonisation:

...Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free-will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel, who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, ch. 33, courtesy of

In other words, the English relations of production did not exist in Australia; there was no system of property rights and legal obligations and no economic necessity compelling workers to work for their boss. The servants therefore could leave Mr Peel in order to find work or occupy free land to make a better living.

Social/technical distinction and reification

Combined with the productive forces, the relations of production constitute a historically specific mode of production. Karl Marx contrasts the social relations of production with the technical relations of production; in the former case, it is people (subjects) who are related, in the latter case, the relation is between people and objects in the physical world they inhabit (those objects are, in the context of production, what Marx calls the "means of labor" or means of production.

However, Marx argues that with the rise of market economy, this distinction is increasingly obscured and distorted. In particular, a cash economy makes it possible to define, symbolise and manipulate relationships between things that people make in abstraction from the social & technical relations involved. Marx says this leads to the reification (thingification or Verdinglichung) of economic relations, of which commodity fetishism is a prime example.

The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life, truly human life - this community is conceived by political economy in the form of exchange and trade. Society, says Destutt de Tracy, is a series of mutual exchanges. It is precisely this process of mutual integration. Society, says Adam Smith, is a commercial society. Each of its members is a merchant. It is seen that political economy defines the estranged form of social intercourse as the essential and original form corresponding to man's nature.

Karl Marx, Notes on James Mill

The marketplace seems to be a place where all people have free and equal access and freely negotiate and bargain over deals and prices on the basis of civil equality. People will buy and sell goods without really knowing where they originated or who made them. They know that objectively they depend on producers and consumers somewhere else, that this social dependency exists, but they do not know who specifically those people are or what their activities are. Market forces seem to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured, because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, capital).

Some social relations of production therefore exist in an objective, mind-independent way, not simply because they are a natural necessity for human groups, but because of the mediation of social and technical relations by commerce. In addition to creating new social and technical relations, commerce introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable 'things'. Not only do relationships between 'things' (commodities, prices etc.) begin to indicate and express social and technical relations, the commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern of human contact and technique.

The fact therefore that particular social relations of production acquire an objective, mind-independent existence may not be due to any natural necessity asserting itself but only to a purely social necessity: commodity exchange objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognised only by abstract thought.

Relations of production and relations of distribution

One of the theoretical problems in Marxian economics is to distinguish exactly between relations of production and relations of distribution, determining the significance of each in the allocation of resources. According to the crudest and most vulgar interpretations of Das Kapital, exploitation occurs only at the point of production. Marx himself obviously did not assert this at all, he only postulated the command over the surplus labour of others as the basis of the existence of capital and its economic power.

Marx discusses the theoretical problem in two main places: the introduction to the Grundrisse manuscript and in chapter 51 of Das Kapital. In the Grundrisse, where he defines the total economy to include production, circulation, distribution and consumption, he raises the following question:

In society... the producer's relation to the product, once the latter is finished, is an external one, and its return to the subject depends on his relations to other individuals. He does not come into possession of it directly. Nor is its immediate appropriation his purpose when he produces in society. Distribution steps between the producers and the products, hence between production and consumption, to determine in accordance with social laws what the producer's share will be in the world of products. Now, does distribution stand at the side of and outside production as an autonomous sphere?

Karl Marx, Grundrisse

He answers his own question negatively:

The structure [German: Gliederung] of distribution is completely determined by the structure of production. Distribution is itself a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e. the pattern of participation in distribution.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Disagreeing with David Ricardo, who regarded distribution as the proper object of study for economics, Marx argues that the mode of production largely determines the mode of distribution: the source of income & products in production, and their distribution among the population must be analysed within one framework:

In the shallowest conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and hence as further removed from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production. [...] To examine production while disregarding this internal distribution within it is obviously an empty abstraction; while conversely, the distribution of products follows by itself from this distribution which forms an original moment of production.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse

In the last chapters of Das Kapital Vol 3, he develops the argument, defining relations of distribution as the "forms" which "express the relationships in which the total value newly produced is distributed among the owners of the various agents of production" (as income and products).

His critique of political economy in this regard was(1) that relations of production or distribution are posited as "natural and eternal" rather than as historically specific relations, (2) that forms of distribution of income and products are crucially determined by property relations pertaining to productive assets; (3) that by constantly reproducing the relations of production, the mode of production of capital also reproduces the relations of distribution corresponding to it.

Criticism of Marx's concept

It is frequently objected by Weberian sociologists (those in the tradition of Max Weber) that Marx paid insufficient attention to the intersubjective dimension of social relations, i.e. the meanings consciously attached by people to their social interactions.

However, Marx's argument is that these subjective or intersubjective meanings permit of infinite variations, and therefore cannot be the foundation for a genuine science of society. Rather, one must begin with understanding those objective interdependencies which by necessity shape and socialise human beings, i.e. those social relations which people as social beings must enter into, regardless of what they may think or wish.

In this context, the young Vladimir Lenin commented:

Hitherto, sociologists had found it difficult to distinguish the important and the unimportant in the complex network of social phenomena (that is the root of subjectivism in sociology) and had been unable to discover any objective criterion for such a demarcation. Materialism provided an absolutely objective criterion by singling out "production relations" as the structure of society, and by making it possible to apply to these relations that general scientific criterion of recurrence whose applicability to sociology the subjectivists denied. So long as they confined themselves to ideological social relations (i.e., such as, before taking shape, pass through mans consciousness - We are, of course, referring all the time to the consciousness of social relations and no others - they could not observe recurrence and regularity in the social phenomena of the various countries, and their science was at best only a description of these phenomena, a collection of raw material. The analysis of material social relations (i.e., of those that take shape without passing through mans consciousness: when exchanging products men enter into production relations without even realising that there is a social relation of production here)-the analysis of material social relations at once made it possible to observe recurrence and regularity and to generalise the systems of the various countries in the single fundamental concept: social formation. It was this generalisation alone that made it possible to proceed from the description of social phenomena (and their evaluation from the standpoint of an ideal) to their strictly scientific analysis, which isolates, let us say by way of example, that which distinguishes one capitalist country from another and investigates that which is common to all of them... Then, however, Marx, who had expressed this hypothesis in the forties, set out to study the factual (nota bene) material. He took one of the social-economic formations- the system of commodity production-and on the basis of a vast mass of data (which he studied for not less than twenty five years) gave a most detailed analysis of the laws governing the functioning of this formation and its development.

Vladimir Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats, 1894

Another sort of criticism, from economists, consists of the observation that processes of distribution (of products and income) can to a considerable extent develop independently or autonomously from what happens in production, with the aid of a developed credit system.

In fact, gross distortions between value added in production, and the distribution of products and incomes, might occur - for example, as a result of underdevelopment, imperialism, state intervention, unequal exchange, fictitious capital, credit bubbles or capital gains from rising property values.

That is, a society or region might get much more or much less income than the value of what it produces. In that case, there are intermediary agencies between production and consumption influencing the allocation of resources.

Probably Marx would have acknowledged that, but he would presumably have argued that ultimately, the dissynchrony or distortion between production and distribution would cause a crisis and then a readjustment of distribution to the real structure of production relations.

See also


  • Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats
  • Göran Therborn, Science, Class and Society.
  • Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism.
  • Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd and Ernst Fehr, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life.
Marxism is both the theory and the political practice (that is, the praxis) derived from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Any political practice or theory that is based on an interpretation of the works of Marx and Engels may be called Marxism; this includes
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The Manifesto of the Communist Party (German: Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei), usually referred to as The Communist Manifesto
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Das Kapital (IPA: [das kapiˈtaːl]) (Capital, in the English translation) is an extensive treatise on political economy written by Karl Marx in German.
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Marx's theory of alienation (Entfremdung in German), as expressed in the writings of young Karl Marx, refers to the separation of things that naturally belong together, or to antagonism between things that are properly in harmony.
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Bourgeoisie (RP /ˌbɔː.ʒwɑːˈzi/, GA /ˌbu.
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Class consciousness is a category of Marxist theory, referring to the self-awareness of a social class, its capacity to act in its own rational interests, or measuring the extent to which an individual is conscious of the historical tasks their class (or class allegiance)
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In Marxist theory, commodity fetishism is a state of social relations, said to arise in complex capitalist market systems, in which social relationships center around the values placed on commodities.
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Basic concepts
Marxist philosophy
Class struggle
Proletarian internationalism
Communist party
Marxism  Leninism  Maoism
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Cultural hegemony is a concept coined by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. It means that a diverse culture can be ruled or dominated by one group or class, that everyday practices and shared beliefs provide the foundation for complex systems of domination.
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The rate of exploitation is a concept in Marxian political economy. It usually refers to the ratio of the total amount of unpaid labor done (surplus-value) to the total amount of wages paid (the value of labour power).
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Marx's theory of human nature occupies an important place in his critique of capitalism, his conception of communism, and his 'materialist conception of history'. Marx, however, does not refer to "human nature" as such, but to Gattungswesen
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The proletariat (from Latin proles, "offspring") is a term used to identify a lower social class; a member of such a class is proletarian.
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Reification (German: Verdinglichung, literally: "thing-ification") is the consideration of an abstraction or an object as if it had human (pathetic fallacy) or living (reification fallacy) existence and abilities; at the same time it implies the thingification
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Democratic socialism
Guild socialism
Libertarian socialism
Market socialism
Revolutionary socialism
Social democracy
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Marxian economics refers to a body of economic thought stemming from the work of Karl Marx.

The adherents of Marxian economics, particularly in academia, distinguish it from Marxism as a political ideology, arguing that Marx's approach to understanding the economy is
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Labour power (in German: Arbeitskraft, or labour force) is a crucial concept used by Karl Marx in his critique of capitalist political economy. He regarded labour power as the most important of the productive forces.
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The law of value is a concept in Karl Marx's critique of political economy. Most generally, it refers to a regulative principle of the economic exchange of the products of human work: the relative exchange-values of those products in trade, usually expressed by
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Means Of Production is a compilation of Aim's early 12" and EP releases, recorded between 1995 and 1998.

Track listing

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mode of production (in German: Produktionsweise, meaning 'the way of producing') is a specific combination of:
  • productive forces: these include human labour power and the means of production (eg.

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Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central concept in Marxism and historical materialism.

In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels's own critique of political economy, it refers to the combination of the means
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Surplus labour is a concept used by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. It means labour performed in excess of the labour necessary to produce the means of livelihood of the worker ("necessary labour").
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Surplus value is a concept created by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy, where its ultimate source is claimed to be unpaid surplus labor performed by the worker for the capitalist, serving as a basis for capital accumulation.
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In 20th century discussions of Karl Marx's economics the transformation problem is the problem of finding a general rule to transform the "values" of commodities (based on labour according to his labour theory of value) into the "competitive prices" of the marketplace.
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This article or section is written like a personal reflection or and may require .
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While anarchism and Marxism are two different political philosophies, there is some similarity between the methodology and ideology of groups of anarchists and Marxists, and the history of the two have often been intertwined.
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In Marxian economic discourse the capitalist mode of production (i.e. CMP) refers to the socio-economic base of capitalist society which developed in Western Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, and later extended to most of the world.
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Class struggle is the active expression of class conflict looked at from any kind of socialist perspective. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, leading ideologists of communism, wrote "The [written][1]
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The "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a term employed by Marxists that refers to a temporary state between the capitalist society and the classless and stateless communist society; during this transition period, "the state can be nothing but the revolutionary
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Primitive accumulation of capital is a concept introduced by Karl Marx in part 8 of the first volume of Das Kapital (in German: ursprüngliche Akkumulation, literally "original accumulation" or "primeval accumulation").
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Democratic socialism
Guild socialism
Libertarian socialism
Market socialism
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Social democracy
Utopian socialism

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