The main types of society Marx distinguished were primitive, slave, feudal and capitalist.
In a capitalist society capitalists own and control the productive resources (i.e., capital), workers own only their labour and work for capitalists, who then own the product and sell it at a profit.
The key to understanding a society at any point in history is to focus first on the mode of production.
In feudal society land was the crucial productive factor and the feudal lords owned and controlled it.
In capitalist society capital, machinery, mines, factories etc. are the key productive factors and these are owned and controlled by capitalists (…as distinct from being owned by all members of society, which is the focal idea in varieties of socialism).
The “forces” of production and the “relations” of production.
Marx saw the relation between these two factors as the main determinant of the type of society existing and of social change.
The “forces of production” may be loosely regarded as the type of productive technology the society has; e.g., slave labour, machine technology…
The “relations of production” refers to the social organisation of production; i.e., basically who owns the productive forces, or how they are controlled.
For instance in a slave society masters force slaves to do the work, and in a feudal society serfs are obliged to work for the lord a certain number of days each week.
In capitalist society capitalists own society’s productive resources and employ workers to operate these for a wage when capitalists think profits can be made.
At first the relation between new forces of production and new relations of production is progressive or beneficial to society in general.
Marx stressed the great increase in human welfare that economic growth under capitalism had brought.
However as time goes on the situation becomes less and less beneficial.
The new social relations of production begin to hinder the full development and application of the new forces of production.
For example in the late feudal era it was not in the interests of the lords to allow land to be sold or labourers to sell their labour freely to any employer.
These practices were inhibited although they eventually became essential in the capitalist mode of production and therefore in the increase in production and benefits that capitalism brought.
Similarly at present we are unable to apply powerful technology to doing useful things like designing longer-lasting goods, and feeding hungry people simply because of the existing social relations of production.
That is, the relations of production take a form in which control over the application of productive forces is in the hands of capitalists and it is not in their interests to do these socially beneficial things.
This is a major contradiction in contemporary capitalist society.
Such contradictions have been intrinsic in all class societies and as each has developed its contradictions have become more and more glaring, to the point where they lead to revolutionary change.
So the relation between the forces and the social relations of production and the consequences this generates is the major dynamic factor in history, the primary cause of social change.
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