On the transition between modes of production

Josef Albers, i, 1934


Read an article from the recently released book “Only People Make Their Own History”


Karl Marx is a gigantic thinker, not only for the XNUMXth century, but above all for understanding our contemporary times. No other attempt to develop an understanding of society has been so fruitful, allowing "Marxists" to go beyond "Marxology" (simply repeating what Marx was able to write in relation to his own time) and pursue his method in accordance with new developments. in history. Marx himself continually developed and revised his views during his lifetime.

Marx never reduced capitalism to a new mode of production. He considered all dimensions of modern capitalist society, understanding that the law of value not only regulates capitalist accumulation, but all aspects of modern civilization. This unique insight allowed him to offer the first scientific approach linking social relations to the broader realm of anthropology. From this perspective, he included in his analyzes what is now called “ecology”, rediscovered a century after Marx. John Bellamy Foster, better than anyone, clearly developed this precocious intuition of Marx.

I have given priority to another intuition of Marx, related to the future of globalization. From my 1957 doctoral thesis to my last book, I have devoted my efforts to the uneven development resulting from a globalized formulation of the law of accumulation. From this I derived an explanation for revolutions in the name of socialism, starting from the peripheries of the global system. The contribution of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, in introducing the concept of surplus, was decisive in my attempt.

I also share another intuition of Marx – clearly expressed as early as 1848 and later reformulated until his last writings – according to which capitalism represents only a small parenthesis in history, its historical function being the creation, in a short period (a century ), the conditions for reaching communism, understood as the highest stage of civilization.

Marx claims in The Manifest (1848) that the class struggle always results either in "a revolutionary reconstruction of the whole society, or in the destruction of the two contending classes". That sentence has been at the forefront of my thinking for a long time.

For this reason, I offer my reflections on “Revolution or Decline?”, the concluding chapter of my forthcoming book, released on the occasion of the bicentenary of Marx's birth.


The labor and socialist movement has been nourished by a vision of a series of revolutions initiated in the advanced capitalist countries. From the criticisms that Marx and Engels made of the programs of German social democracy to the conclusions drawn by Bolshevism from the experience of the Russian Revolution, the labor and socialist movement never conceived of the transition to socialism on a world scale in any other way.

However, in the last 75 years, the transformation of the world has taken other paths. The prospect of a revolution disappeared from the horizon in the advanced countries of the West, while socialist revolutions were limited to the periphery of the system. They usher in developments ambiguous enough for some people to see them only as a stage in the expansion of capitalism on a world scale. An analysis of the system in terms of uneven development will try to give a different answer. Starting with the contemporary imperialist system, this analysis forces us to consider also the nature and meaning of uneven development in earlier historical stages.

The comparative history of the transition from one production model to another invites us to question the mode of transition in general and theoretical terms. Thus, similarities between the current situation and the era of the end of the Roman Empire have led those historians who are not adherents of historical materialism to draw parallels between the two situations. On the other hand, a certain dogmatic interpretation of Marxism used the terminology of historical materialism to obscure thoughts on this topic.

Thus, Soviet historians spoke of the “decline of Rome”, while presenting the “socialist revolution” as the only way to replace capitalist relations with new production relations. The comparative analysis of the form and content of antiquity and the capitalist crisis in production relations address this issue. Does the difference between these two crises justify treating one in terms of “decadence” and the other in terms of “revolution”?

My central argument is that there is a definite parallel between these two crises. In both cases the system is in crisis because the centralization of the surplus it organizes is excessive, that is, it is beyond the underlying production relations. Therefore, the development of the productive forces at the periphery of the system necessitates the dissolution of the system itself and the replacement of a decentralized system for collecting and utilizing the surplus.


The thesis most commonly accepted within historical materialism is that of the succession of three modes of production: slave, feudal and capitalist. In this context, the decadence of Rome would only be the expression of the transition between slavery and servitude. There would still be the question of why we do not speak of a “feudal revolution” and how we speak of revolutions bourgeois and socialist.

I consider this formulation to be Western-centric in its overgeneralization of the specific features of its history and its rejection of other peoples' histories in all their particulars. Starting from the choice to derive the laws of historical materialism from universal experience, I have proposed an alternative formulation of a pre-capitalist mode, a tributary mode, towards which all class societies tend to move.

The history of the West – the construction of a Roman antiquity, its disintegration, the establishment of feudal Europe and, finally, the crystallization of absolutist states in the mercantilist period – expresses in a particular way the same basic tendency that elsewhere is expressed in the construction less discontinuous range of tributary and full states, with China being the strongest example. The slave mode is not universal, as are the tributary and capitalist modes; it is particular, and appears strictly in connection with the extent of mercantile relations. Additionally, the feudal mode is the primitive and incomplete form of the tributary mode.

This hypothesis sees the establishment and subsequent disintegration of Rome as a premature attempt at tributary construction. The level of development of the productive forces did not require tributary centralization on the scale of the Roman Empire. The first halted attempt was then followed by a forced transition to feudal fragmentation, on the basis of which centralization was once again restored within the framework of the absolutist monarchies of the West. Only then did the mode of production in the West approach the full tax model. It was, moreover, only at the beginning of this stage that the previous level of development of the productive forces in the West reached that of the full tributary mode of imperial China; this is definitely not a coincidence.

The backwardness of the West, expressed by Rome's interruption and feudal fragmentation, certainly gave it a historical advantage. Indeed, the combination of specific elements of the old tributary mode and the barbarian communal modes characterized feudalism and gave the West its flexibility. This explains it completely, quickly overtaking the level of development of the productive forces of the West, which were overtaken, moving to capitalism. This flexibility and speed contrasted with the relatively rigid and slow evolution of full tributary modes in the East.

Undoubtedly, the Roman-Western case is not the only example of interrupted tributary construction. We can identify at least three other cases of this type, each with its specific conditions: the Byzantine-Arab-Ottoman case, the Indian case, the Mongolian case. In each of these cases, attempts to install tax systems of centralization were too far removed from the development demands of the productive forces to be firmly established.

In each case, the forms of centralization were likely to be specific combinations of state, parafeudal, and mercantile means. In the Islamic State, for example, mercantile centralization played a decisive role. Successive Indian failures must be related to the content of Hindu ideology, which I opposed to Confucianism. Regarding the centralization of Genghis Khan's empire, as we know, it was extremely short-lived.


The contemporary imperialist system is also a system of centralization of surpluses on a global scale. This centralization operates on the basis of the fundamental laws of the capitalist mode and the conditions of its domination in relation to the pre-capitalist modes of the subjected periphery. I formulated the law of capital accumulation on a global scale as an expression of the law of value operating on that scale. The imperialist system for the centralization of value is characterized by accelerating accumulation and the development of productive forces at the center of the system, while at the periphery the latter is contained and deformed. Development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin.

Thus, we can see that this further development of the productive forces in the peripheries requires the destruction of the imperialist system of surplus centralization. A necessary phase of decentralization, the establishment of socialist transition within nations, must precede reunification at a higher level of development, which a classless planetary society would constitute. This central thesis has several consequences for the theory and strategy of the socialist transition.

On the periphery, the socialist transition is no different from national liberation. It became clear that the latter is impossible under the leadership of the local bourgeoisies, thus becoming a democratic stage in the process of uninterrupted revolution by stages, led by the masses of workers and peasants. This fusion of the objectives of national liberation and socialism engenders, in turn, a series of new problems that we must assess.

The emphasis shifts from one aspect to another, which is due to the fact that the real movement of society alternates between progress and regression, ambivalences and alienation, particularly in nationalist form. Here again we can draw a comparison with the barbarians' attitude towards the Roman Empire: they were ambivalent towards it, notably in their formal, even slavish imitation of the Roman model against which they were revolting.

At the same time, the parasitic character of the core society intensifies. In some, imperial tribute corrupted the commoners and stalled their revolts. In the societies of the imperialist core, a growing portion of the population benefits from unproductive jobs and privileged positions, both concentrated there due to the effects of the unequal international division of labor. Thus, it is difficult to visualize a dismantling by the imperialist system and the formation of an anti-imperialist alliance capable of overthrowing the hegemonic alliance and inaugurating the transition to socialism.


The introduction of new production relations seems easier at the periphery than at the center of the system. In the Roman Empire, feudal relations took hold quickly in Gaul and Germania, but only slowly in Italy and the East. It was Rome that invented the serfdom that replaced slavery. But feudal authority developed elsewhere and feudal relations never fully developed in the region of Italy.

Today the feeling of a latent revolt against capitalist relations is very strong in the center, but it has little power. People want to “change their lives”, but they can't even change their governments. Thus, progress takes place in the area of ​​social life rather than in the organization of production or the state. The silent revolution in lifestyles, the bankruptcy of the family, the collapse of bourgeois values ​​demonstrate this contradictory aspect of the process. On the periphery, customs and ideas are often less advanced, however, socialist states have been established there.

The vulgar Marxist tradition carried out a mechanistic reductionism of the dialectic of social change. The revolution – whose objective content is the abolition of the old relations of production and the establishment of new ones, a precondition for the greater development of the productive forces – is transformed into a natural law: the application to the social sphere of the law in which quantity becomes quality . The class struggle reveals this objective necessity: only the vanguard – the party – is above the clash, makes and dominates history, is not alienated. The political moment that defines the revolution is the one in which the vanguard takes over the state. Leninism itself is not entirely immune from the positivist reductionisms of Second International Marxism.

This theory that separates the vanguard from the class is not applicable to past revolutions. The bourgeois revolution did not take this form: in it, the bourgeoisie co-opted the struggle of the peasants against the feudal lords. The ideology that enabled them to do this, far from being a means of manipulation, was itself alienating. In this sense, there was no “bourgeois revolution” – the term itself is a product of bourgeois ideology – but only a class struggle led by the bourgeoisie or, at most, sometimes a peasant revolution co-opted by the bourgeoisie. There is even less to say about the "feudal revolution", in which the transition was made unconsciously.

The socialist revolution will be of a different type and will presuppose a disalienated consciousness, as it will for the first time aim at the abolition of all forms of exploitation and not the replacement of old forms by new forms of exploitation. But this will only be possible if the ideology that motivates it becomes something other than the awareness of the demands for development of the productive forces. This does not mean that the statist mode of production, as a new form of exploitative relationship, is not a possible response to the demands of this development.


Only people make their own history. Neither animals nor inanimate objects control their own evolution; are subject to it. The concept of praxis belongs to society, as an expression of the synthesis between determinism and human intervention. The dialectical relationship between infrastructure and superstructure is also characteristic of society and has no equivalent in nature. This relationship is not one-sided. The superstructure is not a reflection of the needs of the infrastructure. If that were so, society would always be alienated and I don't see how it could break free.

This is why I propose to distinguish between two qualitatively different types of transition from one mode to another. When the transition is carried out unconsciously or by alienated consciences, that is, when the ideology that feeds the classes does not allow them to dominate the process of change, which seems to be operating as something natural, as if the ideology were part of nature. For this type of transition we can apply the expression “decay model”. In contrast, if, and only if, the ideology expresses the full and real dimension of the desired change, we can speak of revolution.

Is the socialist revolution in which our age is involved a decadent or a revolutionary type? Undoubtedly, we cannot yet answer this question definitively. In certain respects, the transformation of the modern world undoubtedly has a revolutionary character as defined above. The Paris Commune and the revolutions in Russia and China (and particularly the Cultural Revolution) were moments of intense disalienation and social awareness. But wouldn't we be involved with another kind of transition? The difficulties that make the dismantling of imperialist countries almost inconceivable today and the negative impacts of this on peripheral countries that follow the socialist path (leading to possible capitalist restoration, evolutions towards a statist mode, regression, nationalist alienation, etc.) make us question the old Bolshevik model.

Some people are resigned to this and believe that ours is not a time of socialist transition, but of the worldwide expansion of capitalism which, from this “little corner of Europe”, is just beginning to spread to the South and East. At the end of this transfer, the imperialist phase will not have been the last, the highest stage of capitalism, but a transitional phase towards universal capitalism.

And even if someone continues to believe that the Leninist theory of imperialism is true and that national liberation is part of the socialist revolution and not the bourgeois revolution, could there not be exceptions, that is, the emergence of new capitalist centers? This theory emphasizes restorations or revolutions towards a statist mode in Eastern countries. It characterizes as objective processes of capitalist expansion that were only socialist pseudo-revolutions. Here, Marxism appears as an alienating ideology that masks the true character of these developments.

Those who hold this opinion believe that we must wait until the level of development of the productive forces in the center is capable of spreading to the whole world before putting the question of the abolition of classes on the agenda. Europeans should therefore allow for the creation of a supranational Europe so that the superstructure of the state can be joined to the productive forces. Undoubtedly, it will be necessary to await the establishment of a planetary State that corresponds to the level of the productive forces on a world scale, before reaching the objective conditions necessary for its replacement.

Others, myself included, see things differently. The uninterrupted revolution by stages is still on the agenda of the periphery. Restorations in the course of the socialist transition are not irrevocable. And ruptures on the imperialist front are not inconceivable in the weak links of the center.

*Samir Amin (1931-2018), economist, was director of the African Institute of Economic Development and Planning. Author, among other books, of The challenges of globalization (Ideas and Lyrics)


Samir Amin. Only people make their own history. Introduction: Aijaz Ahmad. Translation: Dafne Melo. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020, 252 pages.

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