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In Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' own critique of political economy, it refers to the combination of the means of labor (tools, machinery, land, infrastructure, and so on) with human labour power. Marx and Engels probably derived the concept from Adam Smith's reference to the "productive powers of labour" (see e.g. chapter 8 of The Wealth of Nations (1776)), although the German political economist Friedrich List also mentions the concept of "productive powers" in The National System of Political Economy (1841).
All those forces which are applied by people in the production process (body and brain, tools and techniques, materials, resources, quality of workers' cooperation, and equipment) are encompassed by this concept, including those management and engineering functions technically indispensable for production (as contrasted with social control functions). Human knowledge can also be a productive force.