3 dominated an otherwise monotonous plain.

In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 140-145)


Mechnikov's reconciliation of geographical determinism with the unilinear theory of history differs slightly from Hegel's. Firstly, Mechnikov puts more stress on the incentive to centralised social

organisation provided by the river-valley environment, where large-scale planning and work discipline meant the difference between high product­ ivity and disaster (i.e. floods). This strict social organisation in turn gave rise to both civilisation and the despotic state. However, the progress of technology and the growth of wealth, which took place in this epoch, created the need for international relations of exchange, a

G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, op.cit., p. 93. ^ Ibid.


Ibid., pp. 234-235. I have not mentioned Hegel's third and fourth stages (the Roman and German worlds) or Mechnikov's third epoch (the Oceanic), as I feel that the transition between the first two stages, in both cases, most clearly illustrates how the geographical interpretation of history can still be unilinear.


With the revival of interest in the 'geographical deviation' in the Soviet Union there has also been a revival of interest in Mechnikov. See for example M.A. Korostovtsev, 'On the Concept "The Ancient East"' loc.cit., pp. 107-132. V.A. Anuchin, Teoreticheskie problemy geografii, Gos. izd. geog. lit., Moscow, 1960; M.G. Fedorov, Russkaia progressivnaia mysl' XIX v ot geograficheskogo determinizma k istoricheskomu materializmu, Novosibirsk, 1972,

need which could not be satisfied in the geographical environment of the river valley. The Mediterranean was the environment most suited to the unfolding of the second major epoch in Mechnikov's schema of world history, the epoch based on diversity and exchange - i.e. commodity production. According to Mechnikov, the new geographical environment in which history unfolded its second phase also had its specific socio­ political correlates.

Another way in which the transition from the geographical environ­ ment of the river valley to the geographical environment of the

Mediterranean has been depicted as one of the logical progressions of world history is to be found in the work of the late Professor V. Gordon

Childe.'*' According to Childe, the despotic state was the correlate of the needs of production in the river valley. The vast surpluses

accumulated by this state form provided the means by which Mediterranean civilisation was able to reach take-off point without a despotic system of its own. Eastern surpluses supported the development of craft

specialisation in the West, and precisely the fact that in the West the state did not have to play such a leading role in the economy, meant that in the long run Western civilisation was more adaptable and progressive.

All these efforts to reconcile theories of geographic determinism with a universal schema of world history (consisting of progressive

epochs) are interesting in themselves, but as arguments are more difficult to sustain than the equation of geographical pluralism with pluralism of modes of production and social forces not linked in any logical progression. The latter equation is certainly applied by Marx to the earlier phases

of human history, and Plekhanov was an important figure in redirecting attention to this.

See, e.g., V.G. Childe, What happened in History, London, Max Parrish, 1960; Man Makes Himself, London, Watts, 1948; 'The Bronze Age', Past and Present, No. 12 (Nov. 1957), p. 11.

However, Plekhanov is inconsistent on this point in his own writing, and wavers between a geographically-determined pluralism, and the

universal development of a determinate series of social formations according to the immanent logic of material production. When leaning towards the latter view, Plekhanov uses the formula, apparently taken from Elisee Reclus, that nature can have only an accelerating or retard­ ing influence on the development of society. Thus Plekhanov wrote:

The physical environment acts on social man through those social relations which arise on the basis of the prod­ uctive forces, which at first develop more or less

quickly according to the characteristics of the physical environment. •*-

As we shall see, the accelerating/retarding formula was adopted by Stalin, and appeared in all Soviet text-books on historical materialism up till 196 3. (And is still appearing in some contexts.)

However, the significance of Plekhanov's contribution to historical materialism lay not in the popularisation of the accelerating/retarding

formula, but in the alternative view of geographical factors which dominates his work: that the role of the geographical environment is always of fundamental importance in determining the character of social


relations. This contribution was significant because it helped to bring out Marx's multilinear perception of pre-capitalist society: that given the same level of productive forces, alternative forms of social organisation or modes of production emerged in accordance with differing local geographical and historical circumstances. Plekhanov's contri­ bution also provided a counterpoise to the view, to be found in Marx and Engels, that technological development in the capitalist era led to the nullifying of the natural environment as an independent influence on human societies.

G.V. Plekhanov, In Defence of Materialism, op.cit., p. 244. 2

G.V. Plekhanov, 'Once again Mr Mikhailovsky, once more the "triad" ' , Appendix to In Defence of Materialism, o p . c i t p. 291.

The 'Geographical Deviation*: Wittfogel

Although Plekhanov stressed the continuing importance of geograph­ ical factors in historical development, he did not go as far as certain twentieth-century Marxists, who have argued that the geographical factor becomes of greater rather than of lesser importance with the growth of

the material forces of production.

The first important exponent of this view was K.A. Wittfogel, who expressed it in an article published serially in 1929 in the leading theoretical journal of Soviet Marxism.'*' Wittfogel argued that the more man developed his power to 'actualise' nature, .the more important was the role of natural factors in production. This was particularly evident

in the sphere of the actualisation of various natural sources of energy which came to replace human labour in the process of production. The fact that these sources of energy could only be 'actualised' not created ex

nihilo by man meant that he was even more at the mercy of the properties of his geographical environment in respect to the development of his

forces of production.

In his early articles, Wittfogel criticised those exponents of historical materialism,such as Kautsky and Lukäcs, who dematerialised history by treating the social conditions of production as comprising


the basis of history. According to Wittfogel, this viewpoint was


idealistic, in so far as it involved the underestimation of the natural conditions of production.

Wittfogel later illustrated his argument with the example of the

French capitalism. According to his account, the French revolution created all the social preconditions for the expansion of capitalist economic

See K.A. Wittfogel, ' Geopolitika, geograficheskii materializm i mark sizin' , in Pod znamenem marksizma, 1929, Ho. 2-3 (Feb .-March) , p p . 16-42; No. 6

(June), pp. 1-29; No. 7-8 (July-Aug.), pp. 1-28. 2

forms in France. Yet, in spite of the existence of the social and technological preconditions French industrial capitalism made little progress throughout the nineteenth century. Wittfogel found the explan­ ation for France's failure to develop at this stage in her natural environment; in the lack of good quality iron ore for the production of steel; in the lack of extensive coal deposits; and in the unfavour­ able location of those coal deposits that France did have.

In his own account of historical materialism, Wittfogel attempted to establish a clear-cut distinction between naturally-determined forces of. production and socially-determined forces of production. In the former category he placed factors such as water, steam, wind, warmth, electricity, etc., and in the latter category factors such as technology, organisation of labour (or co-operation) , instruments and machines.

The combination of both sets of factors resulted in a particular mode of production, which in turn determined the relations of production, etc.

Wittfogel found natural factors to be of decisive historical importance, though they were not constant in form, different natural factors being

actualised at different periods. Thus a natural resource such as falling water might be of determining importance in one era (with the water- powered mill), might be of negligible importance in the next era (with

the use of steam-powered machinery), and then come into its own again 2

with the invention of the hydro-electric turbine.

Wittfogel applied his theory of ultimate determination of social relations by the natural forces of production to all of the Marxist stages

Pod znamenem marksizma, No. 6 (June 1929), p. 17.

^ K.A. Wittfogel, 'Die natürlichen Ursachen der Wirtschaftsgeschichte', Archiv Für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, Vol. 67 (1932), Part I, p. 467.

of history. He began with the Australian aborigines. These tribes had never been able to advance along the path of human history because of the natural absence in their environment of animals suitable for domest­ ication or cereals for cultivation. The mode of production was limited by natural factors, and any development to pastoral and agricultural

activity, with their corresponding social forms was thus blocked."*" As far as the antique mode of production (which he limits to West Rome) was concerned, Wittfogel saw as the determining natural force the fact that the land was suited to extensive agriculture. However, this mode of production led only into a blind alley, as it depended on slave labour, and when slaves could no longer be pumped into the system


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