g , Marx, Grundrisse, p 474.

In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 122-129)


E. g , Marx, Grundrisse, p 474.

development of the division of labour. The second factor, extensive­ ness of territory, Marx saw as having some connection with the creation


of despotic systems. Marx did not, however, follow Montesquieu in arguing that empires of a certain size have definite institutional


correlates regardless of other variables. Nor did he take up Hegel's position that:

...States - other things equal (sic) - derive a different qualitative character from magnitudinal difference. Laws and constitution become something different when the extent of the State and the number of its citizens increases.

The State has a certain measure of magnitude, and if

forced beyond this it collapses hopelessly under that very same constitution that was its blessing and its strength

for as long as its extent alone was different.*234 5 [I.e., the transformation of quantity into quality.]

Marx's theory of history, however, diverged from contemporary theories which stressed the role of geographical factors not so much in


the geographical factors he regarded as of decisive importance as in the temporal limitations he placed upon their importance. According to Marx's conception of historical progress, geographical factors, as contrasted with social factors, diminished in importance pari passu with the develop­ ment of man's productive powers.^ Progress, for Marx, consisted in the

Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 351-352; Vol. Ill, p. 177. 2

Marx, Second draft of letter to Vera Zasulich, 8 March 1881, Werke, Vol. 19, p. 399.


Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Vol. 1, London, Colonial Press, 1900, p. 122.


Hegel, Science of Logic, tr. W.H. Johnston and L.G. Struthers, Vol. I, London, Allen and Unwin, 1929, p. 390.


Or in how they exercised their influence on society, whether directly, as Montesquieu tended to claim, or through the mode of production as the Germans, from Kant through Herder and Hegel, had argued.

^ Pace Wittfogel, whose examples of Marx's supposed recognition of the decisive importance of geographical factors in 'advanced' countries are extremely weak (e.g. the shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and then to the Pacific as the centre of world trade.) See Werke, Vol. 7, pp. 220-21.

movement from naturally determined human relationships to historically evolved social relationships.^

The forms of production originally evolved under the direct impress 2

of natural conditions. But as man developed his technological capacities, 3

the importance of geographical influence moved into the background, and his productive activity assumed forms that contained a historical logic of their own. This process culminated in the development of capitalism which tended to universalise itself, regardless of local particularities.

Marx's concept of the receding importance of geographical factors was to be faithfully reproduced by the Soviet historian Pokrovsky in his widely used textbook, The Brief History of Russia. According to Pokrovsky Russia's natural environment was a prime cause of its economic retard­ ation during the greater part of its history. While agriculture was the basic mode of production, Russia suffered from the disadvantage that the Central European plain could only be cultivated for about five months of the year, for climatic reasons. This disadvantage was overcome with the onset of industrialism, because factories could operate for 12 months of the year, using imported raw materials where necessary. At the same time the creation of a railway network compensated for the lack of natural waterways for the transportation of goods. Hence Russia was able to

catch up rapidly with the rest of Europe, and its original geographical 4

disadvantages became increasingly irrelevant.

Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, tr. S.W. Ryazanskaya, Moscow, Progress, 1970, p. 213.


Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 472-473. 3

This is not the case with predominantly agricultural nations which

remain to a great extent determined by the natural conditions of production. Marx tended to share Hegel's views on the Slavs as an unhistorical nation restricted in their development of consciousness by their naturally deter­ mined mode of production. See also their views on Asiatic nations.


M.N. Pokrovsky, A Brief History of Russia, 10th ed., 2 vols., Mirsky, London, Martin Lawrence, 1933, Vol. I, pp. 31-33.

Or, as a more recent Soviet historian puts it:

...the influence of the geographic environment upon a given society is inversely proportional to the degree to which that society is equipped with technology. In other words, the lower the technological level of society's develop­ ment, the more strongly it is influenced by the geograph­ ical environment, and vice versa. The obviousness of this proposition can hardly be challenged.1

The effect of capitalism in eliminating the multiplicity of locally determined modes of production was described by Marx as follows:

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its

production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments

of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.^

In the same vein Marx wrote:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature.^

These passages Marx's works of the account, nature was with human activity

from the Grundrisse reflect the general account in relationship between man and nature. According to this destined to become 'humanised' - completely imprinted


and appropriated to human ends. Already under

M.A. Korostovtsev, 'On the Concept "The Ancient East"', Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1970, No. 1, tr. in Soviet Studies in History, Vol. IX, No. 2

(Fall, 1970), p. 110. 2

Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 409-410. 3

Ibid.fP. 706. See also ibid.f p. 705 for man's 'understanding of nature and his mastery over it' embodied in existing forces of production which only need to be reappropriated by man in order for socialist man to

develop on their basis. 4

Marx,[Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts], in Early Writings, ed. T.B. Bottomore, London, V7atts, 1963, p. 15 7.

capitalism man had come close to ‘mastering' nature, and only the distorting influence of existing social relations prevented him shaping it to serve completely human purposes. Under capitalism, nature as

something independent of human activity no longer existed 'except perhaps 2

on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin'. However the kind of new geographical environment (let alone the social environment)

created by the advances of technology under capitalism was not necessarily benign. For example, river water ceased to be a suitable medium of

existence for the fish

as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive the fish of its medium of existence.3

Elsewhere Marx wrote in connection with the human mediation of nature that:

Climate and the Vegetable World Throughout the Ages, a History of Both, by Fraas (1847), is very interest­ ing, especially as proving that climate and flora have changed in historic times.... He maintains that as a result of cultivation and in proportion to its degree, the 'moisture' so much beloved by the peasant is lost, .(hence plants migrate from south to north) and event­

ually the formation of steppes begins. The first effects of cultivation are useful but in the end it turns land into wastes owing to deforestation, etc.... The conclusion is that cultivation when it progresses spontaneously and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he of course does not arrive at this),

leaves deserts behind it - Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., ^ Greece. Hence again an unconscious socialist tendency!...

The image of 'mastery over nature' is one that is constantly recurring in Marx, particularly in the Grundrisse. It is expressed as the 'Subject­ ion of Nature's forces to man' in the Communist Manifesto, MESW, Vol. I, p. 37.


Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Moscow, Progress, 1968, p. 59. Ibid., p. 55.

Marx to Engels, 25 March 1868, MESC, p. 202. 4

Marx's whole concept of socialism rested on the proposition that man was acquiring the capacity not simply to create his environ­ ment but consciously to plan his environment in such a way that he could both know and control even the remote consequences of his

activities. This proposition is essential to Marx's theory of alienation. The alienated condition of man could not be overcome unless it had become possible for man to control the products of his activity rather than to be controlled by them. Marx's statements in the Grundrisse to the

effect that nature becomes universally appropriated by man (and hence is to be regarded as in fact an extension of man) imply that the dial­ ectic between man and nature comes to an end under socialism. Not only has nature become permeated by human activity, but man has become capable of controlling the results of his activity, keeping them subordinate to his purposes. In Capital itself a rather different approach to this question appears. There is no longer the concept of a full reconcili­

ation of subject and object (man and nature) as the culmination of the dialectical development of world history.'*' Although nature is humanly mediated, it still retains an independent objective existence, and still holds man in the grip of necessity in so far as production of the basic means of existence is concerned.

In Capital, V o l . I, Marx writes:

For a full account of the change in Marx's concept of the ultimate relationship between man and nature, see Alfred Schmidt, Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx, Frankfurt a.M., 'Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1962. Schmidt argues that the young Marx (as for example represented in the EPM) took over from Hegel the view that the dialectical process re­ presented the overcoming, step by step, of everything not identical with the subject (Schmidt, p. 117). Schmidt claims, with some justification, that in Marx's mature materialism this view was replaced by a belief in the ultimate irreconcilability of subject and object.

The labour-process, resolved as above into its simple elementary factors, is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural

substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature, it is the everlasting Nature-imposed

condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather is common to every such phase.

In this passage Marx projects the continued determination of man by non-human factors. This view is presented even more strikingly in the famous passage in Capital, V o l . Ill, which reads:

Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social form­ ations and under all possible modes of production.

Even under socialism this interchange with nature remains a 'realm of necessity.'^

Marx also wrote that,apart from the degree of development in the form of social production, the productiveness of labour in general was

'fettered' by physical conditions. Thus in the early stage of human development, productiveness was determined by natural wealth in the means of subsistence, such as fertile soil, while at a higher stage of develop­ ment, it was determined by the accessibility of natural sources of

3 energy.

In Capital, Marx appears to have come a little closer to the views 4 on the relationship between man and nature normally ascribed to Engels.

Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 183-184. 2

Marx, Capital, Vol. Ill, p. 820. 3

Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 512. 4

Although Engels is inconsistent on this as on other topics. In most of his later works he describes man's coming mastery over nature in terms of his increasing knowledge of the laws of nature and of natural necessity, but he is also capable of statements such as that socialism represents

'humanity's leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom' (Anti-Dühring, tr. E. Burns, London, Lawrence and Wishart, n.d. (reprinted with some minor revisions from 1934 ed.), p. 312.)

Engels had also begun with the proposition that socialism represented the 'reconciliation of man with nature and with himself.'^ The form which this reconciliation took in Engels' 'mature' works (after he had absorbed the influence of Darwin), is as follows:

If this were so [if consciousness and thought were accepted as being in contrast to being, to Nature], it must seem extremely remarkable that consciousness and Nature, thinking and being, the laws of thought and the laws of Nature, should be so closely in

correspondence. But if the further question is raised: what then are thought and consciousness, and whence

they come, it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of Nature, which has been developed in and along with its environment; whence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis

also products of Nature, do not contradict the rest of Nature, but are in correspondence with it.^

Whereas for Marx the reconciliation of man and nature (where he projects it) represents the assimilation of nature by man, for Engels it appears to represent the assimilation of man by nature. Engels

interpreted the future in terms of man's increasing recognition of those 'general laws' which govern both man and nature, and in terms of man's increasing ability to apply correctly those laws. In Engels as well as in Marx, the dialectic between man and nature is transcended, but in Engels

this is because when men 'not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature ... the more impossible will become the senseless and anti-


In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 122-129)