g., ' all the great empires of Asia have been overrun by foreigners; and on their rights as conquerors the claim of the present sovereign to

In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 67-70)

4 and Engels.

E. g., ' all the great empires of Asia have been overrun by foreigners; and on their rights as conquerors the claim of the present sovereign to

the soil rests'. (Richard Jones, Essay on the Distribution of Wealth, 1831, reprinted N.Y., Kelley and Millman, 1956, p. 110.)


Marx, Grundrisse, p. 493. ^ Ibid., pp. 473-475.

that works of public utility were 'more indispensable in Asiatic countries than anywhere else... ' ^

Hence there is a continuity in Marx's explanation of the Eastern system which Lowe overlooks. Marx did not cease to believe that the state monopoly of the surplus in the East was closely linked with the need for the Eastern state to play an organising role in actualising


the productivity of the soil. It was simply that in Capital itself he was looking more closely at the consequences of such a state monopoly of revenue, although in a way completely foreshadowed in 1853 (the lack


of development of Western-style cities etc.) The role of the village system in hampering the development of a nation-wide division of

labour and commodity exchange v/as also foreshadowed in 1853.

Eric Hobsbavnn, in his introduction to the first English translation of the Pre-Capitalist Formations, pursues an argument which is apparently the source of Lowe's three models of the Asiatic mode of production. Hobsbawm writes as follows:

Ignorance of the Formen has resulted in the discussion of the oriental system in the past being based chiefly . on Marx and Engels' earlier letters and on Marx's articles

on India (both 1853), where it is characterised - in line with the views of the earliest foreign observers - by 'the absence of property in land'. This was thought due to special conditions, requiring exceptional central­ isation, e.g. the need for public works and irrigation schemes in areas which could not otherwise be effectively cultivated. However, on further consideration, Marx

evidently held that the fundamental characteristic of this system was 'the self-sustaining unity of manufacture and

Marx, [Taxes in India], leading article, N.Y.D.T., 23 July 1858, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, p. 335.


Or providing the 'communal conditions of real appropriation through labour' as Marx expressed it in the Grundrisse, pp. 473-474.


The continuity of Marx's analysis is particularly evident in his hand­ ling of the question of the effects of the centralised distribution of revenue on the Oriental city. His first letter on the subject of Oriental society stressed Bernier's description of this, while his later work util­ ised Richard Jones' systematisation of Bernier's material. (See Marx to Engels, 2 June 1853, loc cit., the Grundrisse, pp. 474, 479; Theories of Surplus Value, Part III, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1972, pp. 401, 416,

agriculture, which thus contains all the conditions for reproduction and surplus production within itself .. . 1

Pace Hobsbawm, the 'self-sustaining unity of manufacture and agriculture' in no way explains what Marx regarded as the key to any socio-economic formation - i.e., the way in which the 'unpaid surplus-


labour is pumped out of direct producers'. Marx continued to believe that in Asiatic society the major proportion of the surplus value accrued to the state, in contrast with the situation in Western socio­ economic formations, and that this was primarily because the Asiatic state had a special role in providing the communal conditions of prod­ uction. Indeed Marx suggested that the particular conditions of prod­ uction in Asia which rendered the state the chief exploiter of labour were also the reason why the original Oriental village community was

so much more resistant to the forces of dissolution than were the Western forms of communal ownership. In the West, circumstances arose

in which individual property did not require communal labour for its 3

valorisation. In Asiatic society, by contrast, the individual was doubly dependent on the community, i.e. the community both in the forms of the village community and of the state, for the provision of the conditions of production. Thus exploitation by representatives of the larger community took the place of exploitation by the private individuals who in the West came to control access to the means of production.

Hobsbawm's and Lowe's reaction to Marx's use of the term 'Oriental despotism' and their desire to prove that Marx moved away from such a


concept towards a more 'consistently economic and more cogent' argument

Introduction to Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, ed. Eric Hobsbawm, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1964, p. 33.


Marx, Capital, Vol. Ill, p. 791. 3

Marx, Grundrisse, p. 475. Nicolaus' translation is not directly quoted here, as it is exceptionally awkward, and furthermore renders

'verwertet' rather loosely as 'realised'. 4

Donald M. Lowe, The Function of 'China1 234 in Marx, Lenin, and Mao, op.cit., p. 14.

epitomises the many attempts to 'save* Marx from Wittfogel. These

attempts are misguided insofar as Marx used the terms 'Oriental despotism', 'Asiatic despotism', 'Oriental despot' etc., all his life, although he did not mean by them what Wittfogel means.

What Marx says in the section on Labour Rent in Capital, for example, is that 'there need exist no stronger political or economic pressure'

on the direct producer where the state is his direct landlord, and rent and taxes coincide, than where he is confronted by a private landov/ner, as in the West.'*' Marx regarded contemporary Western governments as more potentially oppressive than Oriental despotisms - to get free of an oppressive social situation was much more difficult in the conditions of social interdependence of modern centralised government than under

2 'the much more "fluid" Asiatic despotism or feudal anarchy'.

In any 'Asiatic' system the exploitation of the direct producers was limited, as in the feudal systems of the West, by the predominance of natural economy. Marx analysed the situation in the following manner:

'It is, however, clear that in any given economic formation of society where not the exchange-value but the use-value of the product predominates, surplus-

labour will be limited by a given set of wants which may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus-labour arises from


In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 67-70)