THE MARXIST CONCEPT OF THE ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 57-61)

Absichtlich ist es vermieden worden, an dem für uns weitaus wichtigsten Fall idealtypischer Konstruktionen zu demonstrieren: an Marx.

Max Weber

Marx's Perception of the Non-Western World

Marx and Engels took no specific interest in the nature of

n o n -Westem society before 1853. Up till then they simply adopted Hegel's characterisation of the Orient as the relic of a past era of human

history, destined to succumb to the more dynamic civilisation of the

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West. The impact of capitalist commodities was already bringing about a • revolution in the social structure of India and China, for example,

forcing these countries out of their ahistorical vegetation. This is the point that Engels makes in his report to the London Workingmen's Educational Society on the effects that the discovery of America has had on the opening up of a world market:

Since the English have made themselves masters of world trade and brought the state of their manufacturing to such a height that they can furnish almost the entire civilised world with their products, and since the bourgeoisie have attained political power, they have also succeeded in making further progress in Asia; the bourgeoisie have achieved ascendancy there also. Through the rise of machinery the barbarian condition of other countries is continually ruined. We know that the Spanish found the East Indies at the same level of development as did

Marx and Engels refer specifically to Hegel's account of Oriental society only in The German Ideology (written 1845-1846) , Moscow, Progress, 1968, pp. 176-183. Hegel's characterisation of Oriental society, however, colours everything that Marx and Engels wrote on the subject in this

the English, and that the Indians have nevertheless continued to live for centuries in the same manner, i.e. they have eaten, drunk and vegetated, and the.grandson has tilled his soil just as the grandfather did - with the exception that a number of revolutions have taken place which however, amounted to nothing more than a conflict between various races for the government. Since the arrival of the English and the spread of their commodities the Indians have had their livelihood torn from their hands, and the consequence has been that they have departed from their stable situation. The workers there are already migrating and through mingling with other peoples are becoming for the first time accessible to civilisation. The old Indian aristocracy is completely ruined, and the people are being set against each other as much there as here.

Subsequently, we have seen how China, the land which has stubbornly resisted development and all historical change for more than a thousand years, has now been overthrown and

dragged into civilisation by the English and their machines.

In Engels' report, one can observe both the theme of the revolut­ ionary impact of Western capitalism on countries which had resisted change for millennia, and the theme of the contrast between the super­ ficial (political) turbulence of traditional Oriental society and its fundamental (social) changelessness - a theme already encountered in relation to Herder and Hegel, and which was to reappear in Marx's articles for the New York Daily Tribune.

The theme of the revolutionary effects of the capitalist world market on countries previously 'more or less strangers to historical

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development' was also developed by Engels in his Principles of Communism and became part of the Communist Manifesto. Western capitalism, in compelling 'all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois

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mode of production', also brought the possibility of socialism to the

See the [Protokollauszüge über die von Marx und Engels in Londoner Bildungs-Gesellschaft für Arbeiter am 30 November und am 7 Dezember 1847 gehaltenen Vorträge], MEGA 1/VI, p. 638.

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Engels, Principles of Communism (written October 1847), tr. Paul M. Sweezy, London, Pluto, n.d., p. 8.

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non-Western world. Moreover, its role in bringing all nations of the world into contact with one another ensured that:

Whatever happens in civilised countries will have reper­ cussions in all other countries. It follows that if the workers in France and England now liberate themselves, this must set off revolutions in all other countries - revolutions which sooner or later must accomplish the liberation of their

respective working classes.1

The Communist Manifesto describes the impact of capitalism on trad­ itional societies both in terms of the destruction of traditional

manufactures and in terms of the stimulation of material wants, long underdeveloped in Eastern societies. Marx and Engels followed Hegel in the belief that man’ developed his potential powers in the process of satisfying everchanging and diversifying material needs. Hegel wrote that:

An animal's needs and its ways and means of satisfying them are both alike restricted in scope. Though man is subject to this restriction too, yet at the same time he evinces his transcendence of it and his universality, first by the multiplication of needs and means of satisfying them, and secondly by the differentiation and division of concrete need into single parts and aspects which in turn become different needs, particularised and so more abstract .2

Marx and Engels applied this idea to the functions of the world market:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place, of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have inter­ course in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become

Engels, Principles of Communism, op.cit., p. 9. 2

Hegel, Philosophy of Plight, tr. T.M. Knox, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1942, § 190, p. 127.

more and more impossible ...

Marx and Engels were also interested in the non-Western world from the point of view of its role in prolonging the life of European capit­ alism (through the provision of raw materials and markets). This argument became particularly important to Marx and Engels in and after 1850, with the disappointment of their early revolutionary hopes.

But although Marx and Engels foreshadowed their later analysis of the dynamics of interaction between East and West during this period, they did not as yet attempt any explanation of the special character of the Oriental world (as they understood it from Hegel). This was in spite of the fact that their reading in these years encompassed many of the authors referred to in Chapter One, who put forward explanations of the character of Oriental society. Marx had taken copious notes from Montesquieu's De 1'esprit des lois as early as 1843, and in the following

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years he began his study of the British political economists. He read and made extracts from Richard Jones' Essay on the Distribution of

Wealth in 1851, though the latter's analysis of Asiatic society only made

Marx, Engels, Communist Manifesto, l o c . c i t p.36. Cf. Marx's later description of the impact of British capitalism on the traditional Indian village - a community which had 'existed with a given scale of low

conveniences, almost without intercourse with other villages, without the desires and efforts indispensable to social advance. The British

having broken up this self-sufficient inertia of the villages, railways will provide the new want of communication and intercourse'. ('The Future Results of British Rule in India', N.Y.D.T., 8 August 1853, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, p. 135.)

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For details of Marx's reading in these years see Maximilien Rubel, 'Les cahiers de lecture de Karl Marx: 1840-1853', International Review of Social History, New Series, 2, 1957, pp. 392-420. Marx's notes on Smith are reproduced in MEGA 1/3, pp. 457-492. Other writers on the subject of Asiatic despotism with whom Marx came into contact at this time were the Physiocrats, Linguet, and W.A. Mackinnon. (The latter of whom argued that the basis of Oriental despotism was the ownership of all

land by the sovereign combined with a lack of moral principle brought about by the absence of a middle class.) See W.A. Mackinnon, History of Civilisation and Public Opinion, 2 vols., 3rd ed., London, Henry

a real impact on Marx after he had read Jones’ most important source, Francois Bernier, for himself in 1853.^

In 1853, in connection with his articles for the New York Daily Tribune, Marx began for the first time to consider seriously the socio­ economic nature of Oriental society. It is then that the impact of his earlier reading becomes apparent, in conjunction with the further

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research he nov; undertook. Through looking at Marx's correspondence with Engels, it is possible to observe fairly closely the formation of the working model of Asiatic society which was to serve Marx for the rest of his life.

Marx's starting point was Bernier, whose writing convinced Marx that the essence of Oriental society lay in the fact that the 'king is

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In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 57-61)