Brian Pearce

Marxism and the
Asiatic Mode of Production


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Editor

I’d like to add some comments on the debate on the Asiatic Mode of Production that has been carried on the pages of your journal, as it is a subject that greatly interests me.

Such a socio-political formation could be called ‘feudal’ only by straining the meaning of that term. And there was the nub for ‘Marxists’ who swore by a simple, universally valid sequence of modes of production, cynically referred to in the former Soviet Union as ‘the set of five’: primitive communism, slave-owning society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism. All countries were supposed, according to this formula, to pass through every one of these stages. When I asked an old Comintern hand, Robin Page Arnot, what was thought about the ‘AMP’ in Moscow, he replied that there were two schools of thought on the matter. For one, it was a variant of slave-owning society, for the other a variant of feudalism. ‘One of these interpretations’, he added, ‘is Trotskyism, and each school tries to pin that accusation on the other.’ Both geography and demography were explicitly ‘ruled out’ of historical materialism in Stalin’s chapter in the Short Course history. Ralph Fox was very interested in the East; you may remember that he wrote about Genghis Khan. I am surprised that his name and his writings have been so little mentioned since his death in Spain in 1936 – contrast John Cornford’s ‘legend’. Did King Street or Moscow have something against him? I saw Fox’s essay (done, I believe, while at the Lenin School) many years ago in the British Library.

Being acquainted only with Trotsky’s published works (and not all of them), I do not know whether he ever directly discussed one of the most delicate and contentious features of Marxism. According to the concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production, which Marx merely touches on but which is clearly of great importance in relation to his theory of historical materialism, in such countries as Turkey, Persia, India and China (but not Japan apparently), the form of society was fundamentally different from that in (Western) Europe. There was no private property in land, all land ownership being concentrated in the hands of the supreme ruler, taxes and rents were indistinguishable, and there was no hereditary aristocracy, only collectors of revenue removable at the ruler’s will. This form of society constituted the basis for what came to be called Oriental Despotism, the subject of a famous book by Karl Wittfogel.

In his writings on China, Trotsky did commit himself to remarks which contradicted the idea of ‘Chinese feudalism’, dear to the Stalinists, though as far as I know, he never developed that implicit criticism of the five-stage dogma. Here are the passages I have noticed. In New Opportunities for the Chinese Revolution (September 1927), he wrote: ‘In China there are no noble lords [1] standing in opposition to the bourgeoisie … Unless one is playing with words, there is no feudalism in China … The attempt to create feudalism in China … relies not on facts but on the naked desire to justify collaboration with the bourgeoisie.’ In Three Letters to Preobrazhensky (March–April 1928): ‘China has no landed nobility.’ In Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution (June 1928): ‘There is no caste of feudal landlords in China in opposition to the bourgeoisie … It is capitalist relations that dominate and not “feudal” (more correctly, serf and, generally, pre-capitalist) relations.’ And in the Manifesto of the International Left Opposition (September 1930): ‘A class of landlords as a separate class does not exist in China.’

It would be interesting to know whether any researcher in the Trotsky archives at Harvard has come upon any unpublished writings which relate to this theme.

Could it be that one of the main reasons for the stifling of discussion of the Asiatic Mode of Production in the Soviet Union after 1931 were the circumstances that talk of a society dominated not by a class in the ‘traditional’ sense, but by a bureaucratic caste, could be interpreted as indirect criticism of the regime which was taking place under Stalin?

There is also the question of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’, if I may coin an expression. In a footnote in Capital, Volume 1, Marx says that to get a better idea of feudal society than could be got from current history textbooks, one should look at contemporary Japan. He seems to have appreciated that there was something significantly different between Japanese society and Chinese, etc. It seems likely that this partial similarity between Japan in the 1860s and late-mediaeval Western Europe, marking Japan off from other ‘Asiatic’ societies, may have made it possible for Japan, once European/American capitalism had impinged upon it, to embark on a career of independent capitalist development. (This links up, of course, with the idea, which I share, that capitalism first arose, and could only arise, in Western Europe, the home of feudalism – ‘without feudalism, no indigenous capitalism’. See Marx’s corrections to the historical chapters of Capital, Volume 1, when he revised Roy’s French translation.) It is worth asking if any of the numerous Marxist scholars in Japan have given attention to what surely must be of special concern to them.

In Anti-Dühring, Engels accepts that the state arose in primitive-communist society, before any division into classes, because of the need for defence. This rather obvious idea he abandoned when he came to write The Origins of the Family, etc. If one follows up this line and takes account of the much greater knowledge we have now of the history of Africa and pre-Columbian America, are we not struck by the fact that something like ‘Oriental despotism’ was characteristic of many, if not most, societies outside of Western Europe – and was not necessarily linked with irrigation either? I think that in writing of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’, Marx (understandably, given the limited information available to him) took hold, so to speak, of the wrong end of the stick: it was ‘the West European Mode of Production’ that was peculiar, the Asiatic Mode of Production was the more common type of society. Western Europe had developed, from Greco-Roman antiquity onwards, in a unique way. Perhaps we can suggest this formulation, ‘first the state, then classes’, as applicable to some communities?

My late, lamented friend Pierre Naville was also interested in this subject, and brought to my notice a proposal by some Jesuit, in Louis XIV’s reign, for the King of France to copy the rulers of the East and become the country’s sole landowner.

Brian Pearce

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Note by MIA

1. In the printed version this passage was “In China there are no noble lands ...” In the following issue of Revolutionary History, Pearce corrected this.

Last updated on 30 May 2021