Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Sally L.D. Katary, Land Tenure in the Ramesside Period, Kegan Paul International, London 1989, pp322, £35.00

The development of the Chinese Revolution has had a profound effect upon the history of the world revolution, and hence upon the development of Marxist ideas in the twentieth century. But what appears to have been generally missed is that it also had a massive impact upon the methodology of Marxist historical analysis, by the elimination of an entire mode of production from its theoretical arsenal, that of the Asiatic mode.

Whatever we may feel about his subsequent development, it is to Wittfogel’s credit that he demonstrated that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Ryazanov and Varga all held the theory that Lenin (p.379) and Trotsky applied it to pre-1917 Russia (p.403n), and that Lenin (p.378), Varga and Ryazanov (p.401) applied it to China in particular. [1]

But it was, in fact, the need to justify the Comintern’s disastrous policy in China during the period 1924-43 that was the cause of its removal from the canon of Marxism. As against Trotsky’s argument, that the incorporation of China into the world imperialist market had produced a combination of capitalist, and pre-capitalist features, Stalin fell back upon the stages theory to justify the alliance with the Guomindang, on the grounds that as the previous economy had been feudal, the next revolution must be bourgeois. In his struggle against the theory of Permanent Revolution Stalin had, in fact, defined China as ‘feudal’ as early as 1926. [2] During the crucial discussion among Soviet scholars at the Yenukidze Oriental Institute in Leningrad in February 1931 M.Ia. Godes and S. Yolk pointed out that the theory of the Asiatic mode threatened the work of the Comintern in the colonial countries, and accused its supporters of “Trotskyite leanings”. [3] Godes in particular pointed out that “it turns out that the denial of feudalism in China, or the theory of it, always leads to political errors, and errors of an essentially Trotskyist order”. [4] As Stephen Dunn comments, those who argued against the theory of the Asiatic mode did so, not in opposition to the theory in itself, but because it denied “the feudal character of the Ancient Eastern (and particularly the Chinese) social order”. [5]

In spite of the continued interest in it of certain British Stalinist and Stalinist-influenced thinkers (particularly Palme Dutt and Gordon Childe), Marx’s theory dropped out of orthodoxy, and even out of existence, with ludicrous results. Soviet scholars described Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, India and China, and even the civilisations of the New World, as slave states. [6] Magyar savants extended the analysis to the empire of Attila [7], and whilst some Chinese scholars analysed the Shang and Zhou dynasties as slave states, and others argued that feudalism had appeared in China as early as the Western Zhou dynasty.

Since Marx’s writings on the subject of the Asiatic mode have now all become fully available, modern attacks upon his theory have had to become more sophisticated. In the case of Hindess and Hirst, Althusserian mystifications[8] come to the aid of the censor’s scissors and the concentration camp. Complaining that “the debate has been dominated by empiricist problems”, because it was “of some consequence for the strategy of the revolutionary movements in China and Russia”, they argue that “Marxism-Leninism (read Chinese Stalinism) has rejected the notion of the AMP on theoretical and political grounds, and in doing so it has come nearest to posing the problems of the AMP in a theoretical rather than an empiricist form”. [9] That does not prevent them from trying to cite empirical evidence against Wittfogel’s views (pp.214-5) whilst claiming that “whether forms of this mode have existed or not does not affect its validity as a concept” (p.180). They then proceed to reject it on the grounds that there is no space for it “in the theory of modes of production according to the concepts of that problematic” (p.179), because “class relations are represented as relations between the state and the subject” (p.195), there is an “absence of any ruling class which is not subsumed within the state” (p.192), and that “no classes are supposed independent of the state machine in the conception of the Asiatic mode”. [10] They even try to argue that the very use of the word Asiatic is “ideological” (read racist), forgetting that all early class societies are naturally limited in their existence by geographical factors. [11]

Perry Anderson’s approach is much more sophisticated. He opts to select Medieval Islam and T’ang China in order to show their extreme dissimilarities. But Islam only inherited social structures that had by then long grown senile, and the Chinese imperial system was well in place under the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD), some four centuries earlier than the period he so arbitrarily chooses. Arguing that all the societies grouped under this classification are too dissimilar to make the concept a valid one, and that it was largely the product of Marx and Engels’ “lack of information” (pp.491-2), the theory should be “given the decent burial that it deserves” (p.548). [12]

Unfortunately for Stalin or Mao (depending on which of them you feel deserves your sympathy), the murdered theory refuses to lie down. Stephen Dunn has shown how Soviet Oriental scholars have been surreptitiously disinterring it because of its relevance to their work [13] and its applicability to China has been openly defended by Chinese scholars, Wu Dakun among others. [14] Umberto Melotti has shown how it can be applied to pre-classical civilisation in a stimulating and thought-provoking fashion. [15]

The strongest argument, however, is surely the fact that bourgeois scholarship, entirely innocent of Marxism, has been increasingly bringing support to the theory, at least in the case of Ancient Egypt. ’Abd el-Mohsen Bakir has shown that true slavery in Egyptian history is limited to the period of imperial conquest in Syria and Nubia during the New Kingdom (c.1567-1085BC) and to the Libyan Period (c.1085-715BC), and that for the 2000-odd years expanse of Egyptian history before and after that date only various forms of ‘bondage’ can be demonstrated. [16] Ancient Egypt may have been short of water, but it was not short of manpower. Foreign domestic slaves and skilled artisans in state workshops clearly had a privileged position compared with the extortion practised upon the Egyptian peasant, whether directly of his labour or for the products of it. The question is not, of course, whether slavery existed or not at this early period – it clearly did – but whether it dominated the economy, which it clearly did not. Barry Kemp defines the Egyptian economy as “institutional administration of the redistributive kind”, commenting upon its power to direct labour on public works, and upon the fact that “no one who was prominent and successful claimed to be so on a basis independent of the state”. [17] Jac Janssen, the foremost authority on the economy of Ancient Egypt, noting the fact that even during the New Kingdom slavery is largely confined to households and the production of luxury goods, considers that its economic rôle was “rather small”, and that “no slaves were required for the production as a whole; the agricultural population, unable to leave their fields in order to find others, was virtually bound to the soil, so that no legal coercion such as the slavery system was required”. [18]

Clearly the whole problem hinges upon the question of the relationship between the state and landholding, and here we have an interesting coalescence between Marxist and non-Marxist scholarship. The Russian scholar I.A. Stuchevsky has recently argued [19] that absolute private land ownership as we know it did not exist, that the land entailed to the great religious cults was merely a variety of state land, and that whilst virtual landowning obviously did exist, its legal status is problematic (perhaps nearer what we would call usufruct). He further argues for a tax/rent yield in general as high as 30 per cent. As the physical representative of the gods on earth, it could be argued that the king had title to all land; to what extent it was a legal fiction is impossible to say.

This is the reason why the book under review here, with its seemingly obscure subject matter and its complex computer-based reasoning deserves a mention in a magazine devoted to Marxist history. All discussion of the nature of land tenure in Ancient Egypt must revolve around the great Wilbour papyrus, which lists the tenants and plots of temple property and state land for about 4.6 per cent of the cultivable land between modern Minya and the Fayum during the reign of Ramesses V (c.1154-1150BC). By the application of a number of computer techniques Dr Katary has produced not a few findings that would tend to confirm Stuchevsky’s results – that the property of the four great temple cult groups was handled by the same administration as directly royal land, that secular state officials participated in the grass roots management of temple holdings, that the lands attached to the mortuary cults of previous kings passed in and out of the royal treasury, and that there is even evidence that the Amun cult’s lands provided fodder for the royal army. [20] Speaking of what she calls “the essential unity of temple and crown”, Dr Katary notes that “it as the interaction of the two which defined the contours of the Late Ramesside economy. Such a conception of Ramesside government is not really all that far removed from Stuchevsky’s conception of the Egyptian state of which Pharaoh was the titular head”. [21]

None of this, of course, is conclusive proof that Ancient Egypt was an economy that could be described as organised on the Asiatic mode, and in the nature of the evidence such proof will probably never be forthcoming. But perhaps a closer acquaintance with it might introduce a note of caution, if not of modesty, into the remarks of our Stalinist and New Left wiseacres before they indulge in such sweeping generalisations.

Al Richardson



1. Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism, New Haven, 1957.

2. Op. cit., pp.402, 407.

3. Op. cit., p402.

4. Stephen P. Dunn, The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode, London 1982, p.32.

5. Op. cit., p.36.

6. Y. Zubritsky, V. Kerov and D. Mitropolsky, A Short History of Pre-Capitalist Society, Moscow n.d. (1960s), pp.44-5.

7. J. Harmatta, La société des Huns à l’Epoque d’Attila, in État et Classes dans l’Antiquité escalaviste, Recherches Internationales à la lumiere du Marxisme, no.2, Paris May/June 1957, pp.179-238.

8. Kuo Mo-jo, La societé esclaviste chinois, in op. cit., n7 above, pp.30-51.

9. B. Hindess and P.Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, London 1975.

10. B. Hindess and P.Q. Hirst, Mode of Production and Social Formation, London 1977, p.43.

11. Op. cit., n9 above, p180.

12. Perry Anderson, Note B, The ‘Asiatic’ Mode of Production in Lineages of the Absolutist State, London 1974, pp.462ff.

13. Stephen P. Dunn, op. cit. n4 above.

14. Wu Dakun, The Asiatic Mode of Production in History as Viewed by Political Economy in its Broad Sense', in Su Shaozi and others, Marxism in China, Nottingham 1983, pp.53-77. This analysis of China had already been made some years before by the Russian scholars I. Ostrovitianov and A. Sterbalova, op. cit. n4 above, pp.l06-9.

15. Umberto Melotti, Marx and the Third World, London 1977.

16. A.-M. Bakir, Slavery in Pharaonic Egypt, Cairo 1978.

17. B.J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation, London 1989, pp.234, 319, 232, etc.

18. Jac J. Janssen, Prolegomena to the Study of Egypt’s Economic History During the New Kingdom, in SAK, no.iii, 1975, pp.171-3.

19. For refs, cf. Katary, p.28, n46.

20. S.L.D. Katary, Land Tenure in the Ramesside Period, London 1989, pp.l72, 198-9, 6, 183-4, 66-7, 253, 121.

21. Katary, pp.183-4.

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003