Asiatic, Tributary or Absolutist?

Posted: 3 November 04

Neil Davidson

A Comment on Chris Harman’s The rise of Capitalism

Since the late 1970s the dominant account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, among the academic left at least, has been that of Robert Brenner and his followers (Ellen Wood, George Comninel, and Benno Teschke). Contributors to International Socialism have generally been less admiring, although responses to Brenner’s work have ranged from critical support for some of his conclusions to outright rejection of them all. Chris Harman belongs to the latter camp. Much of the criticism he has directed at Brenner over the years has been justified, although the central problem is not, as Chris sometimes suggests, that Brenner is obsessed with rural class struggle to the exclusion of all else.1 Indeed, many readers must have gone to Brenner’s key articles, eagerly anticipating detailed accounts of peasant resistance to the lords, only to be disappointed by the scant attention which he actually devotes to this subject. In fact, Brenner is only interested in the class struggle in the countryside as a mechanism for explaining why capitalist social relations of production supposedly emerged only in England, and not in Prussia, France or China. The central problem is rather that he treats feudalism as an enclosed, self perpetuating system which cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions.2 Consequently, the emergence of capitalism, the most dynamic of all exploitative modes of production, becomes a merely contingent and highly unlikely outcome of conjunctural events.3

In his article, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, Chris insists that the potential for capitalist development existed, not only elsewhere in Europe, but globally. By doing so he has helped remove the emergence of capitalism from the realm of accident, where Brenner left it, and return it to that of history.4 Chris does not engage directly with Brenner in this article, except in the footnotes, but his presence lies behind the one aspect of Chris’s article which I find both unconvincing and unnecessary to his central argument, namely his discussion of the Asiatic mode of production.5Chris supports a particular conception of the Asiatic mode of production and denies the very existence of another mode which, over the last thirty years or so, has increasing been invoked as a more rigorous alternative to it: the tributary mode.

Asiatic or tributary? Readers may be forgiven for thinking that they have so far managed to demonstrate against the occupation of Iraq, campaign for Respect or the SSP and attend their trade union branch on a semi-regular basis without feeling the need to take a side on this question, or even notice its existence. Nevertheless, despite the esoteric nature of the terminology, the debate involved is of political importance. The British medievalist, Chris Wickham, one of the key contributors to these debates, once wrote:

Why do we try to categorise world history in Marxist terms at all? Leaving aside the devotional elements in such categorisations – an element that is, as is well known, still strong – the only answer can be Marx’s own: that we understand the world better by doing so, so that we can change it.6

That is the reason why, in the course of registering these disagreements, it might be worth elaborating on some of the arguments to which Chris could refer only in passing.

So why do we need the concept of the Asiatic mode of production? Can we not simply declare that the entire pre-capitalist world, with the exception of the Greek and Roman slave societies, was feudal? In fact, with the exception of few remaining Stalinists, virtually everyone who is interested in this question recognises that the differences between the societies involved are so vast that this position is impossible to maintain. The alternative which Chris adopts is that some of them were ‘Asiatic’ (i.e. dominated by the Asiatic mode of production). Now, Marx himself used the term on a handful of occasions, most notably in the 1959 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.’7 The trouble is that it is by no means clear what Marx means by the Asiatic mode. Anyone who has tried to trace the evolution of his thought on the subject of modes of production – even over the relatively simple matter of how many there are – quickly discovers that Marx changed his mind at least four times, and the picture becomes even more complex when Engels is included. As far as the Asiatic mode is concerned, the confusion is deepened by the fact that both Marx and Engels spoke not only about an Asiatic mode of production, but of Asiatic or Oriental Despotism, a notion out of Enlightenment thought which refers to the nature of the political regime rather than the economic basis of society. Rather than trawl through the Collected Works for every reference made by Marx and Engels to these issues, it might be preferable to assess which interpretations are compatible with their general theory of history and – equally important to those who reject the ‘devotional’ attitude to which Wickham refers – those which in any case have the greatest explanatory power, are able to account for the widest range of evidence, and so on.

So let us leave Marx and Engels aside for the moment: what does Chris mean by the Asiatic mode of production? In A People’s History of the World Chris describes as Asiatic those societies in which ‘the rulers were able, through their collective control of the state machine, to exploit entire peasant communities which farmed the land jointly without private property’, including ‘the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Meso-American and South American’.8 Chris has now revised his position. He excludes India from his earlier list, claims that Marx was wrong to ever classify it in these terms, and argues that at least some territories in India should instead be classified as feudal. The only society which Chris now explicitly wants to describe as ‘Asiatic’ is China, but rather than ‘collective ownership of the state machine’ in general being decisive, it is specifically because the centralised state bureaucracy collectively owns and controls the dam and canal systems by which agricultural land was irrigated and goods were transported inland from the coastal trading regions. If the Asiatic mode is only found in ‘hydraulic society’, then as Chris writes, not only India, but also ‘Islamic North Africa and the Ottoman Empire’ must be excluded from the category, although presumably it can still be applied to Pharonic Egypt and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, in addition to China.9

As Chris notes, the ‘hydraulic society’ thesis was first proposed by the erstwhile German Marxist, Karl Wittfogel, during the 1930s. It has been widely criticised, not to say ridiculed, in the intervening years. In some cases, these criticisms were part of a politically inspired Stalinist campaign. A conference in Leningrad during 1931 put an end to a debate which had been running in the USSR since 1925, by declaring that the ‘Asiatic’ mode was non-existent. There seems to have been two reasons for this edict being issued. The first was that the possibility of an exploiting state which did not rest on private property was, to say the least, an embarrassment to the ideologues of Stalinism, whose state exploited the Russian working class and peasantry…without the existence of private property. The second was in relation to the contemporary situation in China, the ‘Asiatic’ state per excellence. The Left Opposition had argued that the bourgeoisie were too weak to carry out the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution in China and that, as the theory of permanent revolution suggested, the working class would have to lead the revolutionary process all the way to socialism. Since Stalin had been allied with what he imagined was the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the shape of the Kuomintang, and he took it as axiomatic that the bourgeoisie could only emerge out of feudalism, any attempt to declare that China was not feudal, but ‘Asiatic’ undermined these assumptions and was obviously a Trotskyist attempt to criticise the alliance. The rejection of the Asiatic mode remained an article of faith in the USSR virtually down to the end of the Stalinist regime.10 The Stalinists were able to point to the fact that Marx never again used the term ‘Asiatic’ after 1859 and that Engels explicitly refers to only three exploitative modes of production in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and The State (1884).11 During the 1950s, Wittfogel, now turned anti-Communist, seized on these discoveries to claim that Marx and Engels had in fact deliberately suppressed their knowledge of the Asiatic mode because ‘Marx could scarcely recognising some disturbing similarities between Oriental despotism and the state of his program’, a program realised when ‘the Bolshevik revolution paved the way for the rise of the total managerial apparatus state of the USSR’.12 There are, however, perfectly good reasons for rejecting the ‘hydraulic’ model unconnected with either Stalinist ideology or the Cold War purposes to which Wittfogel later put his ideas.

The problem is not the existence of state production and ownership over the hydraulic systems, this has been long established and not only for China, Iran is another example. The problem is the significance which Chris ascribes to it. Dams, canals or any other water-based aspect of the economic infrastructure belong to the forces of production. But modes of production cannot be defined solely by the forces of production involved, since the same forces can co-exist with several different modes. More importantly in this context, neither can modes of production be defined by ownership of the forces of production. It is the process of exploitation, the means by which surplus value was extracted from the primary producers, that is decisive in defining a mode of production and why the societies based on them have what Chris calls ‘different dynamics’ in the first place.13 State ownership of canals in pre-Republican China no more determined the dominant mode of production there than private ownership of canals did in the pre-revolutionary Netherlands. Chris argues that state ownership of these important resources contributed to blocking the emergence of a mercantile class, which is plausible, but completely irrelevant. Collective ownership of the economy in Stalinist Russia by a state bureaucracy certainly prevented the formation of a ‘private’ bourgeoisie (of any significant size) until 1991, but writers in International Socialism – not least Chris Harman – have always argued that there is no fundamental difference in relation to the exploitation of the working class between the Stalinist bureaucracy and either of the private bourgeoisies which preceded and succeeded it. In other words, the Asiatic mode of production may or may not be a useful concept with which to analyse the dynamics of class society in China, or indeed anywhere else – let us leave that to one side for the moment – but either way, its existence is not dependent on state ownership of canals and other waterways.

We are therefore apparently left with two unpalatable alternatives: either reject the Asiatic mode of production and treat every non-slave society between primitive communism and capitalism as feudal, or accept the Asiatic mode on a basis which undermines the Marxist conception of the mode of production. Fortunately the choice is more apparent than real. Ironically, the solution lies in what is usually thought to be one of the greatest weaknesses in of the Asiatic mode. Chris alludes to it in his summary of Marx’s position:

He outlined a theoretical account of societies where the ruling class collectively exploited an oppressed class, which was engaged in collective production. He suggested that this was a transitional form between primitive communism and a fully developed class society.14

The difficulty here, as Chris recognises, is that whatever one thinks about the precise nature of, say, China under the Ming dynasty, it can scarcely be described as ‘transitional’ – it was ‘a fully developed class society’. Perry Anderson has given the clearest exposition of this contradiction within the Asiatic mode:

The notion has, in effect, typically been extended in two different directions. On the one hand, it has been cast backwards to include Ancient societies of the Middle East and Mediterranean prior to the classical epoch: Sumerian Mesopotamia, Pharonic Egypt, Hittite Anatolia, Mycenaean Greece or Etruscan Italy. This use of the notion retains its original emphasis on a powerful centralised state, an often hydraulic agriculture, and focuses on “generalised slavery” in the presence of arbitrary and unskilled labour drafts levied from primitive rural populations by a superior bureaucratic power above them. At the same time, a second extension has occurred in another direction. For the “Asiatic mode of production” has also been enlarged to embrace the first state organisations of tribal or semi-tribal social formations, with a level of civilisation below those of pre-classical Antiquity: Polynesian islands, African chieftainries, Amerindian settlements. This usage usually discards any emphasis on large-scale irrigation works or a particularly despotic state: it focuses essentially on the survival of kin relationships, communal rural property and cohesively self-sufficient villages. It deems this whole mode of production “transitional” between a classless and a class society, preserving many pre-class features. The result of these two tendencies has been an enormous inflation of the scope of the Asiatic mode of production – chronologically backwards to the earliest dawn of civilisation, and geographically outwards to the farther edge of tribal organisation.

Anderson is rightly scathing about the possibility of describing both types of social formation as being dominated by the same mode of production:

What serious historical unity exists between Ming China and Megalithic Ireland, Pharonic Egypt and Hawaii? It is perfectly clear that such social formations are unimaginably distant from each other.15

Anderson is wrong, however, to suggest that the twofold extension of the concept only occurred after Marx and Engels; both sides were already present in their own work. When Marx and Engels refer to the Asiatic mode they are in fact referring to two different modes of production under the same name: the Asiatic and what has come to be called the tributary.

The Asiatic mode ‘proper’, as Anderson indicates, is simply the transitional stage between primitive communism and all of the exploitative modes of production which emerged directly out of it. Historically, class societies did not simply ‘arise’ or ‘emerge’ like Cruise missiles from a silo; they took millennia to form. Indeed, the process almost certainly took longer to complete than the length of time for which the resulting class societies have subsequently existed. There is therefore some use in having a term for societies during this initial and (to date) most fundamental transition. The most detailed discussion by Marx is in the Grundrisse, the notebooks which he kept between 1857 and 1858. Here he describes four different routes out of primitive communism – ‘Asiatic, Slavonic, ancient Classical, Germanic’ – which are in effect all transitional forms in which private property first emerges; the difference between them being the nature of the relationship between the countryside and the city.16 The Asiatic and the Slavonic modes are essentially the same and evolve into the tributary mode as in China and Russia; the ancient Classical mode evolves into slavery as in Greece and Rome; and the Germanic mode evolves into feudalism, as in Scotland or Scandinavia. As the French Marxist Maurice Godelier puts it:

Marx, without having been completely aware of it, described a form of social organisation specific to the transition from classless to class society. ... Because of this relation between the situation and structure it is possible to explain the geographical and historical universality of the form of social organisation which emerges when the conditions for the transition to class society develop: maybe at the end of the fourth millennium BC in the case of Egypt with the transition of the tribal Nilotic societies first to monarchies and then to a unified Empire, or in the nineteenth century with the birth of the Bamoum kingdom in the Cameroons.17

In effect, Godelier is arguing that Marx came to use the term ‘Asiatic’ to embrace all of these transitional forms, and that we should do the same. There is certainly no geographical limitation to the Asiatic mode in this ‘transitional’ sense, despite the quite unnecessary indignation the term has produced in certain writers: ‘No concept of a mode of production can make its geographical location necessary;’ sniff Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, ‘where (or if) a mode of production exists is a contingent and not a necessary matter.’

It can only be, in the last instance, in the form of ‘Spirit’ that geography can be made necessity, and in the form of the Hegelian dialectic which works by exclusion and contradiction. Thus if there were an AMP there would be no reason why it should not occur in Africa, Europe, Australia or the North Pole, its existence in Asia would be contingent.18

At the risk of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, or possibly a pair of nuts, it might be worthwhile recalling the eminently sane reflections of Hal Draper: ‘Just as the discovery of Peking man did not mean that only the Chinese had prehuman ancestors, so too the survival of living-fossil social forms in Asia did not mean that the “Asiatic” mode of production was an Oriental monopoly.’19 Hobsbawm similarly notes that when Marx referred to Germanic and Slavonic modes of production in the Grundrisse, he was not suggesting that they existed only among the Germans or the Slavs.20

Yet there is a problem here. Ernest Mandel writes:

What must we think of the attempts…to reduce the Asiatic mode of production to a socio-economic formation marking the transition from classless society to class society? In order to do this they have to suppress, first and foremost, the key role that Marx and Engels attributed to hydraulic and other large-scale works in the establishment of this mode of production. ... What they are doing, in fact, is gradually reducing the characteristics of the Asiatic mode of production to those that mark every first manifestation of the state and of ruling classes in a society still based on the village community.21

The attempts to which Mandel refers must, presumably, include those of Marx himself, although typically Mandel cannot bring himself to include his name in the charge sheet. Nevertheless, the contradiction remains. In Marx’s journalism of the 1850s, where the concept, if not the term, ‘Asiatic mode of production’ was first introduced, it referred to the dominant mode in contemporary China and India, not societies thousands of years earlier in history. This is where the tributary mode is a useful. It is important to recognise that the latter is not merely a more rigorous alternative to the Asiatic mode – since this would not deal with the incompatibility of social formations stressed by Anderson and Mandel22 – but a separate mode which, as I have suggested, directly followed the Asiatic in many parts of the world.

The concept, if not the term, originates with Marx himself: ‘In the case of the slave relationship, the serf relationship, and the relationship of tribute (where the primitive community is under consideration), it is the slaveowner, the feudal lord or the state receiving tribute that is the owner of the product and therefore its seller.’23 The first person to use the term was probably the Japanese Marxist, Jiro Hoyakawa, in 1934.24 More recently, however, the Egyptian radical economist Samir Amin has been most responsible for popularising its use. He characterises the tributary mode as ‘the separation of society into two main classes: the peasantry, organised in communities, and the ruling class, which monopolises the functions of the given societies, political organisation and exacts a tribute (not in commodity form) from the rural community’.25

Wickham has elaborated on this basic definition, writing that the tributary mode involves a ’”state class” based on a public institution, with political rights to extract surplus from a peasantry that it does not tenurially control’. Wickham argues that the crucial distinction between the tributary and feudal modes lies in the means by which the surplus is collected from the peasantry. In the former, it is through payment of taxation to the state; in the latter, through payment of rent to private landowners.26 For Wickham, there are two further differences between the tributary mode and the feudal. The first is that a tributary state taxes landowners in addition to peasants. The second is that the tributary mode allows far greater autonomy for the peasantry in the process of production than the feudal mode. As a result:

They represent two different economic systems, even if they can come together in some exceptional circumstances. Their differences, their antagonisms, lie in their divergent interventions in the peasant economy, just as their convergences lie in the fact that both are rooted in it. The same productive forces, however, can, be seen as giving rise to two separate modes of production.27

Eric Wolf gives an example of this from India, where the operation of the tributary mode involved domination of the direct producers by the local agents of the state – either military bureaucrats with lifetime grants of land (jagirdars) or hereditary chiefs (zamindars) – responsible for collecting the tribute, part of which went towards their own revenue, part to the central state. ‘The critical difference from the later English practice was that these rights were not, properly speaking, rights of property in land, but rather claims on people’s labour and the products of that labour.’ In some cases the central state bypassed the zamindars completely to extract the surplus directly. In others the zamindars had a feudal relationship with the peasants.28

The concept of the tributary mode has proved useful in our own tradition. Alex Callinicos, for example, follows Amin in general and Wickham in particular in several works, including Making History and Theories and Narratives. In the latter, he advances as a general thesis the case that Chris makes for China alone; namely the power of the tributary state in preventing the growth of an independent class of lords and their transformation into capitalist landlords or manufacturers. He also notes that it has, at the other end of the class spectrum, an interest in preserving the peasantry as a source of tax income. It is therefore precisely the weakness of feudal compared to tributary societies that provide capitalism with the most fertile ground to develop, notably through the greater direct involvement of the lords in the productive process and the existence of fragmented power structures which encourage the flow of commodities.29 (Some care needs to be exercised with this argument, however, since it is also true that the feudal societies in which the central state was weakest – Scotland in the West and Poland in the East – had even less capitalist development than China.)

The question is whether the tributary and feudal modes are different from each other on the basis that I gave earlier: the process of exploitation. Marx himself suggested that they were not. He noted that where peasants form what he called a ‘natural community’, then ‘the surplus labour for the nominal landowner can only be extorted from them by extra-economic compulsion, whatever the form this might assume’: ‘If there are no private landlords but it is the state, as in Asia, which confronts them directly as simultaneously landowner and sovereign, rent and tax coincide, or rather there does not exist any tax distinct from this form of ground-rent.’30 I agree with this and therefore with Chris when he argues that neither the distinction between the central state and the local lord, nor the distinction between taxation and rent, is decisive in Marxist terms:

Otherwise you would have to conclude that there were two different modes of production in feudal Europe – one where the individual feudal lord was the exploiter, the other where the role was played by the collective institution of the medieval church. It can only be correct to identify tax-based exploitation of the peasantry as constituting a different mode of production if it results in a fundamentally different dynamic to society. You would also have to conclude that, as does Benno Teschke…that absolutist France was not feudal, since the exploitation of the peasantry and enrichment of the nobility was mainly through the tax system of the monarchy.31

The reference to Teschke indicates Chris’s real concern here; for behind Teschke stands the figure of Brenner, his theoretical inspiration. Why does Brenner think that absolutist France was not feudal? He argues that the state in pre-revolutionary France ‘developed…as a class-like phenomenon…an independent extractor of the surplus.32 Teschke follows him in declaring that ’[Absolutism] was a sui generis social formation, displaying a specific mode of government and determinate pre-modern and pre-capitalist domestic and international “laws of motion”’.33 Characteristically, Ellen Wood has taken the position to its logical conclusion, arguing that absolutism was not simply a state form typical of the transition from feudalism and capitalism, but a distinct mode of production in its own right: ‘In some Western European cases, feudalism gave way not to capitalism but to absolutism, with its own non-capitalist modes of appropriation and politically constituted property’.34 Or again: ‘The absolutist state was a centralized instrument of extra-economic surplus extraction, and office in the state was a form of property which gave its possessors access to peasant-produced surpluses.’35 It is clear, therefore, why Chris had to change his conception of the Asiatic mode, since it would have otherwise borne too great a resemblance to both the tributary mode and absolutism as conceived by Brenner and Co. In other words, Chris is concerned that, by accepting that a centralised tax-collecting state can be characteristic of a distinct mode of production, we allow Brennerism in by the back door, because this definition effectively also applies to the European absolutist states: ‘Those like Alex [Callinicos] who disagree with [Brenner] over France should not embrace an essentially similar analysis to his when it comes to India.’36

The solution to the problem here has been provided, in my opinion, by an historian of Byzantium called John Haldon. He argues that there is no fundamental difference between tax and rent such as to regard them as constituent of different modes of production: ‘the fundamental difference between these two forms of the same mode of surplus extraction lies in fact in a political relation of surplus appropriation and distribution’. The relationship to peasants of landlords, on the one hand, and of states, on the other, do not differ fundamentally: ‘The forms of intervention vary quantitatively, to a degree; but states and their agents could also be just as involved in the process of production and extraction of surplus as landlords (indeed, in Mughul India, for example, tax-farmers also involved themselves in these relationships). Where both exist it does not imply that there are two different ruling classes (for the state represents the landlords), merely that the state bureaucracy and the landlords represent different factions of the same ruling class and their conflicts are not based on a different relationship to the direct producers, but over the distribution of the surplus extracted from them.37 In other words, the tributary and feudal modes are variations on the same mode of production, but it is the tributary variant which was dominant, both in the sense that it embraced the majority of the world’s population after the fall of the Roman Empire and that these areas remained the most economically developed until the eighteenth century. The feudal mode of production was a peripheral, mainly western European variant of the tributary mode, although as we have seen, it was precisely through ‘the advantages of backwardness’ that capitalism was able to develop more freely that in the hitherto more advanced East.

It is therefore possible to see a connection between the tributary and absolutist states without, as Chris fears, claiming that the latter is some hitherto undiscovered, but non-feudal mode of production. Haldon does not discuss absolutism but if we accept his analysis, then the emergence of absolutism can be seen as the resumption – at a higher level of development – of the form in which feudalism (that is, the ‘tributary’ mode) had generally been experienced outside of Europe. Amin suggests that absolutism would have been the Western variant of the tributary mode, but that it arrived too late to arrest the development of capitalism in the same way that the Chinese state did after 1300.38 Far from absolutism being a sign of the advanced nature of the West, as Anderson maintains, it was in fact an attempt to impose a similar ‘fetter on production’ that the Chinese and other non-European states had already experienced in the form of an over-mighty state superstructure.39 From this basis the main difference between Russia and China on the one hand, and England and France on the other, is that in the former two societies the state was successful in preventing new class forces from developing for such a long period that, in both cases, it was from the working class rather than the bourgeoisie that the challenge eventually came. But there was no necessity for these outcomes, as is demonstrated by the examples of Prussia from the ‘absolutist’ West and Japan from the ‘tributary’ East, both of which made the transition to capitalism.

To summarise an argument which is unavoidably confusing, I think that the most useful applications of the terminology we have inherited are the following. First, the Asiatic mode is the transitional stage between primitive communism and all the initial forms of class society. Second, the tributary mode emerges most directly from the Asiatic mode. It is the main form of pre-capitalist class society and is characterised by the exploitation of the peasantry by a centralised bureaucratic state. (The feudal mode is a variation on this mode in which power is devolved to local lords and corporate bodies.) Third, absolutism is the form taken by the feudal state during the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe. Because of fundamental unity of the feudal and tributary modes, the centralising character of absolutism allows it to play a role analogous to that of the tributary state in the Americas, North Africa and Asia. These usages have the advantage of avoiding untenable notions of ‘hydraulic society’ without conceding ground to the position that there were ever societies inherently resistant to capitalist development.


  1. C. Harman, ‘From Feudalism to Capitalism’, International Socialism 45, Second Series (Winter 1989), pp. 44-6.
  2. Curiously, for a writer whose own political roots lie in the Trotskyist tradition, Brenner’s position is, in this respect, close to Althusserianism, although he is considerably more comprehensible and actually discusses specific historical examples. Compare R. Brenner, ‘The Social Basis of Economic Development’, J. Roemer (ed), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge, 1986), p. 53 with E. Balibar, ‘The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism’, L. Althusser and E. Balibar, Reading Capital (London, 1970), p. 292.
  3. Brenner is actually less dogmatic on this point than some of his followers, particularly Ellen Wood, and has conceded that the capitalist mode of production was established in both Catalonia and the United Provinces at approximately the same time as in England, although without acknowledging how this damages his overall case. See R Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’, T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin (eds), The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985), p. 49, note 81 and ‘The Low Countries and the Transition to Capitalism’, Journal of Agrarian Change, vol. 1, no. 2, April 2001. For Wood’s more-royalist-than-the-King response, see ‘The Question of Market Dependence’. Journal of Agrarian Change, vol. 2, no. 1, January 2002.
  4. C. Harman, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, International Socialism 102, Second Series, Spring 2004.
  5. Ibid, pp. 74-7 and the accompanying footnotes on pp. 85-6, particularly note 57. Responding to a footnote – even a long one, as in this case – may seem somewhat excessive, but we have Chris’s own authority for their significance. See C. Harman, ‘Footnotes and Fallacies: a Comment on Brenner’s “The Economics of Global Turbulence”’, Historical Materialism 4, Summer 1999, p. 95.
  6. C. Wickham, ‘The Uniqueness of the East’, Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 12, nos. 2-3, January/April 1985, p. 167.
  7. K Marx, ‘Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Early Writings, introduced by L. Colletti (London 1975), p. 426.
  8. C. Harman, A People’s History of the World (London, Chicago and Sydney, 1999), p. 27.
  9. Harman, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, p. 74.
  10. For the early debates, see M. Sawer, ‘The Soviet Discussion of the Asiatic Mode of Production’, Survey, vol. 24, no. 3, Summer, 1979, and, for the later, see E. Gellner, ‘Soviets Against Wittfogel: or, the Anthropological Preconditions of Mature Marxism’, in J. A. Hall (ed), States in History (Oxford, 1986).
  11. Engels writes: ‘Slavery was the first form of exploitation, peculiar to the world of antiquity; it was followed by serfdom in the Middle Ages, and by wage labour in modern times.’ F. Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Collected Works, 50 Volumes, London, 1975-2004, v. 26, p. 274. Engels was at this point under the influence of Morgan, whose Ancient Society posits a direct transition from primitive communism to class society without any intervening ‘Asiatic’ stage. See M. Godelier, ‘The Concept of the “Asiatic Mode of Production” and Marxist Models of Social Evolution’, D. Seddon, ed., Relations of Production, London, 1978, pp. 231-35. Lenin followed Engels in referring to ‘these great periods in the history of mankind, slave-owning, feudal and capitalist’. In a lecture to students at Sverdlov University in 1919, Lenin states four times in the space of one page of the printed version that mankind has passed or is passing through slavery to feudalism to capitalism. He also emphasises that each period includes ‘such a mass of political forms, such a variety of political doctrines, opinions and revolutions’ that it was vital for students to retain the fundamental centrality of class divisions to history, and of the role of the state in representing the dominant classes throughout. V. I. Lenin, ‘The State’, Collected Works, 45 Volumes, Moscow, 1962-70, v. 29, p. 477. For his reliance on Engels, see ibid, p. 473.
  12. K. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (New Haven, 1957), pp. 387, 389. Hal Draper decisively disposes of this line of argument in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, 4 volumes, New York, 1978-1990, vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy, pp. 629-38, 657-60. See also M. Godelier, ‘The Concept of the “Asiatic Mode of Production” and Marxist Models of Social Evolution’, in D. Seddon (ed), Relations of Production (London, 1978), pp. 231-35.
  13. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London, 1981), p. 52.
  14. Harman, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, p. 74.
  15. P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London 1974), pp. 485-6.
  16. K. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 479, 495.
  17. Godelier, ‘The Concept of the “Asiatic Mode of Production” and Marxist Models of Social Evolution’, p. 241.
  18. B. Hindess and P. Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (London 1975), pp. 335-6.
  19. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy, p. 537. See also the comments on p. 535.
  20. E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction’, in K. Marx, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (New York, 1965), pp. 32, 35.
  21. E. Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (New York, 1971), pp. 124-5.
  22. Anderson criticises Godelier on precisely this point. See Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, p. 486, note 3.
  23. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 443.
  24. See S. Amin, Class and Nation Historically and in the Current Crisis (New York, 1980), p. 68.
  25. S. Amin, Un-Equal Development (Hassocks 1976), pp. 15-6. For an overview of Amin’s life and opinions, see D. Renton, ‘Samir Amin: Theorising Underdevelopment’, in Dissident Marxism (London and New York, 2004), Chapter 9.
  26. Wickham, ‘The Uniqueness of the East’, pp. 170-1.
  27. Ibid, pp. 182, 187.
  28. E. R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982), pp. 243, 247 (quote). Engels made essentially the same point in 1890. See Engels to Danielson, 10 June 1890, Collected Works (50 volumes, London, 1975-2004), vol. 48, p. 507.
  29. A. Callinicos, Theories and Narratives (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 171-6. The other major analysis of a tributary society, from within our tradition is Colin Barker’s study of Japan, ‘The Background and Significance of the Meiji Restoration of 1868’, which inexplicably still remains unpublished.
  30. K. Marx, Capital: a Critique of Political Economy, (3 volumes, Harmondsworth, 1976), vol. 3, pp. 925-7. My emphasis.
  31. Harman, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, p. 85, note 57.
  32. Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’, p. 55.
  33. B. Teschke, The Myth of 1648 (London and New York, 2003), p. 191.
  34. E. M. Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (London and New York, 1991), p. 159.
  35. E. M. Wood, The Origin Of Capitalism: a Longer View (London and New York, 2002), p. 184.
  36. Harman, ‘The Rise of Capitalism’, p. 86.
  37. J. Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London and New York, 1993), pp. 67, 84 and pp. 75-87 more generally.
  38. Amin, Class and Nation Historically and in the Current Crisis, p. 88
  39. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, pp. 428-430.