The rise of capitalism

Issue: 102

Chris Harman

Capitalism is a peculiar form of class society. Like previous class societies it involves a minority section of society grabbing the surplus created by the toil of the rest of society. But there are important differences. Previous ruling classes simply seized the surplus, while capitalists get it by buying people’s capacity to work (what Marx called ‘labour power’). And previous ruling classes used almost all the surplus on their own luxury consumption or on fighting each other. The use of any of the surplus to improve the means of production was spasmodic. Economic growth was usually slow, often non-existent, sometimes negative for centuries at a time. Capitalist ruling classes, however, are driven by economic competition within and between themselves to plough a sizeable portion of the surplus back into expansion of the means of production. There is not merely economic growth, but compulsive accumulation. It is this which has enabled capitalist ruling classes that two and a half centuries ago controlled only fringe areas of north western Europe to engulf the globe today.

The question as to why this new form of class rule arose in certain parts of western Europe and not elsewhere has long perplexed historians, including Marxist historians. It was one of the problems the bourgeois sociologist Max Weber tried to deal with in his extensive, and often tortuous, writings. It runs through the great three-volume study Capitalism and Civilisation by the French economic historian Fernand Braudel.1 It has also been at the centre of two big debates among Western Marxists—that among those close to the Communist parties in the 1940s and early 1950s, published in the volume The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,2 and that among ‘New Left’ historians in the 1970s, published in the volume The Brenner Debate.3

The issues raised in the debate do not seem to have much practical importance for socialists at the beginning of the 21st century, now that capitalism has clearly conquered the whole globe, leaving virtually no pre-capitalist states in existence. This is in sharp contrast with the situation for earlier generations of socialists, raised in a world in which pre-capitalist ruling classes, or at least the remnants of them, still exerted a decisive influence over state structures, so that how to break their grip could seem all-important for those in what we now call the ‘Third World’.

Nevertheless, the issues remain of ideological importance. The argument is still widespread that capitalism arose in western Europe as a result of the special values of a Hellenic or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ cultural inheritance. It is used by apologists for capitalism like David Landes,4 opening the door to the conclusions that ‘Western values’ have to be defended at all costs from the ‘values’ of ‘Islamic’, ‘African’, ‘indigenous American’ or other cultures, which are then blamed for the poverty of much of the world.

The narrow and wider debates

Unfortunately, much Marxist discussion of the question has been quite narrow in scope. It has concentrated on the particular factors that allowed western Europe to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism from the 16th century onwards while eastern Europe went through the phase of renewed feudalism, often called the ‘second serfdom’; on why England became capitalist before France did; or on the character of the society that existed in England between the end of serfdom (in the late 14th century) and the full emergence of capitalism (a good three centuries later).5

I tried to take up some of these narrow issues in an article I wrote some dozen years ago.6 One of the things I stressed was that concentrating, as much of the debate did, on why Britain moved towards capitalism before France, or western Europe before eastern Europe, can obscure the most obvious thing—that right across much of Europe (or at least western and central Europe) there was the rise of a new form of production and exploitation standing in partial contradiction to the old form from at least the 14th century onwards. But I paid little attention in that article to the wider question as to whether similar forces were at work in the civilisations of Asia,7 the Americas and Africa. And if so, why did industrial capitalism emerge in parts of Europe before going on to conquer the rest of the world? I did deal with this wider question in passing in my book A People’s History of the World.8 But, as Robin Blackburn noted in a very friendly review of the book, my treatment of the debates over the issue was ‘peremptory’.

Yet these are the questions that were raised in an explicitly non-Marxist manner by Max Weber in his writings on religion, and which have been raised again in a strongly anti-Marxist way by David Landes in his much-hyped The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.9

These are also the questions that have attracted new interest from a variety of works over the last decade or so—Abu Lughod’s Before European Hegemony,10 J M Blaut’s The Colonisers’ View of the World,11 Gunder Frank’s ReOrient,12 M S Alim’s ‘How Advanced was Europe in 1760 After All?’,13 Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming’s Chinese Capitalism, 1522-184014 and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.15 In contrast to those like Landes, these works stress, to different degrees and from different perspectives, elements of similarity within the economies of the conjoined Eurasian and African continents.

Abu Lughod stresses the level of development of trade and economic output in the period before 1500 in what Europeans called ‘the Orient’.16 M S Alim argues that it is by no means self evident that Europe was ‘more advanced’ than the rest of the world in the 18th century. He claims:

The historical evidence indicates that wages in India and Egypt were comparable to those in the historically advanced countries… Indian wages in textiles and agriculture were at least equal to those in Britain… Egypt had a per capita income of $232 in 1800 compared to $240 for France… In agricultural productivity Brazil and Pakistan in 1820 were ahead of France and Ireland, and India was at par with Ireland… The leading industrial countries in 1750 had only a modest lead over lagging countries in manufacturing output per capita. If Britain’s industrial manufacturing output per head was 10, then China’s was 8, India’s 7, Brazil 6, France 9, Belgium 9, the US 4.

All this suggests ‘a near parity of economic development of western Europe and China, India and the Middle East as late as 1800… The progress that Eurocentric accounts have attributed to Europe was part of a general development that affected Asia and the Middle East as well’.17

Blaut argues that there was a system of trade stretching from Asia through the Middle East and the northern half of Africa to the southern fringes of Europe in the medieval period that linked great agrarian societies dominated by ‘feudal’ ruling classes. Within each of these there was a:

…process of increasing urbanisation and increasing long distance commodity movements which characterised the late middle ages throughout the hemisphere… In all three continents we find relatively small rural regions (they were generally hinterlands of major port cities), along with a few highly commercialised agricultural and mining regions, which were clearly being penetrated by capitalism… Among them were Flanders, south eastern England, northern Italy, sugar-planting regions of Morocco, the Nile Valley, the Gold Coast, Kilwa, Sofala (and hypothetically part of Zimbabwe), Malabar, Coromanchel, Bengal, northern Java and south coastal China… Cities clothed the landscape from northern Europe to southern Africa to eastern Asia… We can distinguish a special group of cities that were strongly oriented toward manufacturing and trade, were more or less marginal to powerful feudal states and were engaged in long distance maritime trade.18

It is a mistake, Blaut insists, to contrast ‘Europe’ with ‘China’, ‘India’ or ‘Africa’ in the way the discussion about the rise of capitalism often does. The focus instead should be on the similarity of development within enclaves of ‘proto-capitalism’ to be found within each global region. And the existence of the intercontinental trade network ensured new productive techniques flowed rapidly from one to another: ‘The diffusion of technological innovations had gone so far that the productivity of human labour was hardly ever limited by lack of technical knowledge of a kind available to other farmers in other parts of the hemisphere’.19

Such passages have the great merit of stressing the global context against which capitalism developed in certain regions of western Europe, especially the spread of trade and advances in productive techniques. This is a welcome corrective to the narrow focus on supposedly unique developments in late medieval western Europe.

They accord with parts of my own (often implicit) argument in A People’s History of the World. Capitalism is not a product of some peculiarly European development. Since the first agriculture in the Middle East some 10,000 or so years ago there has been a cumulative, if sporadic, growth of new forces of production spreading right across the connected land masses of Europe, Asia and Africa. The rise of capitalism in Europe is just one passing phase in this whole process. Elements pushing for capitalism began to emerge in several different parts of the world. In practice these elements developed more slowly elsewhere than in Europe for contingent historical reasons (or rather, more slowly than western Europe, for things were much more like India than England in huge swathes of eastern and southern Europe)—and then arrived too late in the day to do so independently. It was not ‘European values’ that created capitalism, but rather capitalism that created what we think of as European values. And capitalism did not arise because of some unique European occurrence, but as a product of the development of the forces and relations of production on a global scale.

But these points alone leave unanswered the question of why countries like Holland and Britain could then begin to undergo further changes before the rest of the world. Blaut skirts round the question by describing the network of medieval cities as ‘proto-capitalist’ and insisting that ‘feudalism in Europe was no nearer its final demise in 1492 than were the feudalisms of many extra-European regions’.20 But feudalism did suffer its demise in at least these two parts of Europe in the following century and a half. There ‘proto-capitalisms’ began changing into full-blooded capitalisms. Elsewhere the transformation stopped, or even reversed, with feudal forms of production deepening their hold in Poland, eastern Germany, the Czech lands, the Balkans and even parts of northern Italy that had seemed at the forefront of proto-capitalist development at the time of the Renaissance in the 15th century.

Instead of dealing with this question seriously, Blaut has a tendency simply to dismiss those who raise it as ‘Eurocentric’—as if it is somehow Eurocentric to recognise that parts of Europe, their rapid economic growth and their global empires were a dominant factor in world history from at least the mid-18th century onwards. This tendency is even more marked in the recent works of Gunder Frank, who claims ‘Marx’s entire “theory of capitalism” was vitiated’ by ‘Eurocentric’ assumptions that ‘Europe was different’.21 He replaces the notion of capitalism with that of a world system supposedly existing since the first emergence of a trading class, without there being any such thing as the ‘rise of capitalism’ separate from the industrial revolution.22 He sees a single dynamic to the productive system based upon ‘long’ or ‘Kondratieff’ waves going right back to 10th century China23 or even to the Bronze Age.24 This is to deny the most elementary fact—that we live today under an economic system based, as no other was, on the drive to accumulate for the sake of accumulation. And this is not just a result of the growth of trade.

Trade and the rise of class society

Class societies began to emerge in various parts of the world from around 5,000 years ago onwards. Over a period of several centuries, what had once been communal production fell under the control of ruling minorities who ensured it provided them with an increasingly luxurious and leisurely lifestyle. At first they tended to exploit the rest of society collectively, as temple priests or royal households, rather than through private property. On this basis civilisations as diverse as those in the Nile Valley, ancient Iraq, northern China, the Indus Valley, central America, the Andes, Crete, Ethiopia and west Africa developed.25 Over time central control tended to weaken and a class of ‘aristocrats’, ‘gentry’ or ‘lords’ to emerge which exploited direct cultivators in each locality. At the same time, the polarisation of society into classes found its reflection in greater or lesser degrees of disintegration of the old communal forms of agricultural production and the emergence of peasant households as the main productive units. There would then be a continual tussle between the central state administration, with its corps of tax collectors, and the local rulers over who got the lion’s share of the surplus which was taken from the peasants in the form of labour services, crops or, sometimes, cash. All these societies had one thing in common—the ruling class, whether made up of lords and aristocrats or of state administrators, took the surplus directly off the peasant producers, without any pretence of exchange of goods.

Such ruling classes increasingly felt the need for products that could not be obtained simply from the local cultivators. They needed materials for palace and temple building, for the making of armaments and for luxury consumption. Such things could often be obtained only by looting distant peoples, or through some sort of exchange with them.

There was some exchange long before the rise of classes. Archaeologists have found artefacts that must have been made many hundreds of miles away among the remains of hunter-gatherer settlements of southern France more than 20,000 years ago, and the circulation of the products of human labour was even more widespread in the agricultural societies that began to emerge ten millennia later. There was no other way, for instance, that the villagers of the river plain of southern Iraq could get metal ores and even wood (since the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates was virtually treeless). But the circulation of products in pre-class societies was not trade in the sense that we know the term today. It was not carried out according to strict calculations of profit or loss, but according to traditions of gift-giving and gift-taking, based on customary rites, much as continued to happen in pre-class societies in places like Polynesia right into the 20th century.26

The rise of the ruling classes of the new civilisations transformed this situation. They demanded distantly-obtained products on a scale that could not be satisfied by the old-established customary networks. At the same time, they were rarely prepared to face the hardship and risks involved in procuring such things themselves. People soon emerged who were—in return for a share of the surplus the ruling class had obtained through exploiting the cultivators. So specialised traders got a ‘mark-up’ by selling to the ruling class goods from a great distance away. Some were individuals from the exploited cultivator class, others from the nomadic peoples living between the centres of civilisation. But regardless of their origins, they began to crystallise into a privileged classes separate from the old ruling classes.

Such merchant classes emerge in similar ways in societies with little or no contact with each other: in second millennium BC Babylon and Egypt; in India, China, Greece and Rome by 300 BC; in Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico by AD 200; in the Arabian peninsular by AD 600; among the Mayas of the Yucatan Peninsula by AD 1000; on the northern coast of the Andean region by 1500 BC. Once in existence such a class usually left its mark ideologically and politically as well as economically. The spread of each of the great world religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam—was along trade routes travelled by the merchants. The world’s major languages often developed out of the vernacular forms by which people communicated with each other along trade routes and in marketplaces. And sections of the established agrarian ruling classes repeatedly found the merchants useful allies in struggles with other sections for dominance: the rise of the Ch’in kingdom and then empire in northern China and of the Mauryan empire in India in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC depended on such manoeuvres, and the Arab dynasties that ruled the Middle East a millennium later owed their success to reliance on merchants as well as tribal armies and landed exploiting classes.

But in these alliances the merchants were always the junior partners to the rulers, and much mistrusted by them. Merchant wealth came from siphoning off some of the surplus under the control of the old ruling class, and this was resented. So the most powerful merchant could suddenly be thrown into prison, lose his head or be cut in half. He lacked the independent base in production and exploitation to do much more than kowtow to the old rulers.

Marx made a distinction between merchant capital (that profits from financing trade), usurers’ capital (that makes profits from interests on lending) and productive capital (that profits from employing workers to operate its means of production). Merchant capital and usurers’ capital existed under all the old empires, wherever there was large-scale trade or moneylending. But productive capital made only a rare and fleeting appearance. In ancient Rome, for instance, the most successful ‘capitalists’ were the ‘tax farmers’, whose wealth came from the contracting out of tax collecting by the state. In Ch’in and Han China (300 BC-AD 300) the merchants collaborated with the state in running the salt and iron monopolies. In the Arab empires of the Middle East the goods traded by the merchants were produced by peasants exploited by big landowners, by self employed artisans or, occasionally, by state enterprises—not by enterprises run by the merchants themselves.

The preconditions for full capitalism

It is wrong to equate such usurer or merchant classes, who are dependent on exploitation carried out by others, with capitalism as such, as non-Marxists such as Braudel do—and as does Gunder Frank.

The system as we know it today could only come into existence because at some point a capitalist class emerged that did directly control production and was therefore able to directly exploit people on its own account, rather than simply being an intermediary between other exploiters.

One precondition for the emergence of true capitalism, as Marx showed, was the separation of the immediate producers (those who did the work) from the means of production, which passed into the hands of the new exploiting class. The producers then had only one way to get a livelihood. They had to persuade the members of this exploiting class to make use of their capacity for labour (their ‘labour power’) in return for a remuneration sufficient to keep them alive and fit for work. But the level of that remuneration was substantially lower than the value of the goods produced by their work. The difference, the ‘surplus’, went straight into the pockets of the owners of the means of production. They gained the fruits of the exploitation of labour, even if it was legally ‘free’, just as much as the old ruling class that exploited unfree labour.

Marx described in Capital the forcible separation of the workforce in Britain from control over the means of production by the driving of people from the land with the enclosures of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and the ‘clearances’ of the 19th century. In many parts of the world the process continued right into the 20th century with the seizure of ‘native’ lands in places like southern Africa by white colonists—and also with the so called ‘collectivisation’ of agriculture under Stalinism.

Without such a separation of the workforce from the means of production the spread of production for the market could lead, not to capitalism, but to a new variant of serfdom, the so called ‘second serfdom’ of eastern and southern Europe, or to the encomienda system in Latin America. The output of production in these regions was directed towards world markets, but the internal dynamic was very different to that of capitalism, with its drive to competitive accumulation.27

Slavery, serfdom, free labour and exploitation

Separating the producers from the means of production was not by itself sufficient to bring about the development of capitalism. There are many historical instances in which such separation did not lead to capitalism. For example, in Italy under the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars (the 2nd century BC) the peasants were driven from the land by indebtedness. What replaced them, however, was not wage labour but large-scale slavery.28 Even the world’s first industrial enterprises did not necessarily employ wage labour: Nishijima Sadao writes that ‘professional workers, convicts, captives and corvée labourers’ did the work in Ch’in China (3rd century BC).29 A thousand years later the biggest factories in China were state run, and:

Labourers were normally paid by the state…but this did not mean that the artisans worked voluntarily for the state… Many skilled workers were drafted in to work for the government [and] artisans were subject to cruel and harsh punishments if their service was deemed unsatisfactory; not a few of them were even tortured to death.30

Slavery was a logical way for a ruling class to extract a surplus from those it exploited, since direct physical control was certainly a way to make someone work for you. It provided certainty that the maximum proportion of social labour would accrue to the exploiter.

But it had a downside whenever increasing production depended upon the initiative of the labourers. If they bitterly resented the conditions under which they toiled then the quality of the good produced was likely to suffer, and any tools used in production were likely to experience excessive wear and tear. There was also the problem of supervising slave labour, which could be an expensive business, since the slavedrivers had to be provided for out of the surplus from the slave, and ‘super’ slavedrivers had to exist to stop the slavedrivers taking too much of that surplus.

From early on there were critics within ruling classes of the deleterious effects of slavery on total output. Already, as in the ‘Discourse on Salt and Iron’ in 81 BC China, there were critics of conscripted labour, who ‘pointed to the poor quality of the tools actually produced in the imperial iron agencies’ and ‘deprecated the misuse of state labour’.31 Much the same argument was repeated by Adam Smith 1,800 years later in his objections to unfree labour in The Wealth of Nations and in the mid-19th century by industrial interests in the north eastern US who opposed the westward spread of the slave system of the South.

In fact, slavery was not the main form of exploitation in most agricultural class societies. Rome under the late Republic and early Empire was the exception, not the rule. In ancient Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, ancient India, ancient China, and in the empires of the pre-Hispanic Americas, production was in the hands of peasant households, who were then forced to hand over their surplus or provide a certain amount of unpaid labour to landowners or state officials. Serfdom or something close to it prevailed, not outright slavery.

What is more, where slavery did exist, occasions occurred in which sections of the ruling class could come to see advantages in moving to serfdom—in half-freeing former slaves. This happened in the later Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries—as the price of slaves rose many landowners opted for the ‘colonate’ system of serf-like peasant production. The French Marxist historian Guy Bois has argued that it happened again in the 10th century in western Europe, as those who controlled the landed estates discovered pragmatically that giving greater responsibility to the individual peasant household led to a growth in agricultural output.32 Replacement of total control of the workforce (slavery) by partial control (serfdom) may have led to a fall in the proportion of the total output going to the lord, but this was more than compensated for by the growth in that output.33

Forces of production and relations of exploitation

This last example also points to something important which too many Marxists have ignored out of a desire not to appear too ‘crude’ or ‘economistic’. Changes in forms of exploitation are connected with changes in production methods. It was precisely because new productive techniques were beginning to spread into western Europe—usually from the other end of the Eurasian land mass—in the 10th and 11th centuries that it made sense to those who controlled the land to devolve more responsibility to the peasant household. For the new techniques worked best when there was careful tending of crops and farm animals, something difficult to attain using slaves. Changes in the forces of production encouraged changes in the relations of production.

This was the point of Marx’s famous summary of the development of different modes of production in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1857:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.34

It was also the point he made some ten years earlier, when he claimed:

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.35

The summation is crude. It is also historically inaccurate. What accompanied the rise of European feudalism after the 10th century was not the spread of the handmill, but its replacement over the centuries, the watermill—and the watermill then went on to play an important role in the genesis of industrial capitalism. But Marx’s central point was correct. There was a necessary connection between production methods and the most fruitful way for a minority to exploit the rest of the population. And this was not just true of the rise of European feudalism. It was also true of the rise of exploitation based upon ‘free’ labour—of capitalism.

This is something ignored by the school of thought which emphasises the role of the market in the rise of capitalism, but also by the rival school which stresses the importance of bitter class struggle. As they debate with each other, they make the symmetrical mistake of neglecting the processes by which humans advance their capacity to wrest a livelihood from nature.

For capitalism to arise, there had not only to be separation of the immediate producers from control over the means of production, but also new ways of producing that would give the exploiters a bigger surplus when operated by ‘free’ waged labour rather than by slave or serf labour. And these new ways of producing had to be such that they escaped from the control of the old agrarian ruling classes (or at least from the major sections of those classes).

Mechanisation, markets and capitalism

Productive capitalism was not possible before a certain point in human history. This was when there was a massive escalation of the use of the products of past labour to increase the productivity of present labour, when the use of relatively simple tools began to give way to the first mechanisation, in the broadest sense of the term.36

This could have a fourfold effect. It (1) increased the output—and therefore the potential surplus—to be obtained from a given quantity of labour. It (2) increased the cost of equipment and materials needed to undertake production—and therefore the likelihood that the individual producers would not be able to supply them themselves. It (3) increased the dependence of production on the initiative and commitment of the producer (if only because more care needed to be taken on the expensive equipment) and therefore the advantage of exploiting ‘free’ as opposed to serf or slave labour. And it (4) increased the importance of trading networks which could supply raw materials and dispose of the increased output.

Where ‘mechanisation’ had all four effects it separated immediate producers from control over the means of production on the one hand and encouraged the use of ‘free’ labour by the new class of controllers on the other. It also increased the integration of the whole production process with the market.

All four effects were not always present. Often in the early stages the individual producer still partially owned and controlled the means of production, although becoming increasingly dependent on merchants, landowners or moneylenders for funds and raw materials. In these cases transitional forms to fully capitalist production flourished—for instance, the putting-out system in the towns, share-cropping in the countryside. As we have seen, there were also many cases in which slave or serf labour was used in early forms of industrial production. And in some cases at least, mechanised forms of production were quite compatible with the denial of any initiative to some groups of labourers. This was true on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean in the 18th century and the cotton plantations of the American South through the first half of the 19th century.

Yet once ‘mechanised’ processes were under way the possibilities of a transition to capitalist forms of production were there. The development of productive capitalism depended on such developments in the forces of production. By contrast, where such developments did not occur, merchant and usurer capitalism were possible, but not productive capitalism.

This explains why capitalism did not develop in the ancient civilisations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands or in the pre-Hispanic civilisations of the Americas. In neither case were the forces of production sufficiently advanced for a new class of capitalist exploiters independent of the old ruling classes to emerge.

The not so dark ages

There is a traditional, purely European, view of history which sees the second half of the first millennium AD as one of stagnation and then regression, the ‘Dark Ages’. The view is not completely true even of Europe, where the decline of urban life was accompanied, by the 9th and 10th centuries, by the spread of new agricultural methods. And the view is completely wrong when it comes to other parts of the Eurasian-African landmass. Across wide regions the productive forces underwent accelerated development, and with it there were possibilities for new social relations of production.

This was most clearly the case in China. Already in the Ch’in and Han periods (the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD) there was the large-scale production of cast-iron implements (not known in Europe until the 14th century), and by the Sung period (around the year 1000) there were new advanced ways of harnessing horses, the use of milling machinery and of farming implements on the land, book printing, paper making, the working of bellows by water power in iron making, the use of pit coal in metallurgy and explosives in pits, the making of weapons, clothing, ships and luxury goods under factory-like conditions, and the construction of clockwork devices. Joseph Needham has shown how all sorts of key developments in mechanisation occurred in China many centuries before they were known in western Europe.37

Merchant classes arose that were able to influence society politically by making alliances with monarchs against the big landed aristocrats, in much the same way as in the absolute monarchies that arose at the end of the west European feudal period. Sometimes these merchants moved over from involvement in trade alone to involvement in the production of things like iron, salt and luxury goods. And by the end of the first millennium the owners of large estates began to see advantages in relying on tenant farmers or wage labourers to work them—again, a development similar to that which took place in the late European Middle Ages. The economic and political changes were matched in both periods by ideological ferment, with new sets of ideas challenging the Confucian worldview of the landed gentry class.38

By the 12th century this society had most of the productive techniques which were to be associated with the rise of capitalism in western Europe 500 years later. There was widespread use of ‘free’ labour. And there was a merchant class capable of exerting influence on the state. Yet capitalism did not break through.

To explain this, you have to look not just at the forces of production, but the interplay between what Marx called the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’.

The political superstructures of the successive Chinese dynasties from the Ch’in (around 300 BC) onwards were large, costly and highly cohesive, centred around structures of bureaucratic control that survived at the core of large local states even during times when the central empire collapsed. This necessarily restricted the space in which members of the merchant class could develop their own independent political presence. In the T’ang period (around AD 700) the state kept tight control over the cities to prevent their inhabitants exhibiting any independence—walls divided the cities into separate wards, and police patrolled the streets at night to prevent people moving around. The old ruling class remained in control, cramping further development of the forces of production while wasting a vast proportion of existing output, until the state could no longer sustain itself and went into crisis.

Considerable changes in production also occurred in the Indian subcontinent from about 400 BC through to around AD 500. There was a rapid growth of urban crafts, flourishing internal trade and international trading networks which stretched to Vietnam, Indonesia and China in one direction and to the Roman Mediterranean in the other. But important techniques known in China were not to be found in India (for example, the use of cast iron), and from about the 6th century AD onwards there was a decline of trade and urban life while the focus for the artisan crafts shifted to the villages, where they were integrated into a caste system increasingly dominated by a priestly layer, the Brahmins. There were still important advances in productive techniques, but they mainly seem to have been in agriculture at a time when trade and urban life were in decline.

Just as the Indian societies were experiencing this ‘ruralisation’, there was a contrary process taking place across the Middle East and North Africa (and in Moorish Spain). The growth of influence of the merchants in the century after the Arab conquests of the 7th century was such that some historians have referred to the revolution that established the Abbasid dynasty in the 8th century as a ‘bourgeois revolution’.39 There were sophisticated, long distance banking systems, advances in seafaring allowed merchants to ply the whole region from southern China to northern Spain, and paper making and silk weaving spread there from China. Overall there was a massive development of merchant capitalism and usurers’ capitalism. But production in the countryside was still dominated by old landed classes and in the cities by petty artisans, leaving little possibility for productive capitalism to emerge. Important Chinese techniques like printing and iron casting were not adopted, even though there were groups of Arabian merchants in southern Chinese cities who would have been aware of these innovations. Under such circumstances the urban classes who had played an important political role at the time of the Abbasid revolution lost their influence. The historic centre of the Middle East, Mesopotamia (Iraq), went into decline by the beginning of the second millennium as a result of a deterioration of its irrigation system and overexploitation of its peasantry, while the new centre, Egypt, was constrained by the rapacious rule of a military caste (the Mamelukes).

Again these events can only be understood by examining not merely the growth of production and the changes in class composition that accompanied this, but also the clash between political and ideological formations associated with old and new forms of production—the interaction of base and superstructure.

Here there is a real contrast in the medieval period between the situation of the eastern empires and that of much of Europe. The superstructures in medieval Europe were weak and fragmented. A plethora of local lords struggled with each other to exploit and dominate the mass of people in each locality, often barely recognising the authority of kings and emperors who themselves were involved in continual dynastic conflicts. The main instrument of ideological control, the church, was organised along hierarchic lines of its own, with allegiance to popes in Rome (and at one point in Avignon) whose political ambitions often clashed with those of kings and lords alike. This fragmentation allowed the merchant and artisan classes to create political space of their own, running many of the towns in which they resided, sometimes by agreement with local lords, princes and kings, sometimes in continual struggle against them. By the 14th century they were an independent element in the political geography of regions like northern Italy and Flanders; they were important components that enabled powerful monarchies to contract themselves in France, Spain and Britain in the 16th century; and they provided launching pads for the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th century (in Holland and England) and the late 18th century (in France).

The weakness of the European superstructure itself had a cause—the relatively backward character of north western Europe in the first millennium AD. The lower level of development of the forces of production meant that the superstructure was much less developed in the 10th century than in China or the Middle East. As I put it in A People’s History:

Europe’s very backwardness encouraged people to adopt from elsewhere new ways of wresting a livelihood. Slowly, over many centuries, they began to apply techniques already known in China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and southern Spain. There was a corresponding slow but cumulative change in the social relations of society as a whole—just as there had been in Sung China or the Abbasid caliphate, but this time without the enormous dead weight of an old imperial superstructure to smother continued advance. The very backwardness of Europe allowed it to leapfrog over the great empires.40

The adoption of new techniques in agriculture encouraged such fragmentation of the superstructure, at least at first. The techniques required the peasant family to be able to concentrate on production with at least a minimal guarantee that it would not see a distant aristocrat or tax collector walk off with all the benefits. Production advanced where there was a local lord who ‘protected’ (in the mafia sense of the term) as well as robbed the peasantry.

Nevertheless, by the 14th century Europe had imposing and expensive superstructures of its own. Its cathedrals may still look amazing, but they diverted vast amounts of surplus from being used to further improve production—as did the castles, the monasteries and abbeys and the near endless wars between emperors, kings and popes. All these factors together did provoke the enormous social crisis of the 14th century—and a further great period of crisis in the 16th and 17th centuries. Whole regions which had been expanding rapidly were thrown right back as a result. But, and here was the major difference with similar crises at the end of the Sung period in China and the Abbasid period in Mesopotamia, the development of the forces of production resumed where it had left off after relatively brief periods, based on the beginning of the emergence of new relations of production.

Not that the Chinese superstructure was unchanging. It entered into deep crisis at the end of the Sung period. First a Turkic people conquered the north, splitting the empire in two, and then the Mongols conquered both parts. The Mongol Chinese empire in turn fell apart in the face of an agrarian crisis and peasant rebellions in the 14th century which finally culminated in the conquest of the state by the Ming dynasty.

The crisis which led to the fall of the Mongol dynasty and its replacement by the Ming occurred at the same time as the great crisis of the 14th century in feudal Europe and seems to have had similar roots. The sheer costs of the sustaining the luxury consumption of the ruling class and an increasingly elaborate superstructure prevented further advances in food production, giving rise to famines, plagues and discontent among all the lower layers of society.

But the outcomes of the two crises were different in important respects.

In China the local revolts gave way to a new, centralised empire whose rulers consciously followed a strategy of keeping a tight check on the growth of the merchant and artisan classes. And they did so with remarkable success, so that although there was an expansion of trade and industry and the development of a certain independent culture catering for the classes involved in them, these classes never developed the bases of semi-autonomous political power they were able to exercise in many European towns. As Wu Chengming tells, although there was a growth of markets, the big landlords in the countryside relied upon slaves and bondservants of their labour: ‘For the period before the 1840s we have found records of only two or three landlords involved in cash crop farming of a more or less capitalist nature. Wage labour of a truly capitalist character was extremely rare’.41 So although agricultural products were sold in the towns, only a very small proportion of products flowed from the town to the countryside.42 Meanwhile, most industrial production was by small-scale, independent craftspeople. ‘Embryonic capitalism’ did not make its appearance until ‘two centuries later than in Europe’.43

The weak development of an independent productive base of China’s money and merchant capitalists made it difficult for them to intervene independently as a social force. In parts of the south eastern Chinese seaboard, the merchants formed armed groups during the middle Ming period (ie the 16th century) to protect illicit trade and to fight against imperial armies that tried to stop it. These might be seen as potential seeds of a bourgeois power standing in opposition to the empire, but they were seeds that did not germinate, despite the fact that production in China may well have been more advanced, in terms of output per head and of techniques, than in western Europe at that time.44 And when the Ming empire entered its great period of crisis (again, at the same time as a period of great crisis in Europe, that of the 17th century), there were embryos of new forces, with a worldview of their own, but they were far too weak to raise the prospect of reshaping society in their own image.

There was a sharp contrast not just with revolutionary Holland and Britain, but also with some other regions of Europe. The ‘strong monarchies’ of the 16th century and the absolutisms of the 17th and 18th centuries were actually fairly ramshackle affairs, dependent on the ability of monarchs to bribe as well as intimidate local power-holders in the towns as well as the countryside. Even after rulers had crushed revolts in the most bloody fashion (as the Austrian monarchy did in the Thirty Years War), they still depended on degrees of compromise and could not prevent some new social forces continuing to emerge, creating the conditions for a new wave of struggle a century or two later.

The case of India

Those Europeans who first came into direct contact with India in the latter part of the 18th century, when the British began their conquest of the subcontinent, found a region much of which was undergoing a deep economic and political crisis. They interpreted this as meaning that India had never known anything other than economic stagnation—a view that influenced Marx’s writings on India more than half a century later. Indian economic historians, many of them influenced by Marxism, have shown how wrong that view was.

R S Sharma, for instance, has argued that in early medieval India at least there was a similar, through not identical, feudal mode of production to that in medieval Europe:

Feudalism appears in a predominantly agrarian economy which is characterised by a class of landlords and a class of servile peasantry. In this system the landlords extract surplus through social, religious or political methods, which are called extra-economic. This seems to be more or less the current Marxist view of feudalism. The lord-peasant relationship is the core of the matter.45

As in Europe there was room for certain advances in productive methods within this:

We can certainly identify significant changes in the mode of production in early medieval times. This period was undoubtedly an age of larger yields and of great agrarian expansion… Animal husbandry was improved because of care given to the treatment of cattle diseases… The use of iron became so common that it began to be employed for non-utilitarian purposes… The increase in the number of varieties of cereals including rice, wheat and lentils as well as in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and so on, is striking.46

In the later medieval period, after the conquest of most of northern India by Muslim monarchies from the 12th century onwards, much of the surplus taken from the peasantry went into the hands of state officials rather than old local lords. As Irfan Habib has noted, ‘The king’s bureaucracy thereby became the principal exploiting class in society’.47 This has led some historians (including Habib) to see this period at least as non-feudal.

But the central productive relation remained that between the dependent peasantry and those that exploited them, even if the exploitation was to a large extent carried out by the state rather than individual lords. And for much of the period the impact was to produce changes like those which occurred in later medieval Europe—a growth of towns, increased reliance on markets and money, and a transformation of much of agriculture. Habib writes that after the first conquests:

Large-scale trade between town and country must have resulted. This in turn promoted the cultivation of superior crops… The large export of grain and other produce from the country, caused by the exaction of the revenues, maintained a class of specialised grain merchants… Town crafts also grew.48

With the establishment of the Mogul empire in the 16th century, there was ‘the growth of commerce and the extensive activation for the market… The rapid spread of the tobacco crop within the first 50 years of the 17th century throughout the length and breadth of India is an index of how quickly the peasant was now able to follow the market’.49

There was development of the means of production, with the adoption of many of the same innovations that took root in medieval and early modern Europe. Irfan Habib has pointed out that the Indian subcontinent had developed to the same general level in making elementary machines as western Europe by the 17th century. The building of the Taj Mahal in the mid-17th century utilised the skills and techniques of craftsmen from right across Eurasia, while the Indian textile industry used looms and spinning wheels essentially the same as those used in 16th and early 17th century Europe. Overall, there was a massive growth of markets, of trade, of craft production (it is worth remembering that in the 18th century India sold much more to Europe than vice versa) and of urbanisation.

The direction of economic and social development in India was not fundamentally different to that in Europe. This was because of considerable similarities in both the relations of exploitation and the productive forces. The direction in which Indian and west European economic development was heading was the same. There were considerable differences in speed of development. But these difference existed on just as great a scale between different regions within both Europe and India.

It was the impact of the political superstructure reacting on the economy that brought the development to an end across wide swathes of northern India. The monarchy followed a policy of moving its officials from area to area every few years so as to stop them ever establishing the independent local roots which would give them the ability to resist central control. But this meant the officials set out to enrich themselves as quickly as possible at the expense of the local people, showing little concern about sustaining, let alone increasing, the productivity of the land under their control. According to Habib, the flow of agricultural products to the markets of the cities was not matched, as in parts of Europe, by a flow of manufactured goods from the cities to the countryside, where some could have contributed to increasing output. The resulting limitation to the domestic market could also help explain why the machines used to make goods in the cities of 17th century India were generally made of wood, while metal was used in Europe.50 By the end of the 17th century the weaknesses in agriculture were reducing the productive resources of the empire as a whole and leading to rebellions and civil wars, which further sapped productive resources.51 The break-up of the old superstructure might, in time, have led to an unlocking of the indigenous forces pushing towards capitalist or semi-capitalist forms of production. But something else intervened first. The merchant capitalists of the still dynamic region of Bengal saw the easiest way to protect their trade as backing the emerging political power of the British East India Company.52

The controversy over the ‘Asiatic mode of production’

Marx argued at certain points that what existed in India was an example of an ‘Asiatic mode of production’ different to the feudalism of western Europe.53

He outlined a theoretical account of societies where the ruling class collectively exploited an oppressed class, which itself was engaged in collective production. He suggested that this was a transitional form between primitive communism and a fully developed class society. This seems in fact to have fitted the description of certain ancient societies (early Sumer, early Egypt, Peru). But, as we have seen, he was fundamentally mistaken in seeing India as an unchanging society with a static economy.

Some people have concluded that Marx was right in one respect—in seeing the major role played by the state administrators in exploitation as leading to a mode of production so different to that of European feudalism as to deserve a different name—whether the ‘Asiatic mode’, ‘the tributary mode’ or some other name.54

But this approach is mistaken regarding India. The increased importance of the state as against the individual landlords did not stop there being some remarkable similarities in the trajectories of late medieval and early modern India and Europe—especially when you take into account the backwardness of much of Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. The differences that do exist do not need the whole conceptual apparatus of a different mode of production to explain them. As the Turkish Marxist Halil Berktay has pointed out, ‘Each [feudal] society is not just the feudal mode but also its entire superstructure, which, moreover, comes into being as a concrete historical reality through a specific process woven by innumerable hazards, and each such society thereby also incorporates elements of the soil on which it arises’.55

To fail to see this is to fall into a ‘vulgar economic determination’ which ‘consists in holding that the actual movement of any given society will reach the potential dynamic of its mode of production fully and completely’.56

The conquests of northern India by armies from the north west of the subcontinent in the 12th and again in the 16th centuries led to the temporary imposition of powerful, centralised political superstructures, which sapped productive resources and hampered further economic developments. But similar things happened at various points in parts of Europe—for instance, after the wars of religion of 16th century France and the Thirty Years War in 17th century central Europe. And in any case, there was a tendency after a period of about a century and a half for the superstructures of the northern Indian empires to begin to crack apart, opening up possibilities for a more ‘normal’ development of feudalism—and within it the possibility of embryos of productive capitalism.57

The notion of the Asiatic mode of production has been applied to China as well as India. The German Sinologist Wittfogel did so in the 1920s and 1930s while still a Marxist, presenting a relatively sophisticated picture of clashes between three exploiting classes in China from the 5th century BC onwards—an old feudal class based on land ownership, a bourgeoisie of merchants, and a state bureaucratic class which controlled the hydraulic systems (dams and canals) important for agriculture and trade.58 After he had migrated to the US, ceased to be a Marxist and adopted a hard Cold War ideology, Wittfogel tried to generalise his notion to vast regions of the world with a theory of ‘oriental despotism’. In most cases, his arguments consist of little more than saying there is a powerful despotism and that therefore there must be some mode of production different to that which developed in medieval Europe.

However, it seems to me that he did have a point in his original Marxist attempt to come to terms with Chinese society. This was a region, as we have seen, where repeated and powerful trends towards the development of capitalism occurred, but never quite broke through the superstructure. And there was one significant factor about the mode of production that was different to Europe (and, for that matter to India, Islamic North Africa or the Ottoman Empire of the early modern period). This was the centrality of canal systems for irrigation, transport and flood control. From about 400 BC onwards centrally planned canal systems were important for agriculture in parts of northern China. But their importance soon became much greater than that. They provided the vital transport system for carrying food and raw material to the cities of the north—salt from the coast, iron and, from the time of the T’ung and Sung empires on (from the 7th to the 12th centuries), rice from the Yangtze valley. The actual transportation of these things might be in the hands of merchants. But they could not do without the canal system, and these required the existence of an imperial state bureaucracy.

In other words, the bureaucracy was based not simply on balancing between different classes, but had an independent base of its own through its control of a major means of production. This was a means of production the merchants could not do without, and so they could never raise revolutionary demands against the bureaucracy. Nor, for that matter, could the large landowners who emerged at various points in Chinese history. They had a common interest with the bureaucracy in maintaining a strong central imperial state, rather than an opposed interest in creating local networks of power under their own control.

So it was that each period of crisis and peasant revolt culminated in the restoration of the centralised superstructure, within which the merchants and artisan classes played a subordinate role. It was not until the empire was on the verge of collapse at the beginning of the 20th century that the Chinese bourgeoisie began to play an independent role—and even then it was limited by fear of the workers and peasants on the one hand and by continued dependence on the state on the other (so that Guomindang (Kuomintang) China was characterised by massive levels of state capitalism).

The subordinate role of the merchants and artisans did not stop significant advances in the forces of production in China, even after the Sung period. But it did mean that China lost the massive lead over Europe it held in the 10th century, and it also meant that those forces pressing for reform of the empire in the 11th century were too weak to be successful. It also hampered those pushing for some equivalent of the Renaissance in the 17th century, so creating a growing dependence on Western science and technology for further advance.

The long trajectory of Chinese history is perhaps best understood as shaped by two elements in the productive base of society—an agricultural base with a tendency to develop rather like European feudalism, with potentially capitalist elements emerging long before they did in Europe, and a ‘hydraulic’ base encouraging the formation of a bureaucracy powerful enough to block the elements of capitalism from ever breaking out of marginality.

Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming use the term ‘feudalism’ to describe the society of imperial China. But they point to a great contrast between its development and that of feudal Europe:

In medieval Europe, the struggle between the power of money and the power of the land…was played out in the towns… A burgher class emerged and turned the towns into autonomous worlds… In China, however…landlord power extended to town and countryside… Genuine exchange between town and country—the exchange of handicraft and agricultural products—was inhibited, and there was a one-way flow of agricultural and peasant handicraft products to the towns, a weak market for urban handicraft products and false impression of circulation… In the Ming and Qing periods [ie the 15th to late 19th centuries] the situation changed slightly with the rise of new commercial towns; but they were few and far between and could not escape from feudal controls and levies. The merchant class could not transform itself into an independent political and economic force and thus play a revolutionary role.59

The state administrative structure had ‘far greater control than in feudal Europe or even in the monarchies of the 16th century’. The examination system for public positions was ‘an intellectual straitjacket’, in the late Ming period ‘tax inspectors were sent out to harass merchants, constantly provoking riots and revolts’,60 and right through to the first European conquests ‘the state used its power to inhibit foreign trade because of the political aim of strengthening feudal rule’.61

In other words, the extraordinary power and social weight of the superstructure cramped the growth of the embryos of capitalism.

The role of the conquest of the Americas

Blaut and Gunder Frank do have one explanation for why Europe was to achieve global dominance. They argue that the conquest of the Inca and Aztec empires in the Americas gave certain European states control of massive new sources of silver at very little cost, and could then use them to buy up enormous resources from east and south east Asia, so providing a massive boost to their own economies. But that leaves major questions unanswered. The states that actually controlled the Americas (Spain and Portugal) were not the ones that made the first transitions towards full capitalism. In the three centuries after Columbus’s voyage, the economy of the Castilian heart of Spain stagnated. Getting control of the silver was not enough. There had to be societies capable of taking advantage of it, that is, societies in which the first embryos of capitalism were already growing out of feudalism. As Kenneth Pomeranz has pointed out in relation to Gunder Frank’s argument, ‘If one imagines a world in which Europeans had reached Mexico or Peru, but in which all of Europe had social structures like Romania, or even Prussia, it seems unlikely that much silver would have been shipped to China’.62

And why were the ‘proto-capitalists’ of other continents unable to challenge the west European domination of the gold and silver sources, if they enjoyed the same technological dynamic as early modern Europe? In the early 15th century Chinese maritime technology was ahead of that of Europe and a Chinese fleet was able to sail across the China Sea and the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa. Yet a century and a half later it was Spanish and Portuguese, not Chinese, ships that were circumnavigating the world and grabbing the silver that was so much in demand in China.

Blaut’s arguments (and all of those which see western Europe’s rise to world dominance simply as a result of its pillaging of other parts of the world) take for granted that which they seek to explain. You can explain the rise of the European empires if their domestic economies had a certain productive edge compared with those in the rest of the world. You cannot provide such an explanation if you believe that right across all three continents there were not only enclaves of ‘proto-capitalism’, but that they were all at the same stage of development. The fact is that somehow or other changes did take place in parts of western Europe which may have existed elsewhere in embryonic forms but never reached maturity. You can only explain that by looking at the concrete history of each region, with the interplay of productive forces, productive relations, political superstructures and rival class forces.

Alim does recognise ‘the possibility that a few countries in western Europe had acquired by 1500 small but critical advantages in gunnery and shipping, which permitted the conquest of the Americas and growing domination over the maritime commerce of the Indian Ocean’, so accelerating ‘capital accumulation and technical change in the leading maritime countries of Europe’.63

But the advances in gunnery and shipping were not completely isolated from other factors. They were part of wider developments which meant that parts of Europe not only caught up with the more advanced technologies of the East, but leapfrogged over them. Rodney Needham, the noted historian of Chinese science and technology, recognised this. Although Chinese inventors had arrived at clockwork and other technological devices hundreds of years before their European equivalents, these devices were not in general use and the Chinese had much to learn technologically from the Jesuit mission that settled in Beijing in the late 17th century.64

In other words, China was more advanced in terms of knowledge of techniques until the Renaissance and Reformation shook up European society (including even the Catholic church), but then began to lag behind. In a similar way, the level of technology in parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent was more or less the same as the most advanced parts of Europe until at least the beginning of the 16th century. The difficulties the Europeans had in conquering more than isolated coastal enclaves in these regions showed that the weaponry deployed by the Muslim states of Africa, the Mogul empire, the Ottomans or Ming China was not that different to the weaponry of western Europe in, say, 1550.

But then a gap opened up, as the economies of these regions stalled, while those in north western Europe did not. Rulers of countries like Holland and England could begin to build global empires that pillaged, enslaved and destroyed elsewhere—and in the process gained a cumulative advantage that persists to this day.

As Abu Lughod put it, ‘Europe pulled ahead because the Orient was in temporary disarray’.65

Pomeranz sets out to demonstrate the similarities between the moves towards capitalism in different parts of the world, ‘with several surprising similarities in agricultural, commercial and proto-industrial development in various parts of Eurasia as late as 1750’.66 But he accepts ‘the vital role of internally driven European growth’,67 that ‘Europe had by the 18th century moved ahead of the rest of the world in terms of labour-saving technologies’,68 and that ‘we do find some important European advantages in technology during the two or three centuries before the industrial revolution’ which ‘turned out to be important for truly revolutionary development’.69

He does see the colonisation of the Americas as playing an important role in Europe’s development. He recognises that the flow of resources to Europe before the industrial revolution had a limited importance.70 But he sees the really important role as being in the 19th century, when the opening up of agriculture in the Americas allowed parts of Europe to industrialise and increase their populations without running into acute food shortages.71 In other words, some internal development did enable parts of Europe to arrive at full-blooded capitalism before the rest of the world, but it could not have continued along that path without empire and colonisation.

A worldwide process

Much of this confirms my view in A People’s History of the World.

Economic development never took place on its own, in a vacuum. It was carried forward by human beings, living in certain societies whose political and ideological structures had an impact on their actions. And these structures in turn were the product of historic confrontations between social groups shaped by their position in production—by revolutionary and counter-revolutionary class struggles.

This vital feature of historical development was neglected in the ‘narrow’ debate on the reasons in Europe for the prior development of capitalism in Britain. Arguments focused on issues like the growth of markets and changes in economic relations in town and countryside. They tended to neglect both the growth of the forces of production under feudalism and the great epochal conflicts that swept the continent in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—the driving force of the bourgeois revolutions. The recent discussions on the breakthrough of capitalism on a worldwide scale suffer from some of the same faults. In particular, they fail to see that contradictions between the economic base of society and its political and ideological superstructures are not resolved by economics alone. They are fought out between rival classes ideologically and politically as well as economically. And success in such battles is never guaranteed in advance, but depends upon initiative, organisation and leadership.

Pomeranz recognises at one point that ‘much of the credit for the acceleration of diffusion of best practice [in European technology] after 1750 must go to the elements of “scientific culture”…emerging, especially in England, in the 150 years before 1750’.72

But the spread of this ‘scientific culture’ was part of a much wider process of challenging old ruling ideologies as the nascent bourgeoisie began to fight for its place in the sun. It was inseparable from the ideological battles of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment—and from their political expressions in the religious wars of the 16th century, the Dutch and English revolutions and, finally, the great French Revolution.

Just as Europe was not the only continent where the elements pushing towards capitalism emerged, it was also not the only continent to see people beginning to put forward views of the world we now identify with the Enlightenment and the spread of scientific knowledge. People like Landes claim ideas could arise because of deeply rooted cultural features of European society going back to Greek or Biblical times. They fail to explain why vast swathes of Europe remained immune to such ideas until the end of the 19th century. They also ignore the way the Enlightenment was prefigured by thinkers in Abbasid Mesopotamia, Moorish Spain and Sung China, only to be crushed on each occasion as old superstructures reasserted their hold over people’s ways of producing and thinking. They also ignore how close counter-revolutionary currents came to crushing the growth of new ways of thinking even in the most advanced parts of Europe at the time of the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution.

The whole of Eurasia-Africa was affected by successive waves of advances in the forces of production during what we call the Middle Ages. These took root more easily in some parts of Europe than elsewhere precisely because its previous economic backwardness meant there was a weaker superstructure and were fewer obstacles to them doing so. Everywhere the spread of these innovations led, eventually, to the first green shoots of a new way of getting a surplus, based on the buying and selling of labour power. The growth of these shoots was blocked to varying degrees by old institutions. The blockage was greatest in the most advanced part of the world, the Chinese Empire, and it was weakest in a few parts of western Europe, where the shoots would eventually break through and pull the old superstructures apart. Elsewhere in Europe, Asia and Africa, the shoots grew a bit, but had not broken through by the time the west European armies and navies arrived (except in Japan).

When the breakthrough occurred it was not just a question of economics, but politics and ideology as well. The classes associated with the new ways of producing wealth had to fight against the stranglehold of old rulers. And that meant beginning to recast their own worldviews. Where they were too tied to the old order to do this, they were defeated and the old order hung on for a few more centuries until the battleship and cheap goods of Europe’s capitalists brought it tumbling down.

Marx and Engels were mistaken on some important things, like the character of Indian society, because of the limited knowledge available to them. But on one essential question they were right. The development of the forces of production in the Middle Ages encouraged the growth of a new form of exploitation and of a new class that benefited from it. This class found itself to varying degrees at loggerheads with the old landed exploiters—although not just in Europe as Marx and Engels told, but across wider swathes of Eurasia-Africa. But for the new form of exploitation to break through and remould the whole of society according to its dynamic, that class required its own ideas, its own organisation and, eventually, its own revolutionary leadership. Where its most determined elements managed to create such things, the new society took root. Where it failed, not just in Asia and Africa, but in wide swathes of Europe, stagnation and decay were the result.

There is a lesson in this for all of us today. Without social revolution, the product of ideological and political struggle, economic change alone can lead to catastrophe.

There is one world history (at least as regards the conjoined continents of Europe, Asia and Africa), not several. The advance over millennia of the forces of production and the technologies and scientific knowledge associated with them is not a peculiar European phenomenon. Nor is the ‘spirit of capitalism’. Capitalism is a product of world history, which for a brief historical period found a focus in the western fringes of Eurasia before going on to transform the whole world. As it did so, it created new relations of production, and with them new social forces driven to oppose it.

Today these relations of production exist everywhere. The argument should not be a spurious one which attempts to identify them with one part of the world or another, but should be about how to overthrow them.


  1. F Braudel, Capitalism and Civilization, 15th to 18th Century, 3 vols (New York, 1981-1984).
  2. R Hinton (ed), The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London, 1978).
  3. T H Ashton, The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1987).
  4. D Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (Abacus, 1999).
  5. This narrowness characterised most of the contributions in R Hinton (ed), as above.
  6. C Harman, ‘From Feudalism to Capitalism’, in International Socialism 45 (Winter 1989). Reprinted in C Harman, Marxism and History (London, 1998).
  7. The only Asian society usually referred to in the debate is Japan, because of its similarities to European feudalism and its success in making the transition to capitalism at the end of the 19th century without undergoing colonisation by Europeans. See, for example, the contribution by the Japanese Marxist H Takahashi, in R Hinton (ed), as above.
  8. C Harman, A People’s History of the World (London, 1999).
  9. D Landes, as above.
  10. J Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony (New York, 1989).
  11. J M Blaut, The Colonisers’ View of the World (New York, 1993).
  12. A Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley, 1998).
  13. M S Alim, ‘How Advanced was Europe in 1760 After All?’, Review of Radical Political Economy, vol 32, no 4 (September 2000), pp621-625.
  14. Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming (eds), Chinese Capitalism 1522-1840 (Basingstoke, 2000).
  15. K Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2000).
  16. J Abu-Lughod, as above, p10.
  17. M S Alim, as above, p625. Alim’s figures cannot be accepted without reservation. They are based on calculations made by Paul Bairoch in the 1970s, but other calculations by Angus Maddison point to European real wages rising well above those in Asia from the 16th century onwards. One recent study by Robert C Allen of Nuffield College, Oxford, comes to a conclusion as regards China not that different to Alem’s (see R C Allen, ‘Involution, Revolution or What?’,, September 2002). Another study, by Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta of Warwick University, argues that although the amount of grain that could be bought with the wage in parts of India and China was higher than that in Europe, the buying power in terms of other things was much lower (see S Broadberry and B Gupta, ‘The Early Modern Great Divergence’,, February 2003).
  18. J M Blaut, The Colonisers’ Model of the World (New York, 1993), pp165-167.
  19. As above, p157.
  20. As above, p162.
  21. A Gunder Frank, as above, p323.
  22. As above, pxix.
  23. As above, pxxi.
  24. As above, p228.
  25. For a fuller summary of these developments, see C Harman, A People’s History of the World, as above, pp17-28, 54-55. See also my article ‘Engels and the Origins of Human Society’, International Socialism 65 (Winter 1994); A J Pla, Modo de produccion asiatico y las formaciones economico sociales inca y azteca (Mexico City, nd); W E Soriano, Las Incas, economia, sociedad y estado el el Tahuantusuyo (Lima, 1997). Such societies fit Marx’s account of the Asiatic mode of production. Marx was, however, wrong to use the category to describe medieval and early modern India.
  26. The classic description of this process is by the anthropologist B Malinowski, in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London, 1981), based on research carried out in the 1910s.
  27. See W Kula, An Economic Theory of the Feudal System (London, 1976).
  28. See, for example, P A Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (London, 1971), and Italian Manpower 225bc-ad14 (Clarendon, 1971); A H M Jones, The Roman Economy (Blackwell, 1974), p123.
  29. ‘The Economic and Social History of the Former Han’, in Cambridge History of China, vol 1 (Cambridge, 1986), p548.
  30. L J C Ma, Commercial Development and Urban Change in Sung China (Ann Arbor, 1971), p137.
  31. M Loewe, ‘The Former Han Dynasty’, in Cambridge History of China, vol 1, as above, p188.
  32. G Bois, The Transformation of the Year 1000 (Manchester, 1992), pp117-126.
  33. The shift also had an important additional advantage. Independent peasants whose livelihoods were threatened by other developments (the growth of the market, recurrent crop failures) were more likely to see a way out through dependency on the lords as semi-free serfs than to sell themselves into complete slavery. See G Bois, as above, pp55, 145, 171.
  34. Translation available on
  35. K Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, available on
  36. I use the word ‘mechanisation’ here as the simplest way to describe what was involved. But it is too restrictive a term to fully describe the changes that mattered. We think of mechanisation as associated simply with the use of advanced tools and machines. But the products of past labour can be used to increase the productivity of present labour in other ways. This happened, for instance, in late medieval Europe when horses with sophisticated harnesses were used to replace oxen in ploughing, or when hedging, ditching and new systems of crop rotation were used to increase the output of farmland. A more accurate description would be ‘round-aboutness’ of production, but the term is cumbersome (and confusing for those who think of either carousels or road islands).
  37. See C A Ronan and J Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, vols 1 to 5 (Cambridge, 1980-1996). These books are invaluable not merely for understanding developments in China, but also for an understanding of the basic inventions that made possible the moves to mechanised production anywhere.
  38. See P B Ebrey, Family and Property in Sung China (Princeton, 1984).
  39. B Lewis refers to the use of this term in Cambridge Medieval History, vol 4, p643.
  40. C Harman, A People’s History of the World, as above, p141.
  41. ‘Introduction’ to Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming (eds), as above, p18.
  42. As above, p8.
  43. As above, p18.
  44. See note 17 for the some of the controversies over measuring European and Asian economic development.
  45. R S Sharma, ‘How Feudal was Indian Feudalism?’, in H Mukhia (ed), The Feudalism Debate (New Delhi, 1999), p83.
  46. As above, pp102-103. For technical advance in agriculture in this period, see also I Habib, Essays in Indian History (New Delhi, 1995), p76.
  47. As above, p81.
  48. As above, p89.
  49. As above, p93.
  50. For the similarity of the machines but the different materials used to make them, see above, p213.
  51. This is a central argument of his The Agrarian Structure of Mughal India (Bombay, 1963).
  52. See, for instance, C A Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1987). Bayly’s picture of 18th century India is much more dynamic economically than Habib’s. But he is dealing with Bengal rather than the region around Agra—that is, a region several hundred miles from that studied by Habib.
  53. For Marx, see ‘The British Rule in India’, New York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853, reprinted in K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 12, p125; ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, New York Daily Tribune, 22 July 1853, reprinted in K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 12, p217.
    For writings in the Marxist tradition, see H Mukhia (ed), as above; A B Bailey and J R Llobera (eds), The Asiatic Mode of Production (London, 1981). For the debate in Chinese academic circles, see T Brook (ed), The Asiatic Mode of Production in China (New York, 1989).

  54. So Chris Wikham uses the term ‘tributary mode’ and Mukhia refuses to use the term ‘Asiatic mode’ in his rejection of the feudal designation for medieval India. For both, see their essays in H Mukhia (ed), as above. Among writers who believe ‘feudalism’ is an apt term for medieval India are also considerable disagreements: some hold it fits the period before the first Islamic conquests in the north (the 12th century), and some hold it fits the period right up to the collapse of the Mogul empire (the early 18th century).
  55. H Berktay, in H Mukhia (ed), as above, p289.
  56. As above, p298.
  57. Alex Callinicos has in conversation disagreed with my formulations. He sees a ‘tributary’ mode of production, different from feudalism, as existing when the state taxes the peasants rather than individual lords exploiting them through various forms of rent. For me, the central question is whether there is a fundamentally different dynamic to a society where the peasants are exploited through taxes rather than rents. For, as Tony Cliff used to point out, ‘definition is negation, but not all negations are definition’ (‘The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: A Critique’, appendix to State Capitalism in Russia (London, 1988), p334)—in other words, a definition should be more than just a description. It should point to the determining content of the thing defined. In the case of a mode of production, this means ‘the economic laws of motion of the system…its inherent contradictions and the motivation of the class struggle’ (as above, p353). This means you cannot deduce the character of the mode of production simply from ‘the mode of appropriation or the mode of recruitment of the ruling class’ (as above, p344). 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 institutions of the medieval church (as above, pp344-345). You would have also have to conclude, as does Benno Teschke (in his The Myth of 1648 (London, 2003)) 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. 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. If Marx’s original formulation was right and tax-exploitation societies always stagnated, then there would be a case for this. But, if the evidence refutes Marx over this question and points to societies with spasmodic advances in the forces of production, the growth of merchant classes’ marketisation of much output and at least embryos of ‘proto-capitalism’, then these display a dynamic essentially the same as that in European feudalism. It is best to categorise them as forms of feudalism, each with its own particular, historically determined superstructure, not a different mode of production (just as it was best to see the old USSR from Stalin to Gorbachev not as some sort of ‘new’ form of class society, but as a particular form of capitalism, with an essentially capitalist dynamic of accumulation based upon the exploitation of waged labour). I think the evidence on late medieval and early modern India points to the second position, not the first. The failure of productive capital to break through in the 17th and 18th centuries is not then to be explained by some innate characteristic of the mode of production, but by the same essential factor as in many parts of Europe—the retarding role of the old superstructure. Teschke is logical, if wrong, when he argues that the role of state taxation meant that absolutist France was neither feudal nor in any sense in transition to capitalism. Those like Alex who disagree with him over France should not embrace an essentially similar analysis to his when it comes to India.
  58. Witfogel’s 1930s articles are reprinted in A B Bailey and J R Llobera (eds), as above.
  59. Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming (eds), as above, pp388-389.
  60. As above, pp390-392.
  61. As above, p396.
  62. K Pomeranz, as above, p191.
  63. M S Alim, as above, p625.
  64. C A Ronan and J Needham, as above.
  65. J Abu-Lughod, as above, p10.
  66. K Pomeranz, as above, p8.
  67. As above, p3.
  68. As above, p4.
  69. As above, p32.
  70. He quotes Patrick O’Brien’s estimates that ‘the fruits of overseas coercion could not have been responsible for over 7 percent of gross investment for late 18th century investment’ and ‘the profits from extracontinental trade could have funded one fifth to one sixth of gross capital formation’, but adds that these are significant amounts. See above, p187.
  71. As above, p32.
  72. As above, p44.