On the Marxist theory of history (dialectical but Euro-supremacist and wrong)

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu May 15 2003 - 11:56:26 EDT

Let me couple my anxieties about Marx's theory of value (to which
Jurriaan and Andy B have spoken) with worries about Marxist theories
of history.

Some notes on Marx's theory of history.

It would seem that modes of production, over history, change in the
degree of independence of parts by which I mean production units. In
the theory of the Asiatic mode of production , the village
communities are claimed to be completely independent and
self-sufficient units of production and consumption (the theory of
the AMP does deserve the burial for which Perry Anderson called long
ago); in capitalism the production units are enterprises which are
interdependent directly or indirectly upon another. This
interdependence is captured in neo-classical, Sraffian and Marxian
theories of price: a change in one part of the system implies
widespread changes elsewhere. The degree of integration which is
achieved in bourgeois society is most starkly revealed  in the world
historic event of a general crisis in which each cannot sell because
each will not buy.

Neither the total independence of parts nor complete holistic
interdependence are thus basic states; the degree of independence of
parts in a system is a historically changing property. In other
words, Marx's view of the history of modes of production and the
nature of totality is dialectical.

What I have suggested to Ian is that I don't think it's historically
valid or logically tenable to allow for the maximum level of
interdependence and integration of parts, i.e. production units, in a
system of simple commodity production.

Of course in the highly interdependent and integrated  capitalist
mode of production in which production units are characteristically
commodity- and profit-making enterprises which employ "free" wage
labor a few of the parts may however be units of simple commodity
production or slave plantation production or peasant production. But
these will exist as exceptions. The parts can be heterogeneous at the

As a result of these exceptions becoming parts of the bourgeois
totality or the capitalist mode of production their properties may
also change--it's another dialectical principle that the properties
of parts are often acquired by being parts of a particular whole;
these exceptional parts may acquire a capitalist character. Marx lays
out  how both the independent craftsman was converted by merchants
into a wage laborer and  the slave plantation acquired a capitalist
character.Jairus Banaji has explored how tenants and peasants were
transformed into wage laborers (see the section on Agrarian
Capitalism at
http://epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=1999&leaf=10&filename=551&filetype=htmlThis puts me closer to Wallerstein than Brenner, I believe (though I
accept much of Jairus' criticism of dependency and world systems
theory).  Perhaps closer to the Peruvian sociologist Anabel Quijano
as well. I am here using some of the dialectical principles laid out
by Lewontin and Levins to make sense of this view to myself.

A couple of other notes. The theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production
with which  GA Cohen could not be bothered has the structure of an
adaptation in the strong Darwinian sense (see Richard Lewontin's
critique of neo Darwinism). That is, the properties of the AMP are
explained entirely in terms of the properties of a particularly harsh
environment--Marx's enthusiasm for geographic determinist and crudely
prejudiced  Pierre Tremaux should be reason for concern as it was in
fact for Engels (see Diane Paul).  Society and environment are
treated in a "strongly asymmetrical" ways (to use Peter Godfrey
Smith's expression), with environmental pressures driving a process
of adjustment or accomodation on the part of society. Since the
external environment is posited as stable so then is society once the
adaptation has been achieved. Hence Asiatic peoples are thought to be
without history!

European history is understood differently. While all of Europe may
have long ago lived in the form of the present Asiatic village, the
Aryan family underwent a splitting of the lineage. Where for the
early Orientalists a common Indo Aryan language base was thought to
indicate common race, Europeans came in the course of the 19th
century to understand themselves on the basis of the new ethnological
sciences and archaeology as having split from the Aryan family a long
time ago and evolved into a deeply different and indeed superior
race, a race  which alone had made and could make history (this is of
course why the Nazis could carry out a genocide against the gypsies
as an inferior race despite their sharing a common language base--see
Thomas Trautmann).

Marxism also became not simply a Eurocentric ideology but also a
European supremacist ideology which is implied even today in what a
GA Cohen or Ellen Meiksins Wood does not evaluate with any care in
Marx's theory of history. Wood in fact resurrects  the AMP theory
though she not only thereby deprives the mass of humanity of the
historical dynamic by which a nation state- based capitalism  was
reached (a tenable but perhaps unprovable position) but also of any
historical dynamic whatsoever.

>If the primitive state was the controller of economic resources and
>the major appropriator and distributor of surplus product [Sharma
>contests this--rb], the advanced 'Asiatic' state may represent a
>more or less natural development out of that primitive form [so the
>Asiatic has had a natural, not truly social, development?]- the
>appropriating redistributive public power at its    highest stage of
>development. Seen in this light, it is not so much the 'hypertrophy'
>of the 'Asiatic'state [all those state forms can be so reduced!!!rb]
>that needs to be explained [Wood has not explained this 'natural'
>development]. What requires explanation is the aberrant, uniquely
>'autonomous' development of the economic sphere that eventually
>issued in capitalism. Democracy Against Capitalism.

In the theory of the AMP, the hypertrophic state of course blocks any
historical dynamic whatsoever! Wood has not only reserved aberrant
development for Europe but also autonomous development itself. By
accepting the gross distortions of the ideology of the AMP-- Wood
cites not a single expert critique of the AMP theory, not Habib,
Kosambi, Sharma, Leach, Brook, ed., O'Leary, etc.--she also makes
impossible any true accounting of those differences internal (Roman
law, putative uniqueness of European absolutism) and external
(primitive accumulation in the Americas as source of both capital and
resources--see Blackburn and Pomeranz, respectively) to Western
European society which actually explain its aberrant development of
an autonomous economy or its historical priority as the first post
tributary society or its supposedly singular capacity for true
historical change.

One cannot simply assume that the aberration of modern Western Europe
is explained by the differentia specifica of Western European
feudalism (of course Anderson insisted on the causal significance of
the concatenation of Western antiquity and Western feudalism); indeed
Western European feudalism must have been unique in some ways or some
parts (though Marx's critique of Kovalevsky may need qualification),
but that does in itself justify Wood's implicit judgment that Western
Europe alone had a real historical trajectory against and beyond a
hypertrophied state which is just her euphemism for oriental
despotism.   I am very uncomfortable with Wood's sweeping,
unsubstantied references to something fantastic called the Asiatic
state which she implies blocked real historical development at all
times and everywhere in Asia  unlike the uniquely fragmented Western
social organization.    There were however, let's say, long periods
between  Gupta, Mauryan and Mughal rule!

One may also question whether her  comparison between pre capitalist
extra economic and purely economic bourgeois forms of exploitation is
overdrawn, and allows her to underplay--though not ignore--how deeply
the coercive state penetrates every aspect of the only ideologically
free wage contract--and again this is better spelled out by neo
classical economists like Stanley Engerman and legal realists like
Robert J Steinfeld. The bourgeois state may not be hypertrophic, and
what were once political powers may  have been privatized by
capitalist employers. But is capitalism to be differentiated from pre
capitalism basically in terms of the absence of the direct extra
economic coerion that allegedly reached its apogee in Oriental
Despotism? As Balibar long ago noted, capitalism may also be unique
in that the direct producers' production of the value equivalent of
the mass of  their own subsistence and surplus value is temporally
coincident in and through the production of commodities for the world
market. There is no reason why at times capitalist commodity
production could not rely on direct extra-economic coercion, e.g.,
contract labor in Florida today or neo slavery in Brazilian forests;
and there is no reason to downplay how extra economic coercion is
ever present even in the making of the supposedly free wage  contract.

In the European context,  Marxists of course never understood  social
classes as mutually compatible or a necessary result of the division
of labor and adaptation to the environment. Rather as a result of a
contradiction between forces and relations of production that
develops, so to speak, behind everyone's back, exploiters have been
forced to and found advantage in epochal changes in the form of
exploitation--slavery, extra economically coercive rent-taking (labor
rent, rent-in-kind- and money rent) and most recently wage labor
(again most of humanity was to be stuck in the historical cul-de-sac
of the Asiatic  Mode until Europeans bequeathed to them however
violently the gift of capitalism). In my opinion, there is a suspect
teleology in this quasi Marxist reconstruction of a philosophy of
history (though this is not true of Wood). History is implied to have
an inner drive for freedom--the forms of exploitation are
progressively less unfree. In Cohen's version humanity (by which he
really means Europeans) is driven along by the mandate to develop the
productive forces.

Interestingly, such metaphysics can make human actors as alienated
from the forces governing their existence as  geographic determinism.
Is a way beyond such metaphysics to be found--as suggested by
Jairus--in Sartrean historical dialectics?

Yours, Rakesh

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