Asiatic Mode of Production

The AMP refers to the structural elements of a special type of pre-capitalist societies: a) absence of private property of the means of production, b) collective organization (economic, political and ideological) of the ruling class in a despotic state, c) collective organization of the ruled-laboring class in (village) communities.

As in the case of all pre-capitalist modes of production, the ruling class had the economic ownership of the means of production (the land), i.e. it appropriated the surplus labor, whereas the ruled-laboring class had not been “freed” from the means of production, but it had the direct possession of them, i.e. the power to put them to work (to cultivate the land). In societies where the AMP was dominant, however, surplus labor was (not privately but) collectively appropriated by the ruling class, whereas the peasants directly possessed the land only under the presupposition that they belonged to a village community. The appropriation of surplus labor by the ruling class took thus the form of a tribute tax, paid to the state by all agrarian or town communities.

The state officials had no heritage rights of their position, but they were appointed (and discharged) by a higher state-authority. On the highest level, state authority was personified to the ruler, who was regarded as the direct representative of divine order and right. The state officials appeared as executive organs of the highest authority’s edicts (which were, in most cases, written). The communities shared a certain degree of autonomy from the central state authorities, as long as they paid the tribute. They were articulated to the Asiatic social order through the rule of a local stratum of notables and religious leaders, who guaranteed the status quo in contact with district or even, in some cases, central state authorities. Great Asian Empires, like China, Russia and the Ottoman Empire at least until late 18th century, or India under the Mongolian rule were social formations in which the AMP was dominant.

Marx formulated the concept of AMP in the 1850s, along with the notions of capital and the Capitalist Mode of Production, as he was developing his theoretical system of the Critique of Political Economy. His major aim, to grasp “the specific characteristics which distinguish capital from all other forms of wealth – or modes in which (social) production develops” (Marx 1993; 449), led him to specifically approach, (at the beginning in some newspaper articles and in his letters to Engels and later on in his 1857-58 manuscripts – first published 1939-41, as the “Grundrisse”), the “forms which precede capitalist production” (Marx 1993; 471-479). In the framework of this analysis, which mainly aimed at self-clarification, Marx distinguished the “Asiatic landforms” from all other pre-capitalist production forms: “Amidst oriental despotism and the propertylessness which seems legally to exist there, this clan or communal property exists in fact as the foundation, created mostly by a combination of manufactures and agriculture within the small commune (…) A part of their surplus labor belongs to the higher community, which exists ultimately as a person, and this surplus labor takes the form of tribute etc., as well as of common labor for the exaltation of the unity, partly of the real despot, partly of the imagined clan-being, the god” (Marx 1993; 473).

Marx referred also to the AMP or its surviving forms in his later works, esp. in Capital, but even in the Preface to the Russian Edition of 1882 of the Communist Manifesto. He argued that the Asiatic community “supplies the key to the riddle of the unchangeability of Asiatic societies, which is in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic states, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the fundamental economic elements of society remains untouched by the storms which blow up in the cloudy regions of politics” (Marx 1990; 479).

The AMP became a subject of controversy among Marxists and Communists, both for theoretical and for political reasons. In the 1930s it was doomed as a non-scientific and non-Marxist concept by official USSR Marxism (Mandel 1971; 116-139, Brook 1989, Krader 1994).

Theoretically, the concept of AMP is not compatible with the mechanistic – economistic version of Marxism, which practically eliminates class struggle from Marxist theory of social evolution, and conceives human History as an exact succession of society forms, fully pre-determined by technical progress (the “development of Productive Forces”). According to this scheme, (which can be found in the writings of Engels, and which was codified and formed to a dogma by Soviet Marxists under Stalin), there are “four stages” (primitive communism, slave-owning society, feudalism, capitalism) which all mankind was supposed to pass necessarily through. Therefore, as capitalism succeeds feudalism, while feudalism succeeds slavery, the AMP either does not exist, or it is conceived as a transitory form, from primitive communism to class society – i.e. slavery. (For a Marxist controversy fully based on the succession-of-historical-stages approach, Brook 1989; for AMP as a transitory form to class society Godelier 1978; for a critique to these approaches Mandel 1971; 116-139). As Tokei (1969) correctly argues, the wrong thesis that the AMP refers to social forms preceding well defined class societies, is to an extent related to the fact that primitive tribal societies were also characterized by communal collective property, out of which different modes of production (including the AMP) and respective types of class societies have emerged.

A further theoretical misunderstanding occurs, as some characteristics of the productive forces in concrete historical SOCIAL FORMATIONS where the AMP was dominant, (and more specifically the artificial irrigation system in India or China), were considered as structural elements of this MODE OF PRODUCTION (Wittfogel 1957), revealing thus a confusion between the two concepts.

The concept of AMP is also connected with political dispute, since it makes clear that the absence of private property in the legal sense does not necessarily mean abolition also of class power and exploitation, or, in other words, that class exploitation of the laborers may attain collective forms. This idea was used by Wittfogel (1957) and Bahro (1977) in a selectivist way; they both abstracted from all structural characteristics of AMP except state despotism, (i.e. they reduced the “complex whole” of the AMP to the authoritarian state and the legal abolishment of private property, forgetting communities and tribute tax), in order to claim that 20th century Centrally Planed Societies were of Asiatic origin.

Historical analysis shows that the dissolution of AMP, (along with the political destabilization of Asiatic empires, the wars and the emigration of large populations, the development of world capitalist trade etc.), may follow different directions. In the case of the Ottoman Empire (Milios 1988), the increasing autonomy of Christian Southern Balkan communities from the Ottoman state rule, led to the indirect subordination of the peasants to commercial capital, the transformation of common property into private property, the formation of a local commercial, ship-owning and manufacturing bourgeoisie and to the prevailing of capitalist social relations. In other Balkan regions, the increasing power of district state officials, along with destabilization and dissolution of communities, led to the formation of feudal social forms. In all cases, historical development seems to refute the four-stages-scheme of dogmatic Marxism.

Bahro, Rudolf. (1977) Die Alternative. Koeln – Frankfurt/M.

Brook, Timothy (ed.). (1989) The Asiatic Mode of Production in China. New York

Godelier, Maurice. (1978) Sur les sociιtιs prιcapitalistes. Paris

Krader, Lawrence. (1994) Asiatische Produktionsweise, in: W.F Haug (ed.) Historisch-

Kritisches Woerterbuch des Marxismus, volume 1. Hamburg

Mandel, Ernest. (1971) The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx. New York – London

Marx, Karl. (1990) Capital, Volume 1. London

Marx, Karl. (1993) Grundrisse. London

Milios, Jean. (1988) Kapitalistische Produktionsweise, Nationalstaat, Imperialismus. Athens

Tφkei, Ferenc. (1969) Zur Frage der asiatischen Produktionsweise. Neuwied – Berlin

Wittfogel, Karl. (1957) Oriental Despotism. New Haven

taken from here

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