Marx on pre-capitalist societies: review of ‘Marx at the Margins’ part IV

karl-marx-theoristBy Belfast Plebian

Marx published very little in the last ten years of his life and did not even manage to finish volumes two and three of Capital.  Some historians have said that he ran out of mental capacity. There were only two important documents published, small in size: the Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875 is a schematic appraisal of the muddled socialism of Germany Social Democracy and the other a revised version of the Communist Manifesto for mainly Russian readers published just a month before Marx died in March 1883

It is the second document that offers a clue to what Marx was researching in his later years.  Marx and Engels state in the preface that they had neglected to say much concerning social developments in the United States of America and also in Russia in the original Manifesto. They then present a brief synopsis of the condition of the small independent farmers in the United States under the duress of expanding capital while turning to conditions in Russia they note the rise of a new revolutionary movement. They then attempt to take stock of the revolutionary potential contained within the primeval communal relations of the Russian society:

‘Can the Russian obshchina, a form , albeit heavily eroded, of the primeval communal ownership of land, pass directly into the higher form of communal ownership? Or must it first go through the same process of dissolution that marks the West’s historical development? Today there is only one possible answer: If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the Wes , so that the two complement each other , then Russia’s peasant communal land ownership may serve as the point of deparure for a communist development.’(T.Shanin p139)

In 1983 Teodor Shanin published a ground breaking book called ‘Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the peripheries of capitalism’, a collection of Marx’s draft sketches and letters dealing with questions posed by the development of embryonic capitalism in Russia.

In a letter addressed to the Russian populist writer Nikolai Mikhailovsky Marx explained his research: ‘In order to reach an informed judgement on Russia’s economic development, I learned Russian and then for many years studied official and other publications relating to the question’.(Shanin p135)   Marx also says that ‘I have come to the conclusion that if Russia continues along the pathway she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fateful vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.’ Marx stated his thesis tentatively referring to the now hectic undermining by both Russian and foreign capital of the customs of the usually isolated communal villages.

What Marx seemed most eager to banish in the mind of his Russian populist reader was the idea that he had arrived at a general philosophical account of modern historical developments.  Marx’s letter was a response to a sympathetic review by Mikhailovsky of Capital Volume One, an appraisal that had ascribed to Marx a unilinear account of necessary historical development.

The Russian populist had said in the review that Marx:  ‘In the sixth chapter of Capital, the section called  So called Primitive Accumulation, here, Marx has in view a historical sketch of the first steps of the capitalist process of production, but he gives us something much bigger, a whole philosophical-historical theory. This theory is of great interest in general and especially great interest for us Russians.’

In his reply Marx is determined to say that he has no such general theory of historical development ‘The chapter on primitive accumulation claims no more than to trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist economic order emerged from the womb of the feudal economic order….Thus events of striking similarity, taking place in different historical contexts, led to totally disparate results.  By studying each of these developments separately, one may easily discover the key to this phenomenon, but this will never be attained with the master key of a general historical-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being suprahistorical.’(Shanin 136)

The above is important for it distances the late Marx from some of his own more rigid conceptions as articulated in the German Ideology and from the common ‘historic Marxism’ thesis that what Marx was about was revising the Hegelian philosophy of History in a materialist direction. The idea that Marxism is a failed Universal Theory of History is still the predominant one in social science.

The other equally important point was that Russia and other pre-capitalist societies ought not to be conflated with Western feudalism. Marx was in fact researching various pre-capitalist societies that were not feudal in the European sense.  When he spoke of an Asiatic mode of production he was not using the construction in a geographical sense, for it included most of South America and even parts of North Africa, especially Algeria.  Marx was not even trying to describe the pre-capitalists societies in any historical-anthropological way.  What he was really interested in was how capitalist expansion was penetrating and transforming pre -capitalist societies that had no feudal past, in short the disruption being wrought by the advancing capitalist-colonialism of his own lifetime. (We do not say imperialism for this terminology was not used by Marx.)

Marx conducted his research using his normal method of reading the leading bourgeois authors and compiling excerpts from them with his own added comments.  He made extensive excerpts and notes drawn from authors such as: the pioneering anthropologists  Henry Morgan’s ‘Ancient Society’ 1877; the evolutionist John Lubbock’s ‘The  Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Conditions of Man’ 1870; Maxim Kovalevsky’s  study of India ‘Communal Landownership, the Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline’ published in Russian in 1879; the political historian Henry Sumner Maine’s ‘Early History of Institutions’ (1885); notes of sixteen thousand words on John Phear’s ‘The Aryan Village of India and Ceylon’ 1 1880 and Robert Sewell’s ‘Analytical History of India’ 1870.

Much of this material had to do with the communal and clan structures of the still prevailing pre-capitalist societies. Marx appropriated, albeit critically, these works.  He portrays Maine as an ideologue defending capitalism and empire rather than a genuine historical scholar.  He agrees with Kovalevsky’s arguments covering changes to the communal property forms in India but criticises him for sometimes conflating India with European feudalism.

Marx declares one maxim of his method as ‘One has to be on guard when reading the histories of primitive communities written by bourgeois authors. They do not even shrink from falsehoods. Sir Henry Maine, for example, who was an enthusiastic collaborator of the English government in carrying out its violent destruction of the Indian communes, hypocritically assures us that all of the government’s noble efforts to maintain the communes succumbed to the spontaneous power of economic laws!’ (Shanin 107)

Anderson, basing himself on notes by Kovalevsky, argues that, Marx created a typology of communal forms across many societies and made differing assessments of their durability.  The second theme in the notes and drafts is a comparison between Russia and other ‘Asiatic communes’. To be sure he had not worked out a theory of revolution for Russia or for the others he had studied; moreover he was careful to take note of the political independence of Russia as an important difference.

In respect of the potential for social resistance Anderson argues that of the several communal forms that he had studied, Marx thought they were not as resistant to elimination as those that were rooted in Russia. This was due more to the fact that most of the others had already been conquered by colonial capitalism.  Marx’s guess on Russia is best stated in this from a letter quoted in the Shanin collection: ‘What threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither an historical inevitability nor a theory; it is oppression by the State and exploitation by capitalist intruders made powerful, at the expense of the peasants, by this same State.’   

Anderson concludes by saying that he hopes that his journey into Marx’s writings on nationalism, race, ethnicity and non-Western societies has revealed the multidimensional character of his overall intellectual projects, especially in his later years. Marx’s critique of capitalism was far broader than is usually supposed.

Anderson has done this, though he may have talked more about gender relation.  He mentions differences between Marx and Engels on how they each made use of the findings of Morgan’s study of the origins of patriarchy but he does not develop it much.

There are just a few other points I would like to make that Anderson in his restraint refrains from making.

One point about historical materialism that springs to mind after reading Anderson’s book is that it is not a finished theory and has no pretension to be a finished one.  It must be open to new evidence and new experiences.  If it is taken up as a closed system it would only become a sort of repository of past societies, like a great city museum stuffed full of abandoned knowledge and artefacts.

Another point concerns the assessment of the idea of progress that inheres within historical materialism. The bourgeois ideology of progress is rampant and without qualification: capitalism always improves the world through its free production of commodities, its new technologies, its science and its legal and political forms.

In so far as there is an opposition to this bourgeois credo of progress it can take on more than one mask.  In our time the most forceful originates from the mind of the German philosopher F. Nietzche, who declares in his ‘The Anti-Christ’ of 1888 that ‘Progress is merely a modern idea, that is to say a false one.’  Nietzche was much more impressed by the knowledge and art of the ancient world than he was with the modern one, as are his most intelligent followers.

This is not the kind of opposition, said Marx, that the workers and oppressed of the modern world need, the opposition of reactionary modernism.  Yet the socialist movement in the broad sense has been damaged by the full embrace of the capitalist ideology of progress.  In the first instance, with the progressive Germany ideology of Social Democracy and the Second International, revolution was no longer necessary as steady progress was already happening under capitalist conditions.  This steady progress must we remind ourselves included an acceptance of progressive colonialism.

Then there was the progress of actually existing socialism, supervised by the Stalinist bureaucracy and its ideology of State controlled economic progress.  Soviet society was reputed to be one without social contractions

Yet Marx assesses capitalism and its progress under the auspicious of dialectical contradiction; all progress within capitalism is torn by irony, even the breakthroughs of science are bundled with contradiction.  Medicines are withheld by patents and the Internet technologies are distorted by corporations, to cite just a few examples.

When we speak about the dialectic we are in fact using irony rather than a special kind of logic. The use of dialectic was spoken about by Plato in his dialogues.  Socrates was the master of subjective irony.  When Hegel revived the use of the dialectic he tell us that he learned it by studying the dialogue by Plato called the Meno.

Marx is the master of something more than subjective irony, he is the master of objective irony, he found it especially in the capitalism-colonialism of his own time and the quotes I have picked out from Anderson’s study are replete with this objective irony.

Finally something should be said about the controversy over Marx’s occasional referrals to the Asiatic and feudal modes of production.  Marx in fact wrote more words about Asiatic society than he did about Ancient or Feudal society, yet in the official Stalinist literature it went unmentioned.  The Communists spoke of the slave owning, feudal and then capitalist modes of production but not the Asiatic. Why was all talk of Asiatic society covered up by the Stalinist ideologues?

The best known book on this is a tendentious one by Karl Wittfogel called Oriental Despotism published in 1957.  The book is tendentious because Marx stopped speaking about pre-capitalism societies in terms of Oriental Despotism at an early stage, and because it is doubtful Marx had developed an account of such societies to the point that he was confident in naming them as belonging to a separate mode of production; the societies were too various for him to make that mistake.

Finally the Stalinists did not censure the terminology primarily because it sounded more like a description of the despotic Soviet Union under Stalin but because referring to the feudalism of China or India or Vietnam facilitated an international politics of anti-capitalist revolution that conceded revolutionary leadership to a class of supposed ‘progressive capitalists’ who were an integral part of common national and democratic revolution directed against the colonists and a class of reactionary feudal landowners.  It hardly mattered that Marx thought these Asiatic societies were not feudal in the European sense.      

Kevin Anderson has produced an admiral book.


1 thought on “Marx on pre-capitalist societies: review of ‘Marx at the Margins’ part IV

  1. “Marx stopped speaking about pre-capitalism societies in terms of Oriental Despotism at an early stage”

    In the sections on ‘original accumulation’ and ‘precapitalist social formations’ in the Grundrisse, in his 1874 notes on Bakunin, and in his 1881 drafts to Zasulich, Marx links the social relations of peasant life on the Russian commune to the aforementioned “despotic” conditions which prevailed, since the Mongol invasion, throughout parts of Russia. The “isolated” character of the commune laid down the firm foundations for the despotism of the Tsarist Empire. Marx did not deny the revolutionary potential of the Russian commune, but, in-itself, it would simply be a “Russian 1793” unless it complemented a proletarian revolution in the West of Europe, appropriating its “fruits” without passing through its “Caudine Forks.” However, the

    “characteristic of the ‘agricultural commune’ in Russia which afflicts it with weakness, hostile in every sense. That is its isolation, the lack of connexion between the life of one commune and that of the others, this localised microcosm which is not encountered everywhere as an immanent characteristic of this type but which, wherever it is found, has caused a more or less centralised despotism to arise on top of the communes. The federation of Russian republics of the North proves that this isolation, which seems to have been originally imposed by the vast expanse of the territory, was largely consolidated by the political destinies which Russia had to suffer after the Mongol invasion…The isolation of rural communes, the lack of connexion between the life of one and the life of another, this localised microcosm is not encountered everywhere as an immanent characteristic of the last of the primitive types; but everywhere it is found it always gives rise to a central despotism over and above the communes” (1881).

    If “Marx stopped speaking about pre-capitalism societies in terms of Oriental Despotism at an early stage” — and in 1881 connects the despotic conditions which prevail in Eurasia to the Mongol invasion— then I guess the mature Marx never grew out of this “early stage.”

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