Blaut’s Modes Debate PART 3

Greg Schofield gschofield at
Thu May 24 09:38:31 MDT 2001

Blaut's Modes Debate PART 3

The progression from classical slavery to capitalism and beyond, as argued
in previous posts is established by Marx's method of investigation. The
logical demands of this strand within what was to become Marx's general
schema, depends on linking a particular relation of production to a
dominant property form which taken together distinguished a particular Mode
of Production at the abstract level and so defined what was and was not
part of subject matter.

It need not distinguish every relation of production within a social
formation (there are many) but isolate the engine that encouraged the
growth of productive powers witnessed in capitalism. This is important, as
the previous Modes need not have the same productive potential, indeed
cannot because the relations of production which dominated them must be
successfully overcome from the emerging new dominating relation.

The problem of succession, not a history of superior productive forces is
what assembled the successive Modes of Production in order. Blaut's point
that other societies were more advanced than feudalism and classical
slavery is not relevant, as the very history of capitalism's origin
necessarily had to overcome their restrictions, comparison to other
societies does not touch on the issue. Marx would not have been unaware of
at least some of this especially China vs Feudal Europe.

If private property and corresponding relations of production in dominance
mark the successive Modes of Production to capitalism (which as a world
system supplants all before it), then something corresponding to this must
mark other class societies even on the simple basis that they must have
some other form of production dominance other than the one which was to
provided capitalism in Europe.

Although Marx planned to write a much more expansive version of Capital
which included world trade and something more concrete on world history,
this task was never completed. However it was begun, Marx's Ethnological
notebooks are one aspect, another is the final schema of Modes of
Production (which is just a classificatory system relating all class
societies to the development of capitalism).

Europe is no more than a few mountain ranges and valley systems and
stuck-out on the Western side of the Asian continent, within this one land
mass all the societies which developed away from communalism to establish
alienated class systems reside. Marx called all the rest the Asiatic Mode
of Production (or Oriental Despotism) and singled out a dominant property
form and relation of production which he described as tributary, that is
where surplus is scooped out by political means, hence the necessarity of
social Despotism.

However, relations of tribute backed up by force can not easily be passed
off as a relation of production, in fact it is merely a relation of
expropriation which nonetheless directly effects truly productive relations
in their development, the very fact that this does not contribute directly
to any particular productive activity is its virtue as a controlling agent
for all the relations of production found within a particular class society.

This is what Marx had in mind when he remarked on the passivity of such
Modes of Production, more pointedly this is the relation which militated
against emergent relations of productions making their particular property
form dominant, in order to balance society and ensure social stability. It
is not unexpected then, that technical advances is China for instance
emerged out of unstable periods (crisis) and where managed during renewed

Whether, this is accurately applied is one question that will be looked at
below, but first we must get a better grasp of tribute and the easiest way
to see this is by returning to the Modes of Production that lead to Capitalism.

The relation of tribute is far more familiar than it at first sounds.
Taxation is a form of this, in Feudalism it took the form of levies both in
goods and labour and was regulated by Parliaments (talks between the
monarch and the fief holders). In Rome and Greece the same thing was
regulated through state participation. But in Rome's imperialism it became
a means of massive surplus extraction, the support mechanism for the
existence of the plebian masses, most necessary to maintain the army.

In this case, precisely because of the relative advanced levels of the
East, Rome made these provinces tributary, however, in less advanced areas
more could be had by romanisation, as the tributes from these areas were
exhausted not long after conquest. This is the simple reason that slavery
spread as a Mode of Production into Europe and it is from this that sprang

Tribute within classical, feudal and capital's dominance was by the nature
of the Modes of Production restricted and tempered by Private Property, in
other words it could not displace the property form (well at least not for
long). Elsewhere, this was not the case, the tribute relation maintained
balance (dynamic balance, with innovation and progress, only trapped by the
balancing mechanism itself). Consider the one truly remarkable feature of
European class history, something that no other class society in the world
managed to such a degree...


Europe has been constantly at war with itself throughout its class history,
and not just distant border wars, most have been confined to within Europe.
A similar period within China is seen as exceptional, when the mandate of
heaven is lost, a temporary period until peace again reigns - not so in
Europe where peace is just a temporary reprieve from war. There is simply
no place on earth quite like it, no place where barely a year passes
without some army or another ravaging the landscape, even Britain, secluded
on its island barely experienced any period longer than a decade without
actual war or the threat of it - and very little of this was the result of

If the Asiatic Mode of Production is passive it is also balanced and
peaceful, however the same cannot be said for the successive Modes in
Europe. Because the measure of the current Mode is in its technical ability
and productive powers, we must remember that this is an inhuman measure and
not comparable to the more human values preserved elsewhere, it is built on
alienation and unless it also provided a solution to itself, which it does
through the proletariat, the battle itself could only be one of ludditism.

Consider this, throughout European class history until the Age of
"Discovery" the East supplied Europe with luxury trade goods, very little
went the other way except gold and silver. The East by its superiority
lacked little - precious metals were not even rare in the East it is just
that the appetite for them was insatiable.

The West on the other hand lacked so much that their hard earned precious
metals leaked constantly away in trade and nothing they had had any real
market in the East. This was true from Greek times, in trade superiority
always pointed to the East.

When the Portuguese found their sea route, what did they trade to obtain
the luxuries they were after?

After they had burned the trading ports of the Persian Gulf, sunk every
ship that came within range and effectively cut-off trade to the Middle
East and thus the Italians to the West of them, they sent gold and silver
and traded on a commodity Europe had refined rather well - warfare. In this
way by making an alliance here and there, applying violence when necessary,
they were able to arrange very favourable exchange rates - effectively
tributes. The Dutch followed suit and also administered, the British
perfected administration but tribute, not trade, was what was being
extracted, or rather tribute in the form of trade (classic imperialism).

All of this points to the balance, self-sufficiency and technical
efficiency of the East for much of its history, for a very long time Europe
had no products to trade fairly, even the weaving industry had to enter
India by smashing Indian looms.

At this point I think I have covered Blaut's main area of concern,
hopefully it has put Modes of Production into their proper place while also
showing that some of his insights add to Marx's Mode of Production schema
rather than detract from it.

The dominance of private property and distinct relations of production is
unusual, the reason so many are attributed to the class societies that
produced capitalism (slavery, serfdom and wage-slavery), is because of the
need to distinguish the essence of the one Mode of Production that became
so recently a world system, other than that fact there is little in
European history  that 700 years ago would lead anyone to suspect that from
this peripheral area a world system would emerge.

Those class societies lumped together in the Asiatic Mode differ as starkly
from one another as any do from feudalism and slavery, however, as it
turned out the very deep imbalances in just this lineage of societies broke
into something revolutionary - capitalism.

The important point is that all of this is not something to be
metaphysically imposed on history, but rather represent some of the
essential abstract tools necessary for understanding it.

Again I emphasize there is no stage theory of history in Marx, there is
however a theory of stages which can be used to reveal aspects of history.
The difference between the two is that the first imposes stages on reality,
while the second uses the concept of inter-related stages to reveal
historical reality - the devil is always in the concrete details.

Stages do not represent barriers in the real, but necessary separations in
organising material for the mind.

The long tradition within the communist movement of shipping in chunks of
theory as explanations of moments of history is what is flawed - this to my
mind is what Blaut is rebelling against (more precisely the delusions that
spring from it), my criticism is that he does so within this greater error
and so he can not escape from it, and so has been forced to merely
rearrange the fragments.

1) Ellen Wood "Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism"
http// (EAE) - 2001
2) James Blaut "Marxism and Eurocentric Diffusionism"
http// (MED) - 1999
3) Greg Schofield "On the Vexed Question of Socialism"
http// (VQS) - 2001

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