[Marxism] Re: Asiatic Mode of Production

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Oct 8 20:34:17 MDT 2005

I have never been a participant in the Brenner debate or related
matters. This may have been an oversight on my part. I have become
convinced by some correspondence with him that he is on to something
about the peasantry in the Russian case, so perhaps he may be on to
something on some other matters, but since I haven't read his main
writings on this, I have no way of knowing. I say this because I sense
some echoes of the Brenner thesis debate in the responses to my comments
on the Asiatic mode of production.

But I don't see any violation of anti-discrimination rules in portraying
China  as more unified and self-reliant economically even than parts of
feudal Europe.  No need to "discover" Europe and seek trade with it a la
Marco Polo, even though THEY KNEW Europe existed.  They knew, but they
didn't see much reason to care and, from the standpoint of their
interests, there wasn't much. The attitude of parts of feudal Europe was
quite different.  Recognizing the existence of a high civilization in
China, some hungrily felt the need to get a piece of that action.  And
of the Indian trade. 

No need to conquer large parts of South America, as  feudal Spain did.
You can attribute it to white racism or whatever, but sections of
European FEUDAL society developed a need to expand their trade and
plunder, including where possible trade as a form of plunder,  far more
widely and in a different way than Chinese
bureaucracy-aristocracy-landlords who exploited the peasant communities.

So far the discussion really  misses the points that ought to be
actually controversial. In contrast to Louis, I suggested that the
Asiatic mode of production, in Marx's view as assessed with careful
quotation (as is characteristic of Hal Draper), was basically the
Chinese version of the communal or tribal ownership of land.  

In China the tribal or local commune was not broken up by invasions and
the establishment of a mode of production based in growing part on mass
slavery, a la Greece and Rome, slavery being an expansionist order by
the way, in a quite different sense than the Chinese aristocracy (and
private owners) resting on control of the rural commune. The "stage"
that was skipped over was not feudalism but slavery.  But feudal-type
exploitation arising not from the collapse of a slave mode of
production, but on the basis of the "tribal" communal possession of

The invasions and the divisions within the commune generated a social
order that retained the commune and topped it with an imperial political
state and aristocratic structure that, in terms of how it extracted
surplus, basically resembled feudalism.  But feudalism is not just a
term for a mode of production, and the political characteristics were
not identical.  The whole history was different because of the absence
of slavery, the Greek and Roman empires and their collapse.

This is a completely different argument than the one Louis was
Louis answers the whole thing by citing a historian arguing that there
was more private ownership of land in China than in England when
capitalism hit the fan (whenever Louis thinks that was). First of all,
is his favorite historian right or wrong? What does "private property"
mean in this context?

More importantly, I was not arguing over whether private property in
land was the source of capitalism.  I don't think it was.  A prime
source is not the emergence of private owners of peasants land, but the
dispossession of the peasants, to which the commune as an institution
that had survived already far longer than in Europe where it was
subjected to SLAVERY AND THEN FEUDALISM. The dispossession and expulsion
or economic forcing out of the peasants provided the non-owners of means
of production who had to sell their labor power to buyers of labor power
(capitalists) to produce things that were commodities FOR THE
CAPITALISTS.  (For the workers, they were just the job.) But in the
West, the breakup of the "tribal" ownership of land had begun with
Greece and Rome, etc.  As a result, the commune in the Chinese, Russian,
and Indian sense probably had not existed in the full sense long before
the rise of capitalism in England.

One of the things the Bolsheviks discovered when they really became
involved in managing the countryside (or at least the most working class
and popular-minded of them) was that the peasant commune, which they
often described as destroyed, still existed.  More than that, the Black
Redistribution of the landlords' land to individual peasants had not
finished it off but in some ways had revived it from the dessicated
position it had reached under the pressures of capitalism. This happened
partly by tremendously strengthening the middle peasant and empowering
the poor by making them landholders.  

Despite the class polarization that was always taking place, the
peasantry had NEVER fully become a bourgeois class. In this sense, Lenin
and Trotsky were both wrong before the revolution.  Lenin, I believe,
began to approach the peasantry as a possible socialist ally, hence "On
Cooperation" a very different approach to this question than any that
was proposed or adopted in the late 1920s, where it was always assumed
that the commune was dissolving and the Kulak was in charge whereas
basically the middle peasant was in charge, and the poor peasants
continued to invest their hopes in possession of the land. The real
kulaks were a fringe, and the accused were mostly middle peasants who
were guilty of little more than poking their nostrils a bit above the
sea of bare subsistence or less.  Not real exploitative relations in the
capitalist sense.

Well, in China as in Russia, this commune still existed in battered form
and, as Marx and Engels, both argued, the commune's resistance to
capitalism and obstacles to capitalism was not purely reactionary but
opened the possibility of skipping over the capitalist stage of
development in a certain sense, support to and ally of the working class
and a potential partner the development of a socialist society. And so
it has proved, again and again.

The fact is that today capitalism is spreading more widely in China than
ever before, and that this process apparently could have been opened up
only as the historic consequence of an anticapitalist worker-peasant
(but in this case, primarily peasant) revolution. But is capitalism
rising on the decisive defeat of the workers and peasants.  Frankly,
that is not my impression although the latter are taking some severe
hints.  I think, partly fired up by the political and social
consequences of a capitalist development that has been partly NEEDED in
China and by the role of a bureacuratic regime that has become deeply
complicit themselves in enriching themselves through capitalist plunder
as well as the traditional ways, the oppressed and exploited including
the still-existing (I strongly suspect) peasant commune will be heard
from again in no uncertain terms.

I admit this conviction is the source of my belief that the great
Chinese revolution which toppled capitalism in order to rescue China
from internal ruin and subjection and conquest by rival imperialists,
has not been destroyed but is still alive and kicking, even if it has
never been entirely "well."
Fred Feldman

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