Asiatic Mode of Production
In the works of
Karl August Wittfogel
Marx, Engels, and Lenin accept the Asiatic concept
Marx' concept of Asiatic society was built largely on the views of such classical economists as Richard Jones and John Stuart Mill, who in their turn had developed generalized ideas held by Adam Smith and James Mill. Adam Smith noted similarities of hydraulic enterprise in China and “several other governments of Asia;” and he commented particularly on the acquisitive power of the rulers in China, ancient Egypt, and India. James Mill considered the «Asiatic model of government» a general institutional type;
and he rejected forced analogies to European feudalism. Richard Jones outlined an overall picture of Asiatic society in 1831, when Marx was thirteen years old. And John Stuart Mill placed this society in a comparative frame in 1848, when the authors of the Communist Manifesto, despite an occasional reference to the «East», betrayed no awareness of a specific Asiatic society. It was only after Marx resumed his study of the classical economists in Londonb
that he emerged as a vigorous adherent of the «Asiatic» concept.
From 1853 until his death Marx upheld the Asiatic concept together with the Asiatic nomenclature of the earlier economists. In addition to the formula «Oriental despotism», he employed for the whole institutional order the designation «Oriental society», used by John Stuart Mill, and also (and with apparent preference)
the designation «Asiatic society», used by Richard Jones. He expressed his specific concern for the economic aspect of Asiatic society by speaking of an «Asiatic system» of landownership, a specific «Asiatic mode of production», and, more concisely, «Asiatic production».
In the 1850's the notion of a specific Asiatic society struck Marx with the force of a discovery. Temporarily abandoning party politics, he applied himself intensely to the study of industrial capitalism as a distinct socio-economic and historical phenomenon. His writings during this period — among others, the first draft of Das Kapital which he set down in 1857-58c
— show him greatly stimulated by the Asiatic concept. In this first draft as well as in the final version of his magnum opus, he systematically compared certain institutional features in the three major types of agrarian society («Asia», classical antiquity, feudalism)
and in modern industrial society.
In London, Marx resumed his economic and sociohistorical studies by reading Mill's Principles of Political Economy (from September 1850 on), Smith's Wealth of Nations (March 1851), Jones' Introductory Lecture
[on Political Economy]
(June 1851), Prescott's Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru (August 1851), Bernier's Voyages (May-June 1853), James Mill's History of British India (probably — mentioned on July 7, 1853)
(KMCL: 96, 103, 107, 110, 139;
cf. also MEGA, III, Pt. 1: 133;
Marx, NYDT, July ii, 1853).
In its original form this draft appeared in print for the first time in two volumes in 1939 and 1941 respectively. Marx rewrote and published part of it in 1859 under the title, Zur Kritik der Politischen Okonomie. In the preface to this book he made his most systematic statement on social structure and change, a statement which ended with the enumeration of four major socio-economic orders, the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the capitalist modes of production. From the summer of 1863 on, Marx reorganized and reworked his earlier draft into what he now called Das Kapital (see Grossmann, 1929: 310 IT.). The history of pertinent theories, which Marx planned to publish as the fourth volume of Das Kapital (ibid.: 311), was eventually published as a separate work under the title Theorien uber den Mehrwert (Theories on Surplus Value).
Lenin upheld the idea of a special «Asiatic system» from 1894 to 1914.
It is difficult to harmonize these statements with the «feudal» interpretation of the Orient offered today by persons calling themselves «Marxists». It is even difficult to present such an interpretation in the name of Leninism. Starting as an orthodox Marxist, Lenin upheld the idea of a special «Asiatic system» for two decades, speaking precisely, from 1894 to 1914.
In the «Orient» the state ruled supreme over both the labor and property of its subjects.
Marx considered the individual land-possessing peasant “au fond the property, the slave” of the head of the Oriental community.
Thus in the «Orient» the state ruled supreme over both the labor and property of its subjects. Marx commented on the despot's position as the actual and apparent coordinator of the population's labor for hydraulic and other communal works;
and he considered the individual land-possessing peasant “au fond the property, the slave” of the head of the Oriental community. Consistently he spoke of the «general slavery of the Orient». In contrast to the private slavery of classical antiquity, a type whose insignificance in the Orient he understood, and in contrast to the decentralized patterns of feudal control, which he also understood, Marx viewed the relation between Oriental despotism and the most important group in the population as one of general (state)
In an elliptic remark made in 1887, Engels said that «class oppression» in both Asiatic and classical antiquity had the form of «slavery». Since Engels, like Marx, recognized the irrelevance in the Orient of private slavery (see below), he was obviously referring to the «general slavery» of Oriental despotism. His claim that in both cases slavery involved “not so much the expropriation of the masses from the land as the appropriation of their persons” (Engels, 1887: iii)
fits the Orient, but not classical antiquity.