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In twentieth-century Marxist politics and social sciences, the concept of the Asiatic mode of production was at the center of debates and controversies over how to apply the idea of mode of production to non-Western societies. Marxist theorists also turned to the Asiatic mode of production to argue for different revolutionary strategies in societies subject to colonial and imperialist domination.
The concept’s status within Marx’s own work is uncertain. The young Marx’s references to Asian societies are influenced by a political tradition that, from Aristotle (384–322 BCE) to Charles Montesquieu (1689–1755) and Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), saw the Asian continent as characterized by political despotism and socioeconomic stagnation. The initial theorization of modes of production in Marx’s German Ideology (1845) makes no mention of an “Asian” mode. His Misery of Philosophy (1847), however, discusses India as a society where village-based production coexists with common land property. After 1850 Marx’s view of Asia became more systematic, and he outlined a specific mode of production for the region. A series of articles he wrote in 1853 for the New York Daily Tribune dealt in detail with the Indian case, and to a lesser degree with China. The chapter on “precapitalist economic formations” in the Grundrisse (1857–1858) inserted the Asiatic mode of production into a theory of stages of social development, where it followed “primitive communism.” Marx tended to chronologically overlap the Asiatic mode of production with slavery and feudalism as two other, successive precapitalist societies where laborers are not separated from the means of production.
Marx’s definition of the Asiatic mode of production included the absence of private ownership of land, autonomous village communities, and a despotic centralized state in charge of public works, especially irrigation. To finance public infrastructure, the state extracts, mainly through coercion and the control of the armed forces, an economic surplus produced by local communities in the form of tributes and collective work. Once surplus is extracted, village communities remain relatively independent within their “self-sustaining” economies.
After the first volume of Capital (1867), the Asiatic mode of production almost disappears from Marx’s writings. Friedrich Engels’s (1820–1895) analysis of precapitalist societies in The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) did not mention it. In the early twentieth century, socialist reformists of the Second International took the concept as a metaphor for Asia’s backwardness; they saw in colonialism a force of development and modernization. Fervent disputes on the Asiatic mode of production reemerged in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (1917). Vladimir I. Lenin
(1870–1924) had, in fact, stigmatized the “Asiatism” of czarist Russia. The Stalinist Third International (Comintern), however, rejected the Asiatic mode of production in 1921 when in colonial societies it chose to support alliances between the proletariat and nationalist bourgeoisies against imperialism and indigenous ruling classes. The Comintern defined the latter as “feudal,” avoiding in this way the concept of the Asiatic mode of production, which was seen as too closely associated with political despotism and therefore liable to be used against the Stalinist regime itself.
The critical positions of Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) and Evgenij Varga (1879–1964) nonetheless alluded to the Asiatic mode of production in proposing anticolonial alliances of workers and peasants against both foreign imperialism and local bourgeoisies. The concept was finally expunged from orthodox Marxism after 1930, as Stalin codified a rigid, mechanical succession of modes of production. Conversely, in Oriental Despotism (1957) the former Marxist sinologist Karl Wittfogel (1896–1988) employed Marx’s original formulation as a polemical indictment of the Soviet state, which he characterized as a manifestation of totalitarianism akin to Asia’s “hydraulic civilizations.”
The Asiatic mode of production resurfaced in Marxist historiography and anthropology during the 1960s in a context of intensified anticolonial and anti-imperialist resistance. Maurice Godelier and other contributors to the French journal La pensée (Thought) asserted that this mode of production remained central throughout the work of Marx and Engels. Jean Chesneaux did not limit the concept’s validity to Asia, but extended it to a variety of traditional societies. At the same time, these authors argued for a dynamic perspective to depart from the Eurocentric bias of orthodox Marxism, which saw precapitalist non-Western societies as stagnant and undeveloped. The Asiatic mode of production has also been severely criticized in Marxist debates. Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst refused to define it as a mode of production because it presupposes the state rather than explaining it through the analysis of social relations. Maxime Rodinson considered the concept a blunt and simplified way to encase highly complex societies. Claude Meillassoux noted the concept’s excessive generalization as it conflates diverse social formations that share a tributary extraction of surplus. The distinctiveness of African realities led Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch to propose an “African,” kinshipbased, mode of production-reproduction. Finally, postcolonial studies have rejected the Asiatic mode of production concept, following Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), seeing it as a reflex of the cultural stereotypes that underpinned European imperial expansion.
- Dunn, Stephen P. 1982. The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode of Production. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Godelier, Maurice. 1978. The Concept of the “Asiatic Mode of Production” and Marxist Models of Social Evolution. In Relations of Production: Marxist Approaches to Economic Anthropology, ed. David Seddon, 209–257. London: Frank Cass.
- Hindess, Barry, and Paul Hirst. 1975. Pre-capitalist Modes of Production. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Sofri, Gianni. 1969. Il modo di produzione asiatico: Storia di una controversia marxista. Turin, Italy: Einaudi.
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