Reconstructing Historical Materialism

On February 6, 2011 by admin

 Jairus Banaji

 [This is Part I of a two part essay that HUG is publishing. The paper was presented at the 6th Annual Historical Materialism Conference in London, 2009]

What I‘d like to do in this paper is raise the general issue of how we can develop historical materialism in more powerful ways than Marxists have tried to do since the sixties. The general issue is addressed by raising three specific questions. First, how should Marxists periodize capitalism? Second, is there a consistent materialist characterization of  ‘Asiatic’ regimes, since Marx‘s Asiatic mode of production clearly doesn‘t work as one? And third, why have Marxists had so little to say about the deployment of labour? By deployment of labour I mean not the general ways of controlling and exploiting labour that Marx himself would repeatedly refer to in categories such as  ‘slavery’,  ‘serfdom’ and so on, but the organization and control of the labour-process in concrete settings , as in Carlo Poni‘s fine monograph on the struggle between landowners and sharecroppers over methods of ploughing that increased the intensity of labour (1) or Hans-Günther Mertens‘ discussion of the organization of Mexican estates. (2)

1. Commercial capitalism, slaveholder capitalism: the problem of configurations

Let me start with the issue of slavery because that will lead into the wider issue of the periodization of capitalism. In the Grundrisse Marx states, “The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour.’ (3) This has always struck me as one of the most intriguing passages in all of Marx‘s writings. The Southern slaveholders are called capitalists but their form of capitalism is anomalous, because capitalism for Marx presupposes free labour (or at least wage-labour) and the Southern plantations are clearly not based on that. On the other hand, the plantations clearly are capitalist enterprises (in Marx‘s eyes) or the problem of characterizing them wouldn‘t exist. A passage in Theories of Surplus-Value is more explicit in exposing the roots of the tension evident here. Here Marx writes, “In the second types of colonies — plantations — where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of (blacks) precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it‘. (4) Here he actually states that a capitalist mode of production exists in the colonial plantations despite the existence of slave labour. It is clear that the two determinations that summed up the nature of capitalist production for Marx (the production of capital or the drive to accumulate, on the one hand, the domination and use of wage-labour on the other) were in conflict here, and that Marx seemed to think that in one sense at least, that of characterizing the nature of these enterprises, the former mattered more.

By the 1860s this was certainly his position, because in Volume 2 he describes the money capital invested in the purchase of (slave) labour-power as ‘fixed capital’, (5) and in Volume 3 he states bluntly, “Where the capitalist conception prevails, as on the American plantations…’. (6) I‘d like to suggest that the real reason why Marx had to acknowledge the capitalist nature of the plantations was the impact of the colonial trades on the equalization of the general rate of profit, in particular their role in  ‘raising the general level of profit’. (7)”As far as capital invested in the colonies, etc. is concerned…the reason why this can yield higher rates of profit is that the profit rate is generally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is the exploitation of labour, through the use of slaves and coolies, etc. Now there is no reason why the higher rates of profit that capital invested in certain branches yields in this way, and brings home to its country of origin, should not enter into the equalization of the general rate of profit and hence raise this in due proportion, unless monopolies stand in the way.’ (8) Again, “the average rate of profit depends on the level of exploitation of labour as a whole by capital as a whole”. (9) ‘Labour as a whole’, including, then, slave labour or any other form of labour whose exploitation generated capital. It was Marx‘s recognition of the contribution of the colonial trades to the general rate of profit that tilted his conception decisively in favour of seeing the Atlantic slave economy essentially as capitalist.

But if that is so, the implications of this view for historical materialism have scarcely been discussed. On the contrary, most Marxists have played it safe and forestalled such a discussion by endorsing an orthodoxy that has little to do with Marx himself. For example, in his debate with Frank, Laclau took the stand that “in the plantations of the West Indies, the economy was based on a mode of production constituted by slave labour’, (10) characterizing the use of slave labour as a ‘mode of production’ when Marx himself had stated explicitly that a capitalist mode of production ‘exists’ in the slave plantations. That was in 1971. By 1997 when Blackburn published The Making of New World Slavery, the same orthodoxy persisted but now in a much less confident form. “The American slave planter of the seventeenth century and after was not a capitalist — in the strict sense of the term, the species was only just coming into existence — but neither was he as far removed from capitalism as the feudal lord or the Ancient slaveowner.’ (11) Or again,  “the undoubted fact that neither the feudal estates of Eastern Europe nor the slave plantations of the Americas can properly be regarded as capitalist enterprises should not lead us, as it has led some writers, to regard them as equivalently distant from the capitalist mode of production.” (12) The hesitation expressed in these passages stemmed presumably from Blackburn‘s deeper historical understanding of the Caribbean plantations. They were  “run according to business principles which were very advanced for the epoch”; “The construction of slave plantations did indeed require large fixed investments”; “The performance of the early eighteenth-century sugar plantation embodied technical improvements in nearly every aspect of cultivation and processing”; and finally, “the high capital value of a Caribbean slave plantation put pressure on the planter to maximize output from a given crew”. (13) All of which was a considerable advance over Laclau‘s blunt assertion of a ‘mode of production constituted by slave labour.’

By contrast, the historiography of the Old South moved in the 1990s to an aggressive assertion of what James Oakes would call the ‘capitalist nature of the slave system’ there. (14) Genovese, Oakes argued,  “misses the powerful force of capitalism within the slave system. Marx captured the essence of the problem when he wrote of capitalism as having been ‘grafted’ on to slavery in the Old South.” (15) A whole strand of American historiography had seen Southern slavery as a capitalist structure. Lewis Gray, for example, had described the plantation as a “capitalistic type of agricultural organization in which a considerable number of unfree laborers were employed under unified direction and control”. (16) That was in the early 1930s. “Was not the plantation owner just another capitalist?”, Barrington Moore had asked in the sixties. (17) When Fogel and Engerman demonstrated the profitability of slavery in the 1970s, it was no longer possible to see the South as an economic backwater. (18) In retrospect, Genovese was fighting a rearguard action and Oakes had seen why. “Implicitly equating capitalism with free labor, Genovese argues that slavery was a pre-capitalist form of social organization…”.(19) The upshot of the Southern debate is not, of course, that the peculiarities of the South should be disregarded but that Southern paternalism was not “intrinsically antagonistic to capitalist enterprise”, not “necessarily a barrier to profit maximization”. (20) In other words, historical materialism has to be able to accommodate distinct configurations of capitalism and not look at the history of capitalism by simply reiterating the abstract unity of capital  “in contrast to the multiplicity of its external forms”. This method of forced abstraction will only contribute to stagnation and leave the best historical work to historians less encumbered by false notions of orthodoxy.

If it was capitalism that generated modern slavery, then we need to ask both what kind of capitalism and what that means for the history of capitalism more generally. Marx himself drew a sharp distinction between manufacture and large-scale industry and worked with a periodization of capitalism that contrasted the ‘period’ of manufacture with that of large-scale industry. Both were forms of the ‘modern mode of production’  but manufacture was its first ‘period’, (21) which Marx saw as firmly established by the sixteenth century, when, as he says, “the modern history of capital starts to unfold”. (22) It was the creation of the world market that formed the great watershed of the sixteenth century. Manufacture “springs up where mass quantities are produced for export, for the external market — i.e. on the basis of large-scale overland and maritime commerce, in its emporiums like the Italian cities, Constantinople, in the Flemish, Dutch cities, a few Spanish ones, such as Barcelona etc.”. (23) In Volume 1 Marx was willing to concede that “we come across the first sporadic traces of capitalist production as early as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries in certain towns of the Mediterranean”, (24) and in the Grundrisse these early centuries, labelled the ‘Mercantile system’, are called an ‘epoch’. (25) The variegated backgrounds and origins of this first epoch of capitalism would culminate eventually in the dominance of Dutch capitalism in the seventeenth century. (26) The global history of capitalism between the later Middle Ages and the seventeenth century was of course one of the emergence and brute consolidation of the ‘colonial system’, and it was Holland that “first brought the colonial system to its full development”. (27) A large part of Dutch capital was tied up in the Atlantic sugar industry. (28) Indeed, sugar was “more heavily capitalized than any other plantation industry of that day…the industrial capital of the plantation …was probably not much less than half its total capital”.(29) Now, for Marx the striking feature of the colonial system was the fact that under it commercial capital ceased to be a mere mediation between extremes and dominated production directly.(30) It was the fusion of merchant capital and production that formed the true hallmark of commercial capitalism, and if the slave plantations were exemplars of this form of capitalism, ‘an aspect of early modern capitalist enterprise’, as one historian has described them recently, (31) so of course were the many forms of the putting-out system and the domination exercised by merchants over direct producers (weavers and other artisans) in a whole range of industries in Europe itself. (32) Marx saw this type of capitalism transforming artisans into ‘mere wage-labourers’ (33) and a likely starting-point for the evolution of ‘manufacture proper’. (34)

The theoretical point here is that it is just not tenable to hold fast to the distinction between circulation and production, or between ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ (Laclau), when we drop the level of abstraction and depict the concrete movement of capital as this appears in history. The task facing materialist historiography is not the endless repetition of formulas valid at certain levels of abstraction but writing histories of early capitalism that can generate more sophisticated models of the world economy than any currently on offer. Laclau‘s response to Frank that the expansion of capitalism consolidated pre-capitalist modes of production suffers from its radical incoherence. The colonial system was a legacy of commercial capitalism and the forms of exploitation used within it were not independent modes of production in any strict historical sense but forms of productive organization and control of labour peculiar to specific configurations of capital. The hybrid culture of Southern capitalism (35) could easily count as an example of this sort of purely historical configuration, but the historiography of the medieval and early modern worlds is sufficiently rich and detailed for Marxists to be able to map more of them.

2. ‘Asiatic’ regimes, or the class relations of tributary production

Turning to Asiatic regimes, Anderson‘s understanding of Russian Absolutism can serve as the counterpart to Blackburn‘s anomalous characterization of Atlantic slavery. Anderson reads Russian absolutism on a European model, describing the boyars as a feudal aristocracy,(36) referring to the “impulse within the aristocracy towards a military monarchy”, (37) as if Russian absolutism was the creation of a coherent aristocracy (!), and even arguing that “undiluted feudal principles were to govern the construction of the State machine”. (38) None of this comes remotely close to grasping the peculiarities of Russia‘s historical development or displaying any sense of why Trotsky for example characterized Tsarism as a ‘bureaucratic autocracy’ (39) or ‘bureaucratic absolutism’ (40) and insisted on the ‘special features’ that set Russia apart from western Europe. (41) The issue is crucial, because once we have demolished the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, which is easy to do (and which Anderson himself does effectively), we are left with whole continents of history — Byzantine, early Islamic, Russian, Ottoman, Mughal, Chinese, etc. — that clamour for a Marxist characterization lest they sink torpidly into the ‘absolving ocean’ of feudalism. (42) What Slavatinsky called the “fundamental difference which separates our ―service nobility‖ from the feudal landowning aristocracy of Western Europe” (43) marked off a distinct configuration of class relationships, a ‘totality’ of production relations, (44) quite different from feudalism. The dispossession of the old boyar aristocracy that culminated in the sixteenth century under Ivan the Terrible and its forcible integration into an expanded service class would mean that by the late sixteenth century “private property of the means of production became virtually extinct”. (45) “It was the combination of absolute political power with nearly complete control of the country’s productive resources that made the Muscovite monarchy so formidable an institution”. (46)

On the wider canvas that stretches back to the autocracies of the Byzantine and early Islamic worlds, it is the feudal mode of production that appears exceptional. The more widespread pattern was state economy and the regimes based on it, where class relations were configured around the legal fiction of the sovereign as the ‘real’ owner of all the land and the ruler either had no feudal elements to contend with (Muslim Spain) (47) or ruthlessly subordinated such elements on the model of Ivan‘s subversion of the aristocracy. If, with John Haldon, we call these regimes the tributary mode of production, (48) then Muslim societies lay at one extreme of a spectrum of class relationships defined in their case by the absence of an aristocracy in any conventional sense. The ‘Islamic social formation’ (to use M. Acién‘s expression) emerged through conquest and, as Coulson noted, the conquered territories were retained in the “public ownership of the Muslim community”. (49) Marx even believed that it was the Muslims who “first established the principle of ―no property in land‖ throughout the whole of Asia”.(50) Be that as it may, the key institution was the iqta or what the Russian liberal historian Paul Miliukov called the “eastern system of military holdings” which was eventually borrowed by the Muscovite princes in their creation of the pomest’ye in the fifteenth century.(51) With taxation as the general form of ground-rent, the assignment of villages to members of the military élite (amirs, pomeshchiki, etc.) was essentially an assignment of revenue, so that the class relations of tributary production were defined by an inherent instability of property rights. At the other extreme from this tightly centralized model lie India and China but exemplifying a less autocratic pattern in opposite ways. If Tsarism encapsulated the integration of the aristocratic and the service element into a unified Court nobility, Trotsky‘s ‘noble bureaucracy’, (52) but one totally subservient to the ruler [they numbered c.3000 in 1552], (53) then India under the Mughals, coeval with the paroxysm of Absolutism in sixteenth-century Russia, illustrates the falling apart of those elements, a model that juxtaposes a service élite with powerful regional aristocracies that were only loosely integrated into the administration (54) and heavily armed to boot. (55) This was certainly the most conflicted form of the tributary mode, one where Imperial cohesion was irreparably vulnerable to refractory aristocracies. (56) Despite their own internal divisions and amorphousness, the zamindars were an entrenched source of subversion, a perfect counterpoint to the disciplined nobility (mansabdars) that Akbar had created as the backbone of his imperial State. Finally, China saw new landed élites emerge from the ranks of higher officialdom, once the territorial aristocracies of the North had finally disintegrated and a more powerful bureaucratic regime emerged in the great transition from T‘ang to Sung (tenth century). The ‘widespread illegal acquisition of landed properties’ (57) was nothing new in China, and the Sung developments can be seen either as collusion between the bureaucracy and the landed élite or a pattern where powerful landed interests could dominate the government because they were leading members of the official class.(58)

This is hardly the place to rehearse the details of these separate forms of evolution. The key point here is that these variant class patterns describe the different ways in which the tributary mode was configured historically. This matches the point made earlier that the history of the capitalist mode of production is itself best reconstructed as a movement of distinct historical configurations of capitalism, each absorbing the previous one (Marx refers to industrial capital first having to ‘destroy’ commercial capital as an independent form). (59) More importantly, there was sufficient historical connectivity between the different forms and exemplars of the tributary mode for us to call ‘Asiatic production’ (60) an epoch that ran concurrently with feudalism in the West and outlasted it by several centuries till its own eventual dissolution under the unremitting pressure of world capitalism, starting with zamindar rebellions and outright seizure of territory in India, large-scale foreign borrowings by the Ottomans, and so on. But while they lasted, the ‘Asiatic’ or tributary regimes had considerably more vitality than Marx ever attributed to the Asiatic mode.

  1 Poni, Gli aratri e l’economia agraria nel Bolognese dal XVII al XIX secolo.

2 Mertens, Wirtschaftliche und soziale Strukturen zentralmexicanischer Weizenhaciendas aus dem Tal von Atlixco (1890–1912).

3 Marx, Grundrisse, p. 513.

4 Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, 2, p. 3023.

5 Marx, Capital, vol. 2, p. 554: “In the slave system, the money capital laid out on the purchase of labour-power plays the role of fixed capital in the money form…”.

6 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 940.

7 Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, 2, p. 436.

8 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 345.

9 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 299.

10 Laclau, ‘Feudalism and Capitalism in Latin America’, NLR 1/67 (1971), p. 30.

11 Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, p. 376.

12 Blackburn, Making, p. 374.

13 Blackburn, Making, pp. 379, 336, 343, 339.

14 Oakes, The Ruling Race, p. xi.

15 Oakes, Slavery and Freedom, p. 55; the reference is Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 345.

16 Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, vol. 1, p. 302.

17 Barrington Moore Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, p. 121.

18 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross (1974).

19 Oakes, The Ruling Race, p. xiii.

20 Smith, Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum American South, p. 24; Smith is a good introduction to these debates.

21 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 450: “And yet the modern mode of production in its first period, that of manufacture, developed only where the conditions for it had been created in the Middle Ages”.

22 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 247: “World trade and the world market date from the sixteenth century, and from then on the modern history of capital starts to unfold”.

23 Marx, Grundrisse, pp. 510–11.

24 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp. 875–6.

25 Marx, Grundrisse, p. 327.

26 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 916, stating, “Holland was the model capitalist nation of the seventeenth century”.

27 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 918.

28 Mauro, Le Portugal et l’Atlantique au XVIIe siècle (1570–1670), p. 231.

29 Pares, Merchants and Planters, p. 24.

30 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, pp. 446–7.

31 Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914, p. 403.

32 E.g., Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, 3, pp. 468–70.

33 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, pp. 452–3.

34 Marx, Grundrisse, p. 510.

35 Follett, The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820–1860, pp. 6–7.

36 Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, p. 336.

37 Anderson, Lineages, p. 201.

38 Anderson, Lineages, p. 218. The subtext is clearly serfdom, but Anderson shows no awareness of Khlebnikov‘s crucial point that the Muscovite serf was more like a “state worker through the intermediacy of the landlord” than a serf in the strictly European sense, cf. Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime , p.105.

39 Trotsky, 1905, p. 8.

40 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 25.

41 Trotsky, 1905, p. 3: “the Russian revolution bore a character wholly peculiar to itself, a character which was the outcome of the special features of our entire social and historical development”; written in 1907.

42 Anderson, Lineages, p. 402.

43 Cited Madariaga, ‘The Russian Nobility in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, p. 223.

44 Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital: “The relations of production in their totality constitute what are called the social relations, society…Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois society are such totalities of production relations”.

45 Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, pp. 93–4.

46 Pipes, Russia, p. 94.

47 Guichard, Les musulmans de Valence et la Reconquête, xie-xiiie siècles, 2 vols.

48 Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production.

49 Acién Almansa, Entre el Feudalismo y el Islam; Coulson, History of Islamic Law, p. 23.

50 Marx to Engels, 14/6/1853, in Avineri, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, p. 457.

51 Miliukov, Russia and its Crisis, pp. 114–21.

52 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 26.

53 Pavlov, ‘Les réformes du milieu du XVIe siècle et l‘évolution structurelle de la noblesse russe’, Cahiers du Monde russe, 46 (2005) p. 96.

54 The duality is best described in John F. Richards‘ classic monograph, Mughal Administration in Golconda (1975).

55 Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy; Richards, ‘Warriors and the State in Early Modern India’, JESHO 47 (2004), pp. 390ff., reviewing Kolff.

56 Muzaffar Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India.

57 Twitchett, Financial Administration under the T’ang Dynasty, p. 10.

58 Ch‘ao-ting Chi, Key Economic Areas in Chinese History, pp. 135–9. 11

59 Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, 3, p. 468.

60 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 452.

Jairus Banaji  is the author of Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation  (Historical Materialism Book Series 25) (Brill, 2010).

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