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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Reading “Asiatic” Despotism | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 12 February 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


Marx’s reading of the Asian societies, particularly his concept of the “Asiatic mode of production”, has led to controversies in the political and academic communities at different points of time. A scholar, Kimio Shiozawa, argued: “Marx’s view of Asian society and his theory of the Asiatic mode of production developed gradually over time, and his early views are not the same as those of his later years”. (Kimio Shiozawa, Marx’s View of Asian Society and His “Asiatic Mode of Production”, The Developing Economies, September 1966)

After a thorough reading of Marx’s writings, putting them in four periods in chronological order, Shiozawa attempted to construct the theoretical structure of the Asiatic mode of production, following “the method employed by Marx in Das Kapital on the capitalist mode of production”. He argued: “The elemental unit of production, as well as of society, is ‘the Asiatic community’ itself...Through the development of the various factors inherent in this community the Asiatic mode of production was built up, monarchical despotism arose, and under the rule of monarchical despotism the basis was still constituted by the Asiatic community”.

One can find it anachronistic to look for any connection between Marx’s concept of Asiatic mode of production and India in the 21st century. In fact, India has witnessed capitalist transformation over a long period of time, and is following the path of neo-liberal capitalism as a republic with a modern constitution.

What is important for us is Marx’s view of ‘Asiatic’ despotism, which accompanied the Asiatic mode of production. To put it in the words of Shiozawa:

“The Asiatic mode of production is an order of rule over a large number of Asiatic small communities by a despotic monarch or state. The basis of the rule over these small communities (and the individuals within them) by the state or monarch resides in the nature of the Asiatic form of the community itself”.

India is a democratic republic as per its Constitution. But, the majoritarian rule and authoritarian paradigm of governance being pursued by the State Power in contemporary India bear testimony to the rebirth of “Asiatic” despotism on the Indian soil.

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