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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 11, New Delhi, February 27, 2021

On Asiatic Despotism and the Transcendence of Capitalism | Murzban Jal

Saturday 27 February 2021

by Murzban Jal

Arup Kumar Sen’s ‘Reading “Asiatic” Despotism’ [1] has raised a very pertinent question of Asiatic despotism that was stubbornly buried by Stalin in the 1930s. With this burial what was also buried by Stalin and his henchmen, was the burial of a very important idea that was central to both Marx and Engels. This essay is in a way a study of this important idea and how this idea offers new paradigms for the Indian left. It puts Marx’s multilinear view of history, constituted within his theory of the Asiatic mode of production combined with the critique of both the oligarchic caste system and modern capitalism, central to scientific analysis. Our proposal is that the project of the transcendence of capitalism requires firstly an understanding of the idea of history that Marx outlined for India in particular and Asia in general and secondly the dialectics between the caste system and the emergence of modern classes, especially the understanding of the emergence of the insurrectionist proletariat as the class-for-itself. According to our view the annihilation of the Asiatic despotic system was not carried out by the Congress led independence movement. But we also claim that the left’s programme of the New Democratic Revolution would not be able to deal with Asiatic despotism and the problems of monopoly capitalism in a comprehensive way. On the contrary we argue for a Revolutionary Communism that annihilates Asiatic despotism and transcends capitalism both at the same time.

We begin with a singularly important question: “How is the radical reading of Indian history possible, a radicalism that brings in multiple subaltern subject positions out in the open, such that not only is the system of authoritarianism destroyed (and along with it social and political retardation and conservatism), but along with it, capitalism that actively nurtures it? It must be noted that one has to by-pass the mechanistic-unilinear theory of history (which entered Marxism since the days of the Second Internationalism which then became the cebtral theme for the Mensheviks, then theorized by Nicolai Bukharin and finally institutionalized by Stalin) for a radical historicism, radicalism that talks of International Communism and the solidarity of the toiling classes of the world. It must also be noted that the Indian political left (from the CPI and CPI(M) to the Maoists) have not been emancipated from Stalinism, the bureaucratization of Marxism and the fear of the international revolution. That this Stalinist theory of fearing the international revolution and the bureaucratization of communism gives no room to the autonomy of political action peculiar to concrete conditions, and that they ultimately have to be dictated from the cranium of the Central Committee is not only a fact, but a tragic one. It is in this sense that one notes that “despotism” does not allude only to bourgeois authoritarian politics, but is inherent in all political parties, the left not excluded.

For Marx, Asiatic despotism is directly related to the question of social formations in Asia in general, to the caste question in particular in India and to the state emerging thereon. Politically it is imperative to understand the nature of power emanating, both the power at the social and economic level, as well as political power that resided in the infamous Oriental despotic state. What is also important to understand is that despite tremendous changes taking place (including the introduction of the modern parliamentary system), the oligarchic-despotic system and along with it the nature of caste and its system of hierarchy and ranking would continue to remain. Caste, as Marx puts it, is the not only the “solid foundation for Asiatic despotism” but also serves as its legendary stagnation. [2] While the despot would fear revolution and would prefer to stagnate, he would not be able to have any form of development at all. Two features emerge: Marx does not generalize on Asia in general as essentially despotic and stagnant, but claims that the caste oligarchic element served for this very same stagnation and despotism. What is more important to understand that with the recalling of Marx’s idea of the Asiatic mode of production, the old idea of “Indian feudalism” (a term introduced by R.S. Sharma) will have to be radically critiqued. What does this mean? It means that India never had feudalism. Thus in India, one does not talk of feudal landed property—thus no feudalism in India—but caste operates at the level of “completely independent”, “idyllic republics” that not only function at the level of society and economy, but which also operates at the level of government as despotic governance. One cannot graft the West European concept of serf on the idea of caste, nor reduce caste oligarchy to the landlord/serf relation. Pre-capitalist relations of production in Western Europe and India would be totally different.

Now, one knows that this idea of multilinear historicism which Marx had introduced in the lexicon of historical materialism lies largely forgotten. Not only was the discussion under Stalin purged—M.D. Kokin, the Soviet proponent of this idea, died in the Stalinist anti-communist genocide—but even Marxist scholars like G.A. Cohen, Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy made no reference to it. Likewise Edward Said thought that the Asiatic mode of production was an Orientalist intervention and Marx was became a Romantic and Messianic Orientalist, condemning non-European societies to eternal backwardness. [3] Marx of course never said this.

What is now to be noted is that repercussion of this theme of ignoring the Asiatic mode of production is that the history is made to look like the infamous march-past of iron laws. According to this thesis capitalism could only emerge from feudalism, whilst communism could only grow from capitalism. And since Indian is not capitalist (or not “fully developed” capitalist), communism would have to wait like the missing messiah. That there are views (Kevin Anderson is an example) that capitalism emerged in India not from feudalism, but from primitive commune property [4] is also largely not known. It is the Indian Maoists (albeit unwittingly) who have taken the view of tribal commune property—the ager publicus (public lands) of Marx’s Grundrisse where he discusses in detail pre-capitalist social formations—as the pivotal force for the Indian revolution. But the tragedy is that despite locating this social formation as the stepping stone to direct socialism, the old Maoist thesis of “semi-feudalism” and the “New Democratic Revolution” would chain them permanently to total inaction. The Indian Maoists would be the Indian Prometheus permanently chained on the rocks of “semi-feudalism” and the “New Democratic Revolution”. Neither the parliamentary left nor the Maoists have ever thought that communism in India can come directly by simply skipping over capitalism.

While one understands this feature of the Asiatic mode (where direct communism is possible), there is another feature, the feature of multilinear historicism. In this perspective of multilinear historicism one recalls Marx’s phrase that just as the history of the expropriation of the peasantry “in different countries, assumes different aspects”, so too the emergence of the modern proletariat takes different forms. [5] And since it was only in England that took what Marx calls the “classical form” [6], one cannot remain enslaved to this European form of capitalism only. Nor does one, as Marx insists, pass through the dreadful vicissitudes of capitalism [7].

That the articulation of the parliamentary leftists who want to march with the myth of historical inevitabilities is in direct opposition to Marx’s formulation of jumps in history also ought to be noted. They seem to have forgotten that the “historical inevitability” of the rise of capitalism that involves the divorcing of the producer from the means of production was limited only to Western Europe [8]. One cannot impose this history onto the entire world. As Marx said to the Narodniki writer Mikhailowsky, there is no “general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations” where one could impose a “general historico-philosophical theory” onto the entire world [9]. Recall Marx again “the supreme virtue of this (understanding) consists in being supra-historical.” [10]

Keeping this very important theme of multilinearism in mind, one is able to locate the complexity of Indian history. One is also able to see how Indian history keeps its pre-capitalist formations within its capitalist breast and thus hops on its two feet—one being the archaic caste foot, the other the modern class foot. And because the caste foot is ahead of the class foot, one can say that we are able to understand Marx’s formulation that one “suffers not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development” [11]. The tragedy of Indian history is that it shall be haunted not merely by the incompleteness of bourgeois development, but by the impossibility of this alleged “full development”. It is in the womb of this underdevelopment that one reads Marx’s viewing of the Oriental state as the ‘despotic’ sovereign, along with the village communities that are said to be “contaminated by caste and slavery”. [12] At one level the caste system seems to echo Marx’s views of feudal Europe stuck with its idiocy and superstition. At another level it is concrete and anticipates Ambedkar’s critique of the caste system where caste not only degrades and saps the energies of the peasants and the menial castes, but degrades humanity as a whole.

But besides these two very well known formations, Marx also talks of the communes that are said to have vitality that are superior not only to Greek and Roman societies, but also in comparison to modern societies. [13] The communes thus had to be to be preserved. [14] Not only were these communes to be preserved, they were to be the spring board for direct communist revolutions. One thus distinguishes the spaces of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gemeinwesen (commune) within the space of pre-capitalist societies. Pre-capitalism is not one single, undifferentiated space. It most certainly is not destined to go through capitalism. One could jump directly from this Gemeinwesen (commune) to modern communism, whilst the site of the caste-based Gemeinschaft is fit only to be destroyed lock, stock and barrel.

To claim that the communes were to die out due to the necessity of some inexorable law of history (rather: Law of History) was for Marx an outrageous imperialist lie. Let us put Marx’s commune at the background and re-think tribal India and the struggles being carried there. One must note how the Indian state has declared these struggles—i.e. struggles against the corporate colonization of the Indian forests—as terrorists of the highest order. Consider then Marx as how to theorize in this space of combined and uneven development and how the communes could be preserved:

One should be on one’s guard when reading the histories of primitive communities written by bourgeois historians. They do not stop at anything, even outright distortion. Sir Henry Maine, for example, who was an ardent active supporter of the British government in its policy of destroying Indian communes by force, tells us hypocritically that all noble efforts on the part of the government to support these communes were thwarted by the elementary force of these laws! [15]

Keeping this articulation of the communes, along with the caste-based village communities and the despotic state, one begins articulation on the nature of what Prabhat Patnaik over a decade back called “basic classes” [16]. These “basic classes” do not spring from the air. They emerge from the long history, a history that is constituted within the political economy of South Asia. Neither can we bracket the communes, nor the caste-based communities. Nor does the Indian proletariat emerge like the missing messiah, free from its pre-history. One has to take this real history. And, of course, the Indian communist cannot manufacture a class consciousness in the cranium of the Central Committee, a class consciousness that somehow would be imposed onto the masses “from the outside”.

What the organized left has done is besides being abstract is that they have reified the concept of class. Patnaik is quite correct when he talks of “empiricization” which suspends the project of the transcendence of capitalism an ideological feature of almost all left parties. Empiricization does not mean empirical. In fact, it is exact opposite: it involves an abstraction and then tries to force this abstraction onto reality. They thus become dogmatic. They do not start from real premises. In order to analyze modes of production in India, they try to ply out what Lenin said in the year so-and-so and what Mao did, and then apply these laws of so-called “dialectical materialism” onto the Indian context. They thus become appliedmetaphysicians.

Further their idea of class—what they mean some sort of “pure” class that emerges from their messianic cranium—is anti-humanist, in the sense that it totally ignores real individuals and the needs of these individuals. They forget the very basics of historical materialism implies that the “real premises” with which one starts are “real individuals”, their activity and the material conditions of their life. [17] And since one has disposed off the idea of real individuals as the starting point of not only theory but also praxis, the quantum jump to the idea of the “laws of history” can be deemed to be almost inevitable. That the view of unilinear history, or reified version of history, is the starting point of the reified left (first reified in the parliament and now out from it) should not thus shock anyone. However our critique of the unilinear view of history claims that such sort of theorization is necessarily based on the theory of reductionism where historical materialism is reduced to the auto-genesis of the self-evolving productive forces. In many respects Hegel’s spirit (Geist) in ferment became Marx’s alleged auto-moving forces of production, a theory made famous by G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History. A Defence. And since Hegel’s Geist in permanent ferment was transformed into Marx’s march past of productive forces, history was made to look like the universal theory of history marching from primitive communism, via slave society, feudalism and capitalism to socialism. Just as potentialities for socialism were said to be inherent in the cranium of capitalism, so too potentialities of capitalism were said to be inherent in pre-colonial India. [18] It was the British, who by draining the wealth of India, strangulated Indian industry. [19] That caste and its inherent decadence is absent from such analysis ought to be noted. Such a view of unilinear view of history (that is happily forgetful of caste) would quote Marx himself who once said:

The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future. [20]

And since we read that capitalism is said to “create a world after its own image” [21], the entire world would inevitably have to go through capitalism. It would also, through its inexorable laws of necessity, abolish all pre-capitalist formations. One would necessary have to march through these inexorable laws of necessity, becoming mysterious “Asian tigers” before evolving into socialism. The “necessary natural laws of history” would dictate this movement. One would have to reflect on this rather dangerous thesis for three reasons. Firstly that it smacks of Stalinism who through its brutal industrialization broke the backs of the Soviet peasantry, secondly this thesis is reflected in the now infamous thesis of capitalism as the “end of history” theory of Francis Fukuyama, and thirdly fatalism, political-quietism and imperialist barbarism are written on the banners of this Stalinist-Fukuyamaean theory. That both the Soviet state and the contemporary American one share the same logic has to be noted.

Now whether Marx himself ascribed to a unilinear view of history (as noted by Kevin Anderson) [22] and consequently by 1857 changed it [23] is a matter that one needs to reflect on. However two important points need being noted. One that the subject, or multiple subject positions of the Indian revolution, cannot be reduced to a simple proletariat, or to the question of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. The second point is that the social and material bases for the revolutionary subject of the Indian revolution cannot be considered without the understanding of the composition and decomposition of the caste system. My proposition is that the revolutionary subjects in India are born only with the absolute and unconditional decomposition of the caste system. In this sense, not only am I reading Marx’s view of non-Western histories from a radical different perspective, and thus not only bringing in Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks into the epistemic forefront along with his correspondence with the Russian Narodnikis, especially his 1881 correspondence with Zasulich; but also bring in this discussion, Ambedkar on the necessity of the annihilation of caste. Behind this discussion one has to bring in the Marxist-humanists, especially Raya Dunayevskaya and Kevin Anderson’s ideas of class, race and ethnicity in order to have a more nuanced idea of the Indian revolution.

Miss this and one will see once more the return of the Asiatic despot, angry at not only why his status is being questioned, but furious that why the storming of Capitol Hill was not successful and why some crazy liberals and leftists wanted to impeach him.

[1Arup Kumar Sen, ‘Reading “Asiatic” Despotism’ in Mainstream, Vol. LIX No 9, February 13, 2021.

[2Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in On Colonialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 40.

[3Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978), pp. 154, 206.

[4Kevin Anderson, ‘Marx’s Late Writings on Russia Re-examined’, in News &Letters, Nov. (2007).

[5Karl Marx, ‘First Draft of the Reply to V.I. Zasulich’s letter’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume Three(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), p. 152.


[7Ibid., p. 153.

[8Ibid., p. 152.

[9Karl Marx, ‘Letter to the Editorial Board of Otechestvenniye Zapiski, London, Nov., 1877’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 294.

[10Ibid: 294)

[11Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress Publishers,1986), p. 20.

[12Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in On Colonialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 40.

[13Karl Marx, ‘First Draft of the Reply to V.I. Zasulich’s letter’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works in Three Volumes,Volume Three(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), p. 154.

[14Ibid., p. 153.

[15Ibid., p. 154

[16Prabhat Patnaik, ‘The Left in Decline’, in Economic& Political Weekly, HYPERLINK "" Vol. 46, Issue No. 29, 16 Jul, 2011.

[17Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), pp. 36-7.

[18Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History. Towards a Marxist Perception (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 1997), pp. 180-232.

[19Ibid, p. 180.

[20Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1986), p. 19.

[21Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 39.

[22See Kevin Anderson, Marx and the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 10.

[23Ibid., pp. 37-8, 44, 52.

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