What is historical materialism?

Asiatic mode of production

The really explosive growth of civilization occurs with Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, China and Persia. In other words, the development of class society coincides with a massive upturn in the productive forces, and as a result, of human culture, which reached unprecedented heights. It is now believed that the emergence of the city, as well as the agriculture that preceded it occurred roughly simultaneously in different locations – Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Huang Ho Valley, as well as Egypt. This occurred in the fourth millennium BC. In Southern Mesopotamia the Sumerians built Ur, Lagash, Eridu and other city states. They were a literate people who left behind thousands of clay tablets written in cuneiform script.

The main features of the Asiatic mode of production are:

1) An urban society with an agrarian base.
2) A primarily agricultural economy.
3) Public works which are frequently (but not always) identified with the need for irrigation and the upkeep and spread of intensive canal and drainage systems.
4) A despotic system of government, often with a god-king at the top.
5) A large bureaucracy.
6) A system of exploitation based on taxation.
7) Common (state) ownership of the land.

Although slavery existed (prisoners of war), these were not actually slave societies. Labour service was not free, but those who performed it were not slaves. There is an element of coercion, but the main thing is habit, tradition and religion. The community serves the god-king (or queen). It serves the temple (cf Israel). This is associated with the state, and is the state.

The origins of the state are here mixed up with religion, and this religious aura is maintained to the present. People are taught to look up to the state with feelings of awe and reverence, as a force standing above society, above ordinary men and women, who must serve it blindly.templeMillenium Old Temple

The village commune, the basic cell of these societies, is almost entirely self-sufficient. The few luxuries accessible to a population of subsistence farmers are obtained from the bazaar or from travelling peddlers who live on the margins of society. Money is scarcely known. Taxes to the state are paid in kind. There is no connection between one village and another and internal trade is weak. The real cohesion comes from the state.

There was an almost total lack of social mobility, reinforced in some cases by the caste system. The emphasis is on the group rather than the individual. Endogamous marriage prevails – that is, people tend to marry strictly within their class or caste.  Economically, they tend to follow the professions of their parents. In the Hindu caste system this is, in fact, obligatory. This lack of mobility and social rigidity helps to tie the people to the land (the village commune).

As examples of this kind of society we have the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians, the Shang or Yin dynasty (traditionally dating from about 1766 to 1122 BC) was the first Chinese dynasty of which there is a record and the Indus Valley (Harappa) civilization that lasted from about 2300 to around 1700 BC in India. In an entirely separate development, the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico and Peru, though with certain variations, display strikingly similar features.

The tax system, and other methods of exploitation such as obligatory labour service for the state (Corvée) is oppressive but accepted as inevitable and the natural order of things, sanctioned by tradition and religion. Corvée is unfree labour, often unpaid, that is imposed on the people, either by an aristocratic landowner, as in feudalism, or, as in this case, by the state. But whereas the corvée system is similar to that which is found in western feudalism, the system of land ownership is not at all the same. In fact, the British rulers of India had the greatest difficulty making sense of it.

Where towns and cities spring up it is usually along trade routes, on the banks of rivers, in oases or other main sources of water. The towns are the administrative and commercial centres for the villages. Here are traders and artisans: ironworkers, carpenters, weavers, dyers, shoemakers, masons, etc. Here also are the local representatives of the state power, the only ones with which the mass of the population are familiar: low grade civil servants, scribes and police or soldiers.

There are also moneylenders, charging usurious rates to the peasants who are fleeced in turn by the tax-collector, the merchant and the village usurer. Many of these ancient elements have survived until modern times in some countries of the Middle East and Asia. But the advent of colonialism destroyed the ancient Asiatic mode of production once and for all. It was, in any case, an historical dead-end from which no further development was possible.

In these societies the mental horizons of people are extremely limited. The most powerful force in peoples’ lives is the family or the clan, which educates them and teaches them about their history, religion and traditions. About politics and the world at large they know little or nothing. Their only contact with the state is the village headman who is responsible for collecting taxes.

What strikes one about these early civilizations is on the one hand their longevity, on the other, the extremely slow development of the productive forces and the extremely conservative nature of their outlook. This was an essentially static model of society. The only changes were the result of periodic invasions, e.g. by the nomadic barbarians of the steppes (the Mongols etc.), or occasional peasant revolts (China) that led to a change of dynasty.

However, the substitution of one dynasty for another does not signify any real change. The social relations and the state remain untouched by all the changes at the top. The end result was always the same. The invaders were absorbed and the system continued, undisturbed as before.

Empires rose and fell. There was a continuous process of fusion and fission. But through all these political and military changes, nothing fundamental changed for the peasantry at the bottom. Life continued its seemingly eternal (and divinely ordained) routine. The Asiatic idea of a never-ending cycle in religion is a reflection of this state of affairs. At the bottom we had the ancient village commune, based on subsistence agriculture that had survived virtually unchanged for millennia. Being predominantly agricultural, the rhythm of their lives is dominated by the eternal cycle of the seasons, the annual flooding of the Nile etc.

In recent years there has been a lot of noise in certain intellectual and quasi-Marxist circles about the Asiatic mode of production. But although Marx mentioned it, he did so only rarely and usually as an aside. He never developed it, which he certainly would have done if he had considered it important. The reason he did not do so was because it was an historical dead end, comparable to the Neanderthals in human evolution. It was a form of society, which, despite its achievements, ultimately did not contain within itself the seeds of future development. These were planted elsewhere: on the soil of Greece and Rome.  


Greek society was formed under different conditions to those of the earlier civilizations. The small city states of Greece lacked the vast expanses of cultivable land, the great plains of the Nile or Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Hemmed in by barren mountain ranges, they faced to the sea, and this fact determined their whole course of development. Ill-suited both to agriculture or industry, they were pushed in the direction of the sea, becoming a trading nation and an intermediary, as the Phoenicians had done earlier.

Ancient Greece has a different socio-economic structure, and consequently a different spirit and a different outlook to the earlier societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Hegel says that in the East, the ruling spirit was freedom for the One (i.e. for the ruler, the god-king). But in Greece it was freedom for the many, that is to say, freedom for the citizens of Athens who did not happen to be slaves. But the slaves who did most of the work had no rights at all. Neither did women or foreigners.

For the free citizens, Athens was a most advanced democracy. This new spirit, infused with humanity and individualism, affected Greek art, religion and philosophy, which are qualitatively different to that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. When Athens was mistress of all Greece, she had neither a treasury nor a regular system of taxation. This was completely different to the Asiatic system in Persia and other earlier civilizations. But all this was based ultimately on the labour of the slaves, who were private property.

The main division was between free men and slaves. The free citizens did not usually pay taxes, which were regarded as degrading (as was manual labour). However, there was also a bitter class struggle in Greek society, characterized by a sharp division between the classes, based on property. The slaves, as chattel that could be bought and sold, were objects of production. The Roman word for a slave was instrumentum vocale, a tool with a voice. That puts it very clearly, and despite all the changes of the last 2,000 years the real position of the modern wage slave has not fundamentally changed since then.

It may be objected, Greece and Rome stood on the basis of slavery, which is an abhorrent and inhuman institution. But Marxists cannot look at history from the point of view of morality. Apart from anything else, there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. Every society has its own morality, religion, culture, etc. which correspond to a given level of development, and, at least in the period we call civilization, also to the interests of a particular class.

Whether a particular war was good, bad or indifferent cannot be ascertained from the point of view of the number of victims, and much less from an abstract moral standpoint. We may strongly disapprove of wars in general, but one thing cannot be denied: throughout the whole course of human history, all serious questions have ultimately been settled in this way. That goes both for the conflicts between nations (wars) and also the conflicts between classes (revolutions).

Our attitude towards a particular type of society and its culture cannot be determined by moralistic considerations. What determines whether a given socio-economic formation is historically progressive or not is first and foremost its ability to develop the productive forces – the real material basis upon which all human culture arises and develops.

Hegel, that wonderfully profound thinker, writes: "It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated." (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p. 407). Despite its monstrously oppressive character, slavery marked a step forward inasmuch as it permitted a further development of the productive power of society. We owe all the wonderful achievements of modern science to Greece and Rome – that is, to say, ultimately, to the labour of the slaves.

The Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery, slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus, and introduced such refined methods of execution as crucifixion. Yes, all that is perfectly true. To us it seems a monstrous aberration. And yet, when we come to consider where all our modern civilization, our culture, our literature, our architecture, our medicine, our science, our philosophy, even in many cases our language, comes from, the answer is – from Greece and Rome.

Decline of slave society

Slavery contains an inner contradiction that led to its destruction. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive (slaves must be compelled to work), the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia (large scale agricultural units) in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus. At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale.

But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline. Since slave labour is only productive when it is employed on a massive scale, the prior condition for its success is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. But slaves breed very slowly in captivity and so the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare. Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult.

The beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterised by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was really a struggle for the division of the spoils.

Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry – the backbone of the Republic and its army – drifted to Rome where they constituted a lumpen-proletariat, a non-productive class, living off dole from the state. Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves – the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire.

The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity. The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world's greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.

The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. However, the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive class but purely a parasitical one, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact.

The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. The deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.

The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander – the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side is able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state (which Lenin described as "armed bodies of men") began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome.

A whole series of military adventurers appear: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar, a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip-service to it. His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.

After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognised, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title "Emperor" (imperator in Latin) is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name.

The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that. But they were just that – hollow forms with no real content, an empty husk that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority. Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. Caligula considerably improved upon this by making his horse a senator. Nobody saw anything wrong with this, or if they did they kept their mouths firmly shut.

It often happens in history that outworn institutions can survive long after their reason to exist has disappeared. They drag out a miserable existence like a decrepit old man who clings onto life, until they are swept away by a revolution. The decline of the Roman Empire lasted for nearly four centuries. This was not an uninterrupted process. There were periods of recovery and even brilliance, but the general line was downwards.

In periods like this, there is a general sense of malaise. The predominant mood is one of scepticism, lack of faith and pessimism in the future. The old traditions, morality and religion – things that act as a powerful cement holding society together – lose their credibility. In place of the old religion, people seek out new gods. In its period of decline, Rome was inundated with a plague of religious sects from the east. Christianity was only one of these, and although ultimately successful, had to contend with numerous rivals, such as the cult of Mithras.

When people feel that the world in which they live is tottering, that they have lost all control over their existence and that their lives and destinies are determined by unseen forces, then mystical and irrational tendencies get the upper hand. People believe that the end of the world is nigh. The early Christians believed this fervently, but many others suspected it. In point of fact what was coming to an end was not the world but only a particular form of society – slave society. The success of Christianity was rooted in the fact that it connected with this general mood. The world was evil and sinful. It was necessary to turn one's back on the world and all its works and look forward to another life after death.

Why the barbarians triumphed

By the time the barbarians invaded, the whole structure of the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse, not only economically, but morally and spiritually. No wonder the barbarians were welcomed as liberators by the slaves and poorer sections of society. They merely completed a job that had been well prepared in advance. The barbarian attacks were a historical accident that served to express a historical necessity.

Once the Empire reached its limits and the contradictions inherent in slavery began to assert themselves, Rome entered into a long period of decline that lasted for centuries, until it was eventually overrun by the barbarians. The mass migrations that brought about the collapse of the Empire were a common phenomenon among nomadic pastoral peoples in antiquity and occurred for a variety of reasons – pressure on pasture land as a result of population growth, climate changes, etc.

Successive waves of barbarians swept out of the east: Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Lombards, Suevi, Alemanni, Burgundians, Franks, Thuringians, Frisians, Heruli, Gepidae, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns and Magyars, pushed their way into Europe. The all-powerful and eternal Empire was reduced to ashes. With remarkable swiftness the Empire collapsed under the hammer blows of the barbarians.

The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax farmers, was already undermining the whole system. There was a steady drift to the countryside where the basis was already being laid for the development of a different mode of production – feudalism. The barbarians merely delivered the coup de grâce to a rotten and moribund system. The whole edifice was tottering, and they merely gave it a last and violent push.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (My emphasis, AW)

What happened to the Roman Empire is a striking illustration of the last-named variant. The failure of the oppressed classes of Roman society to unite to overthrow the brutally exploitative slave-state led to an inner exhaustion and a long and painful period of social, economic and cultural decay, which prepared the way for the barbarians.

The immediate effect of the barbarian onslaught was to wipe out civilization and throw society and human thought back for a thousand years. The productive forces suffered a violent interruption. The cities were destroyed or abandoned. The invaders were an agricultural people and knew nothing of towns and cities. The barbarians in general were hostile to the towns and their inhabitants (a psychology that is quite common among peasants in all periods). This process of devastation, rape and pillage was to continue for centuries, leaving behind a terrible heritage of backwardness, which we call the Dark Ages.

Yet although the barbarians succeeded in conquering the Romans, they themselves were fairly quickly absorbed, and even lost their own language and ended up speaking a dialect of Latin. Thus, the Franks, who gave their name to modern France, were a Germanic tribe speaking a language related to modern German. The same thing happened to the Germanic tribes that invaded Spain and Italy. This is what normally happens when a more economically and culturally backward people conquers a more advanced nation. Exactly the same thing happened later to the Mongol hoards that conquered India. They were absorbed by the more advanced Hindu culture and ended up founding a new Indian dynasty – the Moguls.