Marxism, the State, and the Tributary Mode of Production

In this article, Josh Holroyd discusses the so-called Tributary Mode of Production, which has gained traction in academic circles as an alleged ‘update’ to Marx’s conception of historical development. However, a close inspection of this theory, its method and origins reveals less a development of Marxism than a retreat from it, in the face of attacks from its reactionary opponents in the universities.


The ideas of Karl Marx represent a fundamental turning point in the history of human thought. Applying the principles of dialectical materialism to the history and development of society, Marx disposed of all the fantastical notions to which history had formerly been forced to conform and placed our understanding of society, for the first time, on a real, scientific foundation: “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live”.[1]

This epoch-marking discovery did not however relieve us of the need to actually study history in all its variety and contradiction. In fact, by rendering a scientific understanding of history truly possible for the first time, it marks the beginning and not the end of this endeavour. Considering that, without this understanding, the conscious, socialist transformation of society is impossible, the need to study history should therefore be felt keenly by any Marxist.

Marx and Engels both devoted painstaking attention to the study of the history and development of many societies around the world, but as their main focus was the capitalist system and its development out of feudal Europe, the question of the nature and development of non-European societies has continued to raise questions and debate. Based on his study of Indian civilisation in particular, Marx put forward the “Asiatic mode of production” as something distinct from ancient slavery and feudalism, and marking an earlier stage in the development of the productive forces.

In the 20th century, however, Marx’s conception came under considerable attack, both from enemies and self-proclaimed friends of Marxism alike. The first and arguably most-damaging blow was dealt not by bourgeois opponents of Marxism however, but by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, which essentially abolished the Asiatic mode by decree in the 1930s, in order to provide the ideological cover for its criminal and disastrous two-stage theory.

Soviet historians then attempted to transpose the European pattern of development (slavery-feudalism-capitalism) onto the rest of the world with very mixed results. This in turn gave grist to the mill for generations of Western academics who, ostensibly reacting against the rigid dogmas of Stalinism, embraced eclecticism and postmodernism as a means of ‘rehabilitating’ Marx for the modern world. In short, the revisionism of the Stalinists was substituted for the revisionism of academia’s “pauper’s broth”.

It is in this context that we first discover the “tributary mode of production”. Presented as an updated application of historical materialism on the basis of new discoveries and scholarship which have followed Marx’s death, the tributary mode has gained considerable traction within academic circles and some have argued that it offers an attractive means of solving some difficult historical questions. However, a close inspection of this theory, its method and origin reveals less a development of Marxism than an attempt to reconcile it with the latest trends in academia, particularly in the realm of postcolonial theory. Nevertheless the tributary mode raises important questions and is worth engaging with critically, in order to better understand both history and the Marxist method.

The tributary mode

Qianlong Horse Image public domainAmin: “[the] tribute-paying mode of production is the most common and most general form characterizing pre-capitalist class formations." What does this broad conception add to our understanding of history? / Image: public domain

The concept of a tributary or “tribute paying” mode of production first appears in a 1974 paper, entitled Modes of Production and Social Formations, by the Egyptian academic, Samir Amin. In this paper, Amin defines the tributary mode as “juxtaposing the persistence of the village community and that of a social and political apparatus exploiting the latter in the form of exacting tribute”.[2]

On the face of it, this could be taken simply as a re-branding of the Asiatic mode of production, which is also characterised by the existence of village communes, supporting a powerful state apparatus by their surplus product, usually appropriated as tax. However, Amin goes further: “this tribute-paying mode of production is the most common and most general form characterizing pre-capitalist class formations; we propose to distinguish between the early forms, and the advanced forms such as the feudal mode of production in which the village community loses the eminent domain of the land to the benefit of the feudal lords, the community persisting as a community of families.”[3]

According to Amin, where communal property relations are dissolved by the private ownership of land, what occurs is not the advent of a new mode of production but rather the development of a more advanced form of tributary society: in Europe, feudalism. Confusingly, Amin continues to refer to both feudal and tributary “modes”, whilst at the same time treating feudalism as merely a more advanced expression of the latter, more general mode of production.

Amin also hypothesises the existence of “peripheral” modes such as the slave mode and the petty commodity mode of production, both of which were referred to by Marx, but he emphasises that, in the main, the tributary mode is dominant and the others are present as secondary forms within it.

For Amin, the tributary mode, which includes the feudal mode of production, is characterised by the following key elements:

  1. “a significant development of productive forces – i.e., a sedentary agriculture which can ensure more than mere survival, a substantial and reliable surplus, non-agricultural (artisanal) activities using technical know-how and various tools (except machines)”;
  2. “developed unproductive activities corresponding to the size of this surplus”;
  3. “a division into social classes based on this economic foundation”; and
  4. “a developed state that goes beyond the confines of village existence”.[4]

These criteria are to be found in almost every class society in history, with only Amin’s “except machines” in parenthesis excluding industrial capitalist societies. In short, if you have a state but no machines, you have a tributary society.

Later, in the 1980s, Amin inverted his own conception, claiming that in fact European feudalism was not a more advanced form of the tributary mode of production, but rather an “uncompleted [sic]”, “primitive” and undeveloped form of it, “marked by feudal fragmentation and a dispersal of power” and an “unfinished degree”[5] of ideological expression in the form of a state religion. Amin explains, “The primitive feudal form evolves gradually towards the advanced tributary form”. Therefore, for Amin, any further categorisation of pre-capitalist societies is only a comparison between more or less “developed” tributary forms,[6] with the level of development determined by the concentration of “power”, expressed ideologically in the form of a state religion.

Wolf

The same concept was later used by the American anthropologist, Eric Wolf, in his 1982 book, Europe and the People Without History. Wolf puts forward three modes of production: a capitalist mode, a tributary mode, and a “kin-ordered mode” (where kinship relations predominate as opposed to class relations, i.e. “primitive communist” or “gentile” society).

Wolf’s justification for such a radical re-jigging of Marx’s notion of modes of production is simple: “Since we want to deal with the spread of the capitalist mode and its impact on world areas where social labor was allocated differently, we shall construct only those modes that permit us to exhibit this encounter in the most parsimonious manner. For this purpose we shall define but three: a capitalist mode, a tributary mode, and a kin-ordered mode. No argument is presented here to the effect that this trinity exhausts all the possibilities. For other problems and issues it may be useful to construct other modes drawing further distinctions, or to group together differently the distinctions drawn here.”[7]

Wolf defines his tributary mode as follows: "These states represent a mode of production in which the primary producer, whether cultivator or herdsman, is allowed access to the means of production, while tribute is exacted from him by political or military means."[8] Considering that in any society the producers must be able to “access” the means of production, whether they belong to them or not, what therefore distinguishes the tributary from the capitalist mode of production is that under the former the surplus is taken by force as opposed to exchange.

Wolf then goes on to hypothesise two different “polar situations” for the tributary mode: “one in which power is concentrated strongly in the hands of a ruling elite standing at the apex of the power system; and another in which power is held largely by local overlords and the rule at the apex is fragile and weak. These two situations define a continuum of power distributions.”[9] “Power system” is not defined but the way it is used suggests that Wolf here means state, political power.

Wolf continues: “In broad terms, the two situations we have depicted correspond to the Marxian concepts of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ and the ‘feudal mode of production’. These are usually treated as enduring and unchanging opposites. One term is usually ascribed to Europe, the other to Asia. The preceding exposition should make clear, however, that we are dealing rather with variable outcomes of the competition between classes of nonproducers for power at the top. To the extent that these variable outcomes are all anchored in mechanisms exerting ‘other than economic pressure,’ they exhibit a family resemblance to each other.”[10]

Amin’s link between the feudal and tributary modes is therefore retained and the apparent differences between the two are explained as the result of “a continuum of power relations”, seemingly at the level of the state, arising from the success of one wing of the same ruling class over the other, or even one wing of the state over the other, depending on one’s interpretation of “competition between nonproducers for power at the top”.

No differences at the base of these societies, at the level of the village or manor, whether they be of property ownership or relations of exploitation, are accounted for in Wolf’s schema; mere “access” to the means of production is sufficient. All that is required is the taking of “tribute” by force, regardless of how and by whom this tribute is produced. Therefore, any agricultural society that possesses a state must be tributary as all it requires is a direct producer and an armed ‘extractor’.

Haldon

A very similar approach is taken up by John Haldon, a British Byzantine historian, in his 1993 book, The State and the Tributary Mode. As the title suggests, the main thrust of this book is an application of the tributary mode concept to a number of pre-capitalist societies and a discussion of the role of the state in these societies.

For Haldon, the tributary and feudal modes are one and the same; “tributary” is just a more universal way of expressing the basis of feudal society, devoid of its specifically European connotations. As Haldon explains, “'feudalism' (I will continue to employ the traditional term for the moment) can be understood as the basic and universal pre-capitalist mode of production in class societies. It coexists with other modes, of course, but the set of economic relationships which marks it out has tended historically to be dominant.”[11]

The above-mentioned “economic relationships” are set out in the following propositions:

  1. “that the extraction of rent, in the political economy sense of feudal rent, under whatever institutional or organizational guise it appears (whether tax, rent or tribute) is fundamental;
  2. “that the extraction of feudal rent as the general form of exploitation of pre-capitalist autarkic peasantries does not depend on those peasantries being tenants of a landlord in a legalistic sense, but that non-economic coercion is the basis for appropriation of surplus by a ruling class or its agents; and
  3. “that the relationship between rulers and ruled is exploitative and contradictory in respect of control over the means of production.”[12]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Haldon argues that, in all pre-capitalist societies, the bulk of the agricultural surplus was produced by peasants and appropriated by either a state functionary or a private landlord; with the exception of Ancient Greece and Rome, which were based on slavery / Image: public domain

Haldon goes on to argue that, in all pre-capitalist societies, the bulk of the agricultural surplus was produced by peasants and appropriated by someone else, either a state functionary or a private landlord. Therefore, these societies were all dominated by the same “set of economic relationships”. Any important differences between them or change within them over time can and should (for Haldon) be explained by reference to the struggle over the surplus between the “ruling class” of the state, and its agents/local lords.

However, there are two apparent exceptions to this rule: “Slavery may well have dominated relations of production at times in the late Roman republican period and the early Principate (chiefly based in Italy) and in Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BC (in certain city-states)”. In these societies, the dominant mode of production was the exploitation of slaves who, being part of the means of production themselves, do not fall under the rubric of peasants in possession of their own means of production.

From the above presentations of the theory a clear pattern emerges: For a society to be tributary, what is required is the presence of peasant producers and armed exploiters, which essentially amounts to any pre-industrial society, where the vast majority of the population worked the land. Marx’s categories of Asiatic, slave, and feudal modes of production are thus dissolved into a general pre-capitalist “mode”, notwithstanding Haldon’s minor slave exception.

The question immediately arises of what such a broad conception of pre-capitalist society can offer as a tool for understanding world history. But before looking into the substantive merits of this conception it is necessary to consider its relationship to Marx’s own ideas.

Modes of production

In order to consider whether the tributary mode is indeed a mode of production in the Marxist sense, it is of course necessary to clarify what is meant by “mode of production” in the first place. A mode of production is not just an umbrella term under which we group together societies that resemble one another according to a checklist of more-or-less arbitrary criteria. The starting point of our analysis should always be the real, empirically verifiable organisation of human beings in the production of their means of subsistence: “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part”.[13] But if we were to limit ourselves to the mere collection and description of empirical data, we would gain no further insight into what it is we are describing. Through abstraction the more accidental aspects of form can be set aside in order to more fully grasp the real, essential content, which can help us to understand the dynamics of real, historically evolved societies, their interconnection with others and their development over time much more fully than empirical research alone.

The notion of a mode of production is therefore meant to capture the essence of the various concrete means, processes and relations of production that form the basis of all human societies as they have evolved over time. The key question, then, is what constitutes this “essence”? Taking the capitalist mode of production as an example:

“Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is essentially the production of surplus-value. The labourer produces, not for himself, but for capital. It no longer suffices, therefore, that he should simply produce. He must produce surplus-value.”[14]

Despite the almost infinite variety of products and ways in which these are produced, the essence of capitalist production, what makes a mode of production “capitalist”, is the production of surplus-value.

The production of surplus-value presupposes that “two very different kinds of commodity-possessors must come face to face and into contact”:[15] the private owner of the means of production and the “free” seller of labour power. This exploitative relationship between wage labour and capital Marx calls the “capital-relation”, which determines capitalist production regardless of the concrete labour process in question (baking, weaving etc.). Indeed, the more capitalist relations take over a branch of industry the more they transform the labour process itself.

Likewise, “In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.”[16]

Therefore, what Marx called “slave society” was not intended to denote a society in which the entire population, or even necessarily the majority, was divided into masters and slaves (such a polarisation of the population into “two great camps” is rather a feature of capitalism, and even then not absolutely) but a society in which slave production predominates and “determines the specific gravity” of the other forms present in the social formation under consideration.

It follows that, while it may be possible to group societies based on different modes of production under one or more criteria, such as the presence of kingship, or a state religion, each mode of production is essentially different and possesses its own dynamics, distinct from other modes. The essential features of production organised along hunter-gatherer lines for instance would bear little resemblance and would evolve very differently to those of any class society, let alone capitalism.

In class society, the production of a surplus is central. Marx writes, “Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production.”[17]

Therefore, it is the essential features of how surplus labour is extracted that distinguish one mode of production from another in class society. Marx gives a clear explanation of his own thoughts in the following paragraph:

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers — a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power — in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of state in each case. This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same in its major conditions — from displaying endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, historical influences acting from outside, etc., and these can only be understood only by analysing these empirically given conditions.” [My emphasis][18]

What is particularly important to stress about this conception is that the direct relationship of exploitation, in which we find the “hidden basis of the entire social edifice” does not fall from the sky, but is itself historically evolved and ultimately determined by the development of humanity’s “social productive power”. This is crucial, because it allows us not only to categorise societies, but more importantly to understand their connection with one another, and their place in the social evolution of humanity as a whole.

Applying this method, Marx identified several fundamental modes of production in the history of class society:

  1. an “Asiatic” mode, based on the extraction of surplus as tax from a mass of village communes;
  2. an “ancient” mode based on slave production;
  3. a “feudal” mode based on serfdom;
  4. a “petty commodity” mode, comprised of small property-owners producing for exchange; and
  5. finally, a capitalist mode, based on the exploitation of wage labour.

All of these modes can be found co-existing with others, such as Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century, but one particular mode tends to dominate and thereby determines the underlying dynamics and trajectory of the society in question, notwithstanding Marx’s important caveat regarding the “endless variations and gradations” to be found in history, as in life.

Tribute

There is nothing in the writings of Marx and Engels that gives explicit support to a tributary mode of production, much less one that spans the whole gamut of pre-capitalist societies. For this reason, advocates of the tributary mode are largely forced to argue from silence. However, both Wolf and Haldon do rely on the following extract from Capital vol. 3:

“It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct labourer remains the ‘possessor’ of the means of production and labour conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relation of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labour to a mere tributary relationship. The direct producer, according to our assumption, is to be found here in possession of his own means of production, the necessary material labour conditions required for the realization of his labour and the production of his own means of subsistence. He conducts his agricultural activity and the rural home industries connected with it independently... Under such conditions the surplus-labour for the nominal owner of the land can only be extorted from them by other than economic pressure, whatever the form assumed may be. [My emphasis]”[19]

Haldon also refers to the following (from the same paragraph):

“Should the direct producers not be confronted by a private landowner, but rather, as in Asia, under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign, then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from this form of ground-rent.”[20]

From this we are invited to conclude that because in these societies rent, taxes and “tribute” are different forms of pre-capitalist ground rent, the mode of production at the base of all these societies is the same: that of the extraction of “tribute”.

East India company Image public domainMarx talked about the East India Company extracting "tribute" from India, but he wasn't talking about a specific social relation, much less a mode of production / Image: public domain

However, it is clear that Marx did not intend for this explanation to be the basis for any mode of production, in and of itself. It is not the only instance in which Marx refers to “tribute”. He also uses this term to cover the rent exacted from capitalist farmers in 19th century England, stating, “the monopoly to a piece of the earth enables the so-called landowner to exact a tribute, to put a price on it”.[21] When one considers that he also characterised the House of Commons as a house of “landed proprietors”, the importance of this “tribute” to the English ruling class becomes clear. Marx even goes as far as to say that under capitalism, “the more capital is applied to the land… the more gigantic therefore the tribute society pays the great landowners in the form of surplus profits”.[22]

Further, he describes the drafts of the East India Company (amounting at the time to over £3 million) as “a tribute exacted from India”: a “tribute for the ‘good government’ which has been exported”.[23] He also describes interest on state debt as “an annual tribute of [in this example] £5 from the state”.[24] Even the capital relation itself is not safe from this designation, with Marx writing of “the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class”.[25]

So, having sought tributary relations in Marx, we have found them in abundance. But what are we to do with this embarrassment of riches? If we take the mere use of the word “tribute” to denote a mode of production, then we would have to conclude that this “tributary relationship” provided the foundation for not only all class society, including capitalism, but also the latter stages of the neolithic, in which primitive communities brought their surplus product as offerings to the emerging temple complexes.

As can be seen by Marx’s use of the term, “tribute” does not denote any specific relation at all, but merely something given up for no equivalent, and thus can be used to describe any form of surplus taken from the “direct producer”. All this tells us is that any class society, which presupposes the appropriation of a surplus product, is based on the extraction of that surplus, which takes us no further than where we started from. How do our theoreticians of the tributary mode solve this problem? By the use of a couple of ingenious qualifications.

The role of force

The first qualification is that this surplus (or tribute) must be extracted by “non-economic coercion” to use Haldon’s expression, itself a re-branding of Marx’s “other than economic pressure”. So where the ruling class does not rely on market forces, as under capitalism, but rather the deception of religion or the mailed fist, this constitutes a mode of production.

But the problem with this so-called “mode of production” is that it tells us nothing whatsoever about production. As Marx remarks in the first chapter of Capital, “For if people live by plunder [or tribute perhaps? – JH] for centuries there must, after all, always be something there to plunder”.[26] Every appropriation by force presupposes a certain level of economic development and with it a division and organisation of labour, which can guarantee a surplus capable of appropriation. Out of this evolve classes with their own specific weights in society, their own interests, and their own forms of struggle. The very thing to be considered is not the mere existence of force (which one can also find in abundance in the supposedly pure, economic exploitation of capitalism) but the specific form in which the surplus is “pumped out” of the direct producer – the worker.

Under capitalism, the exploitation of the worker takes the form of an act of free and equal exchange, notwithstanding the often-forced nature of this exchange and the slave-like conditions that continue to exist for workers in reality. The worker sells his/her labour-power to the capitalist in return for its value in wages and then works under the capitalist’s direction for an agreed period. The peculiar importance of exchange to capitalist exploitation simply reflects the fact that it has evolved from and realises itself through the exchange of commodities. Human labour-power itself has become a commodity. This is not the case in pre-capitalist society, in which production remains predominantly for use and the surplus is given up or taken on the basis of personal relations of kinship or servitude. And if said surplus cannot be extracted by exchange, it can only be extracted with a healthy dose of “other than economic pressure”, hence the distinction Marx draws between capitalist and pre-capitalist ground rent.

The use of other than economic pressure can be found in slavery, in serfdom, and even in the glorified robbery which characterised the so-called “trade” of the European merchants adventurers of the Age of Exploration. Only when capitalist production is fully developed does this pressure become more of an accidental than a necessary feature of exploitation. That all pre-capitalist modes of production share a common fundamental difference with capitalism is beyond question, but to define modes of production in this way is to arbitrarily elevate this fact to their most-central characteristic. By this approach we would lose a great deal more than we would gain, and Marx explicitly rejected it when he wrote: “The identity of the different modes of distribution thus comes down to the fact that they are identical if we abstract from their distinctions and specific forms and cling on just to their unity in contrast to what distinguishes them”.[27] We do not categorise all commodity production as capitalist, nor should we categorise all production for use as feudal.

Haldon curiously appeals to Marx in defence of his own brand of force theory when he claims the latter “defined pre-capitalist rent as the general form in pre-capitalist class society through which surplus-labour was 'pumped out of the producers’”.[28] This formulation is, of course, nowhere to be found in Marx, who having identified the general characteristics of pre-capitalist ground rent, concluded it was the “specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producer” that “determines the relationship of domination and servitude”. If the only way we can link the tributary mode to Marx is by mashing together totally different quotes then it would be better not to try in the first place.

Property and production

Here, another qualification comes to save the day: production must be predominantly agricultural, carried out by peasants, regardless of their legal status (serfs, tenants, village communes etc.). So where production is agricultural and the surplus is taken by force as opposed to the peaceful operation of the market's invisible hand, we find fundamentally the same mode of production.

The various different forms of ownership, both of land and labour, which one can find in different agricultural societies are here of no importance, being apparently only part of the legal superstructure. Haldon even criticises Amin’s distinction between the private ownership of land and serfs found under feudalism and the extraction of tax from village communes as “a somewhat artificial distinction”, as it is based on “a legalistic differentiation between peasant and landlord control over the means of production”.[29]

Marx and Engels at the Rheinische Zeitung Image public domainThe basis for a Tributary Mode of production cannot be found in Marx or Engels' work / Image: public domain

This idea cannot be found in either Marx or Engels’ work. On the contrary, Marx summed up his position on this question in his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he states that property relations “merely express” in legal terms the existing relations of production. The ownership and control of the means of production are themselves relations of production, forming an important part of the economic base of society. That they are expressed legally, in the language of the state, as property ‘rights’ does not make them any less economic in nature.

In fact, it was Marx’s opponents who raised the idea that property is a purely legal, “superstructural” matter, in order to refute the materialist view of history. As early as 1890, the idealist sociologist, Paul Barth, argued “the same relations of production can be seen under very different legal forms, as Marx himself quotes communist agriculture without slavery and agriculture with private ownership and slavery, that is, two different legal forms for the same stage of production”.[30]

As Franz Mehring remarks in his reply: “for Herr Barth, it is all the same: member of the gens and Roman latifundist, member of the mark and feudal lord, farmer, junker and bondsmen, they are all part of the agricultural branch of production, and so exist in the same production relation and at the same stage of production, and happen by chance to lead differing lives only by virtue of that law which leads an independent existence and falls like snow, heaven knows whence.”[31] What else is this but the method of the so-called tributary mode?

It is clear that, although Marx noted that all pre-capitalist societies share important common characteristics (arising from their shared reliance on rural, peasant production), this did not mean that they are all based on the same mode of production. Further, Marx was fully aware of the role of “other than economic pressure” in pre-capitalist society but never considered it the basis of a mode of production in its own right.

In the same chapter of Capital vol. 3 relied upon by Wolf, Marx makes the point that, in Asia “there is no private landed property, though there is both private and communal possession and usufruct of the land”.[32] This would suggest that he considered it an important distinction, worthy of our attention. All three volumes of Capital contain numerous references to fundamentally different forms of agricultural production, not to mention other works on historical materialism. To take one particularly clear example of Marx’s thinking:

“Whatever the specific form of rent may be, what all its types have in common is the fact that the appropriation of rent is the economic form in which landed property is realized and that ground-rent in turn pre-supposes landed property, the ownership of particular bits of the globe by certain individuals – whether the owner is a person representing the community, as in Asia, Egypt etc.; whether this landed property is simply an accidental accompaniment of the property that certain persons have in the persons of the immediate producers, as in the systems of serfdom and slavery…

“This common character of the different forms of rent – as the economic realization of landed property, the legal fiction by virtue of which various individuals have exclusive possession of particular parts of the globe – leads people to overlook the distinctions. [Marx’s emphasis]”[33]

This overlooking of distinctions Marx calls one of the three “major errors which obscure the analysis of ground-rent and are to be avoided in dealing with it”.[34]

This is precisely the error that defines the approach of proponents of the tributary mode of production. Haldon argues that the extraction of surplus produced by largely communal peasant villages by the state in the form of tax, which formed the basis of Marx’s Asiatic mode, and the exploitation of unfree tenants or serfs by private landlords, the basis of his feudal mode of production, are merely “institutional forms in which surpluses were distributed”. These different forms of exploitation are then dismissed as “superstructural or conjunctural [read: accidental – JH] elements”, which “reflect in no way any fundamental changes in either the mode of surplus appropriation or the relationship of the producers to the means of production”.[35] For Haldon, the mode of surplus appropriation remains unchanged because the peasants, free or unfree, “continued to hand over surpluses on the basis of non-economic coercion”, and likewise, “[t]he relationship of the peasantry to the means of production – land – similarly remains unchanged”.[36]

In this way, “relations of production in the wider sense”,[37] are reduced to such banalities as “peasants producing on the land” (where else would they produce?), while the actual relations of production are “merely a form of surplus distribution... determined very much at the superstructural level”.[38] It is a topsy-turvy version of Marxism indeed that places the exploitation of labour solely at the level of distribution and then removes it from the economic base of society altogether.

Amin even acknowledges that his tributary mode may not even constitute a mode of production at all in the Marxist sense of the word but opts not to “indulge in this kind of Marxology”, continuing, “If it is a nuisance I am ready to replace the term ‘tributary mode of production’ with the broader expression ‘tributary society’.”[39] By this method he claims to have gone “beyond” Marx. But this is not the only way in which Amin et al have gone “beyond” Marx.

Stages and development

If we accept that history is the study of the development of human society, then it still remains to explain how this development takes place, whether through gradual incremental change, through a succession of stages, a random succession of events, or any other form. Throughout his life, Marx saw the development of society as an evolution through stages, ultimately determined by the development of the productive forces, which gives rise to different basic forms of economic and social organisation. Referring to the relatively new science of geology, he remarked:

“The archaic or primary formation of our globe itself contains a series of layers from various ages, the one superimposed on the other. Similarly, the archaic formation of society exhibits a series of different types [which together form an ascending series], which mark a progression of epochs.” [Marx’s note in parenthesis][40]

A crucial element in the formation of these “epochs” is the level of development of the productive forces, which itself evolves in stages, not as a gradual, linear process. Marx writes in Capital vol. 1:

“The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour-process, and Franklin therefore defines man as a tool-making animal. Relics of bygone instruments of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic forms of society, as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. It is not the articles made, but how they are made, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development to which human labour has attained, but they are also indicators of the social conditions under which that labour is carried on.”[41]

The natural and historical conditions in which primitive systems of communal ownership are dissolved have a determining effect on the modes of production that evolve out of them. Therefore, civilisations which were formed on the basis of Bronze Age technology tend to exhibit important differences in their relations of productions compared to those civilisations which came into being a later stage of development, under the influence of pre-existing states, such as Iron Age Greece. This is what is meant when Marx writes, “In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.”[42] These lines have been distorted into a rigid schema by the official ideology of Stalinism, which presented the development of history as the development of every society through exactly the same universal stages (minus the Asiatic mode), but Marx’s theory of stages remains an essential part of his dialectical approach to history.

But what is the position of our theoreticians of the tributary mode? "The meaning to be given to our proposition that modes of production are not historical concepts, that they have no age, should now be quite clear. It means that there is no necessary historical sequence from community to slavery, and from slavery to feudalism."[43] So explains Amin. Matters are no better with Wolf, who writes: “The three modes of production I have outlined constitute neither types into which human societies may be sorted nor stages in cultural evolution.”[44] Haldon also rejects the “‘stages theory’ of historical development”, as it implies “some sort of inevitabilist dynamic” which upsets the “internal equilibrium of the system”[45] and drives it into crisis and transition into something else.

If our categories have no age and cannot be placed into any kind of order then we can only conclude that they are independent not only of history but of humanity itself, the emptiest of abstractions like the Kantian “thing in itself”. By this approach, history becomes a random series of events, which the historian can only understand by placing labels of his/her choosing on periods which meet the required (loose) criteria. Rather than an idealised expression of real relations, modes of production are here mere a priori constructs, deployed by the historian for his/her own sake. This approach is most honestly admitted by Wolf who, as has already been noted, adopted his kin-ordered, tributary, capitalist schema for the sake of convenience rather than as the conclusion of a scientific study. By this logic, hunter-gatherer society could have leapt straight to capitalism in 10,000BC, or the entire world economy could return to the Bronze Age and this would neither be a step forward nor a step back. This leads to the conclusion that there has been no progress in history at all, as argued by postmodernist opponents of Marxism.

This could not be further from the method of Marx and Engels. A dialectical approach to history, as well as nature, sees a stage in every category and vice versa, which follows directly from its recognition that all things and therefore all categories are in a constant state of evolution. As Trotsky wrote, “Dialectics is the logic of motion, development, evolution.”[46] It is certainly important not to view historical stages as fixed, immutable categories, or take the view that each individual society must pass through each and every one as the Stalinist “two-stage theory” insists, but this does not refute the existence of those stages, with all their limitations and transitional forms. Indeed, combined and uneven development is inconceivable without the notion of stages of historical development.

Nor does this mean that regressions and steps back are impossible – steps back are an inherent part of the dialectic of progress. Out of every regression or “Dark Age”, the seeds are sown for future development on a higher level. Likewise, every step forward in history has been accompanied by a step back for a section of the population, such as the arrival of class society or the birth of capitalism. On the whole however, progress from lower to higher forms, punctuated by crises and revolutionary leaps, can be detected not only over the course of human history, but the whole of existence.

It is by putting observed phenomena in order, in terms of their interconnection with other processes and in transition from one thing to another, that we can understand them. It is a vital part of all scientific enquiry. Engels described the task of science as the discovery of the real interconnections between phenomena.[47] The old mechanical materialism was satisfied with looking at things in isolation and then deducing a set of criteria by which it could sort the whole of nature. This method was completely destroyed by the scientific revolutions of the 19th century, particularly in relation to biology and taxonomy – something celebrated by Engels in his Dialectics of Nature. The new method did not throw out categorisation however, without which thought, let alone scientific thought, is impossible. Instead, it categorised species not simply by their observable characteristics but by the process of their evolution – their common ancestors, etc.

Marx, in his afterword to the second German edition of Capital vol. 1, quoted the following from a review of the Russian edition:

“Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life.”

To this Marx simply adds: “Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method... what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”[48]

Further, the idea that in the course of development a mode of production can, impelled by its own inherent dynamics, go beyond its limits, enter into crisis and eventually lay the basis for a totally new mode of production, is a central concept of historical materialism, and one of its most powerful. Unfortunately however, it does not meet with the approval of Marx’s modern improvers. “[M]odes of production do not develop”,[49] declares Haldon. This applies to the capitalist mode of production as it does to all others: “[T]he universal laws of capitalist' production are, in themselves, no more capable of dynamically transforming capitalist relations of production into something else, full of objective class antagonisms and contradictions in respect of forces and relations of production though they clearly are, than are feudal production relations.”[50]

We need not look too far back in history to see through this completely false idea. The capitalism of today is a world removed from the early capitalism of the 16th century. It has not developed under the influence of external impulses (what could be external to a world system?). Driven by its own “immanent laws”[51] to use Marx’s expression in Capital, capitalism has itself developed through stages as gradual, even imperceptible, development has been transformed into qualitative leaps in the situation.

Our own era, that of imperialism, marks the “highest” stage in the development of capitalism. Lenin defined the economic essence of imperialism as “monopoly capitalism”,[52] which arose out of free capitalist competition in the 19th century through the devouring of smaller capitalists by the larger, the fusing of the largest enterprises into cartels, trusts etc., and the fusion of the increasingly important banks with industry. This process of transition from free competition to monopoly was even remarked upon by Marx and Engels. Unless we conclude that the greater and greater concentration and centralisation of capital, which continues to this day, is a pure accident, which could be reversed at any time, or the product of extraterrestrial intervention, the only logical explanation for this would be that the inherent dynamic of capitalist development has impelled it towards the greater and greater centralisation and planning of production, albeit on a capitalist basis, limited by the private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. On this basis, Lenin concluded that imperialism constituted “the transition from the capitalist system to a higher socio-economic order”[53] – socialism.

Likewise, capitalism is a stage in world history, the basic elements of which were prepared out of the contradictions and development of feudal society. Class society is itself a stage, which could not have emerged from anything other than pre-class society. The rejection of historical stages is simply untenable, unless you wish to deny historical development altogether, a fact that is tacitly recognised even by our tributary scholars, who end up reintroducing stages through the backdoor having banished them through the front. Amin, for example, laments the approach he ascribes to Stalin of applying the European course of development “to the whole planet, forcing everyone into an iron corset”,[54] and yet, by denying any difference in the development of European and non-European societies, he has in fact achieved exactly the same thing, albeit with a preference for the Asiatic variety of corset over the European.

“What these gentlemen all lack is dialectics”,[55] to borrow a phrase from Engels. This is no accident. Haldon himself argues, “while Marx and Engels were certainly the original stimuli behind the development of a materialist conception of history as it is understood today, it is one which need no longer be affected by the Hegelian influences which, it has been argued, underlie much of Marx's own thinking.”[56] It would be hard to imagine a greater “Hegelian influence” on Marx’s thinking than the dialectic, and not a few intrepid souls have tried to do away with it. Each of them, without fail, managed at best to substitute a reheated empiricism for Marxist philosophy and, in so doing, deprived Marxism of its logic and made it ridiculous. In Haldon’s case what we get is a more Kantian approach to history, which, having exorcised the spirit of Hegel from Marxist theory, leaves us with an even-older and paler ghost in its place.

Therefore, regardless of the actual merits of the tributary “mode”, its link to Marx’s thinking is a spurious one. Contrary to the claims of Haldon in particular, who sees his theory as a salvaging of Marx from his more “vulgar” adherents, the tributary mode concept stands in quite clear contrast to Marx’s own ideas. In fact, the schema adopted by Haldon stands much closer to Weber than Marx. It is a revision, but for the sake of completeness, it is worth asking, is this a useful revision? Would taking up the tributary mode offer a greater insight into the laws of motion of pre-capitalist societies?

A useful revision?

Haldon himself confronts the question of whether his tributary mode of production is useful. His response to other academics’ criticism of the looseness of his criteria is that “the point of using the concept in such a universalizing way is that it constitutes a heuristic means of locating certain key elements, a guide to a research programme”.[57] This is effectively arguing that the tributary mode is useful because it is useful. At no point in his book does Haldon actually provide evidence for the utility of such a broad and baggy concept. Marx himself already noted the prevalence of “other than economic pressure” in pre-capitalist society. Why go further and proclaim it a mode of production? “Because it is a heuristic concept”, replies Haldon.

The great irony of Haldon’s “heuristic concept” is that it offers no insight, nor even a guide, into the actual relations of production. Used in this manner, the concept of modes of production itself becomes useless. Engels criticised the a priori method of the likes of Duhring, which he described as “ascertaining the properties of an object, by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself”.[58] We can see this deduction at play in all of the definitions of our tributary mode.

byzantine empire old ruins Image PexelsHaldon’s “heuristic concept” of the Tributary Mode lumps together very different societies as all basically feudal / Image: Pexels

Taking Haldon’s three economic elements of the tributary mode as a prime example: he begins with feudal rent, in which he includes “rent, tax or tribute”. His second element is that “non-economic coercion is the basis for the appropriation of surplus”, and his third is an exploitative relationship “between rulers and ruled”, both of which are presupposed entirely by his concept of feudal rent. The definition is a tautology. Having discovered the aggregate of all pre-capitalist relations (the extraction of an agricultural surplus), Haldon simply looks for tribute and, unsurprisingly, sees it confirmed everywhere. The problem is, as with all formalism, this method never takes us an inch closer to the thing to be researched: the real development of society.

By stripping all the various forms of pre-capitalist exploitation of almost all content, into the most general and therefore abstract category of “tribute”, and then proceeding to analyse these societies using a circular set of criteria deduced from this category, we arrive at a theory of history which requires no actual knowledge of history. This becomes all the more unfortunate when advocates of this approach apply to areas on which they clearly know a great deal.

Take Haldon, who explains: “The states I shall deal with in what follows are all tributary, or 'feudal' states, in the historical materialist sense of the term, that is to say, they were all founded upon the same mode of surplus appropriation in combination with the same basic mode of bringing the producing population and the means of production in land together.”[59]

He proves this by asserting that anyone who takes a surplus from any form of peasant producer is a lord. Having made this discovery purely in the realm of thought he then examines the Byzantine Empire in which he finds lords and peasants, the Ottoman Empire, in which he finds lords and peasants, and the Mughal Empire, in which (you guessed it) he finds lords and peasants. The actual content of these relations, their history and development, remain completely obscured, meaning the reader ultimately learns nothing at all. In fact, the reader emerges somehow knowing less, because the real relations that occasionally break out of the text are quickly explained away as basically just “feudalism”.

Having dissolved the different pre-capitalist modes of production identified by Marx into a single, larger category, we are still left with exactly the same problem: that of explaining how and why those differences emerged. It is as useful as declaring that, all primates being primates, there is no fundamental difference between us and chimpanzees. Even if we accepted this statement on some level, it would not relieve us of the duty to explain what differences do exist and how they emerged.

Taking the example of Rome, Haldon considers the slave mode of production to have been dominant in ancient Greece and Rome, at least for a period, while the payment of a certain portion of the surplus product by that or any other labour process in the form of rent, tax or tribute dominated everywhere else at any other time before capitalism. As mentioned above, Haldon’s view of slavery is not universally accepted, even by people in his own camp. Others, like Wolf, hold that all pre-capitalist society is feudal (“tributary”). But ultimately both methods skate over the key question of production and leave us without a guide to the important changes in the exploitation of labour took place from the third century AD onwards.

Haldon gives a helpful summary of the reduction of the colonii in the Roman Empire from tenant sharecroppers to serfs in all but name, which was carefully assisted by the legal interventions of the Roman state (such as the laws of the Christian Emperor, Constantine):

“The term colonus originally meant a free peasant farmer, then a free tenant farmer, and eventually (from the middle of the third century approximately) a tenant of dependent status. By the middle of the fifth century, the status of colonus had been made hereditary (a reflection of both demographic decline and labour shortages, and political considerations in respect of the relationship between the state and the landlord class), and by the sixth century the majority were regarded as unfree as far as their mobility was concerned, being classified as 'slaves of the land’”.[60]

Why would the state go to such great pains to force the colonii to produce as serfs if the basis of its existence was by then the extraction of surplus from any and all peasants in the form of “tribute” (as Haldon suggests)? Presumably, serf labour, rent and tax, all of which could be paid to completely different people, all amounted to the same thing. So why did one particular exploited class develop?

To reiterate Marx’s position: “What distinguishes the various economic formations of society – the distinction between for example a society based on slave-labour and a society based on wage-labour – is the form in which this surplus labour is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker.”[61] We must therefore ask, what distinguishes the economic base of the Roman Republic/Empire and the later societies of medieval Europe? What changed? Everything and nothing, depending on your level of abstraction.

To draw a particularly stark comparison (there are of course plenty of other historical cases and the purpose of this is not to claim that all societies develop identically), conservative estimates of the slave population of Italy by the end of the first century BC run to roughly 1 million,[62] a fifth of the total population,[63] working on the large latifundia, in the mines and the cities. Other estimates are much larger, putting the slave population at up to 40 percent of the total population of Italy.

In England at the time of the Domesday book, on the other hand, the proportion of slaves is estimated to have been 9 percent of a much smaller population, concentrated overwhelmingly in the more backward South West, particularly the Cornish tin mines.[64] Villeins and “bordars and cotters” however (commonly referred to as serfs by lawyers of the time) made up 70 percent of the recorded population. Even taking into account the fact that lords, priests, landless craftsmen and the urban population were not recorded, it is clear that the serfs constituted not only the majority of the population but, more importantly, the bedrock of the medieval economy, which was almost entirely rural at that time.

To return to the question above, what changed (at a fundamental level – of course, many other changes took place in that time) was, as the slave economy declined and with it the preponderance of slaves, a new form of forced labour, albeit one with greater relative freedoms and protections, grew up; and over the storms and stresses of the early medieval period was established as the dominant form of exploitation of the labouring class by the owners of the land. In other words, slavery was superseded by another form of exploitation: that of serfdom, which lies at the heart of the feudal mode of production, rather than merely a return to tribute, which one can see in a primitive form in even pre-class societies such as the tribes of Vedic India.

The importance of serfdom to feudal production is often underestimated or dismissed by theorists of the tributary mode – they prefer to analyse the patterns of distribution and political ties between the various layers and factions of the “elites”. However, further evidence of this can be seen during its decline, when it became possible for serfs to buy their freedom with “quit rents”. These rents, which effectively made the serfs free tenants of their lords, were calculated not on the basis of the size of the land, nor the value of its product, but the value of the services rendered hitherto by the would-be tenant.

In fact, the period in which the nobility and states of Europe were most dependent on rent and tax from the free peasantry, and most closely resembled their Asiatic counterparts, was precisely the period following the decline of feudal production, but before the complete victory of the bourgeoisie and capitalist relations: that of Absolutism. This transitional regime – in which the monarchy raised itself above the contending classes, balancing the old feudal nobility and the rising bourgeoisie against each other – may superficially resemble the Eastern and ancient monarchies, but to claim that its social base was fundamentally the same is absurd. Beneath the former, feudal production was replaced by commodity production and capitalist relations in both the countryside and towns; the latter continued to rest on the taxation of a huge mass of peasant villages.

The dynamics and trajectories of the two systems are almost antithetical to one another, and yet Amin argues that Absolutism is essentially the same as the Asiatic mode of production, which Europe reached so late due to its historical backwardness. That he sees a fully developed tributary society in Europe at precisely the point at which so-called tributary relations were being eroded and replaced by market relations and the money economy at all levels of society is the clearest possible demonstration of the superficiality and uselessness of his approach as a means of understanding and explaining historical development.

If the same course of development did not occur everywhere in the world (and there is no Marxist reason to assume that it must) we must study and explain the material reasons for it, which may well lie in the modes of production at the heart of the economies we are studying. But it is of no use to simply collapse all pre-capitalist modes together and declare all differences to be secondary. This is an evasion of the question, not an answer.

Haldon insists that despite the purely “juridical” differences in land ownership that obviously existed between say, the European landlords and zamindars (military aristocrats granted tax collecting-rights in Mughal India), they played fundamentally the same role in society because, ultimately, whether by rent or tax, they were taking a surplus from the labour of peasants. This is as scientific as saying that slavery and capitalism are fundamentally the same, because in each case the owner is the possessor not only of the workers’ product but his labour-power, despite the merely “juridical” difference between the ownership of chattel slaves and the hiring of workers by the day, week etc.

Pursuing the Indian example further, Engels refers to the ownership of the land by the village community and the state, and the difficulty this caused the British, “whose efforts in India to solve the question: who is the owner of the land? — were as vain as those of the late Prince Heinrich LXXII of Reuss-Greiz-Schleiz-Lobenstein-Eberswalde in his attempts to solve the question of who was the night-watchman.”[65] Ultimately, the British capitalists resolved this puzzle by making the zamindar tax-collectors legal property owners by an Act of Parliament (the Zamindari Settlement Act of 1793). The result was a complete dislocation of production and a series of catastrophic famines. This particularly dramatic example cannot be explained on the basis of the tributary mode. The zamindars were not being converted into capitalists. Their rent-paying tenants were not wage workers. They were effectively being converted into just another “juridical” form of tributary overlord. And yet what we see plainly from the history of this period is the forcible introduction of private property from without, completely destroying the pre-existing relations.

The world market

One feature that binds all “tributary” societies together is the overwhelming dominance of agricultural over industrial production. If the basis of the economy is agricultural, then it must be tributary, according to the criteria set out by Amin at least. But what can we say of Europe in the 17th century onwards? At this point, industry was still at a low level, agriculture predominated and yet, the economic base of society had already so evolved as to bring about one of the first bourgeois revolutions, in which a part of the landed aristocracy, already having become akin to capitalist farmers and speculators, played a revolutionary role against the feudal monarchy.

Better yet, what can we say of Russia in 1917? Advocates of the tributary mode would assert that although Russia at this time relied a great deal on a “tributary” (rural, peasant) economy, its fundamental nature was different to the Persian or Holy Roman Empires because of the presence of industrial capitalist production. So “capitalism is different because it is capitalism; pre-capitalist societies, however, are the same because they are all not capitalist”. But how did capitalist production arise?

It should go without saying that industrial capitalist relations evolved out of pre-capitalist, or “tributary” relations; it could not have come from anywhere else. But on this point the tributary mode encounters some considerable difficulty. As has already been established, the whole definition of a tributary society is based on its not being capitalist. Tributary societies may only swing between more-or-less centralised forms – their economic foundation remains, permanently, the extraction of surplus by “tribute”. How then can we explain the complete overturn of this state of affairs by capitalist relations seemingly out of nothing? Unable to point to a dialectical transformation from within the existing class structure of society, the advocate of the tributary mode seeks one from without. For Amin, Wolf and others, it is therefore the intervention of the “world market” from roughly 1400 onwards (and 1492 in particular) that provides the source of this revolutionary change.

The use of the world market as a deus ex machina for the development of capitalism is typically vague. It is certainly true that, without the development of a powerful trade network which drove commodity production on to greater and greater heights, and without the consequent dissolution of the natural economy by the money economy, the full development of capitalism and the triumph of the bourgeoisie would have been impossible. Marx and Engels noted as much in The Communist Manifesto. But this offers no explanation either of how and why this development came into being in the first place or of its completely different effects in different parts of the world.

The explanation offered by Wolf for the fact that great Asiatic civilisations such as the Ottoman Empire, India and China saw their position decline in relation to Europe, despite having fundamentally the same economic base as feudal Europe, and in many cases a great deal more wealth at their disposal, is essentially that it came down to chance. Due to its geographical position and the different demands at play in the developing world market, European merchants and states acquired a central role in world trade and profited from it enormously, at the expense of other tributary societies. As Wolf puts it, “Europe's proximity to the sea permitted an early growth of river and ocean shipping.”[66] That Egypt, Turkey and Western Africa (to name but three examples) all had plentiful access to the Mediterranean/Atlantic is here conveniently overlooked. In effect, the argument presented is that Europe leapfrogged the rest of the world because it was accidentally picked by the invisible hand of the market. But this is an explanation that explains nothing.

Amin argues that the presence of merchants and trade demonstrates that the same process of primitive accumulation was going on all over the world before the European colonial powers put a stop to it everywhere else. But if capitalist development equals trade then we would have to conclude that capitalism was developing at all times in almost all class societies on earth, and many pre-class societies for that matter. And yet, the capitalist mode of production did not come into being in all places, as even Amin recognises. Unable to explain this fact, Amin leaves out the most decisive part of the process: the expropriation and proletarianisation of the peasantry, and the establishment of commodity production as the foundation of the national economy. This occured in Europe (a similar process had also begun in feudal Japan before the end of the Edo period), with England being the “classic form”, and it is here that we find the birth of capitalism.

It is worth remembering that the civilisations of classical antiquity had their own world market (if you take “world” to mean the known world) in which the production and exchange of commodities acquired an important role. By the golden age of Athens, a wealth of commodities were traded all over the known world and the presence of such a widespread trade network played a key role in the success of Hellenic civilisation. In Rome, the wealth of the slave owners became so great they didn’t know what to do with it. There was a market, commodity production, the dissolution of old relations and the accumulation of vast wealth (sometimes erroneously referred to as “capital”), and yet capitalism did not arise.

The reason for this is that the slave-based economy of classical antiquity, regularly mentioned in Marx’s Capital, did not provide for the development of the towns as industrial centres and, with this, the bourgeois class. Despite the presence of a large “proletariat”, production always remained largely tied to the countryside and, in any event, as Roman citizens this layer actually benefited and supported the continuation of slavery rather than the further development of industry.

In the period of early capitalist development, the large and wealthy empires of the East were just as much a part of the emerging world market as their European counterparts. The immense pressure of money and commodities created its own dynamics within their borders. However, nowhere do we see the seizure of the land by capitalist relations and the growth of manufacture, despite the presence of merchants, guild production (in some cases) and plenty of money to be turned into capital. As with Rome, all the elements for capitalist production appear to be there but the process does not take place. Does this not suggest a rather important difference between European feudalism and Indian or Chinese so-called feudalism?

On the surface, the European state and nobility continued to rule in a similar fashion throughout this period. Under the surface however, radical changes were taking place. Out of the struggle between lord and serf came both a class of “free” landholding peasants and a town-dwelling bourgeoisie. It was this development that made possible the complete overturn in social relations in Europe, which was given a powerful impetus by the discovery and plunder of the Americas, along with the beginnings of world trade. As commodity production and exchange spread across the world, the money economy intruded further and further into the parochial relations of the European countryside.

As landlords began to demand their rents in cash, peasants had to resort to selling their products in the towns and buying their tools and means of subsistence using the money earned. For the ancient self-sufficiency of the peasantry was substituted the dialectical interdependence of the urban bourgeois and rural farmers, who were themselves either liquidated into landless proletarians or emerged as full-fledged capitalist farmers. In the main however, this development did not take place in India, China, Persia etc. As Marx remarks:

“The obstacles that the internal solidity and articulation of pre-capitalist national modes of production oppose to the solvent effect of trade are strikingly apparent in the English commerce with India and China. There the broad basis of the mode of production is formed by the union between small-scale agriculture and domestic industry, on top of which we have in the Indian case the form of village communities based on common property in the soil, which was also the original form in China. In India, moreover, the English applied their direct political and economic power, as masters and landlords, to destroying these small economic communities.”[67]

These fundamental differences in the economic base of society necessarily produced different class dynamics. The struggle between the independent and self-sufficient peasant village and its tax-collecting exploiters was essentially different in nature to that between the serfs and their masters, leading therefore to noticeably different results when the world market began to develop in the 15th century.

Haldon himself charts these different results. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, for example, the development of the world market and “inflation caused by an influx of cheap Spanish silver” corresponded not with capitalist development but “a breakdown in rural order”,[68] the granting of hereditary landed estates to the military elite, and the enserfment of the anatolian peasantry – in short, the feudalisation of society. In contrast, “the growth of capitalist market relations in western Europe, and especially the speed of technological change, left the tributary Ottoman empire on the margins of what was soon to become the First World. The agrarian and then the industrial revolutions in England, the strength of the European powers, all served first to peripheralize politically, and then to colonize economically the Ottoman world for European markets and exports.”[69]

Similarly, in India, in contrast to the pattern of development seen in Western Europe, “it is clear that in neither the Mughal nor the Vijayanagara empires (nor, for that matter, in the Ottoman world), where longdistance trade occupied an important, if by no means dominant, role in surplus appropriation and accumulation, did this 'window' ever open”, because “the different ways in which the institutional forms of tributary relations were structured in India – in particular, the self-contained and semi-autonomous nature of rural production relations, the integration of merchant and trading groups into a balanced set of social relationships through lineage identities and demands – are central elements in this picture”.[70]

How can this be explained? Elsewhere Haldon asserts that “the limits and possibilities” for the “functional evolution” of social formations are determined by the relations of production.[71] From Haldon’s own description of the development of capitalism it is clear that English and Indian society had markedly different evolutionary trajectories throughout the period of the 16th to 18th centuries. Therefore, surely we must conclude that these societies possessed not just different “institutional forms” but essentially different relations of production. How else could they have such different “limits and possibilities”?

At pains to avoid the logical conclusion of his own argument, Haldon offers the following explanation:

“What made a difference in the western European case – where urban centres clearly did play a role in the dissolution of feudal relations of production over the long term – was the particular context and evolutionary form of European feudal and state structures, in which the peculiar nuances of the relations between lords, urban centres and markets, and kingly authority, in the context of both economic expansion and certain technological changes, wrought a whole series of complex changes in the practices which expressed the social relations of production.

“In other words, the breakup of tributary production relations hinges on a particular conjuncture in western European social, economic and cultural history, when the traditional mode of surplus appropriation could no longer render the surplus necessary for the traditional ruling class to compete with a rising mercantile elite.”

Confronted with the impossible task of explaining how fundamentally identical systems can have fundamentally different trajectories, Haldon gives up and simply describes those different trajectories. The all-important question of why this “particular conjuncture” arose when and where it did is not even approached, leaving us with the conclusion that the birth of capitalism was essentially an accident. And what an accident! Here we have the explanatory value of the tributary mode on full display.

To explain away the development of capitalism as purely the product of chance events ignores the relationship between accident and necessity. Why is it that, in Europe, accidental factors such as the Black Death and state policy from long before the discovery of the New World only seemed to strengthen the process of capitalist development, while in various other magnificent civilisations, subject to an almost infinite variety of influences, state policy tended to retard what developments did exist?

The difference between serfs and a taxable peasantry may appear superficial to Haldon, but the class relations thrown up by the two different systems have profound consequences. The relative stability and permanence of the Indian village communes produced astonishing wealth in tax and corvee labour, superior to anything seen in medieval Europe, but equally it severely hampered the development of indigenous bourgeois and proletarian classes, if it allowed for this development at all. The class dynamics of Asiatic and feudal societies were different, ultimately because they were based on different modes of production.

But if we deny any fundamental difference in the material bases of these “tributary” societies, then we must find an explanation for their obvious differences elsewhere – either in their “peculiar nuances”, “particular conjunctures” and other such accidental aspects, or as is even more common, the state.

The state

How does Amin explain the undeniable differences between Asiatic societies and Europe?

“The absence of a powerful central authority to centralize the surplus left the local feudal lords with a more direct power over the peasants. Hence the eminent domain of land belonged to them whereas under the completed tributary mode existing under the great civilizations, the State protected the village communities and forbade its agents from taking over their lands.”[72]

Likewise, Wolf expresses the same idea as follows:

“In other words, social labor is, under these conditions, mobilized and committed to the transformation of nature primarily through the exercise of power and domination—through a political process. Hence, the deployment of social labor is, in this mode, a function of the locus of political power; it will differ as this locus shifts position. [my emphasis]”[73]

Further, “It is possible to envisage two polar situations: one in which power is concentrated strongly in the hands of a ruling elite standing at the apex of the power system; and another in which power is held largely by local overlords and the rule at the apex is fragile and weak. These two situations define a continuum of power distributions.”[74]

Where the “ruling elite” is strong and political power is highly centralised, mercantile wealth is constricted by the power of the “tributary overlords”. However, where (state) power is diffuse, mercantile wealth, and thus primitive accumulation, creeps in:

“Granted too much latitude, it can render whole classes of tributary overlords dependent upon trade, and reshuffle social priorities to favor merchants over political or military chieftains. Thus, societies predicated on the tributary mode not only gave impetus to commerce but also repeatedly curtailed it when it grew too strong.”[75]

What can be seen here, aside from the simplistic and incorrect conflation of mercantile wealth with the primitive accumulation of capital (something Marx himself repeatedly rejected), is the total inversion of the relationship between base and superstructure. Amin even makes this argument explicitly, claiming that in tributary societies (spanning more than 2,000 years of history) “ideology is the dominant instance” whereas under capitalism, the economy is dominant.[76] This inconsistent historical materialism is as bad as those “materialists” who say we can understand the natural world scientifically but not history, because human consciousness makes it too complex.

Long before Amin, however, Marx confronted this idealist notion in Capital vol. 1, where he writes:

“This much, however, is clear, that the middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.”[77]

China emperor Image public domainThe Tributary Mode theory abandons scientific explanations of human development for idealism and tautology / Image: public domain

The state and ideology did not descend on society from above, or emerge fully formed out of people’s heads like Athena from the head of Zeus; they have evolved out of the production and reproduction of life and its needs, and are ultimately determined by it. The very existence of the state is determined by the presence of contending classes in society, whose struggle over the surplus product threatens to “consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle”.[78] It follows that the nature and development of any state is linked to the classes over which it purports to rule, and that societies with different class compositions will show differences at the level of the state.

It was the permanence and stability of the ancient peasant communes that Marx and Engels identified as the foundation of the strong and centralised Asiatic monarchies, as we see in Anti-Duhring: “Where the ancient communities have continued to exist, they have for thousands of years formed the basis of the cruellest form of state, Oriental despotism, from India to Russia.” For Haldon and Wolf it is the other way round: the success of the monarchy against the “local surplus extractors” concentrated its power and thereby strangled all other modes of production. So the basis of so-called asiatic despotism was… its despotism!

By taking us away from the economic development of society and by reducing all pre-capitalist class struggle to producers versus appropriators, the tributary mode forces us to turn to arguably the most common form of historical idealism: the state theory of history. This is not just a mistake in the application of this concept by Amin et al; it is a necessary conclusion. But it is not the only idealist conclusion we are invited to make.

Idealism

Haldon is sceptical of any “prime mover” in history, and rejects the idea that the ultimately determining factor in human history is the development of the productive forces – the foundation of historical materialism. Instead, his method is “neither economic reductionism nor determinism, but it is to accept and to argue for the heuristic and explanatory value of starting any analysis with what I would maintain is the fundamental and determining framework of social praxis, namely the social relations of production."[79]

Beneath all this muddle is the assertion that our approach should not be that of economic determinism, and if this is all that Haldon wants to say with this then we are in complete agreement. The more-important question is what he takes to be economic determinism, and what he puts forward as an alternative.

Marx writes in his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness… At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

In the last analysis, the development of human society is determined by the development of production and humanity’s “social productivity”:[80] the productive forces. In no way does this mean that every single event in history, every thought that crosses the minds of men and women, is directly and automatically caused by economic forces. Having arisen out of the production and reproduction of real life, “superstructural” forces, like culture, religion, politics, react back on the rest of society, including the economy, and have a hugely important role in shaping real historical events. But ultimately, the economic base of society asserts itself as primary. As Engels explains:

“Men make their own history, but in a given, conditioning milieu, upon the basis of actual relations already extant, among which, the economic relations, no matter how much they are influenced by relations of a political and ideological order, are ultimately decisive, constituting a red thread which runs through all the other relations and enabling us to understand them.”[81]

For Haldon, this is economic determinism, but his alternative simply takes us in circles. If we begin our approach to history not with the development of human labour – the “eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature”[82] – but with “social relations of production”, we immediately become unstuck the moment we have to explain from where these relations arose, and by what they are determined, unless we conclude that they appear independently of production itself, which is an absurdity.

The origin and development of the economic relations at the base of society are themselves intrinsically linked to the development of the productive forces, which include the instruments, organisation and productivity of labour. In this sense, the ultimately determining factor in human history can be identified as the development of the productive forces. This does not merely create the possibility of certain relations of production arising. Simply saying something is possible does not tell us very much. In the course of development, abstract possibility is converted, dialectically, into concrete necessity. To explain how this takes place is the task of historical materialism.

Prior to the development of irrigation, the large surplus upon which the Sumerian civilisation was based could not be produced. In this sense, the advent of irrigation agriculture opened up the possibility of class society. But class society did not immediately spring up from the soil as soon as the first irrigation trench was dug. As tools and technique improved, irrigation was used to drain the formerly inhospitable marshes of southern Mesopotamia. In the course of using this newly acquired productive force to achieve their own ends, the people living there organised themselves to make best use of it.

Archeologists have identified that draining marshes using irrigation required planning and coordination in order to prevent flooding in other areas and to ensure the most-effective supply of water. It is therefore not a coincidence that, in these Ubaid settlements, and not in earlier neolithic settlements such as Catalhuyuk or Jericho, a single temple complex can be identified (as opposed to domestic shrines for example), indicating the presence of a section of the population which was devoted to mental labour, as opposed to physical labour in the fields.

Out of new methods of satisfying the needs and desires of the people living in that place and time grew a new division of labour – that of the hand and the head. In the course of development, which was by no means simple, gradual and linear, this division of labour became fixed into a class relation, supported by the first states in history. This does not mean that, from the invention of irrigation, everything else passively and mechanically follows. If social relations could only ever correspond passively with the productive forces then revolution would neither be possible nor necessary, and yet we see revolutions throughout history. The evolved relations of production, which “arise from production itself” in turn react back on production as a determinant, just as the evolution of the state reacts forcefully on economic development. They can act to stimulate and accelerate development and equally, they can hinder further development (look at capitalism today!). But in the end content wins out over form, the old relations are “burst asunder”,[83] and a new period opens up in the development of society.

Likewise, the development of the productive forces under capitalism has created a minimum technical basis for the building of socialism. In this sense, it merely creates the possibility of socialism, which is realised by the class struggle. But in the course of further development this possibility is fleshed out with real content: the working class grows larger in both absolute and relative terms; the workers are organised into larger and more advanced factories, etc.; the capitalist market and nation-state are far too narrow to contain the productive forces already created and the system periodically enters into crisis; out of free competition grows monopoly capitalism, which further socialises production and attempts to plan it on a global scale; even the state is brought in to help manage production on an imperialist basis. In short, the whole of capitalist development, particularly over the last hundred years, drives towards socialist planning. This does not mean that capitalism will peacefully and gradually evolve into socialism; it must be overthrown. Whether and how this is finally achieved comes down to the living class struggle, which is determined by far more than the productive forces, not least the leadership of the working class, but to deny the role of the productive forces in the transition from capitalism to socialism is to deprive socialism of its objective basis, which can ultimately only lead to a voluntarist, idealist conception of revolution.

Nor is it enough to place both forces and relations of production alongside each other as equally co-determining one another. To point out that two processes act on each other without grounding that interaction in its context is sophistry, not dialectics. Man’s conscious subjective activity reacts back on the objective material world, but the latter is clearly primary and both form parts of the constant evolution of matter. Likewise, relations of production necessarily arise from production itself (where else could they come from?) in accordance with the development of mankind’s productive power. But human beings are social creatures; production is both natural and social. In that sense you cannot have any production without relations of production. Further, the productive forces are not some holy ghost, hovering over and directing human beings. Production and the development of the productive forces are nothing other than men and women pursuing their own aims.

Ultimately, to reject the role of the productive forces in history is to stop at the threshold of a real, scientific understanding of history, and to satisfy oneself with the old platitude of the “multiplicity of factors”, which has provided refuge for many an idealist historian. We cannot understand the class struggle without also understanding its link to the development of the productive forces. Without understanding its context, the objective factors that determined the balance of class forces and the very interests over which the class struggle is fought, the class struggle and history becomes essentially indeterminate, in which case the task of the historian is simply to accumulate facts and describe events in chronological order. Indeed, Haldon advises that “a more agnostic reading of future possibilities and trajectories is advisable than has sometimes been the case in socialist politics”,[84] the end result of his “neither economic reductionism nor determinism”.

Amin’s method however is arguably even worse: that of eclectic improvisation. On the one hand, he boasts that he is developing historical materialism beyond the system that Marx began and attacks what he calls “culturalism”; but then calls for “another culture, capable of serving as the basis [?] for a social order that can surmount the contradictions that capitalism has never overcome and can never resolve”.[85] He defends universalism and claims to have worked out “a general theory of social evolution”[86], but then warns that “the aspiration for the formulation of general laws governing all of nature and society can lead one to slip on the slope of cosmogony, without necessarily being aware of it: witness Engels’ The Dialectics of Nature and Soviet ‘dia-mat’.”[87] In form, Amin claims to be an inheritor of Marx, bringing his theory forward, but in content he stands much closer to Duhring and much of his writings constitute a direct attack on materialism, historical or otherwise.

In reality, this is not just a revision of Marxism but a retreat from it. In an attempt to escape the thorny questions posed by a thoughtful inquiry into pre-capitalist world history (and there are unsurprisingly many) the tributary mode simply shrugs its shoulders and says “it’s all basically the same”. More worryingly, it is, in the hands of Amin, Wolf and Haldon at least, a retreat from both materialism and dialectics, in the face of petty-bourgeois hysteria over the supposed “orientalism”, “eurocentrism” and “economic determinism” of Marx.

Such a method cannot take us forward in our understanding of either pre-capitalist or modern society. On the contrary, it would be a step backwards into an historical equivalent of the idealist agnosticism put forward by Bogdanov in the RSDLP, which Lenin attacked in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Indeed, in Haldon’s own words, “Bogdanov had already begun to develop what was actually a much more sophisticated and nuanced model of social and economic structures and the nature of determination by the economic in his Short Course on Economic Science”.[88]

Source and implications

Even the most-abstract theoretical principles eventually make themselves felt in practice. Having considered the tributary mode’s main features and theoretical implications, it is also important to examine the source of this theory to understand its possible political implications. In the case of the tributary mode, it is impossible to tackle this question fully without also considering the historical and political context in which it arose.

The post-war period was characterised by a series of revolutions in the colonially oppressed nations. In many cases those states which sought to overcome imperialism went further than they initially intended and expropriated both the domestic and foreign capitalists. Ted Grant identified this “proletarian bonapartism” as an expression of the impossibility of further development for the so-called Third World on the capitalist road, and due to the delay of the socialist revolution in the West, an attempt to solve the imperative tasks of history by sometimes the most unlikely of candidates.

Nevertheless this represented a progressive development, and for all their distortions and serious limitations, these states ultimately placed themselves in the camp of the world proletariat, which is why they could not be tolerated by imperialism. But not all post-colonial countries took this road. Stuck between Western imperialism on the one hand and the proletarian bonapartist states, particularly the USSR and China, on the other, there grew a collection of states, constituting the small change of world relations, which positioned themselves between both Western imperialist and Soviet/Chinese “influence”.

Amin 2 Image Skill Lab FlickrThese theorists have bent to petty-bourgeois, academic critcisim of Marx's 'Eurocentrism' / Image: Skill Lab, Flickr

This striving for economic and political independence on a capitalist basis was characterised by protectionist trade barriers directed against the West, plus Keynesian spending and state management designed to develop their own national capitalism, as epitomised by the programmes of leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. It was inevitable that this “middle way” would find its theoretical expression and justification one way or another, and we find in the works of postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, characterised by a petty-bourgeois preoccupation with the “orientalism” of both Western imperialism and Marxism, which are taken to be effectively the same thing.

From these theorists, we also see a rejection of historical materialism as an evolutionary theory and even the rejection of progress altogether as it allegedly places colonial societies on a lower level of development and is therefore racist. It is in this environment that the tributary mode arose as a means of “updating” or effectively apologising for Marxism in the face of these petty-bourgeois attacks.

Amin, who had been a member of the French Communist Party, left to become a Maoist but by the time of his 1974 essay was a firm believer in the state capitalist theory of the class nature of Soviet Union (he refers to the “state bourgeoisie” extracting surplus through the bureaucracy). He became well known for his work on “Eurocentrism” and spent many years working as a director of the “Third World Forum” in Dakar, effectively becoming the leading theoretician of the postcolonial Left.

In Amin’s case, the tributary mode concept goes hand in hand with his Third Worldism and in some respects provides the theoretical basis for the latter. Up until his death in 2018, Amin advocated a separation between the imperialist West and its former colonies by “de-linking” the world economy. Practically speaking he was calling for weaker capitalist nations to break free from imperialism by applying nationalist protectionist policies along with some kind of worldwide “Cultural Revolution”. On socialism we do not see a word.

This is not an accident. These ideas provided a theoretical cover for the programme of those postcolonial regimes that had not expropriated their own bourgeoisie. If capitalist development was already taking place in the colonial world before the Europeans put a stop to it, then it is not necessary to overthrow capitalism; all that is required is protect one’s own indigenous capitalism from imperialist interference and “decolonise” our culture. But this ignores the millions of threads that tie the capitalists of so-called developing nations to the banks and multinational corporations which dominate the world economy. Essentially, it leads to the denial of the theory of permanent revolution and to all intents and purposes, is a rebranding of the two-stage theory. The attacks of postcolonialism on Marx’s racism and the “eurocentrism” of Marxism is simply a petty-bourgeois, nationalist defence of their own insipid capitalist class.

With the crisis of the 1970s and the turn towards so-called “neoliberal” policies, headed by the World Bank and IMF, all of the citadels of postcolonial Keynesianism were torn down. But not before its idealist attacks on Marxism had been swallowed by Western ‘Marxist’ academia. So we see the use of the tributary concept to erase any potentially “problematic” difference between Europe and Asia continuing in the works of Wolf, Haldon and others.

Wolf was, even at the time of his 1982 book, essentially an opponent of Marxism, despite his use of the Marxist concepts, albeit in a bastardised form. He distinguished two kinds of Marxism: “Systems Marxism”, which is a scientific analysis of what has happened, and “Promethean Marxism”, which advocates such things as the working class becoming a class in and for itself, revolution, the emancipation of humanity etc. (in other words the Marxism of Marx). Wolf is explicitly opposed to the latter and even states in his introduction:

“Most of [Marx’s] energy was, of course, spent on efforts to understand the history and workings of one particular mode, capitalism, and this not to defend it but to effect its revolutionary transformation. Since our specialized disciplinary discourse developed as an antidote to revolution and disorder, it is understandable that this ghostly interrogator should have been made unwelcome in the halls of academe.”[89]

Wolf’s distinction between “scientific” analysis and the political struggle isn’t just objectionable from a political point of view; it completely fails to understand the most basic element in Marxist philosophy. Marx’s statement, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”[90] was not simply a rhetorical flourish; it marks the birth of Marxist philosophy. The point he is making is that it is only through purposive activity that we understand the world and give our concepts objective value. Trying to change history and overthrow capitalism is therefore not just a political injunction that some Marxists may choose to take up, but the essence of Marx’s materialism and of a genuinely scientific approach to history. That Wolf sees this as “promethean” only serves to illustrate just how far removed from Marxism he is.

Predictably, Wolf’s pseudo-scientific approach to history produces poor results when it comes to analysing the world in which we live. Rejecting Lenin’s analysis of imperialism (or rather his own caricature of it) as overly simplistic, Wolf opts for Mandel’s theory of “long waves” as a superior explanation of capitalist development, stating that “each phase of acceleration [?] in the rate of profit was followed by a phase of deceleration [?]… which involved a ‘realization crisis’ [overproduction – JH]”.[91] This method is as useful for predicting the future as it is for understanding the past. In his introduction to a 1997 reprint of his book, Wolf offers us the amazing prediction: “It would also seem that the new computer-based technologies of control and information, coupled with new modes of transport, can underwrite a more decentralized capitalism”.[92] Today, living under the greatest centralisation of capital in history, a process which Marx even identified over 150 years ago, one has to ask if we wouldn’t be better off with “promethean” Marxism after all.

Haldon, taking a moment to point his heuristic device at modern society, informs us, “States in the capitalist world... are maintained ultimately not through their power to tax, but rather through the maintenance of those production relations which promote the extraction of relative surplus value.”[93] Someone should kindly inform the capitalists, who’ve been forcing their workers to work longer and longer hours for decades, apparently under the misapprehension that their profits also come from absolute surplus value. If this is what we get from Haldon’s relations of production “in the wider sense” today, what can we expect to gain from his approach to pre-capitalist society?

Sadly, there seems to be no limit to the number of academics who are eager to take up the name of Marx in order to give some kind of prestige to their own eclectic theories. The universities (and the sects) are full of such trends. In many quarters, the use of terms such as “praxis” and “political agency” serves as a cover for a completely idealist and essentially petty-bourgeois approach to history and the class struggle.

This should serve as a stark warning. What is common to all revisionism is that it begins with a conclusion (or prejudice) borrowed from declared enemies of Marxism and then works backwards, changing the basic elements of Marxist theory until it appears to achieve the desired result. In the case of the tributary mode, in order to accommodate the false criticisms of postcolonial theory and idealist academics regarding Marx's "economic determinism" or "eurocentrism", we are asked to dispense with some of the most fundamental principles of historical materialism. What we gain is a method that is both far from Marxism and completely useless as a means of understanding society. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!”

How to begin

Trotsky once commented, “The dialectic is not a magic master key for all questions. It does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.”[94] Despite their titanic contribution to our understanding of the world, Marx and Engels did not hand down an exhaustive history of the world and every society that has ever dwelt upon it. Indeed, much of world history has yet to be discovered, let alone understood. But with all the information in the world we will understand nothing with a flawed method.

Discoveries made since the deaths of Marx and Engels in the fields of archaeology, anthropology and history open up an Aladdin’s cave of information, and with it the possibility of applying the dialectical materialist method of Marxism to entire regions and periods that its originators could only glimpse from afar. But far from requiring us to “move beyond” Marx’s method, this should cause us to preserve it with even more determination. Many have rejected Marx’s “outdated” ideas for something new, modern, and acceptable to present trends, and all have wound up fumbling in the dark. We follow them at our peril.

Only the method of Marxism allows us to understand the world as a process, in its motion and development, its leaps and contradictions. To give flesh and blood to our understanding of history, to apply and enrich this method without either dogma or deception, is a task we must take up, as previous generations of Marxist revolutionaries have done before us. Let us begin!


[1] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1845, part 1A

[2] Amin, Modes of Production and Social Formations, Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 4(3), 1974, pg 57-58

[3] ibid., pg 58

[4] Amin, Eurocentrism, Pambazuka Press, 2010, pg 222

[5] ibid., pg 101

[6] ibid., pg 234

[7] Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, University of California Press, 2010, pg 76

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., pg 80

[10] ibid., pg 81

[11] Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode, Verso, 1993, pg 64

[12] ibid. pg 65

[13] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, part 1A

[14] Marx, Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 644

[15] ibid. pg 873

[16] Marx, Grundrisse, Introduction, part 3

[17] Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 344

[18] Capital vol. 3, Penguin Classics, 1991, pg 927 

[19] As quoted in Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, pg 80

[20] As quoted in Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 79

[21] Capital vol. 3, Penguin Classics, 1991, pg 762

[22] ibid., pg 859

[23] ibid., pgs 716-717 

[24] ibid. pg 595

[25] Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 728

[26] ibid. pg 175, footnote 35

[27] Capital vol. 3, Penguin Classics, 1991, pg 1017

[28] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 80

[29] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 66

[30 As quoted in Mehring, On Historical Materialism, 1893, part 3

[31] ibid.

[32] Capital vol. 3, pg 927

[33] ibid. pg 772

[34] ibid. 

[35] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 135 

[36] ibid., pg 131

[37] ibid., pg 256

[38] ibid., pg 132

[39] Amin, Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2011, pg 14

[40] Second draft of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich, 1881

[41 Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 286

[42] Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

[43] Amin, Modes of Production and Social Formations, Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 4(3), 1974, pg 60

[44] Europe and the People Without History, pg 100

[45] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 69

[46] Trotsky, Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935, Columbia University Press, 1986, pg 86

[47] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886, part 4

[48] Afterword to second German edition of Capital vol. 1, 1873

[49] Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 97

[50] ibid., pg 101

[51] Marx, Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 929

[52] Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Progress Publishers, 1970, pg 117

[53] ibid.

[54] Eurocentrism, pg 191

[55] Engels’ letter to Condrad Schmidt, 27 October 1890

[56] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 21

[57] ibid., pg 99

[58] Engels, Anti-Duhring, 1877, part 1, chapter 10

[59] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 9-10

[60] ibid, pg 120

[61] Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 325

[62] Scheidel, The Slave Population of Roman Italy. Speculation and Constraints, Topoi. Orient-Occident, 1999

[63] Thompson, Ancient Rome’s Real Population Revealed, Live Science, 2009

[64] Morton, A People’s History of England, Lawrence & Wishart, 1989, pg 48

[65] Anti-Duhring, part 2, chapter 4

[66] Europe and the People Without History, pg 85

[67] Capital vol. 3, Penguin Classics, 1991, pg 451

[68] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 173

[69] ibid., pg 181

[70] ibid., pg 259

[71] ibid., pg 269

[72] Amin, Modes of Production and Social Formations, Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 4(3), 1974, pg 64

[73] Europe and the People Without History, pg 80

[74] ibid.

[75] ibid. pg 84

[76] Eurocentrism, pg 236

[77] Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 175, footnote 35

[78] Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884, chapter 9

[79] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 273

[80] Capital vol. 3, Penguin Classics, 1991, pg 927

[81] Engels’ letter to Borgius, 25 January 1894

[82] Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1990, pg 133

[83] Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, chapter 1

[84] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 23 

[85] Eurocentrism pg 190

[86] ibid. pg 189 

[87] ibid. pg 117

[88] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 282, footnote 47

[89] Europe and the People Without History, pg 21

[90] Theses on Feuerbach, 1845

[91] ibid. Pg 304

[92] Europe and the People Without History, pg xxiii

[93] The State and the Tributary Mode, pg 156

[94] The ABC of Materialist Dialectics, 1939