Lenin on the Asiatic Mode of Production

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Taimur Rahman

There is a certain contention as to whether Lenin accepted the notion of the AMP or its appropriateness to Russia. Firstly, Soviet scholars have since 1931 upheld that references to the ‘Asiatic’ mode by Marx, Engels or Lenin merely underscored variants of the slave or feudal modes of production found in Asia. For instance Miff wrote,

…by the “Asiatic” mode of production Marx understood one of the varieties of feudalism… This is the way that this question has been understood by us up to now and this is the way that Comrade Lenin understood it (Sawer, 1977, 85).

Marian Sawer writes that Lenin’s theory of imperialism ‘tended to suggest that colonial areas such as Asia had enjoyed the normal (i.e. Western) pattern of historical development until being subjected to the effects of Western imperialism’ (Sawer, 1977, 75). [1] Similarly O’Leary says that Lenin ‘rejected the empirical appropriateness of Plekhanov’s application of the [AMP] to Tzarist Russia’ (O’Leary, 1989, 151). Let us look at the Lenin’s views on the AMP in relatively greater detail to attempt to discern his views.

In fact, Lenin did not disagree either with the concept of an Asiatic mode of production nor with the characterisation of ancient Russia as Asiatic (McFarlane, Cooper, & Jaksic, 2005, 285). To begin with, Lenin frequently referred to Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy reproducing, in full, the passage containing the reference to the Asiatic Mode of Production. For example, Lenin quotes the Preface as early as 1894 in What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are… and also in his 1914 biography and exposition of Marx’s work entitled Karl Marx (Lenin, 1914a, 1894b). Second, Lenin’s Conspectus of the Correspondence of K. Marx and F. Engels 1844-1883 published in 1959 (Moscow) demonstrates quite clearly that Lenin studied the concept of the AMP. In these notes Lenin wrote,

The ‘key’ to Oriental systems is the absence of private property in land. All land = the property of the head of state… The Asiatic villages, self-enclosed and self-sufficient (natural economy) form the basis of Asiatic systems + public works of the central government (Sawer, 1977, 92).

Like Plekhanov, Lenin considered Tsarist Russia to be a country that lay at the crossroads of European and Asiatic civilization. This was not merely a reference to the geographical fact that Russia spanned the Eurasian continent; it was more importantly a reference to the socio-economic formation of Russia that was a combination of European feudalism (and later capitalism) and the AMP. For instance on the social structure of Russia he wrote,

[The] feudal exploitation of the peasantry in the grossest, Asiatic forms, when not only did the means of production not belong to the producer but the producers themselves differed very little from ‘means of production’ (Lenin, 1894a).

While criticising the institution of bureaucracy, he described Russia as ‘semi-Asiatic’ and said, ‘[we] see this institution [bureaucracy] everywhere, from autocratic and semi-Asiatic Russia to cultured, free and civilised England, as an essential organ of bourgeois society” (Lenin, 1897b). Similarly, criticizing the Stolpin reforms he wrote, ‘The monarchy had to defend itself against the revolution, and the semi-Asiatic, feudal Russian monarchy of the Romanovs could only defend itself by the most infamous, most disgusting, vile and cruel means’ (Lenin, 1911c). In the same article he said,

Stolypin the pogrom-monger groomed himself for a ministerial post in the only way in which a tsarist governor could; by torturing the peasants, by organising pogroms and by showing an ability to conceal these Asiatic ‘practices’ behind glib phrases, external appearances, poses and gestures made to look ‘European’. (Lenin, 1911c)

Lenin described Russian reaction as a combination of ‘unmitigated Asiatic backwardness with all the loathsome features of the refined methods used to exploit and stultify those that are most downtrodden and tormented by the civilisation of the capitalist cities’ (Lenin, 1905b). Declaring the opposition of the Bolsheviks to the ruling class he wrote, ‘We whole-heartedly support to the very end the peasants’ struggle against semi-feudal landlordism and against the Asiatic political system in Russia’ (Lenin, 1906d).

Further evidence of the view that Lenin considered Tsarist Russia to be at the crossroads between European and Asiatic civilizations can be adduced by Lenin’s repeated references to the struggle between European [bourgeois-democratic] culture and Asiatic backwardness. This theme is repeated consistently in Lenin’s writing on Russia. For example he wrote that capitalism in Russia was converting ‘Asiatic forms of labour, with their infinitely developed bondage and diverse forms of personal dependence, into European forms of labour’ (Lenin, 1897a). In this context, he argued, Narodnism played ‘into the hands of stagnation and Asiatic backwardness’ (Lenin, 1897a). He expressed surprised that the Asiatic political system in Russia was giving away to European capitalist lines and wrote,

What is surprising, rather, is that Russia’s development along European capitalist lines should already, despite her Asiatic political system, have made so strong a mark on the political grouping of society (Lenin, 1903b).

At other times he pointed out how the transformation of Russian institutions remained skin deep and how they were still Asiatic in nature. For example he said, ‘The Provisional Regulations of 1899 tear off the pharisaical mask and expose the real Asiatic nature even of those of [Russia’s] institutions which most resemble European institutions’ (Lenin, 1901b). He argued that

…in Russia purely capitalist antagonisms are very very much overshadowed by the antagonisms between ‘culture’ and Asiatic barbarism, Europeanism and Tartarism, capitalism and feudalism; in other words, the demands that are being put first today are those the satisfaction of which will develop capitalism, cleanse it of the slag of feudalism and improve the conditions of life and struggle both for the proletariat and for the bourgeoisie (Lenin, 1905f).

Similarly, making the case for ‘democratic reforms’ through a democratic dictatorship’ revolution he stated,

…the democratic reforms … will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism … [The democratic dictatorship] may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in village but also in factory life … [the Bolsheviks]… want the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry, to settle accounts with the monarchy and the aristocracy in the ‘plebeian way,’ ruthlessly destroying the enemies of liberty, crushing their resistance by force, making no concessions whatever to the accursed heritage of serfdom, of Asiatic barbarism and human degradation (Lenin, 1905h).

In a follow up article Lenin argued the case that conditions in Russia were conducive to a 1789 type of revolution instead of an 1848 type of slow-transition because the contradictions between autocracy and political freedom had no intermediate stages. “[In Russia] despotism is Asiatically virginal,” he concluded (Lenin, 1905a).

The same arguments can be found in Lenin’s seminal work The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Discussing the rise of the peasant bourgeoisie in the context of the AMP he wrote,

…the threads both of merchant’s capital … and of industrial capital … merge in the hands of the peasant bourgeoisie. It depends on surrounding circumstances, on the greater or lesser degree to which the Asiatic way of life is eliminated and culture is widespread in our countryside as to which of these forms of capital will develop at the expense of the other (Lenin, 1899).

This reference to the Asiatic way of life was repeated when Lenin compared the system that prevailed in landlord farming and pre-industrial textile manufacture. He wrote,

“In both cases, the old system merely implies stagnation in the forms of production (and, consequently, in all social relations), and the domination of the Asiatic way of life. In both cases, the new, capitalist forms of economy constitute enormous progress, despite all the contradictions inherent in them (Lenin, 1899).

In innumerable passages Lenin pointed out the characteristics of Russia’s socio-economic formation that were derived from the Asiatic Mode of Production. For example, Lenin refers to:

[The] Asiatic abuse of human dignity that is constantly encountered in the countryside (Lenin, 1894b).

The Chinese people suffer from the same evils as those from which the Russian people suffer – they suffer from an Asiatic government that squeezes taxes from the starving peasantry and that suppresses every aspiration towards liberty by military force (Lenin, 1900).

[The] hopeless poverty, ignorance, lack of rights, and degradation, from which the peasants suffer, lay an imprint of Asiatic backwardness upon the entire social system of our country (Lenin, 1901c).

…there neither is nor can be any other means of combating unemployment and crises, as well as the Asiatic-barbarian and cruel forms the expropriation of the small producers has assumed in Russia, than the class struggle of the revolutionary proletariat against the entire capitalist system (Lenin, 1901a).

… numerous remnants of the pre-capitalist, serf-owning social system, … are responsible for the Asiatically barbarous forms of exploitation and the agonising extinction of the many-million-strong peasantry (Lenin, 1902a).

The entire working class and the entire country are suffering from this absence of rights; it is on this that all the Asiatic backwardness in Russian life rests (Lenin, 1903a).

The whole colonisation policy of the autocracy is permeated with the Asiatic interference of a hide-bound bureaucracy (Lenin, 1907b).

Features of Asiatic primitiveness, governmental graft, the schemes of financiers who share their monopoly incomes with highly-placed officials, are still boundlessly strong in Russian capitalism (Lenin, 1913c).

As a matter of fact, this progress, perpetuating as it does appalling poverty and bondage among the masses of the peasants, only worsens their conditions, makes crises more inevitable, and intensifies the contradiction between the requirements of modern capitalism and barbarous, medieval and Asiatic ‘winter hiring’ (Lenin, 1914b).

A bourgeois revolution for the purpose of preserving landed proprietorship is being carried out … by Stolypin in the crudest Asiatic forms (Lenin, 1907c).

[the Russian ruling autocracy] … surpasses even the barbarism and uncivilised behaviour of the Asiatic governments (Lenin, 1911e).

…only a victorious revolution, can make lasting changes in the life of peoples and seriously undermine medieval rule and semi-Asiatic forms of capitalism (Lenin, 1910a).

In the same vein during his scathing condemnation of Tsarist Russia and its supporters, Lenin frequently used terms such as ‘Asiatic police tyranny’, [2] ‘Asiatic censorship’, [3] ‘Asiatic conservatism of the autocracy’, [4] ‘autocracy’s Asiatic savagery’, [5] ‘Asiatic barbarity’, [6] ‘Asiatic philistinism’, [7] ‘slave, Asiatic, tsarist Russia’, [8] ‘Asiatic barbarism’, [9] ‘Asiatically corrupt Russian officials’, [10] ‘the accursed canker of Asiatic tyranny’, [11] and ‘Asiatic despotism’. [12]

Godes, a vitriolic opponent of the AMP, writes,

in Lenin’s works the term ‘Asiatic’ always serves as a synonym for an extreme form of feudalism and backwardness. No one will claim that Lenin classified Russia among countries with an Asiatic mode of production, but it was to Russia that he very frequently applied the term ‘Asiatic’” (Ulmen, 1972, 439).

However, this claim is, quite frankly, preposterous. For one, why would Lenin get the absurd idea that ‘an extreme form of feudalism’ is synonymous with the word ‘Asiatic’ given that feudalism is a term and a system that has its origins not in the East but in the West? Further, why couldn’t Lenin just saying what he purportedly meant – that is an ‘extreme form of feudalism’? Godes ‘unique’ explanation raises more questions than it answers. Lenin’s ‘Notes on Plekhanov’s Second Draft Programme’ can shed some more light on this matter. When Plekhanov wrote the expression ‘the feudal-handicraft period,’ Lenin wrote:

‘The feudal-handicraft period’ … ‘Here, an expression seems to have been chosen, as though deliberately, which is least applicable in Russia, for it is questionable whether the term ‘feudalism’ is applicable to our Middle Ages (Lenin, 1902b).

Lenin made it very clear that the term feudalism could only be used in the context of Russia inexactly. He wrote, ‘The feudal (let us use this not very exact, general European expression) landowners…’ (Lenin, 1911d).

Furthermore, being aware of this distinction, Lenin used the term ‘krepostichestvo’ (bondage) rather than ‘feodalizm’ (feudalism) to describe conditions in Russia. One would have to go back to see how much of Lenin has been mistranslated because ‘krepostichestvo’ has been translated as ‘feudalism’. The simple and most straight forward explanation is that these references were neither to Asian people, nor to ‘an extreme form of feudalism’ but quite simply to the Asiatic mode of production that had given rise to brutally oppressive practices.

Lenin’s debate with Plekhanov at the Stockholm Congress in 1906 regarding the Bolshevik programme of the nationalisation of land is often misconstrued as an attack on the AMP. For instance, the historian A. G. Prigozhin wrote,

At the Fourth (Unity) Congress in Stockholm, Lenin raised precisely the objection that Plekhanov was attempting to construct the Menshevik conception of the Russian revolution out of his anaylsis of the ‘Asiatic character of Russian despotism’ and of the Russian commune. If Marx and Engels really took the viewpoint of acknowledging an ‘Asiatic’ mode of production in Russia, then it was not Lenin who was right as we have thought and believed up till now, but Plekhanov: it was Menshevism that was right, and not Bolshevism (Sawer, 1977, 89)

Quite aside from the hilarious dogma that the AMP cannot exist because otherwise Lenin would be incorrect, the facts are that this interpretation is entirely incorrect. Plekhanov had argued that since nationalisation of land was the economic basis of Muscovy before the reign of Peter, the program of nationalisation of land by the Bolsheviks would result in the restoration of the Asiatic Mode of Production. First, Lenin pointed out that this view was historically inaccurate. ‘[It] is absurd to talk about the land being nationalised before the reign of Peter I,’ he wrote (Lenin, 1906c). However, more pertinently, Lenin argued,

Insofar as (or if) the land was nationalised in Muscovy, the economic basis of this nationalisation was the Asiatic mode of production. But it is the capitalist mode of production that became established in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century, and is absolutely predominant in the twentieth century. What, then, remains of Plekhanov’s argument? He confused nationalisation based on the Asiatic mode of production with nationalisation based on the capitalist mode of production (Lenin, 1906c).

It is quite clear from this passage that Lenin is not arguing against the concept of the AMP, rather he is pointing out that Plekhanov had confused nationalisation under the AMP with nationalisation under capitalism.

Lenin himself who wrote an article in 1907 entitled ‘The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905-1907’ providing further clarification of this distinction. In this article he analysed the minutes of the Stockholm Congress stating, that the Mensheviks did not understand that the bourgeois revolution in Russia could be of two types: the landlord-bourgeois revolution or the peasant-bourgeois revolution. He argued the case for the latter type of revolution because ‘without a “clearing’ of the medieval agrarian relationships and regulations, partly feudal and partly Asiatic, there can be no bourgeois-revolution in agriculture’ (Lenin, 1907b). Further, he stated that the old distribution of the land was based on the will of the landlords’ bailiffs or ‘the officials of Asiatic despotism’ and not on the needs of free commercial agriculture (Lenin, 1907b). He stated that nationalisation of the land could thoroughly sweep away the survivals of medievalism and Asiatic semi-decay. Turning to Plekhanov’s specific points he said,

The Minutes of the Stockholm Congress fully confirm the statement made in my Report that Plekhanov impermissibly confuses the restoration which took place in France on the basis of capitalism with the restoration of ‘our old, semi-Asiatic order’ (Lenin, 1907b).

Mocking the view that nationalisation on the basis of capitalism would restore the AMP Lenin continued,

What is this? A historico-materialistic analysis, or a purely rationalistic ‘wordplay’? Is it the word ‘nationalisation’ or certain economic changes that facilitate the restoration of the semi-Asiatic conditions? Had Plekhanov thought this matter over he would have realised that municipalisation and division eliminate one basis of the Asiatic order, i.e., medieval landlord ownership, hut leave another, i.e., medieval allotment ownership. Consequently, in essence, in the economic essence of the revolution (and not in virtue of the term by which one might designate it), it is nationalisation that far more radically eliminates the economic basis of Asiatic despotism (Lenin, 1907b).

This detailed analysis of the agrarian debate, by Lenin himself, clearly demonstrates that Prigozhin’s misconstrues the debate between Plekhanov and Lenin as one over ‘acknowledging an ‘Asiatic’ mode of production in Russia.’ In fact, the debate was over the question of whether municipalisation or nationalisation would be the best course of action to sweep away the AMP. The existence of the AMP in Russia was, in fact, never a subject of debate between Lenin and Plekhanov.

Lenin’s comments on intellectuals are also instructive with respect to the AMP. In his view intellectuals in pre-capitalist Russia were divided into two big camps ‘… those who made up to the government, and those who were independent; by the former were meant hired hacks and those who wrote to order … corresponded to patriarchal, semi-Asiatic relations.’ But he was happy to note that this distinction was now obsolete because ‘…Russia [was] rapidly becoming Europeanised (Lenin, 1914c). In this context, although Lenin greatly admired Lev Tolstoi, he considered the latter’s portrayal of pre-capitalist Russia as romanticism and wrote, ‘Tolstoi-ism, in its real historical content, is an ideology of an Oriental, an Asiatic order” (Lenin, 1911a).

It may be objected that Lenin changed his views after 1913 when he wrote ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’ (Lenin, 1913a). The title certainly suggests that Lenin no longer associated ‘backwardness’ with ‘Asia’. How then is this to be reconciled with the fact that as late as 1923, several years after the socialist revolution, Lenin still contrasted ‘Asiatic ignorance’ with European culture? For example he wrote

Let those Russians, or peasants, who imagine that since they trade they are good traders, get that well into their heads. This does not follow that all. They do trade, but that is far from being cultured traders. They now trade in an Asiatic manner, but to be a good trader one must trade in the European manner. They are a whole epoch behind in that (Lenin, 1923).

Similarly, with respect to the domain of education and culture he wrote, ‘We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves’ (Lenin, 1922).

The fact is that in the article ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’ Lenin is referring to the people of the Asian continent. On the other hand, in the all the passages quoted Lenin is not referring to Asian people but to practices that were derived from the AMP. This possible confusion is only the result of mistaking references to a mode production (Asiatic) with the people of Asia. However, it does not demonstrate that Lenin changed his position on the AMP as a valid Marxist concept.

There is evidence that Lenin realised that such confusion could arise and that that word Asiatic to describe a mode of production might unintentionally strike the Asian person as insulting. For example, describing the ruling class of Russia as ‘un-European and anti-European’ he added, we would say Asiatic if this did not sound undeservedly slighting to the Japanese and Chinese’ (Lenin, 1914d). Thus, Lenin frequently substituted the word ‘patriarchal’ to substitute for the world Asiatic. For instance he wrote:

Once the latifundia are retained, this inevitably means also the retention of the bonded peasant, of métayer, of the renting of small plots by the year, the cultivation of the ‘squire’s’ land with the implements of the peasants, i.e., the retention of the most backward farming methods and of all that Asiatic barbarism which is called patriarchal rural life (Lenin, 1908)

Similarly, the words ‘patriarchal’ instead of ‘Asiatic’ are also used in the Thesis on the National and Colonial Question of the extremely influential Second Congress of the Communist International. Lenin says, ‘With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate…’ (Lenin, 1920).

In conclusion, it is clear from the evidence provided that Lenin had studied the concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production, he considered Russia’s socio-economic formation to be a combination of the modes of production that were predominant in both Asia and Europe, his disagreements with Plekhanov were never over the characterisation of Russia as Asiatic but over the question of the appropriate agrarian policy to destroy Asiatic relations in Russia, and he never changed his views in his later life (though he considered the word ‘patriarchal’ a substitute for ‘Asiatic’). In sum, there is no evidence that Lenin in anyway disagreed either with the concept of the Asiatic mode of production or its application to Tsarist Russia.

References

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Ulmen, G.L. (1972). “Review of Sur Le Mode Production Asiatique.” Slavic Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 438-441.

Endnotes

1 In fact, Lenin explicitly states that the export of capital ‘greatly accelerates the development of capitalism’ in the colonial world (Lenin, 1917, 707). Further, Lenin quotes Hilferding with approval, ‘The old social relations become completely revolutionised, the age-long agrarian isolation of ‘nations without history’ is destroyed and they are drawn into the capitalist whirlpool. Capitalism itself gradually provides the subjugated with the means and resources for their emancipation and they set out to achieve the goal which once seemed highest to the European nations: the creation of a united national state as a means to economic and cultural freedom’ (Lenin, 1917, 745). This implies that capitalist-imperialism altered and accelerated the line of social development of Asia towards (not away from) the European line of social development.

2 (Lenin, 1902c)

3 (Lenin, 1905d)

4 (Lenin, 1905g)

5 (Lenin, 1905e)

6 (Lenin, 1905c, 1911b)

7 (Lenin, 1907a)

8 (Lenin, 1913d)

9 (Lenin, 1913b, 1908)

10 (Lenin, 1906a)

11 (Lenin, 1906b)

12 (Lenin, 1906e, 1906b, 1904, 1910b, 1907b)

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