Jairus Banaji’s Contribution to Historical Materialism (Part 1)

Review of Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.

It is a testament to the strength and clarity of Banaji’s arguments that I came to his book only seeking clarification on one point, but ended up sticking through all 11 chapters in the almost two months it took me to read it. Spanning four decades of Banaji’s academic work and millenia of historical material, the book rises above the peculiarities of each essay and each period of history to become a coherent whole – a whole which is a roadmap to reconstructing Marxist theory and history from the bottom up.

The subtitle is Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. The central point, as he puts it in the conclusion: “relations of production are not reducible to forms of exploitation of labor” – feudalism is not reducible to serfdom, what came before it in Europe is not reducible to slavery, the modern capitalist system is not reducible to wage labor (359). All these systems (modes of production) can, and did, include all these strategies (modes of exploitation) at various times and places. European feudalism exploited wage laborers, capitalism exploits slaves and so on.

This point, to anyone with a basic familiarity with Marx’s historical method, would seem to be obvious. Anyone who has read volume one of Capital will probably remember that Marx thought of plantation slavery in the American South as a particular articulation of capitalism – not an island of the slave mode of production of ancient Greece and Rome in the middle of a dynamic and unfolding capitalist world system.

Yet, somehow it is a truth which has eluded self-proclaimed Marxists in both historical scholarship and – with greater consequences – political activity. Banaji is an Indian Trotskyist, and we can imagine the frustration he must have in dealing with the dominant currents of the Indian left – Stalinism and Maoism – which to this day see Indian society as embodying “semi-feudal, semi-colonial relations of production.” The way out of this, they conclude, is a bourgeois revolution, which whether driven from above in alliance with the bourgeois state (the CPI, CPI (M) and various smaller groups) or from below in a guerrilla war against the “comprador bourgeoisie” (the Naxalites) – evades the central role of the working class.

It is a point which has remained beyond the grasp of even the most sophisticated Marxists in the Western academy. Marxist historical writing, Banaji suggests, is dominated to this day by a crude empiricism which reduces entire epochs of production to the specific systems of exploitation perceived to be dominant. Such conceptions dominate the entire historiography of the “transition debate,” in which all sides seek some kind of uncomplicated transition from serfdom to waged labor.

What Banaji proposes is that this kind of writing makes for both bad history and bad theory. Marxist historians, bound to a concept of modes of production (slave, feudal, Asiatic and capitalist) which Marx used as a shorthand, but which does not encapsulate the full rigor of his thinking on the subject – are compelled to draw unproblematic lines from modes of exploitation to modes of production. Looking at Platonic “ideal types” of these modes of production (i.e., the “ideal” bourgeois revolution in France or the “ideal” rise of capitalism in agrarian England) they end up imposing unsound theory over the material of whole epochs of human history. In the case of India, the relations of agricultural labor, because of their continuities with pre-capitalist forms of exploitation, remain pre-capitalist or “semi-feudal.” Marxists do not go any further than the form to interrogate the essence of these relations – which, after all, is the very method of Marxism. As Trotsky says in a passage which Banaji quotes at the beginning of Chapter 2:

… the extremely dubious speculative juggling, with the concepts and terms of the materialist method, which has under the pens of some of our Marxists transplanted the methods of formalism into the domain of the materialist dialectic; which has led to reducing the task to rendering definitions and classifications more precise and splitting empty abstractions into four equally empty parts; in short, has adulterated Marxism by means of the indecently elegant mechanics of Kantian epigones. It is a silly thing indeed endlessly to sharpen or resharpen an instrument, to chip away at Marxist steel when the task is to apply the instrument in working over the raw material! (“The Curve of Capitalist Development“)

It is only this kind of thinking that could produce the impressionism of Perry Anderson, who writes in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism that the Byzantine Empire “remained transfixed between slave and feudal modes of production, unable either to return to the one or advance to the other… [which] led to its extinction” (9).

Chapter 2, a 1977 essay entitled “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History,” is an interrogation of the concept that deserves to be read by anyone claiming a knowledge of Marx’s historical materialism. Through a rigorous interrogation of the work of Marx on the subject of modes of production, he arrives at the centrality of what Marx calls the “laws of motion” of any particular mode. In this sense, Capital was structured as an outward-expanding account of the laws of motion specific to the capitalist mode of production, from volume 1, where Marx follows the commodity through the production process to arrive at the laws governing a single capitalist enterprise, to volume 2, in which he expands into the motion of circulation, to finally the unfinished volume 3, which integrates production and circulation to examine the motion of capitalism at the level of “social capital” – at which point the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and hence the commercial crisis, come into effect.

In Banaji’s account, it is the laws of motion particular to capitalism, as with feudalism and so on, which define the mode of production rather than the outward forms production itself takes. On its own, waged labor does not equate to capitalist production – there have been wage workers, skilled and unskilled, all over the world from the antiquity into the Middle Ages. Similarly, commodity production does not equate to capitalism – production of commodities for the market, particularly in agriculture, was common in precapitalist Europe. For Banaji, it is only when you get a constellation of these factors together – which produce and are produced by a system of competitive accumulation of capital across a world economy of enterprises supported by national states – that you have the capitalist mode of production. It is this which defines the nature of the economic system, rather than the outward forms of exploitation and ownership, which are in fact defined by the laws of motion. In an enlightening passage referring to the “second serfdom” in 17th century Poland, he writes:

Relations of exploitation based on the dispossession of labour, on the commodity labour-power, become capitalist only when we can posit the capitalist enterprise in one of its varied forms. Marx makes the point indirectly when he writes: “if a nobleman brings the free worker together with his serfs, even if he re-sells a part of the workers’ product, and the free worker thus creates value for him, then this exchange takes place only… for the sake of superfluity, for luxury consumption (Gundrisse, 469).” In other words, hired labour functions in this economy as an expression of specifically feudal relations of production, the motive-force of which lies in the social-consumption needs of the owners of the feudal enterprise; it functions in an economy in which the production of commodities is itself only a mediation of consumption. (93)

Since the book comprises 12 essays that each interrogate a separate period of history or a concept of Marxist theory, it would seem to make more sense to try to sketch out the course of world history that emerges out of them rather than to deal with them chapter by chapter.

Banaji’s historical endeavors begin more or less with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, in the 6th century CE. The period from the collapse of the Western Empire until the rise of feudalism in Europe on the classical model is covered explicitly in chapter 6 (“Agrarian History and the Labour-Organization on the Large Byzantine Estates”), 7 (“Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: What Kind of Transition?”) and 8 (“Aristocracies, Peasantries and the Framing of the Early Middle Ages.”)

His passages covering late antiquity do not deal in depth with what sort of mode of production was represented by the Empire – unlike many Marxists, he does not share the idea of a “slave mode of production,” which is prey to the kind of historical reductionism from mode of production to mode of exploitation, and does not seem to have been a term used much by Marx himself. In any case, his summary of the transition to feudalism in these chapters, which takes place in dialogue with the work of Chris Wickham and Perry Anderson, would be well worth a book on its own, as it raises many new and interesting paths of research to be pursued by Marxist historians. In Banaji’s account, the Roman Empire fell prey to its own historical contradictions. Whereas the Eastern aristocracy emerged out of the state apparatus beginning with Constantine, was dependent on the imperial throne for its position and could rely on the general landless condition of the masses of the peasantry in the East – a condition common to Sassanid Persia – the Western aristocracy was not so lucky. In an attempt to buoy their rule and wealth, the throne was pressured to enforce the coloni system – originally an administrative measure but one which was used to bind the free population to the land on which they lived (labor shortages were much more common in the West than in the East.)

Coming under extreme social pressures combined with periodic crises of agricultural production, attempts by the imperial throne to manage the rapaciousness of the Western aristocracy led to a state of constant civil war between contending aristocratic factions, which led to the disintegration of the Empire’s legitimacy among the lower classes. When the Western Empire eventually broke up under the hammer blows of civil war and barbarian invasion, the aristocracy was dispersed through extermination in some cases, flight in others or were absorbed into the new barbarian dynasties which took over the imperial territory.

Banaji sees the post-imperial period in the West as one of the transition to feudalism, a transition which took only one or two hundred years at the outside. In contrast to earlier classical historians such as A.H.M. Jones and G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, he does not see the establishment of the colonate as leading unproblematically into serfdom. Rather, the coloni were dissolved into a mass of lower orders including freedmen and others whose status under Roman law had been somewhat ambiguous. The new forms of social organization superseded those of the Roman estate; such new developments as the Merovingian manor continued the traditions of direct management while the aristocracy succeeded in its struggle to force the peasantry off the land, introducing a more naked form of subjugation.

Slavery remained widespread in Europe until the second millennium (complicating the stories of an unproblematic transition away from slave production in the West.) In Saxon England, slaves and freedmen remained in the condition of an early proletariat, dependent on their masters for a “wage in land” out of which they could farm their subsistence, a relationship in which the master was much more essential than that of the later classical feudal lord, whose relationship to his serfs consisted of no more than skimming off the top. Slaves were increasingly freed, but remained bound to the same land and the same lords, without an opportunity for real self-reliance. Out of this early feudal patchwork of different forms of exploitation and production, serfdom was to become established and gain a foothold as a settlement between the ruling class and the working classes which would remain stable for centuries – a process which remains to be definitively established in the literature.

The status of workers under pre-capitalist modes of production is an interesting aside that Banaji takes up in Chapter 4 (“Workers Before Capitalism.”) Drawing on documents of the 5th-7th centuries CE in the Eastern Empire, he shows that both skilled and non-skilled workers existed as established classes on the social landscape, the skilled workers organizing themselves into guilds by profession and waging collective struggle for fair contracts against the aristocracy, and were thus able to carve themselves out a more or less stable position above the masses of landless peasantry. As for these, Banaji also tends to see many of them as workers – he spends Chapter 6 (“Agrarian History and the Labour-Organization of Byzantine Large Estates”) establishing how landless workers in rural Egypt were established and maintained by the Eastern imperial aristocracy in an early form of “company towns,” arrangements of sharecropping and labour tenancy that remained more or less stable over generations. Several centuries earlier, similar workers across North Africa had waged fierce class struggles against their landlords. These struggles scandalized Saint Augustine, who wrote of gangs of rebellious agricultural laborers including large numbers of women, which were led by Donatist clergy (124-5).

These passages, in my opinion, are in need of complement – it remains to be answered why the proletariat of antiquity seems to have only been present as a collective force in certain isolated instances – and if they correspond to Marx’s definition of a class for itself, why their struggles did not end more often in the victorious collective seizure of land and so forth (obviously, at a stage of history in which the productive forces remained at such a low level of development, it would be absurd to speak of any form of socialism as being possible.)

If a proletariat was present early as antiquity, then its antipode, capital, existed as well – a conclusion Banaji finds ample evidence for in many times and places. In Chapter 9 (“Islam, the Mediterranean and the Rise of Capitalism”) he details the evolution of forms of capitalist production such as the joint-stock company which were inherited from the Roman Empire by Islam, where capital developed as an integral part of a world economy that reached from Spain and southern Europe through the Middle East to India and China. It was on top of the resources and economic systems of the Islamic Near East that capitalism as a world system first developed. With the benefit of the Crusades, raids along the African coast and other instances of “primitive accumulation” that occurred beginning in the 11th century, it was Europe that would eventually become the center to the emerging world economy of commercial capitalism. As is well known, the Italian city states of the middle ages including Venice and Genoa, were home to republics run by the merchant capitalist elite, which plunged into competition for profit on the Mediterranean. When the Portuguese bourgeoisie under Dom João was able to defeat the Genoese and Muslim merchants in this competition in the 15th century, which presaged Portugal’s expansion across Africa, the Indian Ocean and eventually South America – it is then, Banaji suggests, that the laws of motion come into effect and we can speak of capitalism as a mode of production for the first time in history. It is to Banaji’s great credit that he manages to integrate the East into the history of capitalism’s origins – a challenge from the post-colonial camp long unanswered by Marxists.

The full extent of Banaji’s ideas on the rise of capitalism will, unfortunately, have to be reserved for a later post, as this one is becoming too long to digest already. Next time, I will attempt to deal with the concept of trajectories of accumulation as opposed to a transition from feudalism to capitalism, and then return to examine what Banaji sees as the particularly capitalist relations of the “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” world, before I attempt to develop some of the political implications of his theoretical developments and examine what I see as the central weaknesses of his book.

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One response to “Jairus Banaji’s Contribution to Historical Materialism (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: By analogy with capitalism itself | The Charnel-House

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