Written by the leading Byzantine historian John Haldon, this book is a clear re-statement of the analytic value of a materialist approach to the understanding of history founded in the work of Marx, and in particular its use in understanding pre-capitalist states and what has traditionally been called a ‘feudal’ mode of production.
Haldon reasserts the value of the Marxist construct of ‘mode of production’ to an understanding of history. This is the assemblage of means and relations of production that structure how an economy works. As he explains, this is not a simply deterministic relationship where what happens in the economic ‘base’ determines what happens in a political ‘superstructure’ as is often presented both by a particular strand of Marxist thought, but also and especially by critics of Marxist historiography. For Haldon the relationship between the mode of production, politics, and ideology is much more complex. The mode of production sets parameters and opens possibilities for change and development. How this plays out in any specific conjunction however is down to the specific historical development of each individual society. The end result is that the two sides of the equation do not exist in a simple causal relationship. Instead they interact, each influencing the other.
This means that while Haldon asserts the usefulness of what was originally described as a ‘feudal’ mode of production to describe pre-capitalist societies, he finds the word itself too tied to the political structure of a particular period in western European history. He therefore proposes a ‘tributary’ mode of production instead. Under ‘tributary’ relations, wealth is primarily built on agricultural production with surplus extracted directly from producers through coercive means, colouring the relationship between a central state and the dominant class and the use of ideology to support the existing state within the overarching framework of a ‘tributary’ mode of production.
Through much of the book then, Haldon demonstrates the use of this analytical framework to demonstrate how having this as an underpinning theory can help us better understand structure and change across a range of pre-capitalist societies including the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Mughal empires. This approach allows him to identify sources of tension and likely paths of development which help to explain why change occurred in a particular way – for example the move in the Byzantine empire from a strong central state extracted surplus directly through taxation from independent producers, to a society of feudal magnates extracting surplus through rent from dependent peasants.
This is a superb re-statement of the value of a materialist approach to writing history, and an explanation of the complexity in Marx’s analysis that is often lost to both his supporters and his critics.
Haldon, John The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (Verso, London, 1993)