Review: The State and the Tributary Mode of Production

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)


What might communism be like?

I recently visited Berlin, staying in what had been East Berlin not far from Karl-Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee) and visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall and a museum showing what life was like in the DDR. The reminder of the failures and repression of the Soviet regime, the basic inability to create an environment in which its citizens could thrive, was striking.


Marx and Engels

It is well known that Marx said very little about what he thought was to come in the communist future. It’s therefore difficult to know whether the Soviet attempt to implement his theories was close to what he had in mind or not. Reading some of the brief moments where Marx does write about the future it is hard to believe that he would have agreed that this outcome is what communism should aim for.

For example in a section from “Precapitalist Economic Formations” (part of the “Grundrisse” notebooks published separately with a superb opening essay by Eric Hobsbawm) Marx describes capitalism as a system which prioritises the creation and accumulation of wealth for its own sake, that this is the goal of the production. The modern world is one “in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production” (Marx 1964, p.84). Things are made because they help capitalists accumulate, rather than because they are necessarily useful to people. The modern capitalist world is one in which ordinary people cannot develop to their potential because their needs are subordinated to the accumulation of wealth.

Marx describes the world of the past in very different terms. That of ‘the ancients’ is described as taking little interest in maximising production. Instead  the ancient world is one where “man always appears… as the aim of production” something which “seems very much more exalted than the modern world”. Creating the conditions for the development of society in the desired direction is the priority.

“Wealth does not appear as the aim of production… The enquiry is always about what kind of property creates the best citizens.”

(Marx 1964, p.84)

“Hence in one way the child like world of the ancients appears to be superior.”

(Marx 1964, p.85)

Marx then goes on to describe how after “peeling away the bourgeois form” true wealth consists of the full development of human “creative dispositions… unmeasured by any previously established yardstick”. That the evolution of “all human powers as such… [is] an end in itself.” (Marx 1964, p.84-85).

“What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”

(Marx 1964, p.85)

Unpicking the Hegelian language this is making a similar point to a well known passage from the German Ideology of 1845.

“in communist society… society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”

(Marx 1970, p.53)

The controlling power of capital prevents the majority of people from realising their true potential. It acts as a power over them to feed the needs of the productive machinery, whose only goal is to accumulate more wealth.

It seems odd then to associate the Marx who believes in removing barriers to human development with the Marx of the Soviet bloc. The two don’t seem connected, although it would certainly be argued by some that whatever Marx suggested repression is the natural outcome of attempting to implement socialist economic policies.

I don’t accept that the Soviet period can be dismissed as “not real communism”. As I’ve written before, the progressive left have to accept that Soviet communism was one attempt to implement Marx’s theories in practice and create a more just society, and what’s more accept that that attempt failed in dictatorship and repression.

It is however the focus on creating the conditions for the development of human capability that is one of the things that makes Marx an interesting thinker. As suggested by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis” despite the visible failures of communism, we can’t stop believing that a more just and equal society is possible. Even if we haven’t found how to get there yet that’s no reason to give up.

Marx, Karl Precapitalist Economic Formations (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1964)

Marx, Karl The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Review: Precapitalist Economic Formations

This book contains a short but crucial extract from the notebooks Marx wrote for himself during the research that would eventually produce the three volumes of Capital (notebooks that we now known as the “Grundrisse”) alongside an introductory essay by the renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm which is justly famous in its own right.

In his notes Marx builds on the analytical framework of historical materialism (developed in “The German Ideology” and in particular summarised in the Introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”) to analyse the economic structure of societies before the rise of capitalism based on the productive relations which underpinned those societies. In broad brush terms Marx outlines four basic separate groupings: primitive communism; ancient (based on slavery); feudal (based on non-economic coercion); and ‘asiatic’ (slow to change with property based on the village).

These groups were characterised in much subsequent Marxist work as a defined ladder of stages through which all societies must progress in order before reaching capitalism, with the ‘asiatic’ mode set to one side as a conservative dead end unable to develop further. In fact what strikes me about Marx’s writing here is how much more subtle it is than this simple formulaic caricature. What we read here is Marx using the toolkit of historical materialism to describe the productive basis for each ‘stage’ based on the evidence available to him. It seems clear to me at least that Marx is not suggesting there is one single route through history. Rather these ‘stages’ provide a level of abstraction through which to make sense of different societies and the transition from one type of economic structure to another.

That mechanism for how a society transitions from one set of production relations to another, and what that means for wider society, is critical to establishing an analysis of history and has been carried forward by many others in the Marxist tradition (Perry Anderson, Ellen Meiksins Wood). In some ways, Marx’s writing here is the source document for that subsequent thinking.

The ‘asiatic’ mode of production in particular has generated much subsequent debate. As Hobsbawm makes clear in his introductory essay, Marx’s thinking here is based on a number of flawed assumptions built on incomplete evidence. As with so much of Marx’s work we should treat his writing not as a fixed and immutable set of rules never to be changed, but as a demonstration of method to be built upon. The short extracts at the end of the book from the German Ideology and from his later correspondence provide examples of his own thinking developing over time as more information becomes available and his analysis deepens.

Hobsbawm’s essay does a good job of providing the context within which Marx is working. It is particularly useful to understand the state of wider historical research into the periods Marx is analysing, and the works on which is analysis is based. He also encourages us to think about Marx’s work as a starting point rather than an end, something which is all too often forgotten I think, and not to read his work through the lens of subsequent events. Reading Marx “on his own terms” as David Harvey suggests.

In short this is a superb short book, providing plenty of food for thought. It is fascinating to read Marx using his theories to write analytically rather than (as in Capital) explaining the theory itself (something I wrote about some years ago). As Hobsbawm suggests though this is not the final word on the economic structures before capitalism. Rather it is an analysis of its time that might usefully serve as a starting point.

Marx, Karl Precapitalist Economic Formations (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1964)

Review: October, The Story of the Russian Revolution

A narrative re-telling of the story of the Russian revolution from February through to October. This book provides a little context at either end of the story (the lead up to February, developments after October) but concentrates on a detailed description of the action with a chapter for each month.

This structure broadly meets the brief that Mieville sets himself in the introduction – to lay out the story for the general reader from a position that he acknowledges is broadly sympathetic to the aims of the revolutionaries. It has similarities in this sense to Catherine Merrivale’s “Lenin on the Train”, although Merrivale focuses more strongly on Lenin himself while Mieville concentrates on more general events Petrograd where Lenin is an occasional (although very influential) presence. Both books engage the general reader in the story of the revolution with well-researched foundations.

If there is a flaw it is that Mieville sometimes gets a little lost in the detail of the debates of the various bodies created in the gap between February and October. It is sometimes a little hard to keep up with whether the description is of the Petrograd Soviet or the Congress of all-Russian Soviets or one of many other bodies. Perhaps it is a little unfair to criticise Mieville for this, what this reflects is not confusion in the retelling but confusion in the times themselves.

Mieville only touches briefly at the very end on the subject that is at the heart of much left-leaning debate on the revolution – was the Stalinist horror built in from the very start, was it part of the revolution itself or something created uniquely by Stalin and bolted on from outside?

This is a subject tackled by Slavoj Zizek, and about which I wrote briefly a year ago here in a way that I think is similar to the conclusion reached by Mieville. The revolution itself may have ended in terror, but the attempt to create a more just society should not end there. We can and must keep trying.

Mieville, China October, The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, London, 2018)

Brexit and ideology

Brexit continues to cause chaos in the British parliamentary system. As I write this, Theresa May has lost her second ‘meaningful’ vote on the deal negotiated with the European Union, and the debate over Brexit is almost the only thing the government and wider political class are able to focus on.

In a superb article, Aditya Chakrabortty writing in the Guardian connects this crisis of the political class to the policies of austerity implemented by coalition and Conservative governments since 2010. In endlessly arguing about how to manage Brexit, politicians are using up energy that would be more usefully employed in addressing the problems that persuaded people to vote for it in the first place. Even more ironically, the members new Independent Group, specifically set up as a home for those in both parties who deplore Brexit as a historic mistake, continue to express support for austerity and the economics that created the frustration that brought it about.

“As economics, Osborne’s cuts were always going to be a failure; as class war, however, they were a triumph. Until, that is, the Brexit vote came along and the victims of Osbornomics got a chance to take their revenge.”

“The great frustration of this age is that the political classes keep treating the deliberate immiseration of so many people and places in Britain as a sideshow to the high drama of Brexit.”

(Chakrabortty 2019)

Paul Mason has a similar analysis in the New Statesman, arguing that “the class dynamics that are emerging in most Western economies” are driving the breakdown of neoliberalism under the impact of the very policies that it’s advocates have implemented over the years.

“The economic system they’ve learned to operate no longer delivers, even for the small business owners, pensioners and professional classes that form Toryism’s grassroots.”

(Mason 2019)

The damage being inflicted on the Conservative Party by the attempt to deliver Brexit is symptomatic of the wider disintegration of the economic consensus they have managed over many years as the “natural party of government”. The government’s focus however remains on finding a way to implement Brexit, rather than tackle what caused 17.4 million people to vote for radical change in the first place, even though most Conservative MPs voted remain and likely think leaving the EU to be a strategic error.

Why then, does Brexit continue to consume all this political energy that could more usefully be channelled into addressing the actual problem? Marx addresses a similar point in “The German Ideology”, the early and probably most detailed working out of his materialistic approach to the analysis of history and society. Here Marx sets out the connection between the “relations of production” and the rest of society. Marx is often portrayed as suggesting this is a mechanically deterministic relationship. Where the economy leads, the rest of society will follow. In fact Marx’s argument is more complex than this, but for the purposes of this post it is enough to point out that there is a deep and strong interconnection between how the economy is structured and how politics works, what problems it is possible for politics to tackle. Along the way these ideas, philosophies, and laws which form the basis of civil society become separated in thought from the economic relations on which they were constructed.

“We saw earlier how a theory and history of pure thought could arise among philosophers owing to the divorce between ideas and the individuals and their empirical relations which serve as the basis of these ideas… On this account, political and civil history becomes ideologically merged in a history of the rule of successive laws. This is the specific illusion of lawyers and politicians.”

(Marx 1970, p.107)

Simplistically then, the ruling class get caught up in their own set of beliefs, their own philosophical view of how the world works. It is simply the natural order of things. And so, as Mason and Chakrabortty write, they are blinded by this to the impact of their own policy choices and to the changes in political economy they are contributing to. Brexit becomes a problem in its own right, something to be tackled in isolation, rather than inherently connected to wider society.

It is no accident that the totemic policy for The Independent Group, driving the decision that it could no longer tolerate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, is opposition to Brexit under all circumstances. They give priority to the halting of Brexit ahead of any other policy – including prioritising halting Brexit over delivering a progressive Labour government. Their world view is that of the ruling class, and in that world view the problems impacting those areas likely to vote leave (wage stagnation, the degradation of public services etc.) either don’t exist or if they do they are ‘natural’ phenomena not appropriate for policy interventions. Instead they seek to preserve the system as it is, without seeing how that system has failed to deliver for large chunks of the population.

Chakrabortty, Aditya “Britain is trapped in the purposeless austerity that gave us Brexit.” The Guardian (12 March 2019, available at

Mason, Paul “The Brexit crisis shows that the Conservatives have lost the ability to change”, New Statesman (13 March 2019, available at

Marx, Karl The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970)

Class Consciousness and the Party

How and when to form new political parties seems to be very much in the news at the moment. The relationship between the Party and the wider movement has preoccupied Marxist thinking for quite some time too, ranging from the Bolshevik “vanguard” party of committed revolutionaries to the mass membership parties of the Second International.

Underpinning which form of party organisation is considered to be effective are theories of revolutionary class consciousness. The Leninist conception of a vanguard party implies that left to itself a mass membership party will never become radical enough to spontaneously overthrow the status quo in a violent revolution. The solution for Lenin was to create a party at a distance from the working class itself, which could therefore develop a consciousness and commitment to the revolution and provide a lead to the wider working class from “outside” as it were. The vanguard party would be more radical than the working class and when the time came it would provide a lead.

It is this assumption that the party knows better than the workers themselves that forms one basis for the criticism levelled at Lukacs by Kolakowski among others. Lukacs writes about the class consciousness that can be “imputed” to the working class, the consciousness that the workers “ought” to have based on the Marxist analysis of economy and society. To Kolakowski this is an intellectual justification for the repressive Stalinist dictatorship, justifying his chapter title that Lukacs represents “reason in the service of dogma” (Kolakowski 2008 p. 989). Once we accept that the party has access to a a more advanced understanding of the world than the mass of people, then the door is open to repression by a controlling bureaucratic elite.

In the last section of History and Class Consciousness Lukacs tackles in some detail the issue of the relationship of both the party and the Marxist analysis of class consciousness to the wider workers movement. The theory he elaborates is more complex than the simple characterisation above suggests. Lukacs suggests that the relationship between the people and the party should be seen as a dialectic interaction. The party’s development of a Marxist analysis allows it to understand the direction of society but that analysis must always remain connected to the working class as a whole. By inference if the party ceases to maintain this connection, then it is no longer pursuing a Marxist path.

“The Communist Party has no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, it is distinguished from the rest of the proletariat by the fact that is has a clear understanding of the historical path to be taken by the proletariat as a whole.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.325)

There is a division between the party and the proletariat but the two are and must stay organically connected. Lukacs writes that the class consciousness of the working class is not monolithic, instead ranging across a spectrum based on individual variations in the position within the relations of production (a steelworker in a factory is the not exactly the same as a shop worker, even though they share membership of the working class). What’s more capitalism itself (and specifically reification within capitalism) creates a barrier to the working class becoming self conscious.

“Every worker who is born into capitalist society and grows up under its influence has to acquire by a more or less arduous process a correct understanding of his own class situation.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The existence of a party one step removed from the spontaneous organisations of the working class remains important. Not because it needs to bring leadership to the working class in the way Lenin envisaged, but because it acts at the leading edge of the proletariat, working with the most revolutionary elements and always seeking to advance the thinking of the remainder.

“The Communist Party must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given  historical shape.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The party must then work to maintain that link between its developed understanding of the aims of the movement and the wider working class movement. The party must make

“a conscious effort to relate the ‘final goal’ to the immediate exigencies of the moment. Thus in the theory of the party the process, the dialectic of class consciousness becomes a dialectic that is consciously deployed.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.328)

Lukacs is absolutely clear that he does not accept the subsequent Stalinist assumption that the Communist Party can itself be a replacement for the working class.

“The Communist Party does not function as a stand-in for the proletariat even in theory.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.327)

So where does the “Independent Group” fit in? Lukacs theorises a party that is organically connected to a class, working at its most radical leading edge while seeking to bring the rest of the class along with it. The Independent Group more closely resembles the party wholly disconnected from a base in society and instead assuming that it knows itself what is best for the people. It seems indeed to assume that it can “function as a stand-in” for the working class while seeking to co-opt them to a fundamentally middle class political agenda (although in truth we don’t as yet really know what they stand for).

My short review of History and Class Consciousness is here, and some thoughts along similar lines based on Fredric Jameson’s rehabilitation of Lukacs in “Valences of the Dialectic” are here.

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, New York, 2008)

Lukacs, Georgy History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, London, 1974)

Review: History and Class Consciousness

History and Class Consciousness is a well known text from Lukacs’ early career although as his later preface makes clear he subsequently disowned much of it. It remains however hugely significant for re-emphasising the Hegelian and dialectical side of Marx’s work.

I re-read this after reading Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Andrew Feenburg’s “The Philosophy of Praxis” both of which cover Lukacs’ thought in some detail and are well worth reading as preparation.

In structure History and Class Consciousness is a collection of essays mostly written in the early 1920s. It is important to bear in mind – because it colours Lukacs’ writing – that at this time the survival and direction of the Russian Bolshevik revolution was still doubtful and Stalin was in the future.

There is much that is interesting, and once you are roughly familiar with the basic concepts of Hegelian dialectics then it isn’t that difficult a read (both Feenburg and Jameson cover this, and if you can survive any Zizek book then this isn’t a challenge).

Lukacs discusses a number of key concepts: reification drives Lukacs understanding of how capitalism structures knowledge. It is an extension of Marx’s theory of the commodity where relations between things come to take the place of relations between people in the capitalist economy. Lukacs extends this to the whole of society, describing how all knowledge becomes broken up and commodified.

The truth can only be approached through understanding society in its totality which structures knowledge within that society. Knowledge in other words is socially determined. The science of capitalism is conditioned by economic and social structures of capitalism itself. It drives what we seek to understand, and how we understand it.

These two factors then both drive the class consciousness of the proletariat, and the role of the Communist Party in helping the workers to break free from reified thought processes. This concept in particular has given Lukacs a bad press for the idea that there is an ‘imputed’ class consciousness which is different from the actual consciousness of real workers. Jameson coupled with a close reading of particularly the last essay here (“Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation”) make it clear that things are much more complicated than this and deserve a much closer reading.

Kolakowski’s magisterial work on Marx and Marxism dismisses Lukacs as having put his intellect in the service of the later Stalinist party. Feenburg and Jameson both go a long way towards rehabilitating his thought. Lukacs is worth a deeper analysis than Kolakowski allows for. He brings out the Hegelian side of Marxist theory, and thereby opens up aspects of Marx’s thinking that have often been obscured, particularly by the ‘vulgar’ Marxists of later periods.

My thoughts on Jameson and Lukacs can be found here, and my review of Andrew Feenburg’s book “The Philosophy of Praxis” is here. Some thoughts on class consciousness and the new Independent Group in the UK is here.