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The concept of Karl Marx’s Asiatic Mode of Production is central to the study of Asiatic societies. The core of the discussion on this concept has largely so far focussed on its economic technicalities. This article examines a new dimension within this concept to highlight its concern with China and how Chinese intellectuals viewed it in line with their revolutionary activities during the May Fourth Movement that started on May 4, 1919, and beyond. The term Asiatic is considered in positive light as it has brought Asia to an equal theoretical standing with Europe at the time of its introduction. Chinese intellectuals sought benefit in this term as one of the passages to self-examination, and thereby following revolutionary methods that were applicable within Chinese conditions.


NOTHING IN MARX’S WRITING ADDRESSES THE NON-EUROPEAN world more directly than does his concept of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP).’ Prior to the 1850s, Marx did not write major works on Asia. His writings focussed on the development of the principles of historical materialism in the context of European civilisation. Lubasz notes that “certainly it has been at the centre of Marxist debates concerning Asia and much of the rest of the non-European world for more than a hundred years,” and these debates have ranged from issues of immediate and vital political significance “such as strategies of revolution, directions of social and economic development, to large questions concerning the interpretations of world history and the study of economic anthropology.”[1]

 For Marx, a mode of production refers to a distinctive way of producing things—how humans have historically entered all sorts of co-operative social relations out of necessity to produce things in order to survive, produce and reproduce throughout history. A mode of production is firstly a combination of the productive forces such as human labour power and the means of production (tools, machinery, land, materials, technology) and the relations of production (the types of class and property dynamics that govern society’s productive assets.[2] The formation of the concept of ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ even in its economic essence, has gained a tumultuous political manifestation, steadily developing ‘Asiatic’ as a forceful indicator.

India occupied the spotlight in Marx’s early writings on Asia. However, until 1853 his writings on India were largely derived from reports of European travellers like Francois Bernier.[3] Neither The German Ideology (first published in 1932) nor the Communist Manifesto (first published in 1848) referred to Asia. Maurice Meisner argues that the writings of Marx are, in fact, very largely concerned with matters of British foreign policy in the 1850s rather than with the question of the nature of Chinese society.[4] Meisner offers a concise description of Marx’s writings on China vis-à-vis his works on India. He maintains that the 1853 article “Revolution in China and Europe”[5] poses a striking contrast to the well-known picture that he drew of India.[6]

Before I discuss China, I will elaborate on Marx’s view of Indian society as I aim to present the argument that India has a history, despite Marx’s description that India was stagnant and its history was merely a history of religion. This will serve my argument when I discuss the Chinese intellectuals’ choices and present the debate on whether the Chinese intellectuals’ movement found its origins in a global environment or within their Chinese domestic affairs.

To develop the discussion, I offer my definition of the AMP and consider such definition as the background to further analysis in this article. There are established definitions of the AMP by Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State (1979), and Brendan O’Leary’s The Asiatic Mode of Production: Oriental Despotism, Historical Materialism and Indian History (1989). Their definitions, however, focus on economic technicalities, and they use them as the primary concern of their analysis. The main point which will assist my analysis is Brendan O’Leary’s observation that Marx and Engels’ “concern with Asiatic societies stemmed from their interest in the applicability of historical materialism to the analysis of pre-capitalist societies, an interest which was itself almost wholly driven by their desire to demonstrate the uniqueness and genesis of capitalism.”[7] I view the genesis of capitalism in the context of its socio-cultural relations to other modes of development. Therefore I debate that the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ is an historical inquiry of human relations rather than a mere economic force. The insertion of the ‘Asiatic,’ a generic term that specifically denoted that there were countries included in the term which existed outside geographical Asia, serves as the backdrop to the nature of these human relations.

‘Asiatic’ bears more significance and importance than the mode of production itself as it reflects the centrality and importance of India and China, in particular, to the historical period of time when this term was introduced. The concept bears intellectual connotation in its designation, which in effect is the basis of its durability. An element of human capital is evident in the intellectual capacity of this concept where change is inevitable; however, in no way could this change be considered as economic, or even social: the change rather constituted revolutionary forces situated within the human capital. The ‘Asiatic’ for Marx was an attempt to juxtapose a socio-cultural ‘other’ found in certain economic realities. Lack of economic institutions at that period of time, supports an argument that the ‘Asiatic’ in the Mode of Production represents those institutional frameworks. Consequently, the ‘Asiatic’ in the mode of production emphasises that change is located from within rather than being subject to impact from external forces. The factors that are mentioned in the AMP are heavily representative of China and India. And these two civilisations, China in particular, moved well beyond the influences of western capitalist interventions to create their own socio-cultural and political identities. 

Next, I will present a brief analysis of Marx’s writing on India as it occupied a central focus of his AMP. Pre-British India, in Marx’s view, was a stagnant and semi-barbaric[8] society that revolved around unchanging, isolated and economically self-sufficient village communes. It was this social structure that served as the foundation for an exploitive and “Orientally despotic” state structure that ruled over society, reflecting and perpetuating its “semi-civilised” conditions. Marx writes that

. . . those family-communities were based on domestic industry… English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.[9]

Marx observed that British imperialism played an historically progressive role by dissolving the traditional, social and political structures and bringing about a genuine social revolution despite their mercenary motives. This was Marx’s moot point.[10]

The concept of the AMP is arguably of a historical nature in its inception, as opposed to Daniel Thorner’s claim that “Marx’s characterisation of the Asiatic mode in general and the pre-colonial Indian society in particular up to the early years of 1850s was presented in a non-historical context.”[11] Even if we go with the argument that India had been granted its history only with the intrusion of the British, the Industrial Revolution itself is thereby successful and even possible only on this backdrop of the ‘newly’ formed Indian history. The English East India Company, established two-hundred-and-fifty years before Marx thought of writing about ‘Asiatic’ society, expanded England’s territorial-state by engendering Indian historical, social and political forces. The first British factory was established at Surat in 1613 and two years later, Sir Thomas Roe secured permission from the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, to open more factories in Agra, Ahmadabad and Broach. The imperial forces of England came to India in the course of history itself. That is, not the history of one single force in opposition to the other, but a history of the formation of Indian political and economic society.

India had a major political power in its field, and thus India became a major force in the European history making. The concept of the British Empire and the making of Imperial Britain owe partially to the formation of Indian history. Marx writes:

Hindostan is an Italy of Asiatic dimensions, the Himalayas for the Alps, the Plains of Bengal for the Plains of Lombardy, the Deccan for the Apennines, and the Isle of Ceylon for the Island of Sicily. The same rich variety in the products of the soil, and the same dismemberment in the political configuration. Just as Italy has, from time to time, been compressed by the conqueror’s sword into different national masses, so do we find Hindostan, when not under the pressure of the Mohammedan, or the Mogul, or the Briton, dissolved into as many independent and conflicting States as it numbered towns, or even villages. Yet, in a social point of view, Hindostan is not the Italy, but the Ireland of the East. And this strange combination of Italy and of Ireland, of a world of voluptuousness and of a world of woes, is anticipated in the ancient traditions of the religion of Hindostan. That religion is at once a religion of sensualist exuberance, and a religion of self-torturing asceticism; a religion of the Lingam and of the juggernaut; the religion of the Monk, and of the Bayadere.[12]

Marx’s assertion that the history of the East is a history of religion testifies that is still a history. In a letter to Engels dated June 14, 1853, Marx offered a hypothesis for the origin of absence of property in land: “the Mohammedans seem to have been the first in the whole of Asia to have established the principle of ‘no property in land’” (MECW 39: 348). This is in effect a historical narrative. Marx’s writings on Asia were inspired, besides Richard Jones, by François Bernier. The basic knowledge about Asiatic society was the absence of private land property. All that had been written on India, prior to Marx, was historical narrative mainly influenced by the existing historicity of those Asiatic societies.

In Grundrisse, Marx distinguished Asiatic, Ancient and Germanic forms of pre-capitalist property. Thus, in the ‘Asiatic’, property denotes only communal property in land. This argument was still incomplete until Marx’s later writings on the subject. In regard to his principal interest, discovering the “source of the ‘oriental despots’ power,” Bernier’s most inventive claim regarding India’s ‘real conditions’ was that the lack of private property in land was the central factor enabling despotism, securing the despot’s status as “sole proprietor of the lands of his realm.”[13] In the case of Asia, a system of social reproduction based on the absence of private property rights in land, and communal organisation of production in the village, had resulted in the absence of any material historical development, and instead, this development appeared in religious myth and ritual, the ‘Oriental heaven.’[14]

Talat Ahmed, responding to situating India in such historical context, argues that since the 1960s both Marxist and non-Marxist South Asian economic historians have fiercely debated definitions of ‘feudalism’ and the idea of an ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ as well as discussed the extent to which these two modes of production are comparable or not. Ahmed holds that early and medieval India does not in any shape or form correspond to Marx’s picture. As has been demonstrated by modern Indian economic historians, including many influenced by Marxism, early Indian society was anything but changeless and timeless. Ram Sharan Sharma in his book, Indian Feudalism, provided an account of how developments in pre-capitalist India were not wholly dissimilar to the political economy of pre-modern Western Europe. Sharma argues that from Gupta (approximately 319 CE to 605 CE) and post-Gupta times, there were certain political and administrative developments that tended to “feudalise the state apparatus.”[15]Arash Ehya observes that Marx would not outgrow his relatively uncritical acceptance of Bernier’s central claim until at least 1879. While he still included, among his sources, the ‘Letter to Colbert’ found as a supplement in ‘Voyage de François Bernier,’ in a list of works on communal property he compiled that year, he annotated it with this comment: “Duperron […] was the first to realise that, in India, the Grand Mogul was not the sole property owner” (Lindner 16). Marx was referring to a forerunner of what Edward Said called the ‘scientific Orientalists,’ Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, a scholar educated in both Sanskrit and Avestan, who had thoroughly rejected Bernier’s ideas about property following his own research in the eighteenth century.

According to Marian Sawer, Anquetil-Duperron instead claimed that, “the idea of the absence of the rights of private property in Asia was a fiction employed by colonialists who favoured the confiscation of native estates,” and furthermore, “[that] the idea of Oriental despotism elaborated by Montesquieu and others was simply a rationalisation for European intervention in the East” (Sawer, 23).[16] At the end of this article, Wu Dakun, who has been an advocate of an Asiatic Society in China, applies such an argument to his observation about the manipulation of the concept of the AMP by colonial powers to fit their interventions in Asian societies.

Perry Anderson’s remarks on the absence of any consistent account of the AMP in Marx and Engels’ work made clear that any discussion of the AMP necessitates an explication of Marx and Engels’ views on Asia and Asian social formations more generally.[17] It is only by working through Marx and Engels’ changing considerations on Asia—variously characterised by terms like ‘Oriental despotism,’ ‘Oriental society,’ and ‘Asiatic society,’ in addition to the ‘Asiatic mode’—and their relation to their understanding of capital more thoroughly, that an adequate account of the AMP in its specificity can even begin to be articulated.[18] The historical formation of the concept of ‘Asiatic’ is the concept of Asia itself—and Asia until the beginning of the colonial rule was not a periphery to Europe. Writings about Asia were merely descriptive. François Bernier’s Voyage dans les États du Grand Mogol (1671) is prominent, but it remains, as Kolja Lindner puts it, “rooted in a subjective impression of the superiority of the European social and legal order” (Lindner 7-8).[19]

Given that Marx’s texts on India were written in the age of British Imperial expansion, I understand the ‘Asiatic’ as connoting ‘othering.’ Marx’s focus was on historical development of human society and of the communist movement. His writings reflect not only an awareness of the importance of Asiatic societies, but also their future revolutionary potential. In Marx’s early writings on India, while celebrating the endeavour of the British adventure, the ‘Asiatic’ appears to theoretically attempt to remedy the situation by theorising a perspective for progress. Leading oppositional positions to Marx’s writing on the Orient is his notion of stagnation in Asiatic societies. The AMP stressed how a powerful state had prevented development and enforced inherent stagnation in a way not found amongst European feudal societies.[20]

Yet, stagnation for Marx seems to differ from the conventional definition of the concept, which many scholars connected to the economic condition of the societies Marx studied. Stagnation for Marx seems to relate to a human factor showing the absence of inbuilt revolutionary forces. Marx throughout his writings dealt with the question of the future development of non-Western societies where he specifically examined their prospects for revolution and as sites for resistance to capital. His usage of the ‘Asiatic’ was not to describe Asia but to engage it with the global social order of that time. Therefore, the ‘Asiatic’ designates an equilibrium, so to speak, of global human relations and social forces of that time. That is why Marx’s writings gained global audience. 

Marx’s 1853 articles display a strong Hegelian influence, and I sum it all up by stating that Hegel’s views on Indian society were inherently socio-cultural where human intellectual forces are absent because “all political revolutions are matters of indifference to the common Hindoo, for his lot is unchanged.”[21] Irfan Habib, however, notes, in the most careful analysis of Marx’s 1850s writings on India, even as early as 1853, that his “conception of India was by no means an edited restatement of Hegel.” Habib holds that this was because, as against Hegel’s focus on religion as the determinant, for Marx, “the peculiarities of Indian culture were really themselves the consequence of Indian social organization, pre-eminently the village community.”[22] However, referencing “the inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization” in his article, “The Future Results of British Rule in India” (1853), Marx saw similarities between the British and Indian society—stressing, I identify, that the impact of colonialism becomes double-edged, a need for a social revolution in Britain to change colonial policy and at the same time points to the possibility of an Indian national liberation movement. Habib argues that such insight and vision could belong to Marx alone when he observed in 1853 that to set colonial emancipation—not just colonial reform—as an objective of the European socialist movement, and to further look forward to the Indian people attaining a national liberation movement through their struggle, as an event that might even precede the emancipation of the European working class.[23]

I have illustrated the impact of the concept of the AMP in relation to India. The conclusion is that whatever the economic or social technicalities of this concept are, it plays a role in highlighting, if not more, issues related to Asian societies of that time. This bears significance in the way it brought ‘Asiatic’ societies into the debate and, in doing so, it brought it to the same level of inquiry as Marx’s focus on European societies.

The next part of the article focuses on Chinese intellectuals’ choices during the reform period of the May Fourth, however my main concern in this article is not to narrate any specifics of the technicalities and applicability of the term AMP to Chinese society. I am concerned with the choices of the Chinese intellectual revolutionaries in light of the ‘Asiatic’ in the AMP, though I acknowledge that not all Chinese intellectuals accepted the portrayal of China in the AMP. I view the May Fourth Revolution as the culmination of Chinese historical responsiveness to their Asiatic self-awareness and identity. I demonstrate how Marx’s writings on revolution in general, and on revolution in China in particular, potentially influenced the choices of Chinese intellectuals.. The intellectuals developed a system of Chinese thought that strove to cleave to an independent path from imperialist forces, and enter into a post-independence dignified ‘mode of existence.’ They also faced a dilemma of liberty: would they set the country free from the Western powers, or set it free from the Chinese traditional mode of thinking, or both.

The May Fourth Movement is the best example of Marx’s anticipation of the emancipation and liberation of people. Re-producing identity and manufacturing culture were essential components of the Movement. The new social system the movement aspired for was based on the revolutionary cultural identity of the people, not only their mode of production—this was a kind of ‘people’s materialism’ indicating belonging. Chinese intellectuals did not see the particularities and pitfalls of theoretical observations in the Marxist AMP, but they saw the ‘Asiatic’ itself as a coherent structure motivating their location in the making of their people’s materialism. The Chinese response to Marx’s writings on Asia is evident in their socialist revolution.

On global level, after the First World War, Marxist communist and socialist parties had some strength in parliamentary elections in continental Europe, and Marxist theorists moved away from a focus on economics and politics to philosophy and culture. Marxism was increasingly located at the universities, separated from political action.[24] The socialist movement began to assume a global character, especially after the Soviet Revolution of 1917. Marxists were faced with the problem of addressing the variations observable in the histories of various peoples and cultures outside Europe, while calling upon all of them to adhere to a single revolutionary cause.[25] Writing about Asia, specifically the AMP, has a direct impact on Chinese revolutionary changes. Marx’s attempt to globally position China had far-reaching implications not only for the concept of ‘Asiatic’ itself, but demonstrably on the economic and political role Asia would play in international affairs—with China’s increasing revolutionary weight becoming the conceptual tool echoing the ‘Asiatic’ in the AMP.

Chinese Marxist philosophers Qu Qiubai, Ai Siqi, Li Da, and Mao Zedong had a lasting impact on the formation of Chinese intellectual Marxist thought. Meisner argues that for the later Chinese Communists, saddled as they were with the deterministic economic strictures of Marxist theory, Marx’s article of 1853 seemed to confirm their conviction that China could make an immediate and creative contribution to world revolution. As early as 1926, Li Dazhao, the pioneer of Marxism in China, translated Marx’s article “Revolutions in China and Europe 1853)” into Chinese and published it in the Peking Communist periodical, Cheng-chih Sheng-huo (Political Life).[26] The theorisation of Asia came at a time when The Communist Manifesto (1848) gave an outline of the development of capitalism and its mode of exploitation. This idea of exploitation is indispensible in understanding the way Chinese intellectuals felt about how their country was treated by Western colonial powers. Consequently, Marxism turned out to be not only a theory for historical social change, but also an existential ideology, compelling Chinese thought to strive for independence from the imperialist forces, and enter into (what could be termed) a post-independence dignified ‘mode of existence.’

In contrast to his description of Indian social life, Marx did not seem to be interested in the domestic events in China per se, being concerned rather with their impact on Europe; for instance the possible effects of the Taiping Rebellion on the political situation in Europe.[27] Referring to Hegel’s “law of the contact of extremes,” Marx begins with a rather startling statement that,

whether the “contact of extremes” could be such a universal principle or not, a striking illustration of it may be seen in the effect the Chinese revolution seems likely to exercise upon the civilised world. It may seem a very strange, and a very paradoxical assertion that the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire—the very opposite of Europe—than any other political cause that now exists.[28]

There is a coherent relationship between the Chinese intellectual liberation movement and the ‘Asiatic’ in the Mode of Production and Marxism in terms of taking human liberation as its explicit goal. Marxism moved from theory to practice in the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and this practice, in China, moved further to adopt political and cultural identities.[29] Noticeably, this political identity was not of a system, or of a governing body, but of an intellectual movement proceeding to establish itself in an organisational body ‘politique.’ The intellectual foundation of such movements lies within its basic human factor: liberty. However, liberty and freedom for the Chinese intellectuals were a dilemma—to set the country free from the Western powers, or to set free from the Chinese traditional mode of thinking. That is, to create and support an enduring spirit of change.

Another urgent problem for the Chinese intellectuals was time. The founding of the 1911 New Republic, although a maker of new era, remained strained by various political factors of that time. This had an impact on regulating political thought and thus bringing about durable changes. To regulate and create a discourse of freedom in China, Chinese intellectuals had to first establish the concept of liberty and freedom, which in mission, was to create a new Chinese historicity. These two factors are incorporated in the May Fourth Movement and the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The May Fourth Movement (1919) was significant in modern Chinese intellectual history as it gave rise to the CCP in 1921. In this article, therefore, I do not view the Party as a political organisation, but as the intellectual frame and the embodiment of the Chinese struggle to forge an identity. This movement came into being during global changes among which Communist parties were established between 1919 and 1921: in the United States (1919), Great Britain (1920), France (1920), and Italy (1921). That does not imply that communism or socialism was absolutely successful. There was a decline in ‘socialist trends’ such as the downfalls of the Slovak and Hungarian Soviet Republics in the summer of 1919, or the election results in France in October 1919 (the conservatives won), or in Italy in May 1921 (the socialists lost).[30] The significance of the May Fourth Movement in Chinese intellectual history is that it “introduced a novel sense of modern national identity.”[31] Chinese activists had to find a way of dealing with Japanese and Western imperial political and cultural challenges, since the previous Chinese dynasties had humiliatingly failed to do so. This manifestation was particularly important, as the Chinese often believed that foreigners did not take seriously their attempts to control the growing May Fourth Movement. Japanese newspapers characterised the movement as a “five-minute patriotism” that was merely a renewal of previous short-lived and enthusiastic boycott attempts (referring to Chinese boycotts of Japanese goods), which would die off as soon as its activities threatened Chinese merchants’ businesses or personal interests. Some British observers preferred to characterise it with patronising assumptions, predicting its imminent failure or calling it—as the British Consul-General did—“blind folly.”[32]

The choices for the Chinese intellectuals were located in Marxist thinking. As opposed to the depiction of Japanese and Europeans above, Marx believed in the potentiality of the Chinese people to revolt. Marx concluded that the “Chinese revolution will throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions on the continent.” Marx went on to muse over the possibility of the “curious spectacle”  of “China sending disorder into the Western world while the Western Powers, by English, French, and American war steamers, are conveying ‘order’ to Shanghai, Nanking, and the mouths of the Great Canal.”[33]

Marxist writings, the AMP in particular, are a call for self-examination, for self-awareness and for revolutionary practices which, for Marx, should be inherent in the context of the actual historical conditions of Asia, and China in particular. Samuel Enoch Stumpf observes that “Marx’s construct of the Asiatic mode provides an excellent heuristic model for researchers interested in Chinese society.” There was a certain neglect of the Asiatic mode in the past because little was known about it, and Marx himself is to be blamed for this: he treated the subject neither systematically nor developmentally as he was preoccupied with the study of capitalism.[34] Wu Dakun provides an excellent analysis of the intellectual capacity founded in this term which serves my argument.[35]

First I will summarise Wu Dakun’s argument to lay ground for my observations and conclusions. Wu starts with world history observing that the first group of states that appeared in human history were ancient oriental states as represented by Egypt and Babylon, during the Copper and Bronze ages. That is, the “oriental society” and “oriental state” Marx talked about did objectively exist in history. These states, generally speaking, possessed the economic characteristics described in Marx’s classic, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations.[36] Wu considers China to belong to the same type of ancient oriental state as Egypt and Babylon, or ancient oriental states of the Asiatic type. Wu arrives at the conclusion that because China was after all a “state of the Asiatic type” with powerful forces hindering capitalist development, up until the eve of the Opium War (1840-1842), capitalist forces of production and relations of production had not been able to develop within Chinese feudal society as they had in the feudal society of Western Europe to turn China into a capitalist society.[37]

Comparing Chinese historical development to that of the West, Wu writes that it can be seen that Marx’s AMP theory was well-founded and that China was the best proof of it. Consequently, Wu asks: will acknowledgment of China’s historical development as that of the AMP, that is, acknowledgment of the AMP theory itself, furnish Western imperialism with a “theoretical” weapon to invade backward oriental nations? The answer to this question is foundational to the argument in this paper. Wu maintains that such situations did occur. He observes that in the past, there really were some reactionaries who utilised the AMP theory as an excuse for imperialist aggression against backward countries, and even to oppose Marx’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. An example of this is given from the “hired scribblers” or henchmen of Japanese warlords during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945) who blatantly propagated the “progressive” nature of the Japanese Imperial Army’s attempt to conquer China, thus providing the “theoretical” basis for such an aggressive policy to destroy China. Another example is given from scholarly debates involving K.A. Wittfogel, whose book, Oriental Despotism, opposed “our theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” argues Wu.[38]

Before I proceed, it is worth mentioning Wittfogel’s support of “Oriental Despotism.” Meisner contends that Wittfogel’s article in 1962 “examined the canons of Marxism in order to find support for the theory of ‘Oriental despotism.’” Wittfogel had “rescued from obscurity” the articles that Marx and Engels wrote on China during the 1850s, which he “presented as major canonical texts in the evolution of the doctrine of ‘Oriental despotism.’” From his reading of the scripture, Wittfogel concluded that the writings of Marx on China “enriched his concept of a completely Asiatic society.” These writings, we are told, figured significantly in a “reappraisal of oriental society” that Marx and Engels supposedly undertook after 1853. This reappraisal is described as having “drastically reshaped their socio-historical concepts.” It is stated, moreover, that Marx applied to China the concept of the AMP that he set forth in articles on India and, what is of more significance for the political import of Wittfogel’s theory, it is argued that Marx regarded the traditional Chinese mode of production and social structure as more or less immune to the influences of Western imperialism.[39]

Chinese intellectuals such as Wu seem to be aware of the issue of immunity, which is the reason that while their movement was heavily influenced by external factors, the difference was made from within. The founding of the CCP, not as an organisational body but an intellectual reflection of the May Fourth Movement, established a discourse that fed back into the continuity of this movement. The outcome of the Paris Peace conference of 1919 confirmed a Western colonial mentality not only of control, but of negation. The Chinese were absolutely negated—the 1911 New Republic failed to create a discourse of independence—therefore, the colonial forces were dealing with China within a temporal vacuum.

I maintain that, had the CCP not been founded, the course of colonial intervention in China would have been entirely different. Colonialism is not only about the land, but also involves the minds of the people. Therefore, what Chinese intellectuals of that period needed was to liberate Chinese peoples’ minds, as said above, from old decayed traditions and from the control of Western powers. Therefore, Chinese intellectuals were not mere writers, but they were activists, which gave their struggle a greater dimension.

So, the question is, was it the Chinese intellectuals—their participation in the May Fourth Movement—or was it the ‘historical period’ that generated and ultimately produced liberation in China? The answer to this question is that, historically, China managed to maintain a semi-colonial, not a comprehensively colonised, society which in effect helped China to retain intellectual self-awareness. The Chinese movement, therefore, and consecutive revolutions were not only defending Chinese land, but were also aiming at defending this self-awareness, and defending Chinese core historical identity.

How did Chinese intellectuals view the AMP concept? There seem to be two AMPs: one is the mode that had been utilised to overrun China, and the other is the scientific classification of Chinese society. The latter is exemplified by how the Chinese intellectuals utilised the observations and analyses introduced in the AMP to provoke and maintain their struggle for liberation. Wu maintains that “we” must criticise and counterattack all “theories” that seek to utilise AMP theory to oppose the Chinese revolution and proletarian dictatorship. In order to oppose and criticise these fallacies, “we must not,” he argues, oppose Marx’s scientific AMP theory itself.[40]

I posit that the scientific nature of the AMP enabled the globalisation of the concept of the ‘Asiatic’—that is, its impact on global revolutionary variations. This is embodied not as a stand-alone concept, but in the reciprocity between Asia and Europe in the struggle for existence. Marx’s writings were viewed in China in light of their revolutionary spirit. Li Dazao, the pioneer of Marxism in China, writes (1926) that after reading an article by Marx the Chinese ought very clearly to recognise that in both theory and fact the Chinese revolution is part of the world revolution. Li further writes that

Now at the same time that the Chinese national revolutionary movement has spread throughout the whole country, the English workers have called an unprecedented strike of a million men. . . .  Is this not the phenomenon of China returning [to the West] the violence that has been brought to us by the “order” imposed by the armies and warships of the English bourgeoisie? Is not the Chinese revolution a spark for the landmine that has already been planted in the over-accumulation of Europe's productive system which is about to produce a great explosion? This will be proved in the historical facts of the revolution that is imminent.[41]

Wu believes that even if historically China was not able to develop spontaneously into a modern capitalist society, it did not mean that the Chinese could never build China into a modern country. Wu writes that the facts of historical development have already proved that even such an ancient, typically AMP country as China could embark upon the broad road of socialist modernisation in a relatively short historical period after passing through its new democratic and socialist revolutions.[42]

The Chinese intellectuals appropriated the precise ‘Asiatic’ in the AMP—that is the economic and temporal conditions of the nation’s development, to become what the Chinese intellectuals call Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The Chinese variant of socialism had its roots in Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Draft of 1857-58), written between October 1857 and May 1858, and which occupies a special place in the history of the development of Marxism. In this text, Marx for the first time expounded the essential points and some details of his theory of value, on the basis of which he created his doctrine of surplus value, which is the cornerstone of Marx’s economic theory. This creation, together with the formulation of the materialist concept of history, made possible the changeover from utopian socialism to scientific socialism.[43] Evident in this Scientific Socialism is the theory of materialist history of human revolution which culminated at the end of the First World War. At this time, as Eric Hobsbawm puts it, it was obvious that the old world was doomed. The old society, the old economy, the old political systems had, as a Chinese phrase put it, “lost the mandate to heaven.” For Hobsbawm, humanity was waiting for an alternative, and that alternative is evidently the Bolshevik or October Revolution, which he argues, “produced by far the most formidable organised revolutionary movement in modern history.”[44] Significantly, “from 1920-1927 the hopes of world revolution seemed to rest on the Chinese revolution”[45] The ‘qualifier’ for the Chinese revolution, to endure, was the choices of Chinese intellectual leaders to acknowledge the historicity of their struggle. The Chinese intellectuals were aspiring for institutionalising the revolution where the state takes its legitimacy from the people.

Soon after the CCP was founded, the Chinese workers’ movements became active as an organisation: more than 100 strikes taking place and over 300,000 workers taking part in them; the Canton-Hong Kong Strike, the Anyuan Railway Workers’ and Miners’ Strike, the Kailuan Strike and the Beijing-Hankou Railway Workers’ Strike. In May 1922, the First National Labour Conference was held in Guangzhou. It was the first national conference of China’s working class, representing more than 110 trades union and 340,000 organised workers. In the meantime, the peasant movement, youth movement and women’s movement became crucial within the mass struggle and in regulating the causes of the revolution. Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party point out that the communist movement had already become an irresistible historical trend.

The key point to mention here is that these strikes, and peoples’ movements within China, in effect, were not the revolution itself, but they were a process of a revolution. This has a bearing on the way intellectuals guided the activities of the masses. The strikes and all other activities, which Eric Hobsbawm calls “heroic and inspiring,”[46] marked the discursive nature of the revolution itself where “the prevailing mode of production and exchange and the social organization necessarily following from it form the basis upon which the political and intellectual history of that epoch is built up.”[47]

The political and intellectual history of the Chinese revolutionary forces was part of Marx’s belief that revolution was inevitable as Marx emphasised that countries like Russia, India, China, Algeria, and Indonesia possessed social structures markedly different from those of Western Europe. Throughout his writings, “he grappled with the question of the future development of these non-Western societies,” and more specifically, he examined their prospects for revolution and as sites for resistance to capital.[48]

Wu ascribes the success of the Chinese revolution to the choices of the Chinese leadership, which formed Mao Zedong Thought by recognising the characteristics of Chinese society, and discarding the revolutionary strategies which were imposed upon China by the Third International. For that reason, Wu maintains that the study of Marx’s theory of the AMP will provide a powerful impetus to China’s “Four Modernizations.” The reason lies in the fact that historical development itself is dialectical. What is backward in one period may become advanced in the succeeding period. In ancient times, the economies of Western European countries were backward as compared to China’s, but in the capitalist period, the West had become more advanced and China had become backward. Wu states that even now China still had some backward elements such as vestiges of ancient village “communes” which could be found in the rural areas.[49] Furthermore, Wu explains that in the context of what Marx meant in his Draft of a Reply to V: I. Zasulich, such backward developments can turn into factors leading to the renaissance of Chinese society that would make China superior to countries still under the oppression of the capitalist system. Therefore, just as Marx had said that [one] should not be particularly afraid of the term “ancient,” we should not be particularly afraid of the term “Asiatic.” Quite the reverse, Wu advocates that greater emphasis should be placed on the study of the AMP theory. China’s concrete example should be used to prove the correctness of the theory of the AMP.[50]

Discussion of the applicability of the theory of the AMP to China had already taken place several decades before the Sino-Soviet split, though in a very different political and historical conjuncture. China had been the subject of intense political and theoretical discussion within the international communist movement (i.e., the Comintern) in the 1920s, during the period of its second revolution in 1926-27. The debate centred around the question of what was the correct policy the Comintern had to adopt in relation to that revolution.[51]

In the first part of this article, I discussed the AMP as it related to India, where it was inevitable for me to bring India into the discussion, given that  Marx’s writings on the AMP focused initially on India. Furthermore, India and China share, in different degrees, the ‘Asiatic’ in the AMP.  In the second part, I argued that Chinese intellectuals were influenced by the theorisation of China, that is China as the ‘Asiatic’ in the AMP.  I did not diverge into the economic details of the AMP; there is profusion of writing on this concept which is accessible elsewhere.

My argument is that Marx’s writings on Asia are crucial to the way Asian intellectuals, the Chinese in particular, viewed their historical formation and thus their way forward. This also applies to India. There is much evidence showing that the Communist movements in India have brought about development and change. I recall a statement made by Jyoti Basu, the longest-serving chief minister in India’s history, where he stressed the significant role of the communist movement in India’s anti-colonial struggle:

The Indian communists have a proud record of dedication and sacrifices in the cause of national liberation, in defence of the interests of the working class, peasantry and other toiling millions. They were able to draw into their fold the overwhelming majority of revolutionaries and represented the best traditions of revolutionary movement in India.[52]

Discussion of the applicability of the theory of the AMP to China had already taken place several decades before the Sino-Soviet split, though in a very different political and historical conjuncture. China had been the subject of intense political and theoretical discussion within the international communist movement (i.e., the Comintern) in the 1920s, during the period of its second revolution in 1926-27. The debate centred around the question of what was the correct policy the Comintern had to adopt in relation to that revolution.

In conclusion, there are three points to highlight: first, the Chinese intellectuals seemed to view the AMP as a call for change. The concept’s scientific spirit appears to have been incorporated in the ‘Asiatic’ nature of the Chinese revolution. Socialist ideas, therefore, gained their own characteristics and thus served as long-term, foundational progressive changes in Chinese society, and eventually became Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Secondly, the defining feature of the May Fourth Movement was located not necessarily in its political actions but in the terminologies of political discourse which served as a catalyst for enduring change. Foremost among these terminologies is liberty, which is explained above. In the AMP, while there is a depiction of a stagnant Asiatic society, there is also a call for transformation and freedom. Coupling colonial rule with the nature of the ‘Asiatic’ society is rather an intervention into the nature of the political ethos of ‘Asiatic’ societies. The Chinese intellectuals saw all of these elements as call for scientific theorisation, as a sort of manual for self-examination and inspiration. This conclusion is supported by the way Marx formulated the AMP where, in effect, it did not exclusively mean mere economic conversions; the AMP for Marx was a force that “conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.”[53]

Thirdly, viewing the AMP from the current Chinese condition, Marx spoke of Asiatic societies strictly in light of their domestic affairs. Even though global events shaped Marx’s thinking on global changes, there is still a territorialisation of history when it comes to the AMP. Marxist outlook on production as a fundamental prerequisite for the development of human society in general and for Asiatic societies in particular became the chief concern of Chinese theoretical efforts. The Chinese intellectuals took such models as a guideline in the theorisation and the building of productive forces in Chinese society.

The core of this process for the Chinese intellectuals, from Mao Zedong to the current leadership, has always been to preserve both the Marxist and revolutionary spirit of the productive forces to uphold social progress. In recent remarks, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, declared that “Marxism has not only profoundly changed the world, but also China,” and furthermore Xi reflected that the reverberations of the October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to China, pointing out the direction forward, and offering a brand new choice for the Chinese people in their struggle to survive. In calling for the rejuvenation of Marxist thought, Xi maintains that China must “embrace modernisation, the world, and the future,” and that it must “consolidate Marxism as our guiding ideology, develop advanced socialist culture and improve socialist ethical standards.” China “must imbue core socialist values in all areas of social development and promote the creative evolution and development of fine traditional Chinese culture.”[54]

 Nath Aldalala’a is Associate Professor of International Relations and Cultural Studies at Shandong University, China. Nath served as director of East Asian Studies in Abu Dhabi and is currently acting as advisor to various governmental bodies across countries in West Asia. He completed his PhD in International Relations from the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in England and studied for his Master’s degree in the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University in Wales. His research areas focus on theories of Discourse and Representation, American foreign policy in the Middle East, and Chinese Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.


[1] Heinz Lubasz, Quoted from “Marx’s Concept of Asiatic Mode of Production: A Genetic Analysis,” in Marxian Theory and the Third World, ed., Dependra Banerjee (New Delhi: Sage, 1985), 107.

[2] Cited in Talat Ahmed, “Reflections on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India,” Edinburgh Research Explorer (2013):1-18.

[3] François Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656-1668 (Oxford University Press, 1934). Marx relied heavily on the writings of Bernier on India, Thomas Stamford Raffles on Indonesia, Mountstuart Elphinstone’s History of India and Hegel’s Philosophy of History. It is also worth noting that Marx’s ideas on contemporary India changed, especially after the Indian rebellion. See Marx’s articles for the New York Tribune in July 1857, MECW, 15 (London, 1986), especially pages 298, 306-307, 354-55. This footnote is borrowed from Talat Ahmed, “Reflections on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India,” 2, footnote 5. 

[4] Maurice Meisner, “The Despotism of Concepts: Wittfogel and Marx on China,” The China Quarterly 16 (Oct-Dec 1963): 99-111. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and African Studies URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/651575. Accessed: May 28, 2018.

[5] New York Daily Tribune, June 14, 1853, 4.

[6] See particularly “The British Rule in India,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 345-351. Quoted in Meisner, “Despotism,” 102-104, cited above.

[7] Cited in Joseph Benedict Huang Tan, “Marx, Historical Materialism And The Asiatic Mode of Production,” (M.A. Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1994), 17. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp01/MQ61502.pdf. Accessed: June 13, 2018.

[8] The most developed version of the distinction between barbarism and civilisation, introduced by the Greeks and Romans, was to be found in the work of the Greek geographer Strabo (circa 64 BCE-24 CE). Strabo had studied in Rome and reflected a Romanised view of the world. His seventeen volume Geography presented barbarism as representing an inverted world, in contrast to the Greeks and Romans, who had adopted “modes of life [production] that are civil.” In his theory of barbarism and civilisation the geographical difference was associated with different modes of production (Geography, 4.1.14). Civilised peoples lived on the most fertile soils where settled agriculture was feasible. Standing opposed to civilised, bread-eating peoples, who were principally city-dwellers (and farmers who lived in close proximity to cities) were barbarians who were nomadic fighters living on meat and dairy and permanently under arms. Barbarians were seen as preferring force and living under circumstances where they had no recourse other than marauding and thievery since confined to wilderness and removed from arable lands. Cited in John Bellany Foster and Brett Clark, “Empire of Barbarism,” Monthly Review (December 1, 2004), https://monthlyreview.org/2004/12/01/empire-of-barbarism/. Accessed: June 30, 2018.

[9] Karl Marx. “The British Rule in India.”

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/25.htm. Accessed June 12,


[10] See Meisner, Despotism,100. Cited above.

[11] Daniel Thorner, “Marx on India and the Asiatic Mode of Production,” Contribution to India Sociology IX (December 1966), J3. Cited in Chapter II, Political Economy of the Oriental East: Indian Society Before Colonialism.


[12] Marx, “The British Rule in India.” Cited above

[13] Cited in ArashEhya, “From ‘Oriental Despotism’ to the Obshchina: The Place of Asia and the Asiatic Mode of Production in the Works of Marx and Engels.” https://dca.ue.ucsc.edu/system/files/dca/978/978.pdf. Accessed: July 7, 2018.

[14] Ibid.

[15] TalatAhmed, “Reflections on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India,” 8. See also Ram Sharan Sharma, Indian Feudalism (New Delhi: 1980); and Ram Sharan Sharma, Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2001); Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History (New Delhi: 1995).

[16] The paragraph is borrowed from Arash Ehya. Due to its importance and cohesion, it was not shortened.

[17] Cited in Arash Ehya, “From ‘Oriental Despotism’ to the Obshchina,’”cited above.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Talat Ahmed, “Reflections on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India,” 1. Marx’s responses to writings such as Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), Sir John Budd Phear’s The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon (1880), Sir Henry Maine’s Lectures on the Early History of Institutions, and John Lubbock’s The Origins of Civilization (1870), published posthumously as the Ethnological Notebooks, also demonstrate that Marx continued to reject the theory that India was feudal. Commenting on John Phear, he wrote, “That ass Phear describes the organization of the [Indian] rural community as feudal” (O’Leary 1989, 128). Though it is not clear whether Marx regarded Phear as an “ass” for believing that India was feudal or thought of him in an unflattering manner for Phear’s views in general, it is clear from this comment that Marx himself did not regard pre-colonial India as feudal. (Quoted in Taimur Rahman, “Marx and Engels on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India.” http://revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv13n2/asiatic.htm.

[21] Cited in Kevin B. Anderson, Marx and the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 14.

[22] Ibid, 15. Original Consulted.

[23]Ibid, 23.

[24] See Georg G. Iggers, “The Marxist Tradition of Historical Writing in the West. A Retrospect from the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century,” Storia Della Storiografia 62 (2101): 63-78. http://www.lbihs.at/Iggers_Marxist_Tradition_of_Historical_Writing.pdf. Accessed, June 12, 2018.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Meisner, “Despotism,” 101. https://moodle2.units.it/pluginfile.php/174118/mod_resource/content/2/Meisner_The_Despotism_of_Concepts_Wittfogel_and_Marx_on_China_China_Quarterly_1963.pdf.

[27] The Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) was a civil war that started in southern China from 1850 to 1864. Hong claimed to have received visions in a dream and announced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He believed that his mission was to fight against the Qing government (1644-1912). On this, see, Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W Norton, 1990).

[28] Quoted in Maurice Meisner, “Despotism,” 103-105; and also see, Karl Marx, “Revolutions in China and Europe,” New York Daily Tribune, June 14, 1853. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/14.htm. Accessed June 28, 2018.

[29] I refer to the political in the sense of George Orwell (1946) who stated that “all issues are political issues.”

[30] See Jarkko Haapanen, “Adaptation to World Trends: A Rereading of the May Fourth Movement Radicalization,”Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research 463 (2013): 14.https://jyx.jyu.fi/bitstream/handle/123456789/41229/978-951-39-5114-6_vaitos23032013.pdf?sequence=1. Accessed: July 13, 2018.

[31] Tiina H. Airaksinen, “Imperialism and Nationalism As May Fourth Movement Discourses,” Studia Orientalia Electronica 2 (2014): 1-15. http://ojs.tsv.fi/index.php/StOrE. Accessed: July 18, 2018.

[32] Ibid, 1-15.

[33] Cited in Meisner, “Despotism,” 101.

[34] See Samuel Enoch Stumpf, History and Problems (McGraw-Hill College, 1994).

[35] Wu Dakun, “The Asiatic Mode of Production in History as Viewed by Political Economy in Its Broad Sense,” Chinese Law & Government 22. 2 (1989): 27-46.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid, 43.

[38] Ibid, 44.

[39] For full discussion on this, see, K.A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), and also Karl A. Wittfogel, “The Marxist View of China,” (Part 1), The China Quarterly 11 (July-September 1962): 1-20.

[40] Wu, “The Asiatic Mode of Production in History as Viewed by Political Economy in Its Broad Sense,” 44.

[41] Quoted in Meisner, 101-102.

[42] Wu, “The Asiatic Mode of Production in History as Viewed by Political Economy in Its Broad Sense,” 45.

[43] Ibid, 35.

[44] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short History of the Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Penguin, 1994), 55.

[45] Hobsbawm, 70.

[46] Ibid, 79.

[47] Yu Pei, “The October Revolution and the Historical Destiny of Scientific Socialism: In Commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the October Revolution,” Social Sciences in China 29. 1 (February 2008): 29-49.

[48] See Kevin B. Anderson, Marx and the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[49] Wu, 45.

[50] Wu, 45. Wu is accurate in his observations. He writes in 1989, since then China has moved to become the second largest economy in the world, which in effect, reflects the trenchant success of the historical formation of the Chinese revolution, embodied in the governing vision of the Chinese leadership.

[51] Umberto Melotti, Marx and the Third World (London: MacMillan, 1977), 49. Cited in Joseph Benedict Huang Tan, “Marx, Historical Materialism and the Asiatic Mode of Production,” 21.

[52] Jyoti Basu, “60 Years of our Independence and the Left: Some Thoughts,” People’s Democracy 31 (August 2007). http://archives.peoplesdemocracy.in/2007/0819/08192007_jyoti%20basu.htm. Accessed July 25, 2018.

[53] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (trans.), S.W. Ryazanskaya (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 21-22.

[54] China marks 200 years of Karl Marx's birth as Xi leads in new era,” Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a conference to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Xinhua, May 4, 2018. http://english.qstheory.cn/2018-05/07/c_1122793675.htm.