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The theory of the Asiatic mode of production (AMP) was devised by Karl Marx around the early 1850s. The essence of the theory has been described as "[the] suggestion ... that Asiatic societies were held in thrall by a despotic ruling clique, residing in central cities and directly expropriating surplus from largely autarkic and generally undifferentiated village communities".
Karl Marx stressed that the Asiatic mode of production differed from all other modes of production. In his famous and widely quoted articles on India written between 1852 and 1858 he outlined basic characteristics of Asiatic mode that prevailed in India. In these articles he drew sketch of society by arguing that handloom, spinning wheel, and union between agriculture and manufacturing were the basis of Indian society before it was uprooted by British steam and science. He also described that all kinds of invasions, conquests, and famines etc. remained on its surface and never penetrated within foundations of society. Thus despite of many invasions occurred in almost three millennia but all the invading tribes and dynasties were not able to destroy its basic structure rather were absorbed by the rich culture and fertility of this land.
The theory continues to arouse heated discussion among contemporary Marxists and non-Marxists alike. Some have rejected the whole concept on the grounds that the socio-economic formations of pre-capitalist Asia did not differ enough from those of feudal Europe to warrant special designation. Aside from Marx, Friedrich Engels was also an enthusiastic commentator on the AMP. They both focused on the socio-economic base of AMP society. Leon Trotsky in his writings on China, contradicted the idea of ‘Chinese feudalism’ rather resembled with AMP.
Marx's theory focuses on the organization of labour and depends on his distinction between the following:
- The means or forces of production; items such as land, natural resources, tools, human skills and knowledge, that are required for the production of socially useful goods; and
- The relations of production, which are the social relationships formed as human beings are united ("verbindung") in the processes of the production of socially useful goods.
Together these compose modes of production and Marx distinguished historical eras in terms of distinct predominant modes of production (Asiatic). Marx and Engels highlighted and emphasised that the role the state played in Asiatic societies was dominant, which was accounted for by either the state's monopoly of land ownership, its sheer political and military power, or its control over irrigation systems. The Asiatic societies had a peculiar pattern of development. The classical forms of slavery as existed in Europe were entirely absent in these societies. Mainly remarkable description of these societies is absence of private property in land and there was never any class of landlords. It means that land was subject to common property and each member of village can enjoy as per his requirement. The foundation of social formation is provided by self-sustaining units or commune which entirely self-sustaining in their nature. Here, we can see unity of different occupations mainly agriculture and handicrafts and absent of commodity production and exchange. Marx call AMP as a distinct mode of production; in his Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; “In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society". He further distinguished the “Asiatic landforms” from all other pre-capitalist production forms in following words;
“Amidst oriental despotism and the propertylessness which seems legally to exist there, this clan or communal property exists in fact as the foundation, created mostly by a combination of manufactures and agriculture within the small commune (…) A part of their surplus labor belongs to the higher community, which exists ultimately as a person, and this surplus labor takes the form of tribute etc., as well as of common labor for the exaltation of the unity, partly of the real despot, partly of the imagined clan-being, the god".
Marx also referred to the AMP in his later works like Das Kapital and even in The Communist Manifesto. He further expressed that the Asiatic societies, “supplies the key to the riddle of the unchangeability of Asiatic societies, which is in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic states, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the fundamental economic elements of society remains untouched by the storms which blow up in the cloudy regions of politics.”
The Asiatic mode of production is a notion that has been the subject of much discussion by both Marxist and non-Marxist commentators. The AMP is the most disputed mode of production outlined in the works of Marx and Engels. Questions regarding the validity of the concept of the AMP were raised in terms of whether or not it corresponds to the reality of certain given societies. Historians have questioned the value of the notion of the AMP as an interpretation of the "facts" of Indian or Chinese history.
The acceptance of the AMP concept has varied with changes in the political environment. The theory was rejected in the Soviet Union in the Stalinist period. Karl August Wittfogel suggested in his 1957 book, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, that his concept of Oriental despotism showed that this was because of the similarity between the AMP and the reality of Stalin's Russia, he saw the authoritarian nature of communism as an extension of the need of totalitarian rule to control water in "the Orient".
The Marxist historians such as John Haldon and Chris Wickham have argued that societies interpreted by Marx as examples of the AMP are better understood as forms of what he called the Tributary Mode of Production. The TMP is characterized as having a "state class" as its specific form of ruling class, which has exclusive or almost exclusive rights to extract surplus from peasants over whom, however, it does not exercise tenurial control.
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