Marx and Engels on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India

Taimur Rahman

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels formulated the concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production on the basis of 19th century political economy. This section will try to demonstrate that Marx and Engels never upheld the view that India was ‘feudal’. They developed the concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production in 1850s after studying India and there is no evidence that they deviated from this essential framework. Since the concept of Asiatic Mode of Production is attributed to them, it makes sense to look at their writings on the subject in some detail.

The first reference to oriental despotism can be found in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Marx writes:

Either, as in Greece, the res publica was the real private concern, the real content of the citizens and the private man was slave, that is, the political state as political was the true and sole content of the citizen’s life and will; or, as in Asiatic despotism, the political state was nothing but the private will of a single individual, and the political state, like the material state, was slave. What distinguishes the modern state from these states in which a substantial unity between people and state obtained is not that the various moments of the constitution are formed into particular actuality, as Hegel would have it, but rather that the constitution itself has been formed into a particular actuality alongside the real life of the people, the political state has become the constitution of the rest of the state. [Remark to § 279] (Marx 1843a)

The thrust of the above abstruse passage is that while the bourgeois state is very different from the states of ancient Greece or Asia, Hegel’s view that the bourgeois state has resolved the conflict between private interests and the general interest was wrong. This passage may lend the impression that the young Marx subscribed to the conventional 18th century notion of oriental despotism, however in a letter written to Arnold Ruge in the same year Marx completely rejected Montesquieu’s distinction between European monarchies and Asiatic despotism. He wrote, ‘The monarchical principle in general is the despised, the despicable, the dehumanised man; and Montesquieu was quite wrong to allege that it is honour [Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois]. He gets out of the difficulty by distinguishing between monarchy, despotism and tyranny. But those are names for one and the same concept, and at most they denote differences in customs though the principle remains the same’ (Marx 1843b). It is quite clear from this letter that Marx rejected the conventional view of 18th century oriental despotism, especially as elaborated by Montesquieu.

Between 1843 and 1853 Marx did not write or publish any major pieces on Asia because he was occupied with the development of the basic principles of historical materialism in the context of European civilisation. For example, the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto were principally concerned with the historical development of Western civilisation and they do not refer to Asia. In fact, Marx really began to study Asia after the failure of the 1848 revolutions and his exile to London. Influenced by Hegel, Marx began by pondering the question why the history of the East appeared as the history of religions. Upon reading François Bernier, Marx felt he had arrived at the answer and wrote to Engels, ‘Bernier rightly sees all the manifestations of the East – he mentions Turkey, Persia and Hindustan– as having a common basis, namely the absence of private landed property. This is the real key, even to the eastern heaven’ (Marx 1853a). Engels replied, ‘The absence of landed property is indeed the key to the whole of the East. Therein lies its political and religious history. But how to explain the fact that orientals never reached the stage of landed property, not even the feudal kind? This is, I think, largely due to the climate, combined with the nature of the land, more especially the great stretches of desert extending from the Sahara right across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary to the highest of the Asiatic uplands. Here artificial irrigation is the first prerequisite for agriculture, and this is the responsibility either of the communes, the provinces or the central government’ (Engels 1853). Marx, taking into consideration Engels’ addition summarising his findings in his reply, ‘The stationary nature of this part of Asia, despite all the aimless activity on the political surface, can be completely explained by two mutually supporting circumstances: 1. The public works system of the central government and, 2. Alongside this, the entire Empire which, apart from a few large cities, is an agglomeration of villages, each with its own distinct organisation and each forming its own small world’ (Marx 1853b).

These two mutually supportive ideas, namely public works and the village community, formed the basis of a series of articles written between 1852-1858 for the New York Daily Tribune on the impact of British imperialism on India and China. The most widely quoted of these articles with respect to India are ‘The British Rule in India’ and ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’. Scathing in his criticism of British rule in India, Marx wrote in this series of articles that England had broken the entire framework of Indian society and uprooted that society from all its ancient traditions and past history. The handloom, spinning wheel, and union between agriculture and manufacture were the basis of Indian society before it was uprooted by British steam and science. Further, the great irrigation works had been utterly neglected by the colonial government, resulting in famine and the destruction of Indian cities. At the same time, he cautioned against any kind of romanticism of the Asiatic system. He said that the Asiatic system had made man the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaved it beneath traditional rules, and deprived it of all grandeur and historical energies. The result was an undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life. He argued that the Asiatic system had been the solid foundation of oriental despotism that had ‘restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass’ and was based on ‘class and slavery’ (Marx 1853c; 1853d).

Some scholars, such as Bill Warren have incorrectly interpreted these latter remarks as a justification for colonialism (Warren 1980). However, Marx’s position on the 1857 War of Independence demonstrated clearly that his sympathies were with the colonial people. His emphasis in the above criticism of the Asiatic system is in line with his views of capitalism in relation to all pre-capitalist societies: In other words, that the way forward was not in the restoration of the pre-capitalist order but in the struggle for a new order based on the end of class exploitation that was made possible by the development of the productive forces under capitalism. In conclusion, he felt that the British, though motivated by the vilest interests, had inadvertently initiated a social revolution in India and through the introduction of steam and science were ‘laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia’ that would inevitably create the socio-economic prerequisites for a new socialist society (Marx 1853d).

In the Grundrisse Marx continued working with this basic model of Asiatic society and clearly distinguished the Asiatic, Ancient and Germanic forms of pre-capitalist property. For example, he wrote, ‘In the Asiatic form (at least, predominantly), the individual has no property but only possession; the real proprietor, proper, is the commune– hence property only as communal property in land’ (Marx 1858a). Similarly, ‘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, which thus becomes altogether self-sustaining, and contains all the conditions of production and reproduction within itself. A part of their surplus labour belongs to the higher community, which exists ultimately as a person and this surplus labour takes the form of tribute’ (Marx 1858a). Regarding public works in Asia Marx says, ‘The communal conditions of real appropriation through labour, aqueducts, very important among the Asiatic peoples; means of communication etc. then appear as the work of the higher unity– of the despotic regime hovering over the little communes’ (Marx 1858a). Therefore, we find in the Grundrisse all the features of the Asiatic system as described by Marx in his articles on India.

In 1858 Marx wrote on the controversy stirred up by Lord Canning’s proclamation over the annexation of Oudh that the British Government had confiscated proprietary rights in the soil. This stirred up a debate in Britain about the nature of the claims to landed property made by the zemindars, talookdars or sirdars. One side maintained that these were real private property holders, while the other maintained that they were to be considered as mere tax-gatherers. Marx stated that the latter view was based on a ‘more thorough study of the institutions of Hindostan’ and was also confirmed by the results of the Bengal settlement (Marx 1858b). He considered the entire controversy to be the result of ‘English prejudices or sentiments, applied to a state of society and a condition of things to which they have in fact very little real pertinency’ (Marx 1858b).

Finally, in his famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where Marx summarised the general conclusions of historical materialism, he introduced the term Asiatic Mode of Production: ‘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’ [emphases added] (Marx 1859).

This materialist analysis was carried forward into Capital without any substantial alteration. For example in Volume 1 he uses the phrase, ‘In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production’ (Marx 1954, 114). Similarly, in a footnote he says, ‘A more exhaustive study of Asiatic, and especially of Indian forms of common property, would show…’ (Marx 1954, 112). The most significant and detailed passage, however, is contained in chapter 16 on the ‘Division of Labour in Manufacture, and Division of Labour in Society’.1 It is clear from this passage that Marx continued to regard pre-colonial India as a society based on the village community with common property. Further, he also briefly mentions the state and the appropriation of surplus through tribute. One may object that Marx seems to have dropped any reference to public works. This apparent negligence exists because Marx’s principle focus in the chapter is the division of labour in manufacture and society. The passage, therefore, describes the division of labour in the village community in India in order to contrast it with the capitalist division of labour. Public works receive attention in Chapter 16 where Marx says:

It is the necessity of bringing a natural force under the control of society, of economising, of appropriating or subduing it on a large scale by the work of man’s hand, that first plays the decisive part in the history of industry. Examples are, the irrigation works in Egypt, Lombardy, Holland, or in India and Persia where irrigation by means of artificial canals, not only supplies the soil with the water indispensable to it, but also carries down to it, in the shape of sediment from the hills, mineral fertilisers. The secret of the flourishing state of industry in Spain and Sicily under the dominion of the Arabs lay in their irrigation works (Marx 1954, 736-7).

In Capital Volume 3, published posthumously by Engels, Marx comments on India and China that:

The broad basis of the mode of production here is formed by the unity of small-scale agriculture and home industry, to which in India we should add the form of village communities built upon the common ownership of land, which, incidentally, was the original form in China as well (Marx 1894, Ch. 20).

Similarly, in his discussion of ground rent in Part 6 of the same volume, Marx clearly distinguishes three sets of pre-capitalist landed property relations: Asiatic, slave, and serf based forms. The analysis of the ‘The Genesis of Ground-Rent’ in chapter 47 is based on the same distinction between Asiatic, slave and serf based landed property relations. In this context Marx writes:

Should the direct producers not be confronted by a private landowner, but rather, as in Asia, under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign, then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from this form of ground-rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjection to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale. But, on the other hand, no private ownership of land exists, although there is both private and common possession and use of land (Marx 1894, Ch. 47).

There is little doubt that Marx continued to develop the idea of the AMP from his early journalistic writings in 1853 to the writing of his most celebrated work, Capital. The essential features that were elaborated in his journalistic articles on the impact of British rule in India – namely a natural economy based on the unity of agriculture and manufacture, the village community with common ownership of land, public works as a precondition for settled agriculture, and surplus appropriation by the state through tribute – form the basis of his various comments in Capital on India.

After Capital, Marx returned to the subject of pre-colonial society in India and he took detailed notes on Elphinstone’s History of India and Sewell Analytical History of India, M. M. Kovalevsky Communal Landholding, The Causes, Was and Consequences of its Disintegration. These notes were published by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the title Notes on Indian History (1959). Marx’s comments on Kovalevsky are extremely instructive on his views of India’s mode of production. Kovalevsky had argued that India had become feudal under Mogul rule. He stated:

Of all the four factors usually, though unjustly, acknowledged by medieval historians to be the sole aspects of German-Roman feudalism, three – the beneficial systems, farming out and commendation – may be said to exist in India conquered by the Muslims. Only of patrimonial justice, at least, so far as the civil code is concerned, it is possible to say that it was absent in the empire of the Great Mogul (O’Leary 1989, 127)

Marx’s comments on this were as follows:

On the grounds that the ‘beneficial system’, ‘farming out’ (the latter, though, is by no means purely feudal – the proof – Rome) and commendation occur in India, Kovalevsky sees here feudalism in the West European sense. But Kovalevsky forgets about serfdom which is absent in India and which is of the greatest importance. As to the individual role of protection (cf. Palgrave) not only of the bonded but also of the free peasants by the feudals (who functioned as vogts), this was in India of little importance, with the exception of the wakufs. The idealization of the Land (Boden-Poesie) characteristic of Germano-Roman feudalism (see Maurer) is as of little interest to India as it is to Rome. In India land is nowhere so noble in the sense of being, for instance, inalienable for the benefit of those outside the nobility. However, Kovalevsky himself sees the basic difference – the absence of patrimonial justice where civil law is concerned in the Empire of the Grand Mogul (O’Leary 1989, 127).

Thus Marx systematically rejected Kovalevsky attempt to categorise India as feudal stating that the latter has failed to prove the most important feature of feudalism, namely serfdom. As for the other features, (1) the ‘beneficial system’ existed in Rome and was not an essential feature of feudalism; (2) land was not considered a prized or noble object in India, as it was in Europe where it could not be alienated to commoners; and (3) ‘patrimonial justice’, by Kovalevsky’s own admission, was absent in India (L. S. Gamayunov & R. A. Ulyanovsky in Krader 1975). Marx also refuted Kovalevsky’s argument that the Muslim land tax (kharaj) on the peasantry had transformed land into feudal ownership (O’Leary 1989, 127).

Similarly, Marx’s notes on 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 he 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 those 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.

The same ideas can be found in the works of Engels. For example, in the Anti-Duhring Engels says that the state and village community own the land in the East.

In the whole of the Orient, where the village community or the state owns the land, the very term landlord is not to be found in the various languages, a point on which Herr Dühring can consult the English jurists, whose efforts in India to solve the question: who is the owner of the land?– were [in] vain (Engels 1934, 224).

In the same book Engels explains that that state power begins with the gradual separation from society of people vested with a “social function” in primitive societies. Further, in the specific case of Asia that social function included the maintenance of irrigation. Engels says:

there were from the beginning certain common interests the safeguarding of which had to be handed over to individuals, true, under the control of the community as a whole: adjudication of disputes; repression of abuse of authority by individuals; control of water supplies, especially in hot countries; and finally when conditions were still absolutely primitive, religious functions. Such offices are found in aboriginal communities of every period– in the oldest German marks and even today in India. They are naturally endowed with a certain measure of authority and are the beginnings of state power … It is not necessary for us to examine here how this independence of social functions in relation to society increased with time until it developed into domination over society; how he who was originally the servant, where conditions were favourable, changed gradually into the lord; how this lord, depending on the conditions, emerged as an Oriental despot or satrap, the dynast of a Greek tribe, chieftain of a Celtic clan, and so on; to what extent he subsequently had recourse to force in the course of this transformation; and how finally the individual rulers united into a ruling class. Here we are only concerned with establishing the fact that the exercise of a social function was everywhere the basis of political supremacy; and further that political supremacy has existed for any length of time only when it discharged its social functions. However great the number of despotisms which rose and fell in Persia and India, each was fully aware that above all it was the entrepreneur responsible for the collective maintenance of irrigation throughout the river valleys, without which no agriculture was possible there (Engels 1934, 228-9).

Thus, Engels argues that the state that developed in Asia, which he calls Oriental despotism, was based on the village community, common ownership, and artificial irrigation.

Where the ancient communities have continued to exist, they have for thousands of years formed the basis of the cruellest form of state, Oriental despotism, from India to Russia (Engels 1934, 231).

That is why when Russian populists advanced the argument that the Russian commune (obshchina) could be the foundation of a socialist society, Engels was scathing in criticism.

Such a complete isolation of individual communities from one another, which creates throughout the country similar, but the very opposite of common, interests, is the natural basis for oriental despotism; and from India to Russia this form of society, wherever it has prevailed, has always produced it and always found its complement in it (Engels 1874).

In conclusion, it is quite clear from the writings of Marx and Engels that they never upheld the view that India was ‘feudal’. In Marx’s opinion, his later studies of anthropologists and sociologists certainly added new dimensions to the detailed understanding of the AMP but did not contradict the essential features of his earlier formulation.2 The following four points can sum Marx and Engels’ characterisation of the AMP briefly.

  1. Natural economy based on the unity of agriculture and handicrafts with a fixed division of labour. In the case of India and Egypt the division of labour is based on a caste system.
  2. Communal (state) ownership with communal and individual possession of the land
  3. Public works as a precondition for settled agriculture forming the basis of the state.
  4. Surplus appropriation by the state from villages in the form of a tribute (unity of tax and rent)

Given that the theory of feudalism with respect to India finds no evidence in the work of Marx and Engels – they regarded the character of pre-capitalist relations as Asiatic rather than feudal – does a Marxist appraisal of pre-colonial relations require a thorough reworking of views on the agrarian relations in Pakistan that were hitherto based on the notion that pre-capitalist relations in Pakistan were feudal?


1. ‘Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried. Occupying areas of from 100 up to several thousand acres, each forms a compact whole producing all it requires. The chief part of the products is destined for direct use by the community itself, and does not take the form of a commodity. Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity, and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind. The constitution of these communities varies in different parts of India. In those of the simplest form, the land is tilled in common, and the produce divided among the members. At the same time, spinning and weaving are carried on in each family as subsidiary industries. Side by side with the masses thus occupied with one and the same work, we find the 'chief inhabitant,' who is judge, police, and tax-gatherer in one; the book-keeper, who keeps the accounts of the tillage and registers everything relating thereto; another official, who prosecutes criminals, protects strangers travelling through and escorts them to the next village; the boundary man, who guards the boundaries against neighbouring communities; the water-overseer, who distributes the water from the common tanks for irrigation; the Brahmin, who conducts the religious services; the schoolmaster, who on the sand teaches the children reading and writing; the calendar-Brahmin, or astrologer, who makes known the lucky or unlucky days for seed-time and harvest, and for every other kind of agricultural work; a smith and a carpenter, who make and repair all the agricultural implements; the potter, who makes all the pottery of the village; the barber, the washerman, who washes clothes, the silversmith, here and there the poet, who in some communities replaces the silversmith, in others the schoolmaster. This dozen of individuals is maintained at the expense of the whole community. If the population increases, a new community is founded, on the pattern of the old one, on unoccupied land. The whole mechanism discloses a systematic division of labour; but a division like that in manufactures is impossible, since the smith and the carpenter, &c., find an unchanging market, and at the most there occur, according to the sizes of the villages, two or three of each, instead of one. The law that regulates the division of labour in the community acts with the irresistible authority of a law of Nature, at the same time that each individual artificer, the smith, the carpenter, and so on, conducts in his workshop all the operations of his handicraft in the traditional way, but independently, and without recognising any authority over him. The simplicity of the organisation for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economic elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky' (Marx 1954, 513-5).

2. Marx, however, made an exception for Japan about which he stated: ‘Japan, with its purely feudal organisation of landed property and its developed petite culture, gives a much truer picture of the European middle ages than all our history books, dictated as they are, for the most part, by bourgeois prejudices’ (Marx 1954, 1025).


Bernier (1934) Travels in the Mogul Empire: 1656-1668, Oxford University Press.

Engels (1853) ‘Engels to Marx, 6 June 1853’ from

Engels (1874) ‘On Social Relations in Russia’ from

Engels (1934) Anti-Duhring, Lawrence & Wishart.

Krader (1975) The Asiatic Mode of Production: Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx, Van Gorcum & Comp.

Marx (1843a) ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ from

Marx (1843b) ‘Marx to Arnold Ruge, May 1843’ from

Marx (1853a) ‘Marx to Engels, 2 June 1853’ from

Marx (1853b) ‘Marx to Engels, 14 June 1853’ from

Marx (1853c) ‘The British Rule in India’ from

Marx (1853d) ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’ from

Marx (1858a) ‘Grundrisse’ from

Marx (1858b) ‘Lord Canning’s Proclamation and Land Tenure in India, Marx 7 June 1858' from

Marx (1859) ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ from

Marx (1894) ‘Capital III’ from

Marx (1954) Capital Volume I.

Marx (1964) Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations / Karl Marx, Translated from the German by Jack Cohen ; Edited and with an Introduction by E. J. Hobsbawm, Lawrence & Wishart.

Marx and Engels (1960) On Colonialism, Moscow Foreign Languages Press.

Montesquieu (1977) The Spirit of the Laws, University of California Press.

O’Leary (1989) The Asiatic Mode of Production: Oriental Despotism, Historical Materialism, and Indian History, Basil Blackwell.

Warren (1980) Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, Verso.

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