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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".
In his articles on India written between 1852 and 1858 Marx outlined some of the basic characteristics of the AMP that prevailed in India. In these articles he indicated the absence of private ownership of land (self-sustaining units or communes), the unity between agriculture and manufacturing (handloom, spinning wheel), the absence of strong commodity production and exchange, and the stabilising role of Indian society and culture against invasions, conquests, and famines.
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 also focused on the AMP. In their later work, both Marx and Engels dropped the idea of a distinct Asiatic mode of production, and mainly kept four basic forms: tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist. In the 1920s, Soviet authors strongly debated about the use of the term. Some completely rejected it. Others, such as Leon Trotsky, in his writings on China, suggested that the ‘Chinese feudalism’ resembled that of the AMP.
Marx's theory focuses on the organization of labour and depends on his distinction between the following:
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 classical forms of slavery as existed in Europe were entirely absent in these societies.. In his Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes: “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 production forms 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".
In Das Kapital he writes that the “simplicity of the [Asiatic] productive organism ... 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 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 theory was rejected in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
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".
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 Tributary Modes of Production (TMP). 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.