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Chinese Law & Government

ISSN: 0009-4609 (Print) 1944-7051 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/mclg20

The Asiatic Mode of Production and Ancient


Chinese Society: A Criticism of Umberto Melotti's
Distortion of Chinese History in His Book "Marx
and the Third World"
Lin Ganquan
To cite this article: Lin Ganquan (1989) The Asiatic Mode of Production and Ancient Chinese
Society: A Criticism of Umberto Melotti's Distortion of Chinese History in His Book "Marx and
the Third World", Chinese Law & Government, 22:2, 47-70
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2753/CLG0009-4609220247

Published online: 08 Dec 2014.

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LINGANQUAN

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The Asiatic Mode of Production and


Ancient Chinese Society: A Criticism
of Umberto Melottis Distortion of
Chinese History in His Book Marx and
the Third World*
Since the decade of the 1920s, the debate over the issue of the
Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) has drawn the attention of
many scholars in China and abroad. In the debate, it is noteworthy
that many Western scholars have treated China as an important
case of the AMP. Some of them, either out of their reactionary
stance against the Chinese Revolution or out of a lack of understanding of Chinese history and reality, have expressed distorted
views. For instance, Karl Wittfogel, a traitor to the international
communist movement, used the argument of the AMP to attack
the Chinese Revolution in his book Oriental Despotism (1957), as
well as in his other works. The fact that Chinese academic circles
have not appropriately denounced Wittfogels argument indicates
the inadequacy of our work. Other Western scholars, despite their
different political opinions from Wittfogels, have also expressed
distorted views about Chinese history and reality. Professor Umberto Melotti of Italys Milan Art Institute is a case in point. In his
influential work on the AMP, Mum and the Third World (1972), he
claims that China is a typical case of Asiatic Society. He maliciously attacks the Chinese socialist system as bureaucratic collec*Lin Ganquan, Yaxiya shengchan fangshi yu Zhongguo gudai shehui-jianping Wengbeituo Meiluoti Makesi yu disanshijie dui Zhongguo lishi dewaiqu,
Zhongguoshi yunjiu (Studies in Chinese history) 3 (1981): 13346. Translated by
Van Young.
47

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CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

tivism rooted in the AMP. Despite some interesting and noteworthy points made in his work, we cannot accept the basic views
in Melottis book.
The main purpose of the following article is to discuss the relationship between the AMP and ancient Chinese society. In doing
so, however, I will also contend against Melotti on several issues.

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1. The definition of the AMP and its key argument

There are several different ways to understand the concept of the


AMP discussed by Marx: (1) the AMP as referring to primitive
society or the primitive commune; (2) the AMP as a transitional
period between primitive society [classless society] and classsociety; (3) the AMP as a succeeding socioeconomicexistence following primitive society, separated from either slave society or feudal society; (4) the AMP as a slave society in oriental form; (5) the
AMP as a mixture of slave society and feudal society; (6) the AMP
as a feudal society in oriental form; (7) the AMP as an assumption
made by Marx in his early years, but denied later. Each of the
above arguments can claim evidence in support of its view in
Mans and Engels own writings. Consequently, we have to consider two basic issues carefully: the first is whether Mam and Engels
were consistent in their views of the AMP in their latter years; the
second is whether the contenders evidence from M a n and Engels
works can be appropriately applied to the AMP. If we do not decontextualize Mam and Engels isolated words and sentences from
their theory of socioeconomic existence, and if we do some historical investigation into the AMP, then we may arrive at some
mutually agreeable points and get the issue resolved.
One commonly shared point in the AMP debate is that Marx
and Engels views on the AMP went through a process of development. They wrote in The Communist Manifesto of 1874: Until
now, every history of society is a history of class struggle. Later,
however, Engels added a note at the end of the sentence in the
1888 English edition:
That is, all written history. In 1847, the prehistory of society, the
social organization existing prior to recorded history, was all but
unknown. Since then, Haxthausen discovered common ownership
of land in Russia, Maurer proved it to be a social foundation from

THE ASUTIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

49

which all Teutonic races started history, and the above village
communities were found to be, or to have been the primitive form
of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive Communistic Society was laid bare, in its
typical from, by Morgans crowning discovery of the true nature
and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of these

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primeval communities society begins to be differentiated into


separate and finally antagonistic classes1
The above passage fully illustrated the gradual process of learning by Marx and Engels in regard to the history of primitive society. The passage is also critical to the understanding of the historical background of the AMP proposed by M a n as well as M a d s
original concept of the AMP.
M a n and Engels had not formed the concept of the AMP by
the decade of the 1840s when they started to form the theory of
historical materialism. In The German Ideology they pointed out
that the tribal system is the first ownership system in human history. They also believed that during this period the slavery latent
in the family had already been established, and the social structure is, therefore, limited to an extension of the family: patriarchal
chieftains, below them the members of the tribe, and finally,
slaves.2 From the 1850s to the 187Os, Marx and Engels studied
the communes of India, Russia, and Germany. From that study,
they arrived at the conclusion that the communal village with
public landownership is the original social existence from India to
Ireland. Based on this conclusion, they created the concept of the
AMP.
In his manuscript, Critique of Political Economy, written during
1857-58, Marx analyzed three types of ownership systems: Asiatic,
classical antiquity, and Germanic. He also pointed out that although these ownership systems existed in the order of historical
periods, they nevertheless all share a common characteristic-the
laborer treats the means of production or reproduction as his own
p r ~ p e r t y . In
~ other words, there is a natural harmony between
labor and means of production (referring mainly to land). Therefore, the attachment between labor and land is created because of
tribal membership. With natural as well as economic differences
between tribes, however, the three ownership sys terns mentioned
above varied a great deal. Under the AMP, the land belongs to the
commune; the individual is merely a user. There is no private land-

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CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

ownership. In classical antiquity, state property and private property coexist together. Citizenship is a prerequisite for property
ownership. In the Germanic ownership system, private property is
the foundation of society. Public property is only supplementary to
private property. The commune existed only among individuals
and their lands. Marx believed that under the Romans and Germans, the primitive social order was destroyed because of the development of slavery and serf systems. In some Asian countries,
however, the commune system survived because slavery here does
not destroy working conditions, nor does it change its nature.
Marx labeled this mode of production-which was based on primitive communes-as the Asiatic Mode of Production. Marx pointed
out in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859: In
broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois
modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in
the economic formation of ~ociety.~
When Marx initiated the concept of the AMP, he treated it as a
primitive social order. It is different from the primitive communal
(tribal) society that we commonly understand today. As a form of
ownership, the AMP is a tribal public system in nature. Because of
this nature, Marx and Engels labeled it primitive society.
Nevertheless, Marx and Engels did not think the AMP was a classless society without exploitation and oppression. Under the AMP,
there existed a relationship between the exploited and the exploiters as well as the despotic monarchies living on the surplus
labor of the commune. In Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations,
Marx clearly pointed out that under the AMP, the individual
never becomes an owner but only a possessor; he is basically himself the property, the slave of the person who embodies the unity
of the comm~nity.~
In The Preparation of Materials for Anti-Diihring of 1877,
Engels wrote, In self-established communities, equality did not
exist, or only to a very limited degree for full members of individual
communities, which in any case were saddled with slavery.6
In 1877, Morgan completed Ancient Society. Upon finishing
reading this book, Marx and Engels changed their views a great
deal about the history of primitive society. For instance, Marx initially believed that the earliest form of social organization was the
product of evolution from family into tribes. Only then did he learn
that the tribe was the primitive and spontaneously developed

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THE ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION 51

form of human association, on the basis of blood relationship, and


that out of the first incipient loosening of tribal bonds, the many
Another
and various forms of family were afterwards de~eloped.~
example is that Marx originally did not have a separate treatment
of communes with different natures and different types. He made
a generalization that all communal landownership systems were
public ownership systems. However, in his draft reply to V. E.
Zasulich, during the period between the end of February and the
beginning of March 1881, Marx pointed out that the view which
lumped all primitive communes together was incorrect, and that
[primitive communes] form a series of social groups, which differ
in character and age and denote successive evolutionary phases.
Marx analyzed the dual characteristic-public ownership and private ownership-of the village commune and pointed out that [the
commune] is transitional between a society based on communal
property and a society based on private property.@
Because of their more profound understanding of the history of
ancient society, by then Marx and Engels no longer treated the
AMP as a primitive social existence in human history. Prior to the
existence of the AMP, there was a primitive communal society exemplified by tribal communes. In this tribal commune period, there
was no class, nor was there oppression and exploitation. Therefore
the sentence until now, all history of society is a history of class
struggle in The Communist Manifesto is not correct, and this is
why Engels later felt necessary to add some corrections to it.
Marx passed away in January 1883. From March to May 1884,
Engels wrote The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State.
He viewed his action as to some degree carrying out Marxs will.
In this brilliant work, he scientifically analyzed the history of early
human development. He also revealed the process in which the
primitive commune system disintegrated, as well as the formation
of class society out of private property. He also claimed the historical unavoidability of the disappearance of the state with the total
victory of classless communist society. He wrote: slavery was the
first form of exploitation peculiar to the world of antiquity; it was
followed by serfdom in the Middle Ages, and by wage labor in
modern times. These are the three great forms of servitude, characteristic of the three great epochs of civili~ation.~
By this time, the founding fathers of Marxism had developed
the theory of socioeconomic formations into a complete theoreti-

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CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

cal system. Marx did not have time to verify the order of the development of socioeconomic formations in precapitalist society during his lifetime. This task was completed by Engels after Marxs
death. This order is known as primitive tribal society-slavery-feudal societyaapitalist society.
It should be pointed out that although Marx and Engels no
longer treated the AMP as the original social formation after the
188Os, they did not abandon an important point made earlier-that
some oriental countries (including Russia) had long preserved the
communal structure as well as communal landownership. Furthermore, they still occasionally referred to communal landownership
as primitive communal ownership in their writings. For instance,
in his second draft reply to Zasulich, Marx wrote, by the way,
Russian communal ownership is the most modern form of classical
types. The latter means the classical type had experienced a process of evolution. (In the third draft Marx crossed off this
sentence.) In his letter to Kautsky dated February 16,1884, Engels
wrote about the Java commune, primitive communism there provides the best and the broadest foundation for exploitation and the
despotic system today, as in India or Russia.l0 Of course, Marx
and Engels did not mean that Russia or Java were still in the stage
of primitive communal society by the time of their writing. They
merely meant that in these places communal landownership was
still characterized by faint traces of primitive communism. Measured by our standard today, however, this kind of view is not
scientific. Though the situation in Java is not clear, in the case of
Russia, according to Marxs letter to Zasulich, the village commune was characterized by dual ownership-public and private
ownership. Even without considering the superstructure of despotism, the Russian case, based on its ownership system, still cannot
simply be regarded as primitive communism.
D u e t o the lack of analytical reading of Marx and Engels
works, some people in the AMP debate have lumped the AMP as
a special social economic order together with the AMP as an
ownership system. As a result, they either denied the AMP as a
class society, or treated the AMP as a special social formation that
never changed. This constitutes an important reason why the
debate has not been resolved for a long time.
The issue of ownership is crucial in determining the mode of
production. Form of ownership, however, is different from mode

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53

of production. For instance, state ownership is a form of ownership, but it can exist in a variety of social formations of different
nature. Communal ownership can be found in both tribal communes as well as in the village commune. The former is a mode of
production in primitive communal society. The latter is a mode of
production in the transitional period between primitive communal
society and private ownership society. In some states, this communal ownership can be preserved over a long period of time even
in a class society. Despite the fact that Marx and Engels believed
that the Asiatic ownership system is the foundation of the AMP,
they nevertheless differentiated between these two concepts.
Among Marx and Engels works, only in The Preface to the Critique
of Political Economy and the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital is
there a direct mention of the Asiatic Mode of Production and
the ancient Asiatic mode of production. Even in these two
places, the Asiatic mode of production is referred to as a specific
socioeconomic formation. The Asiatic ownership system so frequently mentioned by Marx and Engels therefore cannot be
treated as a synonym for the AMP. In most cases, Marx and Engels
meant property ownership in their discussion of the AMP. The
AMP as a specific socioeconomic existence, however, is much
more complicated than just the form of public property ownership.
As mentioned before, when Marx and Engels formulated the concept of the AMP in the 185Os, they had pointed out the close association of slavery and exploitation with the communities characterized by this type of mode of production and this form of public
ownership. Later on, in his The Workers Movement in the United
States, Engels further clarified the point: In Asiatic and classical
antiquity, the predominant form of class oppression was slavery,
that is to say, not so much the expropriation of the masses from the
land as the appropriation of their persons.l In the AMP debate,
some people only quoted Marx and Engels discussion of the
Asiatic ownership as primitive communism; others emphasized
Marx and Engels belief that the form of class oppression under
the AMP is slavery. These opinions resulted in endless disagreement. If we can separate the two concepts-the Asiatic ownership
form and the Asiatic Mode of Production-this argument will then
come to a solution.
In addition to separate analysis of the AMP and the Asiatic
form of ownership, Marx and Engels also frequently touched on

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CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

characteristics of Asian society. For instance, they commented o n


the persistence of the village commune and the communal landownership form, and the close tie between agriculture and handicraft industry, as well as the rule of despotism. We cannot treat
those remarks as their explanation of the AMP. Nor can we arrive
at the conclusion that the various Asian countries continue t o
remain in the AMP from the ancient period. M a n and Engels
simply did not exclude the possibility of a continued existence of
some characteristics of the Asiatic property ownership form and
the Asiatic mode of production in feudal society. Despite the fact
that Marx never clearly expressed any opinion on the possibility of
the existence of a feudal society in Indian history, in his analysis of
the land taxation in feudal society in the third volume of Capital,
Marx did take India as an example:
The direct producer in this case is by our assumption in possession of his own means of production, the objective conditions of
labor needed for the realization of his labor and the production of
his means of subsistence; he pursues his agriculture independently, as well as the rural-domestic industry associated with it. The independence is not abolished when, as in India for example, these
small peasants form a more or less natural community, since what
is at issue here is independence vis-his the nominal landlord.12
This passage has obviously associated the village commune system with the land taxation system in feudal society. Let us examine
how Lenin treated this issue. He acknowledged the continued existence of some characteristics of the Asiatic Mode of Production in
Russia. He denied, however, that Russia was an Asiatic society. He
insisted that Tsarist Russia was a feudal society based on serfdom.
In The Land Policy of the Socialist Democratic Party in the First
Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote: Without a clearing away of the
medieval agrarian relationships and regulations, partly feudal and
partly Asiatic, there can be no bourgeois revolution in agriculture.13 There is no doubt that Lenin put the Asiatic landownership form into the category of medieval.
2. The AMP and ancient Chinese society
What are the basic characteristics of the AMP according to Marx?
Since the publication of Magyars The Study of Chinese Village

THE ASUTIC MODE OF PRODUCTION 55

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Economy in 1928, many different scholars have expressed a variety


of views. In Mum and the Third WorZd, Melotti wrote:
There are three basic features in Marxs conception of Asiatic
society. First, there is no private ownership of land; in the last
resort, at least, it belongs to the state. Second, the foundation is a
system of village communes, each one made self-sufficient
through a close combination of agriculture and cottage crafts.
Third, the central power plays a commanding role.14
This view is quite representative.
It is debatable to what extent these characteristics mentioned
by Melotti could be found in the historical reality of various countries in the Orient. Considering the situation in China, it is said
that if some characteristics of the A M P ever existed in Chinese history, it was in the slave society of the Western Zhou.
The most basic level of social organization in the Zhou was yi,
Zi, or shu-she. In The Book of Rites-KingZy Rule, it is said:
The settling of people requires measuring land in order to administer yili, and to settle people on it. The ruler should measure
the land, and then people can cultivate and live on their land.
Only in this way can the ruler and people live up to each others
satisfaction.
Further, In Er-ya-Shi-yan, it is explained: li is equivalent to
In The Book of Lord Shang-Rewards
and Punishments, it is
said: King Wu enfeoffed various lords, and every fighting soldier
got his share of land in the countryside (Zi and shu-shi). Yi, Zi, and
Shu-shi are all village commune organizations here. In The Book of
Ancient Zhou-Da-ju-jie, it is stated:
yi.

The unit below cities is yi, below yi is xiang, below xiang is lu


[twenty-five families]. Such a society enables everyone to help
each other in time of human and natural disaster and to aid each
other in time of death and funeral. Five families form a unit of wu
and elect their respected leader; ten families form a bigger unit of
shi and elect their elder; twenty-five families form a still bigger
unit of lu and select the most respectable man as their leader. Lu
is also the unit to carry out moral education. People eat together
in observance of thrift; communicate with each other as a common practice; and farm together with cooperation. Each man and

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CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

woman marries; and upon death people can be next to each other
in the public burial ground. Thus people will love each other.
Animals will be abundant; houses will be well kept; and people
will live happily. Every dung should be provided with a doctor and
all the various herbal medicines. Every herb should be tested as a
cure for disease. Let the diligent take care of orphans and the
virtuous educate our children. Appoint experts on burial ceremony to conduct funerals properly and have people attend them.
Use scholars to revive rituals and to compose music; train commoners to fight as soldiers; and conduct archery to develop
solidarity. Let people hunt and farm together and train to act in
concert.
This passage provides not only information about the Spring
and Autumn and Warring States periods, but also a vivid picture of
the bucolic life in village communes. These village communes were
generally formed by a number of individual families. [Under the
village commune system,] the urban area is divided into li oE
twenty-five families, and the rural area is divided into a four Equal
Field System of thirty-two fa mi lie^."'^ The commune landownership form is the well-field system. In Zhou Rites-Land Officials-xiao-si-tu it is mentioned that land should b e divided according to the well-field system: nine people form one unit, and
four units form one yi. When King Tengwen sent Bizhan to Mencius to inquire about the well-field system, Mencius replied:
When people die or move, their families cannot leave the land.
The families in one unit pin] should take care of each other and
help each other in daily life, in sickness and in defense. They then
will become good neighbors. One square mile will form a unit,
and each unit has nine hundred mu,among which, one hundred
mu is public land, and the other eight hundred mu is distributed
to eight families. They cultivate the public land first before they
farm their own.16
The private land here referred to is the land assigned to peasants. The public land is the land of the village commune. The assigned land goes through periodic redistribution. He Xiu made a
note in Xuangong 15 to the Sprhg and Autumn Annals:
The sages invented the well-field system to distribute land according to families. One married couple is given one hundred mu of
land. The Sikong (title) is to supervise the equal distribution of

THE ASL4TIC MODE OF PRODUCTION 57

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good and bad land. The best land is farmed every year; the secondrate land is farmed every other year; the bad land is farmed every
other two years. In this way nobody will have all the good land to
himself or suffer from the bad land in total. To secure a balanced
agriculture, the land therefore needs to be redistributed every
three years.
This case fits well into the characteristics of the AMP described
by Marx: the individual has no property but only possessions; the
community is properly speaking the real proprietor-hence property only as communal property in land.
Marx wrote that the property ownership formation based on
the form of public landownership can express itself in a variety of
ways.
For instance, as is the case in most Asiatic fundamental forms, it
is quite compatible with the fact that the integrating entity which
stands above all these small communities may appear as the superior or sole proprietor, and the real communities therefore only as
hereditary pos~essors.~
The well-field system of the Western Zhou has dual characteristics with its property ownership form: the communal landownership of the village commune and the state landownership of the
feudal lords. In The Book of Poetry--Bei-shan, it is recorded that
in all the world, there is no land which is not the kings land. This
remark is a clear reflection of the state ownership of the slaveowners land. This characteristic of the property ownership of the
A M P determined that
part of the communes surplus labor belongs to the higher community, which ultimately appears as a person. This surplus-labor
is rendered both as tribute, etc., and as common labor for the
glory of the whole community, partly in the form of the glorification of the real despot, partly of the imagined tribal entity, the
GOCI?~

Part of the surplus labor of the peasants of Western Zhou was


thus appropriated by the ultimate personification of the collectivity through the means of Jitien (land registration). In Guoyu-Zhouyu, it was recorded that when the Zhou King Xuanwang took the throne, he neglected the ceremony for receiving his
thousand-mu land (jiZi). His adviser Guowen tried to persuade
him not to neglect the ceremony becausejitien was crucial to the

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CHINESE LAW AND G01/ERNMENT

tributary grain for the worship of heaven and the tax revenue for
the state. This tributary grain is for the imagined tribal entity,
the God; and the tax revenue is to satisfy the need of the real
despot-the feudal lords.
If the saying in all the world, there is no land which is not the
kings land reflected the lack of private landownership in Western
Zhou, the Zhou king was then no less than the ultimate owner of
land. Likewise, the saying that throughout the land all are subjects of the king indicates the Zhou kings ownership of his subjects. Not only did the members of the commune not own their
land, to some degree they were the property and slaves of the
despotic king. Not much difference exists between this kind of
slavery system and other forms of class oppression. The oppression
of the Zhou feudal system expressed itself in the form of live human burials. Similar to the Shang dynasty, there existed live human
burials in the Western Zhou. The majority of the human burials
were slaves, although some were not slaves. This live burial system
continued to exist among the slaveowners and royal families until
the time of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods.
Despite some opposition, Qinmugong used live burials of good
people ( s d i a n g ) in the state of Qin. This case indicates that in
ancient China wives and children were only slaves of the father in
the family, and the citizens only slaves of the king in the state.
It is based on the general characteristics of the AMP that we
consider Marx and Engels AMP theory applicable to the Western
Zhou period. The social reality of Western Zhou, of course, is
much more complicated than what Marx and Engels discussed. In
the following, I will compare the AMP discussed by Marx with the
society of Western Zhou.
First, Marx and Engels believed that climate and territorial
conditions, especially the vast tracts of deserts, extending from the
Sahara, through Arabia, Persia, India, and Tartary, to the most
elevated Asiatic highlands, made artificial irrigation by canals and
waterworks the basis of oriental agriculture.20 This view was distorted by Wittfogel t o create the theory of oriental hydraulic
society. Despite the close connection between irrigation and agricultural development in ancient China, irrigation was nevertheless
not highly developed in the time of Western Zhou. Only during
the periods of the Warring States and the Qin-Han period, in
which the village commune had disintegrated, did irrigation be-

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59

come highly developed.


Second, M a n and Engels believed that whereas classical antiquity produced a slave labor system in the West, the ancient Orient
produced a family slave system in the East. Besides a highly developed family slave system (family slaves were formed on the basis of
family production), the Western Zhou also had a fair number of
working slaves similar to that of the slave labor system of classical
antiquity. For instance, according t o the record of Dakeding:
Enfeoff you the land of lin, enfeoff you the land of bei, and enfeoff you the xin tribal land of yun with slaves. In this case these
slaves were gifts received together with the land. Obviously, they
were not family slaves.
Third, in Re-Capitalist Economic Formations, Marx misunderstood the family as the most basic social unit in human society. In
this book, he believed that the first form of landed property has a
naturally evolved community as its first prerequisite: the family, the
family extended into a tribe, or created by the inter-marriage of
families, or a combination of tribes.21 Later, however, in his draft
reply to Zasulich, Marx changed his own point of view. He pointed
out that the agricultural commune is the first social organization
of free human beings not held together by ties of kinship.22
Marxs latter view is no doubt correct. Many village communes of
the Western Zhou had kept solid blood ties because of the patriarchal clan system. The following passage illustrates the way in which
the class relationship was disguised in the form of the patriarchal
clan system:
[In building the state,] the son of the heaven enfeoffs the feudal
lords; the feudal lords in turn redistribute their fiefs, officials
maintain their families through their sons, and generals take in
their brothers. The commoners in every profession have built
blood ties, and hierachical rank is distinguished everywhere.23
Fourth, Marx and Engels emphasized oriental despotism as the
superstructure of the AMP. This is different from the aristocratic
republic of Western classical antiquity. In spite of its despotic rule,
the Western Zhou slave state nevertheless preserved some primitive form of democracy among its aristocrats and free citizens. One
example is that the citizens of the Spring and Autumn period were
allowed to discuss politics. The people of the Zhou state viewed

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60 CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

their rulers in two ways: on the one hand, the ruler of the state
represents heaven; he is the hope of his people. People love their
ruler as their parents, respect him as the moon and sun, worship
him as god and heaven, and fear him as thunder and storm. O n
the other hand, if the ruler leaves people in poverty and gives
heaven no tribute, then the people will be in despair and rise in
revoIution.u
It is not surprising that part of Marx and Engels definition of
the AMP does not concur with the historical reality of ancient
China. Quite to the contrary, it would be a surprise if it did. In researching Chinese ancient society, we can neither explain Chinese
history solely according to M a n and Engels discussion of China,
nor can we ignore Marx and Engels teachings just because their
words do not accord exactly with the Chinese situation.
One view expressed in the AMP debate believes that China remained as an Asiatic society with a special class structure until it
was invaded by the Western colonial powers. For instance, in Man
and the Third World,Melotti wrote:
Until the last century the typical structure of Asiatic society survived more or less unchanged, having at its base the self-sufficient
production of isolated village communities and at its summit a
despotic power that exploited them while performing, with varying degrees of efficiency at different times, the essential functions
of water control. In theory all the land, or at any rate most of it,
belonged to the State, and in practice the State bureaucrats were
the beneficiaries and constitute the actual exploiting class.=

We should not expect a non-Chinese Sinologist such as Melotti to


have a thorough understanding of Chinese history. However,
Melottis above view is certainly a serious distortion of Chinese
history.
The nature of Chinese society in the period before the Opium
War of 1849 is an issue long since resolved during the debate on
Chinese social history in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. The
assumption that Chinese society was a feudal society, not an
Asiatic society, has been proven true through the revolutionary
practice of the Chinese people in the last century. The foundation
of the AMP is the village commune and its communal land property ownership form. This village commune and the communal land-

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THE ASLQTIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

61

ownership form, practiced in the form of the equal-field system,


had disintegrated as early as the Spring and Autumn and Warring
State periods. It is therefore wrong to claim that China maintained
the AMP in the original form until the last century. There are
three basic forms of landownership in Chinese feudal society: first,
feudal landlord landownership; second, self-sufficient peasants
small landholding; and third, feudal state landownership. Among
these three landownership forms, landlord landownership is predominant. Similar to the small landholdings, this landlord landownership is a form of private landownership. Consequently, it has
nothing to do with the AMP. Although the feudal state landownership system could be seen as something inherited from the AMP to
some extent, it is difficult to define it as public property because
the village commune and the commune landownership system had
disintegrated. This point is evidenced in a description of the office
of t h e Shaofu (Treasurer of t h e Imperial Household), who
managed state lands in the period of Qin and Han, in The History
of the Han-the Hundred OffKials. The Shaofu is charged with
the duty of collecting tax from mountains and water for public
usage. In The Book of Han OffKials,Ying Sao defined the Shaofu
position as the following: Shao means small, therefore, the position is called shao-fu. The ruler collects the land tax for public
usage, but collects taxes from mountains and waters for his private
expense. Furthermore, with the exception of rebellion, under
which circumstances the landowners abandoned their land, which
became the public land,% the state landownership form did not
have an important function in the national economy. The pattern
of landownership development in Chinese feudal society is that
more and more land became concentrated in the hands of the
landlord class. Aristocrats, bureaucrats, and landlords often embezzled land from the state besides taking land from peasants.
The system of despotic centralized power of Chinese feudal
society is often utilized by Western scholars to prove that China is
an Asiatic society. Melotti does exactly this. However, there is
no correlation between despotic centralization of power and the
AMP. Despotism could be the political system of both slave society
and feudal society. Engels wrote, Oriental despotism was all
based on public ~ w n e r s h i p . And
~ ~ where the ancient communes
have continued to exist, they have for thousands of years formed
the basis of the cruelest form of state, Oriental despotism, from In-

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62

CHINESE LAW AND GOKERNMENT

dia to Russia.28 Quite to the contrary, the bases of the Chinese


feudal despotic centralized power system is not public ownership
and the village commune. Rather, the despotic centralized feudal
state of China originating in the Qin was created under the historical conditions in which the village commune had disintegrated and
private ownership had completely taken over its place. The political history of Chinese feudal society proved that the despotic state
apparatus built upon the landlord-tenant feudal production mode
was much stronger than that which was built upon the Asiatic
mode of production.
Melotti denied the existence of class conflict in Chinese history
between slaveowner and slaves, and between feudal landlord and
tenant farmers. He believed that in a typical Asiatic society such
as China, the real oppressing class is the collective bureaucracy.
As this collective bureaucracy took over some social functions
[such as the management of hydraulic irrigation projects], it has,
therefore, a tremendous stability and historical continuity. Based
on such historical analysis, Melotti maliciously attacks contemporary China as a country built upon the AMP and characterized
by a collective bureaucracy. His view of Chinese history is so distorted that it is not worth our time to reason with it. However, it is
important to point out that his analysis of the class relationship in
Chinese history is also very wrong. There was no special bureaucratic class in either Chinas slave society or in her feudal society.
In the slave societies of Shang and Zhou, the aristocracy of the
slaveowners was hereditary in nature. This aristocracy was the exploiter as well as the ruler. It is very difficult for ordinary citizens
and slaves to climb over the social ladder into the ruling class. During the Warring States period, the newly rising landlord class replaced the aristocracy of the slaveowners. They abolished the old
hereditary system and established a complete state and local
bureaucracy. From the time of Qin and Han to the time of Ming
and Qing, the development of the rank-and-file bureaucracy went
hand in hand with the development of the despotic, centralized
feudal power structure of the state. It is no doubt that the ruling
foundation of such a landlord class state is much broader than that
of the slave state. Regardless of their social origin, the rank and
file bureaucrats in various feudal dynasties were no more than the
governing tools for the landlord class. To protect the centralized
feudal system, some bureaucrats occasionally eliminated a local

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THE ASUTIC MODE OF PRODUCTION 63

magnate. This elimination, however, does not change the nature of


their being the instruments in the hands of the landlord class.
From the perspective of class oppression of the peasants, the unlawful gains made by the rank-and-file bureaucrats was part of the
surplus labor taken away by the landlord class from peasants.
Melotti stated in his book: Under Oriental despotism, the privileged have not appropriated land or men, but a public function: it
is as representatives of the state-sole proprietor of the land-that
they demand rent. He also quoted Marx in support of his argument:
If there are no private landowners but it is the state, as in Asia,
which confronts them directly simultaneously as landowner and
sovereign, then rent and tax coincide, or rather there does not exist any tax distinct from this form of ground-rent. Under this condition, the relationship of dependence does not need to possess
any stronger form, either politically or economically, than that
which is common to all subjection to this state.
But history went in the opposite direction. In Chinese feudal
society, small landholding peasants usually had to pay taxes to the
feudal state, with the exception of the state-granted land and the
equal-field system, which combined the land tax and corvke. Furthermore, in feudal society, the land tax, rent, and private loans
were customarily separated for tenant farmers. The landlord class
owned many farmhands as well as the land. Often, peasants were
more attached to the landlord class than to the state, to which they
related as subjects to ruler. In many cases, landlords without official positions often shifted the burden of the taxation to the
shoulders of their tenant farmers. Even when the feudal state
reduced taxation and corvke, peasants still did not benefit much.
The political commentators in history claimed that peasants had
to turn in half of their harvest when the state claimed only 1 percent tax.30 Also, the landlords pocketed ten times more than the
state in the process of taxation.31 These comments suggest that
under normal conditions the landlord class took a much larger proportion of profit from the surplus labor of the peasants than the
state in the process of redistribution. Melotti denied the cruel exploitation and oppression of the peasant by the landlord class in
ancient Chinese society and attributed the exploiting class and
beneficiaries to the bureaucracy of the feudal state. His view is

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64 CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

so ridiculous to anyone with a basic knowledge of Chinese history.


There are other ridiculous arguments in Melottis book, such as
the claim that the AMP does not have the capability of producing
its own mode of production; that it was not possible for an
Asiatic society such as China to produce capitalism; and that the
Chinese Asiatic mode of production might have continued to exist
for many centuries to come without the invasion of imperialism,
etc. In this essay, I will not comment on each of these theories due
t o space limitations. However, I must point out that it is a shame
for such a self-professed believer in Marxism and a concerned author of the historical fate of the Third World to make such an
argument. Let us take a look at the critique of Melotti by Malcolm
Caldwell in the foreword t o the English edition of Mum and the
Third World. Caldwell wrote that among those Westerners who are
self-professed believers in Marxism, the strain of Eurocentricism
has a peculiar vigor. As expressed in his comment on the Chinese
revolution, Professor Melotti, too, is not immune from this after
all understandable temptation. By extolling Western technology
as the ultimate guarantee of the future of real revolution,
Melotti proves that he, too, could not break through this illusion,
ingrained over generations, that the world revolves around the
white rich nations-their actions, initiatives, decisions, and directions. Caldwell continues: Asian revolutionaries can perhaps
now afford to indulge in the luxury of some amusement at these
evidences of incorrigible intellectual residues of the centuries
when the West prevailed with such effortless and unquestioned superiority. This sincere criticism is worth serious consideration by
Professor Melotti.

3. The universality and diversity of historical development

The debate over the AMP indicates that a large gap exists between
Chinese scholars and scholars abroad over Marxs theory on social
economic formations. In his book, Melotti summarizes this difference as the opposition between the unilinear view and the
multilinear view.
It should be noted that past historical research had a tendency
to simplify and dogmatize the five production modes in China and
abroad. This tendency of dogmatism has seriously hindered the
healthy development of the historical field. More than a century

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THE ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

65

has passed since the time when Engels wrote his book The Origin
of Family, Private Properfy and the State. During these one hundred years, there have been many new discoveries and fresh research in the field of archaeology, in the studies of nationality, and
in history. These new discoveries provide us with rich and valuable
materials for our understanding of the pattern of sociohistorical
development. Along with these discoveries, the question of how to
use these discoveries has become a serious issue in our research.
However, it is inappropriate simply to use the argument of unilinear or multilinear as the summary and illustration of this issue. Both unilinear and multilinear views can be interpreted in
many different ways. The multilinear view, for instance, can be interpreted as a denial of the universality of historical development
for various countries and nationalities. This universality, accidentally, just happens to be one of the most basic points of view of
Marxism upon which we must insist. Lenin pointed out:
Materialism provided an absolutely objective criterion by singling
out production relations as the structure of society, and by
making it possible to apply to these relations the general scientific
criterion of recurrence whose applicability to sociology the subjectivists denied?2
The multilinear view, therefore, cannot reflect this repetitive
pattern in the social system. O n the other hand, this universality
should not deny the richness and versatility of the individual states
and nationalities in their national history. As Lenin stated, while
the development of world history as a whole follows general laws,
it is by no means precluded, but, on the contrary, presumed, that
certain periods of development may display peculiarities in either
the form or the sequence of this d e ~ e l o p m e n t . The
~ ~ unilinear
view can easily be misinterpreted as an absolute uniformity that ignores the diversity of individual national histories.
According to Melottis multilinear theory, China, India, Egypt,
and other countries all fall into the category of Asiatic society,
and Russia belongs to semi-Asiatic society. None of them, therefore, went through the stages of slave and feudal society. Consequently, in world history, only ancient Greece and Rome went
through the stage of slave society. This opinion is nothing new but
a reflection of the dogmatic attitude toward the theory of five pro-

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66 CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

duction modes. And it will not lead to the discovery of the patterns
of sociohistorical development. When some scholars are able to
break through the influence of dogmatism, others remain confined
to it.
Marx and Engels treated ancient Greece, Rome, and medieval
Europe as the models for slave society and feudal society. They did
not, however, confine slave society solely to ancient Greece and
Rome,or feudal society solely to medieval Europe. Otherwise,
they would not have defined the economic law of motion of modern society [as] the natural law of its movement.34 Marx wrote:
The relations of production in their totality constitute what are
called the social relations, society, and, especially, a society at a
definite stage of historical development, a society with a peculiar,

distinctive character. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois


society are such totalities of production relations, each of which at
the same time denotes a special stage of development in the history of mankind?
Ancient society in the above passage refers to slave society.
Marx declared that as in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, slavery
or serfdom forms the broad basis of social production.36 Engels
also pointed out many times that the slave system is the major form
of class oppression in ancient class society. If both Marx and
Engels believed that slave, feudal, and bourgeois societies were all
particular stages of human historical development, how can we say
that they deny the universality of slave and feudal society?
Two assumptions are made in claiming slave and feudal society
to be universal patterns of historical development. First, both slave
and feudal society are temporary stages in the process of evolution
of human society from lower to higher stages.
Every stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and
conditions to which it owes its origin. But in the face of the new,
higher conditions which gradually develop in its own womb, it
loses its validity and j~stification.~~
Second, slave and feudal societies are not isolated individual
phenomena. They are repetitive and regular historical systems in
world history. Engels once pointed out: In ancient times the
working people were the slaves of their owners, just as they still

THE ASLQTIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

67

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are in many backward countries and even in the southern part of


the United States. In the Middle Ages they were the serfs of the
landowning nobility, just as they still are in Hungary, Poland, and
Russia.38 Of course the repetitiveness of slave and feudal society
is not a monolithic model without diversity. Furthermore, these
two societies cannot be taken as the necessary stages of social development for every country and nationality without exception.
This does not prevent the same economic basis-the same in its
major conditions-from displaying endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of innumerable different
empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, historical influences acting from outside, e t ~ . ~
Due to differences in historical conditions, some countries and nationalities did skip the slave or feudal system.
There are two opposite directions in the study of the history of
slave and feudal society. One method is to treat ancient Greece,
Rome, and medieval Europe as the only model of historical development, and subject the histories of other nations to that model, or
to disqualify those nations upon the slightest difference with the
Greek, Roman and European models. The other method is to recognize the general characteristics of slave and feudal society that
are mutually shared among different nations and nationalities,
despite their historical diversity. We approve of the latter method.
The development of human history, of course, cannot be said to be
multilinear. On the other hand, all societies have developed their
own variations.
For a long time, some simplistic and dogmatic interpretations of
M a d s theory of socioeconomic conditions have led to an incorrect
understanding of slave and feudal society: In slave society the number of slaves must be a majority in the population; and in feudal
society the existence of the feudal lord is a crucial qualification.
According to this formula, it is possible that there has never been a
slave society in history. And feudal society only existed in very few
states. Thus it is difficult to claim the common patterns of development of human society. Naturally, Chinese slave society is different
from that of ancient Greece and Rome; Chinese feudal society is
different from that of medieval Europe. If we must put China into
the shoes of Europe, then we would find neither slave society nor

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68 CHINESE LAW AND GOVERNMENT

feudal society in Chinese history. On the other hand, in post-QinHan China, the form of landlord landownership and feudal tenant
taxation became highly developed. How can we deny it as a form of
feudal society? How can we confuse it with the Asiatic Mode of
Production? Some contend that feudal society existed in Japan but
not in China. Such an opinion does not have a firm foundation, as
the various systems in Japanese feudal society were deeply influenced by China, notwithstanding the difference between Japanese feudal society and that of medieval Europe.
Marx wrote, It is not the articles produced, but how they are
produced, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish
different economic epoch^."^^ Furthermore,
whatever the social form of production, laborers and means of
production always remain factors of it. But in a state of separation
from each other either of these factors can be such only potentially. For production to go on at all they must unite. The specific
manner in which this union is accomplished distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society from one another:
From these two passages, it is clear that the method and form
by which the means of production are integrated with labor is the
most important criterion in our judgment of the nature of social
economic existence. If in its national history the basic characteristics of the slave and feudal production mode are apparent and
predominant, that nation, then, should not be disqualified from
having slave or feudal society in its history just because it had a different experience from ancient Greece, Rome, and medieval
Europe.
One other issue is whether primitive society could develop directly into feudal society, [instead of] into slave society. The slave
system and the feudal system are two closely related forms of exploitation. As Marx stated:
Where man himself is captured together with the land as an
organic accessory of it, he is captured as one of the conditions of
production and thus slavery and serfdom arise, which soon debase
and modify the original forms of all communities, and themselves
become their foundation$2

In this passage Marx assumed that both slavery and feudal society could directly arise from primitive tribal communes. Engels also

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THE ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION

69

stated, it is certain that serfdom and bondage are not a peculiarly


medieval-feudal form; we find them everywhere or nearly everywhere where conquerors have the land cultivated for them by the
old-inhabitants-e.g., very early in T h e s ~ a l y . Two
~ ~ questions are
to be considered here. First, the feudal system discussed by M a n
and Engels in the above passages refers to the original or primitive
form of serfdom resulting from tribal warfare. It is only the precursor, not the medieval form of, medieval feudal serfdom.
Engels wrote that this primitive serfdom misled me and many
other people about servitude in the Middle Ages; one was much
inclined to base it simply on conquest, this made everything so neat
and easy. Here Engels implied that there was a difference between this kind of primitive feudal society and the medieval feudal
society. In another place, Engels regarded the German feudal system from the ninth to eleventh century as the continuation of old
Germanic slavery.44 Here, this old Germanic slavery refers to
the Germanic primitive slave system. Second, the existence of
slavery does not necessarily lead to slave society; nor does the existence of serfdom lead to feudal society. Wherever primitive communes disintegrated, there was an equal probability of producing
feudalism as well as slavery. However, a higher level of production
was required to form a feudal society than to create a slave society.
Therefore, from either the perspective of chronology or from the
historical experience of most countries in the world, slave society
always preceded feudal society.
The development of human history has its commonly shared
patterns. These patterns, however, are expressed in the form of
diversified historical development of individual nations and nationalities. Marxism has guided us to see the way to an all-embracing
and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development,
and decline of socioeconomic s y s t e r n ~ . It~ will
~ enable us to find
common patterns in the complexities of historical development. It
is our duty to use Marxist theory as our guide in our search for patterns and diversity of historical development.
Notes
1. Selected Works of Mam and Engels (Chinese ed., hereafter abbreviated as
Selected Works),1251.
2. Complete Works of Mam and Engels (Chinese ed., hereafter abbreviated as

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CHINESE U W AND GOVEWMENT

Complete Works),3:Z.
3. Complete Work,46:part 1, p. 4%.
4. Selected Wotks,
283.
5. Complete Works,46,part 1, p. 493.
6. Ibid., 20:66fM9.
7. Ibid., vol. 23, Preface to the Third Edition of Capital, p. 390.
8. Selected Work,19432,448,450.
9. Ibid., 4172.
10. Complete Works,36:112
11. Selected Wmks,4258-59.
12. Complete Works,25890-91.
13. Complete Works ofLenin, 13:255.
14. Umberto Melotti, Manc and the Third World,Chinese trans. (Commercial
Press, 1981) [English edition,Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 19721.
15. Jine, In S e m h ofAncient Rim&: The Study of IT
16. Mencius-King Tengwen.
17. Complete Works,46: part 1, p. 481.
18. Ibid, p. 473.
19. Ibid.
20. Selected Works,264.
21. Complete Works,46:part 1, p. 472.
22. Ibid., 19449.
23. Zwzhuun, Henggong Year 3 [The author has made a mistake about the
year: it should be Henggong Year 21.
24. Ibid., Xianggong Year 14.
25. Melotti, Manc and the Third World.
26. Three Kingdoms: The Book of Wei-Biography of Sima Lang.
27. Complete Works,20581.
28. Selected Works,3220.
29. Complete Works,25891.
30. Xunyu, The Book of Hun, vol. 8.
31. The Works of Luruangong, vol. 22.
32. Complete Worksof Lenin, 1:120.
33. Selected Worksof Lenin, 4690.
34. Selected Works,2208.
35. Ibid., 4:213.
36. Complete Works,25:940.
37. Selected Works,4212-13.
38. Ibid., 1:212.
39. Complete Works,25:892.
40. Ibid., 23204.
41. Ibid., 2444.
42. Ibid., 46:part 1, pp. 49&91.
43. Ibid., 35:131.
44. Ibid., p. 125.
45. Complete Works of Lenin, 21~38.