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the Communist Manifesto: Abstract of a world historical critique
by Andre Gunder Frank
13 March 2002 21:00 UTC
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by gunder frank
the complete paper may [soon] be found on the author's web page
section: on-line essays
sub-section:  on world history


               ANDRE    GUNDER      FRANK

Senior Fellow                                      Residence
World History Center                    One Longfellow Place
Northeastern University                            Apt. 3411
270 Holmes Hall                         Boston, MA 02114 USA
Boston, MA 02115 USA                    Tel:    617-948 2315
Tel: 617 - 373 4060                     Fax:    617-948 2316
Web-page:csf.colorado.edu/agfrank/     e-mail:franka@fiu.edu



                  Andre Gunder Frank

This essay is inspired, nay negatively prompted, by the alas continued
celebration of of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO on the occasion of its 150th
anniversary in 1998 in general and in particular by  Aditya Nigam's
"Marxism and the Postcolonial World. Footnotes to a Long March" [EPW
January 9, 1999: 33-43].   What follows is intended as an apparently still
very necessary historical corrective to Nigam's alarming defense still
today of Marx's "Orientalist common sense" when he writes on p.36, column
2 that  "[this] is not to say that Marx was an Ortientalist or a
racist. The point is exactly the reverse: Even for a revolutionary like
Marx, it was not possible to apprehend these forms/formations by stepping
outside the discursive horizon of his times." That is simply not so,
except insofar as a couple of generations had foreshortend European's
horizon so much as to cause  total cultural and intellectual amnesia
regarding all previously accumulated knowledge about the non-European
world. As one small step to set the record straight, I therefore make bold
here to revise some relevant theoretical and historical passages prepared
last year for the 150th anniversary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO  and
[Berkeley: University of California Press [US$ 19.95] & New
Delhi: Vistar/Sage Publications [Rps 495] 1998.

What Marx falsely invented about the "Asiatic Mode of Production" and
"Oriental Despotism" completely reversed the received wisdom
of every knowledgeable Arab and European who knew the opposite to be true
from Ibn Kaldhoun in the fourteenth century to Leibnitz, Voltaire and
Smith in the eighteenth. For instance, the Tunisian statesman and
historian, Ibn Kaldhoun [1332-1406] evaluated and compared the "wealth of
nations" before and at his time:

The entire discussion of  Marx's COMMUNIST MANIFESTO on the occasion of
its 150th anniversary in EPW and elsewhere last year and still in Nigam's
article this year is a sad reflection of how ingrained and widespread this
Eurocentrist distortion of history and social theory still is. .....

My multiple choice is NONE of the above. My argument below is that all
Western social science of the past 150 years from Marx Weber to
Wallerstein himself is ir-remediably Eurocentric and NOT universalist in
any manner, shape or form. Contrary to Zeitlin and Mittleman Marx and
Co. are NOT worthy of emulation, and certainly not for the present and
still less for the future. And despite Wallerstein's welcome reservations
about reigning 'universalisms,' his same report for the Gulbenkian
Commission fails completely to rattle at the Eurocentirc cage of the
social sciences he means to 'open'.

At least since Marx and Engles' COMMUNIST MANIFESTO "The West" has for
some time now perceived much of "The Rest" of the world under the title
"Orientalism." The Western world is replete with "Oriental" studies,
institutes and what not. This Western ideological stance was magnificently
analyzed and denounced under the title Orientalism by the Palestinian
American Edward Said (1979)....


Perry Anderson (1974:548) asked that the Asiatic Mode of Production [AMP]
"be given the decent burial that it deserves." That is very decent of him,
since the AMP hardly deserves even that....

Therefore, Marx's description of China as a "mummy preserved in a
hermetically sealed coffin ... vegetating in the teeth of time" had
absolutely no basis in fact.  Nor did his idea that a supposed AMP reigned
in India, Persia, Egypt or anywhere else. That was no more than
"Orientalism painted Red" as Tibebu (1990) aptly remarked. Marx's
contention that "in broad outline, Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern
bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress
in the economic development of society" was pure ideological fiction and
had no basis in fact or science [quotations from Marx are from Brook
(1989:11,6)]. There never have been any such epochs, and the very idea of
unilinear transitions from one "mode of production" to another, be they on
a "societal" or a world-wide basis, only divert attention from the real
historical process, which has been world-wide, but horizontally
integrative and cyclical.

Alas, "the importance of Marx's analysis of Asia is ... that it functioned
as an integral part of the process through which he constructed his theory
of capitalism" (Brook 1989:6). "The importance of Orientalism for the
study of Marxism lies ... [in] the notion that, in contrast to Western
society, Islamic [and other Oriental] civilization is static and locked
within its sacred customs, its formal moral code, and its religious
law" (Turner 1978:6). To that extent, Marx's entire "theory of
capitalism" was vitiated both by the lack of support from the Eurocentric
leg of its fables about a supposed Asian Mode of Production  and by his
equally Eurocentric supposition that Europe was different and that what
happened there must have originated in Europe. We have seen that no such
thing really originated --  let alone because of any supposed transition
from feudalism to capitalism -- in Europe. The historical process was
world-wide and world - including Europe - encompassing.


Other social "scientists" may have risen to dispute Marx [and supposedly
to agree with Smith], but they all agreed with each other and with Marx
that 1492 and 1498 were the two greatest events in the history of mankind,
because that is when Europe discovered the world. Never mind that the
world had been there all along and that at least the Afro-Asiatic part of
it had long since shaped Europe itself. Indeed, the eminent historian of
medieval Europe, Henri Pirenne (1992) stressed Europe's external
dependence when pointed out long ago that there could have been "No
Charlemagne without Mohammed."  Nevertheless, history and social theory
have been marked ever since not only by the alleged uniqueness of [West]
Europeans, which supposedly generated "The Rise of the West."  What is
worse, they allegedly also had to assume the civilizing mission of the
white man's burden which bestowed "the  development and spread of
capitalism" on the world as Europe's and the West's gift to
mankind. [Lately, some feminists have at least denied that this process
has been a gift also to womankind].

..... Little is gained in my view, and much better opportunities at
reformulation are needlessly squandered, by inventing new latter day
variations on this old theme, which are little more than euphemistic....  
The incessant discussions about non-, pre-, proto-, blooming-, full
blown-, declining-, post-, or any other "stage"  and quantity or quality
of capitalism or the lack thereof have led us down the garden path and
diverted us from analyzing the real world. A recent example was already
mentioned: Hill Gates (1996) does very well to examine the relations
between commercialism and patriarchy in a thousand years of China's Motor.
However, her continued insistence on using the categories of "the
tributary and petty capitalist modes of production" and their uneasy
relations handicaps instead of illuminating her analysis of the real world
issues....The latest misplaced and therefore irrelevantly misleading
discussion is summarized by its very title "Do We Need A Theory of
Merchant Capitalism?" (van Zanden 1997). The Spring 1997 issue of Review,
edited by Wallerstein, devotes an entire issue, to which he also
contributes [and to his credit rejects the concept]...........

NO BREAK IN 1450/1492/1498/1500

Another and derivative but inescapable conclusion is that the alleged
break before and after 1500 never took place. Historians often mark a
break in "world" history in 1500 (eg. Stavarianos 1966, Reilly 1989). Even
Bentley's (1996) innovative proposals in The American Historical Review to
derive "Periodization in World History" not only from European but from
world-wide processes still marks the beginning of the last period in 1500.  
Historians and social theorists of Europe, both of earlier generations and
still contemporary ones mark this same break all the moreso. So do
world-system theorists like Wallerstein (1974), and still Sanderson (1994)
and Chase-Dunn and Hall (1996). The allegation that there was a sharp
break around 1500 was already reflected in the above-cited opinions of
Smith and Marx that 1492 and 1498 were the most important years in the
history of mankind. Perhaps they were directly so for the peoples of the
"New World" and indirectly so for those of Europe. However, Braudel
(1992:57) disputed Wallertstein's allegation of this break in Europe,
where Braudel saw continuity since at least 1300 and even from 1100.


Of late, that is since Marx, the "fascination" [as Braudel
(1992:54) called it] with 1500 as the date of a new departure that makes a
supposed break with the past is mostly a function of the allegation that
it ushered in a new, previously unknown or at least never before dominant,
"capitalist mode of production." That was of course the position from Marx
and Sombart to Weber and Tawney, and all it is still shared by their many
contemporary followers. This is still the position of
"world-system" theorists from Wallerstein (1974) and Frank (1978) to
Sanderson (1995) and Chase-Dunn (1996). Even Amin's (1991,1993) and
Blaut's (1993) vehement critiques of Eurocentrism stop short of abandoning
1500 as the dawn of a new age of European born and borne capitalism.  All
of the above Marxists, Weberians, Polanyists, world-systematizers, not to
mention most "economic" and other historians, balk at pursuing the
evidence and the argument to examine the sacred cow of "capitalism" and
its allegedly peculiarly exceptional or exceptionally peculiar "mode of

 However, the hidden but most revealing aspect of this discussion is that,
irrespective of which side of the arguments they support, all of the
discussants on the meaning and referents of who and where is allegedly
excluded from "capitalism."  Indeed, van Zanden and others even name
several of them: slaves, peasants, those who work at home in cottage
industry, in West Africa, and in East Asia (van Zanden 1997: 260). In all
this discussion and the related literature it refers to, all these
producers and even traders remain outside their universe of discourse in
which "admittedly, the Dutch Republic became the largest staple market the
world had even known;" so "Amsterdam was both the central warehouse of
world commerce and the pivotal money and capital market of the European
world-economy at the same time;" and therefore it was "the world-economy's
control booth" (Lis and Soly 1997: 233, 211, 222). That is, for all these
discussants about "modes of production." the real world economy, of which
Amsterdam was but an outpost, does not exist.
Indeed, Wallerstein's (1997: 244) intervention even stresses "let us not
quibble about the unit of analysis"!  But the most important issue in this
whole discussion is precisely the unit of analysis, which all of the
participants disregard: the world economy and not their little European
one. The moment we recognize that, the whole discussion about "modes of
production" more than pales into  insignificance and irrelevance: For then
it can finally been seen as the distraction that it really is from the
real issue, which is the holistic analysis of the whole.

Therefore, it is much better to cut [out] the Gordian knot of
"capitalism" altogether. That was already my argument in Frank (1991),
Frank and Gills (1992, 1993), and Frank (1994,1995); and it is well put by
Chaudhuri (1990:84) writing under the title Asia Before Europe: "The
ceaseless quest of modern historians looking for the 'origins' and roots
of capitalism is not much better than the alchemist's search for the
philosopher's stone that transforms base metal into gold." Indeed, that is
the case not only for the origins and roots, but the very existence and
meaning of "capitalism." So, best just forget about it, and get on with
our inquiry into the reality of "universal history, wie es eigentlich
gewesen ist [how it really was]".

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