Historicizing historical materialism
David Parker: Marxism and Absolutism / Jairus Banaji: Reconstructing Historical Materialism: Some Key Issues
Marxism and Absolutismby David Parker
This paper will discuss the different ways in which Marxists have explained the formation and nature of absolutist regimes. It will suggest that the attempts which go back to Marx and Engels themselves to link them to the progress of capitalism and the bourgeoisie are empirically unsound. On the contrary they were attempts to stabilise feudal regimes beset by both internal and external pressures, the most important of which have nothing to do with capitalism. Absolute monarchies served the interests of a feudal ruling class or a fraction of it. However the rise of such regimes cannot be explained simply by reference to class structures, class conflict or modes of production. A satisfactory analysis has to get away from economic reductionism and do justice to a plurality of causal factors whilst retaining a recognisably Marxist framework.
Reconstructing Historical Materialism: Some Key Issuesby Jairus Banaji
The paper starts from the idea that historical materialism needs to be thoroughly stripped of its evolutionism and radically upgraded. The proposed ‘reconstruction’ deals with four sets of issues: 1. theoretical issues related to how we understand modes of production; the conception of these as historical and not sociological objects; the distinction between relations of production and forms of exploitation; and the levels of abstraction involved in characterizing the latter; 2. How Marxists can begin to move beyond the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ (Marx’s loud thinking) and John Haldon’s version of the ‘tributary mode’; the precise sense in which Marx’s ‘key to the Oriental heaven’ (viz. the absence of private property in land) offers the basis for a new materialist characterization of ‘Asiatic’ regimes (starting with Byzantium and including Russia and China); 3. Slavery and capitalism; the implications for historical materialism of allowing for slave-holding capitalists, as much of the recent historiography of the American South has started to do in a conscious move away from Genovese; 4. the issue of whether free labour is central to the definition of capitalism, and the reason why capitalist relations cannot be described in abstraction from legal categories.