Colombo Telegraph

Remembering Karl Marx, Asiatic Despotism And Sri Lanka

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr Laksiri Fernando

He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep, but for ever.”  – Frederick Engels

This happened on 14 March 1883, at quarter to three in the afternoon, hundred and thirty years ago. Since then so many things have happened and so many other things have changed in the world but many of his ideas are still valid or relevant. Karl Marx undoubtedly is a great thinker of all times. He is the founder of ‘scientific socialism’ along with Frederick Engels and wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 which summed up their thinking in programmatic form even before Marx ventured into write Das Capital as an analysis of the ‘laws of motion’ in the capitalist economy. Among his many theories and discoveries was his analysis of the Asiatic mode of production (AMP) – the base of Asiatic despotism – which is the main focus of this article in celebrating Marx this year considering its relevance in understanding even the present day Sri Lanka.

General Contribution

A standard text to understand Marxism as a beginning perhaps still is V. I. Lenin’s The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism written in March 1913, in commemorating Marx’s thirtieth death anniversary. That is exactly hundred years ago. That is how I began to learn and understand Marxism. The three sources that Lenin talked about were ‘German philosophy,’ ‘English political economy’ and ‘French socialism.’ He added that “those were the best that man produced in the nineteenth century.” The three components that he talked about were ‘dialectical materialism,’ ‘Marxist political economy’ and ‘scientific socialism.’

That is about Marxism. But in assessing the contribution of Marx as a person or thinker, I would rather depend on what Engels said at Marx’s graveside on 17 March 1883. It was brief but succinct. He said, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” We all know that Darwin’s theories are disputed as Marx’s are. But their profound impact and the validity of key propositions are almost undisputed.

Engels highlighted two discoveries of Marx in interpreting human history and society. When he was referring to the ‘laws of development of human history’ he was not merely referring to class struggle. In simple terms he said “mankind must first of all eat, drink, and have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art and religion.” It may sound like the Buddha who asked his disciples to ‘feed the people before preaching’ but the sociological conclusion of Marx was the most important as follows.

“The production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved.”

Most importantly, therefore, Marx concluded that the state institutions, legal conceptions, art or even the ideas on religion should be explained on the basis of the production of the immediate material needs, and the degree of economic development attained, “instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” This however did not disregard the importance of ideas or science in history. As Engels said, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force.”

“But that is not all,” Engels further reiterated at his graveside. “Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created.” That is the discovery of surplus value. This discovery, Engels said “suddenly threw light on the problem” in understanding both the rise and expansion and the possible demise of the capitalist system “which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark.”

The above two ‘discoveries’ undoubtedly have profound application in understanding the present day Sri Lanka if they are not applied artificially or superficially. There are, for example, salient connections between the (weak) nature of the ‘owners of the means of production’ and their overdependence on the State for capital accumulation and even the State’s move towards more and more authoritarianism. It is not the strength but the weakness of the capitalist system. This is abundantly apparent particularly in comparison to India. This is only one example of the possible application. But some of the other political phenomena might not be explained solely by Marx’s general theories but by his specific theory of the AMP.

Asiatic Mode of Production

There are those who tried to confine Marx’s analysis of AMP to his early years only. That is not correct. In his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx said “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.” This was in January 1859. Although in a footnote to the Communist Manifesto in 1888 Engels explained the existence of what could be called ‘primitive communist’ societies but he never suggested dropping the idea of Asiatic mode of production. That distortion came from Moscow for obvious reasons in the 1930s. The obvious reason was the congruence between the AMP and the Stalinist rule.

The analysis of AMP came in early writings and repeated in the three volumes of Das Capital as a comparison to other modes of production. The chapter on ‘pre-capitalist economic formations’ in much celebrated theoretical work of Grundrisse (1857-58) analysed it more clearly. Nevertheless, it may be true that the analysis of the AMP remained clouded with some uncertainties due particularly to the lack of empirical research. Lenin often equated the Tsarist Russia to Asiatic despotism and Leon Trotsky alluded it in interpreting class alliances in colonial societies. It was however the former Marxist, Karl Wittfogel, who resurrected the theory in his famous Oriental Despotism (1957).

Marx’s Reference to Ceylon

As far as I am aware, there is one reference to Ceylon in Marx’s writings and interestingly it is in the context of AMP. That is quite important and revealing. It is not only in respect of geography but also in social formation. He considered India and Ceylon as one single ecosphere. This is what he said.

“Hindostan is an Italy of Asiatic dimensions, the Himalayas for the Alps, the Plains of Bengal for the Plains of Lombardy, the Deccan for the Apennines, and the Isle of Ceylon for the Island of Sicily.”    

For those who know about the history of Sicily, the comparison of Ceylon to Sicily is interesting apart from the present Mafia! Marx was writing to the New York Tribune in 1853 to be precise. He criticised the British colonialism in its despotic ruling both in India and Ceylon. It is more invasive than the Asiatic despotism and here he used the term ‘Asiatic despotism.’ Then he explained what was there before.

“There have been in Asia, generally, from immemorial times, but three departments of Government; that of Finance, or the plunder of the interior; that of War, or the plunder of the exterior; and, finally, the department of Public Works.”

As Marx was writing to the general reader, he used the term ‘government’ but it could also read as the State. The three departments that he talked about are like references specifically to Sri Lanka today. For example, one handling the Finance or the ‘plunder of the interior,’ another handing the War or the ‘plunder of the exterior’ beyond its own ethnic group and the third handling Public Works, including of course ‘Divineguma.’ Whatever there in addition is merely cosmetic. How prophetic Marx was!

To come back to the more serious points of the ancient AMP, his letters with Engels during the period reveal that Engels was the person who highlighted the ‘climatic conditions’ and the need for artificial irrigation – impressive tanks and canals – that underpinned the public works in ancient AMP. The communities that were scattered in small and isolated villages completely depended on the State or those who wielded power.

Bases of AMP

There were two major facets that Marx emphasised as the bases of the AMP. First is the necessity of the people to develop a kind of ‘voluntary associations’ or self-help social relations at the village level to survive and sustain their living. Some even identified these villages as ‘communistic.’ I have maintained the view that Thomas More possibly drew inspirations for his Utopia (1516) from village life in Ceylon and Kerala (Calicut).

Second is the necessity of a “centralizing government” interfacing this village means of production for essentially irrigation purposes. There was also a strong element of manpower control. This is the Asiatic despotism. I am not alluding but quoting: “Hence an economical function devolved upon all Asiatic Governments, the function of providing public works.”       

Then he criticised the colonial administration by saying “Now, the British in East India accepted from their predecessors the department of finance and of war, but they have neglected entirely that of public works.” This was the disaster of that particular colonialism and misery of the people. He also maintained the view that the British principles of not only laissez-faire but also laissez-aller might not apply or work in these conditions. Laissez-aller here means the ‘freedom of movement.’ Then what would be the alternative? He didn’t say directly.

But he supplied an unmistakable critique of Oriental despotism and said:

“We must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.”

The reincarnation of ‘Oriental despotism’ is still possible and occurs as we have experienced in Sri Lanka under several different regimes based on ‘public works’ and keeping the mass of rural populous dependent on the State through various devices. This is also the secret behind the Rajapaksa hegemony. As Marx said, the political character of this despotism is the “restraining of the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.” At least this is the attempt.

Marx criticised the British colonialism by saying that it “was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them.” It may be considered too much of a mild criticism however. It was left for Lenin to analyse the true nature of Imperialism and announce the possibility of political and social change. But Marx asked the right question: “Can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?” Although this was raised in respect of AMP of that time it is still valid in respect of AMP of our time. It was also Marx who said that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways. The point is, however, to change it.”


When we consider the application of Marx’s AMP to Sri Lanka’s social evolution along with his general theory of political economy, the country has gone through (a) indigenous living of ‘Yakkas’ and ‘Nagas’ (b) long periods of fluctuating AMP with Asiatic despotism (c) colonial plunder and introduction of capitalism and (d) post-colonial bourgeoisie development mixed with the resurrection of AMP and Asiatic despotism again and again. What may be absent in understanding the past and the present might be the decisive role that the Asiatic despotism played in differentiating the ethnic formations and its relation to AMP. Marxism has always been weak in analysing the ethnic question.

In the resurrection of Asiatic despotism in contemporary Sri Lanka, it is not by accident that ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ quoted Parakramabahu the Great in its preamble declaring that “A ruler is only a trustee and not the owner of land or its vegetation” in a benevolent tone. It is an ideology or a mind-set. J. R. Jayewardene had a similar vision. Marx extensively quoted J. B. Tavernier’s Voyages (1679) in his letters to Engels in early 1850s to explicate this aspect of governance or rule to strive his point of AMP. As Tavernier said the Mogul Emperor also was ‘not the landowner but the trustee of the land and territory.’ But he could plunder.

More precisely, the current thinking of overall centralized power on the one hand and the resurrection of village administration on the other, is akin to AMP at the base and the Asiatic or Oriental despotism at the top, that Marx talked about. It should not be mistaken, however, that the primary nature of the ‘mode of production’ in Sri Lanka today is capitalist or semi-capitalist. However, the over dependence of the agricultural communities on the State and the poor sections of the populous on the government hand-outs (i.e. Samurdhi) have created a situation where Despotic rule has been possible behind the democratic paraphernalia.

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