Marx's Ethnological Notebooks, feudalism in Asia, and strategy in Nepal - Stephen Lawrence Mikesell

View of Kathmandu City
View of Kathmandu City

The author argues that the common leftist definition of Nepal as wholly or partially “feudal” is wrong and historically inappropriate and that those ‘Marxists’ claiming it are in contradiction with Marx’s own expressed views.

Submitted by Red Marriott on August 31, 2013

THE NEPALESE Left starts with the premise that the countryside of Nepal, if not the state, is feudal. Although this is a more critical stance than many works which describe the country in terms of being timeless and 'traditional', it is theoretically, historically and comparatively incorrect. Moreover, it seems strategically unwise. Although this interpretation is based on materialist theory, it misreads Marx's analysis of feudalism [e.g. in Marx and Engels' Introduction to The German Ideology (1983) and 'Forms which Precede Capitalist Production' (1973a)]. Moreover, in the last years of his life, Marx (1972) strongly opposes it.

In the first place, that relations take feudal forms does not necessarily mean that they are feudal in content or that the state is feudal. A study of feudalism in Europe shows that it arose from the disintegration of the Roman Empire, a highly centralized state controlling the entire Mediterranean, Western Europe, and a large part of Asia. This is not at all the experience in Nepal.

Over the course of five centuries that the Roman Empire developed in Western Europe (from the first quarter of the first century BC to the last quarter of the fifth century AD), not only did Roman society drastically change, but the relations in the countryside under the Roman rule among the tribes which eventually overthrew it also transformed. Consequently, it is important not to too quickly attribute feudalism to other areas of the world without accounting for and comparing conditions that presupposed its development in Europe.

As one of the driving forces of the expansion of the Roman empire, its citizens set themselves up on landed estates in conquered provinces worked by enslaved captives. Simultaneously, the Romans established cities across Europe as seats of administration and trade. The rule of these cities over the countryside was essentially political, meaning that production itself did not in substance change. On the fringes of the empire, the various German tribes were forced to organize for war against the Roman expansion. In the later centuries, this took an increasingly aggressive form. Since the development of the Ancient city was characterized by territorial expansion with its citizens becoming a landed class, Marx spoke of this expansion of the Ancient European city as 'ruralization of the city'.

In the late empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, developments led to the appearance of a number of conflicting interests which increasingly weakened the empire from within while the threat from without grew ever stronger. The long years of war against increasingly powerful German tribes placed a heavier and heavier tax burden on the countryside, causing an ever larger split between the strong landholding class and the city. These developments were compounded by a growing class of restless landless citizens and freed slaves within the cities, and growing restlessness among slaves working in the countryside, with their sympathies for the Germans. The landless proletariat remained an unorganized rabble, threatening the rulers (inducing subsequent rulers to promise greater amounts of 'bread and circuses' to sedate the masses) but never posing a threat to take over state power.

Due to the long history of expansion and centralization, when the Western Empire eventually fell at the end of the fifth century the collapse of the state machinery was so complete and widespread that it reduced political power into many small estates and individual landlords organized according to the militarized order of the invading tribes. Although much weakened and depopulated, the cities stood in opposition to the countryside. Throughout the immense area of what was once the Western Empire, cities for the first time had become relatively independent of the control of landed property interests over the state. Feudalism was then characterized by a gradual process of exertion of the independence and extension of control of cities over the countryside and eventually the state. Thus, unlike before, the expansion of the feudal cities took the form of 'urbanization of the countryside'.

At no time in its history has Nepal, however, been characterized by either the great centralization that provided the historical basis preceding the rise of feudalism or the complete collapse of the state that defined it. In the West, at least, where Rajputs had been establishing themselves from the beginning of the millennium, the state in Nepal was always characterized by increasing centralization, and at no time has control of the landed classes over it been relinquished. Unlike in feudal Europe, towns and cities never emerged in opposition to the landed property classes and the countryside. Rather, they developed as seats of control of these landed property classes. Consequently, instead of exerting their independence, the urban industrial and mercantile classes remained subordinated to the landed classes, taking their hegemonic form, caste.

The centuries from the time of King Prithivi Narayan Shah, the first king of modern Nepal (d. 1775), have been characterized by unprecedented centralization and realignment of production and development of social interests, in Nepal, India and globally. Prithivi Narayan's 'unification' of Nepal assumed already great inequality in the countryside which caused hill peasants to rally around him and his promise of agricultural land to his followers.[1] The contingency of the plots on ruling interests of the state, and the subsequent centralization, both of control by landed property within the country and the growing strength of industrial capitalism without, neither alleviated conditions in the countryside nor helped establish industry as an independent force. And while bazaar merchants became a strong force within Nepal, this has been primarily due to their role in the circulation of industrial commodities from without. The conditions of feudalism as a form of state or in the content of the general relations of the people simply never existed in Nepal.


We know quite well Marx's understanding of the global process from his earlier works, especially Capital. But there seems to be a continuing debate about how he interpreted developments in the Indian subcontinent. Best known are his writings in the New York Daily Tribune on India during the Great Revolt of the 1850s, when Marx first began to familiarize himself with India and characterized British rule as far more despotic and destructive than was ever previously experienced in India. However, he also saw this rule as representing a revolutionary force that would introduce contradictions to bring the subcontinent out of its assumed stagnation. He developed this understanding in the Grundrisse (Marx 1973a) with the addition of an 'Asiatic form' to his Hegelian schema of property and modes of production in the history of the world that he had previously developed in his introduction to The German Ideology.

Some scholars particularly reacted to this understanding of Marx, especially in its subsequent unilinear interpretations and formulations unintended by Marx. Aware that characterizations of Asia as stagnant have been an aspect of expansionist western colonial and imperial ideology, these scholars try to show how Indian and other Asian Empires were indeed feudal and thus contained dynamic contradictions in the sense of feudalism in Western Europe (Berktay 1987; Alavi 1980).

While agreeing with the critique of Western European Orientalist theory, I have been unsatisfied with these authors' attempts to use particular feudalistic characteristics in order to characterize entire regions or eras as feudal. For Marx and Engels (1983), the general character of a society or stage of social development is defined foremost by the general underlying relation of city and countryside at the basis of the division of labour characterizing the society. Selective focus on the appearance or lack of specific features can cause this essential relationship to be overlooked. Such a focus on the presence or lack of particular characteristics, such as of guilds in India (Alavi 1980) or large estates in Nepal,[2] cannot in itself define a modal difference.

Marx seems to have been reassessing his ideas on the subject when he turned to the newly emerging ethnological literature in the last years of his life.[3] First, in applying his knowledge of ancient and feudal Europe in his reading of Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society,[4] Marx shifted his focus from an abstract hypothetical typology of the forms of property to a historical and comparative study of the development and transformation of clan-based states into states representing private property (with the subsequent subordination of the clan to the patriarchal family).

While previously Marx had developed a theory of the rise of the city in terms of a typology of production relations based especially on his knowledge of Europe, in the Morgan notebooks he shifted his focus to the particular histories of this transformation as it occurred variously throughout the world. His focus was less on essential, ideal Hegelian framed differences, as previously, than on how the same processes took different forms and represented various interests in different places and periods throughout the world.

In particular, Marx's notebooks on Edward Phear's The Aryan Village focus on the substance of British colonialism in rural India. Here we see that Marx does not attribute the conditions of rural India to feudalism. To the contrary, he castigates Phear for making just this interpretation.

So small the accumulated capital of the villagers and this itself is often due to the mahajan = merchant, money dealer—one who makes it his business in the villages to advance money and grain to the Ryot on the pledge of crop. Extreme poverty of by far the largest portion, i.e., the bulk of the population in Bengal (the richest part of India!) seldom rightly apprehended by the English people. (Marx 1972:249)

(This ass Phear calls the Constitution of the village feudal). Outside of this Village Constitution the Mahajan, the village capitalist. The village ryot has to periodically pay money; e.g., to build new or repair hut of the homestead, to make a plow or another instrument, to purchase a pair of bullocks, the seed required for planting, finally, travel for himself and his family, several kists of rent to be paid before all his crops can be secured and realized. In the western part of the Delta, his savings seldom suffice to tide him over; the period which elapses before his yearly production realizes payment. Thus he must go to the Mahajan for money and for paddy as he wants them. Customarily it takes the form of a transaction between both sides: the paddy for sowing and for food and also other goods, become supplied under the condition that he return an additional 50% in quantity at the harvest time; money is to be repaid at another time, also at harvest time, with 2% per month interest either in the form of an equivalent of paddy, reckoned at bazaar prices, or in cash at the option of the lender. As security for execution of this agreement the Mahajan frequently takes mortgage of the ryot's future crop, and he helps himself to the stipulated amount on the very threshing floor, in the open field. (63, 64)

The Zemindar—this false English landlord—merely a rent-charger; the ryot a field-labourer, living from hand to mouth; the mahajan, who furnishes the farming capital, who calculates the labor and pockets all the profits, is a stranger, having no proprietary interest in the land; a creditor only, whose sole object is to realise his money advantageously as possible. After setting aside his golas (hut in which grain is stored) as much of the production come to his hands, as he is likely to need for his next year's business, he deals with the rest simply as cornfactor, sending it to the most remunerative market—and yet he has not legitimate proprietary status in the community, while those who have—the ryot and the zemindar for different reasons are apparently powerless. Hence, the unprogressive character of an agricultural village, as described by a young zemindar. (Marx 1972:256-7)[5]

Here it is evident that at that time in Bengal, Marx sees that the substance of relations of the landed property classes was not feudal. He saw instead that the merchants dominated the countryside and castigated Phear for interpreting the relations of the country as feudal. Under feudalism rent takes the form of the entire surplus, under capitalism the rent portion taken by the landlord represents only one part of the surplus. The rest enters into circulation as interest and profit of merchants. Even when the landlords physically collect the entire surplus in the form of rent, if conditions force them to enter it into circulation controlled by merchants (or transnational corporations), then in effect the merchants deduct the profit portion and reduce the landlords' share into the rent one.

Marx's previous typology that presented India as 'stagnant' no longer seemed relevant in his Ethnological Manuscripts. Indeed, he recognized later in the text that significant changes in landownership, including subinfeudation, had been going on prior to the entry of the British into India (Marx 1972:262). The British totally transformed the system by converting land into private property, in effect favouring the development of merchant class interests over and against those of other classes (to say nothing of the labourers).

The conversion—by the English rogues and asses of the Zemindaris into private proprietors made by itself (if also not in the idea of the former asses) all intermediate interests into rights in land, and the owner of such interest could encumber the land or alienate it within the limit of the right; he could receive his ownership itself against the complex Hindu joint-parcenary form. (147, 148) (Marx 1972:263)[6]

The implication is that by making property alienable, the British laid the ground for the full alienation of the land by one of the dominant classes in the countryside, the merchants, allowing it to become the primary dominant class under the British. This obviously served the purposes of the English, because it meant that land and labour could be concentrated under capital and the surpluses easily alienable to enter into the circulation of industrial commodities. These processes were also taking place within Nepal from at least the time of the Ranas, and they were greatly accelerated from the beginning of the twentieth century.

The full history of this mercantile class was described by Ray (1988) as originating in the handling of the credit operations of the Mughal armies. The merchants' domain of operation was the bazaar. With the entry of the British into the subcontinent, the merchants served to link between the European dominated organized business and industry on the one hand, and the artisan and peasant economy on the other. The members of the Indian capitalist class acted as servants of the colonial economy (thus coming under the term of comprador capitalists),[7] allowing them to displace the control of landed property over the countryside and extend their strength through control of up-country markets. The string of crises of the first half of the twentieth century (the world wars and Great Depression), allowed the bazaar merchants, with their much smaller and more flexible operating margins, to push the European interests out of the organized economy and establish their own control over the state in alliance with the transnational interests.[8]

In the Himalayas, the conquest by Gorkha of the various hill states in the last part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries allowed a nearly simultaneous expansion of merchants from the conquered cities of Bhatgaun and Lalitpur into the hills west and east of the Kathmandu valley, respectively. They built bazaars throughout the middle hills, first on the basis of trade in indigenous products such as homespun fabrics and other goods, but increasingly of fabrics, salt, cigarettes, thread, kerosene, and other goods imported from British India and other foreign countries. This, combined with usury, allowed them to exert increasing control over the land. They entered the surpluses extracted through whatever means in Nepal back into circulation, now global in extent, contributing to the realization of values, employment of labour, investment in new means of production, and the accumulation of industrial surplus in Europe, the United States and Japan.

Thus the production and reproduction and the activity of the ruling classes within Nepal became increasingly committed to the expansion of industrial capitalism without the country even prior to the date usually set as the watermark of foreign influence, the (misnomered) 'Democracy Revolution' of 1950-1. Despite the continued existence of landlordism and patronage, key elements of the dominance of landed property were eclipsed. The combination of agriculture and industry was broken as factory-produced cloths, shoes, cigarettes, etc., displaced village-produced ones. Consumption and production in the village became another step in the circulation of industrial commodities. A large portion of the social product was put to reproducing mercenary soldiers whose purpose was (and is) to police the new global rule being established by capitalist interests. Increasing amounts of labour are being recruited into India and elsewhere. And finally, the landlords themselves enter surpluses, collected in the form of rents, into the market.

Even previously, surpluses were not entered into an estate economy characteristic of classical feudalism. Rather, they were controlled, if not directly, by a centralized state in the service of landed property distributed in the form of prebendal estates. Subsequent changes in distribution of surplus have depended upon the ability of various classes to assert their control over the state. This has in part taken the form of assertion of monopoly control by ruling families in alliance with transnational interests—a position analogous to that of the Birlas, Tatas, arid other large houses of post-independence India. In opposition to them, in addition to the bazaar-based merchant and contractor interests, is a growing bureaucratic and intelligentsia interest. Although the ruling families were trying to consolidate their hold over the countryside with unprecedented expansion of state mechanisms into the villages, they instead succeeded in creating yet another class interposing its interests over the direct producers. Up to now, the radical opposition forces have failed to capitalize on this failure of the government; and they now necessarily await for a spontaneous uprising to deliver the state into their hands.

Unlike the pattern under feudalism, the expansion of the indigenous capitalist class was facilitated by increasing centralization, not breakdown of the state. Whereas in feudalism the functions of government devolved to estates and other local polities; in the Nepal state, offices and a growing bureaucracy have increasingly absorbed not only the estate functions but social ones of all kinds in the name of rationalization. Growth of industrial production and monopoly centred in other countries provided the force behind the expansion of the merchants. Presently, so-called 'development' means the increasing assertion of transnational corporate control over society and state. The form that this process takes is less consequential to the transnational corporations than the end result—who controls use of the natural environment, markets and surplus labour.

Certain strategic implications follow from this reinterpretation of feudalism in Nepal. If the present problems of Nepal are interpreted in terms of a persistence of feudalism, the problem of change is merely one of disposal of the feudal classes and the capture of state power by a more progressive emerging national bourgeoisie. But when the problem becomes understood in terms of the transnational class relations which have subordinated Nepalese society and interests to their own, then the solution becomes of another order entirely.

Transnational capital is extremely well organized. For example, it brings sugar estates in Honduras and cocoa estates in Peru, oil in the Middle East, shipping transport from Korea, computers from Japan, and media in Manhattan together to produce and distribute cola beverages in Kathmandu. Compared with the means available to the people of Nepal, its resources are bottomless, its presence ubiquitous, its class character complex, and its ideology as many-faced as all the Hindu gods and goddesses (and incorporates them into its pantheon, needless to say). Second, even within Nepal it works through a myriad of occupations and statuses—including bureaucrats, consultants, contractors, merchants, industrialists, educators, doctors, movie producers and movie hall owners, Brahmans, and even Communists; its influence and the people who see their interests and aspirations aligned to it are everywhere. In order to capture state power, where does one start? And what does it mean to capture state power? Even the leadership of the political parties is easily purchased and co-opted.

While agitation at the level of the nation state is important, an increasingly important strategy would be to educate and organize people to recognize and confront capital in its various and changing forms and strategies. The problem is not so much one of leading a universal class, as it has often been framed in the past (usually with the aim of using this class for particular purposes), as obtaining universal engagement by that class in struggle. Even if the leadership is decapitated or sells out, as happens again and again, resistance can then continue. Mere capture of a particular nation state cannot change the present alignment of forces in the world and the general hegemony of capital. In a world where the nation state has been subordinated to a truly global form of state, where presidents and kings are merely beribboned, bemedalled and bespectacled executives of its interests,[9] where production is shifted to wherever labour and bureaucrats are most pliant; popular change (especially a revolutionary one) necessitates the development of a broad-based local, to say nothing of international, consciousness and organization reaching to the lowest levels. Otherwise, the hoped for spontaneous uprising, if it comes, may be co-opted by one or more of class interests in league with transnational capital. Struggle must be a continuing one, dependent on people more than leaders, met in ways that are even more imaginative and diverse than the many guises of transnational capitalism.

This chapter was originally published by the Jhilko Pariwar in Jhilko, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1990, pp. 3-13. It is republished here with the generous permission of Hisila Yami.

1] As Marx pointed out in the case of the founding of Rome, this process laying claim to soveriegnty has been repeated throughout history: 'old trick of the founders of cities to draw to themselves an obscure and humble multitude, and then set up for their progeny the autochthonic claim. .. . "From the neighboring places a crowd of people of all kinds came for refuge, without distinguishing freemen from slaves in quest for novelty, these were the first to come, because of the (city's) greatness." (Liv. I, I.) ... Shows that the barbarian population of Italy was very swollen, discontent among them, want of personal safety, existence of domestic slavery, apprehension of violence' (Marx 1972:226-7). Probably much the same can be said for Nepal, especially its western region.

2] In fact the existence of guilds prove nothing, since in Europe guilds were the form taken by commerce and industry under the dominance of landed property in self defence against it, prior to their assertion of their hegemony and conquest of the state. Thus guilds can be expected to exist wherever landed property is dominant. The key experience of Western European feudalism, however, is that landed property had lost control of the centralized state and as a consequence the city stood in opposition to the countryside and landed property, eventually to subordinate it.

3] Some authors, such as John Mepham (1978), argue that in the course of writing Capital, Marx dropped his earlier Hegelian categories and turned to scientific ones. (A secret that seems to have eluded even Marx in his prefaces to Capital where he described the manner that Hegel, albeit inverted, provides the methodological basis of his analysis.) Beneath this argument lies the motive of substituting a positivist, ahistorical approach for a dialectical, historical one, removing the revolutionary implications from Marx's work. It allows Marx to be used for establishing new forms of class power, such as that of the bureaucratic intelligentsia under Stalin (which also is why Stalin argued that it was unnecessary to read the first chapter of Capital) or according to Althusser and the Frankfurt School of Marxism to further the ends of liberal bureaucratic intelligentsia in the west (Mikesell 1992a).
Teodor Shanin (1987) in his study of the late Marx argues that in his Ethnological Notebooks Marx turned from a unilinear theory of history, supposedly espoused in the preface to Capital, to a multilinear one. However, Marx had already developed this multilinear theory in his Grundrisse (1973a) . If in a rhetorical flourish he wrote that England represented the future of Germany (and other countries), it was because he saw capitalism as spreading over the world and subordinating all other forms, not because he saw all forms of society as naturally evolving towards capitalism. He was already far more sophisticated than many of his epigones, who subsequently interpreted his categories unilinearly. Marx turned to intensive study of the histories of other societies late in his career to ascertain how private property and states representing private property developed out of or subordinated clan organized society (in his notebooks on Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society), and how industrial capitalism subordinated states with already well-developed forms of private property, such as India (in his notebooks on Edward Phear's The Aryan Village). A careful comparison of the Ethnological Notebooks to his early works such as the German Ideology shows him using the same dialectical methodology, but with more depth, sophistication and knowledge.

4] Marx discarded important flaws in Morgan's work which Frederick Engels (1983) later went on to use as the basis of his own misrepresentation of Marx. Chief among them was Engels' reliance on Bachoven's theory of the 'mother right', which Marx disdainfully dismissed with two paragraphs in different parts of his Ethnological Notebooks. The 'mother right' presented society as originally matriarchal, due to the certainty of the natural linkage of mother to child, but eventually men imposed the patriarchy in revenge for the previous domination of women.
Anthropologists generally never accepted this thesis, but probably for the wrong reason—i.e. that it seemed too speculative. Basically, it represented the dominant Victorian ideology of the newly emergent monopoly capitalism in the late nineteenth century (and more generally an ideology of the rule of middle classes that had been emerging through the course of the developments in feudal Europe) that women must be 'put in their place'.
Marx, in contrast to Engels, saw in his Morgan notebooks that it was the rise of private property and the subsequent subordination of the clan to the patriarchal family that led to the subordination of women. Among the middle classes of feudal cities, the position of women worsened as property, increasingly in the form of capital, became more concentrated. Subordination of women was one way of keeping property from being dispersed among other families or lineages, particularly of wives, as happened under the communal ownership represented by the clan.
This oppression of women reached its extreme in Victorian Europe, where on the one hand capitalists were fighting to prevent their capitals from being dispersed among other capitalists. On the other hand among the workers, first, more poorly paid women were being used to force down the general level of
wages among the labour force, second, the cost of reproduction and maintenance of the labour force was being thrown entirely onto the wives and mothers of the workers rather than being born by the factories. These different strategies of capital reached their extreme during the latter half of the nineteenth century because of the immense competition resulting from the concentration of capital in monopolies (see Lenin 1975). Although now the oppression of women among the ruling classes is becoming irrelevant for capital (though it certainly continues in the form of male monopoly, as a class, over ruling and high status positions), the history of the oppression of women among the working classes is still relevant in the context of the spread of factories into the Third World and a concentration of national capital into transnational corporations in a manner analogous to the early rise of monopoly capitalism (see Magdoff 1969; Mitter 1986).

5] German part translated by the author with minor editing, italics removed.

6] See note 5.

7] The term ‘comprador’ has been used to denote the merchant classes in Nepal. I am not entirely comfortable with the term, because it was originally used in China to refer to Chinese agents in foreign firms who handled the Chinese employees and business of the firms. It was used by Mao to refer to a class that along with the landlord class existed as 'wholly appendages of the international bourgeoisie, depending upon imperialism for their survival and growth', which 'represent the most backward and most reactionary relations of production in China and hinder the development of her productive forces'. He contrasted these to a 'middle' or 'national bourgeoisie' which 'represents the capitalist relations of production in China in town and country' (Tse-Tung 1975:13-14). Due to its own interests in independently monopolizing state power, revolutionary strategists have thought that they can initiate revolution in alliance with the 'national bourgeoisie' and then subsequently break the alliance to complete the revolution. This strategy succeeded temporarily in Russia due to the war-induced upheaval at the time of the revolution. In China in 1927, Germany in 1920, and India in 1947 this strategy set back the revolution in the former and destroyed it in the latter two countries. In all three cases, as generally, it effectively delivered power to the bourgeoisie class.
Dependency development theory or so-called `neo-Marxism' turned this strategy into an unabashed theory of development of the national bourgeoisie, which still appeared revolutionary and somewhat daring to liberal intellectuals due to the retention of Marxist terminology and its apparent challenge of transnational interests. But even in 1926, Mao saw that, given the international character of production and the division of labour, the independence of these classes was an illusion.

8] The real content of the transfer of power in India (see Ghosh 1985).

9] Even in the 1989 presidential election in the United States, the main issue
besides 'presidential appearance' was over which candidate was the best executive. Intelligence and vision rarely entered into the discussion. Unfortunately, the immense economic and military power that transnational capital gives to the 'national executives' makes them immediately dangerous, in the long-term destructive, and in the short run at least, marginally accountable to their own national populations.

Source; Chapter 11 of Class, State, and Struggle in Nepal – Writings 1989-1995 – by Stephen Lawrence Mikesell – Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 1999.