Review: Theory as History by Jarius Banaji (Brill, 2011)

While I do not always agree with Banaji, particularly of his dismissal of the English agrarian capital thesis and the Brenner/Woods reading as an “orthodoxy,” his discussions of Egypt, the late medieval Islamic trade development, the problems with the “Asiatic modes of production” and “tributary mode of production” as well as historical blind spots in general Marxist, and, ironically given their third world focus, specifically Maoist misreadings of past. Banaji’s strength is his knowledge of periods before capitalism and the complications of “transitions,” and he is particularly convincing in contrasting Mexico with Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries. I do think, however, that Banaji focuses intensely on moods of production but is deliberately somewhat loose with what counts as capitalism outright, and his criterion seemed a little vaguer than that of Woods/Brenner.

Parts of this book seem clearly targeted at the Maoist argument that “survivals of pre-capitalist relations of production” mean that the prime revolutionary class is the peasantry against the assertions of earlier Stalinists and other forms of communism about the working class. Banaji, as Mike MacNair already has said in his review of the book, “argues that the whole ‘traditional Marxist’ scheme of differences between modes of production which are defined by the mode of exploitation – slavery in classical antiquity, serfdom under feudalism, wage labour under capitalism – is to be rejected.” Banaji does this because there are proto-capitalist elements and profound misunderstanding of Asian and late antique economies in most Marxist schemas, and that the schema is both too theoretically simple. This argument is the thread that keeps these otherwise unrelated scholarly essays together. I also think that Banaji’s looser definition of capitalism frustrates all kinds of other Marxists particularly when looking at over-generalizations in other modes of production.

Interestingly, while there is no “pure” agrarian capitalism according to Banaji, he does prove that there was significant wage labor in both pre-modern and third world agriculture earlier than most Marxists conceive. This is significant as it draws out the horizon of the origins out beyond England. However, where I disagree with Banaji is that wage-relationships and focus on reinvestment did NOT characterize Mediterranean interface of Catholic Christendom, Byzantium and the Dar al-Islam. Banaji does prove that Brenner/Woods may have been under-stating the development of elements of capital, but he his only focusing on one part of Brenner/Woods two part definition. That said, this does complicate the development of capitalism quite clearly.

Furthermore, Banaji seems to reject teleologies as such. He seems to conflate the ideas that = that capital developmental would have a purposive and long-run developments that were emergent from their own logic, and would have a systemic teleological pattern to the idea of a teleology of history itself. To my mind, this is reading Hegelian and German idealist assumptions about what a teleology is back into the entirety of history. This means that Banaji seems to reject a clear emergence point for capitalism and a developmental logic, partly because of Marx’s “Here be Dragons” elements of Asiatic production.

This is not to dismiss Banaji. This is an important book, and while not necessarily easy for lay-readers in either medieval economic history or inter-Marxist debates, it is a vital read. It also calls for Marxists to look at non-European societies and do more significant comparative work before making big claims about history. The strongest chapters are the ones dealing with conceptions of “free” and “unfree” labor in the modern political economy as well as ones critiquing a lack of historiography in Marxist circles around antiquity and around non-European developmental modes.


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