‘Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation’ reviewed by Spencer A Leonard

Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. 408pp., $28 / £20 pb
ISBN 9781608461431

Reviewed by Spencer A Leonard

About the reviewer

Spencer A Leonard (saleonar@gmail.com) is Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at …


Prosecuting a sustained critique of Stalinism as conceptual “formalism” or “metaphysics,” Jairus Banaji’s writings merit a place among the more substantial works to issue out of the terminal phase of the left’s decline in the 1970s. However, as the recently published Theory as History testifies, resisting the intellectual disintegration of our post-leftist moment proves well-nigh impossible even when the attempt maintains a high level of conceptual rigor. Indeed, that rigor itself can serve as a means of fending off recognition of present circumstances. Whereas others have retreated into academic Marxology, activist tailism, or sectarian sub-culturalism, Banaji’s refuge is the retooling of Marxism as a historical sociology. Historical materialism is presented in Theory as an approach to the study of history that promises greater explanatory power than do the existing alternatives. As Banaji writes in his Introduction,

The essays published in this collection span a period of just over thirty years and set out first to map a general conception of modes of production as historical characterizations of whole epochs, in other words, to restore a sense of historical complexity to them, and then to illustrate/explore some of that complexity in detailed studies based as far as possible on primary source material. (1)

For Banaji Marxism makes for a more rigorous, more systematic approach to the past, including the remote, precapitalist past. But if this is true it is not because Marxism has a specific method or superior sociological insight, but simply that Marxism was the last form of bourgeois thought. But as a work chiefly preoccupied with reconceiving pre-capitalist modes of production, the book rejects its own true interest as a record of a decades-long and partial attempt to resist Marxism’s demise. Consequently, Banaji threatens to diminish his own most interesting essays from the 1970s, whether by exclusion or by shoehorning them into the largely alien preoccupations of more recent work.

When Banaji began to write, he and his generation faced the collapse of both the Old Left and of the 60s New Left’s initial response to it. An echo of his early ambitions as a Trotskyist in the 1970s remains faintly audible in the hopes he expresses for the project of the book. As he writes,

The renewal of historical materialism and of theory more generally will … require a transformation of attitudes in the first instance, a vigorous iconoclasm that can prise Marxists away from their obsessions with orthodoxy, so that a left that was never attached to Stalinism … can finally break with the residues of … conservatism. (xiii)

Banaji sought in the 1970s to renew the New Left project, the attempt was explicitly to bring the legacies of Marx and Lenin (and also of Trotsky) to bear upon a palpably inadequate left politics. Though emerging largely out of Naxalite tendencies with which Banaji has little sympathy, the Subalternists share with him a similar moment and a similar orientation toward a New Left canon – Althusser, Colletti, Gramsci, Sartre, etc. But it was Banaji’s Trostkyism that prompted him to try to develop tools to gauge the scale of the historical defeats and political regression that his generation inherited. His concerns were, therefore, deeply historical even when he was not writing as a historian. In this sense the historical aspect of Banaji’s critique of the semi-feudal thesis was of greater significance than its immediate programmatic implications (implying as it did, for instance, a critique of both the Naxalites and the CPI(M) on both the general “revolutionary situation” and the strategy that flowed from that estimation). It is unsurprising, then, that what one reviewer terms Banaji’s “breakthrough … for Marxist theory” in the Mode of Production Debate was conceived both more and less modestly at the time by Banaji himself. He thought he was recovering the original positions of Marx and Lenin. This is what falls away in the more recent essays with which the 1970s essays are here combined.

A churlish and ungenerous reviewer of Theory as History, Tom Brass is nevertheless right to observe that, no matter how one understands its significance, the debates in which Banaji intervened in the 1970s took place “long ago in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away” (Brass 2012, 707). Today’s leftist debates are either antiquarian, insular, and self-delusional in a way that those (at least potentially) were not. This is true if only because would-be radical intellectuals like Banaji did not consider them so (and might not this be taken to express a genuine prospect at the time for changing the circumstances they faced?). Back then, even Zhou Enlai knew enough to say that it was “too soon to tell about” the significance of the French Revolution. Whether, as is disputed, Zhou was speaking of May ‘68 instead of 1789 matters little, as both have since escaped into a past no less than irrecoverably remote than the late antique world on which Banaji has since the 1970s constituted himself an authority.

While the central category that ties Theory together is “mode of production,” the essays from the 1990s and 2000s shift the subject almost entirely away from capitalism. That is, while Banaji says much of the origins of capitalism and he acknowledges that “Marx’s Capital is premised on the primacy of industrial capital” (255), the bulk of the work discretely seems to set this fact aside. The consequences that flow from the collapse of the socialist labor movement pass unaddressed (though the issue reappears more obscurely in the book’s preoccupation with the related but non-identical categories of free and proletarian labor). Banaji fends off the question of whether free labor in the ancient world has come to resemble modern wage labor now that proletarian socialism has collapsed. Certainly, it is difficult to share one reviewer’s conviction that, “Debates over pre-capitalist modes of production might strike some as being abstruse and of only academic interest, but our understanding of these questions actually does directly affect our present politics” (Alexander 2012).

For Marxists to interpret history, they must be able to change the present. Marx’s original recognition of capitalism as simply the latest in a series of modes of production, in the serial monotony of prehistory, was itself a critique of socialism for failing below the level of capitalism’s revolutionary potential to bring prehistory to a crisis.

To the extent that they do not shrink from understanding capitalism, Marxists make better premodern historians. But this is not to claim, as Banaji does, that there is a distinctively Marxist approach to the history of the precapitalist past. It is by no means clear that we are in a position to advance knowledge of the precapitalist past when manifestly our understanding of the present mode of production, like that mode of production itself, is subject to a corrosively negative dialectic of regression. To the extent that Theory as History loses sight of this it is less a work of Marxism than a historical sociology in dialogue with the likes of Max Weber. This, of course, is itself an achievement of no small order.

For Banaji, all modes of production are inherently dynamic (and contradictory?). In this sense, other modes of production are comparable to capitalism: all are instances of the general category, “mode of production.” Accordingly, in the very first paragraph of the book, Banaji attributes to Marx a general notion of modes of production referring to “forms of domination and control of labor bound up with a wider set of class-relations expressive of them and of the social functions implied in them … Marx also believed that these general configurations (‘totalities of productive relations’) were defined by an inherent dynamic that worked itself out in the eventual dissolution of existing relations” (1). The 2007 essay “Islam, Mediterranean, and the Rise of the Capitalism,” contributes to this democratizing impulse when it narrates the rise of capitalism in a mode very much in tune with recent historiographical trends according to which every region of Eurasia, if not of the world as a whole, should contribute its mite to the “rise of the modern world.” As one recent response to the book puts it, “It is to Banaji’s great credit that he manages to integrate the East into the history of capitalism’s origins – a challenge from the post-colonial camp long unanswered by Marxists” (Crane, 2012). Banaji seems to agree with the postcolonialists that there is something identifiably and problematically eurocentric in “Marx’s view of the way we should visualize the general evolution of Europe from Antiquity to the modern world” (351).

In the 1960s Adorno wrote an article claiming that the very category of “society” was sensu stricto a “concept of the Third Estate” (Adorno 1969-70, 144). That is, contrary to common usage, only capitalism is a society in the sense of being a totality. In this sense, precapitalist “societies” are only such, to repeat Banaji’s characterization of Marx’s descriptions of them, “in terms of the analogy with capitalism itself.” There is therefore in Marx a deep recognition of human prehistory precisely because of the recognition of capitalism as potentially transitional out of it. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse:

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up … Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. (Marx 1993, 105)

Capitalism is in the condition in which the universal freedom promised by bourgeois revolution enters into self-contradiction. In such conditions the question of world history demands re-specification. Adorno captures the gravamen of this when he writes, “The archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable” (Adorno 2003, 94).

Banaji expresses bemusement at how Brass understands “free labor” as a category intimately tied to that of proletariat in Marx: “Brass has a peculiar notion of ‘proletarianization.’ He defines it not in terms of the dispossession of labor but, evidently, as the formation of the organized working class.” (136). Banaji characterizes this view as “Lukacsian.” Whether this be true or no, grasping self-organization as the sina qua non of proletarianization is certainly Marxist: capital is itself only realized as a category in and through the generalization of relative surplus-value. In the same way freely contracting proletarian labor likewise comes into its own under industrial conditions, in and through its own self-organization. This is what Marx intends when he writes, “The historical conditions of [capital’s] existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. [Capital] arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labor-power. And this one historical precondition comprises a world’s history” (274). Here the issue is not simply one of an originary dispossession of labor à la Brenner or Banaji, but of the proletarianizing moment in the nineteenth century in which all pre-capitalist forms of direct dependence were countered as the working class collectively demands private property for itself, seizing possession of its own labor power.

Jairus Banaji’s long awaited book on Marxist theory and historiography has proven to be the event many anticipated it would be. Appearing in disparate and sometimes obscure outlets, subordinated at least in part to his work of building the labor movement in India, appearing steadily if not frequently, Banaji’s publications were to a considerable degree a well-kept secret outside a small circle in Britain and India. A major participant in what now seems the deep background to contemporary postcolonialism (and anti-postcolonialism), the Mode of Production Debate of the 1970s, Banaji and his concerns have until now gone largely unacknowledged much to the detriment of intellectual life in a range of related (and not so related) fields. Winner of last year’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Book Prize and widely reviewed and discussed online, at least among leftists, Theory as History, though largely composed of previously published articles, promises to bring Banaji a new and richly deserved audience. For this reason alone it is most welcome. Nevertheless, even if Theory as History was simply an edited collection of Banaji’s papers, they could not mean today what they did back then when he was deploying arguments as part of a wider struggle over the legacy and thus the possible future of the revolutionary politics. But the book is unfortunately not such a volume. Indeed, it does not include some of Banaji’s most important pieces from that period, such as “The Comintern and Indian Nationalism” and “From Commodity to Capital.” To present itself as a coherent whole, the book remains content to serve as a comparative treatment of man’s seemingly interminable prehistory. 

2 January 2013


  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2003 Reflections on Class Theory Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader ed. by Rolf Tiedemann and trans. by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1969-1970 Society Society trans. by Frederic Jameson Salmagundi 10/11.
  • Alexander, Dominic 2012 Review of Theory as History Counterfire http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/book-reviews/12116-theory-as-history-essays-on-modes-of-production-and-exploitation
  • Brass, Tom 2012 Jairus Banaji's Mode of Production: Eviscerating Marxism, Essentialising Capitalism Journal of Contemporary Asia vol. 42 no. 4, 707-716.
  • Crane, Bill 2012 Jairus Banaji’s Contribution to Historical Materialism (Part 1) http://thatfaintlight.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/jairus-banajis-contribution-to-historical-materialism-part-1/
  • Kautsky, Karl (n.d.) Capitalism in the Ancient World trans. by Daniel Gaido http://marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1912/03/cap-ancient.html
  • Marx, Karl 1993 Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy trans. by Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books).

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