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The Three-Headed Beast: Part 11 (Deciphering Semi-feudalism)

This is a continuation of a dialogical essay between myself and BF of The Workers Dreadnought.

In his last entry, BF expanded on some of the concepts I briefly mentioned and thus provided a more coherent background for the international contradiction between the imperialist centres [the capitalist modes of production] and the global peripheries [capitalist formations that have disarticulated and pre-capitalist modes of production].  Moreover, he provided a more specific analysis of the class contradictions that inform both of these contexts.  In this essay, then, I would like to dialogue with his recent contribution by focusing on the concept of semi-feudalism that BF has mentioned at various points.  We must remember that, despite this concept’s popularization with Maoists, it was initially conceived by Mariategui.  It is my contention that Mao’s use of the concept possessed more depth, going beyond its surface and simplistic meaning.  For Mao the label semi-feudal was less an analytic definition and more a didactic proposition.  It was a cipher for something else, something that meant far more than simply the expression of a mode of production that was partially feudal.  Thus, in the following paragraphs I hope to expand on BF’s analysis by focusing on the Maoist theorization of the semi-feudal.  Hopefully I will be able to illuminate some of what my collaborator was trying to express.

Utilizing the traditional Maoist concept of semi-feudalism, BF explained the general class compositions that define peripheral formations:
“[I]n the rural sectors the dispossessed and poor/middle peasantry against the feudal landlords and their allies, and in the urban structure a capitalist economy in which there is a class antagonism between the working-class (and some elements of the lumpenproletariat, but such an alliance would need further exploration) and the bourgeoisie and their allies.”
Although this analysis is generally correct, we have to understand that the concept of “feudalism” possessed universal euro-marxist significance at the time Mao was writing.  In order to conceptualize the germ concept of peripheral formations, Mao took the short-hand of Mariategui’s terminology and wrenched it from its European context in an attempt to describe the pre-capitalist “modes of production that co-exist and comprise the social formation”––as BF indicated.  For Marx and Engels had used “feudalism” to describe the social relations, just prior to capitalism, that existed in a specific part of Europe––that part of Europe that would first develop a capitalist mode of production, and thus command global capital.

As a critical Maoist-influenced academic, I would like to suggest that the concept of semi-feudalism is a useful entry point to understanding peripheral formations but, repeated uncritically without understanding how it was mobilized by Mao, leads to theoretical imprecision.  Although this may seem like some abstract theoretical complaint, I want to suggest that by focusing on the disparity between the rhetorical label semi-feudalism and what Mao actually meant to indicate (which was different than Mariategui) we will learn something important about peripheral social formations.  Moreover, this discussion should reassert one of the larger theses of this entire interblog dialogue: the Maoist turn in marxist theory represents a significant break from eurocentric marxism.
Furthermore, keeping in line with the idea of “the displacement of Mao” asserted in BF’s first entry of this dialogue, I am of the opinion that Mao’s concept of semi-feudalism created a theoretical opening to properly conceptualize the dialectic of class and nation in peripheral formations and, despite its political-economy imprecision, formed the starting point for any proper analysis of these social formations and their class composition.

So why do I suggest that semi-feudalism may not be the most precise terminology and that a progressive reading of Mao will reveal something deeper and more important?  First of all, as I indicated above, “feudalism” is a mode of production particular to Europe.  We must remember that capitalism is the first mode of production with a truly global dimension: before the vicious unifying of the world under the modern imperialist powers––the history written in “blood and fire” that both created the possibility of and maintains capitalism––societies were extremely fragmented and diverse.  To homogenize those pre-capitalist societies that would encounter Europe’s “rosy fingered dawn” as “feudal” is somewhat eurocentric.  For while it is true that we can find similarities in these societies’ class contradictions (landlords, peasants, the predominance of metaphysical alienation, etc.), we can also find great differences.  The society of fiefdoms and their feuding lords (“feudalism”), though sharing characteristics with other societies at that point in time, was not universal.  The label “feudalism” did not, for example, define the Mexica civilization [the “Aztecs”] that, before falling victim to European biological warfare, was developing productive forces, and cultural theories, that were as scientifically “advanced” as its European counterpart.  We find the arrangement of feudalism specific to Europe, and a few other places (such as Japan), whereas the rest of the world evinced different modes of production. 

BF will probably laugh when I suggest that Samir Amin has discussed this problem of cultural homogenization under the European mode of production “feudalism.”  Amin does, though, demonstrate how we can place feudalism under a more universal concept of tributary society that explains a commonality shared between feudalism and other pre-capitalist modes of production.  Tribute as paid to landlords by the peasants (or whatever these classes might be called in their differing societies): thus the definition of the class contradiction.  Tribute “paid” to the gods to avoid social alienation––or the king/ruler as representative of the gods: thus the definition of metaphysical alienation that precedes economic alienation.  These are societies where the people, whatever their class, are socialized to believe that there is a divine order to the universe: Confucianism, the Great Chain of Being, the teachings of the tlatamini, etc.  Thus we find in two supposedly alien modes of production that violently clashed––Spanish Iberia and Mexica––interesting similarities that, at the time of Conquest, were ignored.   (Charles C. Mann in his book 1491, for example, wrote on how the priest classes of both Spain and Mexica used the spectre of death for similar reasons of social control: pay tribute to the gods with human sacrifice, or pay tribute to God by publicly torturing and burning heretics.)

Furthermore, while it is true that many of these pre-capitalist modes of production can be defined by Amin’s concept of tributary society, it is also true that some of these modes of production expressed social relations that would have been seen as historically prior to feudalism or utterly different.  In today’s peripheral formations there are people groups whose culture may still be defined by clanship or tribal economies.  Furthermore, there were and still are people whose modes of production have never properly been theorized.  The Iroquois, for example, though possessing a city-based society, had been able, pre-contact, to develop an impressive agrarian economy and political system without the same class contradictions (landords-peasants) inherent in other societies.  Unfortunately Engels, who read about the Iroquois through dubious anthropological texts, made the eurocentric mistake of calling these people “primitive communist” in an effort to fit them into the modes of production that were particular to the development of European capitalism.  For if “feudal” did not fit, they must be something earlier, something more “primitive”…

Rather than discuss the problems of universal history any further at this moment, I would simply like to point out that, despite the imprecision of the bare qualifier semi-feudalism, it is still important in that, when articulated by Mao, it is the first concept to reveal the inadequacy of the European approach to social revolution.  Although the term itself lacked analytical precision, Mao’s theorization enabled thinkers like Samir Amin or Anouar Abdel-Malek or Frantz Fanon to abandon the simplistic European schema of class struggle.  It also properly conceptualized the problem of class contradictions inherent in peripheral.  Mao, of course, understood that these contradictions would differ from social formation to social formation (which we will get to in later entries when we discuss “the regionalization of marxism”), but he was able to understand that so many peripheral formations predominantly expressed a peasant-landlord class antagonism that lay beneath any nascent worker-capitalist antagonism.  We could say that Mao-influenced theorists such as Fanon were able to broaden this problem to examine the class contradictions of settler colonialism (colonized-colonizer) and was thus able to theorize how the lumpenproletariat functioned differently in colonized and peripheral formations than elsewhere.  Thus, in Mao’s rearticulation, semi-feudalism becomes a cipher representing analytic tools that allow for the building of a non-eurocentric historical materialism.

The general analysis of the terms of struggle in peripheral formations, therefore (and in my opinion at least), remains the analysis first proferred by Mao for the reasons BF suggested in his last entry.  This is the larger meaning behind his use of the imprecise label of semi-feudalism  (at that time, other labels did not exist––new ideas were being invented, new ideas needed to be invented).  This core insight of the analysis behind the name “semi-feudalism” must be grasped by any organization engaged in revolutionary struggle.  In his second last paragraph BF wrote:
“The Party, as has been demonstrated in places like Nepal and India, must be able to grasp three simultaneous contradictions at once and link them in the consciousness of the working class: […] the contradiction within feudalism; the contradiction with capitalism; and the contradiction between the nation and imperialism.”
Although I have suggested that the term feudalism may be inappropriate, and that Maoism allows for a larger (and most important anti-eurocentric) analysis of world history, the meaning of the above quote is very important.  If the contradictions of the lingering pre-capitalist mode of production are not grasped then they will negatively affect any revolutionary struggle (ie. the Islamicists in the Iranian revolution represented a pre-capitalist contradiction ignored by the Iranian left fighting the Shah).  If the contradictions of capitalism are ignored, then the revolution will, at best, be nothing more than a regionally specific bourgeois revolution, as was the case of China after Mao––despite his warnings.  I say “at best” because, in most cases, the attempted “bourgeois revolutions” in peripheral formations result in simply another stage of neocolonial oppression, as was the case of post-Apartheid South Africa.  (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his masterful novel Devil On The Cross, imagines a meeting of African capitalists hosted by the British and the Americans.  One capitalist proposes that, rather than running their countries for their hosts, they should exploit the people for themselves.  He is booed of the stage by his compradori counterparts and later assassinated.)  And finally, if the contradictions between the nation and imperialism are ignored, then both the national bourgeois movements and the leftist movements will do the job of imperialism by killing each other off while their government remains exploited.  The Afghani Maoists, in their assessment of past mistakes, have recently come to the realization even though it was inherent to the Chinese Revolution: cooperate with the other nationalists but do not liquidate yourself in the struggle; rather, operate as a parallel power in the struggle against imperialism while trying to prepare the masses for the next struggle––either against the “feudal” representatives or the pro-capitalist representatives.

Thus, we can call Mao’s analysis of semi-feudalism an analysis of tributary societies as they related specifically to China.  And this is very important.  For Mao, a consummate historical materialist, the grounds of national struggle––and of class struggle within a specific nation––always had to emerge from a proper understanding of this country’s history.  To apply European categories on non-European formations was unmarxist, according to Mao.  Similarly, to apply Chinese categories unto the nation-class dialectic of other peripheral formations would be similarly unmarxist.  For the moment, however, I would like to put these important insights aside––delaying them for the time we discuss “the regionalization of marxism.”  What I do hope to indicate by mentioning them briefly here, however, is that our general categorization of the M-L-M equation is separated for the sake of analysis: all four of our isolated areas form part of a single theory.

Before ending this entry, I must apologize for ending it at this point.  It was my attention to cover the entire ground raised by his last contribution but have been unable to address the issues raised in his last paragraph.  These would, unfortunately, take an entire other entry to examine and I have probably bored the reader (and perhaps my collaborator as well) for too long!  Thus, I would like to politely beg BF to maybe focus on the second half of the area he opened and generally outlined in his last entry––that is, the contradictions of the imperialist centres.  For by indicating the problem of “commodity fetishism” in the capitalist mode of production, and reasserting the issue of muted class contradictions, he has opened Maoist theory towards chic euro-Marxist theories, such as the Frankfurt School’s analysis of “the culture industry.”  And, if Maoism is to lose the eurocentric ghettoization that it has previously possessed, it needs to be connected to those theories of western marxists.  Most importantly, I think it can be demonstrated that Maoism actually enriches these theories.

The next entry continues on Workers Dreadnought here.