Debating History: From “Oriental Society” to “Great Divergence”



For positioning China in the modern world in terms of its relationship with capitalism as a historical materialist account, a few academically or politically influential concepts of traditional China deserve our special attention. Marx and Engels adopted the language of “Oriental society” from Europe’s worldly thinkers. Along with it they inherited some of the main assumptions and categories of (early) modern European imaginations of Asia, most of which have been proven to lack factual or interpretative reliability. Marx wrote extensively about the “Eastern question,” not limited to geographic Asia, although his intellectual focus had always been on capitalism rather than societies deemed precapitalist, except for those useful for understanding capitalism’s own genesis. From his political journalism on distant social formations, the best known analysis is the emblematic “dual judgment,” combining demands of morality and rationality, that he employed for the representative case of British rule in India: the British treatment of India was simultaneously a colonial crime and an instrument of history, for, by breaking down the native social structure and relations, it produced “the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia” (Marx in Avineri 1969: 93).


Global Capitalism Social Revolution Oriental Society Asiatic Mode Land Concentration 
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© Lin Chun 2013

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