Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Did expansionary warfare drive pre-modern economic growth and decline? (Marx)

Marx has more lasting standing as a historian and he put forth a hypothesis that, according to classical historian M.I. Finley at least, seems to be born out by pre-modern mainland Southeast Asian history, that war was the main engine driving the economies of pre-modern states. Economic expansion and contraction followed military success or failure.

According to M.I. Finley, Marx introduced the idea that "in early societies, war was the basic factor in economic growth and consequently in social structure" (Ancient History: Evidence and Models, p. 74), citing Marx's Grundrisse:

"The only barrier which the community can encounter in its relations to the natural conditions of production as its own -- to the land -- is some other community, which has already laid claim to them as an inorganic body. War is therefore one of the earliest tasks of every primitive community of this kind, both for the defense of property and for its acquisition... Where man himself is captured as an organic accessory of the land and together with it, he is captured as one of conditions of production, and this is the origin of slavery and serfdom [i.e. war captives, cf. war as manpower building in Southeast Asia], which soon debase and modify the original forms of all communities, and themselves become their foundations" (M.I. Finley, Ancient History: Evidence and Models, p. 73-74, citing "Marx, Grundrisse, in the translation by J. Cohen of the section called Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (London, 1964), p. 89; see the complete Penguin ed.
p. 491 (cf. p. 474)), my italics).

Or from the online version of Marx's Grundrisse:

"The earth in itself -- regardless of the obstacles it may place in the way of working it, really appropriating it -- offers no resistance to [attempts to] relate to it as the inorganic nature of the living individual, as his workshop, as the means and object of labour and the means of life for the subject The difficulties which the commune encounters can arise only from other communes, which have either previously occupied the land and soil, or which disturb the commune in its own occupation. War is therefore the great comprehensive task, the peat communal labour which is required either to occupy the objective conditions of being there alive, or to protect and perpetuate the occupation. Hence the commune consisting of families initially organized in a warlike way -- as a system of war and army, and this is one of the conditions of its being there as proprietor. The concentration of residences in the town, basis of this bellicose organization. The clan system in itself leads to higher and lower ancestral lineages [Geschlechtern], [64] a distinction which is still further developed through intermixture with subjugated clans etc. Communal property -- as state property, ager publicus -- here separated from private property. The property [Eigentum] of the individual is here not, unlike the first case, itself directly communal property; where it is, the individual has no property as distinct from the commune, but rather is merely its possessor [Besitzer]. The less it is the case that the individual's property can in fact be realized solely through communal labour -- thus e.g. the aqueducts in the Orient -- the more the purely naturally arisen, spontaneous character of the clan has been broken by historic movement, migration; the more, further, the clan removes itself from its original seat and occupies alien ground, hence enters into essentially new conditions of labour, and develops the energy of the individual more -- its common character appearing, necessarily, more as a negative unity towards the outside..."

Some intellectual history on the relation between war and economics. Very abstract but some basic ideas put forward here, perhaps for the first time in history.

As modern economic analysis is based on the mechanisms of modern post-WWII economic institutions, might the analysis of ancient economies have to be based on the practice of warfare in these cultures?


1. Used the above Marx-M.I.Finley idea in my last paper: Fernquest, Jon(2006) "Rajadhirat’s Mask of Command: Military Leadership in Burma (c. 1348-1421)," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, 4.1, p. 22.

2. Also, Clausewitz said war was a trinity of politics, probability, and violence. Trotsky describes perfectly the transformation that this psychology of violence brings:

"During the war there emerged from the ranks of the bourgeoisie—large, middle, and small — hundreds of thousands of officers, professional fighters, men whose character has received the hardening of battle, and has become freed from all external restraints: qualified soldiers, ready and able to defend the privileged position of the bourgeoisie which produced them with a ferocity which, in its way, borders on heroism."

(Trotsky text breadcrumbs from Brad de Long on Keynes on Trotsky)