Review of Perry Anderson’s European History Part One: From Antiquity to Feudalism

by tigermanifesto


Last year I accomplished an extensive reading through Louis Althusser’s works and those that took inspiration from his work or engaged with concepts he created. No ŽIžek, as I decided to storm that particular fortress at a later date. Moreover, because I’m more historian than philosopher, I went straight into the surprisingly narrow canon of historical books written in a structural Marxist key. One of the most obvious examples is Perry Anderson’s two-volume encyclopedic summary of European history from antiquity to roughly the advent of the October Revolution. Despite it being more of an interpretive gloss on existing studies than an original contribution to history, I found it an invaluable companion to my studies of European and Middle Eastern history, particularly when reading it while in Turkey.

As I implied earlier, the two volumes, entitled Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, are not based on extensive research into primary sources. Rather, they take from established authorities on their topics and stitches together a larger narrative about history. This being a Marxist history in a structural vein, it takes “history” to mean an evolutionary and revolutionary history of the great European modes of production. For those unfamiliar with the traditional progression of Western history as defined by Marx, it generally goes: Primitive Communism––>Slave mode of production––>Feudalism––>Capitalism. Those categories can be augmented with less famous concepts like small commodity manufacturing and the rightly excoriated “Asiatic mode of production.” Marxists these days are not likely to take these as universal categories but rather mostly applicable to Europe, and within Europe subject to considerable taxonomical variety. Eastern Europe and Western Europe, for instance, obviously followed quite different historical trajectories, which provides the basis for a persistent and identifiable difference between the two to this day. Anderson’s goal is to examine the empirical studies done on European history and trace the history of distinct social formations that articulate these modes of production together. It’s economic and political history “from above,” devoid of close analysis of local conditions and concerned with the evolution of state forms and macro-level economic trends for the most part.

Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism covers a stretch of history from ancient Greece to the end of the Roman Empire, seeking the inner mechanisms of the sharp arc of ancient Western history from its flourishing rise to its catastrophic collapse in the west. Its method of presentation is clear and rigorous, and although Anderson’s prose is often vocabulary-stretching, there are almost no digressions to speak of. Instead he builds his basic thesis and elaborates. Chapters move in chronological order as one would expect and also tend to revolve around either a particular theme, like an explanation of the slave mode of production’s more abstract qualities, or the way those modes of production functioned in particular geographical areas or state formations. Anderson’s most important proposition is that the ancient slave mode of production on which the Greek and Roman civilizations were based depended on expansion and warfare:

“Military power was more closely locked to economic growth than in perhaps any other mode of production, before or since, because the main single origin of slave-labour was normally captured prisoners of war, while the raising of free urban troops for war depended on the maintenance of production at home by slaves; battle-fields provided the manpower for cornfields, and vice-versa, captive labourers permitted the creation of citizen armies” (34)*.

Upon this crude, technologically stagnant economic base, the Romans and Greeks constructed a leisure class of urbanites whose incredible superstructural achievements were not equalled in the West until the birth of modernity in the Renaissance––a time of reclamation. When the Roman Empire stopped expanding, however, its internal limitations caught up with it and produced structural crises that culminated in the infamous fall that produced the middle ages.

Having documented history thus far, Anderson goes on to explain the feudal mode of production as a much more technologically dynamic method of organizing society, since it allowed for peasant initiative and incentivized improvements in land cultivation. In the author’s interpretation, the feudal mode of production is a hybrid form that emerged from a synthesis of the classical slave mode of production and the tribal form of organization found in incoming German societies. Keeping in mind the essential structural and dialectical principle of uneven development, Anderson recognizes that feudalism did not implant itself through all of Europe in the same ways or on the same timelines. History advances here slowly, here with astonishing rapidity, and here with a measured pace. The heartland of medieval feudalism in Europe was northern France, and other less pure forms of fiefdom and fealty developed in southern and eastern Europe and in the Iberian Peninsula. He also discusses the outlier of the middle ages, the Byzantine Empire, and its own road from glittering peak to eventual dissolution in the face of Ottoman invasions and internal conflict.

The book is now a few decades old, but still impresses for the scope of its coverage. Considering abstract theory and concrete circumstances in which social formations exist and incubate multiple modes of production, his approach is hardly crude and makes for arresting reading. It’s a story of tension and dynamism, one that seems suitable to Marxist study. In considering both the particular in which the universal must be expressed and the way we conceptualize those universal concepts like the slave mode of production, it represents an admirable Marxist recasting of political and economic history. As someone fascinated by comparative and transnational history, I found much to admire and draw from here, even if its age makes it somewhat suspect as an absolute guide to European history.

Come back for part two where I will review Lineages of the Absolutist State and extrapolate from this two-volume exploration some basic principles of Marxist history that this book gets right, along with some more critical commentary.