Review of Perry Anderson’s European History Part Two: Absolutism

by tigermanifesto


In the second of the two volumes of his encyclopedic history of Europe, Perry Anderson attempts to explain absolutism as a Marxist concept. That is, he is staking out a particular territory on the Marxist theoretical terrain, drawing boundaries around it and attempting to describe its importance to the reader. Striking against the historical obsession with particularity and neglect of general scientific concepts, he positions his book within the tension between empirical and theoretical. As he writes:

“The premise of this work is that there is no plumb-line between necessity and contingency in historical explanation, dividing separate types of enquiry – ‘long-run’ versus ‘short-run’, or ‘abstract’ versus ‘concrete’ – from each other. There is merely that which is known – established by historical research – and that which is not known: the latter may be either the mechanisms of single events or the laws of motion of whole structures. Both are equally amenable, in principle, to adequate knowledge of their causality” (Foreword).

Part of the reason the book remains distinctive even decades after its publication is that its object of study is a political form––the absolutist state––rather than a single country or expanse of time. The whole of Europe, including the territories of the Ottoman Empire, fall into his analysis, supplemented with an appendix about Japanese feudalism.

Anderson’s main contention is that the absolutist state is a state of the whole landed aristocracy organized under a strong central state for the defense of feudal interests. This is, he writes, in contrast to Engels and Marx, who claim that the absolutist state represents an equilibrium state between a nascent bourgeoisie and the remains of the feudal landlord class. Anderson writes:

“Absolutism was essentially just this: a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position…In other words, the Absolutist State was never an arbiter between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie…it was the new political carapace of a threatened nobility.” (Chapter 1)

To prove this his scholarly eye ranges from the beginnings of absolutism in the Iberian peninsula to its sunny apex in ancien regime France to its late-arriving and more terroristic forms in Eastern Europe. For the latter, the absolutist state did not emerge organically out of the decay of feudal labour rents and the ascendancy of the towns, but rather assembled itself in the face of Swedish military aggression. Nations in the east that did not create absolutist states––like Poland––succumbed to destruction. Meanwhile, the absolutism that entrenched itself in Eastern Europe lasted far longer than that in the West, with the Russian variant persisting until the revolutions of 1917.

One final goal of Anderson’s study is to explain the peculiar dynamism of the states that emerged from feudal Europe. For without that explanation the fact that Europe produced industrial capitalism remains a mystery. The author, correctly I believe, argues for a more narrow definition of feudalism that restricts itself to Europe and Japan. Other tributary modes of production (to borrow a phrase from Samir Amin) exist in much more variety than classical Marxist thought supposes.

Unlike Japan, moreover, which isolated itself from overseas markets and used the apparatus of the Tokugawa state to suppress merchant initiative, the European colonial adventures provided the kickstart for primitive accumulation towards industrialization. The book argues this point step by step, providing an immense reservoir of facts on which it can draw. Its theoretical interventions are welcome to this historian, who has always found it difficult to believe that feudalism could have been a mode of production embracing all of Eurasia. Of course, once Japan received the shock of encountering the superior force of Western militaries, it was able to mobilize its long-ossified feudal society to begin a crash industrialization of its own.

This book is lengthy and its conclusions unlikely to stir revolutionary fervor, but aside from being a handy resource for facts about the development of European history it clarifies the concept of absolutism, making it both coherent and broad enough to be useful. Marxists of all stripes, and those interested in a look at the history of Europe from a conceptual rather than periodic perspective, should take consider adding this book to their libraries.