Kitchen Notebooks: Disproving Economic Determinism - The Chinese Connection

As the few determined readers of this off-and-on column probably have gathered by now, I believe that one of the most important contributions Antonio Gramsci has made to modern political thought, is his break with the economic determinism of many early Marxists.

It has been an ongoing debate, to which extent Marx himself can be blamed for the rather dogmatic and mechanistic turn historical materialism took around the turn of the 19th century. It can however hardly be contested that the major contributions to this ideological blind alley, came after Marx death, by other Marxists such as Karl Kautsky and Nikolai Bukharin.

All though it is uncontroversial that humans are formed by the material conditions under which they grow up, and their thoughts are thus to an extent shaped by social class. To go from this, to claim that all of human history by necessity goes through certain distinct phases, with revolutions in-between, is naturally to take a leap into a world where the human mind’s need to construct order and patterns overshadows what can be actually concluded from empirical data.

The probably most important example of these revolutions for many early Marxists, were not surprisingly the bourgeois revolutions, perhaps most notably the French revolution. Much can be said for this interpretation. It is not surprising that a powerful aristocracy will be reluctant to relinquish power to a budding industrial bourgeoisie, and that some form of more or less violent, revolutionary succession of power ensued. To make this into a general rule, is however completely unscientific.

Now, history happens only once, and this being a planet of limited size, there are also limits to how much we can see by looking at different parts of it. But some things we can see. All though the industrial revolution happened in Europe under it's specific historical and societal conditions, and rapidly spread from there, there have been interesting developments earlier in other parts of the world.

To illustrate this, we will take a closer look at Chinese history. There we can actually see an interesting alternative development. During centuries, actually all the way until 1905, many of the most powerful positions in china, positions within the imperial bureaucracy, were not inherited, but were distributed within a system of imperial examinations, within a Confucian framework. In reality these bureaucrats were mainly recruited from the powerful land-owning class, but in principle they were open to all adult Chinese males. (The details around the system naturally differed through the centuries, including some of the elements I have mentioned here, but this will give you a general idea of the system).

During the Song-dynasty China saw a budding industrialization, and the rise of a new merchant class. As with the development in Europe much later, this class started to compete with the rich land-owning class, comparable to the aristocracy.

Traditionally merchants had been seen as a the lowest of social strata in China, as trade traditionally was frowned upon, and not seen as a worthy occupation. This growth in rich merchant families could therefore have led to a rather brutal confrontation.

Now the Song dynasty industrialization stopped before China had its industrial revolution (centuries before Europe saw its own revolution)[1]. Historians theorize many different explanations to this - both historical, geographical and political, so the budding development was not allowd to continue, but what had happened if it did?

In China the Imperial Examinations created a system where we could have had a quite smooth transition from a feudal into a bourgeois society. Rich merchants would educate their children to take these examinations, which would allow them to enter into the world of the imperial bureaucracy, and to take powerful positions there.

In a way we could describe this by the tools developed by Pierre Bourdieu. The merchant class had financial capital, and could exchange this, via education, into the cultural Confucian capital of the imperial bureaucrats.

To which extent did the Empirial/Civil Examinations allow this sort of social mobility. How real this mobility was differed greatly throughout Chinese history. In the Song dynasty, elite social status usually predated examination success, which then again enforced the social status [2]. However later, e.g. during the early Ming Dynasty from 1411-1436, 76-83% of graduates were from commoner families [3]. Even if the system during the Song, was not developed to the extent that the merchant class could take full advantage of it, the later development shows it well could have, had the industrial development been allowed to continue.

In a Gramscian sense, we could perhaps describe this as a passive revolution. A relatively more peaceful and incremental change of ruling class from a wealthy land-owning aristocracy into a richer merchant and industrial bourgeoisie.

Gramsci uses this term to describe the Italian transition to a bourgeoise society, after the victory of the Moderates over the Action Party:

“It was precisely the brilliant solution of these problems which made the Risorgimento possible, in the form in which it was achieved (and with its limitations) - as ‘revolution’ without a ‘revolution,’ or as ‘passive revolution’ to use an expression of Cuoco’s in a slightly different sense from that which Cuoco intended. [4]”

With a slightly different geographical and/or historical situation, China could thus have lead the world into a industrial modernity completely without the violent revolution imagined by early 20th century Marxists.

[1] Edwards - Redefining Industrial Revolution: Song China and England
[2] Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen pp 29-61
[3] Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China pp. 253
[4] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971, pp. 59

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