Theories of Practice: Marxist History-Writing and Complexity

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Jairus Banaji’s collection of essays is a stimulating and provocative assessment of recent Marxist history-writing on issues of social theory and historical development in both ancient as well as modern societies. It challenges the overly simplistic application of Marx’s categories of analysis, arguing for both complexity and a clearer theorisation of fundamental terminology and analytical tropes, including labour-process and mode of production. This review article suggests that, while the basic arguments represent a welcome corrective to some Marxist historical work, and at the same time address in an accessible way non-Marxist historians, there remain some problematic issues, in particular in respect of the criteria for differentiating between different types of mode of production, the level at which this concept has heuristic application, and the distinction between the political/institutional and the modal instances of theorisations of social-economic relations. Some of these issues are exemplified by reference to particular historical cases.

Historical Materialism

Research in Critical Marxist Theory



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Hereafter, Banaji 2010.


Banaji 2010, pp. 47–8.


Haldon 1993, p. 26.


Banaji 2010, pp. 45–50.


Banaji 2010, pp. 22–3.


Banaji 2010, p. 353.


Banaji 2010, p. 2.


See for example Banaji 2010, pp. 50–8.


Wickham 2005.


Mann 1986a and 1986b.


Haldon 1993, pp. 75ff.


Banaji 2010, pp. 183–90, 210–14, 353–6.


Banaji 2010, pp. 73–4.


See Banaji 2010, p. 355.


Banaji 2010, p. 23.


Banaji 2010, p. 184, for example: ‘The paradox of Wickham’s conceptual choices is that, however one sees that novelty [in the economic and social institutions of the medieval world], it is not definable at the level of the mode of production, since his notion of the feudal mode is construed so loosely that it covers both the Roman empire and (probably) the whole medieval world and much else besides!’.


Banaji 2010, pp. 354–5. Emphases in original.


Marx 1970a, p. 217; Marx 1970b, pp. 36–7; Marx 1970c, pp. 791–2.


Banaji 2010, pp. 72–87.


Marx 1970c, p. 791.


Marx 1970c, pp. 791–2: ‘This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances . . . from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances’.


Runciman 1989a and 1989b.


Banaji 2010, p. 24.


Haldon 1993, pp. 75–87.


Marx 1970c, pp. 790–1, 796ff.


Marx 1970c, p. 771; Marx 1972, p. 400.


See Marx 1970c, p. 791.


See in particular Sarris 2004, 2006 and 2011; but for a critique, see Hickey 2007 and 2012.


Banaji 2010, pp. 234–40.


On which, see my review: Haldon 2008, especially pp. 336–46.


Banaji 2010, p. 354.


Banaji 2010, pp. 191–8.


Haldon 1998 and 2009b, and see especially Campopiano 2011.


Banaji 2010, pp. 67–72, 351–3.


Banaji 2010, pp. 103–16 (‘Historical Arguments for a “Logic of Deployment” in “Precapitalist” Agriculture’); pp. 117–30 (‘Workers before Capitalism’).


Banaji 2010, p. 25.


Callinicos 2004.


See especially Banaji 2010, pp. 23–40.


Mann 1986a.


Haldon 1993.


See Angold 1997, pp. 92ff.; Angold 2008.


Hymes 1986.


Kunt 1974; Kunt 1983. Even the devşirme elite – those taken as children from the families of the largely non-Muslim conquered populations and educated to be ‘true’ servitors of the Ottoman state – developed or maintained regional loyalties which were played out in factional struggles at court or the hiving off of fiscal resources in favour of particular vested interests.


See Banaji 2010, p. 33.


Wickham 1984; see Banaji 2010, p. 188.


Banaji 2010, p. 353.


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