How did Marx and Engels try to explain historical progress in Asia and what was flawed about this process?
The Asiatic Mode of Production is a means of thought and analysis created by Karl Marx in conjunction with Friedrich Engels to harmonize the nature of history and progress in most of South and East Asia with the analysis of Marxism based on the then industrialized countries of Western Europe, Russia and North America. The attempt was not entirely successful since, as Marx himself freely acknowledged, his level of understanding of Asian economic and social systems was far less than his knowledge of western systems.
Marx and Engels created a means of thought that was evolutionary in nature with a dynamic resting upon the concept of dialectical materialism. According to this concept, societies passed inevitably through the stages of slavery to feudalism to capitalism to socialism. Marx characterised western states as being in the thralls of capitalism, although he sought the signs of the final collapse of capitalism on a daily basis. Despite his acknowledgement of the vampire-like nature of capitalism (i.e. it can always come back from the dead), Marx would surely have been surprised that it has continued until the C21st.
The problems with the conception of the Asiatic Mode of Production is that it sought to group together an enormous swathe of people and states in a particularly wide range of conditions and cultural and social institutions. This was mixed with Marx’s problems with dealing with Asia as the putative home of the ‘Aryan’ peoples, who were so influential in much of his earlier work but which had so little relevance to the majority of Asia as a whole. Marx and Engels confronted the situation as they saw it and explained the nature of what appeared to be semi-autonomous communal village-level communities which were simultaneously held strongly under the fists of state power, expressed through such means as monopoly of land ownership, power over the irrigation systems and the amount of military power that the state could deploy vis-à-vis local communities. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to see how the dynamic forces of historical change as expressed by Marx and Engels in connection with western states in which the urban working classes would form a vanguard of the revolution. This opened a conceptual space which was, in part, answered by the emergence of Maoism, which championed the rural poor and their role in revolutionary change. Of course, as history actually transpired, it required a Leninist intervention in which external leaders mobilized and organized the masses who were then used to create the revolution, whether they particularly wanted to do so or not.