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Henry Bernstein’s book review of Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation by Jairus Banaji

23 July 2013

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Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 13 No. 2, April 2013, pp. 310–329.

Historical Materialism and Agrarian History


Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation, by Jairus Banaji. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010. Historical Materialism Book Series Volume 25. Pp. xix+406. €101 (hb). ISBN 978-90-04-18368-1

The collection provides an opportunity to assess Jairus Banaji’s original and provocative contributions over more than three decades. This review tries to chart a path across the range of the essays as a whole, marked by three themes and their connections and possible disconnections: what constitutes modes of production; modes of production before capitalism and their histories; and characterizing and periodizing capitalism. Banaji’s emphatic arguments for long histories/trajectories of commodity production, exchange and accumula- tion across different times and places, especially in estate agriculture and the circuits of merchant capital, traverse these three themes.

Keywords: agrarian estates, capitalism, commercial capitalism, materialist history, modes of production


Jairus Banaji has long been a contributor of original and powerful articles and review essays to the Journal of Peasant Studies (Banaji 1976a, 1980, 1990, 1995, 1996/7) and to the Journal of Agrarian Change (Banaji 2002, 2009), as well as co-editing a recent special issue on Aristocrats, Peasants and the Transformation of Rural Society, c.400–800 (Sarris and Banaji 2009). Readers, therefore, will welcome this collection of his essays, which won the Isaac and Tamara Deut- scher Memorial Prize in 2011, awarded annually for ‘a book which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition’.

Two seminal essays in the book were first published in 1977: ‘Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History’ (Chapter 2) and ‘Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century’ (Chapter 10). In many respects, the first provides the framing statement of the volume, suggesting the continuity of its author’s intellectual project. The second was in part a response to influential views that colonialism established ‘semi-feudalism’ in India or otherwise suppressed the development of capitalist relations of production. It took the form of a detailed examination of agrarian change in the late-nineteenth-century Deccan districts, and argued that peasant labour was subjected to formal subsumption by various forms of capital, both more and less directly, and hence incorporated in capitalist relations of production.

After these two essays there was a hiatus until Banaji resumed scholarly work in the late 1980s with his study of agrarian change and its location in broader economic processes in late Roman Egypt (fifth and sixth centuries), the principal terrain of his research as a professional historian. Early products of that research are reflected in two essays from 1992 and 1997, respectively: ‘Historical Arguments for a “Logic of Deployment” in “Pre-capitalist” Agricul- ture’ (Chapter 3) and ‘Agrarian History and the Labour-Organisation of Large Byzantine Estates’ (Chapter 6). [. . .].

Historical Materialism and Agrarian History
by Henry Bernstein
in Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 13 No. 2, April 2013, pp. 310–329.


The above paper is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use, with prior approval from the editors of Journal of Agrarian Change.