[OPE-L:7376] Role of Revisionism in History

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Wed Jun 12 2002 - 11:58:34 EDT

stimulating and controversial, especially regarding the Industrial 
Revolution.  The whole article is forwarded as there seem to be 
problems with the Economic and Political Weekly website.


Book Review

June 01, 2002

Role of Revisionism in History

Trade in Early India: Themes in Indian History edited by Ranabir Chakravarti
(Oxford in India Readings); Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001; pp
506, Rs 650.

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900 by
Michael McCormick; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001; pp 1130,

Nigel Harris

Ranabir Chakravarti has collected here some of the most significant articles
of the past half century on trade in Indian history - Shereen Ratnagar
(1994) and Maurizio Tosi (1991) on Harappan trade; Romila Thapar (1976) on
Dana and Dakshina as exchanges; Ivo Fiser (1954) on Setthi in Buddhist
Jatakas; B N Mukherjee (1996) on pre-Gupta Vanya and Kalinga; Lionel Casson
(1990) on maritime loans; D D Kosambi (1959) on feudal trade charters;
Chakravarti (1990) on northern Konkan (AD 900-1053); Brajadulal
Chattopadhyaya (1985) on early medieval Rajasthan; Jean Deloche (1983) on
ancient seaports; R Champakalakshmi (n d) on south Indian guilds; V K Jain
(1989) on merchant corporations; R S Sharma (1983) on usury in early
medieval times; John S Deyell (1990) on the Gurjara-Pratiharas; and S D
Goitein (1980) on trans-Arabian Sea trade. The editor provides a masterly
long overview of the field in the introduction and a most useful annotated
bibliography at the end. The book - nearly 500 pages - is excellent,
consistently stimulating, judicious and throughout most scholarly. The
detail and the detective work are impressive.
Michael McCormick's book is both narrower (in time period) and, given its
great length (1,101 pages), much denser. His is a grand attempt to put
together from many different sources a picture of the emergence of the
European economy in what used to be the Dark Ages. He uses a great diversity
of sources most creatively - documents (including those from the Baghdad
Caliphate), coin hoards, the provenance of holy relics, etymology, early
medieval monastic medical recipes, archaeological sites (the location and
residues of toll posts, industrial waste sites, sunken ship contents, as
well as the remains and sources of cargo). It is, of course, difficult to
identify what is commercial trade in all these sources, but he is adept at
rigorous inferences from limited data. As he notes, those who wrote the
records disdained trade and merchants in favour of kings, officials and
prelates, so trade is least documented.  Nonetheless, he has identified a
wealth of evidence to contradict earlier notions that Europe in these times
had very little trade.
McCormick begins with an attempt to assess what of the late Roman empire
economy survived as the polity disintegrated, concentrating on the
persistence or change in routes of communication (of pilgrims, prelates,
diplomats and rulers as well as traders) from the beginning of the revival
in the seventh century. He plots the creation of new clusters of economic
activity, urbanisation, in the Mediterranean, the Frankish and Carolingian
empires, as well as the peripheral areas (Britain, eastern Europe and the
far north). Out of this, he identifies - in response to the major expansion
of the richer and more advanced Islamic world (up to the tenth century) -
the remarkable rise of Venice and the north Italian cities, the revival of
river trade and development of new trade points. It is an impressive and
fascinating compilation, a masterly summing up of the point we have reached
in the enquiry, a benchmark for further explorations.
What is the justification for putting together these two works? It is to
consider the essence of historical research, revisionism. The perception of
the past is continually changing and must do so as evidence accumulates and
new sources become available. Yet revisionism is in principle always a
challenge for governments and the intelligentsia, for settled ways of
considering the past and thus our present. What makes history important
outside the ranks of historians is thus its impact on the present, how we
see ourselves and our times. Historians, whether they know it or not, are
thus continually undermining the present, subverting our comfortable
assumptions that we know who we are. It is not just more immediate
questions - as with the work of Israel's revisionist historians [Morris1987,
Silberstein 1999], to the violent protests of the government, showing that
the official account of the foundation of the state in 1948 is remote from
the "truth" and this bears directly upon the appalling conflicts in the
Occupied Territories at the moment (no less, the myth of the lands of the
ancient Israelites is a powerful - if in principle absurd - moral element in
present Israeli claims). The revision of Irish history [Boyce and O'Day
1996] has less painful relevance but is no less upsetting for the ruling
order. A recent London satire on the performance of British generals in 1914
produced strong protests from the Conservative backbenches, and one need not
mention an obscure mosque at Ayodhya in a similar connection.
However, surely ancient or medieval history cannot have any such importance?
Yet even here the cultures within which we grow up do indeed equip us in
certain ways that can be challenged. Both Chakravarti and McCormick present
arguments that our views of the past are seriously wrong. One of the most
powerful reasons for this in my view is that history as a formal study is an
intellectual by-product of the rise of the modern state over the past 300
years or so, and these origins easily turn it into a glorification of the
present and a reorganisation of the past to show the steps by which the
glories came about. Hegel's extraordinary history of the world as the saga
of the self-realisation of the spirit of Reason, culminating in the pinnacle
of achievement in the Prussian monarchy of 1818 is thus not an unlikely
model for histories written in the 19th century and after. Chakravarti sees
the myth of the brutish past as imposed by British imperialism, a myth
contrasting the "eternal, immutable, static and stagnant India...stuck to
its rural agrarian intertia" (p 2) with the "vibrant, innovative,
adventurous, progressive and dominant west". But McCormick shows that the
British also invented a world of 'static subsistence villages', 'feudalism',
in their own past, this time to enhance the glories of the present. After
his immense work, he concludes that it is no longer possible to defend the
idea of a Europe as the "impoverished, inward-looking and economically
stagnant place many of us learned about in our student days" (p 797).
Indeed, the word 'feudalism' does not occur in his index (though footnote
28, p 734, gives a short non-committal reference). In other sources, the
'industrial revolution' has disappeared or rather there are many industrial
revolutions, not all equally well-documented, at different points of time in
the last three millennia. Angus Maddison (2001) in his recent statistical
account of the last thousand years of the world economy similarly has no use
for 'feudalism', 'the industrial revolution'or a transitional phase of
'merchant capitalism'. Capitalism in his view rises unevenly in Europe from
1000 AD up to 1820 when it finally emerges fully fledged.
The reason why this is emerging now, I would like to suggest, is as a
byproduct of 'globalisation'. The slow, contradictory and uneven emergence
of a single global economy is exposing how far history in the past has been
presented as the story of a separate, self-realising, autonomous 'country'
or 'society' (for which read the population governed by one independent
sovereign state). The national defined the universe of concern, whether a
polity, a society, an economy or a culture (at the same time often imposing
a quite implausible homogeneity on the domestic). Globalisation thus exposes
not only the Eurocentric (or Anglocentric) character of the past history of
the rise of capitalism and its industrial revolution, it exposes the idea of
an autonomous national history in the pre-modern state period in favour of a
history of the world and its communities.
One element in the old history is organising it so that capitalism arises
only in north-western Europe (and Britain specifically) at a particular
moment. Part of that is to deny the significance of trade in the past, or -
as in the case of both Rome and China - to say that what appears as
large-scale 'trade' (in grain, for example) is only the movement of state
appropriations. Thus, for example, in ancient Greece - now emerging as the
first prototype for free enterprise - de Ste Croix (1981:4) finds the
merchant class "a wholly imaginary" concept since significant commercial
trade did not occur in Greece and Rome. A capitalist class is reserved for,
say, the Netherlands in the 17th century, England in the 18th century, etc.
The insignificance of trade earlier partly fits the ancient European
prejudice against the trader (usually a foreigner) by peasant and lord, both
natural mercantilists. Such trade as there was, it is said, concerned only
the supply of luxuries to a small class of the wealthy, a phenomenon
entirely marginal to the isolated subsistence economy of the village. Yet as
Chakravarti notes, what are luxuries at the point of consumption may not be
luxuries at the point of production (he mentions black pepper from the
Coromandel coast), so that trade may indeed not be at all marginal but
compel the reorganisation of production. More important, the basic
proposition is false as shown in both these works. Thus, only modern
conceptions of 'inter-national trade' induce us to separate long and short
distance trade, 'external' and 'domestic' or 'internal' (implying the modern
separate national economies). But if we look at both then it is abundantly
clear that necessities were always traded and generally in bulk. Even long
distance trade occasionally handled necessities - salt, grain, industrial,
building or war raw materials, etc. Some of the large estates that McCormick
cites - and that earlier writers might have identified as prototypical
feudal domains - were important producers of marketed goods, agricultural
and craft manufactures, for long distance shipment. In some cases (the
evidence includes 2,500 industrial waste dumps and iron pits at different
sites throughout western Europe), the great estates were important sources
of exported metal manufactures. By implication, a pure exchange economy was
already important and sufficiently so to induce the reorganisation of
production so that producers were dependent upon exchange. Furthermore, even
if we accept the idea of trade being significant in the past, the conception
of a merchant class separate from production looks increasingly doubtful -
as both volumes show, often merchants were landowners, mine owners and
organisers of manufacturing.
The economic geography of this economy was, however, quite unlike the modern
'political economic geography' where development occurs almost independently
of natural endowment. It is a world of cities along water courses, trading
clusters, not political enclaves, with often only contingent relationships
to territorial rulers. International trade - trade between 'nations' -
exists only in the sense that inhabitants of different cities are called
'nations' -Venetians, Florentines, Goans, Malaccans, etc.
McCormick stresses the important role of the more advanced and wealthy
Islamic world in stimulating clusters of activity in backward Europe between
the 7th and 10th centuries, and perhaps the same may have some bearing on
the growth of Indian cities in the same period. The Abbasid Caliphate in
Baghdad (750-870) established some measure of economic interaction within
its sphere from the Atlantic to what became Iraq, with linkages through the
Gulf to littoral India and south-east Asia, and through Andalus to the rest
of Europe, particularly to the great trade fair of St Denis near Paris.
Neither book is, understandably, concerned to explain the emergence of this
engine of growth; McCormick suggests some possible factors: the economic
effects of territorial integration and some measure of security of
communication, a green revolution in some agricultural areas, a propitious
political and religious context, an urban civilisation as the result of
conquest, etc - but its effects in Europe seem substantial. McCormick
records the appearance of Arab coins in hoards in the Italian cities, in
Frankish and Carolingian Europe, and records of some Arab traders and, more
important, Jewish traders from the Muslim world. Europe imported luxuries
(with some industrial raw materials) but still, he estimates, ran an export
surplus, arising, he suggests, from the export of slaves. Slaves were drawn
from the Mediterranean littoral,but then from further inland and finally
from the periphery (Britain, eastern Europe - whence the word 'slave'
derived from Slav). He estimates that the export was a response to the
demographic disasters in the 8th century Islamic world following on the
ravages of bubonic plague (the first recorded slave ship was in 748 from
Venice). Slaves were, he says, also drawn from Africa and Asia.
But the European 'Dark Ages' are only one fragment in a story that, in
Chakravarti's volume, suggests the importance of trade throughout earlier
periods, indeed, for much of recorded history. The subsistence village, that
stalwart character in so much of social science, can hardly ever have
existed. Of course, the trade in some ages may have been largely state
appropriations (especially of raw materials for war - for example, tin for
bronze), pillage or purchase by territorial rulers, but the movement of
goods on whatever account seems to be as old as any other economic activity,
and often on a scale that must have depended upon a reorganisation of
production, creating a class of producers dependent upon exchange. This is
not necessarily the same as the creation of private merchant capital,
although that also seems to have been crucial at particular historical
Of course, there have been great fluctuations in the importance of this
trade economy. Europe in the sixth century appears to be one of those
troughs in activity, particularly marked (as also its reversal) in the
Mediterranean. The obverse to the troughs are great surges of growth that in
particular areas were sustained for quite long periods before being
curtailed by, one speculates, natural disasters, foreign invasion and
widespread destruction particularly of communications, the apparently
infinite depredations of territorial rulers, the collapse of markets
elsewhere, etc. But the surges take place on a long-term rising - albeit
slowly - plane of productivity, population and innovation.
Many of our notions of the historical periods in the rise of capitalism owe
much to Marx. He performed a brilliant service in seeking to capture the
essence of a system, 'capitalism', and the historical logic which preceded
it and defined its peculiarities. Given the exiguous basis of the knowledge
available to him, a tiny fragment of what we have now, it was heroic. But
his scheme bears the marks of the time of its origin, already into the
period of domination of the modern state and its sociological shadow, the
'nation'. His is an account of national capitalism in which the rise of
manufacturing is seen as the core distinctive feature, and the resulting
conflict of national classes sets the whole in political and social
movement. The national stress perhaps explains why he devoted so little
attention to the earliest phases of post-Roman European commercial and
manufacturing growth in the north Italian cities. He could not have seen the
earlier phases of growth outside Europe - from those clusters in ancient
India, Mesopotamia and China. He would no doubt have been astonished to
learn of the extraordinary growth of manufacturing under China's T'ang
dynasty or, even more, the southern Sung (960-1279), with a coal-fired
metallurgical output not matched in Europe until the late 18th century.
If globalisation undermines the old forms of national history, the
collective self-glorification of the state, the post-industrial age
undermines the notion that manufacturing is the peculiarity of capitalism.
An age witnessing a decline in manufacturing in the developed countries
either suggests a post-capitalist system or that capitalism is not so
defined and the predominance of manufacturing was no more than a phase. The
second would seem more plausible and more consistent with the core of Marx's
thought. But if capitalism is defined as a system of competitive production
for private profit and accumulation, an exchange system focused on
market-establishing prices which, in turn, determine the conditions of
production and territorial divisions of labour, then this has been a thread
in the economic story for perhaps thousands of years in one form or another,
one locality or another. In some cases - for example, southern Sung China or
even the time of Greek city-states - it appears to have been economically
dominant. It did not always include free labour and if that - the existence
of a free labour force - is made a defining element, it narrows drastically
the number of cases (but this still does not restore the primacy of Europe
or the modern period). Only in the past couple of centuries has capitalism
begun to have a dominance over the world capable of surviving the disasters
that afflicted it in the past. But even then, the system still has far to go
to achieve an unchallenged position - and far to go in many fields to
establish a set of world markets and prices, with the corresponding division
of labour of a single global economy.
Meillassoux (1972) - according to Shereen Ratnagar in Chakravarti's
collection - argues that any suggestion that capitalism is as old as
recorded society is to suggest it is 'natural' to human beings and therefore
cannot be changed. But this does seem a weak objection - as weak as to
suggest that agriculture or handicrafts are equally'natural'. An exchange
economy has been part of the agrarian, mining and handicraft economy for
thousands of years without any suggestion that these need to last for ever.
If we disallow Marx's account of capitalism as founded on the recent
phenomenon of national economies, as Euro-centric (and more narrowly,
Anglo-centric), it does not mean he did not detect something genuinely new
in the European case. But that was, I think, not capitalism per se, but a
state-directed capitalism, emerging out of the war-driven rivalries of the
European powers. Of course, warring rulers are as old as anything else in
recorded history, but not rulers who, in the interests of waging war direct,
shape or facilitate the accumulation of capital in the interests of
territorial purposes. Marx himself put his finger on the question in the
famous citation (Karl Marx-Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence and
Wishart, London, 1996, Vol 35, Capital, I, p 739):
The different momentasof primitive accumulation distribute themselves now,
more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal,
Holland, France, and England. In England, at the end of the 17th century,
they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the
national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system.
These methods depend in part on brute force, e g, the colonial system. But
they all employ the power of the state...
This is, incidentally, a good example of the omission of the Italian
cities - since they did not constitute a valid historical character, a
country or national state. Nor was this process one of 'primitive
accumulation'; that had occurred many times before. But the decisive role of
the state was, I suggest, very new, dedicated to forcing the creation of a
national 'political economy', rather than exploiting an existing
cosmopolitan economic geography of trading cities. This peculiar
conjuncture - of the state and its obsession with warfare forcing private
capital and trade into an exclusive national framework - may be Europe's
*  *  *
This has been a rather long excursus from these two excellent volumes. But
both have some importance in undermining our inherited conceptions both of
the economic system that exists now and of the past, of the relationship
between trade and the production economy in the past (and indeed, on the
doubtful distinction between merchant, agrarian and industrial capital).
Above all, they suggest that what is peculiar historically is not the return
to a 'globalisation'which was the norm historically, but the intervening
period of state capitalism. Once we are able to displace Europe (or Britain)
as the exclusive source of 'capitalism', we can begin to see many other
false starts on the road to modern capitalism in many parts of the world,
and ask questions about why they did not succeed. In the end, both volumes
are powerful contributions to defining the present.
*This is explored in much more detail in my The  Return of Cosmopolitan
Capital: Globalisation,  the State and War, IB Tauris, London, forthcoming.
Boyce, D George and Alan O'Day (1996): The Making of Modern Irish History:
Revisionism and Revisionist Controversy, Routledge, London and New York.
De Ste Croix, G E M (1981): The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, Duckworth, London.
Maddison, Angus (2001): The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective,
Development Centres Studies, OECD, Paris.
Meillassoux, C (1972): 'From Reproduction to Production', Economy and
Society 1, 93-105.
Morris, Benny (1987): The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Silberstein, Laurence (1999): The Postzionism Debate: Knowledge and Power in
Israeli Culture, Routledge, London and New York.

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