Of all Karl Marx's conceptions of the modes of production which he considered to have provided the base for the various forms of society known to human history, this was perhaps the least developed, and is certainly the one that has given rise to the most controversy.
Sometimes the term ‘Asiatic society’ was used to refer to all non-Western social forms other than ‘primitive-communism’ and slavery, whilst at others it (or its more common synonym oriental despotism) was said to be applicable only to the cases of Japan and China. Underlying this referential variation was a conceptual variation. Sometimes, especially in their earlier work, Marx and Engels stressed the dominant role that the state played in such societies because of either its monopoly of land ownership, its control over irrigation systems, or its sheer political and military power. At other times—and this is what allowed them to broaden the range of societies to which the term was applied in most of their later work—they suggested that it was the communal nature of landholding that isolated the inhabitants of different villages from one another and so made them prey to state domination.
The subsequent status of the concept among Marxists and non-Marxists alike has varied with changes in the political climate. Between the two world wars, the idea was disavowed by Soviet-influenced Marxists, who probably saw it as an obstacle to the Soviet Union's political ambitions in and for the Far East. In the Cold War climate of the 1950s, Karl Wittfogel disinterred the concept in his Oriental Despotism (1957), suggesting that the real reason for its unpopularity in the Soviet Union was the uncomfortable similarity between it and the reality of Stalin's Russia.
During the 1960s the concept excited some interest on the part of Western Marxists, who hoped that it might provide them with a means of avoiding a Eurocentric conception of social development. In the 1970s, however, such hopes were exposed to a barrage of criticisms, which largely explain the concept's current eclipse, and which in one way or another appear to have owed something to the rise of structuralist Marxism. For example, Perry Anderson subjected the concept to a widely accepted empirical critique in his Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), while Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst made it the object of a (rather more controversial) theoretical critique in their Precapitalist Modes of Production (1975). Finally, Edward Said delivered what appears to have been the coup de grâce, by arguing that, in formulating the concept, Marx and Engels were the unwitting bearers of a noxious discourse that he termed ‘orientalism’ (see his 1979 book of the same name).