Commentary Magazine

Oriental Despotism, by Karl Wittfogel

Asian Society
Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power.
by Karl Wittfogel.
Yale University Press. 555 pp. $7.50.


Ours is an age of second thoughts, and of going back to earlier writers for inspiration and new insights. Until a few years ago it seemed that knowledge progressed in linear fashion, each generation standing on the shoulders of its predecessors, and developing or refuting them at will. This blissful certainty has been seriously undermined by now, on both sides of the Iron Curtain; there is some awareness that problems and insights can sometimes disappear from view, even though they remain freely available on library shelves, and have to be rediscovered afresh, often painfully.

The problem of Asian society, or Oriental despotism as it used to be called, is a good example. The fact that the massive and important work under review in some respects sets out what was known a hundred years ago, throws light on the social psychology of the West, whatever it may or may not add to our understanding of Asia. Professor Wittfogel sets himself several distinct aims. He polemicizes against the modern Communist “line” which depicts Asian society in terms of “feudalism,” “semi-feudalism,” “landlordism,” and other concepts borrowed from a property-based class analysis of Western society. He also shows that this fallacy is not confined to Communists. He discusses Asian government as a despotism based on direct exploitation of the people by the holders of absolute state power; and the steady retrogression of Marxist thought on this question, from the days when the young Marx held the orthodox liberal viewpoint until it was finally excommunicated by Stalin. The other main axis of the book is an attempt to show that Oriental despotism arose out of the needs of what he calls “hydraulic agro-managerial society,” i.e. a society which carries out large-scale irrigation or flood-control works, and where the state plays an important part in economic life. It was from these “hydraulic centers,” Professor Wittfogel holds, that despotism spread. He uses this theory to elicit the origins of Soviet Communism: “hydraulic bureaucratic despotism” was brought to Russia by the Tartars, set its stamp on Russian society, and the tradition of centralized despotism persisted through Czarist days to Communism, which he defines as generalized industrial state slavery.

All history-writing may be said to mirror contemporary views and preoccupations, but the work under discussion is consciously intended to serve as ammunition in a political straggle against totalitarianism, or absolutism in general, and Communism in particular. Like other crusading works of its kind it assumes that views which conflict with its own hamper the struggle for truth and justice. Professor Wittfogel therefore finds it difficult to examine them dispassionately. As a result, not only are we presented with a selection of facts to prove a particular thesis, but the writer falls into the very same errors of deterministic thinking for which he castigates his opponents.

His polemics against Stalinism are the soundest part of the book. But one doesn’t have to look very hard to find evidence of distortion of social theory to meet political exigencies in non-Stalinist quarters as well. Professor Wittfogel is right in noting that on the subject of Oriental society and the role of the state it is not only the Communists who religiously held to the “belief than any form of avowedly beneficial state planning is preferable to the predominance of private property, a condition which modern sociological folklore deems most abhorrent. . . .” Although Western thinkers from the Greeks onwards were aware of the difference between the essentially despotic character of Oriental society and their own society in which freedom was prized and sought after even if not always sucessfully, yet this awareness, as Professor Wittfogel points out, seemed to fade away as the 19th century wore on. It then became the fashion to think exclusively in terms of Western social concepts; the Orient, which had appeared as massive, despotic, and permanent, seemed to be on the point of crumbling away, and it was generally assumed that Asia would have to adopt European modes of existence in order to survive. As Asia lost its independence, it also lost its independent image. The “ideological blackout” generalized and extended to the whole world the 19th-century English view of the state as an organ that acted primarily on behalf of society, or at least of sections of society, rather than as a social structure which could act on its own behalf.

In the case of the Marxists in general, and the Communists in particular, the blackout is blatant, and amenable to a fairly straightforward historical description and explanation. Marx had originally favored the concept of an “Asiatic mode of production,” according to which Oriental society stood outside the sequence of classical antiquity, feudalism, absolute monarchy, and capitalism, which gave the West its own peculiar political history; Asian society had retained its old form characterized by the supremacy of the state whose income was based on taxation, ownership of the land, extortion, etc. But as Marx and Engels went further in turning from method to system, the idea of an Asiatic mode of society, where the state was the exploiter, became inconvenient. As time went on, they tended to ignore it.

Lenin in his turn began with a concept of Russia as a semi-Asiatic autocracy, where the development of private property in industry and land would be progressive. But this thesis could provide little justification for a body of professional revolutionaries whose aim was power; he therefore gradually moved round to a position where he identified the Czarist autocracy with capitalism, ignored the “Asiatic” consequences of total bureaucratic power, of which he had shown awareness earlier in his career, and succeeded in imposing a thoroughgoing despotism, compared with which the Czarist regime looked surprisingly mild. Stalin, who completed Lenin’s work, finally excommunicated the “notorious thesis of the Asiatic mode of production” bell, book, and candle. Asian society was decreed to be “feudal,” “semi-feudal,” or “patriarchal,” etc. Indeed, an objective description of Pharaonic Egypt, with its state-owned land, state-managed agriculture and crop-collections, state trade, and emperor who was the semi-divine head of priests, bureaucrats, and army, would have sounded too familiar to Soviet citizens.



Professor Wittfogel gives a relentlessly documented account of how Communists and fellow-traveling historians and Orientalists in the West changed their line to fit in with that of the Soviet Union. He shows in particular how Professors Gordon Childe and Owen Lattimore, who had previously been firm adherents of the theory of the “Asiatic mode of production,” dropped it like a hot brick when the line changed, and—without giving any explanation for their changed position—adopted the new Stalinist line which spoke of the East as ruled by “feudalism,” landowners, etc. A recent work by a British writer, Doreen Warriner, a veteran apologist for Communist regimes and more recently a fervent propagandist for Nasser (published interestingly enough by the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, whose endemic Arabophilia now gives it a common meeting ground with the extreme left) defends the use of the term “feudal” to describe Egyptian land tenure prior to the 1952 coup, on the grounds that “. . . whatever the system is called, it ought to be abolished; and the use of the term ‘feudal’ makes political good sense.”

The effects of the ideological blackout stretch far beyond the periphery of the Communist world, though Professor Wittfogel perhaps exaggerates its extent: writers as influential as Talcott Parsons, Eugene Staley, Hoselitz, and others, have long been warning against it, often with specific analysis of the harm which it has done in Asiatic countries themselves. Professor Wittfogel’s own theory, the “hydraulic thesis,” however, fails to fit many of the facts as we know them. For one thing, though one can find examples of active despotism such as Egypt, one can also find many passive Oriental despotisms, which have the full despotic apparatus enumerated by Wittfogel (army, prisons and executioners, absolute and capricious power, eunuchs, spies, centralized administration, etc.) but carry out no “agromanagerial” or “agrobureaucratic” functions. They follow rather the Benthamite motto that the less government the better, and content themselves with maintaining army, police, courts, sufficient road-building to allow their armies and officials to move about, and possibly some religious endowment. Their source of income is the traditional “Asiatic mode” of extortion through taxes, land-grants, confiscation of the property of “traitors,” bribes, sale of offices, tax-farming, etc. Passive despotisms of this kind can be found throughout history in Monsoon Asia, in the Ottoman Empire during most of its existence (most water-control in the Ottoman Empire was allowed to fall into complete disrepair, but the despotism kept abreast of changing techniques), in Persia, North Africa, and Central Asia, at least from the time of the Mongols, among others. Earlier Mediterranean civilizations, in Iberia, the Levant, Thrace, and Anatolia, also fit into this pattern.



Since Professor Wittfogel has gone back to Marx and his contemporaries for his insights into Oriental despotism, it is a pity that he did not go back a little further. Hegel, and before him Montesquieu, in analyzing various kinds of Oriental despotism, realized that the system could not be explained in terms of institutions alone, but that these institutions reflected a certain outlook. The Oriental despot stood at the apex of a despotic society, whose members were “crouching and abject before a victor and Lord . . . recklessly barbarous to the vanquished and the subject,” demonstrating a “servile consciousness” . . . “no sense of personal independence with which a state of despotism could be contrasted”; hence there was “. . . a history of reigning dynasties but not of peoples; a series of perpetually varying intrigues and revolts—not indeed of subjects against their rulers but of a prince’s son against his father, for example. . . .” Something in the Oriental personality, these thinkers saw, made the Oriental capable of being either a slave or a despot (or even both), but never a free man.

Even in Oriental countries where a modern administration has been introduced, with a bureaucracy, armies, managers, foremen, etc., the same characteristics permeate the new framework. The foreman charges a “kickback” from the workers, the clerk expects a bribe, the sergeants and officers exploit their recruits for homosexual purposes—not as isolated incidents which are discovered and dealt with as might happen anywhere, but as the regular accepted rule.

The source cannot lie in economic life, since Oriental despotism has existed at many economic levels, from the lowest to levels considerably higher than those in Europe when it was already developing free institutions. Nor can these cultural features result from the institutions themselves, since during the millennia of Oriental despotism the institutions have been destroyed time and time again, yet they always reproduce themselves. We shall have to study the character of their people much more thoroughly, with all the new aids at our disposal as well as the old ones; their family structure in particular, where the character is formed, needs attention. The East seems to display a cyclical history: savage hill-tribes or nomads overrun fertile areas which have become corrupt and incapable of self-defense. They set up a new vigorous dynasty and ruling class, then in the course of time they become what European writers used to call “corrupt, effeminate, and enervated,” and the next invasion is due. It is also true that with many of the primitive mountain folk (Kurds, Berbers, etc.) women have a higher status, family life is free and affectionate, whereas in classical Moslem civilization women have the lowest status, being little more than property and the object of sexual jealousy and insecurity on the part of their husband-owner (Wittfogel notes similar institutions in China, with the harem and the eunuch). Such women can play no positive part in the character development of their sons, only a corrupting one. The question is worth further study; it is more accessible to research than Professor Wittfogel’s assurance that despotism must have begun in hydraulic areas and moved outwards.1



Philosophically, Professor Wittfogel’s thesis is likewise questionable. It assumes that since large-scale water works are economically necessary, and despotic power is necessary for their institution and maintenance, necessity—in the Hegelian sense—realized the despotism by some “hidden hand.” But from the point of view of historical sequence, despotism must have preceded water-control works in order to implement them; therefore its source must be sought elsewhere.

Now one can find cases of post-medieval Oriental empires which displayed considerable similarity to 17th- or 18th-century European monarchies, yet their subsequent development was quite different. Serious historians are still at a loss to say why. Many explanations have been offered: now the “fruitful tension between church and state,” the special character of the German tribes, the haunting influence of Greek and Hebrew prophetic values in the West, the discovery of the New World, the stultifying effect of Islam in the East; all of these have some value, but it is doubtful whether any one of them gives a complete answer and absolves one from further and deeper study of the people who made up society. At all events these explanations tell us more than the “rainfed” theory.

Professor Wittfogel is convinced that we ought to give an answer to the Communists as complete, all-embracing, and certain as their own, on the problems of Oriental society and despotism in general: “In a crisis situation, any theoretical vacuum, like a power vacuum, invites disaster.” We have to prove the Communists wrong when “. . . they hold us incapable of producing big and structured ideas. . . .” He proposes, therefore, to emulate “the trail-blazers of modern thought . . . the Newtons, Montesquieus, Adam Smiths, and Darwins . . . who . . . provided new interpretations of the world which were as spontaneous as they were coherent, and as bold as they were competent.” These aspirations leave their marks on his writing. His section which sets out to prove that the dominant factor in Russian political and social development was Mongol influence, involves selecting any bits of fact or speculation which can be made to fit the theory, and ignoring the broad stream of evidence showing Russia’s European heritage and the similarities between her development and that of the European monarchies, as well as the differences. (He forgets, incidentally, that the Czar was cousin to most European monarchs.) This leads him to introduce as evidence Max Weber’s remark that the Czarist police “. . . show Mongol deceit and cunning” (the German police, one supposes, were above all this) and to cite the readiness of the Czars to have a rival or a dangerous vassal murdered as proof of an Oriental nature, as though English history of the late medieval and Renaissance period did not give us equally lurid sequences.



Professor Wittfogel deserves great credit for having raised the problem of the character of Asiatic society, in the face of tendencies to put its manifestations down to “backwardness” or “feudalism,” with the corollary that institutional and technical changes alone will not be sufficient to “modernize” it. Present setbacks in regions like the Middle East and Indonesia lend urgency to the problem. He is also right when he stresses the need to pin-point and answer Communist misrepresentation on this question. But the important questions he raises should serve as a reminder that we are a long way from knowing what we need to know about society and its history.




1 Earlier social thinkers based themselves as best they could on observation, travel, and historical knowledge; their method was largely philosophical and speculative, but they never lost awareness that they were dealing with human beings, whose character and institutions were intertwined. Unfortunately, from the late 18th century onwards, social thinking began to come under the influence of the natural sciences. This influence was to show itself first of all in political economy, then in political science, sociology, and the rest. It was marked above all by the desire to find general, universally valid laws of human development, which could be made applicable to all times and places. This method of thinking has endeavored to explain (or explain away) personality in terms of social and economic institutions; in fact, “scientific” has come to mean the exclusion of the human being from social studies, and the belief that one can understand broad social processes without understanding the people who compose them. For such an approach the idea of “national character” in general, and “Oriental character” in particular, is taboo, even immoral; the active role of values, of “faiths which move mountains,” has to be explained away in terms of economic change, irrigation, development of transport, etc. It is this scientism which has expressed itself in the search for cure-all answers and inevitable sequences of human development.

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