LE DESPOTISME ORIENTAL WITTFOGEL PDF

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Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power. Yale University Press. 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 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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. Even in Oriental countries where a modern administration has been introduced, with a bureaucracy, armies, managers, foremen, etc. 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. It is also true that with many of the primitive mountain folk Kurds, Berbers, etc. Such women can play no positive part in the character development of their sons, only a corrupting one. 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. He forgets, incidentally, that the Czar was cousin to most European monarchs. 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.

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. 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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