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Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of…
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Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1981. Auflage)

von Karl Wittfogel (Autor)

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1052201,683 (3.5)5
Titel:Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power
Autoren:Karl Wittfogel (Autor)
Info:Vintage (1981), Edition: 1st Vintage Books ed, 556 pages
Sammlungen:Deine Bibliothek


Die orientalische Despotie. Eine vergleichende Untersuchung totaler Macht. von Karl Wittfogel

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Marxist Geopolitics

Since this book is long out of print let me start with the (abbreviated) table of contents:

1. The natural setting of hydraulic society
2. Hydraulic economy,- a managerial and genuinely political economy
3. A state stronger than society
4. Despotic power, - total and not benevolent
5. Total terror, total submission, total loneliness
6. The core, the margin, and the submargin of hydraulic societies
7. Patterns of proprietary complexity in hydraulic society
8. Classes in hydraulic society
9. The rise and fall of the theory of the Asiatic mode of production
10. Oriental society in transition
General index
Index of authors and works

Politically Incorrect Marxism

This book could be (and indeed has been) understood as an attempt to marry a marxist understanding of modes of production with a geopolitical understanding of history. It is very sharp, but of course very dated. I believe it has been tossed down the memory hole because the reigning left-liberal political correctness won't allow any discussions of world politics that might discomfort non-westerners. (And you can only mock certain westerners to boot!) If the author had been worried about political correctness he might have titled this book indifferently either 'hydraulic society' or 'hydraulic empire' rather than the indignation provoking 'Oriental Despotism'. The book I have read is the 1967 sixth printing, not the 1957 first printing. We are told in the Preface that the "present volume reproduces the original text of 'Oriental Despotism' with a few additions and corrections from the third American printing and the German edition." And since that is all he says, I am assuming that the additions and corrections were of no great import.

That said, the book is almost certainly damaged by its Cold War perspective. Wittfogel, a strong anti-Stalinist, likely purposefully exaggerated the "hydraulic-empire" nature of the USSR/Russia because of the (perceived) necessities of the times. And it is not impossible that he exaggerated how bad (i.e., unfree) historic hydraulic societies actually were for the same reasons. But nevertheless, I do think he is on to something. While this book has a deep anti-Soviet / anti-Stalinist animus, I believe it is too much to say it is anti-marxist. There are simply too many marxist categories, notes and tools that he utilizes to say that.

Yes, Marxist! A whole chapter (8) is dedicated to the fate of classes in hydraulic society! And the next chapter, "The Rise and Fall of the Theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production" concentrates quite single-mindedly on the twists and turns of this theory at the hands of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. The strongest criticism, in this regard, is reserved for Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, one could say that Wittfogel is attempting to set the Marxism of his time (and ours) aright regarding the Asiatic Mode of Production [AMP]. At the beginning of chapter 9 our author indicates that contemporary Marxists were even referring to pre-modern Russia, China and India as feudal! (More about Marx and the AMP below.)

But with the above problems in mind, I still say that this book desperately needs to be reprinted! This book, in many ways, reminds me of the younger Pirenne's 2 volume study "The Tides of History". The Pirenne book took the account of the non-AMP side of pre-modern history in order to write a history of sea trade (cum freedom) from antiquity, through feudalism, to modernity with many geo-political points stressed. Of course, the Pirenne book too was written with Cold War realities in mind. But like this Wittfogel book it too deserves a rereading. Together, they present the smartest geopolitical, as opposed to merely ideological, understanding of the cold war written at the time that I have seen.

Why is geopolitics important today? Well, I believe that it is a self-inflicted blindness to geopolitical realities that leaves both Marxists and liberals helplessly lost when trying to understand post-Soviet Russia. Right now (= from spring 2014 -> early 2015) Russia is trying to annex parts of the Ukraine. Only an understanding of the geopolitical significance of Ukraine from the Russian point of view can make sense of this. The notion that this annexation is a return to the ideologically driven situation of the cold war is either silly, or an exercise in propaganda - at best. I believe the annexation is a return to nineteenth century 'Great Power' geopolitics pure and simple. In the nineteenth century 'the Great Game' was played between Great Britain and Russia in central asia regarding their respective 'spheres of influence'. Now it seems it will be played between America and Russia in eastern europe and the middle east. And who knows? - Perhaps elsewhere too.

When this book was first written our author was doubly a heretical Marxist. He was an ex-communist and a fierce anti-Stalinist who could go to extremes to attack those who defended the USSR. In spite of that, he remained enmeshed in Marxist thought and defended the AMP at a time when most Marxists had abandoned it. I suspect that the reason they ultimately abandoned it is that the form of exploitation that occurred within the AMP (in its original form) indicates that private property is not necessary for workers and peasants to be exploited. I am sure that at the height of the cold war this was far too important a point to concede. Now, let's take a brief look at chapter 9 to see how the Marx's early understanding of AMP developed and laid the groundwork for its rejection.

The Asiatic Mode of Production in Marx

The biggest problem that Wittfogel has with Marx regarding the AMP is that Marx doesn't think of this as rule by a class (i.e., the state bureaucracy) but rather as rule by a despot/state. Why doesn't Marx find a ruling class in the Asiatic mode of production? (Note that he unfailingly finds classes in all other modes of production.) I suspect that ultimately (but perhaps unconsciously?) Marx gets this from Hegel and his characterization of the East as the Rule of One. Of course, our author finds other problems with the Marxist understanding of hydraulic societies too. But I believe that Marx's inability to find classes in the AMP is, for our author, the most egregious. I suspect that another reason that Marx doesn't find classes in the AMP is that the mere existence of classes would imply dialectical movement; and oriental despotism does not appear to change.

There are other problems. Most importantly, Wittfogel also suspects that both Marx and Engels were responding to the withering criticism of the anarchists that Marxist communism "would inevitably involve the despotic rule of a privileged minority over the rest of the population, the workers included. (p. 387-388)" Wittfogel thus suspects that Marx/Engels watered down their understanding of the 'Asiatic mode of production' for practical, not theoretical, considerations. And of course he wants us to infer this too.

Yes, yes, I know; one can criticize Wittfogel of exactly the same thing. His book was written to tie 'really existing' socialism to the tradition and practices of Oriental Despotic regimes. We all need to get over this. (Wittfogel included.) All important books are written with a purpose in mind. They want to convince people of a certain time and place of something that they are (at least) not entirely convinced of yet. Evidence is shaped and cut to achieve that specific purpose. This shaping and cutting (which necessarily happens) will always eventually present opportunities at a later date for much indignation and consternation. I have always found trying to understand authors in their specific situations with their specific purposes more enlightening than throwing a fit because the necessities of yesterday were unlike those of today.

What was the Asiatic Mode of Production to Marx? Broadly speaking, dispersed villages required a central authority to take charge of irrigation and canal projects. And this permitted the central authority to perpetuate itself indefinitely. With this term Marx / Engels are most usually thinking of China and India, Russia was called semi-Asiatic; but of her Engels (1875) said, "Such a complete isolation of the individual [village] communities from each other, which in the whole country creates identical, but the exact opposite of common, interests, is the natural foundation of Oriental despotism, and from India to Russia this societal form, wherever it prevailed, has always produced despotism and has found therein its supplement. Not only the Russian state in general, but even its specific form, the despotism of the Tsar, far from being suspended in mid-air, is the necessary and logical product of the Russian social conditions. (cited pg. 376)" Note that Russian conditions do not seem to be especially promising ground for a socialist revolution.

[I want to digress a moment and underline that Marx and Engels, even with their mistaken (according to our author) understanding of the AMP, are very aware of the problematic nature of revolutionary prospects for Russia. For the 1882 Russian edition of the "Communist Manifesto" they write:

-The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels
January 21, 1882, London-

So you see, there were strong marxist grounds for the rejection of the USSR. Without european proletarian revolution the jump from peasant society to socialist society, skipping capitalism, seemed to Marx & Engels highly unlikely. Perhaps we can say that, avant la lettre, Marx & Engels were anti-Soviets. Digression ended.]

According to Marx, under the Asiatic Mode the state (the despot) is the real landlord and there is a general slavery insofar as the despot is the coordinator of all crucial hydraulic and communal works (pp. 376-377). Lenin accepts the Marxist notion of the Asiatic Mode until 1914. (He abandons it in 1916.) But of course, Marx is interested in the question for theoretical reasons, Lenin for practical ones. But that does not mean that Marx cannot alter theory for practical reasons.

Now, what is a ruling class? Those who control the "decisive means of production and the 'surplus' created by them (p. 380)." Regarding Marx's inability to find classes in the AMP and instead only see there the sovereign and/or the state our author writes, "[t]his was a strange formulation for a man who ordinarily was eager to define social classes and who denounced as a mystifying 'reification' the use of such notions as 'commodity' and the 'state', when the underlying human (class) relations were left unexplained (p. 380)." I found this a convincing point. Wittfogel adds that of Marx's sources, JS Mill, Francois Bernier, and Richard Jones had all spoken of functionaries of the oriental states (i.e., bureaucrats) receiving portions of the surplus. Therefore Marx was well aware of it. Our authors judgement of this in a nutshell:

"Marx' interest in the class issue, the data at his disposal, and his objection to the mystification of social relations point to one conclusion, and one conclusion only. They all suggest that from his own standpoint Marx should have designated the functional bureaucracy as the ruling class of oriental despotism. But Marx did nothing of the kind. Instead of clarifying the character of the Oriental ruling class he obscured it. Measured by the insights reached by Bernier. Jones. and Mill, Marx' mystification (reification) of the character of the ruling class in Oriental society was a step backwards. (p. 381)"

You see our authors criticism of Marx/ism is that he (and his movement) wasn't Marxist enough! Whether this happened because of anarchist criticism or the later need to justify a socialist revolution in Russia or some other reason (or combination of reasons) is immaterial. Wittfogel does not understand himself to be a mere anti-Marxist. Rather, he sees himself as more consistently applying the insights of Marx in order to find classes in the AMP. How should Wittfogels 'Marxism' be judged? György Lukács once said:
"Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx's individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious 'orthodox' Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx's theses in toto - without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the 'belief' in this or that thesis nor the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. ("History and Class Consciousness", 'What is Orthodox Marxism', Lukács)"

After reading this book, I think that Wittfogel should be judged a Marxist (however heretical). And his arguments accepted or rejected by marxists in those terms.

Final Thoughts

It is tempting to treat this book as a successful attempt to commingle marxist analysis with geopolitical analysis in order to enrich our understanding of history. Surely, Wittfogel is right to think that geopolitics would benefit from a marxist analysis. (And, I would add, vice versa.) And yes, this book is richly suggestive, thoughtful and shows years of study. But, for example, in asserting that, "his goal was to prepare a marxist geopolitics as an alternative to nationalist varieties" (John Agnew, "Making Political Geography", p. 81) one can be mislead into thinking that this has (or can) be achieved. Why do I think this?

Because to simply equate the Marxist notion of AMP with a geopolitical understanding of Land-Power (which, I believe, at the theoretical level will prove necessary) is very misleading - at best. Why? The Marxist understanding is dialectical; everything moves. This is untrue of geopolitics. Here there are invariants: most obviously geography, and the resulting unsurpassable geopolitical difference between land and sea powers. The Marxist historical stages dialectically go through the 'primitive communism' of tribalistic prehistory, our Asiatic Mode, ancient slavery, feudalism, and then on to capitalism. (And one day, according to Marx, socialism.) Of course, the Asiatic Mode sticks out like a sore thumb because it doesn't seem to develop into another mode while all the others do (or, in the case of capitalism, one day will).

Now this progressive 'stagism' was common in early modern thought and certainly is not unique to Marx; see, for instance, Montesquieu, Turgot and Adam Smith. What was entirely new in Marx was his methodology. And this is why the AMP must remain such a contested notion within Marxist theory. That methodology (dialectical materialism) was one of movement, while to the consternation of all the Asiatic Mode did not seem to move (i.e., change into another stage due to contradictions within itself). If the Asiatic Mode was unmoving in this sense, could there be another mode of production that was also unmoving? Of course, no marxist wanted to think this of capitalism!

I would argue that the historically later marxist modes of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) all can be brought into fruitful contact with the geopolitical notion of seapower, while this cannot be said of the Asiatic Mode vis-à-vis landpower. The contemporary histories of capitalist states Marx studied while in England were those of western europe. And its history, geopolitically, was the triumph of sea-powers over lesser sea-powers and land-powers. I think that Arrighi (see his "The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times") has nicely shown how well marxist theory can explain the transformations of Capitalist Regimes as the succession of hegemonic sea powers. (-Although this certainly wasn't his intent!) The sea-powers that Arrighi focuses on, btw, are Genoa, the Dutch, the British, and the USA. These are all classical examples of what nineteenth century geopoliticians meant by seapower.

But I doubt strongly that what Arrighi has certainly achieved for capitalist political economy / history can be done, in a Marxist manner, for a geopolitical-informed world history. Why? Marxism posits the oneness of Man and History. This 'oneness' becomes ever more exact, dialectically, over time. (Of course this is never fully achieved. Every step in the dialectical process leads to new contradictions. There are no utopias or end-points.) While Marxism teaches this (ever more exact) monism, Geopolitics teeters upon an unsurpassable dualism: landpower versus seapower. I don't believe that there is anything unsurpassable in a material dialectical history. Therefore I think that any marxist geopolitics that seeks to be internally consistent, will be always tempted to, and eventually forced to, either deny the unmoving nature of the asiatic mode (i.e., landpower) or do away with the category entirely.

The other possibility, explored by Wittfogel in this book, is to find classes in the AMP. The objection to this move will be: if the absence of private property (in the AMP) doesn't equate to the absence of exploitation then how can we be certain that socialism itself won't become but another exploitive society? It will probably be eventually agreed that if the AMP is retained within the edifice of marxist thought then the possibility of exploitation in a socialist society cannot be theoretically ruled out. So again, AMP will be discarded.

Now, from a geopolitically 'landpower' point of view, what might one say? Well, our nationalistic geopolitician might say that this history of capitalism as delineated by Arrighi (and others) was but the history of western european seapowers and their north american / australian avatars. He might add that what we currently refer to as 'globalization' is merely the attempt of these powers (and alliances thereof) to impose their will on the rest of the world. And he would consider the distinct international institutions of late modernity (for instance, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the OECD, and most NGO's), to varying degrees, to be part of this conspiracy to remake the world in the image of western european seapowers. Who thinks like this? ...Well, Vladimir Putin for one.

But the geopolitical understanding of landpower vs. seapower will one day (I hope!) be the subject of another review. Four stars for a wonderfully suggestive, thoughtful book marred by the excesses of its time. (- But again, name a book or individual that hasn't been.) It really should be reprinted.
1 abstimmen pomonomo2003 | Jan 20, 2015 |
I found this book to be highly entertaining and thought-provoking, although it is not the sort of work that ages well. Simultaneously an overarching study of world history and an anti-Soviet polemic, the book explores Marx's concept of the "Asiatic mode of production" by comparing the socioeconomic structures of historical Asian and other non-Western civilizations. Wittfogel finds authoritarian modes of government to be linked to the needs of river-valley societies, which require a high degree of centralization in order to carry out large-scale irrigation projects. A specialist in Chinese history, the author confidently draws from an immense range of literature and positions each civilization within a highly nuanced framework. The book (as well as the historical argument) is mechanically organized to an oppressive degree, but Wittfogel's dry humor and barely suppressed anger help to keep the writing fresh. This is a flawed and somewhat outdated work, but still a classic with which students of history should become familiar. ( )
1 abstimmen breadhat | Jul 23, 2013 |
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