Paul Mattick 1958

Review: “Oriental Despotism, A Comparative Study of Total Power.”
By Karl A. Wittfogel. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957, $7.50.

Source: American Socialist, vol. 5, April 1958, No. 4, p. 23;
Transcribed: by Thomas Schmidt;

Hydraulic Society

LIKE historians before him, Marx held that “there have been in Asia, generally, from immemorial times, but three departments of Government: that of Finance, or the plunder of the interior: that of War, or the plunder of the exterior; and, finally, the department of Public Works.” The reasons for this, he wrote, were climatic and territorial, which made “artificial irrigation by canals and water-works the basis of Oriental agriculture and of Oriental despotism.” The “prime necessity of an economical and common use of water, which, in the Occident, drove private enterprise to voluntary association ... necessitated in the Orient ... the interference of the centralizing power of Government.”

Wittfogel’s book relates the same story in greater detail. The major outcome of his endeavor consists in a substitution of terms-"hydraulic civilization” for “Oriental society.” He believes that “the new nomenclature, which stresses institutions rather than geography, facilitates comparison with ‘industrial society’ and ‘feudal society’ ... and by underlining the prominent role of government, the term ‘hydraulic’ draws attention to the agromanagerial and agrobureaucratic character of these civilizations.”

According to Wittfogel, neither too little nor too much water leads necessarily to centralized water controls and governmental despotism. An economy, he says, must be neither too primitive nor too advanced to institute in a water-deficient landscape a “specific hydraulic order of life.” This order, he relates further, has its own type of division of labor and necessitates cooperation on a large scale. Irrigation and flood control, as well as roads, defense systems, palaces and tombs, are government enterprises demanding commandeered labor. Forced or corvée labor is not slave labor, but it is less free than wage-labor. The power of hydraulic states-China, ancient Mexico and Egypt-is greater than the power of government in free enterprise systems. It extends over society as a whole by limiting property rights, by taxation and confiscation and a variety of managerial measures that “prevent the nongovernmental forces of society from crystallizing into independent bodies strong enough to counterbalance and control the political machine” Often benevolent in form, hydraulic despotism is oppressive in content, and its “total power spells total corruption, total terror, total submission and total loneliness.”

Because man “is no ant” and “neither a stone,” his urge for independence and his conscience may lead to rebellion and this, in turn, leads to terrorism. “Like the tiger,” Wittfogel says, “the engineer of power must have the physical means with which to crush his victims. And the agro-managerial despot does indeed possess such means. He exercises unchecked control over the army, the police, the intelligence service; and he has at his disposal jailers, torturers, executioners, and all the tools that are necessary to catch, incapacitate, and, destroy a suspect.” Of course, the “tiger’s” means are not foreign to “non-hydraulic” societies, but in these societies, according to Wittfogel, “modern constitutional government restricts private violence more and more. It differs from agrarian and industrial apparatus states in that the size, quality and use of coercion are determined by the non-governmental forces of society.” In Western capitalism, “multiple forces, however monopolistically inclined, counterbalance each other so as to preclude the exclusive leadership of any of them.”

THE difference between “hydraulic” and “non-hydraulic” societies is then one between despotic and less-despotic states, between concentrated and less-concentrated power monopolies; and, choosing the lesser evil, Wittfogel prefers the latter to the former. There are, however, some difficulties. Marx, for instance, spoke of Russia as an Oriental despotism even though he knew that Russian agriculture was not “hydraulic.” Wittfogel knows this, too, but solves the apparent contradiction by dividing the despotic world into “the core, the margin, and the submargin of hydraulic societies.” Marginal hydraulic despotisms “appear at the geographical periphery of a hydraulic zone.” Though Russia had no close hydraulic neighbors, in Wittfogel’s view Mongols “began to introduce Orientally despotic methods of government,” and though such cases as Russia are more the exception than the rule, “they serve to demonstrate that marginal agrarian despotisms may arise at a great distance from the nearest conspicuous center of hydraulic life.” Even Western Europe, while under Roman influence, became “part of a loosely hydraulic Oriental society, without, however, adopting hydraulic agriculture; and eventually it returned to a submarginal hydraulic or altogether non-hydraulic position.”

At first sight, Wittfogel’s exaggerated emphasis on irrigation appears to be a rather harmless idiosyncrasy. No one, and least of all a Marxist, will deny that irrigation may be an important and, under certain circumstances, the most important factor in determining the mode of production and the character of political control.

But the despotic state, and all that goes with it, is not the exclusive monopoly of “hydraulic civilizations.” It can and did arise out of entirely different, “non-hydraulic” conditions. Neither are the despotisms of “non-hydraulic” states mere extensions of those in “hydraulic zones.” They may exist in any class society whether “hydraulic,” “feudal,” or “industrial.” Even in China, as has been pointed out by Wu Ta-K’un, the despotic state preceded hydraulic agriculture. “The ancient oracle bone inscriptions,” he wrote, “are full of reference to rain and water, but have no words for canals or dykes, which were first; constructed on any significant scale in the period of the Warring States (481-256 B.C.) when China was already into the Iron Age, long after the despotic state was finally established.”

Wittfogel’s great concern with despotism as the social policy of “hydraulic civilizations” is, however, more than just a new point of view which differentiates between feudalism and the “hydraulic society.” By claiming marginal and sub-marginal extensions of Oriental despotism over a large part of Asia and into the heart of Europe by Chinese and Russian totalitarianism, he finds the whole of Western “industrial” civilization and even the future of mankind itself endangered. The fear of the “Yellow Peril” at the turn of the century which served the imperialist aspirations of Western capitalism is now revived by Wittfogel in a modified form. It is no longer a specific skin color but a specific Asiatic institution, and the way of life stemming therefrom, which imperils Western civilization. Asiatic revolutions are then not really revolutions since they merely perpetuate Asiatic despotism as it developed out of the state-controlled “hydraulic” economy. And even though industrialization has brought about undeniable economic alterations, the terrorist social forms of control remain the same and tend to engulf the whole world. This is a real and present danger and the West must learn, says Wittfogel, “to wring victory from defeat” by a “readiness to sacrifice and the willingness to take a calculated risk of alliance against the total enemy,” but most of all, and here he quotes Herodotus, by fighting “not with the spear alone, but with the battle-axe.”