A Stronger Oriental Despotism Author(s): Karl A. Wittfogel Source: The China Quarterly, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1960), pp.

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Glimpses of World History. not with a multi-centred.) 29 . 1942. 1957.villagecommunities. To repeat: in the politicalsphereOrientaldespotism exerted total power. a single-centred subBut just as the multi-centred order comprisesseveralinstitutional so does the single-centred. and where permitted circumstances recommendedit. Oriental Despotism (New Haven: Yale University Press." Comparative and the important dissimilaritiesbetween Communisttotalitarianism absolutistregimesthat prevailedin traditionalAsia.2 And while they kept the dominantreligion attached to the state and the supervised politicallyrelevantelementsof secularthought. combinestotal politicalpowerwithlimited social and intellectualcontrol. a politicallypulverised population.. The Discovery of India. North Africa and America.which. 284.but they the peasants to cultivate their land privately. The industrialdespotism of the fully developed and totally managerial apparatus society combines total political power with total social and intellectualcontrol.they were not ideocrats. but he also notes that there was no "urge for popular freedom" (Jawaharlal Nehru. nor did they force all secular thoughtinto a single mould determinedby an all-pervasive politicaldoctrine. 1946. p. but are faced. 302). In his opinion "the static nature of Indian society " was due largely to the fact that the Indian middle class did not fight for political leadership as was done "in some Western countries. In both cases we societal order. Even when the rulerswere qualifiedpriests." The agrodespoticmasters were at most semi-managerial. ideological despotism at most. They the administered large productiveand protectivewaterworks.. "The agrarian of the old society.they did not manipulatethe religiouscore of the dominantcreed. certainparts of pre-Columbian thansociety. was semi-managerial. p. totalitarianism separatedby significantdifferencesin the range of are of their managerial operationsand in the completeness their social and control. 1957). WITTFOGEL A Stronger Oriental Despotism China ") COMMUNIST is not an "Asiatic" (" hydraulic society. it demandedtotal submissionand could impose 1 Karl A.KARL A." (Idem. they tolerated private handicraftand commerce. New York: John Day Co. Wittfogel. Orientaldespotismand Communist types. guildsand secondary religions. 440.) 2 Nehru mentions these freedoms in his account of India's history. p. (Hereafter cited as Wittfogel. New York: John Day Co. They granted politically inconsequentialforms of selfto government clans.a rulingmanagerial In both cases we finda statestronger and bureaucracy. nor is Mao's governmenta replica of the power system called "Oriental as analysis reveals basic similarities well as despotism.

in agriculture. trans. On the basis of a total state doctrine and assisted by a modern system of communications. 4 Dr. edited by Hellmut Wilhelm for the Human Relations Area Files and the U. 1957. San Min Chu 1: The Three Principles of the People.S. Sun Yat-sen held that under China's traditional absolutism the people. 5 See Karl A. they developed a total ideocratic control never equalled by any earlier despotism. but also. pp. by Frank W. In outlying areas of conquest and domination they developed a pattern of total colonialism incomparably more repressive than China's imperial administration of the south-western tribes. Oriental or other." But beyond this sphere-which was operationally restricted-there existed numerous areas with little or no government interference. It provided a maximal incentive to intensive farming.). and very widely. 149-160. Thus the Communist masters developed a total managerialism and a degree of economic and personal control never equalled by any hydraulic society." in Handbook on China. the Peking regime spread its operational authority over the major sectors of production and distribution. Price. Like the Soviet Union.5 They probably explain why the non-officiating notables (the bureaucratic "gentry" who lived on revenue from privately owned lands) had unusual opportunities for literary study and creative activity. (Hereafter cited as "Forced Labor. Chungking. and no other Oriental civilisation produced so vast and diverse a literature. we can now identify certain crucial dissimilarities between Communist and traditional China. A private economy had evolved not only in handicraft and commerce. "Forced Labor.). Wittfogel.4 Among the several reasons for this phenomenon one seems particularly noteworthy. not to speak of the increasingly liberal rule that England maintained in India from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1947. 1943. 198. These developments probablyexplain why in importantspheres of public work the imperial government for centuries replaced commandeered corvee labour by hired ("free ") wage labour. No national revolutionist can openly plead his cause in the colonial domains of Communist China. Few other Oriental civilisations inculcated in their population so deep a respect for intellectual achievement as did China. Turkestan or Tibet. pp. and it everywhere encouraged a spirit of competitive individualism. No national revolutionist can study and write in Mao's jails as did Gandhi and Nehru under the British raj. In China these areas of freedom were more extensive than in most other Oriental countries. SWittfogel.") 30 . were much left to themselves like "loose sand" (Sun Yat-sen. Remembering these facts. after the fulfilment of their government obligations. 203 et seq. Army (ms.THE CHINA QUARTERLY total loneliness.

(New York: Random House."12 In all these cases the Chinese Communists probablydared to act core areas. p. 12 See Karl A. as happenedin Russia after the October revolution. " Ching-chi wen-t'i yii ts'ai-cheng wen-t'i " (Economic and Financial Problems) in Mao Tse-tung.1x Again differentfrom the Soviet Communists who waited ten years before they the began to collectivisethe countryside. ed. Hsuan-chi (Selected Works) (Ta-lien: Ta-chung Shu-tien.x0 generally. 559. Nung-ts'un tiao-ch'a. detail. that is. 115 et seq. The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR. s Mao Tse-tung.and still othersthe experience and personalityof the autocraticleader. 11 Mao Tse-tung. American edition to be published soon by Frederick A. Nung-ts'un tiao-ch'a (Village Investigations) (no place: Hsin-hua Shu-tien. 580. the starting point being the but collective care for the land of soldiers in the Red Army.7 The Chinese Communiststhereforewere perpetuating institutionwhich an was traditionally accepted-though often resented-when." Chap. 1947). 173 et seq. 1938). Despite conspicuous restrictions. 213 (hereafter cited as Snow 1938). Handbook of World Communism.commandeeredlabour persisted throughoutthe dynastic period and also under the Republic.) 6 Russia lacked the large government-managed public works characteristic of hydraulic 31 . 1947). 246. pp. half a year after the completionof their "land reform. (German edition: Miinchen 1958. Plans and Performance. p. Some of these traits reflectthe fact that traditionalChina was a full-fledgedOrientalsociety. 1947. " The Peasants. 300 et seq. 564. New York." parts I and II.6 Othersreflectspecificaspects of the ChineseCommunist movement. whereasTsarist Russia was a marginal variantof this institutional conformation. The present account stresses the contrast between the Communist r6gime and China's traditional " Oriental " order. Mao Tse-tung. Wittfogel.THE FIRST DECADE-WITTFOGEL Communist China shares these and other basic features--which cannot be discussedhere-with the Soviet Union. see Wittfogel. immediately after the conquestof the mainland. cf. pp. Red Star Over China. ? See "Forced Labor. The ChineseCommunists up workteamsfor agricultural set purposes in the CentralChineseSovietsas early as 19308 and in the Yenan area in 1936. It cannot depict the significant attempts at transforming this order that were made prior to the Communist victory.9 This was not done spottily. 93. particularly after the establishment of the Republic in 1912. by Joseph Bochenski and Gerhart Niemeyer. p. ChineseCommunists initiated this policy in the winter of 1953-54. 1957. 1948). 10 See Naum Jasny. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. For the concept of a marginal Oriental (" hydraulic ") society and its application to Tsarist Russia. p. they organised giganticcorveeteams of nominallyfree personsespeciallyfor hydraulicpurposes. 9 Edgar Snow. XI. And they were perpetuating another time-honoured feature-and one that has a strong positiveappeal-when they emphasised"study" throughout the nation. Praeger. but since the days of Mongol rule the Russian state employed Oriental despotic means of organisation and acquisition. For reasonsof space we must also be brief in discussingsignificant traitsthat markoff Mao's but in significant regime from the Soviet Union-not fundamentally. 99.

and during the final agony of the Manchu dynasty Mao for a short time joined the regulararmy. It helps us to underto stand Peking's initial defiance of Moscow's warning against certain unfeasiblefeatures of this policy. Thus the quick introductionof collectivisation-and the commune policy-was made by Communistofficialswho. But however status-conscious Mao may be.specific of circumstances the recent Chinesedevelopment doubt also played in no a role in determiningthe timetable and character of the Chinese collectivisation. However.'4and his protractedexerciseof total power.THE CHINA QUARTERLY so quickly and so comprehensively because the Chinese Government mobilisedpeasantsfor collectivework (in Russia governtraditionally ment-enforced labour. his sentiment does not imply a denial of the pioneering role of the Bolshevik revolution. it was made under a supremeleader whose exposureto this experiencewas particularly long and intense. Without doubt they have influenced Mao's attitude toward Khrushchev who achieved national and international prominence much later than he. 345. under conditions of total power. This special conditioning.'3 From 1927 to 1949 he was prominentin militaryas well as civil affairs. had in and participated an unusualruraland militaryexperience. the seniority status he attainedin international Communism afterStalin'sdeath. pp.'5 of Obviouslythen. 32 . ceased after the emancipation the serfs in 1861). In contrast to the Bolshevikleaders who. a knowledgeof the workingsof Orientaldespotism facilitatesour appraisalof the old and new elementsin the Communist order. a defiancethat may largely be laid to the growingmegalomania the ageing autocrat. Western social scientists find it difficult to recognise that. Nor does it negate the view that the Soviet Union because of its "advanced" industrial and Socialist development is institutionally pre-eminent among the countries of the Communist orbit. the personality of the autocratic leader assumes major political importance. the ChineseCommunists maintained rural powerbases for two decades prior to the national victory. was furtherinfluenced severalotherfactors. Under the Communists and in a new form they have again become extremely significant. and during this period they learned to organisethe villages militarilyas well as economically. 113 and 124. In ImperialChina the ruler'sdecisionsdid not affect the lives of his subjects as comprehensively do the decrees of the Peking as 13 Snow 1938. which was employedmainly in heavy industry. before the October revolution. had lived largely in urban and civilian settings. Despite the Stalin precedent. 14 Considerations of status have profoundly affected Chinese thinking in the past. which certainlycolouredMao's mentality. 107. His father had been a professionalsoldier. Mao Tse-tungwas early familiarwith military ways of thinking. 15 Wittfogel 1957. Recognitionof all these factors helps us to understand quasi-military extremeaspectsof the original the and communepolicy (September December1958). in large degree. Important by amongthem were the relative independenceof his r6gime. pp.

But any analystwho. M. as elsewhere. An Inquiry into Soviet Mentality (New York: Frederick A. And while noting the international tension. 1955). This action involves (1) the as a guide for power-oriented accumulation power: the seizureof powerand the destruction of original of of all institutional social bulwarks a multi-centred and society. Bochenski. and particularly agriculture. And far from being a useless bit of baggage. passim. Praeger. disregards Is See Michael Lindsay. Gerhart Niemeyer and John S. These unifying interestsare based on an identity of position and perspectivewhich is obscured rather than clarifiedwhen it is called an identity of ideology-ideology.it serves action.THE FIRST DECADE-WITTFOGEL labour is Governmentand "Chairman Mao. Reshetar. because of such secondarydifferences. China and the Cold War (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.we shouldnot forgetthat the conflictsthat separate than the intereststhat Peking and Moscow are much less consequential unite the two r6gimes. are irked by the constant political indoctrination that goes by the name of "study.who certainlywant to learn to read and write (techniques which in Communist China. J. but throughoutthe entire economic order. "Critique of Communism. 1956).as we know from the explosions in the HundredFlowerperiod. Jr. 6 . passim. XV in the forthcoming Handbook of World Communism (see above. note 12). we controlsthe situation should not forget that the Communist government by keepingthe populationpoliticallypulverised.(2) the consolidationand developmentof dictatorialpower in the totalitarian the orbit. On the domestic scene the modification traditionalmethods has of more hostilityto the r6gimethan is generallyrealised. The workersand peasants." Now commandeered and not only in certain segmentsof water-control communiemployed in cation.Mao's recentcommunepolicymanifestly Moscow's disapproval. and (3) a global strategyaimed at liquidating centresof nonCommunistpower everywhere.Q.'6 it reflectsreal conditionsof monopolistic class privilege. In the course of this intricateprocess of the leadingCommunist countriesmay have gravedifferences opinion on details of economic co-operationand domestic and foreign policy. On engendered incurred the international scene. connotinga set of dogmas that need not be taken too seriously coefficientof the by those who invoke them. In consequence the Chinese peasants-previously the world's most industriousfarmers-have had to be put under a quasiagrimilitarydisciplineto assure the executionof the most elementary culturaltasks. according to prevailing Western usage.." The intellectuals. But while noting the domestic tension. Whateverthe rationality Communist doctrinemay be. are a concomitant of the industrial revolution). 33 c. hate the perverted Marxist-Leninist trainingthat is being imposedupon them." Chap.

in the crucial spheres of economy. 1957). The their subsistence subordinate purposefulway in which the Communists economyto theirpowereconomy-and the easy way in whichwe handle these matters-hardens them in their conviction that. that afterthe SecondWorld War they controlled 900 million. When Mao Tse-tung declaredthat after the First World War the Communists controlled200 million people. But only a victim of illusion will expect Mao. A Westernstrategycan. with notes and an introduction by G. September 9. 34 . bandwagonof an historically 17 See Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. p. Hudson (New York: New Leader. frustrate this development. leaders hold to be the unavoidable global victory. to desert what today the Chinese. armaments.THE CHINA QUARTERLY the primaryties betweenMoscowand Pekingappraisesthe Communist power system with the standardsof a Babbittor a Colonel Blimp." by Mao Tse-tung. Supplement 2. or whoeversucceedshim. The Complete Text of " On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People. and must. like the Soviet. and that the next major holocaust would probablydestroyall remainingnon-Communist power centres." that makes any he was expressing belief in an historicalperspective his idea of a break between Peking and Moscow palpably absurd. 54. F.and diplomacy.their power-directed strategywill necessarily-and soon-overwhelm the free world.