100423.2040 at compuserve.com
Sat Jun 1 13:31:21 MDT 1996
Carl Davidson wrote on 31 May under this thread line,
>>>>>>>>>I found some of the most interesting ideas on this topic in
Wittfogel's 'Oriental Despotism.'
Wittfogel got interested in the suject as a Comintern rep in the Far
East, but ran afoul of Stalin who felt, quite correctly, that
Wittfogel was digging up the roots of his own modern-day despotism.
Wittfogel managed to get out from under Stalin's terror and wound up
at the Hoover Institute.
I'd be interested in any other views on his work.
This is a complex but/and interesting theme. The work by Wittfogel
I see is discussed, and to some extent critiqued by Bryan S Turner in
his entry on "Asiatic Society" in "A Dictionary of Marxist Thought"
Ed Bottomore, Blackwell, 2nd Edition 1991.
What's in it for us? I suggest -
1) yes there is a theme both for Russia and for China about the
inheritence of despotism, under a socialist label. But also a possibility
noted by Marx and by Mao, to leap from the primitive village commune to
"socialism". (I do not have references to hand as to whether Lenin or
Stalin could be shown to have been similarly tempted.)
2) Attention to this theme is an opening for us to break away from
the simple deterministic teleological model of onward and upward development,
rightly unfashionable now, whose simple marxist model is of
hunter-gatherer, barbarism, slave, feudal, socialist, communist society.
Rather it allows us to consider different self-perpetuating patterns of
human society which have a greater or a less probability of survival
under different conditions. I am very much in sympathy with Rahul's
criticisms of simple Eurocentric analysis of other cultures. He might
agree less however if I say I also find it more compatible with my own
scientific allegiances to complexity theory, which acknowledges a
statistical bias over time, but avoids determinism and value judgements about
"higher" or "lower". Important if we are to retune Marxism to a world agenda.
3) It enables us to see a greater variety of combinations between
methods of producing commodities, legal forms, administrative structures
and power structures. Why is this important? IMO the more perceptive
re-examinations of "actually existing socialism" as well as social
democratic reforms in capitalist societies, admit a variety of combinations
of socialist, co-operative, and communistic forms. Thus it has been argued on
this list that the British National Health Service had communistic features.
I suggest we need to free the debate up on these questions to consider
nmany different ways now we can move towards more effective and *appropriate*
social control over the means of production.
Turner's review of Wittfogel however suggests the Asiatic Mode of
Production was used by him as a catch-all for many things that
did not fit into the received simple marxist historical model - societies
as different as Tsarist Russia, Sung China, Mameluke Eqypt, and Hawai,
as well as India. It combines discussion of self-sufficient villages with
"despotic" governments not directly connected to the means of production.
Carl Davidson asks what were the active ingredients in Western Europe that
did give rise to capitalism. Turner's discussion of the changing emphasis
that Marx and Engels gave to the Asiatic Mode of Production, led me to turn to
Engels' very late work on the "Law of Value", often published as a postcript to
Capital Vol III. Here Engels does not mention the Asiatic Mode of
Production or the simple progression through slavery and feudalism
at least as the main historical pattern. His main distinction is between
simple commodity production and capitalist commodity production.
He argues that the law of value in its clearest form existed for at
least 7,000 years (including ancient Babylon) and that the revolutionary
element that came into the stably reproducing simple commodity society
was the merchants.
Further that these merchant groups, like guilds for mining and for
craft work, grew out of "mark associations" which in turn grew out of
This would fit in with the historical speculation that
the failure of the Roman Empire to re-establish itself in Europe
(Western Europe, because relative continuity of the Byzantine Empire,
and then the Ottoman Empire in the East, in fact supports the main
argument) - that this unstable situation in Western Europe, allowed
the development in some places at some times cities with
relative autonomy permitting the development of these merchant guilds into
the beginnings of capitalist structures, which introduced "capitalist
This would suggest that the unusual variant of the communistic
joint stock company was like a random change in the human genetic code,
permitting the capitalist joint stock company in conditions in
which the state did not despotically crush the new social formation.
Perhaps the usefulness in preceding centuries of the Jewish community
exempt from the anti-usury laws, made monarchs more willing to
avoid simply plundering a source of wealth, and
instead sell monopolies in trade and manufacture.
As for the argument that exploitation of the new world was the
decisive factor in the rise of capitalism in western Europe, my understanding
is that the chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital Vol 1 analyzes
it in terms of pump priming. While various accidental factors may
have facilitated capitalism breaking out in Western Europe rather than
elsewhere, the longer term argument given by Engels in the Law of
Value article, is that capitalist commodity production had a
tendency to arise as a result of trade *between* societies and not
*within* self-sufficient societies. The role of the "discovery" of the
"new world" might be re-examined from this point of view as well as that of
primitive plunder and the increase in circulating money
as a result of gaining access again to supplies of gold, rather
than relying mainly on silver.
I love history as much as many others, but I suggest these points
are more than of mere retrospective historical interest. There is a lot of
merit in shaking ourselves up about what we have received as orthodox
marxist thinking, and use it now to re-apply Marx and Engels' flexible
approach to a world that has turned out to be more complex than originally
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