A (Vexing) Revolution in Science

Carl Davidson cdavidson at igc.apc.org
Thu Oct 3 19:40:28 MDT 1996

At 12:45 PM 10/3/96 -0400, Louis R Godena wrote:
>A question that has engaged the attention of Marxist and non-Marxist
>histrorians of science alike since practically the beginning of the
>discipline is:   Why did modern science arise only in West and not in the
>civilizations of China or Islam,  both of which were relatively highly
>advanced well before the fifteenth century?

Carl Davidson responds:

I think an important contribution to this topic is Karl Wittfogel's
"Oriental Despotism". He develops Marx's idea of the
Asiatic mode of production and the importance of early class society
developing around the ability of an elite to control river systems.
These "Hydraulic" societies were ruled by an absolutist "despotic"
state served by a knowlege elite, usually in the form of a priesthood.
He says these were the dominant forms of society in the world for a long
time, since they were strong and relatively stable. There would be a regular
cycle of uprisings and incursions, but the despots almost always
regained the upper hand. Societies developing around river systems like the
Yangtse, the Nile, the Euphrates are cases in point. Hence the term
"Asiatic" mode of production.

In this paradigm, class society's evolution in Europe is the
exception, rather than the rule. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere,
the Roman empire never recovered from its breakup. The result was the
relative anarchy of tiny fiefdoms and their loose alliances, rather
than a centralized despotic authority. The papacy and the "Holy Roman
Empire" tried for a comeback, but never quite made it.

This same looseness, in turn, then allows for an accelerated growth of the
market, relatively independent merchants and, later, science.  Previously,
science and culture, as described by Needham, were much more advanced in the
ancient hydralic despotisms, while Europe was quite backward. The "feudalism
of a special type" in Europe, however, precisely because of it's looseness
and fragmentation, was fertile ground for intense competition among competing
centers of power and wealth. Each of these centers strived for a better
military force, and they hired and funded the nascent scientists to help
them get it. Galileo, Da Vinci, et al, got their bills paid by inventing new
weaponry. The general rise in scientific knowledge was a by product of arms
production, but due to the lack of a central despotic authority to supress
it as in China, science was able to spread through the rising merchant class
who made use of it for production in general.  The Vatican tried to be the
despot--the trial of Galileo--but the anti-clerical, pro-science outlook of
the rising bourgeosie had the engine of new wealth creation to fuel its
expansion, a condition severely restricted in China.

I'm not a historian, but this seems to make sense to me, at least as a
starting point.  The other explanation for China's lag in science worth
looking at has to do with their alphabet, ideographic characters, which
supposedly do not lend themselves as readily to scientific work as the
combination of Arabic numbers and the Roman alphabet in the West.

Wittfogel, by the way,  got interested in the subject as a Comitern 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. Despite the character of that institution, I still
think his work stands on its own merit.

I, too, would like to hear from others on this topic.
Keep On Keepin' On

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