A (Vexing) Revolution in Science

Rosser Jr, John Barkley rosserjb at jmu.edu
Fri Oct 4 12:29:12 MDT 1996

In response to Carl Davidson:
     There is much to the Marx/Wittfogel argument about the
Asiatic mode of production in China.  But this then gets
caught up in the dynasty cycle, that dynasties tended to be
more "progressive" and outward-oriented early in their
reigns compared with later when they neglected hydraulic
infrastructure and famine and class conflict would
     Also the issue is not one of a "priesthood."  During
the period when scientific-technological leadership shifted
back from China to Europe (1300-1400s) the dominant
"religion" in China was neo-Confucianism.  The key figures
in this system were the Mandarin civil service bureaucrats,
who became more feudalistically hereditary in the decaying
stages of dynasties and also got more control over land.  I
would suggest that the necessary additional detail for on
the Asiatic mode of production argument is that you had an
ossification of the Mandarins, who respected education and
knowledge, although mostly just of "the classics," who
became corrupt in their examination procedures (buying
positions for their landowning sons) with a creeping
refeudalization of the relations in the countryside.  All
of this led to an intellectual conservatism and
ossification, a fear of change and outside influences, that
may have underlain the falling behind in science and
technology that did indeed happen about this time in China.
Barkley Rosser
On Thu, 3 Oct 1996 18:40:28 -0700 (PDT) Carl Davidson
<cdavidson at igc.apc.org> wrote:

> 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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Rosser Jr, John Barkley
rosserjb at jmu.edu

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