Asian mode of production. Karl Wittfogel on Marx and Bakunin

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Joined: 14-08-13
May 5 2018 17:06
Asian mode of production. Karl Wittfogel on Marx and Bakunin

One of Marx's most interesting ideas is the concept of the Asian mode of production as a special socio-economic formation. According to this doctrine, in some Asian countries, a powerful authoritarian state, an apparatus of officials led by the king, has become the Supreme owner of the main means of production - land, as well as the organizer of the giant irrigation systems necessary for agricultural work in the valleys of the great rivers. Marx called this system (a state was not only the Supreme ruler, but also the Supreme owner of the means of production, and the main exploiter) Asian mode of production. Later these ideas were developed by Karl Wittfogel. The Book of Wittfogel "Oriental Despotism" has become more widely known.

But why didn't Marx develop these ideas? Wittfogel believed that the main reason paralyzed Marx in the development of this theory was the criticism from the anti-authoritarian (socio-revolutionary) wing of the International I, from the followers of Mikhail Bakunin. The anarchists supported not only class-less but also state-less society structured as a Federation of self-governing territorial and industrial labor collectives, considered direct action as the primary method of preparation for class revolution, rejected the teachings of Marx.

Anarchists believed that the model of revolution that Marx advocated in the Communist party Manifesto - a model based on nationalization (transformation of factories and land into state ownership) leads to a dictatorial society where people become slaves of the state, not to socialism. Marx, of course, argued with that.

Anti-authoritarian ideas of bakunists had a huge influence in Spain, France, Italy. That is why Marx could not develop the ideas of the Asian mode of production. After all, it could follow that the society based on state property, the society he defended in the Communist party Manifesto, is exploitative and dictatorial state, and has nothing to do with socialism, freedom and liberation of labor from exploitation. And that is exactly what was said by the anarchists.

Karl Wittfogel wrote:

"In 1873 Bakunin continued the attack in his book Statism and Anarchism, which insisted that the Marx-envisaged so-cialist state "begets despotism on the one hand and slavery on the other." The Marxist theory "is a falsehood, behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, a falsehood which is all the more
dangerous in that it appears as the ostensible expression of the peo-
ple's will."

The political solutions offered by the anarchists were without doubt Utopian. But their criticism cut deep, as can be inferred from Marx' interpretation of the Paris Commune (which the Anarchists held to be a clownish reversal of his earlier position), 51 and from the secrecy with which, in 1875, Marx and Engels shrouded their ideas on state socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. 52 In his personal copy of Statism and Anarchism Marx made extensive notes, but he never answered Bakunin's acid arguments in public.

Engels confused the issue of Oriental despotism most seriously in the years following the appearance of Bakunin's book. His insertion in Das Kapital, Volume 3, dealing with the exploitative despotic regimes of Russia and India was made in the 'go's 53 — when, according to Engels' own statement, he was no longer bothered by the anarchists...

The authors of the Communist Manifesto accused the "Utopian" socialists of giving a "fantastic description of the society of the future." "But Marx and Engels did exactly this when they pictured their socialist state. The fathers of "scientific socialism," who realistically, if imperfectly, analyzed the problems of capitalist economy, failed to make any comparable effort to analyze the problems of the dictatorial and functional state, a socialist variant of which they were
seeking to establish. Substituting "fanatical superstitions" 68 for scientific inquiry, they made the very mistake for which they had so harshly criticized the early Utopians...

Under different circumstances and in a much more devastating way, the Utopian state socialists also closed the circle. Their economic and functional approach to history stimulated the social sciences of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And their social criticism stimulated the struggle against the monstrous conditions that characterized the earlier phases of the modern industrial system. 57 But the original vision lost its progressive quality as realization neared. On the theoretical plane its reactionary potential was manifested early in Marx' and Engels' retrogressive attitude toward the Asiatic variant of managerial and bureaucratic despotism. On the practical plane this reactionary potential was manifested on a colossal scale when, nine months after the fall of the semimanagerial apparatus state of Tsarism, the Bolshevik revolution paved the way for the rise of the total managerial apparatus state of the USSR."

spacious's picture
Joined: 2-09-15
May 5 2018 21:20

There's a good book on it by Lawrence Krader, who also traces the main sources of the original idea of "Oriental Despotism", which emerged largely in the 17th and 18th century. This idea wasn't Marx's, but was the product of western confrontation with seemingly impenetrable, unchangeable societies in the Eastern hemisphere, seen through the eyes of Western merchants, colonial administrators, philosophers, etc.

In trying to theorize the societies which existed in China and India, among others, Marx took up this problematic concept and modified it, to explain this apparent immobile state of society, which was very different from both Western capitalism and also from feudalism. For Marx the challenge was to understand these societies as political economies, as highly developed political societies with particular distinguishing features.

Far from an essentialistic or racist theory of the impenetrable Orient, in Marx's observation the 'asiatic mode' was based on village communities of peasant agriculturalists and communal property in land (all arable land allotted periodically rather than individually owned). This was combined with an overarching state which extracted surplus, and on which the agrarian village economy depended for things like hydraulic infrastructure or food provision in the case of failed harvests.

I think Marx didn't characterize this state as authoritarian as in all-controlling but definitely as despotic vis-à-vis the villages. Marx doesn't conceive of a state as something arbitrary and purely a matter of forceful domination but sees it as a structure related intrinsically to, and springing from, the economic social relations. As such it can't be seen as a unilateral cause of social oppression. (This might be a point of difference with the Bakuninists, but I have to admit I've no clue what they thought on the subject versus Marx.)

Might be there's an interesting comparison to be made with possible forms of the (non-)state in (anarcho-)communism, if you remove the despotic form and reimagine it as the collectively managed global public service which hovers over the associated producers in each particular locality, but is in fact fully a part of their associated mode of production?

I'm not sure about the possibility of Marx not developing this theory for fear of what the Bakuninists might think of it, but there are many parts of Marx's studies that he didn't publish on during his lifetime, it might be the same reason here.

Joined: 14-08-13
May 6 2018 14:57

1) Land in a number of societies in the East was not the property of the community. The state was the Supreme owner of the land, and the peasant community was engaged in the production of food. In addition, the state created huge irrigation systems and even state handicraft workshops (China Yin Shan). Also later in China there was a centralized system of distribution of products between the provinces, it was called tai-ping.

2) Wittfogel, developing the ideas of Marx, of course, pointed the authoritarian nature of Oriental Despotism and drew Parallels between the ancient hydraulic States and the Soviet Union.

3) I find such comparisons more interesting than the questionable theory of "state capitalism" in the USSR.