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The Ruling Bureaucracy of Oriental Despotism: A Phenomenon That Paralyzed Marx

  • Karl A. Wittfogel

When Marx, in 1849, took up permanent residence in London, he devoted himself once more—and with great thoroughness—to the study of the classical economists. And he accepted, along with many other ideas of Adam Smith, Richard Jones, and John Suart Mill, their conviction that, outside and independent of the Western world, there existed a specific institutional conformation, which they called Asiatic or Oriental society.

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1 This essay deals with problems which, in a somewhat different form and with special reference to the Soviet campaign against the concept of Asiatic society, will be discussed in the author's forthcoming book, Oriental Society and Oriental Despotism.

2 Jones, Richard: An Essay on the Distribution of Wealth, and on the Sources of Taxation (London, 1831).

3 Mill, John Stuart: Principles of Political Economy. 2 vols. Vol I (Boston, 1848), p. 15 ff: (Quoted hereafter as Mill 1848 I)

4 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich: Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe Werke-Schriften-Briefe (Marx-Engels Instilut, Moscow 1927 ff.), I, 6: 530. (Quoted hereafter as MEGA)

5 New York Tribune, 06 25 and 08 8, 1853.

6 Marx, Karl: Das Kapital. 3 vols. (Hamburg, 1919), III, 2: 174, 324. (Quoted hereafter as Marx, DK)

7 Marx, Karl: Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie (Rohent-wurf) 1857–1858 (Marx-Engels-Lenin Institut, Moscow, 1939), p. 371: idem, DK III, 2: 324.

8 Marx, , DK I: 37 ff., 49

9 Marx admitted this, though none too gracefully, at the end of his discussion of the “fetishistic” character of commodities in volume I of Das Kapital (I:46 ff.). He was more generous in volume III, where he praised the exposure of false “personification of things and the reification of production relations” as “the great merit of classical economy” (DK III, 2:366).

10 Marx, , DK I: 45 ff.

11 Jones, Richard: Literary Remains, consisting of Lectures and Tracts on Political Economy, with a prefatory notice by William Whewell (London, 1859), p. 450 (Quoted hereafter as Jones 1859)

12 Jones, 1859: 221, 449

13 Mill, 1848 I:15 ff.

14 MEGA I, 6: 545

15 MEGA III:476 ff.

16 Marx, Karl: Theorien über den Mehrwert Aus dem nachgelassenen Manuskript “Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie” published by Karl Kautsky. 3 vols. 1921, III: 450, 454. (Quoted hereafter as Marx, TMW).

17 MEGA I:476 ff. In addition to the persons mentioned in this excerpt, Bernier depicts many other types of serving men who were supported by government-assigned revenues (Bernier, Francois: Travels in the Mogul Empire A. D. 1656–1668. Constable's Oriental Miscellany I: Bernier's Travels (Westminister, 1891), pp. 204 ff., 209 ff., 213 ff.).

18 Marx, , TMW III:501; for the original version see Tones, 1859: 448 ff.

19 Lenin, W. I.: Samtlicke Werke (German Edition) (Moscow-Leningrad) vol. III:527.

20 Wolfe, Bertram D.: “Operation Rewrite. The Agony of Soviet Historians,” Foreign Affairs, 10 1952, pp. 40, 42.

21 Marx, , TMW II, 1: 310

22 Loc. cit.

23 Op. cit. II, 1: 312 ff. In this context the German word “gemein,” like the related English “mean,” has the connotations, “vicious,” “shabby.”

24 Op. cit. II, 1: 313. He was entirely consistent also when he concluded on a note which, from the standpoint of Leninist-Stalinist partiinost, sounds heretically humanitarian: “As far as this can be done without sin against his science, Ricardo is always a philanthropist, as he indeed was in practice” (loc. cit.).

25 Loc. cit. In 1922, I criticized with youthful iconoclasm “the science of bourgeois society” on the basis of Marx' ideas (as I then understood them, and with a sprinkling of positivistic and Leninist ideas (Wittfogel, : Die Wissenschaft der Bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 1922). Although I ridiculed as “barbarian” the concept of a “bourgeois science” (p. 18), I was unaware of the many weaknesses in Marx' position, weaknesses which, it is true, escaped most “scientific” socialists. Manifestly, a critique of Lenin's “Marxism” should be supplemented by a critique of Marx' own theories, which are by no means identical with those of Lenin or Stalin, but which, despite Marx' stress on scientific objectivity, are, at decisive points, affected by what he himself called “extraneous interests.”

26 Their ideas can be properly evaluated only by critics who realize the underlying political objectives and the ideological devices invoked to maintain them.

27 Marx, , DK I:293, 478

28 DK I: 478.

29 Marx, Karl: Articles on India (Bombay, 1951), p. 24. (Hereafter quoted as Marx, 1951)

30 Marx, , DK III, 1: 370

31 Marx, 1951: 24.

32 Marx, , DK 1: 478, note 5

33 In a letter dated October 5, 1872, Bakunin formulated the judgment of the anarchists as follows: “The effect of the communal insurrection was everywhere so terrific that even the Marxists, all of whose ideas were reversed by this insurrection, were forced to take off their hats to it. They did more: defying the most elementary logic and their real feelings, they proclaimed that its program and aim was theirs. This was a really clownish but artificial travesty” (Guillaume, James: L'Internationale—Documents et Souvenirs (1864–1878), vol. 2 (Paris, 1907), p. 192).

34 In 1875 Marx dispatched to Bracke his critical comment on the draft of the socialist program that was to be presented to the Gotha Unity Congress, asking in the accompanying letter that it be forwarded to Geib, Auer, Bebel, and Liebknecht. The document was returned to the author without having been shown to Bebel, who, although he became the chairman of the united party, apparently did not learn of it until 1891, when it was finally made public (Marx, Karl: Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York, 1938), pp. 34, 40; Kautsky, Karl: Aus der Frühzeit des Marxismus. Engels Briefwechsel mit Kautsky (Prague, 1935), pp. 269 and 265).

Marx' criticism of the Gotha Program was very sharp, particularly with regard to the Lasallians, with whom the Bebel-Liebknecht group was intending to merge. If it had been published immediately after 1875 and in the original form, it would probably have endangered the newly achieved unity of the organization. But there was no reason why Marx could not have published the gist of his ideas without the factional polemics. Engels, in his Anti-Dühring, did not hesitate to demolish opinions cherished by many prominent Social Democrats; and Marx, again and again, argued key points of his economic theory.

Did Marx consider it unnecessary to proclaim his views on the political aspect of socialism with equal intensity because he was confident that thisaspect would be automatically taken care of by the “irresistible” forces of economic development? No doubt, economics was the opium of Marx: but his discussions of the initial phase of socialism show him aware of the inherent political problem.

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