Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia is an Example of Wittfogel’s ‘Oriental Despotism,’ Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Baku, May 13 – Karl Wittfogel’s 1957 volume “Oriental Despotism” provide a key to understanding not only why the current Russian government cannot elaborate a new ideological justification for itself but also why, despite the expectations of many, its authoritarian regime shows few signs of changing or being challenged, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Mark Feygin says that Russians who want to understand their country’s current situation need to pay attention to Wittfogel’s writings, and he bemoans the fact that although the German scholar’s book has been translated into many languages, it has never been translated into Russian (
Feygin provides a brief introduction to Wittfogel’s argument before turning to the ways in which the latter’s ideas help to explain the Russia of Medvedev and Putin. According to Wittfogel, Karl Marx “concealed from his followers” the existence of what Marx called “the Asiatic mode of production.”
In such societies, the bureaucracy which controls key resources is “the ruling class,” a situation which means that “in the pre-colonial East (above all in China), there exists a ‘distinct’ society, not bourgeois, not feudal, and not slave holding.” Instead, it is defined by “the existence of a despotic state operating on a bureaucratic class.”
Unlike in the West, where economic and hence social and political change resulted from the rise of different classes who controlled property, Wittfogel suggested, “in the East, there arose a bureaucratic system … the basis of which was the absence of private ownership of the means of production.”
The existence of this class and its control over the means of production meant that societies of this “Eastern” type “were not capable of independently making the transition to capitalism,” a Marxist economic determinist view but one that Wittfogel insisted also reflected some of the ideas of Max Weber.
Thus, Feygin argues, following Wittfogel’s schema, “the paths of the West and the East are different in principle, and what is the most important thing for [Russians is that] Russia is historically part of the Asiatic mode of production,” a place where the bureaucracy controls resources and seeks to prevent any other “class” from gaining access to them.
At the end of the tsarist period, there were the beginnings of a trend away from this, but, according to Wittfogel and Feygin, “nine months after the fall of tsarism in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution cleared the way for the totalitarian apparat state in the USSR,” a state thaqt represented “a return after a short period of freedom to ‘hydraulic orders’ of the traditional type.”
In Wittfogel’s writings, Feygin notes, Russia was classed as a “sub-marginal” form of this hydraulic state, whereas China was considered as a classical “hydrologic society” and Byzantium as a “marginal” one. But in all three, “classes as a social-economic category” were absent, and real power resided in “the bureaucratic strata.”
Again, Feygin reminds, “Eastern society was based not on property relations but on the existence of a despotic state,” with society being divided in only “two classes, the administrating and the administrated.” As a result, “state power bears an absolutist character,” however much its occupants deny it.
“The goals of the state [in these systems] is not to allow property owners to develop into an independent political force,” lest they became a challenge to the state. And the authoritarianism this involved remains widespread because its structures, including family ties are “natural, simple and therefore long-lived.”
That is one of the ways in which authoritarianism is distinguished from democracy and totalitarianism, Feygin suggests, both of which are extremely complicated and therefore difficult to set up and likely to decay. And once one recognizes that, he continues, it becomes obvious what has happened in Russia.
The post-Soviet leadership failed to make the transition from totalitarianism to democracy and consequently they fell back on “customary and natural authoritarianism with ‘hydrologic’ arrangements [in this case based on oil and gas rather than water] of an Asiatic type.”
For members of the bureaucracy, this trend was entirely natural. “And all attempts to justify its activity are directed at one goal – to as convincingly as possible separate themselves from the communist heritage but not from the bureaucratic, authoritarian model” which is “historical and traditional.”
But this model may explain still more about the direction the Russian Federation is moving in, Feygin concludes. It means that the followers of Russia’s own Oriental despotism are likely to see the East as “a lesser evil” than the West and put themselves in league not with the Euro-Atlantic community but with China.
If that happens, the Moscow commentator suggests, the consequences for the country could be fateful: Russians now living “could become witnesses of the territorial loss of Siberia and the Far East as a result of the civilizational choice the current powers that be” have made, as Wittfogel might have predicted.

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