Arguments by Joseph Needham and others against Karl A. Wittfogel's book Oriental Despotism - Selections by Peter Myers, May 2, 2003. My comments are shown {thus}.

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A Jewish Communist, Karl Wittfogel turned against Communism when Stalin overthrew the Jews who had brought the Revolution to Russia. This began around 1937.

Wittfogel joined the German Communist Party in 1920. After the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in 1939, he broke with the Communist Party; later, he campaigned against the Communist regimes.

Arthur Koestler was similar: a Communist and Zionist until Stalin dished out the harsh treatment to Jews, that Jews had meted out to non-Jews during the "Trotskyist" period: koestler.html.

Wittfogel went on to blame the Russian civilization for the harshness of Communism. Never acknowledging that the Bolshevik regime had been set up by Jews, he went on to link the bureaucratic control in the USSR with what he saw as similar systems in Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, China, the Islamic world, Mexico and the Andes.

It was to hide that link, that Wittfogel stygmatized the whole of "Ancient Civilization", in his book Oriental Despotism: wittfogel.html.

1) Joseph Needham's Review of Oriental Despotism (2) China and the Writing of World History in the West (3) Karl Marx, The British Rule in India (4) Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible (5) Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision (6) Wittfogel's links with the (Jewish) Frankfurt School (7) Marx vs. Tsarist Russia; Britain vs. the "oriental despotisms" of the East (8) Totalitarianism and Terror (9) Implications for Marx' theory of History

(1) Joseph Needham's Review of Oriental Despotism

Science and Society 1959 Volume XXIII pp. 58-65

{p. 58} Book Reviews

Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, by K. A. Witttogel - New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957. $7.50. Pp xx, 556 with tables, index and bibliography; no illustrations, no Chinese characters.

For twenty years and more the learned world has been waiting for the promised study of societies and civilizations, based upon the view that some of them were powerfully conditioned by their early specialization on hydraulic engineering works. This is a theme of great interest to all who are concerned with the history of culture and thought as a whole. Professor WittfogelÕs former book Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas (Leipzip, 1931) was and will alwayys remain a fine and stimulating study - its Marxism was chiefly an emphasis on social and economic factors in Chinese history which had been overlooked by others. We have long been promised an extension of this investigation to cover many other cultures besides the Chinese. It would, we believed, reveal the extent to which hydraulic engineering works and the special kind of bureaucratic society to which they gave rise were characteristic of certain human cultures and not of others. Unfortunately, instead of a mature and deeply-thought out contribution to scholarship, we now find in our hands a political tract which later generations will only be able to understand in the context of the "cold war" period. During the course of the gestation of this work, a significant change occurred in its title. The author himself tells us (page 8) that the name which he originally intended for the book was "Oriental Society". That he changed it to "Oriental Despotism," with all that that implies, may be considered by later ages as one of the most unfortunate intellectual casualties in the "cold war".

Briefly, the formula upon which this book is constructed runs somewhat as follows. First, the author accepts from the classical economists and from Marx their original conception of a special "hydraulic Asiatic" mode of production, often called Asiatic bureaucratism, as a charac-

{p. 59} teristic and individual form of society of independent status parallel with feudalism or capitalism. All later modifications of this idea, such as the more developed view accepted by many Asian historians themselves, the conception of bureaucratic feudalism, are entirely neglected. Secondly, Professor Wittfogel proceeds to derive from this type of society, and indeed to read back into it, all the faults of modern "totalitarian" State power, irrespective of the professed purpose and orientation of the different varieties of the latter. Then thirdly, attacking these in the unmeasured language of the political pamphleteer, he finds himself forced to denigrate the mediaeval hydraulic bureaucratic society of certain cultures, especially the Chinese, as the source of all the evils of modern authoritarian States. This attempt to reveal the fountain and origin of some of the more hateful features of contemporary society both in East and West thus leads to a one-sided view of mediaeval Chinese society, and indeed the book may be said to constitute the greatest disservice which has yet been done to the objective study of the history of China.

One may, of course, fully agree about the importance of hydraulic engineering for certain societies of the feudal bureaucratic type. This is indeed historically certain, and Professor Wittfogel is assuredly not wrong in finding wide-spread traces of this type of society in ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, India and some of the Amerindian cultures such as that of the Incas. Many students of Chinese history will be ready to agree with him when he says, for example (page 47), that the "hydraulic rulers were sufficiently strong to do on a national scale, what the feudal lords could accomplish only within the boundaries of their domains," compelling "able-bodied commoners to work through the agency of the corvee." Again (page 49), it will very probably turn out to be true that the hydraulic state prevented the non-governmental forces of society from crystallizing into independent bodies strong enough to counterbalance or even control the political machine. This is quite all right up to a point, but it must be admitted that there are a number of serious exceptions to this rule if it is meant to be a universal generalization. For example, in ancient Ceylon works of water-conservation and irrigation were carried out on such a scale as to make the Sinhalese comparable with the Chinese. Yet we do not find in the history of Ceylon much trace of bureacratic organization. Perhaps for this reason one looks for Ceylon in the index of Professor Wittfogel's book in vain.

In an elaborate argument (pages 369 f.) Professor Wittfogel paradoxically turns the tables on the Marxists of the present day by demonstrating that they are not following all the conceptions of Karl Marx himself.

{p. 60} The theory of "Asiatic bureaucratism," which was really developed at a time when Sinology ws in its infancy and extremely little was known about Chinese history, is accepted by Professor Wittfogel as an article of sacred doctrine, with regard to which he considers the Marxists of the present day as, to say the least, heretics or backsliders. For indeed they have in recent times gone over to the other opinion, of course often dogmatically held, that all forms of human society developed through the same recognizable stages: primitive collectivism being followed by societies based on slave labor, and this in turn by feudal societies and finally by capitalist forms of organization. This is presumably what Professor Wittfogel means when he says, in his ungracious jargon, that they "peddle the unilinear construct" (page 7). While the best course in these matters is no doubt to await slow accumulation of fundamental research findings on these problems, Professor Wittfogel is a determined upholder of the original conception of Asiatic bureauaatism. His treatment of the Marxists of the present day seems a brilliant tour de force, but depends, however, on the naive assumption that doctrines are incapable of undergoing development. Moreover, it was inevitable that this one should change in course of time, since the knowledge of China which Europeans possessed when it was formulated was coparatively small. Furthermore, one finishes his chapter on this subject (page 412) with a feeling of great astonishment that he has developed the whole argument without the slightest attempt to analyse the debates about the question among modern Chinese scholars and historians.

With regard to the second element in Professor Wittfogel's formula, it is striking that he makes very little distinction between political power as such and the evils which may now from it on the one hand, and the "totalitarian" power on the other. Only Communism is attacked; no mention is made of the Nazi persecution of the Jews or of the concentration camps of Kenya and Cyprus. No reference occurs to the treatment of the Negroes in America, or to the events which we have witnessed in our own time in Spain, Port or South Africa. With such a bias any reader is driven to question the sincerity of the expressions of sympathy, sometimes moving enough, which are devoted to the lot of those who have fallen foul of the regimes under which they happened to live. Occasionally the author admits this point. For example, he says (page 77), "to be sure, violence and plunder are not the monopoly of any society"; or again, on page 139, we read "to be sure, all governments deserving of the name have ways of imposing their will on their subjects and the use of violence is always among them." But

{p. 61} these admissions are not allowed to affect the main direction of Professor Wittfogel's fire. He makes our flesh creep by descibing at length the Indian Machievellianism oE the Artasastra (though he seems unable to produce any equivalent book from Chinese literature), while making no mention of the Secret Council at Venice or the Holy Office at Rome - or indeed Machiavelli himself and all that is implied by him of European city-state society.

Side by side with this curious partiality there goes a quite bizarre judgment on less political matters. For example, the author has something to say about the characteristic styles of architecture in different societies. Regarding buildings, he alleges that the architectural style of bureaucratic hydraulic society was always essentially monumental. Yet in this case, what is to be said of the existence of the many great stone-built temples in Greek and Roman civilization, of the Acropolis at Athens and of the castles and enormous cathedrals of the European Middle Ages? It seems a reductio ad absurdum to read in this book that the cathedrals are to be explained by a "quasi-hydraulic pattern of organization and acquisition pervading the Latin Church" (page 45). Many of Professor Wittfogel's readers who are acquainted with the architecture both of Europe and of China will feel that the horizontal wooden buildings, whether temples or palaces, of China have much more humility and humanism, even when carried out on an imperial scale, than the counterpart architecture of stone so o£ten massive, even cyclopean, in non-hydraulic Europe. When reading sections of this kind, one feels that Professor Wittfogel has lost all touch with reality and has taken up his abode in a realm of schematic analogies which no facts would ever be allowed to modify.

We may now turn, in connection with the third aspect of his formula, to Professor Wittfogel's systematic attempt to blacken the age-old, mandarinate, the civil service of traditional China. It may be predicted that Sinologists in all countries will feel that he has given a quite distorted picture of tleir mode of existence. No doubt there were many , inefficient, even some wicked, administrators of the bureaucratic feudalism of China, but nevertheless the successive emperors were served in all ages by a great company or profoundly humane and disinterested scholars. To maintain the opposite is to deny verifiable historical facts. It is indeed very dubious whether the term "despotism" is a suitable word at all for the traditional Chinese imperial rule. The word is taken, of coursc, from Quesnay who admored what he thought China was like, preciscly from the standpoint of 18th-century European absolutism. But in fact there was most undoubttedly in mediaeval China a public

{p. 62} opinion. It was not the public opinion of a universally educated popultion, but it was that of the educated scholar-gentry, whose interests were by no means always identical with those of the emperor.

In certain periods, the moral authority of the Confucian bureaucrats could be backed up by memorials addressed to the emperor about celestial portents. These portents could even be used by different groups within the mandarinate. The civil scrvice as a whole possessed a very great power of obstruction. One of the most striking features in the recent book of Professor C. P. Fitzgerald about the T'ang empress, Wu Tse T'ien is the demonstration of the way in which the civil service would not budge on matters which went against traditionally accepted values. Another recent author, Dr. J. T. C. Liu, has shown that although ultimate power lay with the imperial family, the Confucian scholars never lost their independent ideological authority, and in the final analysis were more important than the emperor for they did not necessarily depend upon the government for a living, while the dyllasty had to accept their services in order to exist. Not a few times in Chinese history an inept emperor lost his throne, and the scholar bureaucrats were certainly not the only elements in the State power who were in danger of coming to grief.

Persuasion was always the most commonly used means in politics under various forms of government, and there was a particularly long and deeply-rooted tradition of it in China. It amounted to effective political pressure, and sometimes the idealists completely won over an emperor to their cause for the whole of his reign. The history of the civil service in China is studded with magnificent examples of men of worth, whether poets such as Tu Fu or Su Tung-Pho, scientific men like Li Shun-Feng, Shen Kua and Su Sung, even Buddhist clergy like I-Hsing. There is no need to labor the point, because anyone with Professor Wittfogel's knowledge of Chinese history would have given every emphasis to it if he had not been led away by a doctrinaire theory to do a great injustice to these figures of history who should be better known to the Western World than they are.

In this connection it is extraordinary to find no mention of the institution of the censorate (Yii-Shih) in Professor Wittfogel's book. This organization, which vas one of the mechanisms of the Confucian state, looked after the supervision of the provincial officials at all levels, and reported to the imperial court on any infractions of the code of morals and administration. The only censorship of which we find any mention in the book is the censorship of mail (page 56), which does not concern Chinese culture and has nothing to do with the case. Lastly

{p. 63} one cannot but make a reference to the ancient right of rebellion, so characteristic a doctrine of the Confucian scholars from the time of Mencius onwards. It was enunciated by the scholars of the Chou dynasty, some 2000 years before Bishop Ponnet formulated his doctrine of the "right of rebellion against un-Christian princes." It was only one more element in that democratic duality of life in traditional China which has been experienced by all those who have known Chinese society at first hand. There are so many evidences of it - the austerity of life of the best Confucian officials, the excetional moral stature of farmers and of old people generally, the comparative absence of special modes of address as between superiors and inferiors which we find in other Far Eastern civilizations, and the familiar though highly respectful way (perhaps deriving from the practices of the Great Family) with which even the greatest men are treated by their subordinates.

Mention of rebellions reminds one of what might be regarded as perhaps the most extraordinary of all Professor Wittfogel's distortions. He tells us that "the history of hydraulic society suggests that the class struggle, far from being a chronic disease of all mankind, is the luxury of multi-centered and open societies" (p. 329). Yet his whole discussion of internal troubles and rebellions is conducted without a single reference to the great and well-known movements in Chinese history - the "Yellow Turbans," the "Red Eyebrows," the "White Lotus" sect, etc., etc., all through the ages, corresponding to the peasant revolts in Europe. It is impossible to understand how they could be ignored as they are here. None of them, not even the "Boxers," are in the index. Nor is there any reference to the role of Buddhism and Taoism in relation to them. Indeed the current researches of Chinese historians are bringing to light details of many more of these peasant rebellions than have been well understood in the past.

It is to be feared that this omission is only one of many which will appear to Sinologists to disqualify the book as an authentic and reliable account of Chinese civilization. For example, Professor Wittfogel admits (pages 322 f.) that slavery was never dominant in China, but glosses over the great significance of this in the interests of his perpetual attacks on bureaucratism. He deals in passing with the private ownership of land in China (page 290), but this is really incompatible with the extreme form in which Profcssor Wittfogel states the thesis of hydraulic bureaucratism. Again he goes beyond all bounds when he attempts to maintain that "hydraulism" was already a characteristic of the most ancient times before the Shang period as well as of the Shang and the Chou. Elsewhere (pp. 88, 114), he tells us that large and influential

{p. 64} priesthoods invariably characterise hydraulic civilization - yet this makes nonsense for China, the country of all countries where no priesthood ever dominated. In other parts of the book, the examination system is played down and the eunuchs (as the shock-troops of bureacracy) are played up. Thus many features of the book will rouse the objections of Sinologists, and indeed it is hard to believe that Proressor Wittfogel has really made use of the wide knowledge with which his long career in Sinological sociology must surely have endowed him. In these circumstances the value of his long disquisitions on other civilizations (Maya, Inca, Roman, African, Hawaiian), with which he must necessarily have less first-hand acquaintance, becomes questionable.

Perhaps the fundamental fallacy of the whole book is the treatment of anything before 1600 A.D. as just the same as it was afterwards. For it was at that time that somerthing qualitatively new came into the world - modern Natural Science. as the result of it, both capitalist and socialist societies today are in a qualitatively different situation from all preceding societies. One simply cannot consider the feudal bureaucratism of the Middle Ages in the same breath as modern State power of any kind whatsoever. If science has given mankind the possibility of universal self-destruction, it has also given the possibility of unheard-of well-being for the whole human race, and in particular the radical humanization of bureaucratic structures. The humanization of bureaucracy is probably the greatest problem confronting modern civilization, and it presents itselt as absolulely vital on both sides of the so-called "iron curtain." The fundamental nonsense of Professor Wittfogel's strictures on bureaucratism is that a high degree of bureaucratic government seems quite inevitable given the technological complexities of modern soeiety. At the same time, modern science has provided a thousand technical helps which could eventually, and one must believe will eventually, make it work. These are as yet very imperfectly used - telephones, portable radio-communications, automatic card-filing and sorting systems, calculating machines, photographic documentary reproduction - all these and many more are available. Nothing is lacking except good-will. Good-will is the commitment to treating ordinary people with sympathy and understanding, and the realization that no expenditure on equipment is wasted which sets forward this aim. This is perhaps the promised peace on earth, and whoever puts first the real needs of real people will inherit it.

I would have no hesitation in pursuing the argtument precisely in the opposite direction to Professor Wittfogel, for I genuinely believe that good government, as it was understood in the Chinese Middle Ages,

{p. 65} may have much to teach us about the organization of bureaucratic government in the future. The civilization which Professor Wittfogel is so bitterly attacking was one which could make poets and scholars into officials. The civilization which Professor Wittfogel defends is one in which it would have been utterly impossible for William Blake, or Giordano Bruno, or Michael Faraday to have been given such a charge. In other wordds, far from seeing in traditional Chinese bureaucratism the root oE all evil, I believe that the Chinese may yet have a great task to perform in the teaching of the rest of the world, drawing as they can on their bureaucratic experience of more than 2000 years. There may yet be great virtue in Confucian traditions, as there was in the 18th century when the translations of the Chinese Classics into Latin revealed to an astonished world the existence of a morality without supernaturalism and of a great continuing culture which has emphatically not been based upon the pessimistic doctrine of original sin.

Although Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas had a perspicacious section on the factors in Chinese culture which inhibited the rise of Natural Science there, science is not now in Professor Wittfogel's vocabulary - or at any rate not in his index. Only on page 29 is the value of astronomy for the calendar of hydraulic agrarian civilization very briefly referred to. Thus blinded, it seems, by psychological fear, (cf. such phrases as "total terror," "total loneliness," etc.), our author ignores one of the most important feattures of the two millennia of Chinese history. For down to about A.D. 1450, and with the exception of certain Greek and Hellenistic periods, Chinese science and technology was well ahead of European; only at the Renaissance and after 1600 did modern science come into the world and confer upon European {sic} an adventitious (and as we now see, transient) dominance. Since scientific discovery and technological invention are justly regarded as requiring a considerable measure of personal freedom, it remains perfectly inexplicable, if Professor Wittfogel's picture of China were to be adopted, how this lead could ever have come about or been maintained. Nor does he make any sign of facing this problem. On the contrary, he avers (page 420) that "hyydraulic society is the outstanding case of societal stagnation." Clearly we have here to do not with scientific investigation but with politically-oriented fact-defying dogma. One can only regret that so much talent should have been devoted to elaborating it.

Caius College
Cambridge, England {end}

(2) China and the Writing of World History in the West

Paper prepared for the XIXth International Congress of Historical Sciences (Oslo, 6-13 August 2000)

Gregory Blue Department of History University of Victoria Victoria, B.C., Canada <>

{p. 6} The most celebrated contribution to world history in the late seventeenth century was Bossuet's ... Unfortunately his exposition came to an end with Charlemagne and excluded ... all of Asia ... Voltaire's desire to make good on these omissions resulted later in the Enlightenment's most enduring work of world history, the Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1756), a work that intended not only to undermine Bossuet's Eurocentrism and his belief that direct interventions by the Christian deity constituted the motive force in human history, but also to refute Montesquieu's depiction of China as a despotism in De l'esprit des lois (1748).

After opening his first chapter with the declaration that the Tang empire (618-907) was more extensive than Charlemagne's, Voltaire proceeded to celebrate China's antiquity and its economic prosperity and to praise its meritocratic form of government, the Confucian outlook of its rulers, and its achievements in the arts and sciences, though he did qualify that praise with the opinion that the Chinese had less physically capacity than Europeans to attain scientific excellence. Despite ethnocentric slights of this sort, Voltaire's commitment throughout this seminal work to balancing historical developments in Europe with those in other parts of the world ? Japan, India, Africa, the Americas and the Islamic world as well as China ? qualifies the Essai for recognition as the first genuinely global history of the world.

Voltaire's cosmopolitan juxtaposing of diverse histories was offset by two other major tendencies in Enlightenment thought, namely, that of positing essential linkages between certain societies and particular forms of government; and that of identifying distinct stages of historical development. The first trend, which built on the legacies of Aristotle and Machiavelli, received strong important impetus in the eighteenth century from the constitutional thought of Montesquieu, who crafted his own tremendously influential notion of 'despotism' as a form of government that was both inherently illegitimate and endemic to Asia, where it was allegedly fostered by a supposedly uniform topography. Whereas seventeenth-century theorists of despotic rule had conceived of it as a regime natural to the Ottoman empire, Safavid Persia and Moghul India, Montesquieu believed it to be typical of China as well. At the same time, a strong tendency of seeking to identify analytically distinct historical stages by which human societies necessarily developed was effectively disseminated by Turgot and the four-stages theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment, who pictured societies as passing progressively from lower to higher modes of living with hunting and gathering, pastoralism, agriculture, and finally commercial exchange marking the major stages of civilisation.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, European

{p. 7} judgments about where China stood on the ladder of civilisations fell steadily in accord with these trends. The shift is illustrated by the contrast between Adam Smith's treatment of China in The Wealth of Nations (1776) as a nation which, though perhaps stationary, nevertheless had a advanced manufacturing industry, and Condorcet's depiction of that country in his Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humaine (1795) as an essentially agricultural civilisation stuck at the third of the author's ten stages of historical development.

{p. 13} Of the twenty-one separate civilisations the Study of History identified in world history, Toynbee situated two on Chinese soil, namely, an ancient indigenous 'Sinic' civilisation and its imperial-era successor, a 'Far Eastern' civilisation based on the universal religion of Buddhism and with separate branches in China and Japan. Yet, if in principle he denied Spengler's contention that each civilisation must inevitably die, in practice Toynbee voiced this reservation during the interwar period only in relation to the modern West, the rise of which he depicted as coinciding with the final decay of 'Far Eastern' civilisation.

{p. 21} Whereas Needham as a left-Christian and international socialist looked sympathetically on the new regime in Beijing and called for the West to engage it in dialogue, Wittfogel by the mid-1950s had become a vociferous critic of Communism in all its forms as well as of those he associated with its ideals. {see footnote 48}

Having established himself in the United States from the late 1930s, first at Columbia University and then at the University of Washington, in 1957 he published his widely influential Oriental Despotism, billing it as a work that simultaneously provided the key to the historical problem of the East's stagnation and the fundamental theoretical rationale for

{footnote 48} This stance led him to give testimony to House Un-American Affairs Committee against the distinguished historian of China and Inner Asia, Owen Lattimore, FDR's wartime advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, as well as against the young classicist M.I. Finley, then an associate of Frans Boas with a record of anti-racist activism, and later significant voice criticising the Soviet five-stages model of historical development. {end footnote}

{p. 22} fighting the menace of Communism. The book's final defiant words, 'not with the spear only, but with the battleaxe' ? the Spartan view on how Greeks should fight Persian imperialism ? represented a highbrow version of the slogan 'better dead than red'.

Situating the roots of totalitarianism in ancient and medieval Asia, Wittfogel read Marx's notion of an Asiatic mode of production using a neo-Montesquieuian definition of despotism as a regime based on fear and brutality. Like Marx, but unlike Montesquieu, he argued that hydraulic engineering works provided the technical foundation of bureaucracy, and ostensibly for that reason he identified China as the primary model of Oriental despotism, a phenomenon he depicted as characterised by a necessarily autocratic emperor, a centralised state and ? most importantly ? a fundamental lack of the genuine forms of private property necessary for securing liberty and capitalist development. Inflecting the older notion of Oriental despotism in this way, Wittfogel deployed his model of an exploitative but historically fettered state, which he referred to as 'the hydraulic sponge', to explain the fate of a wide range of social formations including ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Hellenistic Greece and imperial Rome, the Abbassid caliphate, the Moghul empire, Incan Peru, and the Marxist-Leninist regimes. Despite strong critiques by Pulleyblank and other historians of China, the model proved to be of enduring influence in comparative historiography, including the recent widely promoted work of David Landes.

Yet, despite its analytical sweep and evident learning, Wittfogel's model made it difficult to understand why government involvement in Chinese social life seemed to have been distinctly limited during the imperial era (221 B.C.E. - 1911 CE.) or how Chinese society could have ever flourished at all. Wittfogel's reading of China as a hydraulic despotism, which was aimed inter alia at undermining John Fairbank's Grand Alliance distinction between 'fascist-conservative and communist-progressive forms of totalitarianism', was soon adopted widely in Western comparative social science literature. {end}

(3) Karl Marx, The British Rule in India

London, 10 June 1853; first published in the New York Daily Tribune of 25 June 1853. In Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile, ed. David Fernbach, Penguin Books in Association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth UK, 1973.

{p. 303} Climate and territorial conditions, especially the vast tracts of desert, extending from the Sahara, through Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary, to the most elevated Asiatic highlands, constituted artificial irrigation by canals and waterworks the basis of Oriental agriculture. As in Egypt and India, inundations are used for fertilizing the soil of Mesopotamia, Persia, etc.; advantage is taken of a high level for feeding irrigative canals. This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water, which in the Occident drove private enterprise to voluntary association, as in Flanders and Italy, necessitated in the Orient, where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of government. Hence an economical function devolved upon all Asiatic governments, the function of providing public works. This artificial fertilization of the soil, dependent on a central government, and immediately decaying with the neglect of irrigation and drainage, explains the otherwise strange fact that we now find whole territories barren and desert that were once brilliantly cultivated, as Palmyra, Petra, the ruins in Yemen, and large provinces of Egypt, Persia and Hindustan; it also explains how a single war of devastation has been able to depopulate a country for centuries, and to strip it of all its civilization.

Now, the British in East India accepted from their predecessors the departments of finance and of war, but they have neglected entirely that of public works. Hence the deterioration of an agriculture which is not capable of being conducted on the British principle of free competition, of laissez-faire and laissez-aller.


Note Marx' statement, above, that central government control was necessary for the Oriental economies.

Note his comment that when that authority collapsed, so did the irrigation works, turning green lands into desert.

Compare this with the Greens' rubbishing of the irrigation works, and blaming them for desertification.

The Ancient Civilizations developed in dry areas where rainfall was insufficient and self-sufficiency was difficult. Today's Greens disparage the hydro-electric schemes, and teach that irrigation works ruined the ancient civilizations, whereas Marx taught that those works depended on the bureaucratic organization of society - the strong state - and decayed when the state itself was destroyed.

The collapse of the state within Russia provides a good example in our own time. The lesson is that, not that the state "is perfect" or "knows best", but that only the strong state can protect the lower classes from the predators. In Russia, the collapse of the state during the 1990s caused a drastic drop in the population, impoverishment, and the withdrawal of people - of civilization - from the frozen areas in the north. Another example of the "oriental" thesis.

The Australia of the 1950s also had a much "stronger state" than it does now, and most people who remember those times feel that they were fairer and simpler than what we have now. No society is perfect; the imperfections of those years have been used as excuses to destroy the strong state and reduce large sectors of society to their present desperation and spiritual impoverishment.

The choice is between private space flights, and monopolies like Microsoft, MacDonalds and Murdoch; or NASA flights, the Internet & World Wide Web (both were invented by Government agencies).

I myself worked for a "New Deal"-type public works body, Tasmania's Hydro-Electric Commission. It looked after its workers' every need; such security no longer exists.

(4) Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible


If civilisations are nothing but slave plantations, it follows that there is nothing to admire in Ancient Egypt or Sumeria or Inca Society or Ancient China. Their achievements are merely the cultural constructs of their ruling class, a monument to oppression.

Marxist views are reminiscent of the Old Testament's thundering pronouncements against Ancient Egypt and the Caananite goddess religion: "there is nothing good here". However, David Ben Gurion thought otherwise:

{p. 4} In days of old our neighbors were Egypt and Babylon. These

{p. 5} two nations were not only superior to Israel in number, in wealth, in military strength, and in the scope of their political power, but also in many spiritual attainments and scientific accomplishments.

The idea which we have about Egypt from the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus is one-sided. According to what we learned in school, Egypt was a slave-camp in which our forefathers did back-breaking work; and the exodus from Egypt is accepted to this very day in Israel as an exodus from slavery to freedom. But in fact, ancient Egypt was one of the few nations in the world which created an original, advanced culture.

More than 5,000 years ago, in the days of Pharaoh Sneferu this land attained a lofty, cultural level and laid the foundation for several branches of science: arithmetic, engineering, chemistry and medicine; and, in the course of thousands of years, created a varied and rich literature in the fields of religion, history, morality, science, and works of poetry and prose, little of which has been preserved or discovered thus far. But the small remnant that is available testifies to great intellectual activity and cultural originality.

In one of the preserved stories about two brothers, we find the theme of Joseph and the wife of Potifar. And the love songs remind us of Solomon's Song of Songs. There are also hymns which resemble our Psalms, somewhat. The Egyptians were also great architects, as can be seen from the pyramids, and they also excelled in the art of sculpture and painting.

And the same was the case in Babylonia. Babylonia was superior to Egypt in its rich literature. The great Gilgamesh Epic (translated into Hebrew by S. Tchernichovsky), stories of creation, the Song of Ishtar, dirges, prayers, books on morality and wisdom, hymns and historical writings have all been preserved for us. Babylonia developed the science of measurement, medicine and engineering, and improved its system of jurisprudence long before other nations. The language of Babylonia was for a long time the international, diplomatic language in all the lands of the Bible which are today known collectively as the Near East.

{Given the greatness of those two Afro-Asiatic cultures, why struggle to destroy them? Has not Judaism been as anti-semitic as Aryanism?}

The struggle of the Jewish people with these two mighty neighbors was not just political and military, but also cultural and spiritual. The work of the prophets of Israel was directed, principally, against the spiritual influence of neighboring nations on the religious and moral outlook of the Children of Israel as well as on its social fabric.


Herodotus writes in his Histories on the Egyptians (2.35-91):

"Almost all the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt. My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number. ... there are many other practices whereof I shall speak hereafter, which the Greeks have borrowed from Egypt. ..."

(5) Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision

Wittfogel's portrayal of the East is similar to that articulated by Oswald Spengler in his book The Hour of Decision (George Allen & Unwin, London 1933; in the U. S.: Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1934):

{p. 33} Russia has been reconquered morally by Asia ... Germany ... is taking up her old position as a frontier against "Asia " ...

{p. 60} The triumph of the Bolsheviks signifies historically something quite other than political socialism or theoretical economics. Asia has regained Rusia, which "Europe" in the shape of Peter the Great had annexed.

{p. 61} This Bolshevik rule is not a State in our sense of the word, as Petrine Russia was. It consists - like Kipchak the Empire of the "Golden Horde" in the Mongolian period - of a ruling horde, called the Communist Party, with its chieftains and almighty Khan ...

{p. 208}... and Russia, which has again become an Asiatic, "Mongolian" State.

{p. 212} The Marxian face is only worn for the benefit of the outside world, for Southern Asia, Africa, America, where it is desired to let loose and direct rebellion against the white powers. A new Asiatic stratum of rulers has taken over from the Semi-Westerns. It again lives in the villas and palaces around Moscow, keeps its staff of servants, and already permits itself to indulge in a barbaric luxury worthy of predatory Mongolian khans of the fourteenth century. {end}

(6) Wittfogel's links with the (Jewish) Frankfurt School

6.1 Karl A. Wittfogel and His Provocative Theory of Oriental Despotism

"Arrested in 1933 by the Nazis for his socialist and communist sympathies, Wittfogel inexplicably was released from prison after eight months, and fled Germany for London in 1934."

6.2 Karl Wittfogel (1896-1988)

"Karl A. Wittfogel was born on 06 September 1896 in Woltersdorf (Germany). ... In 1920-1921, he became a high school teacher in Tinz. In 1920, Wittfogel joined the communist party. ...

"Following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in 1939, Wittfogel broke with the communist party. In the afterwar time, he became an outspoken opponent of the Russian and Chinese communist empires. ...

"Wittfogel also had a point in considering, in the 50s, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China as the greatest threats to mankind's further development. These two states were the examples he actually had in mind when writing about "Asian despotism", and how it could be vanquished. That may be the reason why his book had so much success in the United States, back in 1957, the Sputnik year."

6.3 The Frankfurt School are the pioneers of Deconstruction and the "political correctness" Culture War raging in the West at present. The leading figures were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse ... but Wittfogel was in there too.

In perspective: Theodor Adorno

by DAVE HARKER, Manchester

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund-Adorno was born in Frankfurt in 1903 into a wealthy, highly-cultivated, liberal-bourgeois family. His father was an assimilated Jewish wine merchant who had converted to Protestantism, and his mother was the Catholic daughter of a Corsican-French army officer and a German-born singer. ...

Adorno... since 1928 he had put a lot of effort into cultivating an old acquaintance, Max Horkheimer, Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

The Cafe Marx

The Frankfurt Institute was proposed in 1923, the same year as the defeat of the German Revolution. The impetus came from Felix Weill, a millionaire and self-styled 'salon Bolshevik' ...

By 1937, Horkheimer had announced a systematic shift of emphasis away from a marxist belief in the existence of 'class domination' towards an effectively liberal-bourgeois perspective of 'social justice', and away from marxist methods of analysis to what he liked to call 'critical theory'. ...

In 1938 Adorno followed the Institute to the USA.


36 Horkheimer became disillusioned after the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht in 1919, though he seems to have remained intellectually optimistic about the Soviet experiment until at least 1927. Marcuse had had some practical political experience in the SPD in 1917-1918, left on account of what he saw as its 'betrayal of the proletariat', but was in touch with Left Oppositionists {Trotskyists} so late as 1927. Langerhaus, Mandelbaum and Biehahn have been characterised as Korschists or Trotskyists, and yet Langerhaus, along with Massing and Gomperz have also been described as either members of (or friendly towards) the KPD up until some point in the 1930s. Grossman and Pollock were KPD members, Wittfogel was a KPD candidate in Reichstag elections ... Wittfogel seems to have given up the struggle inside the KPD by 1934, while Massing was lucky to be allowed to leave Moscow and the Party in 1938. Only Grossmann, a former member of the Polish CP, retained an unreflective enthusiasm for the Soviet Union into the 1940s, though he was already marginalised at the Institute by the time of the first Moscow Trials.

58 ... known communists like Wittfogel and Grossman were not allowed to have offices along with the rest of the staff in New York. Horkheimer and his staff worked hard to counter this left-wing reputation and after the USA entered the war in 1941, they not only took money for research from CBS and the Rockefeller Foundation but also went to work for the US State directly. Neumann went to the Washington-based Board of Economic Warfare, and later the Intelligence Division of the Office of the US Chief of Staff. Kirchheimer worked alongside Gurland as a staff member of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) at the State Department. Marcuse went to the Office of War Information in the State Department, and then worked with Neumann at the OSS, up to the time of the Korean War. Lowenthal also worked at the Office of War Information before he was appointed Director of the Research Department at the 'Voice of America' in 1949. {end}

(7) Marx vs. Tsarist Russia; Britain vs. the "oriental despotisms" of the East

Marx was somewhat partial in his descriptions of Russia.

Isaiah Berlin wrote of Marx in 1848, the year of the failed Communist Revolutions in Europe:

"In foreign policy he was something of a pan-German and a rabid Russophobe. Russia ... was hated and feared by democrats of all persuasions as the great champion of reaction, able and willing to crush all attempts at liberty within and without its borders. As in 1842, Marx demanded an immediate war with Russia, because no attempt at democratic revolution could succeed in Germany in view of the certainty of Russian intervention ..." (Marx: His Life and Environment, Time Inc., New York, 1963, p. 142).

So it is not surprising that he called the Tsar a despot.

The central feature of the British Empire, which differentiated it from the rest, was its claim to be the promoter of "freedom". However, one can see that "freedom" leads to the weak state and strong civil society - i.e. the privatization of power.

The central ideoligical line Lionel Curtis, a leader of the Empire's Round Table, pushed was the difference between Athens and Persia, the British empire being the new Athens, the remainder (even Germany) being "oriental despotisms": curtis1.html.

L. Curtis (ed.), The Commonwealth of Nations: An Inquiry into the Nature of Citizenship in the British Empire, and into the Mutual Relations of the Several Communities Thereof, PART I; MacMillan and Co, London, 1916.

{p. 13} Frankly, we must realize that the first effect of European civilization on the older societies is disruptive. In the course of this inquiry we shall see how the ancient despotisms of the East corrode when they come into contact with Western commerce ...

{p. 60} ... in reality the Emperor was an autocrat. And even before the despotic character of the Empire was admitted in the West, the Asiatic provinces hastened to invest Augustus with the halo of divinity.

{p. 77} ... the theocratic and despotic tradition of government which the Roman Empire left behind it. The ideas of government which prevailed in Germany to the first decades of the nineteenth century were, no less than those of the Latin peoples, inherited from Rome.

{p. 79} Meantime, in the islands on the western coast of Europe ... It was there, and not in Romanized Germany itself, that the Teutonic tradition of freedom was able to take root, and reproduce once more the principle of government which had first blossomed in Greece and almost vanished in the Roman Empire. In England was planted a commonwealth destined to spread until it included races more numerous and diverse than ever obeyed Rome.

(8) Totalitarianism and Terror

8.1 Needham seems to have been unaware of the Red Terror; Wittfogel knew about it.

But was not Trotsky, Wittfogel's hero, the author of a book justifying the Red Terror? Was he not complicit in setting up the Terror apparatus of the USSR? : worst.html. Was that not more oppressive than the hydraulic regimes?

8.2 Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote:

The Mortal Danger (tr. M. Nicolson & A. Klimoff, Bodley head, London 1980):

{p. 13} ... the communist police apparatus which would eventually grind up some sixty million victims was set up by Lenin, Trotsky and Dzerzhinsky, first in the form of the Cheka ... Lenin drew up in his own hand the future article 58 of the Criminal Code, on which the whole of Stalin's Gulag was founded; ... the entire Red Terror and the repression of millions of peasants were formulated by Lenin and Trotsky.

{p. 14} No "Stalinism" has ever existed ... This concept was invented after 1956 by intellectuals of the European Left as a way of salvaging the "ideaIs" of communism.

{end quotes}

8.3 Pitirim Sorokin's observation on the Kronstadt Massacre: kronstadt.html.

8.4 Against Wittfogel, I argue that the totalitarianism of the USSR derived not from Russian tradition - which Alexander Solzhenitsyn showed was far milder than that of the Bolsheviks - but from Judaism. I draw attention to the totalitarianism Israel Shahak noted in Judaism:

Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (Pluto Press, London 1994)

Shahak repeatedly says that Judaism has a totalitarian streak (on pp. 10, 15, 16, 18, 19, 102, and 103):

{p. 103} It should be recalled that Judaism, especially in its classical form, is totalitarian in nature.

{p. 10} In May 1993, Ariel Sharon formally proposed in the Likud Convention that Israel should adopt the 'Biblical borders' concept as its official policy. There were rather few objections to this proposal, either in the Likud or outside it, and all were cased on pragmaic grounds. No one even asked Sharon where exactly are the Biblical borders which he was urging that Israel should attain. Let us recall that among those who call themselves Leninists there was no doubt that history follows the principles laid out by Marx and Lenin. It is not only the belief itself, however dogmatic, but the refusal that it should ever be doubted, by thwarting open discussion, which creates a totalitarian cast of mind. Israeli-Jewish society and diaspora Jews who are leading 'Jewish lives' and organised in purely Jewish organisations, can be said therefore to have a strong streak of totalitarianism in their character. {end of quotes}

More of Shahak at shahak1.html.

8.5 The Jewish link was made known by numerous sources, including Bertrand Russell. In a letter he wrote in 1920 after visiting Russia, he wrote,

"Bolshevism is a close tyrannical bureaucracy, with a spy system more elaborate and terrible than the Tsar's, and an aristocracy as insolent and unfeeling, composed of Americanised Jews. No vestige of liberty remains, in thought or speech or action.": russell.html.

Because Wittfogel could not admit that link, he stygmatized the whole of "Ancient Civilization".

8.6 Jews DID lost control, beginning with Trotsky's expulsion, then the purges of 1937, then the execution of Beria, then the emigration of the 1970s & 80s; but the early link was suppressed in Soviet media until about 1990.

The Jewish identities of Lenin & Trotsky: lenin-trotsky.html
Joseph Nedava, Trotsky and the Jews: nedava.html
Arthur Koestler was Trotskyist AND Zionist: koestler.html
Abolition of Marriage in early USSR: sex-soviet.html
Solzhenitsyn on changing position of Jews in USSR: stalin.html
The Doctors Plot & Murder of Stalin: death-of-stalin.html
Sudoplatov on Crimea Plan: sudoplat.html
The 1946 Baruch Plan for Nuclear Disarmament & WG (NB if this is so benevolent, why isn't the info. here available to the public?) baruch-plan.html
Beria, Gorbachev and "Western" Marxism: beria.html

Max Shpak on how the USSR changed when Jews lost control; why Marxist social policies are imposed in the West even though we "won" the Cold War: cia-infiltrating-left.html

(9) Implications for Marx' theory of History

Wittfogel exposed a serious flaw in Marx' theory of History; Needham does not do him justice in this respect.

Marx had said that the history of Civilization is the history of Class Warfare, i.e. that this was endemic because the higher classes had appropriated the wealth and resources for themselves.

For comparison, Feminist theory holds that the history of Civilization is the history of Sex War, i.e. Patriarchy, i.e. Male Dominance.

Another comparison is the Jewish view that history is a religious war between Jews (God's middlemen) and Goyim (heathen, pagans). How could Marx have been unaware of that?

But Wittfogel showed that "hydraulic" societies controlled private power, inhibiting the forces of internal conflict, whether "class war", "sex war", "religious war" etc. Even though Needham was able to produce some examples of class conflict, Wittfogel's point remains valid. He thus pointed to the most important error in Marxist theory and its derivatives such as Feminism.

Karl Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism: wittfogel.html.

To purchase Karl Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism second-hand:

Write to me at contact.html.