Wittfogel and the Asiatic Mode of Production

By Mark Jones, 16 April 1996

Wittfogel, who began life as a revolutionary Marxist, later popularised the notion of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ (AMP) and nailed Marx to it. Yet the idea was more Wittfogel's than Marx's. And to begin with anyway, Wittfogel promoted the idea not because he thought it was the historical truth but in order to fight a political battle against Stalin and the whole direction which the Bolshevik experiment was taking Russia. These facts are now mostly forgotten.

Wittfogel had travelled to Moscow in 1931 to address a symposium marking the centenary of Hegel's death. In his extempore address, Wittfogel criticised the then-current tendency to exalt dialectical materialism as a philosophy rather than a historiographical methodology. This was the opening shot in his campaign.

Wittfogel said the Diamat was a form of philosophical idealism. This was brave if not very original. It permitted Wittfogel to mount an attack on what he saw as the insidious danger of Stalin's emerging despotism. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat had turned into the dictatorship of Stalin and his cronies. Trotsky was in exile. The party history had been turned into patristics and the Marxian historical-materialist method transmogrified into a new liturgy—the Diamat. This liturgy proclaimed in the crudest terms that History consisted of Stages of which the Soviet Russia of 1931 was the Highest.

Wittfogel utterly repudiated what he saw as ghastly, manipulative and ill-born triumphalism. He particularly objected to the new-fangled Five-Year Plan, seeing in it not the Constructivist technofuture of Bolshevik film and poster but an _Asiatshchina_—i.e., the restoration in Russia of the ‘old Asiatic system’ the possibility of which even Lenin had spoken fearfully about, in his famous Stockholm debate with Plekhanov twenty years before, when he addressed the terrible likelihood that a failure of revolution in Germany might lead to a degeneration of the revolution in isolated Russia and the inevitable recreation of a bureaucratic/panoptic society.

Now, Wittfogel might look prescient to us, but this was a peculiar time in Russia. The moral atmosphere of the Five-Year Plan is well captured in such works as Stephen Kotkin's _Magnetic Mountain_, which is the story of Magnitogorsk. Stalin had just declared that a new world war was inevitable and ‘we have ten years [to prepare] or they will bury us'.

Nevertheless, Wittfogel received a fair hearing. And the proceedings of the Moscow conference show that he just lost the argument: not merely was there no _Asiatshchina_, there wasn’t even such a thing as the Asiatic Mode of Production in the first place. There was no real evidence that Marx believed in the AMP. A few chance remarks do not a theory make. And the historical facts were against Wittfogel anyway.

According to him, stereotypical AMP cities were ossified tentacles of autocracy, lacking vitality, autonomy or independent economic life, i.e. the presumed requirements for the emergence of industrial capitalism.

But it was clear to Soviet Central Asia scholars, who reached this conclusion half a century before anyone else—that this view had no basis in Asian protocapitalism—let alone contemporary Soviet Russia, which in 1931 was hardly a somnolent backwater or rampant bureaucracy either (there are more bureaucrats per ‘000 population in Yeltsin's Russia).

Later in 1931 another conference, this time of Leningrad scholars, also discussed the Asiatic Mode of Production, and Wittfogel again appeared, to defend his just-published, sensational book. The Leningrad conference like the Moscow one held earlier, also rejected both idea and book.

The proceedings were published as *Diskussia ob aziatskom sposobe proizvodstva* (’Discussion on the Asian Mode of Production’). This established what became the Soviet conventional view that the AMP was a historical non sequitur: the premedieval world-system organised around the Silk Road (Gunder Frank's centrality of Central Asia) and Indian Ocean trade, formed a viable, vibrant protocapitalism.

Indeed the most hydraulic cities of all: the great C13 medieval Persian, Afghan and Turkestan cities, were heaving with anarchic, semi- piratical trade based on complex systems of commodity production (often, especially in the case of the silk trade, owned and controlled by WOMEN) in which large factories produced metalware, ceramics, carpets etc, with the mosque providing money and the functions of a stock market and credit system.

Nishapur, Hervat, Samarkand, Bukhara, etc., were sited in deserts and dependent on irrigation systems which had taken a millennia to evolve; but these systems did *not* require a massive stagnant bureaucracy or mindless peonry to operate, as Wittfogel claimed: the top-heavy, militarised Abbasid and Khutbeddin dynasty-makers were more trouble than they were ever worth and when Genghis Khan despatched them most Persian traders were only too pleased.

The C13 nexus between China and the Islamic world was the core of the world system and the heart of world science and culture. The level of learning was in diffusion terms 3-5 centuries ahead Europe. By the mid-19th century things looked different and ignorant western travellers and graphomanes like Wittfogel could certainly see in the decrepit, rundown cities of the Orient an ‘Asiatic mode’ which had never existed in fact.

What matters most is bearing this debate has on the concept of ‘Mode of Production’. Here, too, Wittfogel got it wrong. He had always misunderstood Marx, assimilating him to an almost physiocratic productivism. His infatuation with Weber made it easy for Wittfogel to construct his fables of bureaucracies managing masses of trench-digging peons.

But Marx was not a productivist. As Wittfogel himself recalled, Marx famously said ‘We know only one science, the science of history’. Wittfogel the Weberian literalist thought Marx meant by this the writing of technical *histories of production*. Astonishingly, some people still adhere to this crass dumbing-down of Marx's epistemological-critical narrative appropriation of the natural sciences, carried through by observing the mystificatory effects of the social relations within which sciences occur.

Ironically, this was pretty much Stalin's own view of the matter and here we come upon a paradox. Karl August Wittfogel shared the contemporary Bolshevik Weltanschauung of which Stalin himself was the greatest living exponent. This is a spirit which is foreign to Lenin and absent in Marx. Wittfogel took it one step further, stripping away the metaphysical shell of Stalin's Diamat to reveal what was inevitably a Weberian rationalist kernel. He thus endeavoured to show Stalin the error of his ways by exposing the normative truth behind Stalinist dogma. However, Stalin had other plans.

Disappointed, Wittfogel returned to the West and soon abandoned revolutionary Marxism and ended up a callow social reformer. He believed it is practically self evident that ‘modes of production’ are carried along by a sort of inertial momentum which disallows real revolutions. Thus even the Russian Revolution was just a putsch, an act of the will with no popular resonance. It was no different from any of the palace coups which form the political history of Asia. One oligarch replaces another in an elite game of musical chairs.

Wittfogel's environmentally-determinist reasoning was that irrigating land raises productivity, but also creates the tedium of settlement, bureaucracy, public works schemes and so forth. The fact that perhaps the greatest wave of canal- construction had occurred in C18 capitalist England escaped his notice. Nor did he see that C19 Birmingham and Manchester's great water management schemes produced anything more sinisterly totalitarian than Bernard Shaw's tracts on municipal socialism. No hydraulic state emerged in England.

Wittfogel made a Grand Guignol of Marx-Engels' insights about aridity, irrigation, despotism, and stagnation. Yet Wittfogel is still reckoned important. Cobbled up with a dose of Weberian technicism this is still apparently enough to back up the Eurocentric ‘miracle’ theorists like Eric Jones, Michael Mann and David Landes.

As James Blaut says [fbn], these confabulists ‘contrast two civilisations, the “irrigating” ones of the Middle East and the iron-plow-using, rainwater-farming peoples of the north … The centerpiece of the model is the … individual peasant-farming family which … gets its water from the skies, not from a despotically managed irrigation system.’

But this version of a superior, non-irrigating, God-fearing, iron-working yeomany is a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. Its obscurantist emotional appeal springs from some very old and dark blut-und-boden fantasies, which funnily enough Weber also shared.