2 time of the annexation of Bengal.

In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 38-42)

Anquetil-Duperron can only be regarded as exceptional in his treatment of the concept of Oriental despotism. It was far more usual for eight­ eenth-century writers to adopt the model of Oriental despotism most suited to their political purposes at home, regardless of how little it might correspond to the reality of Asiatic society.

Thus, as seen in reference to du Halde, the eighteenth-century aspir­ ation to political stability, under the shadow of revolution, found its expression in an exaggerated admiration for the longevity of the Chinese political order. This quality had long been associated with Oriental despotism, but had not received the same stress in the past. On this subject Quesnay wrote:

Does not this vast empire, subjected to the natural order, present an example of a stable, permanent and invariable government, proving that the inconstancy of transitory

governments has no other basis or rule except the inconstancy of men themselves? 3

Ibid., p. 139. 2

E.g. [Plans for English Colonization in India], N.Y.D.T., 3 April 1858, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, p. 262. Other instances of the colonial exploitation of the concept with regard to land policy were noted by Marx and Engels in connection with the French in Algeria and the British in Ireland.


For many eighteenth-century thinkers, as for Aristotle and Polybius, the ideal system of government and society was static in form, by its very unchangingness expressing its close conformity to unchanging natural law. For this reason the 'eternal standstill' (Ranke) of China could be viewed as wholly admirable, and proof that natural law formed the basis of Chinese society.

A change in this general attitude came about fairly rapidly at the end of the eighteenth century with the political and philosophical develop­ ments associated with the French Revolution and the economic development

and conception of economic progress associated with the industrial 'revol­ ution'. Nineteenth-century economists, such as Marx, might agree with the Physiocrats that the notable stability of the Oriental system arose out of the particular organisation of the economy it represented. How­ ever in the nineteenth century this stability was regarded as stagnation.

Empires Belonging to Space and not to Time

The philosophical developments which culminated in the work of Hegel meant that popular concepts of natural law gradually gave way to the idea of history as the dynamic process of self-development of men and nations. The tendency to measure historical progress in terms of approximation to external and unchanging laws of reason was abandoned in favour of viewing history itself as the progressive revelation of reason.

In the light of these new ideas a more critical image of the East once more reigned in the West. Static systems were no longer regarded favourably, as reflecting truly the operation of universal and static

natural laws - instead they were seen as unnatural hangovers from the past, that had simply not shared in the historical development of the Western nations.

The transition between these two sterotyped evaluations of Oriental despotism appears clearly in the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder. Already in 1784 Herder was outlining a theory of history which presaged in many ways the nineteenth-century approach to historical development.

What Herder in fact did was to up-date Montesquieu's theories of geographical determinism by introducing elements to account for dynamic progress and change in human society. Firstly, he depicted man's historical relationship with nature in terms of mutual interaction: men through

their activity changed nature, which in turn, in its new aspect, influenced men.'*' Secondly, according to Herder, this interaction between man and nature was simultaneously influenced by the organic national traditions of the people concerned.


Herder wrote that 'The natural state of man is society', and for him society was no longer the polis of Aristotle, but a national society. It was man, with the powers developed within the medium of particular national societies, who created history. However, although the nation was the vehicle of progress, not all nations in fact sustained progress.

For example, the form which man's interaction with nature assumed in the process of production might be detrimental to the progress of the nation. Herder had a particular distrust of the effects of agricultural production on man's social organisation. Agricultural production was

liable to give rise to a 'frightful despotism' wherein the ground 'ceased 3

to belong to man, but man became the appertenance of the ground'. Such despotism was a characteristic feature of Asia, where the effects of the climate and of the mode of production were reinforced by national traditions


Herder described 'Asiatic despotism' as a non-developmental political form, which did not permit the restless pursuit of knowledge which was the

Johann Gottfried von Herder, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, tr. T. Churchill, London, 1800, reprinted N.Y., Bergman, n.d. p. 176

Ibid., p . 244. 3 Ibid., p. 207. Ibid., p. 315. 4

driving force of Western nations. China, for example, 'stands as an old ruin on the verge of the World'.3- Confucian traditions inhibited any further progress in education or politics, and despotism prevented any


rival school of thought from competing with Confucianism. Hence national traditions, combined with the effects of climate and a non-progressive mode of production, produced a completely static social system.

Once a despotism was instituted, the political and intellectual strait-jacket it imposed doomed the system to perpetuate itself into eternity. The Chinese empire was in fact 'an embalmed mummy wrapped in silk, and painted in hieroglyphics: its internal circulation is that of a dormouse in its winter sleep'.123 4

The idea that Eastern nations lacked within themselves the conditions for further organic development was to become the dominant theme of

nineteenth-century writing on Oriental despotism. As such, it was to be absorbed by Marx, and to form the basis of his analysis of the non-Western world. It was closely linked with the notion that Asia could only be

restored to the path of progress through the intervention of the West. Herder's concept of the stasis of the East was further systematised by Hegel. According to Hegel's historical schema the first phase of world history took place in the Orient, but subsequently the scene of the

development of the world spirit had moved elsewhere. In the East empires persisted that belonged to space and not to time, thus perpetuating

4 'unhistorical history'. 1 Ibid., p. 297. 2 Ibid., p. 298. 3

Ibid., p. 296. Cf. Marx's description of China: 'Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation

having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.'

Revolution in China and in Europe (printed as leading article), N.Y.D.T. 14 June 1853, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, p. 69.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, tr. J. Sibree, London, Bell, 1905, p. 112.

Hegel's philosophical analysis of the historical phase in which the Eastern nations had become suspended was as follows: the Eastern nations had been the first to attain the phase of 'substantial freedom','*'

embodied in the state. However, they had not progressed to the principle of subjectivity, and only the will of the despot was free. Morality existed only in the form of external demands imposed on the individual.


In document The question of the Asiatic mode of production : towards a new Marxist historiography (Page 38-42)