New Year’s Day Resolve—Uphold Freedom, Versus Beggar’s Democracy

Wittfogel: Totalitarianism is “…not checked by Beggar’s Democracy.”

Karl Wittfogel (1896-1988) was an historian and sinologist. Early in his career, Wittfogel was a champion of Marxism—as an academic, playwright, and activist. By 1931, Wittfogel focused his efforts on fighting the Nazis. Attempting to escape Germany, he was arrested and suffered through internment in prisons, and peat bog concentration camps.  An international outcry led to his freedom in 1934, whereupon he fled Germany to England, and then to the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1939. Wittfogel renounced his belief in the Soviet Union with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin alliance, and he began to deplore the despotic, totalitarian nature of Russian and Chinese Communism, from Lenin to Mao.

Wittfogel taught at both Columbia University, and the University of Washington—the latter through 1966. His seminal 1957 analysis of pre-modern Eastern totalitarianism, “Oriental Despotism—A Comparative Study of Total Power,” identified the management of water/irrigation systems as the most important method by which Asiatic despots achieved total power over their subjects. He argued that the “hydraulic societies” these despotic rulers developed inspired others, like the Communists, to the same ends—centralized, totalitarian power. The preface to his February 1964 edition of Oriental Despotism (written September, 1962), includes this dedication:

My wife and closest collaborator, [the anthropologist] Esther S. Goldfrank, shared every step in the struggle for the clarification of basic scientific truths and human values. It was my belief in these values that put me behind the barbed wire of Hitler’s concentration camps. My final thoughts go to those who, like myself, were passing through that inferno of total terror. Among them, some hoped for a great turning of the tables which would make them guards and masters where formerly they had been inmates and victims. The objected not to the totalitarian means, but to the ends for which they were being used. Others responded differently. They asked me, if ever opportunity offered, to explain to all who would listen the inhumanity of totalitarian rule in any form. Over the years and more than I can express, these men have inspired my search for a deeper understanding of the nature of total power.

Wittfogel surpassed these humble expectations by leaps and bounds. Fifty years later, Oriental Despotism remains a timeless combination of erudition, originality, and eloquence unrestrained by the stultifying cultural relativism which pervades contemporary “academics.”

His insights on Islam are particularly illuminating, and ever relevant to present era tribulations deriving from the unreformed (and even unexamined) mandates of Islamic supremacism. Underpinning Islamic “absolutism,” Wittfogel notes, is the same Koranic injunction (Koran 4:59)—cited by Islamic legists, from Mawardi (d. 1058) to Mawdudi (d. 1979)—as legitimizing the totalitarian Caliphate system:

The Koran exhorts believers to obey not only Allah and his prophet, but also ‘those in authority amongst you.’ In the absolutist states established by Mohammed’s followers, this passage was invoked to emphasize the importance of obedience in maintaining governmental authority.

Wittfogel’s candor extends to these unapologetic observations contrasting Ottoman and Medieval Western European regulation of guilds, and the nature of Islamic religious “tolerance”—more aptly, non-Muslim dhimmitude under Islamic Law:

In Ottoman Turkey officials inspected the markets and controlled the prices, weight, and measurements, thus fulfilling functions which in the burgher-controlled towns of Medieval Europe were usually the responsibility of the urban authorities. Furthermore, the state, which in most countries of feudal Europe collected few if any taxes from the urban centers of strongly developed guild power, was able in Turkey to tax the guilds and, as elsewhere in the Orient, to employ its fiscal agents the headmen of these corporations, who distributed the tax-quotas of their members and who were personally responsible for their payment.


…[F]ollowers of these creeds [Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism] had to accept an inferior status both politically and socially, and they were prevented from spreading their ideas. The laws forbade conversion from Christianity to Judaism or vice versa; and penalties for apostasy from Islam were severe. Christians were not permitted to beat their wooden boards (these boards were used as bells) loudly, or sing in their churches with raised voices, or assemble in the presence of Muslims, or display their ‘idolatry,” ‘nor to invite to it, nor show a cross,’ on their churches. No wonder that the religious minorities—who during the Turkish period were set apart in organizations called millet—vegetated rather than throve. The head of the millet was nominated by the millet but appointed by the sultan; once in office he was given just enough power to enable him to collect the taxes imposed on his community by the state.

In the end, Wittfogel appositely characterizes these constraints as “Politically Irrelevant Freedoms,” consistent with what he terms “A Beggar’s Democracy,” to be found in both pre-modern and modern totalitarian systems:

In modern totalitarian states the inmates of concentration and forced labor camps are permitted at times to gather in groups and talk at will; and not infrequently certain among them are given minor supervisory jobs. In terms of the law of distinguishing administrative returns such ‘freedoms’ pay well. While saving personnel, they in no way threaten the power of the commandant and his guards.

 The villages, guilds, and secondary [for example, dhimmi, non-Muslim] religious organizations of agro-managerial society were no terror camps. But like them they enjoyed politically irrelevant freedoms…At best they established a kind of Beggar’s Democracy…The hydraulic state is not checked by a Beggar’s Democracy. Nor is it checked by any other effective constitutional, societal, or cultural counterweights. Clearly it is despotic.

Wittfogel concludes his great work with what remain defining questions for free Western societies a half century later, ultimately citing Herodotus to remind us of the most appropriate—and courageous—inspiration:

To what extent can we trust the members of any ‘Big’ group to use supreme and total power, once they gain it, to serve the people’s interest and not their own? To what extent can we trust the judgment of officiating or non-officiating members of our segmented bureaucracies who view the Communist monopoly bureaucracy as a progressive form of totalitarianism?

 Ultimately, the readiness to sacrifice and the willingness to take the calculated risk of alliance against the total enemy depend upon the proper evaluation of two simple issues: slavery and freedom.

 The good citizens of classical Greece drew strength from the determination of two of their countrymen, Spethias and Bulis, to resist the lure of total power. On their way to Suza, the Spartan envoys were met by Hydarnes, a high Persian official, who offered to make them mighty in their homeland, if only they would attach themselves to the Great King, his despotic master. To the benefit of Greece—and to the benefit of all free men—Herodotus has preserved their answer. ‘Hydarnes,’ they said, ‘thou art a one-sided counselor. Thou has experience of half the matter; but the other half is beyond thy knowledge. A slave’s life thou understandest; but, never having tasted liberty, thou canst not tell whether it be sweet or no. Ah! Hadst thou known what freedom is, thou wouldst have bidden us fight for it, not with spear only, but with the battle-axe.”

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