Throughout the history of political thought, non-European civilizations have become a part of major philosophical debates in Europe concerning government, economics, and religion. Within this context, the concept of oriental despotism was mainly developed by European thinkers to explain the economics and politics of non-European civilizations.
Since ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the terms despot and despotism have been associated with either the relationship between master and slave or the forms of oriental political organization. Despotism, a form of government dependent on a single authority, is an obscure concept of the pre-twentieth-century political thought and is today considered an archaic concept in academia. However, the concept of oriental despotism as a despotic form of government that opposes Western tradition has continued to evolve in Western political thought.
The social thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment during the eighteenth century discussed oriental civilizations. During the Enlightenment, the core components of oriental despotism were the following: first was the idea of an agrarian despot emperor; second was the empirical belief that such despots were to be found only in the Orient. French political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, argued in his 1748 Spirit of Laws that of the three kinds of government— republic, monarchy, and despotism—all Asian societies were unequivocally in the last group. Following Montesquieu, most European thinkers commenting on Asia accepted the thesis of oriental despotism, and the concept became one of the commonplaces of Western political thought in the later Enlightenment. François Quesnay, the French leader of the philosophical school called the physiocrats, described China as an example of despotism in his work entitled Despotism in China (1767).
During the nineteenth century, theoretical attention focused on locating despotism and other political forms as stages in a scale of human progress. Within the context of evolutionist conceptions, despotism was regarded as a necessary step on the road to freedom. The location of despotism as an early stage in the evolution of societies was especially prevalent in late Enlightenment German writings, such as those by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, and G. W. F. Hegel. Kant described some of the Asian states as despotic and shared the emergent sinophobia of the late Enlightenment in Germany. On the other hand, Herder overtly associated agricultural work, and the prevalence of the agricultural phase of human development, with despotism. For both German philosopher Karl Marx and Hegel, despotism retained its negative connotations, particularly since Hegel’s politics and philosophy are partially indebted to Montesquieu. Marx developed the idea of oriental despotism into his theory of the Asiatic mode of production, in which he asserted that there was no private property but rather a despotic, centralized state that controlled indispensable public goods like irrigation. Asiatic society was based on the idea of self-sufficient villages that preserved the unchanging mode of production. Marx’s main examples for his theory were India and China. Britain played two contradictory roles in India, according to Marx. While destroying India through exploitation, Britain caused a social revolution and triggered the annihilation of the Asian mode of production in India.
In the twentieth century, German philosopher Karl Wittfogel revamped the concept of oriental despotism in Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) by attempting to establish the idea of a distinctive, non-Western system of despotic power. He has interpreted communist totalitarian regimes as much more despotic variants of oriental despotism. Wittfogel argued that the transition from feudalism to oriental despotism was prompted mainly by the expansion and intensification of agriculture by means of large-scale irrigation, control that necessitated coordination by a centralized state. This so-called hydraulic hypothesis states that irrigation is a major cause of the emergence of centralized political authority and is thus a significant force in the development of early civilizations. Wittfogel developed this thesis in relation not only to China but also to the wider Marxist arguments about the Asian mode of production.
More recently, discussions over the concept of oriental despotism have been devoted to pejorative images of the Orient associated with the concept of despotism. Controversy has centered on Western philosopher Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which has been criticized as neglecting the history and function of despotism, both as a regime type and as a political concept.
- Fox-Genovese, E. The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-century France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.
- Marx, K. “The British Rule in India.” New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853.
- Montesquieu, C. L. The Spirit of Laws. Translated and edited by A. M. Cohler, B. C. Miller, and H. S. Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- O’Leary, B. The Asiatic Mode of Production: Oriental Despotism, Historical Materialism and Indian History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
- Said, E. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Wittfogel, K. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.