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Oriental despotism is a government where the legislative and executive functions are administered by the sovereign without his being subject to the control of any legally constituted or representative public body, such as a parliament. Historically, the term's meaning has varied and today it is hardly ever used at all, largely because of all the issues surrounding the concept of orientalism. Though European theorists tended to move away from the idea of natural slavery in defining despotic monarchy, the Aristotelian notion that this form of government was deeply rooted in the soil of Asian servility survived.
Bodin did include Muscovy in Europe, but isolated it as the single example of a despotic monarchy in the continent, at variance with the whole constitutional pattern of the rest of Europe, which otherwise contrasted with that of Asia and Africa: "Even in Europe the Princes of Tartary and Muscovy rule over subjects called kholopi, that is to say, slaves". These debates were not without repercussions within Russia itself. In 1767, Catherine II officially declared in her famous Nakaz: "Russia is a European power". Thereafter, few serious thinkers questioned the claim. Marx and Engels, however, both deeply scarred by Tsarist counterrevolutionary intervention in 1848, repeatedly and anachronistically referred to Tsarism as an "Asiatic despotism" and amalgamated India with Russia in a common obloquy. The general tone of Marx's opinions on Russian history and society, in particular, often lacks balance or control.
Of all the ancient Greeks, Aristotle was perhaps the most influential promoter of the concept of oriental despotism; his student, Alexander the Great who conquered Persia, ruled by the despotic Darius III last king of the Achaemenid dynasty. Aristotle asserted that oriental despotism is based not on force, but on consent. Hence, fear cannot be said to be its motive force, instead the power of the despot master feeds upon the servile nature of those enslaved. Among Greek society, a man is free, capable of holding office and ruling and being ruled; among the barbarians, all are slaves by nature. Another difference Aristotle espoused was based on climates. He observed that the peoples of cold countries, especially those of Europe, are full of spirit, but deficient in skill and intelligence; and that the peoples of Asia, although endowed with skill and intelligence, are deficient in spirit, and hence are subjected to slavery. Possessing both spirit and intelligence the Greeks are free to govern all other peoples (Politics 7.1327b).
For the historian Herodotus, it is the way of the Orient to be ruled by autocrats and, even though Oriental, the character faults of despots are no more pronounced than the ordinary man's - but they are given much greater opportunity for indulgence. The story of Croesus of Lydia is a case in point. Leading up to Alexander's expansion into Asia, most Greeks were repelled by the Oriental notion of a sun-king, and the divine law that Oriental societies accepted. Herodotus's version of history advocated a society where men became free when they consented lawfully to the social contract of their respective city-state.
As the attention of the new emperor was diverted by the most trifling amusements, he wasted many months in his luxurious progress from Syria to Italy, passed at Nicomedia his first winter after his victory, and deferred till the ensuing summer his triumphal entry into the capital. A faithful picture, however, which preceded his arrival, and was placed by his immediate order over the altar of Victory in the senate-house, conveyed to the Romans the just but unworthy resemblance of his person and manners. He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of an inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism. (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Book One, Chapter Six)
The "Asiatic mode of production"
The premise, according to Marx, is that there existed some forms of state, which were ruled by tribute-collecting despots based on the system of production-property relations, described as "Asiatic mode of production." Oriental despotism is, thus, the political superstructure that was developed in succession. Marx took up the idea of Oriental despotism, calling it the "Asiatic mode of production" to explain why "Asia fell asleep in history". Dynasties might have changed, but overall the structure of the state remained the same - until an outside force (i.e. Western powers) artificially enforces "progressive" reforms.
Within such socio-economic formations, the most obvious of which being the agrarian-based empires of Ancient Egypt and China, an absolute ruler farmed out the right to collect tribute from peasant villagers to a hierarchy of provincial petty officials, who also had responsibility for organizing the construction and maintenance of extensive irrigation works, upon which agricultural production was dependent. Extorting tribute from village communities became the universal mode of enrichment by the ruling class of military-priestly nobles.
- Marshall Poe (2000). A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748. Cornell University Press. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-8014-3798-4. Retrieved 30 August 2013.
- Les Six Livres de La République, p. 201.
- Perry Anderson (12 March 2013). Lineages of the Absolutist State. Verso Books. p. 391. ISBN 978-1-78168-054-4. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
- Thomas R. Trautmann (1 January 2012). Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth. Penguin Books India. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-670-08527-9. Retrieved 31 August 2013.