Political Sociology: A Reader

By S. N. Eisenstadt | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
TO THE READINGS

The material presented on centralized imperial systems is divided into five sections. Some general analyses of the basic characteristics of these systems are presented in the first section. This is followed by selections which illustrate the basic world view, especially of the ideal political institutions as they developed in these systems. The third to fifth sections contain analyses of contemporary scholars dealing respectively with the bases of legitimation of these empires, some aspects of their social and political structure, and processes of change in them.

The first section consists of Wittfogel's article, which presents his conception of the imperial system as equivalent to the system of oriental despotism rooted in the needs of a "hydraulic" society. He explains how an agricultural society which is located around a river in a semiarid region needs complex arrangements of water supply which require over-all territorial regulations. These needs enhance the establishment of a regime with a strong center that undermines the authority of local communities.

Wittfogel claims that the penetration of the center into the periphery in this type of political organization is limited to functional purposes and is therefore only partial. The policies of the rulers are mainly coercive and aim at the exploitation of the population. In spite of the pressure of the center on the periphery, the latter remains quite undifferentiated, and the traditional kinship units continue to exist unchanged. This view of Wittfogel's idea of the purely exploitative and coercive nature of the policies of the rulers of "hydraulic" societies has been often abused. Thus, for instance, in a review of his work 1 have proposed that:

The functions of the bureaucracy are not only to administer the hydraulic works and to mobilize resources for the ruler and for themselves. Even in order to be able to do this, the bureaucracy has to perform various functions for the different groups in the society, and to mediate to some extent between such various groups. And in such mediation it must sometimes uphold the interests of these groups against the wishes of the rulers, or to find some modus vivendi between the two even if this modus vivendi is greatly biased in favour of the rulers. *

The second section presents selections from various historical sources illustrating the basic world view and especially the conception of the ideal political institutions which developed in these imperial systems. Ch'eng-hao's "Ten Matters Calling for Reform" emphasizes that change in the imperial political systems is rooted in and limited by traditional writings. According to the Indian scholar Mahaviracarita, the ideal king follows the Indian ideal which blames the use of force. Another Indian book, Digha Nikaya, also bases ideal rulership on moral qualities and loyalty to the religious requirements.

The selection "The Conduct of Kingship" by Kai Ka'us Ibn Iskandar deals with the conduct of the king and stresses the importance of his authoritative as well as moral qualities. The emphasis in this document is on firm but just rulership.

All these sources emphasize the special role of the emperor in this political system as a focus of identification and as a sole ruler who has immense power over all his subjects. But this ruler is always legitimized by religious values and is justified only as long as he proves both his loyalty to religious norms and his political acumen.

The third section presents contemporary analyses of the nature of legitimation in different empires. Bodde's article, "Authority and Law in Ancient China," proves that though Chinese rule was sanctioned by the concept of "The Mandate of Heaven (T'ien Ming)," there was an "insistence on the fact that Heaven may conceivably transfer the Mandate from one ruling house to another." He deals also with the epoch of the establishment of Confucianism as the basis of legitimation in China. Thus he explains the possibility of dynastic change in China without undermining the traditional legitimation.

Dumont's article discusses the unique case of the Indian conception of kingship. "The function of the king in India has been secularized," and there existed a clear-cut differentiation between the religious role of the Brahmans and the political tasks of the Kshatria. This rendered a great extent of autonomy to the political sphere and enabled it to change greatly without affecting the total social order.

In the fourth section, Liu's article describes the social and political environment and the administrative problems in China under the Sung.

The strengthening of the decentralistic tendencies in the form of aristocratization in Byzantium is analyzed by Charanis in his "Aristocracy in Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century." The emperor tried

____________________
*
S. N. Eisenstadt, Review Article: "The Study of Oriental Despotism as Systems of Total Power," Journal of Asian Studies, XVII (1958), 445, and the introduction in this book to the section on imperial societies.

-263-

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