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The Socialist Phenomenon 2.5
Part 9 - State Socialism, Ancient China
The following is part of a series looking at The Socialist Phenomenon by Igor Shafarevich (1923-2017), first published in 1975 under the title Sotsializm kak iavlenie mirovoi istorii by YMCA Press. My intention is to offer summaries only - I cannot hope to provide robust commentary - Shafarevich provides a masterful historical analysis of socialism in a rare systematic and scientific manner. He was a mathematician of some significance in Russia and applied a similar disciplined and objective approach in his study of socialism. He, like Solzhenitsyn, believed that socialism was ultimately nihilistic and motivated by a death drive that destroys individualism.
For those interested you can find the full English translation here http://robertlstephens.com/essays/shafarevich/001SocialistPhenomenon.html
The last of the examples of state socialism, or rather proto-socialism as we would understand modern socialism and communism, is that of ancient China. As with the examples in ancient Egypt last instalment, the Chinese examples have been expressed over a huge span of time and in a multitude of expressions. Shafarevich takes us to two periods of Chinese history: the period between the 13th and 5th Centuries BCE and the period between the 5th and 3rd Centuries BCE. The former being the Yin and early Chou periods and the later the Chun-Chiu and Ch’in periods.
These kingdoms, as far as Shafarevich explains them, don’t seem to differ very much from the system of government employed by the Egyptians. The king had all authority and bureaucrats administrated the agricultural activity of the kingdom. It seemed brutal, however. One legendary king, Pan-Keng, drove his people like cattle and disobedience was met with utter destruction of the disobedient and his family. Human sacrifice and mass slaughter seemed part of kingdom business for the common Chinese of these periods.
Individual land ownership, it seems, was non-existent during the Yin empire and when overtaken by the Chou conquerors, things didn’t change much, but there were indications that plots were given to individuals at 20 years old and returned at 60 years old. The land was still the property of the king: “Under-the-heavens, there is no land that does not belong to the wang [king], in the whole world from one end to the other there are no people who are not the wang’s underlings”. There also emerged a privileged class of society during the Chou reign but still for this group land was controlled by the bureaucracy under the direction of the king and was not ‘owned’ personally.
Agricultural activity was regimented as ordered by the kings officials:
Numerous songs describe agriculture based on the use of large groups of peasants directed by officials who indicate where, when and what to sow. For example, land officials were instructed as follows: "our ruler summons us all ...orders you to lead the plowmen to sow grain. ..quickly take your instruments and begin to plow. ...Let ten thousand pairs go out. ..this will be enough." Elsewhere a similar scene is pictured: "A thousand pairs of people on the plain and on the mountain slope weed and plow the field." Of the harvest it is said: "There are large granaries everywhere. ...In them, millions of tan of grain. ..A thousand granaries must be prepared. ...Ten thousand grain baskets must be prepared." Finally, the wang gives his approval--the ultimate goal of labor: "All the fields are completely sown. ...The grain is truly good. ...The wang was not angry; he said, 'You peasants have labored gloriously.' " (Shafarevich, p. 169)
These peasant labourers were not only farmhands but also soldiers, if the need ever arose for an army, or as construction workers to build a place, for example. The need for military force was not just prompted by external threats but was equally concerned with the suppression of uprisings. Something that seems to be very much a socialist phenomenon.
The emerging privileged class, the aristocracy, could have land and people granted to them from the king - rather like a loan - and thereby officials, scholars, artisans and the like, could live off the loaned land and peasants who worked the land.
The king’s administration consisted of three departments: agriculture, war and public works. The heads of these departments were the most powerful officials in the land. Interestingly the department of agriculture was the ministry of ‘plenty’, a translation suggested in 1927, before Orwell had the idea - or maybe he stole the idea from this dynasty?
The ordering of marriage, holidays, litigation and work for the peasantry was all under the control of the department heads through their hierarchy of bureaucrats and supervisors. During the Chou epoch the state very much regulated marriage with rules about when to marry at what age:
"Men are ordered to marry by age thirty, girls, by age twenty. This means that the deadline for marriage both for men and for women cannot be extended." At a specific time in spring, the emperor announced the day for weddings. A special official called a mediator informed the peasants that the time for "the joining of youths and girls" had come. The French Sinologist Maspero believes that marriage in the true sense existed only for the aristocracy, for which it had the effect of sustaining the religious cult. Common folk did not establish clans and the family did not have a religious character. Marriage was denoted by different terms for the aristocracy and the peasantry; Maspero translates the former term as "marriage" and the latter as "union." (Shafarevich, p. 171-2)
The law at the start of the Chou period detailed three thousand offences, of which two hundred were punishable by death, three hundred by castration, five hundred by cutting off the heel, one thousand by cutting off the nose and one thousand by branding.
By the fifth century BCE the Chou empire broke up into independent states that were at war with each other. Thus the time is known as the “epoch of the fighting kingdoms”. The monolithic state and its mechanisms of control had collapsed and there was a period of rapid cultural and economic growth. Infrastructure became more sophisticated, cities grew and started to specialise in producing different goods. Technology, primarily through the use of iron, advanced greatly during this time.
Eventually this conglomerate of independent states gave way to the idea of a centralised society once again. This time to take advantage of the technology now available to the state. Shang Yang (Kung-sun Yang), ruler of the Shang province in the middle of the fourth century, laid out a theoretical position for the new society. Basically the ruler should have the maximum power (full dominion under-the-heavens) over state and its people while the people like ore in the hands of a metal worker or clay in the hands of the potter. The ruler must get stronger at the expense of the people: “Only he who has conquered his own people first can conquer a strong enemy.” “When the people are weak the state is strong; when the state is weak the people are strong. Hence the state that follows a true course strives to weaken the people.” (Taken from Shang’s writings, “How to Weaken the People”). Charming.
The ruler, according to Shang, is to renounce the love of man, justice and of the people, so as to gain as much power as possible. This was supposed to be a virtue, for the good of the state, to make the state powerful and suppress the criminal element. Law, it was conceived, should be the basis for life, and punishment the key element to govern the people. Shang said that “In a state striving for dominion under-the-heavens, there are nine punishments to one reward, and in states doomed to disintegrate, there are nine rewards to one punishment.” It is punishment that brings about morality and virtue and so the virtuous leader must inflict harsh punishments to bring out the very best in the people. “Should punishments be severe and rewards few, the ruler loves his people and the people are ready to give up their lives for the ruler. Should rewards be considerable and punishments mild, the ruler does not love his people, and the people will not give up their lives for his sake.”
In such a state punishments were to sever ties that bound people together and to encourage the love of the system (as opposed to loving those closest to them). A system of informers and a surveillance state was integral to the mechanism of total control by the ruler of the people.
The primary goal of punishment is to sever the ties that bind people together; therefore, a whole system of informers must supplement punishment. "If the people are ruled as virtuous, they will love those closest to them; if they are ruled as depraved, they will become fond of this system. Unity among people and their mutual support spring from the fact that they are ruled as virtuous; estrangement among the people and mutual surveillance spring from their being ruled as depraved." The ruler "should issue a law on mutual surveillance; he should issue a decree that the people ought to correct each other." "Regardless of whether the informer is of the nobility or of low origin, he inherits fully the nobility, the fields and the salary of the senior official whose misconduct he reports to the ruler." Denunciation is tied to a system of extended mutual liability. "A father sending his son to war, the elder sending his younger brother, or the wife seeing off her husband, shall all say: 'Don't come back without victory!' And they will add 'Should you break the law or disobey an order, we shall perish together with you.'" "In a well-regulated country, husband, wife and their friends will not be able to conceal a crime one from the other without courting disaster for the relatives of the culprit; the rest will not be able to cover each other either."
The idea, apparently, was that this sort of punishment, denunciation, and love of the state, will eventually lead to a form of humanity where punishment will not be necessary, for the people will so fear the consequences they will not act out of line. It is the establishment of virtue through capital punishment.
How was this to be achieved? Firstly by rallying society around only two concerns: agriculture and war. The concentrated concern for these to things were defined as “unification” or “concentration on the One Thing” (The Khmere Rouge springs to mind). Shafarevich goes into the details of the economic and military activity under this philosophy, but I’ll just tease out a few highlights.
Morality was not to be part of the military establishment. “If the army commits actions that the enemy would not dare to commit, then this means that the country is strong. If in war the country commits actions the enemy would be ashamed of committing, then it will have gained an advantage.” The ruler is also released from any moral obligations toward his military, offering harsh punishments, such as “A warrior displaying cowardice is torn to pieces by carriages, a warrior daring to disapprove of an order is branded, his nose is cut off and he is thrown down at the city wall,” and other such demonstrations of the rulers power.
Any activity outside the control of the state (almost everything except agriculture and war) was suppressed through a number of economic strategies and law. The philosophy is summed up here: “Under-the-heavens there hardly was ever a case where a state did not perish when infested with worms or when a crack appeared. This is why a wise ruler makes laws eliminating private interests, thereby delivering the state from worms and cracks.” The elimination of “parasites” (which we would equate to much of the cultural richness that makes living enjoyable and interesting) becomes a consuming passion for the ‘strong’ ruler. The state needs stupid people - useful idiots.
"If knowledge is encouraged and not nipped in the bud, it will increase, and when it will have increased, it will become impossible to rule the land." "If the eloquent and the intelligent are valued, if vagrant scholars are brought into the service of the state, if a man becomes well known thanks to his learning and personal glory, then ways are open in the land to the unrighteous. If these three kinds of persons are not checked in their path, it will be impossible to engage the people in war." And Shang Yang warns darkly: "The people in the whole country have changed, they have taken to eloquence and find pleasure in study; they have started to engage in various crafts and trade; they have begun to neglect agriculture and war. If this trend continues, the hour of death is near for the land." In olden times, he says, things were not this way: "The gifted were of no use and the ungifted could do no harm. Therefore, the art of ruling well consists precisely in the ability of removing the clever and the gifted." Finally, this idea is expressed in its most naked form: "If the people are stupid, they can be easily governed."
This is the socialist Utopia, the ideal state, where private interests are eliminated for the establishment of a perfect communism.
Shang Yang found a patron who installed him as as first minister in the state of Ch’in, and he did manage to implement a number of his ‘reforms’ which were met with great resistance. Opposition to his reforms were sent to frontier regions. But after the death of Yang’s patron the successor executed Yang along with all of his family. A victim of his own philosophy, and law, which remained in effect after his execution. The Ch’in empire was central in uniting China and Yang’s ideas were implemented even more consistently and on a greater scale under a head of state, the emperor (a title conveying the status of “Divine Sovereign of the Earth”).
The unified empire was divided into 36 regions and each region into districts, and all was managed by a centralised bureaucracy. Everything was subordinated to the state. Once again Shafarevich goes into detail about the running of the state which follows the usual socialist phenomenon pattern: everything belongs to the ruler/state; everyone is tightly controlled in every aspect of life; no land ownership; no independent thinking. There was even a time of book burning during the reign of Ch’in Shih Huang to suppress independent thought and obliterate historical sources that differed from official ones.
There follow suggestions for concrete measures that were, in fact, acted upon by the emperor. The edict in question reads: "All books which are not concerned with the official history of the Ch'in state, except books which are under the keeping of high officials, are to be burned. ... All who still dare under-the-heavens to conceal [books deemed seditious] are to be brought to the chiefs and the guards and burned together with their books. All who discuss these works are to be publicly executed. All who use the examples of the past to condemn the present are to be executed. ...Officials seeing or knowing anything about the hiding of books who do not take measures are to be treated like those who conceal books. ...Those who do not turn in books within thirty days after the proclamation of this edict are to be branded as criminals and exiled to the building of the Wall. ... Books on medicine, divination and plant growing are not subject to destruction."
We will get to the obvious parallels with these ancient examples of socialism and the modern manifestation of 20th century communism further down the track. But for now I’ll wrap up with Shafarevich’s summary of this second section of his book.
Summary of State Socialism
We have brought forward a series of examples which allow us to draw some conclusions on the character of socialist tendencies in the economics (and to an extent, in the ideologies) of certain states of South America and the ancient East. All these states were of a very primitive type, more so than the ancient classical civilizations or the medieval and capitalist societies. (We did not touch on the socialist states of the twentieth century, assuming them to be familiar to the reader.) In the literature on the subject we find indications of analogous states elsewhere (for example, the ancient states of the Indus valley or of pre-Columbian Mexico). We now wish to summarize the basic features of this type of society, relying mainly on Heichelheim.
All economic relationships were based on the assumption that the state, in the person of the king, was the proprietor of all sources of income. Any use of these sources was to be redeemed by deliveries to the state or by performance of obligatory work. Labor conscription by the state was considered just as natural as universal military conscription is today. Laborers were organized into detachments and armies (often under the command of officers) and were set to work on tremendous construction projects. They worked state fields, repaired, dug and cleaned irrigation and navigation systems, built roads, bridges, city walls, palaces and temples, pyramids and other tombs. They were used in transporting the goods of the state. Sometimes such duties were imposed on conquered peoples, and, as Heichelheim believes, it was precisely this that gave rise to the whole system of duties--i.e., the state began to take the exploitation of conquered peoples as a model in the treatment of its own subjects.
Most land either belonged to the state or was controlled by it. Temple lands were usually under the control of the state officials who directed work on them. The peasants got tools, seeds and cattle from the state and were often told exactly what to sow. They were obliged to work the state and temple fields on a set schedule. The bulk of the agricultural population depended to a large degree on the state, but in most cases the peasants were neither slaves nor private chattel. I. J. Gelb applies the term "serfs" to them--i.e., "attached" and "protected peasants." He writes: "The productive labor population of Mesopotamia and the ancient East in general, in Mycenaean and Homeric Greece, later in Sparta and on Crete, in Thessalia and in other parts of Greece (with the exception of Athens), as well as in India, China, etc., is the basic work force employed either all the time or part of the time on the public lands of the state, of the temple or of the large landowners, who as a rule acted simultaneously as state officials. This work force was half independent."
Slaves in the majority of cases were house servants. In connection with the classical East, Meyer says: "It is hardly possible that slavery ...played a basic role in the economy."
Trade and handicrafts were controlled by the state in an analogous way. To a great extent, the state supplied artisans with their tools and raw materials, and merchants with money. Both artisans and merchants were organized into guilds headed by state officials. In Egypt, for instance, all foreign trade was monopolized by the state, right up to the time of the Middle Kingdom. Internal trade was strictly controlled by the state, including the pettiest dealings. Most goods were distributed directly by the state.
Money did not play any significant role in trade. Even quite valuable objects were frequently exchanged without money payment, although a price was mentioned in the records. M. Weber calls this "exchange with money valuation." From twelve to twenty forms of primitive money were usually employed, their value strictly regulated by the state. This was one more important lever in controlling the economy.
The king's household was the basic economic force in the country. Weber describes this structure as the king's oikos, underlining the fact that the entire state was ruled from one center as the estate of a single master. In Egypt, the name Pharaoh ("big house") corresponds literally to the word oikos. Heichelheim asserts that the state controlled about 90 percent of the whole economy. He writes:
"The kings of the ancient Orient were economically the center points from which the greater part of the capital investment and the economic life of the empires radiated. From here only capital surplus which had been amassed by the people could be reinvested or distributed, for productive purposes, among individuals or to whole groups of people. Scholars have attempted, and not without some justification, to describe the system of government of the ancient Orient as a patriarchal socialism."
Just as economic life was directed by the state, as embodied in the king, so too the dominant pattern in ideology was the concept of a deified king, seen as the benefactor and savior of mankind. In another passage Heichelheim characterizes this concept:
"He saved the human race by becoming a human being, an eschatological breakthrough for each generation which made the king completely different from even the most powerful high priest or noble. The king saved mankind by his overpowering mystical strength in peace and war, by his justice in upholding a fair and benevolent law, and by sharing and investing the enormous capital at his disposal to the benefit of his poorer subjects."
Naturally, such an ideological and economic centralization made the most drastic measures of suppression of the population both morally permissible and technically necessary. Thus in India, in the laws of Manu, it is said: "Order in the world is maintained through punishment. ...Punishment is the king." In Egypt every official had the right to impose physical punishment on his subordinates. The awe inspired by the pharaoh is symbolized by the snake in his crown; he is sometimes depicted as killing, dismembering and boiling people in the nether world. The ritual name of one of the first pharaohs was "The Scorpion."
Socialist tendencies in the ancient states were studied in detail by Wittfogel, from whom we have already borrowed a number of specific facts. The author's general approach involves uniting a series of states (in the ancient Orient, pre-Columbian America, East Africa and some regions of the Pacific, particularly the Hawaiian Islands) into a special historical formation that he calls "hydraulic society" or "hydraulic civilization." According to Wittfogel, artificial irrigation played a fundamental role in all these societies.* The author defines the concept of a "hydraulic society" very broadly, including in this category almost all noncapitalist countries, with the exception of Greece, Rome and the states of medieval Europe. But he singles out the Inca state, Sumer, ancient Egypt and the Hawaiian Islands as "primitive hydraulic societies"--in other words, almost the same group of states that interests us. Wittfogel points out numerous features these societies have in common with the socialist states of the twentieth century. Thus he notes the similar roles played by irrigation and heavy industry. Both are activities that do not directly produce any goods but constitute a necessary basis for production. This key sector of the economy is the property of the state, which in this way achieves complete control over the economic and political life of the country.
Heichelheim points to similar parallels:
For scholars who have studied this development in detail, it is no secret that the planned economy and the collectivism of our modern Age of Machines has returned subconsciously to ancient Oriental conditions wherever we try to abolish or to modify the individualistic and libertarian forms of society which have been characteristic for the Iron Age of the last three glorious millennia. Instead our turbulent twentieth century shows a tendency to link together our own traditional state organization, society, economic and spiritual life with the rudiments of ancient Oriental collectivist forms of organization as they have survived subconsciously in the life and customs of many modern nations.. ..The modern great powers are closer in analogy to the great empires of the cuprolithic and bronze ages than is generally realized, or to similar later forms of rule which developed from ancient Oriental foundations either directly or indirectly. Whenever our century shows some attempt to achieve not personal liberty but widespread control it has strong affinities to the planned city life of the kings of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, the rule of the pharaohs in Egypt, the early Chinese emperors. ...The spiritual ties which the nineteenth century had with. ..Israel, Greece and Rome are more often replaced, to a greater degree than we know, by a return to ancient Oriental foundations.