Karl August Wittfogel

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
(Redirected from Karl Wittfogel)
Jump to: navigation, search
Karl Wittfogel in the American Communist newspaper. The Daily Worker, 1926.

Karl August Wittfogel (6 September 1896, in Woltersdorf, Germany – 25 May 1988, in New York, USA) was a German-American playwright, historian, and sinologist. Originally a Marxist and an active member of the Communist Party of Germany, after the Second World War Wittfogel was an equally fierce Anticommunist.


Karl August Wittfogel was born 6 September 1896 at Woltersdorf, in Lüchow, Province of Hanover. Wittfogel left school in 1914. He studied philosophy, history, sociology, geography at Leipzig University and also in Munich, Berlin and Rostock and in 1919 again in Berlin. From 1921 he studied sinology in Leipzig. In between Wittfogel was drafted into a Signal Corps Unit (Fernmeldeeinheit) in 1917[1]

Before the First World War, he was the leader of the Lüneburg Wandervogel group.[2] In 1918, he set up the Lüneburg local[3] of the radical Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). In 1920, he joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).[4] Wittfogel met Karl Korsch in 1920[5] and was invited to the 1923 conference that helped establish the Institute for Social Research[6] and from 1925 to 1933 was a member of the Institute.[7] He received his Ph.D. from the Frankfurter Universität in 1928.[8] Wittfogel was always an active and faithful member of the communist party and a vocal critic of all its enemies.[9] When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wittfogel tried to escape to Switzerland, but was arrested and interned in prisons and concentration camps.[10] An international outcry[11] led to his freedom in 1934.

He left Germany for England and then the United States. Wittfogel's belief in the Soviet Union was destroyed with the Hitler-Stalin alliance, and he began to hate the totalitarian, "asiatic" nature of Russian and Chinese Communism from Lenin to Mao. He turned against his former comrades and denounced some of them, as well as American scholars such as Owen Lattimore and Moses I. Finley, at the McCarran Committee hearings in 1951. He came to believe that the state-owned economies of the Soviet bloc inevitably led to despotic governments even more oppressive than those of "traditional Asia" and that those regimes were the greatest threat to the future of all mankind.

In 1921 Wittfogel married Rose Schlesinger. Wittfogel's second wife was the sociologist Olga (Joffe) Lang, a Russian sociologist who traveled with him to China and collaborated with him on a project to analyze the Chinese family. Lang later published a monograph on the Chinese family and a biography of the anarchist writer, Ba Jin.[12] Anthropologist Esther Schiff Goldfrank became Wittfogel's wife in 1940.[13] Wittfogel held academic positions at Columbia University from 1939 and was professor for Chinese history at the University of Washington from 1947 to 1966. He died on May 25, 1988.


In the early 1920s, Wittfogel wrote a number of communist, but also somewhat expressionistic, plays: "The Cripple", performed with other short plays on October 14, 1920 at Erwin Piscator's Berlin Proletarian Theatre,[14] and "Red Soldiers", "The Man Who Has an Idea", "The Mother", "The Refugee", "The Skyscraper" and "Who is the Biggest Fool?", all of which were published by Malik.[15] Wittfogel declined an offer to become the dramatic producer of the revolutionary Volksbühne (People's Stage) in Berlin, because he wanted to concentrate on his academic studies.[16] He published some long Hegelian essays on aesthetics and literature in Die Linkskurve, journal of the Association of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers, and was a member of its editorial staff from April 1930.[17]

The Asiatic Mode of Production

Wittfogel is best known for his monumental work Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, first published in 1957. Starting from a Marxist analysis of the ideas of Max Weber on China and India's "hydraulic-bureaucratic official-state" and building on Marx's sceptical view of the Asiatic Mode of Production, Wittfogel came up with an analysis of Oriental despotism which emphasized the role of irrigation works, the bureaucratic structures needed to maintain them and the impact that these had on society, coining the term "hydraulic empire" to describe the system. In his view, many societies, mainly in Asia, relied heavily on the building of large-scale irrigation works. To do this, the state had to organize forced labor from the population at large. As only a centralized administration could organize the building and maintenance of large-scale systems of irrigation, the need for such systems made bureaucratic despotism inevitable in Oriental lands. This structure was uniquely placed to also crush civil society and any other force capable of mobilizing against the state. Such a state would inevitably be despotic, powerful, stable and wealthy. Wittfogel's anticommunism led in "Oriental Despotism" to extend the hydraulic hypothesis to Russia, where it hardly is applicable.

Barrington Moore, George Lichtheim and especially Pierre Vidal-Naquet are among the noted scientists who wrote on Wittfogel. F. Tökei, Gianni Sofri, Maurice Godelier and Wittfogel's estranged pupil Lawrence Krader, then Maoist F. Kramer or Claus Leggewie/Helmut Raich concentrated on the concept. Two Berlin leaders of the SDS student movement, Rudi Dutschke and Bernd Rabehl, have published on these themes. Then East German dissident Rudolf Bahro later said that his Alternative in Eastern Europe was based on ideas of Wittfogel, but because of the latter's later anti-communism, Wittfogel could not be mentioned by name. Bahro's later ecological ideas, recounted in From Red to Green and elsewhere were likewise inspired by Wittfogel's geographical determinism.

The Hydraulic Society thesis was also taken up by ecological anthropologists such as Marvin Harris. Further applications of the thesis included that to Mayan society, when aerial photographs revealed the network of canals in the Mayan areas of Yucatan. Critics have denied that Ceylon or Bali are truly hydraulic in the Wittfogel sense.

Selected Works (in German)

  • Vom Urkommunismus bis zur proletarischen Revolution, Eine Skizze der Entwicklung der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, 1. Teil: Urkommunismus und Feudalismus, Verlag Junge Garde, Berlin C 2, 1922, 79 p.[18]
  • Die Wissenschaft der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Eine marxistische Untersuchung, Malik, Berlin, 1922
  • Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Von ihren Anfängen bis zur Schwelle der großen Revolution, Malik, Wien, 1924
  • Das erwachende China, Ein Abriß der Geschichte und der gegenwärtigen Probleme Chinas, AGIS Verlag, Wien, 1926
  • Shanghai- Kanton, Vereinigung Internationale Verlags-Anstalten, Berlin, 1927[19]
  • Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas, Versuch der wissenschaftlichen Analyse einer großen asiatischen Agrargesellschaft, Hirschfeld, Leipzig, 1931, XXIV, 767 P. (=Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung der Universität Frankfurt am Main, No. 3)
  • Die natürlichen Ursachen der Wirtschaftsgeschichte, in: Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 67, 1932, pp. 466–492, 597-609, 711-731.
  • Die Theorie der orientalischen Gesellschaft, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 7, No. 1/2, Alcan, Paris, 1938


  • “Conversations with Wittfogel”. Telos 43 (Spring 1980). Telos Press, New York.


  • Julius Haidvogel (= K. A. Wittfogel), Der Krüppel (The Cripple). in: Der Gegner, Vol. 2, Nr. 4, Malik, Berlin, 1920, p. 94ff..
  • Rote Soldaten. Politische Tragödie in fünf Akten (Red Soldiers), Malik, Berlin, 1921
  • Der Mann der eine Idee hat. Erotisches Schauspiel in vier Akten (The Man Who Has an Idea), Malik, Berlin, 1922, and 1933
  • Die Mutter - Der Flüchtling. Zwei Einakter (The Mother & The Refugee, 2 one-act plays, Malik, Berlin, 1922
  • Wer ist der Dümmste? Eine Frage an das Schicksal in einem Vorspiel und vier Akten. (Who is the Biggest Fool?), Malik, Berlin, 1923
    • Gustav von Wangenheim, Da liegt der Hund begraben und andere Stücke, Aus dem Repertoire der Truppe 31, Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg, 1974
  • Der Wolkenkratzer. Amerikanischer Sketch (The Skyscraper), Malik, 1924[20]

Works (in English)

  • The Foundations and Stages of Chinese Economic History, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Alcan, Paris, 4, 1935, p. 26-60.
  • New Light on Chinese Society; An Investigation of China's Socio-Economic Structure, Institute of Pacific Relations, New York, 1938
  • The Society of Prehistoric China, Alcan, Paris, 1939
  • Meteorological Records from the Divination Inscriptions of Shang, American Geographical Society (1940)
  • Public Office in the Liao Dynasty and the Chinese Examination System ..., Harvard-Yenching Institute (1947)
  • With Feng Chia-sheng et al., History of Chinese Society, Liao, 907-1125, American Philosophical Society, Transactions. Distributed by the Macmillan Co., New York, 1949. Google Book
    • With Chia-shêng Fêng and Karl H. Menges, History of Chinese society : Liao (907-1125). Appendix V, Qara-Khitay 1949
  • Russia and Asia : Problems of Contemporary Area Studies and International Relations, 1950
  • Asia's Freedom...and the Land Question 1950
  • The influence of Leninism-Stalinism on China, 1951?
  • The Review of Politics : The Historical Position of Communist China: Doctrine and Reality, University of Notre Dame Press (1954)
  • Mao Tse-tung, Liberator or Destroyer of the Chinese Peasants?, Free Trade Union Committee, American Federation of Labor, New York, 1955
  • The Hydraulic Civilizations Chicago, 1956
  • Oriental Despotism; a Comparative Study of Total Power Yale University Press, 1957
    • Class Structure and Total Power in Oriental Despotism, 1960
    • Results and Problems of the Study of Oriental Despotism 1969
  • Chinese Society : An Historical Survey, 1957
  • The New Men, Hong Kong, 1958?
  • Food and Society in China and India, New York, 1959
  • Peking's "Independence (1959)
  • The Marxist View of Russian Society and Revolution, 1960
  • Viewer's Guide to From Marx to Mao, University of Washington (1960)
  • The Legend of Maoism, 1960?
  • Class Structure and Total Power in Oriental Despotism, 1960
  • A Stronger Oriental Despotism 1960
  • The Russian and Chinese Revolutions : A Socio-Historical Comparison 1961
  • The Marxist View of China China Quarterly, 1962
  • Agrarian Problems and the Moscow-Peking Axis, 1962
  • A Short History of Chinese Communism, University of Washington, 1964
  • The Chinese Red Guards and the "Lin Piao Line, American-Asian Educational Exchange, Inc. (1967)
  • Results and Problems of the Study of Oriental Despotism 1969
  • Agriculture: a Key to the Understanding of Chinese Society, Past and Present, Australian National University Press, 1970
  • Communist and Non-Communist Agrarian Systems, with Special Reference to the U.S.S.R. and Communist China, a Comparative Approach Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1971
  • The Hydraulic Approach to Pre-spanish Mesoamerica, Austin, 1972
  • Some Remarks on Mao's Handling of Concepts and Problems of Dialectics, University of Washington. Far Eastern and Russian Institute, not dated

On Wittfogel

  • G. L. Ulmen, The Science of Society, Towards an Understanding of the Life and Work of Karl August Wittfogel, Mouton, The Hague, 1978
  • G. L. Ulmen, ed., Society and History, Essays in Honor of Karl August Wittfogel, Mouton, The Hague, 1978, ISBN 90-279-7776-3
  • "Karl A. Wittfogel," George Taylor, International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, 18 (London: Collier, 1979), p. 812.


External links

Notes & References

  1. See the useful Wittfogel page of his high school, the Johanneum, Lüneburg and esp. Ulrich Menzel's excellent online presentation in the Personenlexikon Internationale Beziehungen virtuell.
  2. Lit.: Walter Laqueur, Young Germany, 1962.
  3. Lit.: Mathias Greffrath, Ein ernster Mensch, Die Zeit, 10. 6. 1988 (online archives). Later Wittfogel wrote under the pseudonym "Jungmann" am account of youth movements in Max Horkheimer's compilation "Studies in Authority and the Family." Unfortunately, although Horkheimer's and Herbert Marcuse's contributions have been translated, Wittfogel's have not been.
    Wittfogel who had been a leader of the German Socialist Student Movement after the war beside Klaus Reichenbach liked Rudi Dutschke when they met in Düsseldorf in 1979.
  4. At the Meißnertag 1923, a large Youth Movement gathering, Wittfogel asked the members of the Freideutsche Jugend: "In Wahrheit steht jedes Zeitalter unter einer großen Idee. Habt ihr diese große Idee. Seid ihr bereit dafür zu sterben?" Wittfogel asked them if they knew the need of the age, its big idea and if they had what it takes to die for their convictions.
    Lit.: Karl-Otto Schüddekopf, Linke Leute von rechts, Stuttgart, 1960.
    After expelling a strong radical group in the autumn of 1919, the KPD was basically a sect, until a majority of USPD delegates decided to join it at their party convention in October 1920. A third of USPD members (ca. 300,000) joined the 70,000-strong KPD.
    Lit.: Ossip K. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik (1st edition 1948), Frankfurt, 1969 edition, pp. 35f., 156f.
  5. M. Buckmiller says not only because W. taught at the Volkshochschule Schloss Tinz, but also because of Korsch's wife Dr. Hedda Korsch, who was active in the school reform movement.
  6. Felix Weil financed and Richard Sorge organized this Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche (1st marxist workweek) with Karl Korsch and Hedda Korsch, Georgy Lukacs, Béla Fogarasi, his later wife Margarete Lissauer, Felix José and Käthe Weil (they were married 1921-1929), Richard and Christiane Sorge, Friedrich Pollock, Julian Gumperz and his later wife Hede Massing, from 1919 to 1923 married to Gerhart Eisler, Konstantin Zetkin, Fukomoto, Eduard Ludwig Alexander and Gertrud Alexander, their kid, and others. Rose Wittfogel, born Schlesinger, also took part. They were married from 1921 (other sources say 1920) to 1929. She was a sculptor, later a librarian at the Frankfurt Institute. She emigrated to the Soviet Union and worked there (among other things?) as a translator at the VAGAAR, an Organisation for foreign workers.
    Michael Buckmiller, Die "Marxistische Arbeitswoche" 1923 und die Gründung des "Instituts für Sozialforschung",in Willem van Reijen, Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (eds.), Grand Hotel Abgrund, p. 141-182. For Rose Schlesinger p. 148, citing D. Pike, Deutsche Schriftsteller im sowjetischen Exil, 1934-1945, Frankfurt am Main, 1981, S. 311.
  7. If he seems not to really belong to the famous Frankfurt School, it may be because of his Marxism, his activism or even because he was not Jewish.
  8. His supervisors were Wilhelm Gerloff, Richard Wilhelm and Franz Oppenheimer. His thesis was On the Economical Importance of the Agrarian and Industrial Productive Forces in China,
    Die ökonomische Bedeutung der agrikolen und industriellen Produktivkräfte Chinas, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart. 1930.
    This was the first chapter of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas, 1931.
  9. In his Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich mentions a bizarre debate with Otto Strasser on religion, in a Berlin mass meeting, in January, 1933.
    In a short 1974 notice to a reprint of his 1929 essay on Political Geography, Wittfogel says he came out much stronger against the Nazis than the KPD and Komintern line wanted.
    Lit.: Politische Geography, Josef Matznetter, ed., Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1977, p. 230.
    Communist students at Jena invited him and Alfred Bäumler for a debate on the importance of Hegel for the Germany of today. Bäumler was a specialist on Kant, Nietzsche and Bachofen. He soon became a leading Nazi philosopher.
  10. Borgermoor Moorlager Esterwegen im Emsland, a peat bog-camp in the Emsland and in Lichtenburg near Torgau.
    Lit.: A novel Staatliches Konzentrationslager VII, Eine "Erziehungsanstalt" im Dritten Reich was first published in London, 1936 under the pen name Klaus Hinrichs. German edition: Edition Temmen, Bremen, 1991.
  11. His second wife Olga Joffe worked tirelessly for his release and, with the help of nationalbolshevist revolutionary Friedrich Hielscher and the also radical right-wing geographer Karl Haushofer and the LSE historian R. H. Tawney, managed to get Wittfogel free (Mathias Greffrath, Martin Jay).
  12. Register of Karl Wittfogel Papers Hoover Institution
  13. Gloria Levitas, Esther Schiff Goldfrank, p. 120- 126, in Women Anthropologists, Ute Gacs, editor, new ed., University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1989.
  14. Piscator himself played the Cripple at the opening. John Heartfield managed a half-hour late delivery of the backdrop, Erwin Piscator, Das politische Theater [new edition], Hamburg, 1963, S. 48f., note 1. Reprinted in Literatur im Klassenkampf, Zur proletarisch-revolutionären Literaturtheorie 1919-1923, Eine Dokumentation von Walter Fähnders und Martin Rector, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1974, p. 242f.. The Proletarian Theatre bill (I. Programm-Ausgabe) for this evening on pages 206ff..The KPD newspaper Die Rote Fahne published a harsh review of the plays, G. G. L. (Gertrud Alexander), Proletarisches Theater, Die Rote Fahne, Vol. 3, 1920, No. 210, Oct. 17. This and Proletarisches Theater und der Gegner, Julian Gumperz's answer with another short notice by Gertrud Alexander (Die Rote Fahne, 3, 1920, no. 213, Oct. 21), Literatur im Klassenkampf, pages 208 to 213.
  15. Who Is the Biggest Fool? was produced (the text adapted) by Gustav von Wangenheim's Truppe 1931 (troop 1931) early in 1933.
  16. "Karl A. Wittfogel and His Provocative Theory of Oriental Despotism"
  17. His conservative aesthetics put Wittfogel on Lukacs' side -- not what might have been expected from his plays. With the earlier Dada and Proletkult debates, the Mehring-, documentary- and proletarian-literature feud, from 1928 on became part of the long and bitter debate on literary modernism and communism, which culminated in the 1930s onslaught on Expressionism in the Moscow journal Das Wort. The whole sorry mess was rekindled in the 1960s as the Brecht-Lukacs debate. At the time, Brecht had not really been able to publish his views.
    Helga Gallas, Marxistische Literaturtheorie, Luchterhand, Neuwied, 1971, on the 1928-1933 Bund Proletarisch Revolutionärer Schriftsteller.
    The Maoist Jan Myrdal in 1974 accused Wittfogel, Kurt Sauerland and George Lukacs, who were in favour of "culture" and an "elitist" aesthetics in the so-called "Mehring debate", to have turned Marxism into a theology and thus brought Hitler to power. "Wittfogel, Sauerland, Lukács tragen eine schwere historische Verantwortung" (p. 95, "are to blame for the course of history").
    Jan Myrdal who has written about China for nearly fifty years without knowing the language, also called Wittfogel non-intellectual, uncouth ("ungeschlacht") and a pretend professor.
    Lit.: Lars Gustafsson and Jan Myrdal, Die unnötige Gegenwart, Hanser, München, 1975, pp. 85- 95. First published as Den onödiga Samtiden, Stockholm, 1974.
    Jan Myrdal also called Wittfogel "parteikonformer...Ideologe", "spineless follower of the party line", but while Wittfogel believed in the party at least until 1933 and still sometimes fiercely defended it until at least around 1939 (he broke with Paul Massing over the Ruth Fischer revelations), even in the 1920s Wittfogel had ideas of his own, e.g. on nature, which to him could never simply be a part of human history and pure object of thinking, an idea Lukacs did not like at all. With very few others he took Marx's idea of a genuine "asiatic" way of pre-capitalist development seriously. At a Leningrad conference in 1931, all those ideas of an "asiatic" "mode of production" were shot down and buried by the Stalinist majority. They resurfaced around 1960, but by then Wittfogel was of course a non-person in communist eyes.
  18. Rare with little known John Heartfield cover. The first part is all there is. The Verlag Junge Garde, Berlin C 2 (on Stralauerstrasse 12 in Schöneberg) was the publishers of the Communist Youth International, Kommunistische Jugendinternationale.
  19. In Brussels, February, 1927 the Komintern Liga gegen Imperialismus was founded at a Internationale Kongress gegen Unterdrückung und Kolonialismus. This Congress had been organised by Willi Münzenberg). Wittfogel took part, as did Agnes Smedley. (Source: Sinologie Heidelberg Alumni Netzwerk
  20. Der Krüppel was performed on October 14, 1920 at Piscator's Proletarischem Theater - Bühnen der revolutionären Arbeiter Groß- Berlins, together with two other short plays under the heading Gegen den weißen Schrecken - für Sowjetrußland, see: Der Gegner. Mit dem satirischen Teil Die Pleite, vol. 2, no. 4, Malik, Berlin, 1920, p. 94- 107. Erwin Piscator's essay Über Grundlagen und Aufgaben des Proletarischen Theaters in the same number on pages 90 to 93. Der Gegner was then edited by Julian Gumperz and Wieland Herzfelde. Rote Soldaten had been scheduled for a second season of the theatre.
    Wittfogel also published a theoretical essay on proletarian theatre: Grenzen und Aufgaben der revolutionären Bühnenkunst, Der Gegner, vol. 3, no. 2, Berlin, 1922, p. 39-44.
    On the Weimar Proletarian Theatre: Richard Weber, Proletarisches Theater und Revolutionäre Arbeiterbewegung, 2nd. ed., Prometh, Cologne, 1978, P. 85, 96.
    One of the final communist Weimar theatre events was Berthold Brecht's "didactic play" on communism, murder and morality, set in China, Die Maßnahme. Wittfogel's review was published in Die Welt am Abend, on Dec. 22, 1930.