Karl August Wittfogel

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Lajos Tihanyi : Karl Wittfogel (1926)

Karl August Wittfogel (born September 6, 1896 in Woltersdorf , today Lüchow-Dannenberg district , † May 25, 1988 in New York , USA ) was a German sociologist and sinologist . He received US citizenship in 1941 .

Some of his most important books are the PhD thesis Economics and Society of China (1931) and the History of Chinese Society, co-authored with Feng Chia-sheng , Liao (1947), the result of the Chinese History Project . His main work is Oriental Despotism (1957), translated The oriental despotism . Wittfogel's work on China is based on Max Weber and Karl Marx .


Karl August Wittfogel was the son of a teacher. He visited the Johanneum Lüneburg . After graduating from high school in 1914, he studied philosophy, history, sociology, and geography in Leipzig , Munich , Berlin and Rostock . In 1917 he was called up for military service as a telecommunications operator. In 1921 he began studying Sinology in Leipzig with August Conrady and Eduard Erkes .

Before the war he was active in the youth movement Wandervogel . In 1918 he joined the USPD and in 1920, after the unification of the USPD majority and KPD , the VKPD . After the war he was one of the leaders of the German student movement alongside Hans Reichenbach .

Wittfogel had his first literary success as a playwright, with youthful, revolutionary pieces that were published by Malik-Verlag . The cripple was part of the opening program of Erwin Piscator's Berlin Proletarian Theater in 1920 . For a short time in 1925 he was the cultural editor of the Rote Fahne and later a member of the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers , for whose left-hand curve he wrote essays on aesthetics. In a very critical review in 1932 in February 1932, the novel by Hans Fallada Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben called a "fascist peasant novel ". Kurt Tucholsky , on the other hand, rated the book Falladas in his 1931 review as “a political textbook on Fauna Germanica that could not be better”.

In March 1922 Wittfogel presented a socialist criticism of the existing science to a congress of socialist and communist students, which he then gave under the title The Science of Civil Society. A Marxist study published. Then in the summer of 1922 he wrote a series of articles about the beginnings of human society for Die Junge Garde , which he published in an expanded version as a brochure under the title From Primitive Communism to the Proletarian Revolution. First part: Original communism and feudalism published with the help of Béla Fogarasi . The subsequent series of articles formed the core framework for the book History of Civil Society , which was completed in midsummer 1923 and published in autumn 1924.

He had met Karl Korsch in 1920 as a teacher at the Tinz folk high school. He married Rose Schlesinger in 1921. In Berlin in the summer of 1922, Felix Weil explained to them the plan to found a Frankfurt Institute for Social Research . While Rose organized the social science library for this at the beginning of 1923, Wittfogel himself received house rights in it. As a participant in the Marxist working week at Pentecost 1923, he got to know Georg Lukacs and Korsch's views better.

Wittfogel wrote his first paper on China as a member of the Frankfurt Institute. China Awakening (1926) is about the power struggle between Sun Yatsen and Yuan Shikai , but it went far back into China's economic and social history. The essays Problems of Chinese Economic History and Requirements and Basic Elements of Chinese Agriculture emerged. In 1930 Wittfogel received his doctorate in Frankfurt for his extensive work on China's Economy and Society . During this time he also dealt intensively with the political geography of Karl Haushofer ( geopolitics ) and with the planned economy in the Soviet Union. Wittfogel took part in 1931 meetings of the working group planned economy (Arplan) of Friedrich Lenz and Arvid Harnack .

During this time he stayed at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The thesis of a particular Asian mode of production, which Wittfogel was particularly interested in as a Marxist, met with bitter resistance at the Leningrad Conference in 1931. While Wittfogel was able to speak openly with ES Varga and David Rjasanow in 1928 about the Asian production method, he now had to experience that the term was taboo. Feudalism was now considered to be the appropriate term for this. Wittfogel taught at the International Agricultural Institute in the early 1930s and was able to visit China in 1932 with the support of the MASCH ( Marxist Workers' School ).

In contrast to almost all other members of the Frankfurt School , Wittfogel was arrested in 1933 (on the Swiss border) and taken to a concentration camp in the Emsland . The Russian journalist Olga Joffe (* 1897 in Jekaterinoslaw ; † 1992), his second wife, managed with the help of Friedrich Hielscher , Karl Haushofer and Richard Henry Tawney that he was able to emigrate to England in 1934 and finally to the USA. Wittfogel gradually broke with the KPD . His scientific theses on the Asian mode of production had met with violent, politically justified opposition in Moscow in 1931, Karl Radek explained to the convinced party communist in 1933 (also in Moscow) that the German workers would just have to take Hitler for a few years. The Hitler-Stalin pact was a severe blow, but Wittfogel remained active in communist structures until after the end of the Second World War.

Wittfogel and Olga Lang were able to conduct research in the Republic of China from 1935–37 with the support of the International Institute of Social Research . Three major research areas were named: The Chinese Family Project , The Chinese Bureaucracy Project and The Chinese Dynastic Histories Project . From the latter project, the Chinese History Project arose , which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and, like the Frankfurt Institute in exile , was located at Columbia University . In 1947, the CHP's first research result was the History of Chinese Society, Liao . The Rockefeller Foundation stopped funding in 1949, and employees left the project after the triumph of the communists in China.

Wittfogel was brought to his Far Eastern and Russian Institute in Seattle , Washington on the Pacific Northwest coast in 1947 by George E. Taylor as a professor of Chinese history . Hellmut Wilhelm also taught there . Wittfogel stayed at the University of Washington until his retirement in 1966 . He then lived in New York with his wife Esther Goldfrank , an anthropologist and Boas student .

During the Cold War , Wittfogel was a staunch anti-communist . During the McCarthy era in August 1951 he denounced the Canadian UN chief delegate and ambassador Egerton Herbert Norman as a communist before the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security ( McCarran Committee) . Norman denied everything, but he remained a suspect and a new subpoena before the Senate Homeland Security Committee drove him to his death in 1957. Fearing he might betray comrades, Norman committed suicide in Cairo. “ Norman's suicide,The New York Times commented at the time, “ has shamed the American government and its members. “Norman was a member of the English party, however. Wittfogel later regretted his actions deeply. For the intellectual left and of course for Western sympathizers of Maoism and Stalinism, it had become untouchable .


With his work on the relations of production and rule in the Middle East, Wittfogel attempted on the one hand to continue the analytical approaches of Karl Marx and Max Weber and on the other hand to provide a basis for explaining and criticizing the political history of the Soviet Union ( Stalinism ) and the People's Republic of China .

In the book History of Civil Society (1924) Wittfogel not only wants to show the development of society, but also to show that society will inevitably move towards an inner Marxism . This work was actually planned in three volumes, the first volume Urkommunismus und Feudalismus (1922), which deals with Urkommunismus and forms of feudalism , was also published as a small, independent publication. In the second volume, Wittfogel turns to political economy , which he analyzes fundamentally in a Marxist way . A third volume on modern high capitalism was actually planned, but it never appeared.

In his book Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas (1931) Wittfogel developed the theory of the hydraulic society . In short, his theory says: The regulation and distribution of the unfavorably distributed water resources has been a challenge for people for thousands of years. Up until the 18th century, China was far superior to the West in building levees , transport canals and irrigation systems . These tasks required the centrally controlled implementation of such large-scale projects and the preservation of the hydraulic structures, as well as the bureaucratic organization that was dependent on this, with massive forced recruitment of workers.

Wittfogel opposed (in his post-Marxist creative phase) the monolinear, deterministic historical model of Marxism (which developed in a certain direction with a quasi-natural law necessity) with the concept of a multiline historical development in which the moment of freedom and the responsibility of the individual play a decisive role play.

In the middle of the Cold War Wittfogel published his main work , Oriental Despotism (Eng. Die orientalische Despotie - A comparative study of total power , Cologne, Berlin 1962). Wittfogel, who had firsthand experience of the brutal violence of totalitarian dictatorship in German concentration camps, saw his work as a scientific contribution to the ideological struggle against Soviet communism. In the Bolshevism of the Soviet Union , Wittfogel saw the modern successor to tsarist despotism. Russia had been Asianized by the centuries of Mongol rule and had adapted the despotic structures that arose in East Asia. Lenin only continued the history of despotic expropriation and oppression in a fateful way.

Wittfogel postulates that the old oriental autocracies, which developed on the basis of artificial irrigation systems on the great rivers of the Euphrates , Yangtze , Indus and Nile and are now regarded as the cradles of civilization of mankind , belong to a certain type of society and rule, the hydraulic Society . It formed the material basis of the constant Asiatic or Oriental despotism, a system of rule that could later spread to areas without artificial irrigation systems, such as Russia. The power structure of this system was said to have remained almost unchanged in the cultures of the Orient for thousands of years and is to be found in various geographical areas of Asia to this day.

The type of oriental despotism is centralism in societies whose (agricultural) economic basis is oversized irrigation systems that cannot be established and controlled by local communities but only by the central authority. Wittfogel writes: The more intensive the work process becomes on the irrigation side, the more the area of ​​land required for the reproduction of the immediate producers shrinks and the less profitable the use of workhorses and developed tools.

This intensification explains why very productive arable farming is possible in irrigated areas , but this is dependent on irrigation systems and requires the construction of gigantic irrigation systems and, today, above all of dams. According to Wittfogel, this requires the organizational strength of a bureaucratic central state with an autocratic ruler who alone has the power and the resources to direct large armies of workers.

Wittfogel, who conceived this ideal type based on China, following Max Weber, who had also defined the type sultanist rule in the Chinese Empire in his rule typology , describes the oriental despotism as an autocratic system. The emperor, supported by a hierarchically organized bureaucracy , exercised total rule. He could use repression and terror as instruments of rule with impunity, because there were no effective constitutional barriers or social counterweights (as was the case with the feudal aristocracy in Europe ) to limit his autocratic power. The despot reinforces and solidifies his position by subordinating religion to the state. Religious and state authority become one. This systemic concentration of power implies the danger of the degeneration of absolutism into tyranny .

The theory of hydraulic despotism was rejected by specialist historians, such as Joseph Needham , the world-renowned communist historian of China. The universal historian Arnold J. Toynbee accused Wittfogel of using the propaganda of “good Europe” and “bad Asia” invented by Greek historians in antiquity . Wittfogel's weakness lies primarily in the fact that he does not succeed in adequately describing all the great oriental empires of the past. The French communist historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet and the left-wing social historian Barrington Moore from the Harvard Russian Research Center criticized Wittfogel fairly and did not dismiss him in a fluff.

Wittfogel's theory can certainly not be the comprehensive explanatory model that Wittfogel believed he had all his life. But Marxists in particular could with a clear conscience accuse him neither of attempting a universal explanation nor of Marx's concept of Asiatic despotism. The "oriental despotism" should be designed against Leninism and Stalinism as a propaganda weapon against totalitarian Marxism-Leninism and the ideologically ruled states of the Soviet Union and China.

Wittfogel's theory had academic influence in anthropology, thanks in part to his wife Esther Schiff Goldfrank . Mesoamerica and Peru were examined in seminars on hydraulic despotism. The well-known anthropologist Julian Steward and his Marxist students like Eric Wolf or Sidney Mintz found themselves confirmed by Wittfogel, Steward's initial enthusiasm waned over time.

Later on, Samuel P. Huntington explicitly referred to Wittfogel in his work Clash of Cultures .

The State class theory of Hartmut Elsenhans recognizes the power Wittfogel.


  • From early communism to the proletarian revolution. A sketch of the development of human society . Verlag Junge Garde, Berlin 1922.
  • The man who has an idea. Erotic drama in four acts. (= Collection of revolutionary stage works. VII). Malik, Berlin 1922.
  • Who is the dumbest A question of fate. In a prelude and four acts. (= Collection of revolutionary stage works. 8). Malik, Berlin 1923.
  • History of civil society. From its beginnings to the threshold of the great revolution, Malik Verlag, Berlin 1924 (Reprint Neuer ISP-Verlag, Cologne 1980, ISBN 978-3-929008-18-0 ).
  • The skyscraper. American sketch . Malik Verlag, Berlin 1924.
  • China awakening. An outline of the history and current problems of China . Agis-Verlag, Vienna 1926.
  • as Ed .: Sun Yat-sen . Records of a Chinese Revolutionary. Ed. U. a. through a representation of the development of Sun Yat Sens and Sun Yat Senism by KA Wittfogel. (Translated into German by G. Iversen) Agis-Verlag, Vienna / Berlin 1927.
  • China's economy and society. An attempt at the scientific analysis of a large Asian agricultural society. 1st part: Productive forces, production and circulation process. CL Hirschfeld, Leipzig 1931.
  • Mao Tse-tung . Liberator or destroyer of the Chinese peasants? Free Trade Union Committee, American Federation of Labor, New York [1955].
  • Oriental despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power . Yale University Press, New Haven 1957 (6th edition. 1967 digitized version) (German edition: Die orientalische Despotie. A comparative study of total power , Ullstein, Frankfurt a. M. 1981, ISBN 3-548-35148-4 )
  • The natural causes of economic history. Prolit-Buchvertrieb, Giessen 1970, [Nachdr. d. Edition] Tübingen 1932.


  • Mathias Greffrath : The hydraulic society and the specter of the Asian restoration. Conversation with KA Wittfogel . In: The Destruction of a Future. Talks with emigrated social scientists . Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 1979.
  • Stefan Breuer : Literature comparison and criticism of Wittfogel's thesis of a "hydraulic despotism", according to which the early oriental empires based their power primarily on water regulation technology . In: Max Weber's sociology of domination . Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 110 f .
  • GL Ulmen (Ed.): Society and History, Essays in Honor of Karl August Wittfogel . The Hague 1978.
  • GL Ulmen (Ed.): The Science of Society, Toward an Understanding of the Life and Work of Karl August Wittfogel . The Hague 1978.
  • Rolf Mainz: The Thinites: An ancient Egyptian time of conquest and Karl August Wittfogel's theory of oriental despotism . Münster / Hamburg 1993.
  • Reinhart Kössler : Karl August Wittfogel (1896–1988). Oriental despotism and multi-line development . In: Journal for Development Policy . No. 21 , 2005.
  • Udo Witzens : Critique of Karl A. Wittfogel's theses on oriental despotism . Karlsruhe 2000 ( uni-heidelberg.de ).
  • Wittfogel, Karl August . In: Hermann Weber , Andreas Herbst : German Communists. Biographical Handbook 1918 to 1945. 2., revised. and strong exp. Edition. Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-320-02130-6 .

Web links

Commons : Karl August Wittfogel  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


Individual evidence

  1. ^ Enrollment of Karl August Wittfogel in the Rostock matriculation portal
  2. ^ Reprint of the left curve 1932. (Linkskurve4), Materialismus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1978
  3. Die Weltbühne March 7, 1931, No. 14, p. 496.
  4. ^ Karl A. Wittfogel: A new introduction to the history of civil society . (New York, November 1976). In: Karl A. Wittfogel: History of the civil society. From its beginnings to the threshold of the great revolution . SOAK-Verlag Hannover 1977, ISBN 3-88209-003-0 . (Reprint of the edition published by Malik Verlag Vienna in 1924).
  5. The communist Paul Massing was also in the concentration camp.
  6. Wittfogel met the Russian journalist and correspondent for the Soviet trade union newspaper Trud in 1929; they married in 1933. Olga Joffe conducted research on the Chinese family in China with Wittfogel from 1935–37. The material was published by her in 1946 with the help of the Amasa Stone Mather Memorial Publication Fund :
    • Olga Lang: Chinese Family and Society. Yale University Press, 1946 Several editions a. Editions, French and Japanese translations.
    • Her Ph. D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1962: The Writer Pa Chin and His Times. Chinese Youth of the Transitional Period .
    • Olga Lang: Pa Chin and His Writings. Chinese Youth Between the Two Revolutions. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1967 ( Harvard East-Asia Studies ).
    • Olga Lang: The Chinese youth during the May 4th Movement. Ba Jin's novel trilogy "Raging Current". In: Modern Literature. Pp. 328-346.
    • Olga Lang: Foreword. to: Ba Jin: The Family. Anchor Books, 1972. (English) ( Memento of the original from January 25, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / raforum.info
  7. His old friend Bertolt Brecht acknowledged Wittfogel's new prestige with spiteful diary notes about his third wife (marriage in 1940), Esther Goldfrank-Schiff. Brecht probably suspected Wittfogel of trying to get healthy with Jewish assets .
  8. ^ W. van Reijen , G. Schmid Noerr (ed.): Grand Hotel Abgrund. Junius, Hamburg 1990, p. 152.
  9. Udo Witzens: Critique of Karl A. Wittfogel's theses on hydraulic despotism with special consideration of the historical Sinhalese Theravāda Buddhism . Dissertation, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, 2000, p. 27 (pdf)
  10. His student Lawrence Krader , who was given a professorship in Berlin with purely Wittfogel's research approaches (via Karl Marx Ethnological Excerpts ), never forgave him. The theses of Wittfogel received an extremely fair review by Pierre Vidal-Naquet. But Barrington Moore, George Lichtheim and above all Rudi Dutschke also critically appreciated Wittfogel's work. It was only after 1989 that Rudolf Bahro admitted in the epilogue to the alternative to real existing socialism that he had deliberately concealed Wittfogel's previous knowledge in the 1970s.