Karl A. Wittfogel and His Provocative Theory of Oriental Despotismfootnote 1

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Karl A. Wittfogel (1896-1988) was one of the brilliant scholars recruited by George E. Taylor (see George E. Taylor: The Northwest's Expert on Asia and International Trade) during the 1940s and 1950s to teach at the UW's Far Eastern and Russian Institute, now known as The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. There, he was surrounded by such luminaries as Franz Michael, Hellmut Wilhelm (see Hellmut Wilhelm and the I Ching), Nikolai Poppe, Hsiao Kung-ch'an (see K. C. Hsiao: World Authority on Chinese Political Thought), and Li Fang-kuei.

In that environment, Wittfogel produced his magnum opus Oriental Despotism (1957), which was heralded at the time as "a watershed in political theory and social thought," by the Saturday Review and "a major contribution to the understanding of human history" by The New York Times.

Karl Wittfogel's scholarly interest in China began with his studies at Leipzig University in 1914 with sinologists A. Conrady and later, with Richard Wilhelm and Eduard Erkes. Political events in Germany led Wittfogel to join the German Communist Party in 1920. Throughout this period, he continued his studies in history, economics, and psychology at several German universities. At the same time, Wittfogel wrote a number of plays expressing his youthful revolutionary idealism, which were produced internationally, including Rote Soldaten (Red Soldiers), Der Mann der eine Idee hat (The Man Who Has an Idea), Die Mutter, Der Fluchtling (The Mother, The Refugee), and Wer ist der Dummste? (Who is the Biggest Fool?).

By the late 1920s, Wittfogel's fame as a playwright led to an invitation to become the dramatic producer of the revolutionary Volksbuhn (People's Stage) in Berlin. Immersed in his own research, Wittfogel declined the offer. He was beginning to solidify his own theories--derived from Marx, Engels, and Weber--of the fundamental characteristics of all Oriental societies. Wittfogel theorized that control of the water supply for irrigation was the basis of the Asiatic mode of production and of a powerful, exploitative bureaucracy--a theory that came to be known as "hydraulic monopoly."

In 1924, Wittfogel joined the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, where he wrote his first book on China, China Awakening (Das erwachende China). That work put into print his theories on the significance of water control in Asian agriculture, pointing out how such control led to the establishment of a "hydraulic bureaucracy" as the ruling class. These were themes that Wittfogel would continue to explore and elaborate over the next thirty years.

Arrested in 1933 by the Nazis for his socialist and communist sympathies, Wittfogel inexplicably was released from prison after eight months, and fled Germany for London in 1934. While in London, Wittfogel secured support from the International Institute of Social Research at Columbia University to undertake three massive research projects: The Chinese Family Project, The Chinese Bureaucracy Project, and The Chinese Dynastic Histories Project. Though never completed, the latter two would be the training ground for a generation of students, researchers, and teachers of Chinese history. Out of the Dynastic Histories Project also came Wittfogel's exhaustive and seminal work, coauthored with Feng Chia-sheng, on the conquest dynasty of the Liao (907-1125).

Wittfogel joined the UW's Far Eastern and Russian Institute in 1947, bringing with him an array of research projects and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. While teaching at the UW, he was able to finish his most important volume, Oriental Despotism, a provocative work, both dazzling and passionate, which attempted for non-Western societies what Marx and Engels had done for Europe. The result stirred controversy for years.

As George Taylor noted, Wittfogel "took Marxism as a starting point, not as a sacred text, and applied it to non-Western societies. Almost single-handedly he tried to universalize what he considered to be the scientific method of Marxism. He challenged it to expand theoretically." footnote 2 In so doing, Wittfogel firmly established himself as one of the truly original Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century.

  1. Assistance provided by Felicia Hecker and Jere Bacharach, Director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, is greatly appreciated.
  2. "Karl A. Wittfogel," George Taylor, International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, 18 (London: Collier, 1979), p. 812.

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