Karl Wittfogel is best known for his "hydraulic hypothesis": he thought that the development of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and Pre-columbian societies had been blocked because of the need to irrigate vast surfaces for agriculture. Water control and distribution had spawned authoritarian centralized empires and sprawling bureaucracies, both deeply hostile to change. Western Europe was free of such limitations and thus could rise, alone. A short introduction and comment.
Karl A. Wittfogel was born on 06 September 1896 in Woltersdorf (Germany). In 1917, he entered the German Army. In 1918, he joined the socialist party. In 1920-1921, he became a high school teacher in Tinz. In 1920, Wittfogel joined the communist party. In 1921, he concluded his first marriage.
In the twenties, Wittfogel wrote several communist essays and novels. Between 1925 and 1933, he worked as a research associate at the Institute for social research of University of Frankfurt. In 1926 he published his first analysis of Chinese political structure. In 1928 he obtained a PhD in economics from University of Frankurt. In 1931, he published a second book about the historical evolution of China.
From 1931 on, Wittfogel abandoned his scholarly work to devote himself entirely to his communist anti-hitlerian activism. In 1933, he concluded a second marriage. After the national-socialists took power, Wittfogel attempted to escape Germany but was arrested and sent to concentration camps. After nine months of forced labour, he lay sick with rheumatism and was released. Two weeks later, he fled to England with his wife.
The same year, Wittfogel moved to the United States. From 1934 on, he worked at Columbia University in New York. In 1935-39, he regularly travelled to China to pursue his research. From 1939 to 1968 he directed the "Chinese History Project" sponsored by several American universities. In 1940, he celebrated his third marriage. Although a communist believer, he had not lost his independent thinking. Following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in 1939, Wittfogel broke with the communist party. In the afterwar time, he became an outspoken opponent of the Russian and Chinese communist empires.
From 1947 to 1966, Wittfogel was professor for Chinese history at University of Washington in Seattle, during which time he published his Oriental Despotism (1957). After his retirement, he remained professor emeritus in Seattle. He died in New York, on 25 May 1988.
Other biographical material (first and
Works related to the European miracle:
(1) 1926: Das erwachende China: Ein Abriss der Geschichte der gegenwartigen Probleme Chinas
(2) 1929 Geopolitik, geographisches Materialismus und Marxismus.
English version in 1985: Geopolitics, Geographical Materialism, and Marxism.
(2) 1931: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas: Versuch der wissenschaftlichen Analyse einer grossen asiatischen Agrargesellschaft.
(3) 1957: Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press.
A fine introduction to Oriental Despotism (in German).
A good Wittfogel-related link on the web where I found the biographical information above is the one of the Hoover Institution Archives.
Some nice Wittfogel pages can be found at the
Luneburg School site, the high school attended by Wittfogel in his youth.
My personal and subjective view of Wittfogel's hypothese
Wittfogel was right but for the wrong reasons, in the case of China. He correctly identified the centralized and bureaucratic empire as the one blocking element for Chinese science, technology and economic development. But the empire cannot be attributed to the need of irrigation. In fact, water management in China was mostly small-scale and local. The deadly coming back of the despotic empire in China should
rather be linked to the compactness of the Chinese landmass
(see Le Secret de l'Occident). Similarly, Wittfogel's hydraulic theory does not explain the chronic backwardness of Eastern Europe, very similar to Western Europe in its non-irrigated agriculture. The model fails as well in explaining the fall, rise and fall of Ancient Greece, let alone the fall of the West in the first millenium.
If his hydraulic hypothesis must be rejected, Wittfogel's other ideas were quite to the point, however. The scholar was right in pointing the causes of the backwardness of Latin America and Russia to big landowners and authoritarian governments and to the failure of the merchant class. He did not however identify the causes for these unfortunate situations.
Wittfogel also had a point in considering, in the 50s, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China as the greatest threats to mankind's further development. These two states were the examples he actually had in mind when writing about "Asian despotism", and how it could be vanquished. That may be the reason why his book had so much success in the United States, back in 1957, the Sputnik year.