Karl August Wittfogel

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Karl August Wittfogel (6 September 1896 - 25 May 1988). Wittfogel was a German sociologist, historian and sinologist. In 1918 he joined the Independent Socialists (USPD) and from 1920 he was an active member of the German Communist party (KPD). From 1925 to 1933 he was a member of the marxist Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt am Main, the Frankfurt School. From 1934 to 1939 he rejoined the Horkheimer group in New York.[1]

After being interned in a concentration camp by the Nazis (1933), Wittfogel and his second wife Olga Lang moved to England and then the United States, where he again was part of the Frankfurt School at Columbia University. With sociologist Olga Lang he visited China twice to conduct sociological fieldwork in the late 1930s. Wittfogel held academic positions at Columbia University and at the University of Washington (1947-1966). In 1940 he married anthropologist Esther Schiff Goldfrank and became a naturalized citizen in 1941.

Wittfogel 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.

His research on the relationship between the managerial demands of irrigation agriculture and the development of bureaucratic totalitarianism, outlined in his book, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957), profoundly shaped anthropological theories of the origins of complex societies and the state.


  1. Wittfogel was a communist when he and his first wife joined the then marxist Frankfurt Institute, the Max Horkheimer dominated Institute (from 1929) marginalized the hard-core communists. The glory of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's philosophical Frankfurter School, which dominated large parts of left-wing Continental Philosophy and can even be traced through Deconstructionism was very alien to its early members K. A. Wittfogel, Hendryk Grossmann, Julian Gumperz, Paul Massing or even Pollock. [1]