Whither the Orient, Whither Mankind: Oriental Despotism and Cold War Chinese Studies

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Matthew Linton, Brandeis University
In Oriental Despotism (1957), German-American sinologist Karl August Wittfogel explains why communism took root in China. Wittfogel used an interdisciplinary social scientific approach in the mold of Karl Marx and Max Weber to show how building and maintaining elaborate water-control systems created an authoritarian social foundation upon which the political superstructure was laid. China was not unique: the development of “hydraulic societies” explained the rise of totalitarianism elsewhere and provided a model for diagnosing potential totalitarian states before they could establish total control. Americans faced a stark choice: the freedom of liberal democracy or totalitarian slavery.

Oriental Despotism is a quintessentially Cold War document. It integrated Chinese historical development into a story of global violence as illustrated by World War II, the Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. This paper uses drafts of Oriental Despotism to trace how Wittfogel’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, liminal status as a political refugee in the United States, break with communism, and involvement with McCarthyism shaped his understanding of universal global history and international crisis. Wittfogel’s anti-communism made him a prophet on the Right but testifying to Congress against fellow China specialists made him a pariah in the China field. The tie to McCarthyism limited Oriental Despotism’s audience and still casts a shadow over its re-evaluation.

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