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Robert Steuckers explores German-American sociologist Karl August Wittfogel and his contributions to sociology and political thought, including his concept of hydraulic societies and the importance he placed on geography.

I have decided to discuss Karl August Wittfogel for three main reasons. Firstly, Wittfogel is a distinguished German-American sociologist who has introduced crucial concepts such as ‘oriental society’, ‘hydraulic society’, and ‘oriental despotism’. Secondly, we aim to rediscover and study Wittfogel due to his emergence from the dual cultural environment of the Wandervogel youth movement and the German communist movement, which led him to the famous Anti-Imperialist League. Finally, Wittfogel complements Marx in an original and fruitful way by highlighting important sources of Marx’s thought, such as Herder’s cultural relativism, Montesquieu’s thinking anchored in time, space, climate and ethnicity, and the geography of Carl Ritter, who is considered the father of modern cartography.

Wittfogel’s threefold corpus, comprising Herder’s cultural relativism, Montesquieu’s climate and geography, and Carl Ritter’s modern cartography, is infused with a rationalist touch characteristic of the French Enlightenment, which invokes the materialism of d’Holbach and Helvétius. Wittfogel’s central goal is to emphasise the historicity of all phenomena, thus freeing them from the constraints of fixed corpora that signify mental blockage and cause political stagnation leading to decline.

In this sense, Wittfogel sees Marxism, with its philosophical, political, and revolutionary options, as an instrument to ‘de-coincide’ phenomena, freeing them from overly rigid and narrow conceptual corsets that remove them from time. However, Wittfogel fails to recognise that Marxism itself had become dogmatic, particularly after social democracy was included in the German political landscape before 1914. Unlike the national revolutionaries who were disciples of Sorel, Wittfogel did not learn the lesson of Roberto Michels, a dissident socialist theorist who criticised the SPD’s transformation into a closed political oligarchy, and who sarcastically criticised the ‘arteriosclerosis’ and ‘gentrification’ of socialism.

A Real Interest in Geopolitics

Wittfogel also places great importance on geography in political thought, following in the footsteps of Montesquieu, who highlighted the significance of climate. He also references the soil as the foundation for specific agricultural production, which varies based on the location and the population that occupies it. Wittfogel takes into account ethnic and even racial factors, citing Hippolyte Taine, whose important role in the emergence and consolidation of the French ‘revolutionary Right’ has been studied by Zeev Sternhell. Wittfogel is also interested in the geopolitics of his time, quoting Richthofen, Kjellén, Ratzel, and Haushofer, among others. As a counterbalance to these ‘thinkers of space’, who are generally classified in the ‘revolutionary-conservative’ camp, he often mentions the American Ellen Semple and the Englishman J. F. Horrabin, both of whom have socialist leanings. Horrabin claims to be a disciple of the French anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus, as does Yves Lacoste, another current renovator of geopolitical thought, who draws inspiration from Reclus’s social geography.

There are compelling ‘scientific’ reasons why we should reconsider Wittfogel’s writings. But, in addition to these reasons, there are current ones that make it important to revisit the works of this former Wandervogel who had become a German communist.

Water Control and Hydraulic Societies

One of the themes that Wittfogel explores is the idea of ‘hydraulic societies’, which underscores the critical role of water management in political development. The mastery of water, including acquiring drinking water, irrigation for consistent crop production, and using waterways for transporting goods, has always been a defining feature of organised societies, regardless of their scale. However, it requires collective discipline, which can be coercive, and this can be seen as political authoritarianism, especially in the eyes of the young Wittfogel.

Wittfogel’s focus on the hydraulic societies of the past, including China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, demonstrates the significance of his ideas. However, Wittfogel does not limit himself to historical analysis; he boldly applies his theories to contemporary times. He draws parallels between the great empires of the past and the superpowers of his era, namely the United States and the Soviet Union. When Stalin rose to power, the USSR began major hydraulic projects such as canal digging and river linking, which allowed for the construction of waterways and the acquisition of superpower status. Although the Soviet era was characterised by coercion and authoritarianism, according to James Burnham, it was part of the ‘era of managers’ which was prevalent in the years following World War One in both the USSR and Western countries.

From 1920 to 1940, the United States underwent significant hydraulic development with major works implemented to control the Mississippi River. This necessitated a temporary suspension of the usual practices of classical political liberalism. The Republican opposition referred to Roosevelt’s ‘Caesarism’, which was the American version of the ‘era of managers’.

The Era of the Managers

National Socialist Germany attempted to realise the goals outlined in Frederick II of Prussia’s Political Testament written in 1752. Prussia had created economic coherence by connecting the Elbe, Spree, and Oder rivers with canals, providing access to a port on the North Sea (Hamburg) and another on the Baltic Sea (Stettin). The remaining task was to connect the Elbe to the Weser and the Weser to the Rhine. National Socialism, as the German expression of the ‘era of managers’, according to Burnham, undertook these projects, particularly through the use of the ‘compulsory labour service’ (Reichsarbeitsdienst). This made it possible to establish a link between Rotterdam or Antwerp (via the Albert Canal inaugurated in 1928) and Berlin, and then Frankfurt on the Oder, although it was still incomplete at the time. Despite the Third Reich’s defeat, the Dutch, Belgian, and West German authorities completed the project in the post-war period, with the Iron Curtain blocking this river synergy at the border on the Elbe, just as it had blocked the Danube artery in the south, between Austria and Hungary. The reunification of Germany in October 1990 restored communication and even allowed a projection towards the Vistula, thereby indirectly giving Poland an Atlantic façade without having to bypass the Danish archipelago.

The idea of connecting rivers and canals in Europe dates back to Charlemagne, who aimed to link the Main to the Danube. In the 18th century, Frederick II of Prussia noticed that the rivers in the Great North German Plain were parallel, causing communication routes to follow a south-north orientation, from the Alps to the North Sea or Baltic, with less developed east-west links, resulting in political division and a centrifugal logic in this space. To remedy this, Frederick II proposed digging canals linking the rivers together along an east-west axis in his Political Testament. Friedrich List, a 19th-century economist, was the main architect of this project, which he exported to the United States, France, and Belgium. List suggested several canal projects in France and Belgium, including the creation of a large-gauge waterway between Antwerp and Liège (the future Albert Canal, which was opened in 1928), the deepening of the Brussels-Antwerp link, and the opening of the Brussels-Charleroi Canal. Without such works, Belgium would not have been viable for more than two decades, suffering from the same handicap as the Prussian-administered North German Plain, where the configuration of its parallel rivers imposed a centrifugal logic.

After Germany’s reunification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl oversaw the completion of the Main-Danube link, which had been a thousand-year-old project of Charlemagne’s. The link opened up a waterway from the North Sea to the Black Sea and the oil-rich Caucasus.

Water Policy and the River Destiny of Nations

The implementation of a hydraulic policy was essential for German unification under Prussia and, today, for any form of European imperialism, particularly regarding the Rhine, the Main, and the Danube river systems. Such a policy must also be complemented by other large-scale communication projects, such as satellite systems, fast fleets of surface ships or hovercraft, high-speed trains, and more.

In the 1930s, German geopolitologists Hennig and Körholz emphasised the river destiny of major European nations. France and Russia were fortunate, with river basins arranged in a centripetal manner, while Germany’s political unification was hindered by parallel rivers that isolated valleys from each other and redirected cultural and commercial relations towards various directions.

Returning to Wittfogel and revisiting the concept of ‘hydropolitics’ is the second major reason, prompted by the global scarcity of drinking water. This scarcity has resulted in conflicts that are becoming increasingly severe. For instance, Turkey’s strategy of constructing dams in the Eastern Taurus region has impeded the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers downstream into Syria and Mesopotamia (including Iraq). By hoarding the water, the two Arab nations have weakened and become vulnerable to Turkey’s interests. A portion of this water is now sold to Israel, which is grappling with a chronic water shortage, endangering its long-term existence. Jewish immigrants lead a Western lifestyle that requires significant water consumption, while Arab-Palestinian masses, who are frugal in their consumption, have witnessed a significant decline in their reserves, causing increased distress and anxiety, leading to confrontations. The water struggle in the Middle East, an extremely volatile region, can potentially trigger conflicts.

Water in Tibet, Brazil and Congo

The Chinese government’s interest in maintaining control over Tibet can be attributed to the presence of the Tibetan Plateau, which serves as the source of the primary Chinese and Indochinese rivers that result from the melting of the Himalayan snow. These rivers include the Hoang Ho, Yangtze, Salouen, Mekong, and Tsang Po. Similarly, India’s two major rivers, the Indus and Ganges, also originate from the Himalayas. As China is a nation that relies heavily on hydraulic power, as we will soon discover, controlling the sources of these rivers in the Tibetan Plateau is a critical priority, even if it comes at the cost of the unique Tibetan culture. Brazil’s quest for control over the Amazon Basin has dictated the history of South America. This enormous nation’s emergence coincided with a dispute with neighbouring countries over the domination of the River Plata’s entire course. Zaire/Congo has the potential to become a hydraulic powerhouse due to the significant flow of its river, which is a valuable resource for humanity that future generations must safeguard.

Wittfogel: Wandervogel, Communism, Frankfurt School

Let us revisit the life of Wittfogel. Who is he? He was born in Lüneburg to a family of Protestant schoolteachers who valued culture and books. Wittfogel was exposed to a diverse range of educational reading from a young age. As a teenager, he was a cultured and rebellious individual who rejected the burdens of his time. Wittfogel’s cultural upbringing and rebellion led him to participate in the Wandervogel, a youth movement that began near Berlin in 1896 under the leadership of Karl Fischer. However, he did not share his companions’ patriotic enthusiasm in 1914 and did not enlist in the assault troops that were killed in Langemarck, West Flanders. Instead, Wittfogel gravitated towards pacifism and leftist social and political beliefs. In 1915, he enrolled in university and studied geography, sociology, philosophy, and Sinology at various universities. In 1916, 1917, and 1918, he became involved in political Marxism, but not the Social Democratic SPD, which he considered too moderate and compromised with the government. Instead, he joined the USPD, led by Rosa Luxemburg, and later the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). He closely followed the activities of Karl Radek, an agent of Lenin and the Comintern in Germany, and this affiliation led him to the well-known Anti-Imperialist League. The League advocated an alliance between China, the USSR, and Germany, as well as rebellious colonised peoples, including India and some Western rebel forces. Some figures, such as Niekisch and Jünger, classified by Armin Mohler as part of the Conservative Revolution, were also attracted to this League. Wittfogel also kept up with the work of the Frankfurt School since its inception in 1926 (Institut für Sozialforschung). When Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP came to power in 1933, Wittfogel emigrated to the United States.

How did Wittfogel’s ideas develop in both academic and political contexts? His thinking was primarily influenced by Karl Marx and Max Weber, whom he carefully studied and found to describe an opposition between the West and the East. The Western model, exemplified by Manchester, England, was contrasted with the Eastern model of development, exemplified by China. As a Sinologist, Wittfogel delved into Marxian and Weberian theories of the ‘Asian mode of production’. He concluded that China, ancient Egypt, and Mesopotamia were ‘despotic’ and ‘hydraulic’ to manage natural resources effectively. Initially, this Asian model served as a non-bourgeois ‘counter-model’ for him. Wittfogel, who could be seen as a ‘Maoist’ before the term was coined, aimed to introduce Europeans to the non-bourgeois and Eastern China.

Hydraulic Societies = Totalitarian Societies?

Wittfogel’s fascination with China eventually turned into criticism, as he became anti-Stalinist and viewed Stalin as an Asian despot. However, he did not write much about the major hydraulic works in Siberia and Central Asia carried out during the Stalinist era. In 1938, he published The Theory of Oriental Society in the United States, in which he equated hydraulic society with despotism and totalitarianism. This equation was reinforced a year later when Hitler and Stalin signed the German-Soviet pact. This thesis reflected Wittfogel’s anti-Hitler and anti-Stalinist feelings but was also somewhat propagandistic. He refined and republished the same work in 1957 under the title Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, after the end of the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the easing of the Cold War. After 1945, Wittfogel joined the American anti-communist movement, describing Stalin as an agent of ‘Asian restoration’ and presenting the US as a hydraulic but not despotic society, serving as a model for the world. This seemingly contradictory position raises the question of how a former left-wing German activist became an American anti-communist. Some speculate that he may have been recruited by certain intelligence agencies seeking individuals familiar with the Comintern, communist structures, and Soviet working methods in Asian countries.

Starting in 1953, Wittfogel shifted his focus to becoming a historian of river control in the United States. He held a professorship at Columbia University and later taught Chinese history in Washington from 1966 onwards. While his work during this time included valuable scientific advancements, it was not politically driven.

A Theory of Civilisation

Wittfogel’s work revolves around his theory of civilisation and the emergence of civilisations. Like Hobbes, he believed that politics, the state, the commonwealth, and the appeal to authority (which makes laws – auctoritas non veritas facit legem) are generated by fear. However, unlike Hobbes, Wittfogel believed that the fear that motivates men to create solid and lasting political structures is not the fear of external invasion but the panic and anguish caused by floods and droughts. Floods that drown crops and droughts that lead to famine awaken humans from their lethargy, forcing them to cooperate with others from different clans and accept the authority of those who can control rivers and channel water for irrigation or transport. This fear led to the birth of civilisational discipline and the acceptance of the figure of the ‘Great Adjudicator’. Ancient China, a hydraulic civilisation, invented the term shiu li, which means ‘water control’, and the birth of great states and empires almost always has a hydraulic motivation. According to ancient Chinese sages, chaos and civil war can arise if water does not flow in a regular and predictable rhythm. Wittfogel’s work contains interesting scientific insights but is not politically motivated.

Wittfogel’s philosophical and anthropological approach aligns with the views of Montesquieu and Carl Ritter. He delves into the interplay between humans and nature, as well as the reverse relationship between nature and humans. He believes that this study forms the foundation of genuine intellectual, political, and historical materialism, which is distinct from the interpretation of Marx by many of his followers. The field of geopolitics explores these interactions, which may explain why Wittfogel was the sole member of the Frankfurt School to engage with it. It remains unclear whether his rural upbringing or exposure to the Wandervogel and Ludwig Klages’ discourse at the Hoher Meißner summit in 1913, the seminal text of modern ecology, influenced his interest in materialist and Marxist geopolitics. In 1928, Wittfogel crystallised this fascination in a book titled Geopolitik, geographischer Materialismus und Marxismus (Geopolitics, geographical materialism, and Marxism).

The Example of the Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi Indians

Wittfogel raises a crucial anthropological question: how does irrigation, which serves as the foundation of states, empires, and civilisations, come into being? The initial step involves a pond for domestic animals to drink from. The clan that uses it must then safeguard its surroundings and maintain the ecosystem, possibly by digging channels to irrigate plantations. Wittfogel’s studies on the Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi Indians in the United States reveal how these Amerindian ethnic groups underwent Volkswerdung (‘the process of becoming a people’) by gaining control over the water in their territory. These studies reveal that dispersed groups learned to control the movement and stillness of water in their region, including springs and underground water reservoirs, on a localised level while maintaining a local character.

The clans in the Rio Grande del Norte basin join forces to form tribes, and these tribes eventually become distinct peoples. This progression is accompanied by the establishment of more sophisticated defensive measures against those who seek to disturb the irrigation system, cut off the water supply, or exploit the resources unfairly.

Irrigation Work and Drudgery

Wittfogel explains that China went through a similar development in its early history to that which the Amerindians of the Rio Grande del Norte basin experienced, as observed by ethnologists. Initially, China was a scattered patchwork of tribes, villages, and independent clans, which sometimes reverted to this state during periods of provincial or local warlord rule. The unification of these Chinese micro-entities was achieved through the expertise of a technical elite who managed the great rivers. Wittfogel, who was both a libertarian and an anti-communist, saw negative aspects to the emergence of this elite, as it involved coercively mobilising all available resources for large hydraulic projects. This led to the gathering of large numbers of labourers, resulting in poor living conditions and rampant disease outbreaks, such as a worm infestation that affected 90% of the Chinese populace. Wittfogel’s criticism of labour mobilisation was inspired by his study of Julien Barois, a French sociologist from the 19th century who specialised in the history of forced labour.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Wittfogel was a supporter of communism, he viewed the mobilisation of labour as having positive aspects because it led to advancements in various sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and geography. Yves Lacoste discusses this in his book on the early cartographers of the Chinese imperial armies. Wittfogel also delves into the mythological aspects of water control, examining the deities associated with bodies of water, such as Osiris and Hapi in Egypt, Ninurta in Mesopotamia, and the Ganges in India. China and Europe differ significantly in terms of their water resources and rivers. Unlike China, Europe has a surplus of water and calm rivers, resulting in less authoritarian forms of hydraulic-based governance. In fact, regions that have ready access to water, such as Switzerland, often establish highly effective democratic systems.

Chinese Civilisation – Civilisation of Great Works

Let us return to the forced labour system and the ideas presented by Julien Barois, which Wittfogel further developed. Initially, the forced labour system was imposed for irrigation works, followed by dams, roads, fortifications (such as the Great Wall of China), and ultimately, for prestigious buildings like pyramids and ziggurats. China began digging its first canals as early as 581 BC. The emergence and sustenance of ancient Chinese civilisation were due to the mastery over the Yellow River (Huang Ho), or rather the struggle against its unpredictable and catastrophic floods that have claimed millions of lives.

Wittfogel’s research into Chinese civilisation, which was centred on great hydraulic works, prompted him to consider whether China was inherently despotic or not. Wittfogel’s response is nuanced, although the communist Wittfogel of the 1920s (who had not yet developed a critical view of totalitarianism) tended to answer ‘no’, while the later anti-totalitarian, anti-Nazi, and anti-communist Wittfogel would lean towards answering ‘yes’ and regarding this ‘hydraulic’ China as the model for future coercive political systems. However, in Chinese philosophy, there is a contrast between Confucianism, which stresses strict discipline, and Taoism, which (as described in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching) argues that rulers should be adaptable and subtle, like water. Wittfogel suggests that the existence of Taoism in China makes it less centralised and hence less despotic than state entities such as Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The Work of the Tennessee Valley Authority

During the 1930s, when oversimplifications were prevalent, one could easily have presented a propagandistic binary, based on Wittfogel’s research, by equating hydraulic societies with totalitarian societies, and non-hydraulic societies with democratic and liberal ones. However, after Wittfogel arrived in the United States, where he had been exiled, he noticed that a major hydraulic project was being carried out there, under the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Despite being a champion of the liberal democratic ideal, the United States was also a water power. Prior to this, the United States had been an incomplete power, only becoming bi-oceanic by the mid-19th century. Transcontinental railways had consumed vast fortunes with mixed results, and before World War One, the United States was heavily indebted and showing signs of decline. After 1918, European states, particularly France and England, became its debtors. The need for better organisation of the American territory became apparent, and the Mississippi River Basin had to be developed. A significant portion of the profits from the First World War was used for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s water project.

Between 1920 and 1940, the United States experienced significant development, although the principles of pure democratic liberalism were somewhat weakened. Burnham described this period as the ‘era of managers’, where policymakers’ decision-making overshadowed parliamentary discussions from the classical liberal era. This was observed not only in Europe, where Fascism and National Socialism rose, and in the USSR with Stalinist planning, but also in the US. During this time, Lawrence Dennis advocated for a continental, pan-American isolationism that aimed to organise the continent according to an authoritarian logic. Unlike Roosevelt, Dennis aimed for continental autarky without war or interventions outside the American space. Roosevelt’s opponents criticised his ‘Rooseveltian Caesarism’, which only partially achieved its goal of completely reorganising the territory. Unlike in Western Europe and the USSR, where classical liberal traditions were swept away, American liberal institutions were more robust, preventing absolute despotism like Stalin’s or a dictatorship like Hitler’s. To fund the macro-projects, Roosevelt initiated an ‘economic injection’ and prepared for wars against Germany and Japan. The primary domestic objective of these wars was to obtain funds for the definitive irrigation of the Midwest and West.

North American Irrigation Makes the United States the Breadbasket of the World

Roosevelt’s opponents argued that American democracy was not truly democratic, as it silenced populist opposition and brought Congress and the Supreme Court in line with the President. During Roosevelt’s presidency, a ‘mega-machine’ emerged, characterised by a collusion between power and large industrial trusts. This was denounced by Lewis Mumford in the US and later in Europe by the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro, who was also an ecologist.

However, the departures from the traditional functioning of American democracy allowed for the implementation of large-scale construction projects that were necessary for the consolidation of the national base. This was an essential prerequisite for the United States to pursue its globalist policies, as it was referred to in Roosevelt’s time, and as it is still called today. Through irrigation projects, particularly in the Mississippi Basin, and the construction of dams in the West, the United States became the breadbasket of the world, thus establishing its domination over Europe, the former USSR, and Africa, where devastating famines are still prevalent. Eagleburger’s statement, ‘Food is the best weapon in our arsenal’, resonates with me as it captures the significance of food in the geopolitical strategy of the US. The ongoing Euro-American disputes over agricultural policies are rooted in the US’s determination to maintain its leadership in this area at all costs and limit Europe’s food autonomy as much as possible. The soybean war, the mad cow crisis, the pasta quarrel, the imposition of standards, and the attempt to flood Europe with immigrants who consume its reserves are all facets of the Euro-American conflict that began with Roosevelt, escalated during the Second World War, and is far from being resolved.

The United States, referred to by Carl Schmitt as the ‘delayers of history’, is well aware of the significance of controlling waterways and actively seeks to impede, hinder or sabotage the efforts of other countries to control them. This is evident in the manipulation of French environmentalists and ‘sovereignists’ with social-democratic or neo-Gaullist leanings, aimed at slowing down the connection between the Rhine, Rhône and Danube basins. We have also witnessed the bombing of the Danube bridges in Belgrade and Novi Sad under the pretext of punishing Milošević, leaving us feeling powerless and overwhelmed by media speeches that echo CNN and the Pentagon’s diversionary tactics. As the saying goes, ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’


Gary L. Ulmen, The Science of Society: Toward an Understanding of the Life and Work of Karl August Wittfogel, The Hague/Paris/New York: Mouton Publishers, 1978.

Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1981 (reprint of the first edition of 1957).

Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1985 (pp. 19-61).

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Translated by Constantin von Hoffmeister

Robert Steuckers

Robert Steuckers was born in Uccle in January 1956. After secondary school in the Latin-Sciences option (1967–1974), he studied German and English at university and at the College of Translators and Interpreters between 1974 and 1980. He did his military service in the Belgian army from 1982 to 1983 and then opened a translation office in Brussels (1983–2003) before taking up several teaching posts (2003–2021) and finally retiring.

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