Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2012

The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Korea,racism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Karl Wittfogel

What follows is page 94-99 in Bruce Cuming’s brilliant “The Korean War: a history”, published in 2010. The book is not just a history of the war. It is a deeply insightful study of the politics and culture of the early 1950s, when the Korean War was raging. I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough. This passage that deals with a side of Karl Wittfogel that was unknown to me gives you an idea of the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to put “orientalism” on trial even when the viewpoint was that of a noted Marxist scholar like Wittfogel as well as Leon Trotsky.


The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel, who had a strange trajectory out of the same milieu as Bertolt Brecht: he was the leading ideologue of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, and the leading proponent of Karl Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic Mode of Production.” Stalin purged him for reasons that are not entirely clear, and Wittfogel came to the United States and established himself as a scholar with his magnum opus, Oriental: Despotism. Marx’s theory appraised Asia by reference to what it lacked when set against the standard-issue European model of development: feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, capitalism. A brutal satrap presided over a semiarid environment, running armies of bureaucrats and soldiers, regulating the paths of great rivers, and employing vast amounts of slave labor in gigantic public works projects (such as China’s Great Wall). The despot above and the cringing mass below prevented the emergence of anything resembling a modern middle class.

Leon Trotsky, his biographer Isaac Deutscher, the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, and Wittfogel all likened Stalin to Eastern potentates, especially Genghis Khan, and thought his regime was a species of Oriental despotism, the worst features of the “Asiatic mode of production” coming to the fore. It is stunning to see Trotsky open his biography of Stalin with a first sentence remarking that the old revolutionist Leonid Krassin “was the first, if I am not mistaken, to call Stalin an ‘Asiatic'”; Trotsky depicts “Asiatic” leaders as cunning and brutal, presiding over static societies with a huge peasant base. “Cunning” and “shrewd” were standard adjectives in stereotypes of Asians, particularly when they were denied civil rights and penned up in Chinatowns by whites-only housing restrictions, leading to uniform typecasting from a distance—peering over a high board fence, so to:speak. “Brutal” was another, at least since Genghis Khan, with Pol Pot and Mao reinforcing the image in our time. The broadest distinction, between static or indolent East and dynamic, progressive West, goes all the way back to Herodotus and Aristotle.

Marx never really investigated East Asia, but learned enough to know that if China fit his theory, Japan with its feudalism (and “petite culture”) clearly did not. Wittfogel, however, applied his notions of Oriental despotism to every dynastic empire with a river running through it—China, tsarist Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Incas, even the Hopi Indians of Arizona. By this time he had done a full-fledged, high-wire tenko ( Japanese for a political flip-flop), reemerging as an organic reactionary and trying to re-produce himself in, of all places, Seattle—the most thoroughly middle-class city in America. Wittfogel wrote for many extreme-right-wing publications and played a critical role in the purges of China scholars and Foreign Service officers during-the McCarthy period. Hardly any scholars would testify against Owen Lattimore, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s prime professorial target, but the University of Washington furnished three: Wittfogel, Nikolas Poppe (a Soviet expert on Mongolia who had defected to the Nazis in 1943), and George Taylor, a British scholar-journalist.

After teaching in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s– where I was pleased to meet Olga Lang, Wittfogel’s first wife (“Why did you divorce?” I asked. “Irreconcilable political differences,” she answered)—I wound up at the University of Washington, which has one of the oldest East Asian programs in the United States. Around that time Perry Anderson published Lineages of the Absolutist State. At the end of this magisterial book rests an eighty-seven-page “Note” on the theory of the Asiatic mode of production,’ where Anderson shows that Marx’s views on Asia differed little from those of Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and a host of other worthies; they were all peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge about Asia against their understanding of how the West developed. Nor did Marx ever take the “Asiatic mode” very seriously; he was always interested in one thing, really, and that was capitalism (even when it came to communism). Anderson called Wittfogel a “vulgar charivari” and recommended giving this theory an unceremonious burial, concluding that “in the night of our ignorance … all alien shapes take on the same hue.” I eagerly recommended his book to my colleagues: a good friend said, “He doesn’t know any Chinese.” Another responded, “Isn’t he a Marxist?”—meaning Anderson, not Wittfogel.

The theory never really got a proper burial, though, it just reappears in less-conspicuous forms. It isn’t politically correct to say “Oriental” or “Asiatic” anymore. Stalin is long dead, but Stalinism is apparently not, and it’s still okay to say almost anything about Stalinism. Furthermore, lo and behold, one set of “Orientals” has kept it alive: journalists use the term time and again to describe North Korea, without any hint of qualifying or questioning their position. The idea that the DPRK is a pure form of “Stalinism in the East” goes back to the 1940s, and was constantly reinforced by Berkeley’s Robert Scalapino, a Cold War scholar who came along in the late 1950s and benefited as Much as anyone from the post-McCarthy accommodation between the right and the middle. North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States. When Kim II Sung died in 1994, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The Headless Beast.” Assertions that his son is simply crazy abound, but when they enter the thinking of fine analyst such as Steven Coll in The New Yorker, a magazine with a venerable tradition of fact-checking [except when it comes to Bob Dylan quotes], you might ask which psychiatrist diagnosed Kim? Another expert recently wrote, as if everyone knows this, that North Korea is “a hybrid of Stalinism and oriental despotism.

Kim Jong Il, of course, specializes in do-it-yourself stereotyping, masquerading as the Maximum Leader of a Communist opera bouffe in elevator shoes and 1970s double-knit pants suit, fattening himself while the masses starve, which makes it hard to argue that “Oriental despotism” is not the name of his politics. But there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale “purge” that so clearly characterized Stalinism, and that was particularly noteworthy in the scale of deaths in the land reform campaigns in China and North Vietnam and the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism and (until 1991) Soviet stoogery, leading American observers whether at the time or since to deem it impossible for the DPRK to have had any capacity for independent action in 1950.

In fact Kim and his late father, and the ideologues around them, continue the ancient monarchical practice in East and West of “the king’s two bodies,” a body politic and a “body natural.” The latter is an ordinary, frail human being who happens to be king, who will go to his death like anyone else: Kim Jong II, in short, with the dyspeptic, cynical, irritated face of a man who, from birth, had no chance of living up to his father—yet he has to be king. The other is a superhuman presence, an absolutely perfect body representing the god-king, maintained through the centuries as an archetype of the exquisite leader. (And with this you get North Korean inanities such as Kim Jong Il scoring eagles on his first golf round.) In death the body natural disappears, but the soul of the god-king passes on to the next king. In Pyongyang this translated into Kim II Sung’s “seed” bringing forth his first son, Jong II, continuing the perfect “bloodlines” that his scribes never tire of applauding. The family line thus becomes immortal, explaining why Kim Ii Sung was not just president-for-life, but remained president of the DPRK in his afterlife. The high-level defector Hwang Jang-yop told Bradley Martin that the two Kims “turned Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism on their heads by reverting to Confucian notions.”‘

North Korea is thus a modern form of monarchy, realized in a highly nationalistic, postcolonial state. “The social unity expressed in the ‘body of the despot,'” Jameson pointed out, is political, but also analogous to various religious practices. That the favored modern practice of such regimes should be nationalism (the leader’s body, the body politic, the national body) is also entirely predictable. But the Western left (let alone liberals) utterly fails to understand “the immense Utopian appeal of nationalism”; its morbid qualities are easily grasped, but its healthy qualities for the collective, and for the tight unity that postcolonial leaders crave, are denied. When you add to postcolonial nationalism Korea’s centuries of royal succession and neo-Confucian philosophy, it might be possible to understand North Korea as an unusual but predictable combination of monarchy, nationalism, and Korean political culture.


  1. I think that’s a photo of Erich Fromm, not Karl Wittfogel
    Photos of KW: http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/wittfogel/

    Comment by Jay Rothermel — July 31, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

  2. Thanks for the head’s up, Jay.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 31, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  3. That was the real problem of halving postwar Korea between the Soviet-occupied North and the US-occupied South; South Korea was far more Leftist and radical than the North, which was mostly where the conservatives and Christians lived. It seemed the the Russians cared more about building a government in the North before 1950 than in making sure it was properly Stalinist, which is why to this very day North Korean propaganda relies heavily on Korean nationalism and xenophobia, not the fake “Juche thought” philosophy.

    Comment by Mr. Mike — July 31, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

  4. It’s Wittfogel, not Fromm.

    Here’s Fromm:


    Here’s Wittfogel:


    Stalin never “purged” Wittfogel. Under Stalin, the theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production was condemned at a 1931 meeting in Leningrad but this had nothing directly to do with Wittfogel.

    Later in 1938, when Stalin wrote his crib book on Marxism, he deliberately omitted Marx’s category of the Asiatic Mode of Production and offered up a four stages theory of society:primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism and you know what comes next.

    As for Wittfogel, he remained aligned with Moscow to a greater or lesser degree until 1939 when he broke with the Comintern finally over the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

    In 1933 Wittfogel was thrown into a series of concentration camps, the last one run by the SS, that almost killed him. Olga organized the international support group that saved his life and got him to England.

    Wittfogel believed at the time that the “Third Turn” policy was crazy and that the CP actually wanted Hitler to take power because 1) Hitler would turn against the West and two his regime would be overthrown soon enough and 2) the KPD would seize power. Not surprisingly, he felt the Russian policy towards Germany aided Hitler’s coming to power and the torture and death of many comrades.

    With the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he decided enough was enough and he wasn’t going to watch the same movie twice.

    At the time, he and Olga were living in NYC. His marriage to her collapsed not long after.

    Wittfogel purged himself if you want to put it that way.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — November 11, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

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