Lawrence Krader's Biography

Lawrence Krader's Biography


Lawrence KraderLawrence Krader (December 8, 1919-November 15, 1998) was born and educated in New York City. The son of a Russian born father and a Viennese born mother, he grew up with the sounds of German, Russian, and Yiddish in his ears. One of his earliest political experiences occurred at Jamaica High School at Gothic Drive and 167th Street in Central Queens where he lived. He recalls in his memoirs that one of his friends, the son of a Communist, tried to convince their history teacher, a Norman Thomas socialist, to attend a Communist meeting. Young Krader recalled her defiant words: “I’d be a blind and bloody fool.” (Lawrence Krader, The History of My Times. p. 1.)

City College of New York

This opposition to Soviet Communism under Joseph Stalin, would be cultivated during his years at the City College of New York, as a sometime debater in alcove one of the CCNY cafeteria, along with his schoolmates Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Marty Lipset, Seymour Melman, Earl Raab, Peter Rossi and Phillip Selznick, among others. (Nathan Glazer arrived at City in 1941, the year Krader graduated.) As a high school student, Krader evinced a streak of cultural and intellectual sophistication and precocity rare among secondary school students, even then. He recalled:

B. P. and I would walk around the corridors of the school, humming bits of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto; my favorite at that time was the sixth; we also planned our ideal concert, allowing the Beethoven symphonies into it, my choice being the seventh. But we disagreed over the tempo of the third movement. My criticism of Toscanini was that he took it too fast. (Ibid.)

Unlike most of his alcove one comrades whose families were poor or even in dire straights in those depression years, Krader’s family was left in comfortable circumstances when his father died at the age of 39 in 1935 from overwork. The family suggested to young Lawrence that he consider attending Columbia or Harvard University, and he recalls being urged by an English teacher and his teacher’s friend, an administrator in the New York City central school administration, both Communists, to go to Columbia to study anthropology with Gene Weltfish and Alexander Lesser. However, Krader was attracted to CCNY on account of its general (non-Communist) socialist leanings and by the reputation of Morris Raphael Cohen:

Between anthropology, communism and Columbia on the one hand, and philosophy, generalized socialist leanings, and City College, on the other, I chose the latter, and I never regretted the choice. CCNY was a beautiful place to study philosophy, having been built by Morris Raphael Cohen to its eminence. (The History of My Times. p. 27.)

Although his estimation of Cohen and his influence on him was generally positive, he recognized that Cohen was a complicated personality who was feared by his students toward whom he often acted as an intellectual bully and concluded:

Nevertheless, Cohen was an enlightened spirit who had proved that by intellect alone one could rise to the top of the profession, and on balance I feel that it was an excellent thing to have studied with him. (The History of My Times. p. 30.)

In addition to studying logic and the philosophy of science with Cohen, Krader studied Aristotle and ancient Greek philosophy with Abe Edel, modern philosophy, especially the ideas of Leibniz, C.S. Peirce and the theory of evolution with Philip Wiener, and Descartes and logic with Daniel Bronstein after Cohen’s departure for the University of Chicago in 1939. Krader recalled his occasional participation in alcove one in the following vignette from his memoirs:

The lunchroom at the main building of CCNY was divided into alcoves, the second being coopted by the communists, the first by the non-communist left, as socialists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others; some five alcoves down was the place of the ping pong players; there was no special alcove for the philosophers, who might be found in alcove one, two, five, seven, or any others; truth to tell, there were not many of them. The main building itself was a horrible example of black college gothic, housing the humanities and the sciences, including both natural and social sciences, as well as the administration of the college…. Some eight Nobel Prize winners came out of CCNY, who went there at that time; this all has been gathered in Schweber’s QED…. When I went to City, I avoided the Communists in alcove two, and if I had any place to go, it was to alcove one. I had no special allegiance to any of the sub groups within their ranks, nor did I have much to do with the activities of that alcove in general. (The History of My Times. p. 17.)

University of Chicago

Krader followed Cohen to the University of Chicago, where he met, and for a short time, came under the influence of Rudolph Carnap, an influential member of the Vienna Circle and one of the leading logicians of his day. (Krader once mentioned he had briefly shared accommodations with Kenneth Arrow, a future Nobel laureate from City and another fellow student of logic at CCNY, who also went to study with Carnap around the same time.) But Krader quickly became disillusioned with Carnap’s positivism, resisted his attempts to recruit him for his school, and returned to CCNY in 1940 to complete his undergraduate education:

Carnap had established himself in Chicago, and there I went to see what this new trend in philosophy meant. Carnap wanted me to write on Husserl and Meinong, but I was dubious of the value of logical positivism, for it was reductionistic and simplistic, for the doctrine of unified science that Carnap and others expounded was superficial and of little worth. Quantum mechanics was not integrated with classical mechanics; Carnap’s and Husserl’s, Frege’s, Brower’s, Weyl’s, Bourbaki’s, and Hilbert’s mathematical doctrines were not integrated or unified with Goedel’s; evolutionary biology was not reduced to physics. At the same time, the Thomist, M.J. Adler, taught reductionism of another kind, making our sociology to be merely a branch of psychology; this all was word play, without substantive scientific value. Niels Bohr had said that anyone who was not shocked at quantum physics did not understand it. Einstein’s attempt at a grand unified theory was premature. I returned to City College because, on a personal plane, I was put off by the trade-school atmosphere at the University of Chicago. (The History of My Times. p. 50-51.)


Krader returned to City around the time of the scandal over the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a post at CCNY. (For a comprehensive study of the Russell affair, see Weidlich, 2000.) As the winner of the prestigious Ketchum Award in the history of philosophy (it was also awarded in economics) Krader would have become Russell’s assistant had he in fact arrived at City. However, when the New York City authorities barred the College from hiring Russell, City offered the post instead to Alfred Tarski, a leading Polish émigré intellectual and path-breaking figure in the field of mathematical logic. At City Krader worked with Tarski, helping him translate his Introduction to Logic from Polish into English, for which Tarski thanked him in the introduction to the English language edition. Tarski’s arrival at City brought mathematical logic into the department of philosophy, although ironically, Emil Post had been teaching it since his arrival at CCNY in 1936 in the department of mathematics. Until Tarski’s arrival, however, the philosophers had taught only pre-mathematical logic and even Boole was not taught there in philosophy until a later time. (The History of My Times. p. 32-33.) With this strong background in the history of philosophy, the awarding of the Ketchum prize along with his work with Carnap, and the public acknowledgement of his assistance to Tarski, Krader could expect a glorious career in philosophy, and mathematical logic. But he did not pursue this course for a number of reasons. First, with America’s entry into the Second World War, Krader joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, where he served on the ultra dangerous Murmansk Run, obviating the German blockade and bringing arms and ammunition to a beleaguered Soviet army. (Krader once related that his work as a signalman required his attention for less than an hour a day and this gave him a golden opportunity to read the classics during his down time.) There were internal reasons in addition to the exigencies of war that accounted for his reluctance to pursue a career in philosophy and these related to the increasing degree to which philosophy was being robbed of its subject matter:

Why did I spurn a career in philosophy after such a ‘brilliant’ start? There are several reasons. The first is that I had an idea, about 1940, that epistemology is a shade without substance; it is not any persiflage, but its tasks have been taken over one by one through other fields. Logic belongs to mathematics, morals and politics to the human sciences, rhetoric and poetics are in fields unto themselves; there remain metaphysics and epistemology. The former is what I mean by a chimera, without substance; Plato got it exactly wrong, for the truth is on the floor of the cave, among those chained there, and the sunlight is a mirage, without any truth or reality to it. Philosophy has seen its substance stripped from it by scientific advancements. Physics is no longer Aristotelian, biology, cosmology are all independent empirical sciences; philosophy can be proud to have served as the mater scientiarum. There remains the mind itself to be studied, which is an empirical object, and its study an empirical science, independent of the others. (The History of My Times. p. 35-36.)


In 1940, Krader took a course given by Gene Weltfish, a student of Franz Boas, at Columbia University. He had been leery of Weltfish on account of her Communist connections, but found nothing of Communism in her lectures:

Out of curiosity, I took a course with Gene Weltfish in the spring semester of 1940, on material culture. I found nothing of communism in it, only common sense, a sound Boasian anthropology... (The History of My Times. p. 65.)

As a child in the 1920s, Krader had attended lectures at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where he discovered the evolutionary perspective:

I had attended lectures at the American Museum of Natural History as a child in the 1920s, and my imagination was stirred at that time by the evolutionary perspectives toward life. The evolution was still Darwinian, for there was no 20th century theory about what might be imparted to beginners; but the deep time frames and the broad bio-geographic extent were already at work in the minds of the lecturers, and in my own. (The History of My Times. p. 66-67.)

The theory of evolution would be a focal point for him at least until 1963, but it continued to occupy him through the publication of The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx and in those later books which he wrote to work out some of the implications of the notebooks in relation to Marx’s legacy, including: The Asiatic Mode of Production (1973), The Dialectic of Civil Society (1974), Treatise of Social Labor (1979), Die Anfänge des Kapitalismus in Mitteleuropa (1993), and Labor and Value (2003). In Noetics (2010), Krader distinguishes between cosmological and biotic evolution (which includes the evolution of the species Homo sapiens) and human development, which is generated in the material and biotic orders but is constituted in the human order of nature. In other words, human being is generated out of Homo sapiens to which it remains tied by nexus and difference, but in its constitution cannot be reduced to its biotic origins. At the time of his course with Gene Weltfish, he came to admire the Russian anthropologists, Vladimir Bogoraz and Vladimir Jochelson, and their work among and writings about the Chuckchis and Yukaghir respectively. Both men were active in populist and socialist politics and this enhanced their status in Krader’s eyes. Krader’s own research and writings about these and other peoples of Soviet Central Asia beginning in the 1950s clearly reflects the influence that these two anthropologists exerted on him in the early forties. (Bogoraz was also an accomplished linguist and played a role in kindling Krader’s interest in that discipline, which he came to teach at the University of Washington in 1947 and Harvard in 1952, although he rejected an offer extended to him by Ithiel de Sola Pool to teach linguistics at MIT around the same time.) There were a number of conditions that led Krader away from the New York intellectuals with whom he had been associated since his early years at City. Krader explains the nature of his disillusionment through a vignette concerning a visit to New York by Isaiah Berlin:

Who delivered a brilliant speech on Tolstoy, his language and habits. Berlin spoke fluently, without notes, seemingly on the spur of the moment, making well-taken, often profound, point after point. (The History of My Times. p. 49.)


Meyer Schapiro, who had introduced Berlin, down played the intellectual level and achievements of the indigenous New York thinkers and writers and expressed enthusiasm for the emigré European intellectuals who, according to Schapiro, swept aside the second-rate and outmoded native creative spirits and lifted New York to a higher cultural niveau. Krader responded:

Uplifted as I was by Berlin’s well-formulated address, I was appalled by Schapiro’s words. There were in New York during the 1920s and 1930s many excellent thinkers and writers, as Dewey and Cohen in philosophy, Boas in anthropology, Burke in literary criticism, Schapiro himself in art history; Rosenberg and Greenberg were active in art criticism; there were many more beside these. Dewey represented pragmatism; behind him stood James and Peirce, who had together propounded an important and distinguished philosophy. In wider circles, Sapir in linguistics had made an important contribution; behind him stood W.D. Whitney, himself a powerful linguist, who had lent his name to the Century Dictionary. According to Schapiro, all this counted for nothing, and was swept aside the by the incursion of the refugees from Europe. I was not even 20 at the earlier time, and concluded as had Schapiro, that the intellectual life in New York was indeed worthless. The new currents being introduced from Europe were more powerful than the indigenous ones. (The History of My Times. p. 49-50.)

Krader objected to Schapiro’s (and others’) glorification of the Europeans at the expense of the locals; not that he disparaged the Europeans; rather he believed that an integration of the two would have been of significant benefit to the intellectual culture of New York City and by osmosis, of the entire country:

I am glad that the refugees found a safe haven in America. We are enriched by the arrival of Einstein, Gödel, Panofsky, just to mention a few; I deplore the treatment of Russell by LaGuardia, and rejoice in the welcome extended to Tarski. On the other hand, New York did not build up on what it had. A more sage conduct of the sciences would have added Tarski to Emil Post, Panofsky to Schapiro, and so on, but nothing of this sort happened. The new mathematical logic thrust back the older logic of Cohen and Nagel; the latter then disowned publicly what he had written on the subject with Cohen; Cohen was thrust aside by Carnap; Carnap also swept A. O. Lovejoy away. R. O. Jakobson set aside the work of Sapir and Bloomfield in linguistics. I only speak of the fields that I know, and do not refer to others, where my knowledge is inadequate, or where I am not well informed. In the light of this, I turned my back on New York; the intellectuals there did not think their tradition was worth saving, and I did not have reason to think otherwise. (The History of My Times. p. 52-53.)

But Krader did not share in the general enthusiasm for the new winds from Europe. He had already sampled the intellectual wares offered by Carnap and found them wanting:

On the other hand, the alternative offered by Carnap in logical positivism was not a valid one. He was criticized by Quine, Tarski, Morton White, and some others, for making an absolute distinction between the analytic and the synthetic. To me, this Carnapian dictum resuscitated the Kantian philosophy; Carnap had made this distinction for the best of reasons, in order to defeat J.S. Mill’s empiricist base for arithmetic; but his alternative was untenable. And for this, Nagel gave up his own work and rallied to the side of Carnap, joining the unified science movement; Dewey, pragmatism, Lovejoy, the history of ideas were thrust onto the garbage heap. (The History of My Times. p. 53-54.)

In spite of his criticism of Schapiro in relation to the idealization of the emigré European intellectuals and the deprecation of the local talents, Schapiro was clearly an important influence on Krader’s Noetics, especially in relation to aesthetics and the theory of art. Schapiro was an anti-Stalinist Marxist who had written for oppositional journals, such as the Marxist Quarterly and Partisan Review in the 1930s and 1940s, and he rejected the straight-jacket in which political Marxism sought to encase art and cultural expression.


Krader met and befriended several influential people in the forties and this led him eventually to pursue graduate studies in linguistics and anthropology. Late in 1942 while stationed in Birmingham, Alabama, Krader met a psychiatrist, Nikolas Michelson and his wife, Franziska Boas, the daughter of Franz Boas. It was Michelson who introduced Krader to Roman Jakobson with whom he studied linguistics in 1946-47. (The History of My Times. p. 69.) It was on his weekly visits to Jakobson’s graduate seminar on linguistics at Columbia University, that Krader met his future wife, Barbara Lattimer —an internationally respected linguist and ethno-musicologist in her own right,— who worked for the OSS during the war and studied with Jakobson at the Charles University in Prague, before returning to New York just before his emigration to the United States. At the time of his contact with Jakobson, Krader worked on the Century Dictionary for Random House under the guidance of André Martinet, and the editors at that publishing house tried to keep him in the dictionary field but, in spite of his pride in this work, he decided to move on in 1947. Krader knew Martinet at the IALA (The International Auxiliary Language Association) in 1946, and it was Martinet and Jakobson who introduced him to the field of semantics. His strength in both linguistics and semantics is one of the pillars on which this work on noesis rests:

Semantics, as the science of meaning, has a central place in noetic processes, which have to do with the meaning of words, whereas noetics takes up not only meanings in this sense, but also the meanings of entire speculative systems, as well as sense and meaning in many other contexts, in the arts, sciences, as well as ordinary life. The difference between sense and meaning is investigated in semantics, psychology, and noetics. (The History of My Times. p. 108.)


Krader met another émigré intellectual, Karl August Wittfogel, a former German Communist, an expert on China, whose 1957 book Oriental Despotism became a classic on the motor force of development in China, and which Krader sharply criticized in his 1973 work The Asiatic Mode of Production. Wittfogel came to the University of Washington’s Far Eastern Institute in 1947, the same year that Krader was appointed to the Institute as a research associate. In 1949, Karl Korsch spent the summer in Seattle and Krader came to know him through many lengthy discussions on Marx that continued in Boston when Krader went to Harvard shortly thereafter. It was Korsch’s 1923, Marxism and Philosophy, that, along with the early writings of Georg Lukaćs and Antonio Gramsci, became a classic of Western Marxism. Krader’s discussions about Marx in the summer of 1949 in Seattle were heated but fruitful, and the two continued their friendship and common intellectual pursuits when Krader moved to Harvard shortly thereafter; Korsch and his wife Hedda were already domiciled in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was Korsch who suggested to Krader that an English translation of Marx’s notes on Lewis Henry Morgan would be a worthwhile and challenging project for the former student of philosophy whose interest in anthropology was growing.

While in Seattle, he [Korsch] got me to have Marx’s notes on Bakunin translated from a Russian version into English; we discussed these notes, and at the same time got into our hands Mitin’s edition of Marx’s notes on Morgan, Ancient Society; Korsch put into my head the notion that an English edition of these notes would be a good idea. I told him that I would take it on at some future time.” (The History of My Times. p. 77.)

Krader dedicated the Ethnological Notebooks to the memory of Korsch in acknowledgement of his older friend’s influence. Korsch was also associated with Meyer Schapiro; they shared a similar appreciation of Marx, critique of Marxist orthodoxy, and suspicion of closed systems. (On the relationship between Korsch and Schapiro, which discusses items of interest in Krader’s work, see David Craven, 1994.) UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON At the University of Washington and at later venues, Krader was being pushed into the position of a China expert, which he was not. He believed that McCarthy’s witch hunting had frightened off the legitimate pursuit of Chinese topics and as a result, leading institutions could not find the requisite expertise to conduct research and to teach in this field:

In Seattle I worked in a room with six other research associates, all Chinese, and came to know something about Chinese scholarship. I also knew how to read Chinese, but only with a dictionary. This ability gave people the unsupported impression that I am a China expert, which I am not. During the 1950s and 1960s there was a great shortage of specialists in the Chinese field, chiefly because McCarthy had driven many away, and frightened others from the field. As a result I was put in charge of the China program at the Census Bureau, for which I had neither the language capability save as specified above, nor an appropriate background in the demography of China. John Fairbank offered me a post at the Far Eastern Institute, at Harvard, but I turned it down for many of the same reasons; and Ohio State University made me the head of the East Asian Division there. All these posts and offers of posts were far from my area of competence. (The History of My Times. p. 26.)

Overtures to Krader to lure him into the position of a China expert continued. Stull Holt, who was a former Brigadier-General, the head of army intelligence in North Africa and a professor of American History, wanted to bring Krader to Johns Hopkins as a China expert. 1954 - 1982 Krader pursued his doctoral work and taught linguistics at Harvard, where Dmitri Shimkin arranged for his appointment as a Fellow at the Russian Research Centre. Krader married Barbara Lattimer in 1953 and completed his doctorate in 1954 on “Kinship Systems of the Altaic-speaking Peoples of the Asian Steppes.” From 1953 to 1956 he was the director of the Central Asia Research Project at the Bureau of Social Science Research, affiliated with the American University in Washington, D.C. From 1956 to 1958 he was the head of the China Program for the Foreign Manpower Research Office of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. He joined the Department of Anthropology in 1958 and served there until 1963 when he was appointed chair of the Asian Division of the College of Arts and Sciences and simultaneously professor of anthropology and professor of Slavic culture in the Slavic Department of Ohio State University. From 1964 to 1967 he was the director of the Nomadism Project and the Directory of the Arid Zones Research Project and professor of anthropology at Syracuse University. From 1967 to 1969 he taught anthropology at the City University of New York and was then appointed chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In 1972 he was called to Berlin as the director of the Institute of Ethnology at the Freie Universität from which he retired as professor emeritus in 1982. Krader concentrated on the pastoral nomadism of the Mongols, Kazakhs and others in the 1950s, still believing that it represented a stage in human evolution. From about 1950 to 1956 he focused on the nationalities problem in the USSR, a subject on which he became expert and continued to follow closely into his years of retirement.


Krader divides his Marx scholarship into two stages:

From passive, in the years 1937-1963, to active and intensive from 1963 to 1975, when I prepared the Ethnological Notebooks and the Asiatic Mode of Production for publication.” (The History of My Times. p. 129.) His assessment of his grasp of Marx in the early 1950s, the time in which he carried on his intensive discussions with Karl Korsch he described as: “too weak, too dogmatic, too much geared to problems of the 19th century. (The History of My Times. p. 101.)

Krader’s second stage of Marx scholarship began around the time that he seriously began to work on the notebooks and his self-assessment as a Marx scholar was, deservedly, not modest:

I read all that Marx had written, and that had appeared in print…I know no one who has read critically and mastered Marx’s work [more] than I. Korsch knew Marx well, but sections of Marx’s work appeared after Korsch’s death; he read Marx with different eyes and for a different purpose than mine, for he was a Marxian revolutionary, I am not. He read Marx dogmatically; I criticize Marx’s value theory. (The History of My Times. p. 129.)

With the publication of the Notebooks and the Asiatic Mode of Production in the early seventies, Krader in fact stood at the pinnacle of Marx scholarship in anthropology specifically and the social sciences more generally. But Krader increasingly began to think that his intensive study of Marx and Hegel was important for what they lacked in contemporary relevance. He did not feel, however, that he wasted his time:

For my larger project, the theory of noesis, the study of Hegel and Marx was a necessary step…Negatively, I concluded that Marx, despite his vast philosophical knowledge, and sound preparation, had no theory of mind and consciousness; Hegel’s idealist theory of these subjects was of historical interest alone, and this gave me a target to criticize. (The History of My Times. p. 103.)


Positively, Hegel and Marx were masters in the application of dyads, such as: Mediate―Immediate, Abstract―Concrete, Subject―Object, Internal―External, General―Particular, Theory―Practice, and Form―Substance. Both of them, however, posited the completion of history, a final synthesis. They both argued in favor of the universal, as a hypostatization of the general. In his Treatise of Social Labor and Labor and Value, Krader has taken issue with making class the preeminent category. For Krader, labor and not class is the starting point, there being no end point or universal teleology, either in nature or in human history. There are only specific ends posited by individuals and groups, and they are not driven inexorably and by necessity to their actualization. They are not realized but remain a potentiality.

The philosophies of history put forward by Hegel and Marx…are in one sense variants of a single philosophy of history…Hegel and Marx were both teleologists, and within that frame, eschatologists, believing that human history has a grand and final end toward which it inevitably moves, and within that frame, minor teleological movements. The final end in Hegel is the absolute idea on earth, the march of God through the world, the God being the ideal of Lutheran Christianity, the march of the state through the world, reason being its driving force. (The History of My Times. p. 160.)

Krader maintains that he began his lifelong study of noetics as an undergraduate in the philosophy department at CCNY in the late 1930s, that the philosophies of Hegel and Marx were noetically inadequate: the former abstracted thinking and knowing from the senses — a criticism raised by Ludwig Feuerbach after 1839 — and the latter lacking in a theory of mind and consciousness. During the period of his intensive engagement with the texts of Marx focusing on the Ethnological Notebooks and the Asiatic Mode of Production during the years 1963-1975, the questions of mind and consciousness, thinking and knowing, were not front and center among Krader’s concerns.

1975 - 2003

It was in the post-1975 years that Krader took up the matters of mind, consciousness, thinking and knowing, producing a number of manuscripts conceived as part of a new project, and manuscripts were produced bearing titles such as “Mind” and “Consciousness,” but they remained unpublished and Krader asked that all copies be destroyed. The project of the late seventies and early eighties was reconceived after Krader’s retirement in 1982. From that time until his death in November of 1998 he produced over 150 manuscripts varying in length from a few dozen to many hundreds of pages. In August of 1998 a week of discussions took place in Berlin between Krader and the editor of this work in which a plan was developed whereby the two would work together to publish a number of these manuscripts beginning with Labor and Value which was in its penultimate draft, to be followed by the publication of Noetics which was in its antepenultimate draft. It was proposed that the project be established at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Krader and Levitt would work jointly and severally on the manuscripts involving graduate students who would incorporate the manuscripts into their thesis work. Krader’s sudden death caused by a pulmonary embolism late in 1998 led to a delay of almost ten years in the establishment of the research and publishing project, although Labor and Value, edited by Levitt and Rod Hay, was published in 2003.

© 2011 The Lawrence Krader Research Project