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The Climate of Collectivism: From Hegel to the Twentieth Century

The Climate of Collectivism: From Hegel to the Twentieth Century

9 Mins
January 22, 2019

One of Auguste Comte’s students studied for a while in Germany and attended Hegel’s lectures. Reporting back to Comte about how Hegel’s doctrines compared to Comte’s socialist ones, the student wrote excitedly that “the identity of results exists even in the practical principles, as Hegel is a defender of the governments, that is to say, an enemy of the liberals.”  

In the nineteenth century the question of the true meaning of socialism was a live issue among collectivists of all stripes. Kant, Herder, Fichte, and Hegel were dominant mainstream voices. Yet clearly none was a conservative. Conservatives of the nineteenth century favored returning to or re-invigorating feudal institutions. Our four figures, by contrast, all favored significant reforms and a jettisoning of traditional feudalism. Yet none was an Enlightenment liberal. Enlightenment liberals were individualistic, the center of their political and economic gravity tending toward limited governments and free markets. Our four figures, by contrast, voiced themes of strong collectivism in ethics and politics with calls for individuals to sacrifice for society, whether society was defined as the species, the ethnic group, or the state. We find in the case of Kant a call for individuals to be willing to do their duty to sacrifice for the species; we find in the case of Herder a call for individuals to find their identity in their ethnicity; we find in the case of Fichte a call for education to be a process of total socialization; and we find in the case of Hegel a call for total government to which the individual will surrender everything. For a school of thinkers who advocated total socialization, “socialism” seemed an appropriate label. Accordingly, many thinkers on the collectivist Right thought of themselves as true socialists.

Yet “socialism” was also being used as the label for Left collectivists , so there was a lively debate between the Left and many on the Right over who had the most right to call themselves “socialist.”

The debate was not merely semantics. Both Right and Left were anti-individualist; both advocated government management of the most important aspects of society; both divided human society into groups which they took to be fundamental to individuals’ identities; both pitted those groups against each other in inescapable conflict; both favored war and violent revolution to bring about the ideal society. And both sides hated the liberals.

Right versus Left collectivism in the twentieth century

The great events of the early twentieth century served as intellectual touchstones in the battle between the Left and the Right for the soul of the socialist.

World War I pitted East against West in the century’s first great conflict of incompatible social systems. Leading German intellectuals on the political Right were clear about what they took the onset of war to signify. The war would destroy the decadent liberal spirit, the bland spirit of shopkeepers and traders, and make way for the ascent of social idealism.  

Johann Plenge, for example, one of the outstanding authorities on both Hegel and Marx , was also a man of the political Right. His landmark book Hegel and Marx reintroduced scholars to the importance of understanding Hegel to understanding Marx. For Plenge, liberalism was a corrupt system, and so socialism had to become the social system of the future. Plenge also believed that socialism would come first to Germany.

Because in the sphere of ideas Germany was the most convinced exponent of all socialist dreams, and in the sphere of reality she was the most powerful architect of the most highly organized economic system.—In us is the twentieth century.

The Great War, accordingly, was to be celebrated as the catalyst for bringing that future into existence. The war economy that had been created in 1914 in Germany, wrote Plenge, “is the first realization of a socialist society and its spirit the first active, and not merely demanding, appearance of a socialist spirit. The needs of the war have established the socialist idea in German economic life.”  

Thus, Germany’s defeat in World War I was devastating to the collectivist Right. Moeller van den Bruck, unquestionably a man of the German Right and an implacable foe of Marxism, summarized the defeat thus: “We have lost the war against the West. Socialism has lost it against Liberalism.”

The crushing loss of the war and the psychological defeatism that came with it in Germany contributed to the meteoric success of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Spengler was another man of the Right. In Decline, written by 1914 but not published until 1918, Spengler offered a pessimistic combination of Herder and Nietzsche, voicing themes of cultural conflict and decline, arguing that the long, slow victory of liberalism in the West was the clearest indication that Western culture was, as all cultures eventually did, slipping into softness, flaccidity, and ultimately insignificance. All of the markers of Western civilization, Spengler argued, from democratic government to capitalism to the developments of technology were symptoms of decay. “The frightful form of soulless, purely mechanical capitalism, which attempts to master all activities and stifles every free independent impulse and all individuality” had prevailed, and virtually nothing could be done about it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was thunderstruck by his reading of Spengler. Martin Heidegger was moved profoundly. The Decline of the West catapulted Spengler into the front ranks of German public intellectuals.

Immediately following the success of Decline, Spengler brought forth his Prussianism and Socialism (1920). Turning from cultural history to political theory, Spengler hoped to wrest the label “socialist” away from the Marxists  and to demonstrate that socialism required a national and organic focus. Agreeing with the Marxists, Spengler argued that the ideal state required “the organization of production and communication by the State; everybody to be a servant of the State.” And agreeing with the Marxists and against the soft liberals, Spengler argued that “Socialism means power, power, and more power.”  But against the Marxists, who were too rationalistic and too enamored of technology, Spengler argued that real socialism would be organic and rooted in the natural rhythms of life. Marxism, he believed, shared responsibility with capitalism for generating the artificial and materialistic world of the West. “All things organic are dying in the grip of organization,” Spengler wrote later in Man and Technics, echoing Rousseau:

An artificial world is permeating and poisoning the natural. The Civilization itself has become a machine that does, or tries to do, everything in mechanical fashion. We think only in horse-power now; we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power; we cannot survey a countryside full of pasturing cattle without thinking of its exploitation as a source of meat-supply; we cannot look at the beautiful old handiwork of an unspoilt primitive people without wishing to replace it by a modern technical process.

We cannot recapture our lost connectedness, Spengler believed, so it is too late for socialism. But like the heroes of old, we should face up to our destiny stoically and with no illusions. “Optimism is cowardice.” All that we can do, as beings of honor in a world of decline, is stick to our duty:

Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness.  

While Spengler was pessimistic, other Right thinkers still saw a chance for true socialism. Ernst

Jünger, who had been inspired by Spengler, inspired some of those Right thinkers. Jünger had been wounded three times in the Great War, but he had returned home determined to renew the fight against the decadent West. The war had been a loss—but a loss that could be transcended. We are, wrote Jünger, “a new generation, a race that has been hardened and inwardly transformed by all the darting flames and sledgehammer blows of the greatest war in history.”

Another Right thinker who still believed that socialism could come to be was Werner Sombart (1863-1941), best known as an outstanding sociologist and fiery critic of liberal capitalism. A good Marxist for much of his career, Sombart had moved toward the Right early in the twentieth century. To Sombart, that did not involve abandoning socialism but rather strengthening it. It was absolutely essential, Sombart argued, “to free Socialism from the Marxian system.” Doing so would make it possible to forge a better form of socialism by focusing it nationally; and by rejecting the pretense of being able to “‘prove’ the ‘necessity’ of Socialism by means of ‘scientific’ arguments,” socialism would then regain its “power of creating new ideals and the possibility of intense feeling.” A new nationalistic focus and rejuvenation of socialism’s idealistic feelings would, he thought, better enable socialists to combat the true enemy, liberal capitalism. Sombart’s next major work, Merchants and Heroes (1915), continued his attacks on liberal capitalism by contrasting two opposed types of social being, one decadent and the other noble; and Sombart’s attack on that primary target continued through 1928 when, agreeing in essence with Spengler and Moeller, he said of the socialist ideal:

This thought is destined to preserve mankind from a danger which is much greater than that of bureaucratization, and that is the danger of succumbing to mammonism, to the profit devil, to material interest mongering.

“Liberalism,” wrote Moeller, “ is the Death of Nations.”  So socialism had to be able to prevail against it. Yet it had to be the correct kind of socialism—and the correct kind of socialism was not Marxist. Marxist internationalism, the Right thinkers from Spengler to Sombart to Moeller argued, ended up being a false or illusory version of socialism. There is no universal culture, so there is no universal set of interests and no universal form that socialism can take. Socialism must be national—it must be rooted in each culture’s distinctive historical context. “Every people has its own socialism,” wrote Moeller, and so “international socialism does not exist.”

And in a remark that was prescient of the coming decade, Moeller wrote:

Socialism begins where Marxism ends. German socialism is called to play a part in the spiritual and intellectual history of mankind by purging itself of every trace of liberalism. … This New Socialism must be the foundation of Germany’s Third Empire.

The Rise of National Socialism: Who are the real socialists?

The rise of National Socialism to political prominence during the 1920s brought the abstract debate to particular focus, as the National Socialists, the Communists, and the Social Democrats all argued variations on the same themes and competed for the votes of the same constituencies.

The socialist Social Democrats and the Communists had split over whether socialism would be achieved by evolution or revolution. Hard feelings also existed between the two parties over the Spartacist Revolt of 1919, in which the Communists had risen up violently against an elected socialist regime. Thus the Social Democrats—in point of theory and in order to attract votes—regularly argued that there was no essential difference between the Communists and the National Socialists: both favored violence rather than peaceful and democratic procedures.

The Communists often returned the favor, arguing that the Social Democrats and the National Socialists had both in various ways sold out to capitalism. Ernst Thälmann, for example, in a speech to the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany, argued that the Social Democrats and National Socialists were ideological twins. The Social Democrats were willing to compromise with other parties and share power with them; only endless bickering and vacillation could result from that, which would serve only to maintain the capitalist status quo. The National Socialists, of course, were on the political Right, so by definition they had to be in the pockets of the capitalists.

The National Socialists recognized that they were on the Right and that the Social Democrats and the Communists were on the Left. But they found little practical difficulty wooing voters away from both parties by emphasizing the socialist elements of National Socialism. And they did not find that the theoretical goals of the three parties were that far apart. Hitler, for example, declared that “basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same.” And Josef Goebbels, who had a Ph.D. in philology and perhaps a better claim to understand the theoretical issues, argued the same point.

Goebbels’s social thinking had been influenced strongly by Spengler and by his reading of the major Left socialists. He represented a strong voice within the National Socialist Party for its economically socialist planks. Goebbels’s hatred of capitalism was legendary, as was his hatred of money. Money, he wrote, is “the source of all evil. It’s as if Mammon were the embodiment of the principle of evil in the world. I hate money from the deepest depths of my soul.” Only socialism could oppose the corruption of liberalism and capitalism. “Liberalism means: I believe in Mammon,” wrote Goebbels in his 1929 Michael, a novel that went through seventeen editions by 1942. “Socialism means: I believe in work.”

Thus Goebbels had often been more than willing to make speeches and write conciliatory essays to the Communists, asking them to recognize that the National Socialists ’ and Communists’ major goals of overthrowing capitalism and achieving socialism were the same—and that the only significant difference between the two was that the Communists believed that socialism could be achieved at the international level, while the National Socialists believed that it could and should occur at the national level.  The differences between National Socialism and Communism boiled down to a choice between the dictatorship of the Volk and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In this intellectual and cultural context, it is understandable that voters who favored the Social Democrats in one election often voted for the Communists or the National Socialists in the next, often switching allegiance again in the next election.

It is also understandable that in such a context the National Socialists would score their first big successes among the university students. “Students in brown shirts and swastika armbands were a normal sight in classes well before 1932.” Raised in an intellectual culture in which Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Spengler were the dominant voices, National Socialism seemed to many to be a moral ideal, just as it did to many of their professors, who had been schooled in the same works. The students of the 1920s and early 1930s saw themselves as rebelling against a corrupt system imposed upon them by the foreign, liberal capitalist West; they saw themselves as rebelling against their parents’ generation, which had failed during the Great War and after; they saw themselves as rebelling against the capitalism that dislocated the worker, that did not give the worker a fair share, and that had caused the Depression; and they saw themselves as idealistically promoting the liberation of the worker and the German spirit.

Speaking of the many bright and talented students from the West who went to Germany to study, Friedrich Hayek has remarked: “Many a university teacher during the 1930’s has seen English and American students return from the Continent uncertain whether they were communists or Nazis and certain only that they hated Western liberal civilization.”

Western liberal civilization, however, survived both the Great Depression and World War II, emerging stronger than it had been before. During the war and its aftermath, the National Socialists and the collectivist Right were wiped out physically and discredited morally and intellectually. The new battle lines were simplified and starkly clear: liberal capitalism versus Left socialism.

Excerpted with permission from Hicks, Stephen R. C., Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition) (Kindle Locations 2890-3095). Ockham's Razor. Kindle Edition.

Stephen Hicks Ph.D


Stephen Hicks Ph.D

Stephen R. C. Hicks PH.D. is the Senior Scholar for the Atlas Society, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, and the director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University. In 2010, he won his university's Excellence in Teaching Award. Professor Hicks has written four books; Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Nietzsche and the Nazis, Entrepreneurial Living, and The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis.

Stephen Hicks Ph.D.
About the author:
Stephen Hicks Ph.D.

Stephen R. C. Hicks is a Senior Scholar for The Atlas Society and Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University. He is also the Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University.

He is author of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton & Co., 1998), Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (Ockham’s Razor, 2010),  Entrepreneurial Living (CEEF, 2016), Liberalism Pro and Con (Connor Court, 2020), Art: Modern, Postmodern, and Beyond (with Michael Newberry, 2021) and Eight Philosophies of Education (2022). He has published in Business Ethics Quarterly, Review of Metaphysics, and The Wall Street Journal. His writings have been translated into 20 languages.

He has been Visiting Professor of Business Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Visiting Fellow at the Social Philosophy & Policy Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, Visiting Professor at the University of Kasimir the Great, Poland, Visiting Fellow at Harris Manchester College of Oxford University, England, and Visiting Professor at Jagiellonian University, Poland.

His B.A. and M.A. degrees are from the University of Guelph, Canada. His Ph.D. in Philosophy is from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

In 2010, he won his university’s Excellence in Teaching Award.

His Open College podcast series is published by Possibly Correct Productions, Toronto. His video lectures and interviews are online at CEE Video Channel, and his website is StephenHicks.org.  

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