The Kaiserreich’s Militant Tendency
Werner Sombart, Traders and Heroes; Patriotic Reflections, translated with a forward by Alexander Jacob, Arktos, London 2021, 115pp, reviewed by Leslie Jones
The sociologist and economic historian Werner Sombart (1863-1941), a former student of Gustav von Schmoller, was Professor of Economics at Breslau, then at Berlin. During the earlier stages of his career, “der rote Professor” and historian of socialism was profoundly influenced by Marxism and upheld the progressive role of the English trade unions under ‘late capitalism’. But as Vitantorio Gioia observes [i], around 1911 there was a marked turn in Sombart’s thinking, an epistemological gap, signalled by the publication of The Jews and Modern Capitalism. The latter study constitutes both a critique of historical materialism and a riposte to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5).
Sombart believed that without the input of the Jews, the development of capitalism would not have been possible, for they had “given certain aspects of economic life the specific features they bear”. The Jews had substituted “economic rationalism for time-honoured tradition”, pursuing business for its own sake and recognising “the supremacy of gain” over any other factor. [ii] Now that he regarded the acquisitive spirit as immoral and destructive, Sombart viewed the medieval guilds in a favourable light. And he regretted the declining significance of Christianity which had once been a counter-weight to the commercial spirit. As for the goals of the English trade unions, these were now dismissed as “nothing more than capitalism or commercialism with inverse insignia’, since their members put comfort before all else.
Traders and Heroes; Patriotic Reflections (1915) self-evidently belongs to this second, culturally pessimistic phase of Sombart’s thinking. It is dedicated to the “young heroes, out there facing the enemy”. German nationalism and veneration for the state are treated therein as an antidote to the rampant commercial spirit espoused by England. “All Great Wars”, Sombart opines, “are religious Wars”. Ideals rather than economic interests drove German statecraft, in his estimation.
Herbert Spencer, for Sombart, epitomised what he disparagingly called the English ‘trader’s mentality’ and the “superficial trader’s conception of the state”. Spencer’s sociology hinges on his dichotomy between two ideal types, the ‘industrial’ and the ‘militant’ type of society. The former is based on ‘self-ownership’. The latter is characterised by the ascendancy of the state, coercive rule and imperialism. For this product of provincial dissent, the England of 1850 was the acme of individual freedom, when men could work, move and trade freely. Spencer regarded a residual state, or ‘joint stock protection society’, as the goal of social evolution, to be brought about by natural selection and use-inheritance. A bastion of the Ratepayer’s Defence League, he considered education and road-making as outside the proper sphere of government.[iii]
Sombart, a great admirer of Nietzsche, acknowledged that critics of so-called German barbarism and militarism, paradoxically, were partly right, for war is “the greatest moral force that is employed by providence to preserve man…from dissipation and indolence”. Materialism, or ‘comfortism’, conversely, were destructive of ‘true culture’, turning a nation into an ant hill or “a heap of living corpses”.
In his perceptive forward to Traders and Heroes (Händler und Helden), Alexander Jacob contends that “the British trader’s worldview …continues to rule the world today”. Maybe so, but Sombart overstated his case in this piece of wartime propaganda. When Spencer’s Principles of Sociology vol 3 was published in 1896, he was already a passé figure, as the vogue for such diverse supporters of the state as T.H. Green, William Morris and Ruskin indicated. Indeed, their rejection of materialism and eudaemonism had been anticipated by Thomas Carlyle. [iv] In the 1890’s, Spencer himself detected a pronounced reversion to the ‘militant’ order, as evidenced by imperialism, arms races and the accompanying jingoism. To view this return of coercive rule as confirmation of a law of rhythm, manifested in all things, provided Spencer with but little comfort.
[i] Prof Vitantonio Gioia, University of Salento, ‘Werner Sombart and “Modern Capitalism”, a Working Hypothesis’
[ii] Werner Sombart, The Jews and Modern Capitalism, 1911, translated by M Epstein, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001
[iii] Leslie Jones, ‘A Social Theorist in the Age of Imperialism; the Life and Thought of Benjamin Kidd, 1858-1916′, PhD thesis, LSE, 1984
[iv] Sombart did not consider Carlyle “an English mind” since “from early on he absorbed only German intellectual food”. N.B. Carlyle was a Scot