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3. Sombart as Marxist and Anti-Marxist

Werner Sombart himself proudly confessed that he gave a good part of his life to fight for Marx.23 It was Sombart, not the wretched pedants of the ilk of Kautsky and Bernstein, who introduced Marx to German science and familiarized German thought with Marxist doctrines. Even the structure of Sombart’s main work, Modern Capitalism, is Marxian. The problem Marx raised in Das Kapital and other writings is to be solved again, this time with the means of advanced knowledge. And as with Marx, theoretical analysis is to be combined with historical presentation. The starting point of his work is completely Marxian, but its findings are purported to go beyond Marx. Thus, he differs from the publications of party Marxists whose findings are rigidly circumscribed by party doctrine.

Sombart built his reputation as a Marxist and scholar in 1896 with his little book Socialism and the Social Movement during the Nineteenth Century. The booklet saw several editions, and each new edition gave evidence of the changes in Sombart’s position on the problems of socialism and the social movement. The tenth edition, revised, is now available in two imposing volumes.24It is to demonstrate and justify his turning away from Marxism—but not from socialism. In fact, the two volumes do not deal with socialism as such, but rather with “proletarian socialism,” with “Marxism.”

Sombart deals only with a history and critique of Marxian socialism. He avoids revealing his own social doctrine, which he briefly touches upon in a few places. With visible satisfaction he speaks of the old associations of the Middle Ages—church, town, village, clan, family, vocation— “which contained the individual, warmed him, and protected him like a fruit in its peel.” And with visible horror he speaks of that “process of disintegration which shattered the world of faith and replaced it with knowledge.”25The ideology of proletarian socialism is seen as an expression of this disintegration process. And between the lines he is reproaching proletarian socialism for its express preference for modern industrialism. “Whatever socialistic critique may have raised against capitalism, it never objected on grounds that capitalism has blessed us with railroads and factories, steel furnaces and machines, telegraph wires and motorcycles, record players and airplanes, movie theatres and power centers, cast iron and aniline colors.” Proletarianism, according to Sombart, merely rejects the social form, not the gist of modern civilization. And with clear emphasis on his own position he confronts proletarian socialism with the “preproletarian chimera,” with its “bucolic” flavor which always praised agriculture as the most noble vocation and looked upon agrarian culture as its ideal.26

This infatuation with agrarian society and the Middle Ages deserves our comment. We meet it again and again in the literature of nationalistic Anti-Marxism, with variations by individual authors. For Spann, the leader of this movement, the ideal was a return to the Middle Ages.27

He who depicts the social institutions and economic organizations of the Middle Ages as models for the German people, should be aware that a bucolic Germany could support only a fraction of the present population even with the greatest curtailment of expectations. Every proposal that would reduce the productivity of labor diminishes the supportable population, and, through the deterioration of the apparatus of production, would weaken the national defenses that are so important from a nationalistic point of view. Nor can nationalism seek a solution of the German problem in a return to an agrarian society. The incompatibility of the bucolic ideals with a powerful development of national forces may explain the dark pessimism of the “doom theories” that are springing up in various forms.

If it should be true that the particular ethos of the German nation is demanding a return to production methods that lead to lower labor productivity, and that, inversely, the Western nations, the Latin nations of the South, and Slavic nations in the East think differently and apply production methods that assure higher labor productivity, the danger is real that the more numerous and productive enemies will overpower the German nation. Will the philosophers of the victors not conclude then that it was lack of adaptability that prevented the Germans from making use of their capitalistic methods of production? Will they not look upon the German mentality as being too poor and unfit for keeping its spiritual equilibrium in the presence of modern technological achievements?

Indeed, it is a gross materialistic feature of otherwise idealistic writers who believe that some externalities of life are blocking the way to inner growth and the development of inner strength. He who does not know how to safeguard his equilibrium when surrounded by motorcycles and telephones will not find it in the jungle or desert. That is, he will not find the strength to overcome the nonessential with the essential. Man must be able to safeguard himself where-ever he lives and whatever the circumstances should be. It is a sickly weakness of nerves that urges one to seek harmonious personality growth in past ages and remote places.

Sombart, as already mentioned, reveals his social ideal only between the lines. He cannot be criticized for this. But we must fault him for not offering a precise definition of the concept of socialism in a book that seeks to present and analyze a certain kind of socialism. His discussion of socialistic ideology, which introduces the work, is its weakest part. Sombart rejects the thought that socialism is a social order based on public property in the means of production. Obviously, the concept of socialism would have to be a social one, or of the social sciences, he argues, and could not be from a special field of social life, such as the economy. The emotions accompanying the controversy over socialism reveal that the term socialism must comprise yet deeper problems than “economic technology.”28But the definition Sombart then offers must finally return—although with ambiguity—to the only relevant characteristic of socialism. After lengthy discussions he arrives at the conclusion that the idea of socialism always comprises the following components:

1. The ideal of a rational condition of society is to be contrasted with a historical condition that is irrational: that is, an evaluation of social conditions as perfect or less perfect. Certain features of the ideal that are common to all kinds of socialism relate to the anti-capitalistic essence of socialism: socialism obviously must reject an economy for profit because of its irrational objectives that spring from its guiding principle. As money symbolizes the capitalistic economy for profit, it is as such a favorite target of socialistic critique. All evil of this world comes from the struggle over the ring of the Nibelungs; therefore, socialism wants to return the gold to the Rhine. In the manner socialism opposes the “free” economy it also opposes its foundation: “free,” i.e., private, property and the “free,” i.e., labor, contract. It gives rise to exploitation, the worst blemish of social life, the eradication of which is an essential program for all kinds of socialism.

2. Valuation of social conditions and adoption of a rational ideal necessarily correspond to the recognition of moral freedom, the freedom to strive for a realm of objectives with one’s own strength, and the faith in the possibility of its realization.

3. Ideal and freedom inevitably give birth to an aspiration for realizing the ideal, a movement, born in freedom, from the historically given to the rationally desired. But every confession of socialism means a renunciation of motive power, that is, from the viewpoint of the individual it means: obligation, sacrifice, limitation of the particular.29

There can be only one reason why Sombart chooses this detour, instead of retaining the proven and only viable definition of socialism: his aversion toward dealing with the genuine economic problems of socialism, an aversion that permeates his whole work and constitutes its greatest deficiency. The fact that Sombart never raises the question of whether or not a socialistic order is possible and realizable is even more serious than his renunciation of a clear definition of socialism. For only this question can provide the foundation for an understanding of socialism and the socialistic movement.

But Sombart does not want to deal with socialism in general; he wants to analyze proletarian socialism, or Marxism. However, his definition is unsatisfactory even for proletarian socialism which, according to Sombart,

is merely an intellectual sediment of the modern social movement as I have defined it since the first edition of this book. Socialism and social movement are ... the realization of that future social order that is adjusted to the interests of the proletariat, or the attempt at its realization. Socialism seeks its realization in the world of thought, the socialistic movement in the world of reality. All theoretical efforts toward revealing the desired goal to the aspiring proletariat, toward calling it to arms, organizing for battle, and showing the road on which the goal can be reached, all comprise what we call modern socialism.30

One thing is noticeable in this definition: it is Marxian. It is no coincidence that Sombart deems it proper to adopt this definition unchanged from his first edition, from the time when, by his own admission, he was still walking in the footsteps of Marx. It contains an important element from the Marxian world of thought: socialism suits the interests of the proletariat. This is a specific Marxian thought that is meaningful only within the framework of the whole Marxian structure. “Utopian” socialism of the pre-Marxian era and the state socialism in recent decades acted, not in the interests of one class but on behalf of all classes and the collective whole. Marxism introduced the two axioms that society is divided into classes whose interests conflict irreconcilably, and that the interests of the proletariat—realizable through class war only—are demanding nationalization of the means of production, in accordance with their own interests and contrary to those of the other classes.

This very thought returns in various places in the book. At one place Sombart observes that very few influential Marxian writers come from the proletariat “and therefore are only interested parties.”31And then point-blank: “The proletariat belongs to the system of capitalism; the inevitability of hostility toward capitalists springs from the class conditions of the proletariat. This hostility assumes certain forms in the social movement: labor unions, socialistic parties, strikes, etc.”32It cannot be denied that the materialistic philosophy of history is visible here in full display. To be sure, Sombart does not draw the conclusion which Marx logically drew in this case: that socialism is coming with the inevitability of natural law.33According to Sombart, the “science of capitalism” founded by Marx introduced “the idea of the regularity of economic life in our era.” It reveals “that the realization of any particular socialistic demand depends on very real, objective conditions and that, therefore, socialism may not always be realizable.” Marx thus created “scientifically” the thought of resignation which logically leads from socialism to social reform.34We need not dwell further on the question of whether Sombart’s conclusion is the one that must logically be drawn from the doctrines of Marx, or whether the opinion of Lenin and Trotsky is the logical one. It is decisive that Sombart unconsciously continues to stand on the scientific ground of Marxism. (Sombart drew the reform conclusion in his earlier writings; this is the “Sombartism” of which the orthodox Marxists speak with derogatory gestures, as they always do when something displeases them.)

Wherever Sombart seeks to describe capitalism he does so in the framework of Marx and Engels, often in their own words.35

Such are the characteristics of Sombart’s position on Marxism: while he does not embrace the founder’s naively materialistic version of socialism today, Sombart builds his more refined socialistic doctrines on the foundation of Marxism. And he draws practical conclusions other than those of orthodox Marxists. In fact, he does not oppose socialism in any form.

Sombart reproaches Marx not for his doctrine of class warfare, but for its politicalization and the final conclusion Marx draws from the doctrine: the inevitability of the proletarian victory.36In other words, Sombart does not say that the Marxian separation of classes does not exist, or that the properly understood interests of the various layers of population working in a division of labor do not conflict with each other, but are harmonious. But he says: Ethics must overcome the conflict of class interests. Besides the class principle “there are other social principles—namely those of idealistic nature.” But Marxism makes the class concept absolute.37Sombart apparently believes that man must submerge his class interests and give precedence to higher interests, to national interests. He reproaches the Marxists for not thinking in terms of fatherland, for conducting world policies, for advocating class warfare in domestic policies, and for remaining pacifistic and antinationalistic in foreign policies.

Sombart completely ignores the scientific criticism of the Marxian class doctrine. This is necessary because he wants to ignore utilitarianism and economic theory and because, in the final analysis, he considers Marxism as the true science of capitalism. According to Sombart, “Marx founded ... the science of capitalism.”38Long ago this science “demonstrated conclusively, that this economic order contains the essence of the destruction and dissolution of civilization. Karl Marx was the greatest, if not the first, harbinger of this knowledge.”39In order to escape the conclusions that must be drawn from Marx’s theories, Sombart knows nothing better than to appeal to God and eternal values.

Sombart is quite right when he professes that it is not the function of science to provide a “value critique, that is, to reveal the inferiority of individual words, analyses, and principles of proletarian socialism.” But he is mistaken when he declares that scientific critique is “but a discovery of relationships and their significance, relationships not only between the various doctrines and corresponding political demands, but also between the content of the whole system and the basic questions of intellectual civilization and human fate.”40 That is the position of historicism which is content with pursuing relationships among scientific theories and between scientific theories and metaphysical systems of thought, but abstains from developing scientific theories of its own. A sociological theory, which Marxism represents in spite of its shortcomings, can be analyzed only by examining its usefulness for an explanation of social phenomena. And it can be replaced only with a theory that is more satisfactory.41

It could not be otherwise. Sombart’s critique of proletarian socialism rests on a subjective value judgment of what he considers the “basic values” of the proletariat. Here, world view meets world view, metaphysics confronts metaphysics. It is confession, not perception, and has no bearing on science. Of course, there are many readers who appreciate Sombart’s work for this very reason. It does not limit itself to the narrow field of scientific labor, but offers metaphysical syntheses. It is not mere scientific research, but the presentation of material permeated with the spirit and personality of the man and thinker, Sombart. This is what gives the book its character and significance. In the end it convinces only those readers who already share Sombart’s view.

Sombart does not attempt a critique of the means by which socialism proposes to attain its ends. And yet, any scientific analysis of socialism must first examine the thesis of the higher productivity of socialistic production, and then question whether or not a socialistic mode of production is possible at all. Nor does Sombart’s criticism more than touch upon the problem of the inevitability of socialism.

Sombart’s book is a special literary phenomenon. It frequently happens that in a scholar’s lifetime he changes his opinion and in a new book advocates what he opposed earlier. But it was always a new book that revealed the intellectual change, as, for instance, Plato’s Laws which followed his Republic. It is very rare, however, that an author reveals his lifelong struggle with one problem in ever new revisions of the same work, as does Sombart. Therefore, we must not conclude that the present edition contains the last version of his statement on socialism. Many years of labor lie ahead, new editions of Socialism will be needed not only because previous editions are out of print, but because Sombart has not yet completed his work on the problems of socialism. The book in its present form merely represents a stage in Sombart’s struggle with Marxism He has not yet freed himself as much as he thinks he has. A great deal of intellectual work remains to be done.

Sombart’s inner struggle with the problems of Marxism is symptomatic of the thinking of many German scholars. Each edition of the book reflects rather well what the intellectual leaders of Germany have been thinking of this problem. The changes in his opinion mirror the changes in the opinion of German intellectuals who have followed his leadership for a generation.

  • 23. See W. Sombart, Das Lebenswerk von Karl Marx [The life’s work of Karl Marx], Jena, 1909, p. 3.
  • 24. W. Sombart,. Der proletarische Sozialismus, Marxismus [Proletarian socialism, Marxism], 10th ed., rev., of Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung [Socialism and social movement], Jena, 1924; vol. I, The Doctrine, vol. II, The Movement.
  • 25. Ibid., vol. I, p. 31.
  • 26. Ibid., vol. I, p. 257 et seq.
  • 27. See O. Spann, op. cit., p. 298 et seq.
  • 28. See Sombart, Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung, op. cit., vol. I, p. 5 et seq.
  • 29. Emphasis added. Ibid., vol. I, p. 12 et seq.
  • 30. Ibid., vol. I, p. 19 et seq.
  • 31. Ibid., vol. I, p. 75.
  • 32. Ibid., vol. II, p. 261.
  • 33. Ibid., vol. I, p. 305.
  • 34. Ibid., vol. I, p. 304.
  • 35. Ibid., vol. I, p. 32 et seq.
  • 36. Ibid., vol. I, p. 368 et seq.
  • 37. Ibid., vol. I, p. 356.
  • 38. Ibid., vol. I, p. 304.
  • 39. W. Sombart, “Das Finstere Zeitalter” [The dark age], Neue Freie Presse [New free press], Dec. 25, 1924.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. I cannot here go into the details of a critique of the class doctrine; I must refer the reader to my Gemeinwirtschaft, Jena, 1922, p. 265–352. [English-language edi­tion: Socialism (London: Jonathan. Cape, 1936), p. 281–358.]
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