Compendium: A Reading of Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism (Part I of IV)

The proliferation of differing interpretations of Socialism after 1945 is indicative of a lack of awareness about its historical origins. Yes, there is the commonly-known association of the “Socialist Mode of Production” to “Scientific Socialism,” the interpretation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But neither Marx and Engels nor Liberal Capitalism itself can account for the true origins of Socialism as a Western philosophy. A specific instinct, an inclination has to be responsible for the continued existence of Socialism in the world as of late. Unknown to most people, Oswald Spengler had once posited the argument that Socialism originated from Prussianism, the philosophical worldview of Prussia.

Many people who decide to read Oswald Spengler’s writings will come away with the impression that its message is “pessimistic.” They have pointed to the overly pessimistic message of The Decline of the West as if mesmerized by the decades-old meme which claims that the work to be such. Some have decided that pessimistic meme is more truthful than any actual reading of the work itself and its associated additions will thus be persuaded by opting for the more “optimistic” writings of Arnold Toynbee.

In reality, there is hardly anything “pessimistic” about “the decline of the West, which at first sight may appear, like the corresponding decline of the Classical Culture, a phenomenon limited in time and space, we now perceive to be a philosophical problem. That, when comprehended in all its gravity, includes within itself every great question of Being.” To understand the significance of the term “Being” is akin to understanding the Heideggerian conception of Sein (Being) from Being and Time. For contemporary readings of Decline of the West cannot be considered ‘complete’ without a subsequent reading into Prussianism and Socialism, a political treatise which Spengler had written in response to the failures of German Marxists during the November Revolution of 1918-1919.

The treatise begins with Spengler asking the reader about the semantics behind the term “Socialism.” He wanted the reader to think critically about whether the term itself has any meaningful substance as a political-economic philosophy. He also implored the reader to question whether the term can be equivocated with Marxist Theory or can it become the basis of a more distinct form:

The word “Socialism” designates the noisiest, if not the most profound, topic of current debate. Everyone is using it. Everyone thinks it means something different. Into this universal catchword everyone injects whatever he loves or hates, fears or desires. Yet no one is aware of the scope and limitations of the word’s historical function. Is Socialism an instinct, or a planned system? Is it a goal of mankind, or just a temporary condition? Or does the word perhaps refer simply to the demands made by a certain class of society? Is it the same thing as Marxism?

People who aim to change the word continually fall into the error of confusing what ought to be with what shall be. Rare indeed is the vision that can penetrate beyond the tangle and flux of contemporary events. I have yet to find someone who has really understood this German Revolution, who has fathomed its meaning or foreseen its duration. Moments are being mistaken for epochs, next year for the next century, whims for ideas, books for human beings.

By having the reader ask themselves if Socialism and Marxism exist as two mutually distinct philosophies, Spengler proceeded to introduce the reader to the concept of Prussian Socialism. He wanted the reader realize that there is far more to Socialism than what is commonly understood. It is as applicable to a contemporary context as it is to its original historical one. In essence, to break down all class barriers is to simultaneously break down the coexisting barriers between time and space so as to render Socialism itself as timeless and therefore unchangeable. The “Destiny” which Spengler described is referring to a sort of mentality that is as monastic as it is Socialistic. It cannot be described as an “ideology” but a cultural inclination that can be adopted by those who resonate strongly to this Prussian way of life.

What I am describing here is not just another conciliatory move, not a retreat or an evasion, but a Destiny. It cannot be escaped by closing one’s eyes, denying it, fighting it, or fleeing from it; such actions would merely be various ways of fulfilling it. Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt [Translation: “Fate guides the willing and drags the unwilling along”]. The spirit of Old Prussia and the Socialist attitude, at present driven by brotherly hatred to combat each other, are in fact one and the same. This is an incontrovertible fact of history, not just a literary figment. The elements that make up history are blood, race—which is created by ideas that are never expressed—and the kind of thought which coordinates the energies of body and mind. History transcends all mere ideals, doctrines, and logical formulations.

For the work of liberating German Socialism from Marx I am counting on those of our young people who are sound enough to ignore worthless political verbiage and scheming, who are capable of grasping what is potent and invincible in our nature, and who are prepared to go forward, come what may. I address myself to the German youth in whom the spirit of the fathers has taken on vital forms, enabling them to fulfill a Destiny which they feel within themselves, a Destiny which they themselves are. They must be willing to accept obligations despite hardship and poverty; they must possess a Roman pride of service, modesty in the exercise of authority, and the willingness to take on duties readily and without exception rather than demand rights from others. These conditions once met, a silent sense of awareness will unite the individual with the totality. Such potential awareness is our greatest and most sacred asset. It is the heritage of anguished centuries, and it distinguishes us from all other people—us, the youngest and last people of our culture.

It is to these representatives of German youth that I turn. May they understand what the future expects of them. May they be proud to accept the challenge.

In “Section I: The Revolution,” one will immediately note that Spengler devotes entire portions of the first Section following the Introduction to a polemic against the plotters of the November Revolution. It is a condemnation of what was a farce that helped contributed to the demise of the German war effort and the defeat of Germany by the end of the First World War. What can be discerned here is the following:

-The English Revolution of the 17th century saw the emergence of Liberalism and all of its associated variants. “English instinct decided that power belongs to the individual. Life is a free-for-all, every man for himself, the stronger man wins. The English opted for liberalism and the belief in the inequality of men. The state was to exist no longer; everyone was to fight his own battles, for in the end it would benefit all”;

-The French Revolution of the 18th century led to the emergence of “democracy” but more specifically Anarchism. “The instinct of the French decided that all men are equal, and hence power should belong to no one. There was to be no such things as subordination, and therefore no order and no state—in fact, nothing at all. This theoretical ideal of Anarchy has, in practice, been periodically reaffirmed (in 1799, 1851, 1871, and 1918) by the despotic rule of generals and presidents”;

-The German Revolution of the late 19th-early 20th century, of which Spengler was critical of, was an attempt at realizing Socialism. He especially abhorred its outcome in relation to the November Revolution, going as far as lambasting the notion of a “fourth estate.” That term may have been absurd at the time of Prussianism and Socialism’s writing, but it has become more relevant as evidenced by the rise of cosmopolitan “world-cities” (to use a Spenglerian term) by the turn of the 21st century.

Where Spengler wrote favorably of Socialism was when he described it in relation to Prussianism. “Prussian instinct declares that power belongs to the Totality. The Individual serves the Totality, which is Sovereign. The king, as Frederick the Great maintained, is only the first servant of his people. Each citizen is assigned his place in the Totality. He receives orders and obeys them.”

 It was from this particular description which informed Spengler’s articulations on Prussian Socialism throughout the rest of the treatise. Furthermore, one could argue that “Section II: Socialism as a Way of Life” delved into expanded conceptualizations of the “Class Struggle,” “Anti-Imperialism,” and “World Revolution” from Marxist Theory, but transposed onto the context of nation-states vis-à-vis the terminology of Decline of the West. Here, the Historical Morphology that defines the Spenglerian model of history and its use of Hegelian Dialectics are the surrogates for the “Historical Materialism” and “Dialectical Materialism” from Marxist Theory respectively.

The Class Struggle takes on an international depiction of Liberal Capitalist Nation-States versus Socialist Nation-States. Socialism is as much Anti-Imperialist as it can also be Imperialist, the Socialist World Revolution being a reflection of the Faustian Will-to-Power. What Spengler was describing in regards to Socialism having an Imperialist dimension can be surmised by what Vladimir Lenin referred to as “Socialism in Words, Imperialism in Deeds.” In essence, the Maoist concept of “Social Imperialism,” a diatribe against the Cold War-era foreign policies of the Soviet Union, was preceded by Spengler’s insight into the Faustian mentality.  

This Spenglerian interpretation of the Class Struggle can even be understood from the purview of Jungian Psychology. It is as much a part of the Collective Unconsciousness as it a part of the Collective Consciousness. Applying a Jungian interpretation raises all kinds of implications. Does the changeover from Culture to Civilization, according to the Spenglerian model of history, create the conditions conducive to the realization of Socialism? If so, does its emergence appear during a Culture’s transitional phase or upon its completion to Civilization? If not, why?

Depending on how one chooses to answer those questions, they remain relevant to the contemporary Faustian long after the end of the Cold War. Put another way, the prevalent of Liberal Capitalism around the world is merely the result of a November Revolution having been conducted on a worldwide scale. If one is still applying Spengler’s logic, then an argument can be made that true Socialism will someday return to finish what it had started. 

Only in this context will Spengler be able arrive at the following conclusion:

Still, at the base of this powerful Collective Consciousness there is inner hostility and contradiction. Concealed within the soul of every culture is a single, irreparable fissure. The history of each culture is a never-ending conflict between peoples, classes, individuals, or tendencies within an individual—it is always the same awesome problem. As soon as one historical element makes its appearance it immediately calls forth an opposing element. Nietzsche has identified for us the great dichotomy of Classical life which reappeared again and again in various forms: Apollo and Dionysus, Stoics and Epicureans, Sparta and Athens, senate and plebs, tribunate and patriciate. With Hannibal at Cannae, Epicurean Hellenism stood in opposition to the Rome of the Stoics and senators. At Philippi, the Spartan element of Rome was defeated by the Athenian element personified by the Caesars. Even in Nero’s matricide we can discern a triumph of the Dionysian idea of panem et circenses over the Apollonian rectitude of the Roman matrons. Throughout all the epochs of Chinese history, in Chinese life and thought, battles and books, we can perceive the antithesis connected with the names of Confucius and Lao-tse and the untranslatable concepts of li and tao. Similarly, it is one and the same schism in the Faustian soul that has shaped our destiny through the Gothic and Renaissance, Potsdam and Versailles, Kant and Rousseau, socialism and anarchism, and which will go on shaping it right up to our last days.

Yet even so, this Destiny is unified. The discord and antithesis serve a higher reality. Epicureanism is but another form of Stoicism; Aeschylus brought together Apollo and Dionysus; Caesar combined senate and plebs; the Taoism of Lao-tse helped to create Confucianist China. And the Western peoples whose instinct is anarchic are themselves truly socialistic in the larger Faustian sense.

By articulating the Class Struggle in a Jungian sense as opposed to the Marxist interpretation, it becomes natural to perceive a natural rivalry between Socialism and Liberal Capitalism. The “German” and “British” national identities are, to borrow two terms from Jungian Psychology, the “Personas” of two “Selves” within “Section III: Prussians and Englishmen.” It is these two Personas which overshadow the other competing ones from France, Spain, and Italy.

If it has been established that Anarchism is associated with the French, what can be discerned from the Spanish and the Italians? Spengler cited “Ultramontanism,” a political order where the Catholic ecclesiastical authority of the Papacy and the Archdioceses and Dioceses of Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, as being aligned with the Spanish. The Italians can be understood as being the “little states or principalities” that were the subjects of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Going by these descriptions, five sociological categories can be discerned from Section Three: 

-Totality (Prussian)

-Church (Spanish)

-State (Italian)

-Class (French)

-Individual (English)

There are three meanings which can be discerned from Spengler’s usage of the terms “Totality” and the “Individual” within Section III and arguably the rest of Prussianism and Socialism. It can refer to the People and an Individual who exists among them; the Central Government and State Governments; and the Union or Reich and the States and Regions who constitute as geographical territories within its borders. The “German Reich” and the “American Union” are both descriptive of a Totality. The Prussianism advocated by Spengler and the Federalism touted by Alexander Hamilton over a century prior can be both understood as being analogues to the same idea, the same Destiny of the Faustian. The “German Michel” and the “American Democratic-Republican” of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party are reflections of the same Faustian tendency toward Liberal Capitalism.

Alexander Hamilton

The American analogy regarding the significance of “Totality” and “Individual” puts Spengler’s analysis of the United States into perspective. It is clear from his own conclusions that, despite having a limited discussion on America, he was alluding to the “Great Divergence” within the Federalist Party between Hamilton and James Madison, a protégé of Jefferson, and the subsequent fall of the Federalist Party and Hamiltonianism in particular. The significance of the Great Divergence to Prussian Socialism, including a cross-examination of Hamiltonianism, will become apparent in Part II.   

Federalist Party Emblem



Categories: Compendium, Economic History, Philosophy, Politics

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