Men Towards the Ruins: German Socialism

In our last post, we went through two of the strains of Reactionary Socialism described by Marx and Engels, feudal and petty-bourgeois socialism. Today we will discuss a third variant, dubbed German or “true” socialism.

This third school of thought is a very peculiar type, specific to the context of post-Enlightenment Germany and its unification process. This period in German history was marked by tension that pitted the liberal, industrial bourgeoisie against absolutist aristocratic power. The case presented by the Manifesto is one of memetic evolution promoted by changing environmental pressures. French revolutionary literature, once disconnected from its social context, became for German intellectuals an abstract thing; a literary trope. In characteristic Teutonic fashion, German philosophers equated the proletarian interests with “the Interests of Mankind”, economic oppression with “the Alienation of Humanity”, French criticism of the bourgeois State with “the Dethronement of the Category of the General”, and so on. The transfer of social conflicts characteristic of bourgeois France to the alien German reality resulted in the relegation of said conflict to the realm of Ideas. According to Marx and Engels, as a consequence of this decantment, French discourse was completely defanged and lost its revolutionary potential.

Following the example set by French and English reactionaries, German absolutists tried to use socialist themes as a weapon with which to attack the bourgeoisie. After being co-opted by the aristocratic, Junker-dominated governments, the meme soon found a promising breeding ground in the minds of German Philistines. This numerous class of petty-bourgeois and peasants had been long threatened by the pincer of Capital accumulation by industrialists, on one side, and the revolutionary proletarians on the other. The idealist substrate of German Socialism pushed it to take the side of these Philistines. It branded them as the human core of the German Nation, and denounced the “brutal destructiveness” of class struggle which was threatening said Nation. Some of the memetic roots of National Socialism, its German idealist heritage, and its bitter rivalry with both Communism and Liberalism, can be found in this early German socialism.

This type of Reactionary Socialism, married to idealist concepts of Nation and People, was not only retrograde to Communist eyes, but had to be repulsive aswell because it directly attacked the notion of an International Proletariat. For this reason, it was the first name in the communists’ hit list, even before it mutated to its more virulent form of Nazi racialism. German socialism was exported successfully to many European countries, thanks in part to the prestige of German intellectuals in the continent. Its abstract nature, decoupled from real social conditions, also gave it a quality of mutability, making it adaptable to many different cultural contexts. Many of these “regional varieties” would put up an impressive, violent fight against Communism for most of the 19th and the 20th centuries.

The merit of Marxist predictions concerning Reactionary Socialism lies in the identification of its retrograde tendency. The communists successfully anticipated that the social conditions conducive to the adoption of Reactionary postulates would fade away. Indeed, they have been non-existent in the West for almost a century. This is the reason why most current Western reactionary movements are basically LARPing clubs. Their only alternative is to rely on external conditioners such as strict peer pressure to perpetuate themselves. This is the mechanism employed by religious sects with “traditional” values: instead of letting the meme adapt to the medium, the meme itself creates a favorable environment for its survival.

As highly-abstract memeplexes, German Socialism and its exported national variants were able to overcome the loss of their habitat, the fin de siècle capitalist hellscape. They did so through a form of convergent evolution with communism, though, and acquired in the process a revolutionary and accelerationist streak. National Socialists didn’t see themselves as counter-revolutionary, but carrying forth different type of revolution. They saw their overcoming of class distinctions as nothing but the next step in the revolutionary dialectical process.  The Futurist world of aluminum, skyscrapers and parachutes, which inspired Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, is a good example of this. The crumbling of the Axis powers after World War Two allowed for the victors to reappropriate the most successful elements of this memeplex, and breathe life into them: the rocket, the highway, the atom bomb, and the space program. As a result, the strong association this technological icons had with reactionary socialism was diluted and eventually lost. As we’ll see in future installments of this series, however, the socialists kept trying.

This article is part of a series centered around the Communist Manifesto. The following installment is available here. You can read the previous article here.