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Prussians & Englishmen, Part 2

4,216 words


Frederick the Great, King of Prussia

First installment here [2]

In order to overcome man’s inborn lethargy, the Prussian socialist ethic maintains that the chief aim of life is not happiness. “Do your duty,” it says, “by doing your work.”

The English capitalist ethic says, “Get rich, and then you won’t have to work any more.”

There is doubtless something provocative about this latter motto. It is tempting, it appeals to very basic human instincts. The working masses of ambitious nations have understood it well. As late as the nineteenth century it produced the Yankee type with his irresistible practical optimism.

The other motto is forbidding. It is for the few who wish to inject it into the community and thus force it upon the masses.

The first maxim is for a stateless country, for egoists and Viking types with the urge for constant personal combat, such as we find in English sportsmanship. It implies extreme independence of mind, the right to gain happiness at the expense of all others, as long as one’s strength holds out—in other words, scientific Darwinism.

The other, however, is an expression of the socialist idea in all its profundity: the will to power, the struggle for happiness, but for the happiness of the totality, not of the individual. In this sense Frederick William I, and not Marx, was the first conscious socialist. The universal socialist movement had its start with this exemplary personality. Kant, with his categorical imperative, provided the movement with a formula.

In the final phase of Western European culture two great schools of philosophy were founded, the English school of egoism and sensualism around 1700, and the Prussian school of idealism around 1800. They express what these nations are, as ethical, religious, political, and economic entities.

Philosophy in itself is nothing—a collection of words, a series of books. Nor is it either true or false, in itself. It is language of the life of a great mind. For the Englishman, Hobbes is speaking the truth when he sets up the “selfish system” of egoism and the optimistic Whig philosophy of the common good (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”). And Shaftesbury also speaks the truth, for the Englishman, with his portrait of the gentleman, the Tory, the sovereign personality living life to the fullest. Yet for us Kant is just as truthful with his contempt for “happiness” and usefulness, his categorical imperative of duty. Hegel, in our view, speaks the truth when, with his powerful sense of reality, he places the concrete destiny of individual nations, and not the well-being of “human society,” at the center of his historical deliberations. Mandeville, in his Fable of the Bees, declares that the egoism of the individual is the driving force of the state; Fichte says it is the obligation to work. Which is the highest goal—freedom by means of wealth, or freedom from wealth? Ought we to prefer Kant’s categorical imperative: “Behave as if the precepts governing your behavior were to become law for all,” or Bentham’s “Behave in such a way that you will have success”?

Vikings and knights—both of these types live on the antithesis of the English and Prussian moral systems. The philosophical teachings that have since arisen out of these separate worlds of sensibility, the progeny of the philosophers of both nations, all bear the same distinguishing marks. The Englishman is a utilitarian, in fact the only one in Western Europe. He cannot be otherwise, and whenever he attempts to deny this strongest inner drive of his the result is the phenomenon that has become famous as “cant”—it can be found in its purest form in the letters of Lord Chesterfield. The English are a nation of theologians. Their great revolution took on primarily religious forms, and following the abolition of the state no language except theological language remained with which to express the concerns of communal life. And so it has been: a biblical interpretation of questionable business dealings can ease the conscience and greatly increase ambition and initiative. Out of consideration for the chances of success in the personal struggle for existence, the theological mentality tends to avoid naming by its proper name the true goal of all activity: wealth.

If there is a similar conflict within the Prussian atmosphere, then it is concerned with position and rank. In many cases one is tempted to call it excessive ambition and title-seeking. In principle, however, it is a manifestation of the will to take on higher responsibility because one feels ready to do so.


Among all the peoples of Western Europe these two are distinguished by a rigid social hierarchy. This is a sign of their drive for dynamic activity. It puts every individual in the precise location in which he is needed most. Such an ordering is the result of a wholly unconscious and involuntary conservation of energies. It is natural and proper to a particular people only; no other people, no man of genius or ever so powerful will can possibly re-create it. It is an expression of the people’s fundamental moral and ethical attitude. Centuries are required for the clarification and realization of this special feeling for social structure. The Viking spirit and the spirit of the medieval knights are apparent here also: the ethos of success and the ethos of duty. The English people is structured along lines of wealth and poverty, the Prussian along lines of command and obedience.

The meaning of class distinctions is thus completely different in these two countries. In an association of independent private citizens the lowest class is the group that has nothing; in a true state the lowest class is the group that has nothing to say. In England democracy means the possibility that everyone can get rich; in Prussia it means that the existing ranks are open to everyone. Within the structure of Prussian society the individual receives his place according to his ability, not according to the demands of tradition.

France (and this means Florence as well) has never had a natural and instinctive class structure of this sort, not even before 1789. Social anarchy was the rule; there existed arbitrary privileged groups of various sizes and composition, and no firm system of relationships among them. Besides the class of court nobility there were the judicial nobles; there were types such as the abbé and the tenants généraux, and fine distinctions such as those between factions of the urban merchant class. This lack of hierarchic social structure existed in France from the very beginning, and is an outcome of the typically French penchant for égalité. In England nobility gradually came to mean primarily the nobility of wealth, in Prussia the nobility of military achievement. The French noble class has never attained such a uniformity of social significance. The English Revolution was directed against the state, i.e., against the “Prussian” sense of order in the Church and in public life. The German Revolution fought against the “English” system of wealth and poverty, which originated in industrial and commercial developments of the nineteenth century and had become the focal point for anti-Prussian and antisocialist tendencies. The French Revolution was not directed against a foreign, and therefore immoral, order; it combated order per se. That is democracy, French style.

Here, finally, we can grasp the profound ethical meaning of the slogans “capitalism” and “socialism.” They represent two systems of social stratification, one that is based on wealth and the uninhibited struggle for success, and one that is founded on authority and legislation. The Englishman would never accept commands from someone poorer than himself, nor would the Prussian ever pay homage to wealth for its own sake. Yet even the class-conscious worker in the erstwhile party of August Bebel obeyed the party leadership with the same sureness of instinct as the English laborer respects a millionaire as a recipient of divine favors. Proletarian class conflict is incapable of affecting such deeply rooted attitudes. The entire English labor movement is based on the distinction between rich and poor within the working class itself. Under such conditions it is impossible to imagine anything like the iron discipline of a Prussian-style party of millions.

“Unequal distribution of wealth” is the typically English proletarian formula, used repeatedly by Shaw. Though it sounds ridiculous to us, it is precisely appropriate to the ideal of living professed by the civilized Viking. With due respect to the magnificent flowering of this ideal in the Yankee type, we might speak of two forms of socialism existing in the Anglo-Saxon world and in Germany: socialism for the billionaires and socialism for civil servants. As an example of the first type we can point to Andrew Carnegie, who first transformed a large amount of public funds into a private fortune, only to turn around and distribute it with sovereign gesture among public enterprises. His pronouncement, “Whoever dies poor dies in dishonor,” implies a high regard for the will to power over the totality. This kind of private socialism, in extreme cases simply the dictatorial administration of public monies, ought not to be confused with the socialism of true public servants and administrators (who themselves can be quite poor). Examples of this latter form of socialism are the otherwise quite different personalities of Bismarck and Bebel.

George Bernard Shaw is today the prime exponent of “capitalistic” socialism, which still sees wealth and poverty as the controlling factors in the economic sphere. “Poverty is the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes” (Major Barbara). He preaches against the “cowardly masses that cling to the feeble prejudice that it is better to be good than rich.” The worker should try to get rich—this was the policy of the English trade unions right from the beginning. That is why there has never been a socialism in the proletarian sense in England, from Owen to Shaw—it was impossible to distinguish from the capitalism of the lower class.

For us, the controlling factor of society is the interplay of command and obedience in a strictly ordered community, be it state, party, officers’ corps, or civil service. The member of any one of these communities is a servant of that community. Travailler pour le roi de Prusse—that means doing one’s duty without giving oneself up to corrupt notions of private profit. The wages paid to Prussian officers and civil servants since the days of Frederick William I have been ridiculously small when compared to the sums required to belong even to the middle class in England. But the Prussians have worked harder, more selflessly, and more honestly. The real compensation for this work is rank. It was the same in August Bebel’s party. This workers’ state-within-a-state did not want to get rich, it wanted to rule. During their enforced strikes these workers starved often enough, but in the interest of gaining power, not for higher wages. They struck in support of a philosophy that was supposedly or actually opposed to that of their employers. They struck for a moral principle, and a defeat in their battle could ultimately mean a moral victory.

English workers were completely unable to understand this. They were not poor, and during their strikes they accepted the hundreds of thousands of pounds offered to them by German workers, who imagined that their comrades across the Channel were fighting for the same cause. Thus the November Revolution in Germany was a case of insubordination in the workers’ party as well as in the armed forces. The sudden transformation of the disciplined labor movement into a wild struggle for higher wages, fought by single groups independent of each other, was a victory for the English idea. Its failure was underscored by the fact that a new, highly disciplined organization reappeared in the Army. The only really talented personality to appear on the scene was a soldier. The German Revolution will continue in this manner, as a series of successes and failures of military authority.


The same contrast prevails in the economic thought of both countries. Political economists have committed the fateful error of thinking solely in materialistic terms. Instead of considering the multiplicity of economic instincts in the world, they always speak in general terms of the economic stratification of “man,” of “the modern age,” and of “the present.” When using such language the scientific discipline of political economics displays all the shortcomings of its English origins. For it had its start among modern Englishmen, with all their self-confidence and lack of psychological tact. It became their only “philosophy”; it corresponded to their sense of mercantile competition, success, and personal gain. With this purely English interpretation of economic affairs they have infected the minds of the Continent since the eighteenth century.

The Teutonic knights that settled and colonized the eastern borderlands of Germany in the Middle Ages had a genuine feeling for the authority of the state in economic matters, and later Prussians have inherited that feeling. The individual is informed of his economic obligations by Destiny, by God, by the state, or by his own talent—these are simply different words for the same fact. Rights and privileges of producing and consuming goods are equally distributed. The aim is not ever greater wealth for the individual or for every individual, but rather the flourishing of the totality. Thus Frederick William I and his successors colonized the marshlands in the East, regarding this as their divine mission. The modern German laborer, with his fine sense of reality, has thought and acted along precisely these lines, although the theories of Karl Marx have obscured for him the close connections between his own aims and those of the Old Prussians.

The pirate instinct of the insular nation has a wholly different understanding of economic affairs. There economic activity is considered a matter of combat and booty—ultimately, the individual’s share in the booty. The Norman state, which developed a refined technique of amassing money reserves, was based entirely on the piracy principle. The feudal system was introduced as a magnificent and elegant means to the same piratical end. The barons exploited the land apportioned to them, and were in turn exploited by the duke. The goal of all was wealth. God bestowed it on the venturesome. The modern science of accounting had its start with these sedentary pirates. The words “check,” “account,” “control,” “receipt,” “record,” and the modern term for the English treasury, “Exchequer,” originated in the accounting chambers of the Norman Duke Robert le Diable (died 1035).[1] When England was conquered in 1066 the Norman barons expropriated the Saxons, their tribal relatives, in the same way. Their descendants have inherited their outlook.

The same style is still apparent today in every English trade company and every American trust. Their aim is not to work steadily to raise the entire nation’s standard of living, it is rather to produce private fortunes by the use of private capital, to overcome private competition, and to exploit the public through the use of advertising, price wars, artificial stimulation of the consumer, and strict control of the ratio of supply and demand. When the Englishman speaks of national wealth he means the number of millionaires in the country. As Friedrich Engels wrote, “Nothing is more foreign to the English mentality than solidarity.” Even in sports and recreation the Englishman sees a test of personal, and especially physical, superiority. He engages in sports for the sake of national and world records; he enjoys prize-fighting, a sport that is closely related to his economic habits and is quite alien to the minds of gymnasts in Germany.

All this proves that the economic existence of England is synonymous with business, i.e., a refined form of piracy. The English instinct regards all commodities as booty, items to be manipulated in order to get rich. The English machine industry was created in the interest of commerce and trade, its chief aim being the production of cheap goods. When English agriculture began to limit wage cuts by fixing its own prices, it was simply abandoned in the interest of commerce. The battles between capital and labor in English industry in 1850 were concerned with the commodity “labor”—one side wanted to get it cheap, the other wanted a high price for it. Everything that Marx has to say with grudging admiration about “capitalistic society” refers principally to English, and not to a universal, economic instinct.

The sublime term “free trade” is part and parcel of Viking economics. The Prussian, i.e., socialist term would be “state control of the exchange of goods.” This assigns to trade a subordinate rather than a dominant role within the complex of economic activity. We can understand why Adam Smith harbored a hatred of the state and the “cunning beasts called statesmen.” Indeed, government officials must have the same effect on tradesmen as policemen on burglars and naval cruisers on the crews of pirate ships.

Likewise characteristic of the Englishman is his overestimation of the importance of capital sums for economic health. The materialist finds it impossible to understand that the English concept of capital is psychologically, and therefore practically (the practical life is, after all, an expression of psychic conditions) different from the French system of private means and the Prussian concept of administrative funds. The English have never been good at psychology. They have always considered their own ideas as logically binding on “mankind.” In fact, all of modern political economics rests on the basic error of equating economic life everywhere in the world with an exclusively English interest in business, and the error is committed even by those who reject the theories of the Manchester school. Marxism, in the very act of negating this theory, has adopted its patterns quite completely. This explains the grotesque fiasco of all predictions concerning the outbreak of the World War; it was said that the collapse of world economy would follow within a few months.

English-style capitalism is the only true counterpart to Marxist socialism. The regulation of economic affairs by the state, a Prussian idea, transformed German capitalism instinctively into a socialist economic pattern. The first step in this process was the protective tariff legislation of 1879. The large syndicates were, in effect, economic states within the state. They represent “capitalism’s first practical and systematic large-scale attempt, although it was not consciously planned, to understand the mysteries of its own techniques and to gain control of social forces which up to then had been regarded as natural and unfathomable, requiring passive, blind submission” (Lensch, Drei Jahre Weltrevolution).

Nevertheless, German liberalism—the Englishman within us—still worships free trade, not just the freedom of the human spirit. In doing so, the “liberal” German cuts his silliest figure. Because he has misunderstood and tended to favor certain Viking instincts, he has “summarily” rejected the authoritarian state, the suprapersonal will, and the suppression of the individual in favor of the totality. By adopting this attitude he has acted, or so he believes, “metaphysically.” That is the belief of “educated” Germans who lack practical experience: the professors, the poets and thinkers, all those who write profusely and never do anything. They cannot, of course, understand or morally accept the other form of liberalism, the pirate principle of free trade with its every-man-for-himself philosophy. They simply have never grasped the connection between the abstract notion of the autonomous self and the practical application of this notion in the offices of the large industrial and commercial firms. Therefore German stock-market liberalism has hitched the German professor to its own wagon. It has sent him to the political meetings to talk and be talked to. It has put him in the editor’s chair, where with philosophical acumen he has turned out article after profound article, conveying to a gullible public (for whom the newspaper has long since replaced the Bible as the source of Truth) political opinions that were commercially desirable to maintain. It has sent him to the legislative assembly to say “Aye” and “Nay,” thereby assuring for commercial interests, which never cared anyway for theories and constitutions, the creation of more and more opportunities for bribery and piracy.

This English-German liberalism now exerts a business-like control over practically all the important German newspapers, the entire educated class, and the liberal party. But the professors are not aware of this. In England the liberal is a liberal through and through; he is ethically free, and for this reason also economically free, and is quite conscious of the connection. The German liberal has two discrete personalities, the ethical and the commercial. The one personality thinks, the other acts and controls; only the latter personality is aware of the mutual relationship—and finds it amusing.[2]

Thus we find two great economic principles opposed to each other in the modern world. The Viking has become a free-tradesman; the Teutonic knight is now an administrative official. There can be no reconciliation. Each of these principles is proclaimed by a German people, Faustian men par excellence. Neither can accept a restriction of its will, and neither can be satisfied until the whole world has succumbed to its particular idea. This being the case, war will be waged until one side gains final victory. Is world economy to be worldwide exploitation, or worldwide organization? Are the Caesars of the coming empire to be billionaires or universal administrators? Shall the population of the earth, so long as this empire of Faustian civilization holds together, be subjected to cartels and trusts, or to men such as those envisioned in the closing pages of Goethe’s Faust, Part II? Truly, the destiny of the world is at stake.

French economic thought has been just as provincial as that of the Renaissance. Provincialism is characteristic of the mercantile system under Louis XIV, of the physiocratic school of Turgot during the Enlightenment, but also of the socialistic planning of Fourier, who aimed at dividing “society” into small economic units to be called “phalansteries” (cf. the late novels of Zola). Only the three genuinely Faustian peoples possess the inner drive to create an economic system for the whole world. The knightly Spaniards made an attempt when they incorporated the New World into their empire. As true soldiers they refrained from theorizing about their economic expansion, but by broadening geographical and political horizons they prepared the way for a new kind of economic thought.

The first country to formulate a theory about its economic activity was England, which created the notion of “political economics” to explain its own practice of universal exploitation. As businessmen the English were clever enough to realize the power of the written word over the most book-conscious nation of all times. And they persuaded their nation that the interests of its pirates were those of the entire world. They succeeded in combining the notion of freedom with that of free trade.

The third and last of these Faustian peoples, like the Spanish a true military nation, lacked the practical shrewdness of the English. Prussia’s accomplishments within its own economic sphere received in theory, with the aid of the other-worldly German philosophy of idealism, the exalted title of socialism. But the true creators of Prussian economic life were not able to recognize their creations in this theoretical guise. Thus there arose a bitter conflict between two unnecessarily hostile factions: one made up of theorists, and another in charge of practice. We have now reached the stage where it is imperative for each of the sides to come to terms with the other and to accept the task that faces both.

Shall the world be ruled by capitalists or by socialists? This question cannot be decided by two countries in competition. It has become an internal question for each and every country. As soon as the weapons used against foreign states are put aside, they will be raised again in civil war. Today, in every country, there is an English and a Prussian economic party. And when the classes and factions are tired of warfare, individual mastertypes will keep it up in the name of principle. Amid the great conflicts of the Classical age between the Apollonian and Dionysian principles, the Peloponnesian War developed out of a war between Athens and Sparta into a contest between oligarchy and demos in all cities. The decisions reached at the battles of Philippi and Actium had to be fought over again in the time of the Gracchi, filling the Roman Forum with blood. In the Chinese world the corresponding war between the Tsin and Tsu Empires, between the philosophies of tao and li, lasted for a century. In Egypt great mysteries of the same kind are concealed beneath the mystery of the Hyksos period, the hegemony of eastern barbarians. Were they summoned, or did they come because the Egyptians had become desperately exhausted by civil strife? Will the Western world assign the same role to the Russians? Our trivial peacemongers can have their talk about reconciliation among nations; they will never reconcile ideas. The Viking spirit and the spirit of the knights will fight it out to the finish, even though the world may emerge weary and broken from the bloodbath of this century.[3]


[1] The Decline of the West, vol. 2, p. 372.

[2] The Decline of the West, vol. 2, pp. 402 ff.

[3] The Decline of the West, vol. 2, pp. 414 ff.

Source: http://home.alphalink.com.au/~radnat/spengler/prussianism.html [3]