Jeffrey Herf
Reactionary Modernism

The aristocracy, not the bourgeoisie, was the archetypal political class, for it understands the centrality of war and struggle to politics. Politics, not economics, is the decisive force in the battle of blood and tradition against mind and money. This conception of political leadership was Spengler's alternative to liberal rationalism and materialism. It was indicative of the failure of German liberalism that Max Weber warned would be the legacy of Imperial Germany's weak parliamentary traditions. Spengler's conception of politics was precisely the kind of salvation of souls that Weber had insisted ought to have nothing to do with politics as a vocation.

Spengler was not interested in economic reforms but rather in ending the influence of the economy on social life and culture. The economy, he wrote, debases the soul and saps the 'energy of the race.' It corrupts individuals by arousing in them an 'appetite for an ugly, common, wholly unmetaphysical kind of fear for one's life.' Economic life destroys 'the higher form world of culture,' replacing it with unfettered struggle for mere survival.' It is politics that demands idealism, sacrifice. Culture finds its true expression in war, the real and most radical alternative to bourgeois culture and society. Ironically, mass destruction appears as the opposite of the 'naked struggle for existence' of the civilian economy. Here, in war-as-politics, is the Kultur that supplants the stifling, secure boredom of bourgeois Zivilisation. But unlike some of his colleagues, such as Klages and Moeller van den Bruck, Spengler pointed to the need for 'unconditional domination of the most modern means; the danger of an aristocracy is to become conservative in the matter of means.' Just as Bach and Mozart mastered the 'musual instruments' of their time, so modern politics requires a similar mastery of the instruments of war.' The battle of Kultur against Zivilisation cannot be won by German Luddites spouting the cliches of volkisch ideology. Preservation of 'blood and tradition' requires the most modern technological resources. In short, Spengler's target was not the machine, but money.

This rejection of 'feudal-agrarian narrowness' modernized deep-seated romantic and irrationalist traditions, but it did not eliminate them. The conservative revolution's attack on the cash nexus pointed to a 'battle to the end between the leading powers of a dictatorial money economy arrayed against the purely political will toward order of the new Caesars.' From this battle a renewed primacy of politics over the economy would emerge. War and nationalism linked Germany's romantic and irrationalist traditions to a faulty and reactionary form of modernism, an appeal for political dictators to end the sway of economic liberalism over social life. The soul that lives in the modern economy was, in Spengler's view, that of Manchester liberalism, it was Germany's 'inner England.' In the attacks on commerce and pleas for a primacy of politics over economics, one senses a compensatory function of cultural criticism in Weimar Germany. The war against England and France that ended in defeat on the battlefield could be continued and won on the terrain of cultural criticism.

Of course, even Spengler recognized that some kind of economic activity was indispensable for social life. As one would expect, his criticism of economic activity was restricted to its 'parasitic' dimensions. The peasantry cultivating the German soil was 'creative' rather than exploitative. Its economic activity did not break the confines of religion and local custom. Urban economic activity, however, is a 'mediating' activity that amounts to a 'refined parasitism [that is] completely unproductive and thus alien to the land.' Technology is part of the productive sphere. It shapes, works over, and transforms the natural world. It is the blacksmith and his 'creative utilization' of nature that anticipate Germany's machine-tool industry.

But if the blacksmith performed a crucial economic role, the urban merchant or middleman did not. The latter lacked 'an inner bond with the land.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.