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Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies / Karl Korsch, 1942

Source:  Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies / Karl Korsch. – In: New Essays : A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 1-9; transcribed by Felipe Andrade, 5 November 2020.

“Things have not happened to me; on the contrary, it is I who have happened to the world.” Though incongruous as a description of the impact of a politically insignificant writer on the world, this paradoxical assertion of G.B. Shaw’s helps to explain a type of deviation from the traditional concepts of history which tends to arise in our time under the impact of the so-called totalitarian revolution. There is undoubtedly a sentiment in non-totalitarian countries today to the effect that “Adolf Hitler has happened to the world”. On the other hand, this is also the mood in which a victorious totalitarian war-band might view its own relationship to the rest of the world.

Certain hints in this direction can be discovered in the very language of the present-day Nazi movement. “Space” or “living space” in this language connotes not just any territory in which people live, but more especially such territories outside the present domain of the Nazi rule as will belong to their empire when the time comes. Thus, there were a “Sudeten-Raum” and a “Donau-Raum”, but there never was an “Elb-Raum” or a “Rhein-Raum” since those territories belonged to the German empire anyway. Even the “world” has no longer kept its traditional geographical connotation. It means to the true Hitlerite the world in which the Nazi empire lives and moves and which in due course will become in fact what it already is in essence – a part of Greater Germany, of the Nazi-dominated United States of Europe, or of whatever more extended area will ultimately suffice for the as yet undetermined “living space” of the German race. Yet we must be careful not to overestimate this or any other feature in the ideology of present-day totalitarianism. In contrast to the belief held by many students of recent German history, the ideology of National Socialism offers no clues to its real aims. Unlike other ideologies, it does not even reveal the socio-political realities of a given historical situation or the genuine needs of a definite social class.

Whatever semblance of consistency can be discovered between the flagrantly meaningless and irrelevant phrases assembled in Mein Kampf, and the actual policies of the Nazi government is not of a logical order, nor does it result from any but the most arbitrary correlation between facts and ideias. The rapidly changing slogans of Nazism reflect nothing but the fleeting conditions of the immediate situation or the task at hand. They are not even pragmatic but outrightly opportunistic. Their very contradictions do not express, as other ideologies do, the real conflicts and struggles of a given society. They rather arise from a conscious attempt to conceal existing conflicts under the veil of newly invented and altogether fictitious conflicts.

Nor would it help to describe Nazi ideology as a systematic negation and revaluation of all traditional values in the sense of Nietzsche. It is true that one of the most striking features of Nazism during the last ten years has been its absolute irreverence towards the traditional doctrines of state, law and economics, and all other practical and theoretical taboos of the past which might in any way have obstructed its supreme goal of efficiency and conquest. Yet this destructive work has been a means rather than and end, and a matter of practice rather than an oppenly accepted part of the official Nazi ideology.

The main line of Nazi thought is neither traditionalistic nor modernistic, neither conservative nor nihilistic. Nazism is essentially a counter-revolutionary movement, and it partakes of all the uncertainties, the half-truths, and the mixed nature of the long sequence of counter-revolutionary movements which during the last one hundred and fifty years have disturbed the “normal” progress of European society as conceived by the several lines of inheritors of the historical philosophy of the French revolution. We must not be misled by the occasional approaches to a genuine activistic concept of history which occur in the speeches delivered for particular purposes by one or another of the leading Nazi ideologists. We must not, for example, fall for the pseudo-Nietzschean phrases with which at the first National Convention of the Historians of the New Germany in Erfurt, 1937, the president of the new-fangled “Imperial Institute for History tried to raise his audience to the level of the historical occasion. "Like the singer Tyrtaeus”, said Dr. Frank, “the historian should strut in front of his marching people and testify to the eternity of the people against the coming and going of the individuals”.

The Old and The New Imperialism

Another and a much more important step towards a break with the traditional conception of history is contained in the work of Karl Haushofer. It would be an oversimplification to regard the “geopolitical” theories of Haushofer and his school merely as a forceful continuation of the imperialistic tendencies of the preceding epoch which was represented, among others, by the German historian, Treitschke, and the British historian, Seely. These tendencies were still bound more or less closely to the traditional ideias of the epoch inaugurated by the French revolution. The main problem was still to create the conditions for an unrestricted exploitation of the world market; the inevitable result to draw all nations, even the most “barbaric” ones, into the orbit of Western civilization. “The bourgeoisie”, said the Communist Manifesto of 1848, “compels all nations, on pain of extiction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, to introduce what we call civilization into their midst, that is, to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world in its own image”.

As the writer has pointed out in another article (1), that whole dream of a cosmopolitan of the bourgeois mode of production and of the ensuing domination of an entirely “civilized” world by the Western bourgeois class suffered several serious shocks before the advent of totalitarianism. Far from transforming the whole inhabited earth into one huge colony of the capialist West, the world-wide expansion of Western technics, science, political and economic institutions, nationalism, methods of warfare, merely created new weapons which the peoples of China, Japan, India and the Arabian world of Eastern Asia and North Africa could turn against the western aggressor. Thus, since the beginning of the 20th century, there has arisen that new type of imperialist expansion which found its hitherto most efficient application in the theory and practice of totalitarian aggression.

The new techniques of imperialism which were invented almost simultaneously in the East and the West are utterly different from the methods applied by that old-style imperialism of the 19th century which is somewhat nostalgically described by its eulogists as a “democratic” form of imperialist expansion. The difference does not consist, however, in an increase of violence; ruthless violence has been characteristic of every historical phase of capitalist colonization. The novelty of totalitarian politics in this respect is simply that the Nazis have extended to “civilized” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilization.

The tremendous difference between the old and the new imperialism is expressed ideologically in the collapse of the “civilizing” mission which was formerely attached to the conquest of the so-called “undeveloped” parts of the inhabited earth either by the imperialists themselves or at least by those who hald-heratedly opposed their realistic politics. Though this ideological claim of the liberal philanthropists, educators, historians, and other humanitarian ideologists was never fully justified, it was not entirely meaningless in regard to the objective outcome of the competitive race for colonies that was characteristic of the foreign policies of the 19th century. There is a grain of truth even in the well-known assertion that the English “have conquered their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness”. It was for markets, trade, privileges, and for the more efficient protection of economic positions already gained that the British state expanded the area of its political domination. It is also true that this old type of capitalist expansion did not lead to a very reliable form of permanent domination. As early as a quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence, the French philosopher, Turgot, likened colonies to “fruits which cling to the tree only till they ripen”. According to this ideia, which after the loss of the American colonies was widely accepted among British politicians and historians, it was considered axiomatic that “every conquered empire is ephemeral”. Even today and ideological trust in the educational mission of capitalist colonization is maintained in certain quarters of the radical intelligentsia in non-totalitarian countries. As Bertrand Russell says in his critical discussion of the most recent phase of English politics in India, the advantages of a higher level of civilization which at first are all on the side of the conqueror are bound to decrease with time. To be ruled, the conquered territory must be unified. Thus, sooner or later a movement of freedom will arise and will ultimately lead to the overthrow of the conqueror’s rule which is based on “prestige and bluff” rather than on real force anyway.

Whatever limited application the theory just described may have had for the British and other types of 19th century colonization, it is certain that it no longer applies to the new imperialism of such totalitarian world-powers as Russia, Japan, or Hermany. These powers do not even pretend to aim at a world-wide expansion of their particular brand of "civilization". They have learned to forestall the dangers which, according to the traditional theory, threaten the permanence of every capitalistic conquest and colonial expansion. They can be relied on not to unify but rather to further divide the European and extra-European spheres of their imperialist domination. Far from communicating their superior industrial and military skills to their colonial subjects, even to the modest degree in which this was done, or rather involuntarily allowed to happen, by previous rulers of empires, they do not shrink from attempting to de-industrialize even the fully developed industrial countries of Europe and other continents for the benefit of the conquering minority. There is no doubt that their policy is based on an altogether new concepton of the historical process itself and of the part to be played in this process by their own wholly unfettered action.

Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Aspects of Totalitarianism

It is not so certain today as it seemed to the uncritical admirers of totalitarian achievements a few years ago that the Nazis will be able to live up to the ruthlessness of their own original program. It was comparatively easy to apply the new methods of totalitarian conquest to countries which had lagged behind in the development towards totalitarian forms - a general trend which can be traced more or less distinctly in the external and internal policies of all the great powers of the world, at least since the end of the first world war. It proved more difficult to achieve the same striking successes under more competitive conditions. The monopoly of the Nazis in totalitarian warfare and politics was broken when they tried to subdue Russia in June, 1941, and when a few months later the entrance of Japan into the war transformed a hitherto essentially European affair into a truly word-wide conflict. Since then a much less confident spirit has revealed itself on various occasions in the general tone of Nazi politics. It would seem that during the last phase even the conduct of the war itself has shown a certain tendency to relapse to the forms of the first world war.

Amidst and unprecedented collision of imperialistic forces, in which the weaker side endeavored to enlarge its conquering power by a simultaneous attack on the whole internal structure of present-day society, a fatal ambiguity appears within the aims of Nazism itself. After having gambled with the ideia of a world-wide social revolution, the Nazis seem to shrink from the risks and consequences of their own original plan. Thereby they demonstrate the intrinsic limits of a counter-revolutionary movement in contrast to e genuine revolution.

The Historical Philosophy of Nazism

The preceding analysis shows that the striking ambiguities which we observed in the ideological manifestations of Nazism are based on the equally ambiguous character of its historical action. In spite of appearances, totalitarianism in its present form had not yet freed itself from the traditional concepts of a bygone historical epoch. The Nazis have abandoned the ideias of the ascending phase of the capitalist age only to fall for the undynamic, fatalistic and pessimistic concept of history which in the last pre-totalitarian phase was expressed in Spengler’s Decline of the West. Every student of Hitler’s speeches during the past twenty years has been aware of the fatalistic despair which formed the persistent background of his pronouncements even in those moments when he tried to inspire his followers to their most daring and decisive actions. This somber aspect of the historical philosophy of present-day totalitarianism is worked out at great lenght by the old and new ideological exponents of the Nazi myths and doctrines from Moeller van den Bruck and Rosenberg to Juenger and Steding; it is present as an unmistakable undertone even in the utterances of such extremely activistic representatives of Nazism as Professor Haushofer.

National Socialism did not break with that long tradition of the historians by which, after the revolutionary inauguration of the present system of European society, the “making of history” was gradually transformed into an objective in which history is no longer made but rather is suffered and passively accepted by men. An important contribution to that transformation was made during the 19th century by the idealist philosophy of Hegel and, after him, by the materialist philosophy of Marx. When Marx and Engels finally broke with the “unscientific” dreams of the preceding generations of socialists and anarchists, they also abandoned that great activistic concept of history which Marx in his youth had summed up in the famous statement: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it.” In its further development the so-called scientific socialism of the Marxist parties was to lose even the last remnants of a revolutionary creed while, on the other hand, some of the allegedly un-scientific and Utopian elements of earlier socialist thought proved themselves scientific and realistic enough when they were turned against their “scientific” detractors by the Nazi counter-revolution.

The final step in eliminating all activistic elements from the historical philosophy of the 19th century was made by the ruling bourgeois class itself. Like all other “philosophy”, even the philosophy of history was still too reminiscent of the revolutionary period of bourgeois thought and was therefore finally abandoned and replaced by a system of highly specialized and thus throroughly de-revolutionized historical sciences.

The ultimate decay of the bourgeois conception of history was reached in the pan-historism of the present epoch which found its classical formulation in the work of Spengler.

The Age of Pan-Historism

“When we dream that we are dreaming
we are on the point of waking.”

It seems that today we have arrived at a completely historical, and a completely detached, conception of history itself. We know that every approach to history, every term applied to it, and every result of historical research reveals something not only about the attitude of the writer but also about his time and about his particular position in the economic, political, and cultural struggles going on in his time. We can no longer be fooled by the flippant contention of an ultra-modern writer that the historian “should leave out as much as possible”, or by the more intelligent pronunciamento that it is more important for the historian to forget than to remember. We know that more than a century ago Hegel said that “thought is after all the most trenchant epitomist”. We can not be outsmarted by the equally paradoxical demand of a well-known Harvard professor that the historian “should start with and avowed bias towards the facts of history”. Socialist criticism had convinced us long ago of the shaky character of the so-called “objetivity” of history and economics and all other historical sciences of the bourgeoisie. It was only under the impact of the totalitarian counter-revolution that the same critical principle was adopted by a number of stalwart defenders of the unbiased nature of all true scientific thought, while at the same time and for the same reason some of the adherents of a strictly partiasan philosophu and science became remarkably less enthusiastic about the inevitable and whole-some class and party divisions in the realms of theory and culture. We can even smile at the modern craving to introduce a sufficient amount of bias into the historical writing of a highly sophisticated time. We know that no amount of such consciously inculcated bias can rival the strength of the entirely unconscious bias contained in the economic and political theories which were universally adopted during the whole length of the bourgeois epoch. A good example is offered by the implicit faith of the political economists in the inevitability of the particular form of commodity production which prevailed during the early phases of the bourgeois epoch.

To make a long story short, there is nothing in the historical writing of yesterday, today, and tomorrow that can not itself be explained and understood as the outcome of a particular epoch by the completely historical spirit of the present generation. For us it depends entirely on the given conditions of a definite period whether “history” is treated as a providential history of Creation or as a profane history of Civilization, and in the latter case, whether its subject-matter is supposed to be Civilization (in the singular and with a capital C) or a number of coordinated civilizations; whether it is regarded statically as a recurrence of essentially the same processes or dynamically as a “development”, and whether the development in question is conceived as an external movement of visible and tangible objects in space and time or as so-called “internal” development in time; whether it is considered to move upward or downward or on the same level, in a straight line or in spirals or cycles; whether it proceeds from the simple to the complex or vice-versa; and whether it is regarded as a harmonious cooperation of individuals and groups or as a struggle of every man against every man, of nations, races, or classes.

Furthermore, it depends on the historical facts of a hiven epoch whether history is dealt with optimistically as a progressive development or pessimistically as a decline of cultura; as a continuous process or as a series of alternating advances and relapses, of organic and critical periods, of prosperity and crisis, peace and war. Again, the outcome of the historical process may be conceived as blind destiny or as a man-made event, as produced by the people as a whole, or as thrust upon a recalcitrant mass by a select minorityof great men, of geniuses, dictators, or madmen; as an unconcious growth or a mechanical movement; as a meaningless chaos or the unfolding of a great cosmical order.

Equally dependent on prevailing conditions is the question of whether the historian approaches his subject-matter in a dogmatic or a critical mood, with a rational or a mystical method, and whether he regards his work as a passive reflection of the objective historical process in the mind of an outside observer or as a by-product of his active participation in the historical movement itself.

Again, it is decided by the objective character of a hiven epoch what fields of human activity are included in the historical research and which of them are emphasized. History may be represented as a religious or a political, an economic or a cultural process; it may be treated as a history of technics and science, of human behavior, social institutions and ideias. It may be regarded as a cosmical process in which the development of human society in “historical time” is only a short and somewhat discreditable episode; or again, all development of nature and human society may be represented as an incarnation of the mind or “the idea” per se on its way towards ultimate self-fulfillment. Or, finally, this spiritual interpretation of history may again be reversed and history regarded as a never-resolved conflict between the productive forces of society and the successive forms of their actual application.

Towards a New Function of Historical Knowledge

This pan-historical view of the present age is not only the end-term of a protracted development of the past. It contains at the same time the basis for an entirely new approach which may be described alternatively as the final rejection of the fetishistic concept of history or as the ultimate historification of all human activities and of all fields of social research.

While we are slowly getting used to regarding the historian and his work as being just as historical as history itself, history seems to lose in importance. It certainly loses all claim to an independent existence. There is no longer a history in general, just as there is no longer a state in general, economics, politics or law in general. There is only a definite, specific kind of history belonging to a particular epoch, to a particular structure of society, or a particular civilization. This does not mean that history is reduced to a mere ideology. It rather partakes of the mixed nature (half material, half ideological) of such “institutions” as the law, the church, and the state. As such it has been treated in Hegel’s Philosophy of Law where “world-history” is discussed along with the family, civil society, and the state as one of the attributes of what the philosopher calls Die Sittlichkeit but what is, in fact, the particular structure of modern bourgeois civilization.

On the basis of this new approach the fetishistic concept that the development of the world happens in history is replaced by the relativistic statement that each particular form of history is part and parcel of a given structure of society and changes its form and contents along with the transformations that take place on the economic, political and other spheres of the society to which it belongs. And just as we can imagine a future structure of society in which not only the theory of the state, but even the state itself will have dropped out of existence without having been replaced by another state, we can imagine a time when there will be no history. Something of this kind must have happened to the Egyptians and to other Eastern civilizations at the time when they passed from their dynamic period of the genesis and growth to a less dynamic period during which they tried more or less successfully to protect their society against a threatening disintegration by establishing a universal state. A similar change is in store, according to the theories of Spengler and A.J. Toynbee, for every existing form of civilization, including our own proud civilization of the West.

The ultimate result of the new approach to history here considered is not a total loss but rather a different application of the theoretical knowledge that hitherto was aquired by historical studies. When every theoretical and practical form of dealing with social facts comes to be based, among other things, on a full regard for their particular time-conditioned aspects, an independent science (or philosopy) of history per se will be considered just as superfluous as a comprehensive science of “nature” per se has been regarded for a long time. Just as the physical sciences of today become more and more closely related to their practical application in technology and industry, so theoretical history will ultimately be fused with its practical application to the concrete tasks to be solved by associated individuals within the framework of a given form of society.


*) The World Historians from Turgot to Toynbee, Partisan Review, September, 1942.

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Compiled by Vico, 6 November 2020