Home | Contact | Links       
Antonie Pannekoek Archives

The Structure and Practice of Totalitarianism / Karl Korsch, 1942

Source:  The Structure and Practice of Totalitarianism / Karl Korsch. – In: New Essays : A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 43-49; transcribed by Felipe Andrade, 5 November 2020.

“Had one listened to them all, as the gravedigger observed of a field of battle, not one ought to have been dead.”

The following remarks are concerned less with the factual contents of the book in question (*) than with its contribution to the anti-totalitarian fight that lies ahead of the present generation. The descriptive part of the book contains first-rate information on almost every important aspect of National Socialism with the exception of the topics culture and education, the agrarian market and the food estate, and war financing (p. 221, 349), which are specifically omitted. It is based almost exclusively on German sources, the annexed Notes contain more than nine hundred references to a slightly smaller number of distinct items. This feature alone should secure for Neumann’s book and outstanding place in the current literature on totalitarianism.

Why Behemoth?

It seems a bad omen that the author has chosen to name his book after one of the monsters of the Babylonian-Jewish eschatology. First of all, the Behemoth runing the land is no greater a plague than the Leviathan ruling the sea, and the rule of both will remain unbroken until the day of judgment. In the second plance, the title of the book does not suggest a scientific investigation of the essential characteristics of the so-called “new order” of totalitarianism. It rather leads us to expect a new contribution to that common run of anti-Nazi literature which paints pre-Nazi society all white and Nazism all black without even asking how far the victory of totalitarianism was prepared by trends and forces already operating within the preceding phases of capitalist, monopolist, and imperialist society. “To call the National Socialist system The Behemoth” means, in the author’s own words, to describe it as “a rule of lawlessness and anarchy which has ‘swallowed’ the rights and dignity of man, and is out to transform the world into a chaos.”

We shall se at a later stage that this is indeed the ultimate attitude of the author towards the subject of his study. Yet there is the redeeming feature that he does not thereby blind himself to the continuity of the trends prevailing in present Nazi society and its historical prelude, the so-called Weimar Democracy. In an introductory section he discusses the reasons for The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, and he returns to this topic in a number of subsequent chapters dealing with Racism in (pre-Nazi) Germany, Democracy and Imperialism, The Political Status of Business in the Weimar Republic, The Bruening Dictatorship and the Cartel, The Failure of Democratic Planning, and The Working Class Under the Weimar Democracy. In all these chapters, and in the discussion of many other specific questions throughout the book, he deals with a process which he quite aptly describes on one occasion as the growth of National Socialism “in the seed-bed” of the Weimar Republic (p. 413).

The reader should be careful, however, not to be misled by such critical outbursts. They are counter-balanced by at least as many testimonies to the positive accomplishments of Weimar, and their real aim is not to refute but rather to restore, in a critically purified form, the violently shattered respectability of the designs and achievements of the Weimar politicians. We shall return to this point below. For the moment we are content with calling attention to the fact that the author is most prone to describe the Nazi system as “the system of the Weimar democracy, stream-lined and brought under authoritarian controll” in those cases in which he claims for the Weimar regime a share of such outstanding performances of Nazism as its elaborate system of social security (p. 431-432) and the success of its war economy. Thus we read on p. 351 the following amazing statement:

“The contribution of the National Socialist party in the sucess of the war economy is nil. It has not furnished any man of outstanding merit, nor has it contributed any single ideology or organizational ideia that was not fully developed under the Weimar Republic.”

As every one knows, one of the main causes of the victory of Hitler was the fact that the Weimar Republic was not able to guarantee the social security of the laboring masses. It is equally well-known that whatever ideological contributions to the war economy may have been “fully developed under the Weimar Republic”, its present success is due to that tremendous efficiency which it did not attain under the pre-Nazi regime, and not even during the first years of the Nazi regime itself.

How can we explain such surprising statements on the part of an undoubtedly well-informed writer? For an answer we must deal in greater detail with certain characteristics of the author’s methodological approach and with the form in which his theoretical results are affected by his political outlook. By so doing we do not want to object, on principle, to the so-called intrusion of the partisan spirit into scientific investigations of this kind. In the present all-embracing conflict of irreconcilably opposed forces, the claim to complete detachment becomes a mere pretence. Under these conditions it appears as a sad commentary on the completeness of the defeat of the traditional socialist movement that for fully nine years after 1933 there has been no major attempt on behalf of the defeated party to re-open the apparently decided struggle in the field of theoretical thought. So far as Neumann’s critical analysis of the totalitarian society represents an attempt at filling that deplorable gap in the current anti-totalitarian literature, we have no quarrel with his socialist bias. Thought we do not agree with his particular point of view, we welcome the fact that the necessary task has been approached at last.

The Legal Mind

The first remark to be made with respect to the methods applied in the book is that the author, unfortunately, is possessed to an extraordinary degree by what is commonly described as the legal mind. In this sense his critical attack on Nazism reminds one strongly of those two Manifestos by which in 1850, in the words of Marx, “the two defeated factions of the Montagne, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Socialists, endeavored to prove that even though power and success had never been on their side, they themselves had forever been on the side of the eternal right and of all other truths”. The only difference is that according to the changed spirit of the time the primary concern of the author is no longer the principle of eternal justice but that of positive law. He complains that “the position of the party within the Nazi state cannot be defined in terms of our [!] traditional constitutional jurisprudence” (p. 74) and that “no one knows whence the constitutional rights of the leader are derived” (84). He contends repeatedly that “National Socialism is incompatible with any rational political philosophy” (p. 463). It lacks not only a “rational political theory” but even “an anti-rational one”, and this for the simples reason that “a political theory cannot be non-rational” (p. 464). He likewise denies “the existence of law in the fascist state” because, as he says, “law is conceivable only if it is manifest in general law, but true generality is not possible in a society that cannot dispense with power” (p. 451). Last but not least Nazism’s political system is not a state (p. 467) and “it is doubtful whether National Socialism possesses a unified coercive machinery” (p. 468).

“The very term ‘state capitalism’ is a contradictio in adjecto”, and “the concept of state capitalism cannot bear analysis from the economic point of view” (p. 224). Assuming that in spite of all such legal deficiencies Germany should be victorious in the present war, how will it be possible, he asks, for a future German government “to justify her influence in Middle Europe” (p. 182)?

For further illustrations of the peculiar reasoning of the legal mind we refer to Neumann’s juristic proof of the continued existence of “free labor” in Nazi Germany after the complete destruction of the right of both individual and collective bargaining (p. 337-340), and to the beautiful conclusion that the “individual measure” replacing the rule of “general law” in the period of monopoly capitalism though it destroys the only conceivable form of existence of “law” (p. 451), yet at the same time does not destroy “the principle of equality before the law” because “the legislator is faced with and individual situation”. (p. 445) (Reviewer’s emphasis).

Ideology versus History

Fully one third of the book (p. 37-218) is devoted to an analysis of the legal and political ideologies of the Nazi movement. It is extremely difficult to understand the purpose of this ideological analysis for the author’s theory. It would seem that the real subject matter is sufficiently covered by the second part of the book, which deals with the “new economy” and the “new society”. Every possible aspect of the Nazi system, including its legal and political structure, is fully discussed in this latter part of his analysis. The only form in which and independent study of the ideological slogans, which in his language constitute the “Political Pattern of National Socialism”, might add to the interest of the book would be by a historical analysis of the growth and functions of their various elements. This seems to have been, indeed, part of the author’s intention. He takes his departure from a fairly convincing description of the various phases of the historical process by which the ambiguous (half-democratic, half-“collectivist”) principles of the Weimar Republic were replaced by a series of new principles in turn predominant in the successive phases of the Nazi state. He shows the interesting interplay by which each phase of Nazi ideology, as soon as it had fully served its purpose, was replaced by an entirely different ideology. Thus the ideology of the “totalitarian state” was thrown overboard in 1934 to make way the “racial theory” which had justified the “liberation” of Germans from foreign sovereignty and the incorporation of European territories largely inhabited by Germans was forthwith rejected, and replaced by the new ideologies of “living space”, “geopolitics” and “the racial empire”, when changed conditions required the conquest of such unquestionably non-German territories as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.

Yet only a small portion of the author’s discussion of the “Political Pattern” of Nazism is presented in that genuinely historical manner. Although the author himself affirms that all we can learn from the mutually contradictory and rapidly changing ideologies of Nazism is that they are all equally irrelevant, he goes on to regard them as “the best clube to its ultimate aims” (p. 37), and to base his own analysis of the Political Pattern of National Socialism on various elements of its ideology. Just as Proudhon once described his pseudo-Hegelian method as a procedure by which “history is told not in the sequence of time but in the sequence of ideas”, so Neumann announces that the categories which he proposes to develop in his study on Nazi ideologie “do not necessarily correspond to definite stages in the growth of National Socialist ideology, although some of them coincide” (p. 38). Thus he loses himself, and bewilders his readers, in a lengthy discussion of logically and factually meaningless ideias, and it happens quite often that in this process he himself inadvertently falls for an outright fascist idea.

The Native Returns

The true meaning of the Behemoth-theory becomes clear in the Second and Third Parts of the book where the author lays bare the operation of the material and social forces that in his view determine the structure and development of the Nazi society. It is here that we are met by what at first seems to be an inexplicable contradiction.

In dealing with the “new economy” of National Socialism the author reveals himself as a staunch supporter of the unadulterated capitalist character of Nazi Society. He wages a fierce war against all those theorists who before and after the victory of Nazism in Germany described the “new” totalitarian system as a system of brown bolshevism, of state capitalism, of bureaucratic colletivism, as the rule of the “managers”, in short, as “an economy without economics” (p. 222). In his resolute defense of the capitalist character of fascism he does not even spare the arch-prophet of the whole heresy, the foremost economic theorist of the Social Democratic party, Rudolf Hilferding (p. 223). Neumann shows that in spite of the transition from free competition to monopolistic rule and an increasing interference of the state, the present German economy has retained the essencial features of a genuine capitalist economy. It is based, now as before, on private ownership in the means of production guaranteed by state, the only difference being that this auxiliary guarantee of private property is no longer the contract but the administrative act of the government (p. 260). Though it has adopted the new features of a “monopolistic economy” and, in part, of a “command economy”, the German economy of today has remained a capitalist economy. “It is a private capitalist economy, regimented by the totalitarian state” (p. 261).

Despite the increased importance of the totalitarian state power it is still the profit motive that holds the machinery together. The only distinctive feature of the present setup is that in a completely monopolistic system profits can no longer be made and retained without the totalitarian power. “If totalitarian political power had not abolished freedom of contract, the cartel system would have broken down. If the labor market were not controlled by authoritarian means, the monopolistic system would be endangered; if raw material, supply, price control, and rationalization agencies, if credit and exchange-control offices were in the hands of forces hostile to monopolies, the profit system would break down. The system has become so fully monopolized that it must by nature be hypersensistive to cyclical changes, and such disturbances must be avoided. To achieve that, the monopoly of political power over money, credit, labor, and prices is necessary” (p. 354).

An entirely different view is held by the author with respect to the corresponding developments in the political and social structure of the Nazi state. One would expect that the state, which was an indispensable implement of the society of free (capitalist) producers even in its early beginning, would become an even more important instrument of the ruling class at the time of its full development. In a sense this is what the author said himself when he pointed to the increasing dependence of the monopolistic machinery of present-day capitalism on political power. Yet he adds that the particular usefulness of the Nazi state for the aims of the present monopolistic system is derived from the fact that this state is no longer a state in the traditional sense of the term but is rather a state in dissolution. The astounding achievements of the new German economy – the abolition of unemployment, the increase in production, the development of synthetic industries, the complete subordination of economics to the needs of war, the rationing system before and during this war, the success of price control – all these universally acclaimed achievements of the Nazi economy were realized at the very time, when according to Neumann’s paradoxical theory, the German state no longer possessed the essential characteristics of a state, and its formerly united ruling class had dissolved into a number of independent “ruling classes” composed of the leading strata of the party, the army, the bureaucracy, and industry.

A partial explanation can be found in the fact that the author is not prepared to accept the Marxian concept of the state for that form of government which preceded the present Nazi state. In his view the aims of monopoly capitalism were not aided and abetted by the bureaucracy of the Weimar Republic. They were rather controlled and restrained by the alleged tendency of every public bureaucracy “to serve the general welfare” (p. 79) and, more particularly, by the forces of political democracy that were represented by the Social Democratic party and the trade unions (p. 260). “The complete subjugation of the state by the industrial rulers could only be carried out in a political organization in which there was no control from below, which lacked autonomous mass organizations and freedom of criticism” (p. 261).

This teoretical attitude of the author has a most important practical implication. If the main cause of the present unsatisfactory state of affairs is the collapse of that system of checks and balances by which the wild and insatiable forces of monopoly capitalism were controlled and restrained at the time when there was still a real “state”, the first thing that is required after victory to destroy the scourge of Nazism is to restore the genuine political democracy of the Weimar Republic. Yet under the changed conditions of the present time this alonge is not sufficient. “That much the Marxist and National Socialist criticism of liberalism and democracy have indeed accomplished”, says the author on p. 475 in an unexpected last-minute tribute to his two chief antagonists: – “Political democracy alone will not be accepted by the German people”.

*) Neumann, Franz, Behemoth. The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. Oxford University Press. New York, 1942 (XVII and 532 p.; $4.00).

© Allthough the Communist Left in general abstained from claiming copyrights or rights on “intellectuel property”, some publications on this site might be copyrighted; if they are, their use is free for personal consultation only. Non-copyrighted material, provided for non-commercial use only, can be freely distributed. Including a reference to this source is appreciated, as well as a notification. As for commercial use, please contact us.

Compiled by Vico, 8 November 2020