Review of Austin Harrington, German Cosmopolitan Thought and the Idea of the West: Voices from Weimar

Review of Austin Harrington, German Cosmopolitan Thought and the Idea of the West: Voices from Weimar (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 450 pages, 150CAD, 90GPB

Reviewed by Thomas Kemple

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Austin Harrington’s monumental investigation into the ‘radical centrists’ of the Weimar Republic is discussed in terms of key themes such as universalism, cosmopolitanism, and the critique of Eurocentrism that still resonate with recent debates. Contrasting the voices of lesser known critical intellectuals from this period such as Karl Jaspers and Kark Mannheim with the political writings of Max Weber and Georg Simmel, as well as with the reactionary positions of Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, Harrington’s book affords a useful critical perspective on ‘protesting the West’, yesterday and today.




Weimar Republic, Simmel, Weber, Mannheim, cosmopolitanism


‘Bonn is not Weimar’ – Governing elites and the official cultural organs of the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945 used this slogan to distance themselves from the perceived inadequacies of the era leading up to the Third Reich. Today it might evoke a series of other comparisons which stress more the similarities than the differences between now and then: ‘2001 is 1918’, each event recalling a mythical stab-in-the back by radicals at home and abroad (republican revolutionaries and Islamic jihadists). Or: ‘2008 is our 1929’, both representing a breakdown in the financial world order with profound populist and cultural ramifications. And as many pundits now suggest, ‘2016 is the new 1933’, years when the political implications of this collapse would be registered in votes for nationalist isolation and global saber-rattling. Yet, if Weimar is synonymous with a certain collective vulnerability before a political storm, it also recalls the intellectual strength of an earlier period, when the classical humanism of Goethe and Schiller was reborn in 20th century liberal political debates and humanist social science.

Austin Harrington’s monumental new book touches on many of the issues that make the Weimar period of 1918-1933 resonate so poignantly with our own, although it went press before the Brexit referendum and the US election. The subtitle, ‘Voices from Weimar’, refers not just to the conventional scholarly work of recovering utterances that have been silenced by history, but also to the necessity of hearing what they have to tell us today. His focus is not on intellectual emigrés known to many English-speaking academics, especially Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, Kracauer, Benjamin, and Arendt; nor is he mainly concerned with academic reactionaries and supporters of the regime who stayed behind, such as Schmitt, Heidegger, Sombart, and Meinicke. Rather, he considers a group of lesser known centrist yet radical thinkers who remained and resisted, including Alfred Weber, Ferdinand Toennies, Ernst Curtius, Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Jaspers, Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim. He wants to salvage the liberal humanist principles of these thinkers from occlusion in the aftermath of National Socialism. In particular, he aims to discern what remains of their legacy when the so-called Sonderweg thesis no longer holds sway – the contested argument that even the Weimar Republic’s most critical intellectuals could not have diverted the impending disaster, or even naively reinforced and paved the way to the Third Reich. Harrington’s careful analysis of the economic crisis and political forces that eclipsed the real possibility of an alternative is clear and conclusive: ‘Not use but brazen misuse of the presidential prerogative brought Weimar to its end’ (68). He emphasizes that there is no necessary causal connection or complicity between conventional academic posturing and reactionary political positions: ‘Distance and detachment of mind … need in no way preclude engagement and involvement in the practical and empathetic self’ (69). It is more likely that politics lost touch with spirit (Geist), even as some oppositional intellectuals were less politically engaged than others. Foregrounding these arguments, Harrington includes a couple more celebrated pre-Weimar voices — Georg Simmel who died in 1918 before the Armistice, and Max Weber, who participated in the Versailles treaty and the Weimar constitution discussions before his death in 1920. Like some other left liberal intellectuals, Simmel and Weber enthusiastically supported the war when it broke out in 1914, but soon took on a more tempered or (in the case of Weber) tactical tone in the wake of subsequent events. (Harrington and I have co-published on these two giants of social theory in Harrington and Kemple, 2012; Kemple and Harrington, 2016). While the historical and theoretical lessons from the writings of these intellectuals for recent academic and public debates are largely left implicit, informed readers will easily draw their own conclusions.

The differences between then and now are perhaps even more interesting, and more important, than the similarities. In the 1980s calls for a ‘third way’ between socialism and capitalism had their roots among Weimar intellectuals to forge a liberal path between fascist conservatism and soviet communism, although their efforts to advance a ‘radicalism of the political centre’ might sound oxymoronic today (28). Intellectual histories of this period tend to highlight left liberal think tanks in Freiberg, Frankfurt, and Paris while overlooking dissident academics emerging out of institutes in Heidelberg, Hamburg, and Cologne. These critical intellectuals ruminated over the naturalizing historical assumptions and self-serving political hubris of Hegel’s notorious lectures on the philosophy of history: ‘The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of history, Asia the beginning (1). For them, Germany may be situated less at the historical end than in the geographical centre and cultural inside of this process: ‘The voices that lost ultimately were not on the margins or on the fringes, but in the middle, the complex mediating interior … of the age’ (35). They remained committed to the enlightenment project of reason and freedom with its ‘philosophical voice of dissidence’ and critical diagnosis (5); and they questioned the presumption of the universal validity and significance of Western knowledge and power, embracing a kind of Occidentalism for heuristic and critical purposes but without the ideological traps of Eurocentrism (see Venn, 2000).

Harrington’s account of this counter-narrative shifts between East-West and North-South axes of European self-reflection and historical analysis, where modern liberalism is viewed as a variation on Romano-Germanic nationalism and multiculturalism. Simmel’s wartime writings, at first militant and bombastic enough to alienate younger students like Lukács and Bloch, as Ralph Leck (2000) has pointed out, were among the first to recover the cultural resources of this heritage. For Simmel, the Great War induced an ‘inner transformation’, confronting Germans with an ‘absolute situation’ and ‘spiritual decision’ to free themselves from chauvinism by recognizing their own strangeness in conversation with others. Elsewhere he focuses on the intersection of the religious and artistic spheres, contrasting the stylized schematics of the Roman worldview with the individualizing and introspective orientation of the Germanic outlook. From Michelangelo to Rodin and from Rembrandt to Goethe, Europe turned its gaze from a transcendent divinity to worldly sensuousness and secular subjectivity. In this light, Simmel’s political and aesthetic views resonate with themes from his sociological and philosophical writings – on the expansion of groups and intersecting social circles, the extension of the principles of monetary equivalence, legal equality, and political freedom, and the cultivation of an individual law: ‘The challenge for Europe’s national groups was to respond to a universal law that could be relevant to human communities and formally consistent as well as individual in its application: responsive to ethical uniqueness as the inviolable foundation of the equality of each to every other’ (151). In the 1920s, these ideas were empirically refined in the writings of Troeltsch, Curtius, and Alfred Weber, who called for a kind of re-romanization of Europe’s medieval Carolingian and ecclesiastical heritage as a foundation for modern political unity, religious tolerance, and culture of rights. In their view, historicism is an avowedly holistic and normative project for undermining European arrogance and self-absolutization while acknowledging its cultural specificity and temporal contingency.

These liberal humanist scholars hoped to account for Germany’s national-cultural difference without assuming its own specialness or Eurocentric privilege, instead advancing universal principles of justice. For Scheler and Mannheim ethical conflicts and cultural antinomies could potentially be resolved through debates over cosmopolitan norms and self-definitions. In Mannheim’s formulation, intellectuals free from economic, social, and political pressures should not drift into elitism, ativism or exoticism, but be guided rather by a rooted cosmopolitanism cognizant of the experiences of exile, isolation, and déclassement. The democratization of knowledge and an understanding of politics as science need not be based on the leveling influence of mass schooling or technocratic state management, but rather on civic training and political education. These arguments contrast sharply with the political writings of Max Weber, the heretical foil for Harrington’s thesis, here drawing on Wolfgang Mommsen’s (1984) widely respected work on Weber’s often dramatized antinomies of science versus ethics, nationalism versus cosmopolitanism, or value-judgments versus factual statements. Despite Weber’s waning enthusiasm for the War and increasing disdain for its leaders, he remained convinced that Germany could assume a ‘world-political parity of entitlement’ within the balance of great powers. Rather than wallowing in guilt or drawing moral lessons from the war, he argued for democratization and parliamentarization more as military tactics and imperial prerogatives than as matters of political principle. In fact, his sober political realism was symptomatically informed by antiquated fantasies of honor and dignity: ‘An essentially pre-modern chivalric code here stamped the character of Weber’s thinking about some of the most complex matters of international politics in a modern mass age, reflective of a sprit of the dueling and fencing rituals of the German university confraternities and in general of the mentalities of the old pre-1914 Empire’ (175).

Max Weber’s celebrated account of the spread of 16th Century Protestant culture to the Anglo-Saxon capitalist world in the 18th and 19th Century in large part leaves aside the insights of other scholars on the Latin sources of modernity in 15th Century Florence or even late 18th century Paris. Nevertheless, his particularist standpoint sounded a skeptical keynote amplified by later intellectuals: the question whether occidental cultural phenomena lie in a line of development having universal significance and value, ‘or so we like to think’, as Weber would add (229-244). Although Harrington does not highlight Weber’s insistence on contrasting the value-free principles of his scholarly writings with the rhetorical strategies of his political journalism, the difference is crucial in measuring the distance from the reactionary arguments of Schmitt and Heidegger, who abstractly prescribed presidential emergency prerogatives and nativist ideas about German character. In effect, these thinkers were seduced into traducing their scholarly calling in conflating prophetic and poetic forms of charismatic reenchantment with political prescription and historical description. In this regard, the figures who best illustrate the lack of any ‘toxic proximity’ or ‘demonic continuity’ between Weimar intellectuals and philosophical apologists of the Third Reich are perhaps Toennies and Jaspers, whose early arguments about the role of public debate in informing political opinion draw upon Alfred Weber’s analysis of the competing intra-European class codes of aristocratic culture and bourgeois civilization. Themes from their writings would later be taken up by influential thinkers as different as Habermas and Eisenstadt, among others, who owe much to the historical moment metonymically referred to as Weimar – where ‘humanism and universality reappear in pluralism and particularity, in historical transitivity and in the province of place, in a disjuncted fragment of time’ (288).

‘Protesting the West: yesterday and today’, the title of Harrington’s concluding chapter, stresses how contemporary intellectuals need not draw their critical energy from a cynical frame of mind, nor are they destined to collapse from exhaustion. In many ways Harrington’s book ambitiously updates, qualifies, and gives sociological and political economic substance to the more extravagant claims of Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason published over 30 years ago. In what Sloterdijk (1987: 389, 500) calls ‘the Weimar Symptom’, the urge to maintain oneself as a fully rational being in the face of the unreason and illusions of the age is characterized by a form of critical consciousness that refuses the false alternatives between ‘good old values’ and the ‘bad new reality’, or between pragmatists and idealists. Harrington echoes some of these sentiments in declaring the European Union ‘The Great Disappointment’ in having become an Americanizied apparatus of commercial administration and financial discipline for global comparative advantage, effectively easing the moral guilt of history and losing its appeal to the soul and solidarity of citizens. And yet, even apart from Germany’s current stature as an economic wonder, perhaps its unique intellectual legacy still has a role to play in remembering, cultivating, and modeling a national and global culture aware of its conditions of possibility, critical of the obstacles to popular response and resistance, and willing to contribute to a potentially universal process of learning and unlearning.

Other works cited

Harrington, A. and Kemple, T. (2012). Georg Simmel’s ‘Sociological Metaphysics’: Money, Sociality, and Precarious Life. Theory, Culture & Society 29 (4): 6-25.

Kemple, T. and Harrington, A. (2016). ‘Un Weber-Simmel Dialogue: Le Conflit, en Quatre Époques’. Dion, R. trans. Sociologie et sociéties XLVIII (1): 213-19.

Leck, R. (2000). Georg Simmel and Avant-Garde Sociology: The Birth of Modernity, 1880-1920. Humanity Books.

Mommsen, W. J. (1984). Max Weber and German Politics 1890-1920. Steinberg, M. S. trans. The University of Chicago Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (1987). Critique of Cynical Reason. Edred, M. trans. University of Minnesota Press.

Venn, C. (2000). Occidentalism. SAGE Press.


Thomas Kemple, Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, is author of Intellectual Work and the Spirit of Capitalism: Weber’s Calling (Palgrave 2014) and co-editor with Olli Pyyhtinen of The Anthem Companion to Georg Simmel (Anthem Press 2017).