Partisan of reaction

ML Miller reviews Ben Lewis, Oswald Spengler and the politics of decline Bergharn Books, 2022, pp238, £99

First published in Cosmonaut Magazine.

The first volume of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the west was published just prior to the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and quickly became a sensation. Often considered a prototypical example of cultural pessimism, the book found a ready audience with Germans disillusioned by the apparent failure of liberal and progressive ideals and quickly spread from Germany to other parts of Europe and beyond.

While socialists could turn to the historical materialism of Marx and Engels (further developed by Lenin in his Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, among other writings in the Marxist canon) to locate the motive force behind the events that led to the Great War, here was a book that could apparently unlock the significance of these events for Europe’s conservative ruling classes. Not only did Decline of the west attempt to explain the past: its cyclic theory of historical cultures also notoriously promised to predict, in broad outline, the future (leaving some room for contingency in the finer details).

In contrast to the materialist theory of history one finds in Marx and his successors, Spengler provided one that located the unifying force of individual historical cultures in shared ideas about time and space (a culture’s so-called Ursymbol) - ideas which are developed and refined in music, art and philosophy by an aristocracy at leisure, then imposed outward through the exercise of political power by an aristocracy in action.

Spengler was far from seeing the working class as the protagonist of world history: at worst, he viewed them dismissively as part of the urban rabble that accompanies the degeneration of a society, as it moves from a mostly rural Kultur to an urban Zivilization, and, at best, as a necessary and inevitable class grouping that can at least be persuaded to be led by their social superiors - in this way, Spengler can be seen as a kind of anti-Marx theorist of history. Although he himself rejected materialism, his thought would become a potent material force, as soon as it was gripped by Europe’s ruling elite.

Spengler is not as well known today as he once was, but his ideas remain important - both in the influence they had on other thinkers (I first became aware of him through Ray Monk’s mentioning the deep impression Decline made on a young Wittgenstein in his classic biography of the philosopher), as well as the direct influence he continues to have in certain segments of the modern conservative movement (particularly the rising anti-liberal, radical right). Given this influence, one would expect there to be robust secondary literature on Spengler; but there is not, especially in the English-speaking world.

Our lot as English speakers interested in the ideas of this Weimar philosopher has improved significantly with the publication of Ben Lewis’s Oswald Spengler and the politics of decline. Lewis is a specialist in Weimar Germany and has made a name for himself challenging common assumptions about the main protagonists of that tumultuous period. Some readers may be familiar with Lewis as a translator and editor through his work in excavating and rehabilitating the thought of Karl Kautsky after it had been buried under the volcanic ashes of Lenin’s The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky. And, just as Lewis has helped rescue Kautsky from the shadow cast by Lenin’s text, he also brings to life a Spengler who has been overshadowed by his own (misunderstood) masterpiece.

Two ways

According to Lewis, Spengler has been misunderstood in two ways. The first misunderstanding stems from a superficial reading of Decline and casts Spengler as a determinist and a pessimist. The second stems from Spengler’s own self-serving characterisation of himself as a prophet who sees “more clearly than others because [he] think[s] independently - free of parties, schools of thought and interests”.

What Lewis’s book accomplishes is to correct both misunderstandings by a refutation of this latter self-characterisation. Rather than accept Spengler as a prophet speaking under no other influence except the timeless ‘Truth’, Lewis shows (by a close examination of all of his major political writings and the historical context of those writings) how Spengler’s political views evolved over time. Within this evolution, which very clearly did happen under the sway of “parties, schools of thought and interests”, we can find elements of continuity as well as change.

Lewis’s attack on Spengler as prophet also corrects the first misunderstanding by showing how Decline does not purport to show exactly how every historical culture will play out down to the most fine-grained contingencies. Rather, the two volumes seek to show the general outlines of a movement that all historical cultures must develop through. By grasping this general outline, as well as the Ursymbol that animates Faustian (Modern) culture, Spengler hopes to provide a powerful tool with which a future (specifically German) leader might lead Faustian culture to its final end.

In other words, while it is clear that Faustian culture must necessarily follow the pattern of all previous cultures, it is not clear exactly how this will play out or what nations will take the leading role in its historical development. Spengler hopes that Decline will ensure that Faustian civilisation takes a Prussian course, as he will spell out in greater detail in his Prussianism and socialism. This anti-determinist interpretation of Decline is shown not just through a reading of the text itself, but especially by Spengler’s use of the text and its fundamental ideas throughout the development of his political career.

Two people in particular influenced The decline of the west - so much so that Spengler had arranged at his burial to have their best known works placed with him in his casket: Goethe’s Faust and Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra. In his third chapter, which admirably summarises the most important arguments of Decline, Lewis draws attention to the importance of these two authors in Spengler’s magnum opus. Goethe, and Goethean science in particular, influences the form of Spengler’s system. Goethe’s novel (and widely criticised) attempts at a morphology of living things, as exemplified in The metamorphosis of plants, was an attempt to transcend the passive classification of dead matter, as exemplified by the Linnaean system of taxonomy. The Goethean scientist, by contrast, attempted to come alongside the movement of vital matter by the use of the faculty of the imagination. Confronted with the manifold variety of plant life as we encounter it, Goethe seeks to imaginatively intuit the archetype of all plants, of which each species is a unique instance.

It is easy to see how Spengler’s system was an application of such reasoning to culture. Just as the manifold variety of plants develop from a seed to produce stems, leaves and blossoms, so all cultures are born of a unique conception of time and space (their Ursymbol), develop art, philosophy and religion, decay, as they become increasingly dominated by money and urban life, and finally die. Spengler famously identified eight such cultures: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Apollonian, Magian, Mexican and finally Faustian - the culture that is currently in its period of decline and is the vantage point from which Spengler is writing.

Friedrich Nietzsche added content to this Goethean form. From Nietzsche, Spengler absorbed the conviction that the masses are meant to be dominated by an aristocratic ruling class and his dedication to elitism is one thing that did not vary much throughout his life. As Lewis shows, he was alternately fascinated and repulsed by mass politics. He harboured an admiration for Ferdinand Lassalle and flirted with the idea of an alliance between German workers and the aristocracy in his Prussianism and socialism. This ambivalence finds its most striking expression in his relationship to Hitler, who obviously appealed to Spengler, insofar as he helped bring the hated Weimar Republic to its end, but who he also detested because of his volkisch mass politics.

Another influence on Spengler was Nietzsche’s ideas on cultural decadence, which would help shape Spengler’s conception of the transition from a culture’s high point to progressive degeneration: moving from Kultur to Zivilization; becoming increasingly urban and dominated by the rule and logic of money and finance. As Lewis notes, Spengler was so associated with Nietzsche’s thought that Thomas Mann, after he had fallen from under his spell, derided him as “Nietzsche’s clever ape”.

The ideas set forth in Decline thrust Spengler into the cultural limelight, ensuring that his later political works would gain a wide audience. In spite of gaining such an audience, many of these writings ended up overshadowed by Decline; they are no longer popularly known nor well accounted for in scholarship on Spengler, and are often seen as derivative of his more famous work. Lewis re-examines these writings and shows that, rather than being summary restatements of Decline, they draw on its ideas in order to advocate a practical political programme - a programme that changed, as the historical events they were responding to changed.

There is another parallel here with Lewis’s earlier work on Kautsky. After Lenin’s attack on Kautsky, his entire corpus came under suspicion. Even the early Kautsky, who had been a source of inspiration for Lenin, was viewed as having within him the seeds of opportunism just waiting to burst forth in his later life and works. Against this essentialising reduction of Kautsky, Lewis brings attentiveness to how thinkers respond dynamically to changing historical contexts. An essentialising tendency is also apparent in viewing Spengler’s later political works as the mere application or restatement of what he had already written in Decline of the west: just as the late Kautsky was menacingly nested as in a Trojan horse within the early Kautsky, so the later works of Spengler were already contained in the early.

German Revolution

Prussianism and socialism, written between the publication of the first and second volumes of Decline, was the first of these subsequent works. The events that prompted its writing were the German Revolution of 1918, its defeat and the subsequent establishment of the Weimar constitution.

Echoing the Russian Revolution which began the previous year, the German Revolution began with a naval mutiny and quickly spread to include the most radical elements of the workers’ movement and their trade unions. The revolution would see the most success in Spengler’s own Bavaria, but would soon be crushed by government forces led by Gustav Noske of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who would later acknowledge in his memoirs a debt of influence to Spengler’s thought. The fact that an ultra-conservative like Spengler could exert influence on a representative of the SPD is one of many reminders in Lewis’s book of the diversity and conflict present within both the German workers’ movement and the conservative movement at the time, as well as the surprising overlap that existed between ideological commitments that today are often simplistically assumed to be incommensurable.

This diversity within the workers’ movement and overlap between elements of that movement and conservative thought helps explain the otherwise strange title of the work. Lewis asks: what could be the basis of an interest by an avowed elitist like Spengler in socialism? The answer lies in two competing notions of socialism implicit in the thought of the time - one inspired by Marx, which emphasises class conflict and the struggle for democracy; and one inspired by (among others) Lassalle, which emphasises German nationalism and harmony between classes for the sake of the German nation. Spengler’s thought at this time was marked by his ambivalence toward mass politics alluded to earlier.

Though Spengler held the radical revolutionaries that briefly ruled Bavaria in the greatest possible contempt, he also lamented the Weimar parliamentarianism that put an end to this time of revolutionary fervour: what was needed was to harness that fervour and steer it toward Spengler’s political ends. Because the revolutionary energy was coming overwhelmingly from the workers’ movement, this movement must be coaxed away from the twin dangers of Marxism and liberalism, and put at the service of building a German nation capable of taking the reins of history and giving the end of Faustian culture a Prussian character. The danger would be that the other great political power of the time (in Spengler’s estimation), the English, would rise to the occasion and lead Faustian culture to a less desirable end.

In the five years between the publication of Prussianism and socialism and his next major political treatise, Rebuilding the German Reich, the revolutionary fervour of 1918 dissipated and the parliamentarian status quo of the Weimar era took precarious root. Lewis demonstrates how in this interval Spengler, sensing this shift, abandoned his appeal to German workers and began networking among the classes that had now taken up national leadership: the leading German industrialists and conservative parliamentarians. In Lewis’s estimation, Spengler was among the most well connected political actors of this period which challenges the popular image of Spengler, the solitary prophet, that is one of the main targets of Lewis’s book. He writes:

The immediate aim of this activity is twofold. On the one hand, Spengler is attempting to unite in a single, coordinating body (beyond the party-political affiliations he despises) the very best and brightest representatives of anti-Weimar German nationalism from the fields of politics, economics, the military and the media … On the other hand, Spengler expends much of his time and energy on establishing a clandestine press headquarters (Pressezentrale) to steer the output of the press with an invisible hand and thereby improve the standing of rightwing and nationalist ideas in society.

Along with Spengler’s anti-democratic elitism, Lewis shows that this belief in the power of the press to shape public opinion in a conservative direction is a constant in Spengler’s political writings. As early as the first volume of Decline, he had drawn the parallel between the importance of the study of rhetoric in the declining era of Apollonian culture and the modern press in the declining era of Faustian culture. In both cases, far from being a medium of truth, both rhetoric and the press are mere instruments in the struggle for political power to be wielded by the ‘great men’ destined to shape history.

As Lewis notes, this emphasis on a clandestine press network financed by capitalists and intended to steer public opinion in conservative directions is one of several aspects of Spengler’s thought that have taken on a contemporary relevance. Viewed from today’s perspective, with the ubiquity of capitalist-funded think tanks and the world’s great press outlets owned by a small coterie of well-connected billionaires, Spengler does appear as a kind of prophet. In his own time, however, he would be frustrated in his attempts at uniting conservatives and building a rightwing press capable of directing the flow of historical events toward the destruction of democratic politics. Rather, when a moment of crisis arrived in the autumn of 1923, the opportunity to overthrow the Weimar Republic was seized not by one of Spengler’s favoured political statesman, but by the imbecilic (in Spengler’s estimation) Adolf Hitler in the failed Beer Hall Putsch. The failure of Hitler’s endeavour brought this brief period of revolutionary ferment in the Weimar Republic to an end and ushered in - no doubt to Spenger’s consternation - another period of stability.

This return to the status quo was the context in which Rebuilding the German Reich was composed in 1924 - a prolific year in which he would also publish the second volume of Decline. Lewis shows how inattention to this context has misled some Spengler scholars into the belief that this work demonstrated a shift in his thought toward a slightly more positive assessment of parliamentary democracy. By a close reading of the text and attentiveness to Spengler’s activity at this time, Lewis shows that Spengler’s hatred of liberalism, democracy and parliamentarism were as strong as ever. What Rebuilding represented, rather, was an attempt to promote certain reforms within existing political and cultural institutions which would make the eclipse of those same institutions more probable in the long term.

What explains the difference between this work and previous works is the political context: while Prussianism and socialism was written just after an extraordinary period of revolutionary fervour led by the working class (hence its focus on a new type of conservative and uniquely German socialism), Rebuilding is written in a period of liberal revanchism (hence its emphasis on institutional reform). Lewis astutely identifies Spengler’s strategy in both cases, when he says “he incorporates a concept into his political proposals in order to rid it of its real content at the same time”. What appears to be a positive evaluation of socialism and parliamentary reform in these two writings are in actuality an attempt to weaken and combat them by redefinition. What looms in the background in all of his political works, the intended end of this political theorising, is the need to prepare a dictatorial leader to take the helm of political power and steer it away from democracy and parliamentarism.


This leads us back to the great enigma of Spengler’s life. The nine-year period between Rebuilding and his next major political work, The hour of decision, was marked by the rise of just such a dictatorial leader: the same Adolf Hitler he held in contempt a decade earlier during the failed Beer Hall Putsch. It is understandable that Spengler would have been leery of Hitler in 1923, but by 1933 he, on the face of it, appears to have been doing something very similar to what Spengler advocated in Prussianism and socialism and Rebuilding the German Reich: to the former, promoting a German ‘socialism’ that empties the word of its Marxist connotations and emphasises harmony between classes in the service of duty to the German nation; to the latter, calculatingly using the institutions of parliamentary democracy to create the conditions for superseding those same institutions.

So what explains Spengler’s continued wariness of Hitler and National Socialism? Though he barely mentions either in The hour of decision - to considerable consternation within the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) - Lewis draws attention to a few aspects of the Nazi movement which continue to give Spengler pause.

The first is their preoccupation with biological race. Some commentators have drawn attention to this objection, attempting to paint this as a commendable and principled act of anti-racism on Spengler’s part, but Lewis brushes off such feeble apologetics by showing how Spengler, while eschewing a biologically-based anti-Semitism, nevertheless embraces a kind of metaphysical anti-Semitism. In Spengler’s system, Judaism was a manifestation of Magian culture (a culture, as RG Collingwood and other historians have noted, which is entirely made up by Spengler). Its survival through the Faustian age is purely a function of Jewish sectarianism and communalism - defining features of the anti-individualist Magian soul. So, while Spengler does not essentialise biological race, he nevertheless strongly objects to Judaism as an outmoded way of being, which is intrinsically at variance with the Faustian worldview. In addition to Spengler’s (non-biological) anti-Semitism, Lewis shows how The hour of decision utilises the language of biological race in its references to (bad) coloured peoples and (good) white peoples. So much for Spengler taking a stand against racism!

This brings us to his second objection to National Socialism. Faustian culture, with its ever-expanding drive toward the infinite, cannot be at peace with its neighbours. It must always venture outside of its borders. As he insists in The hour of decision, it must do this especially because any perceived weakness, peacefulness or submissiveness on the part of white civilisation will invite the attacks of the coloured peoples on the western world. Lewis notes Spengler’s startling naivety here. He seems to have uncritically accepted the Nazis’ early attempts at reassuring the rest of the world that it did not have aggressive or expansionist aims. This is yet another example of the supposedly prophetic Spengler misunderstanding the nature of the Nazi moment.

The third and most important reason for Spengler’s wariness of Hitler and the Nazi Party is that the latter is a party and all parties, as he emphasizes in The hour of decision, are of the left. Here, again, the consistent thread of Nietzschian elitism and heroic individualism that is present throughout his political works asserts itself. The new Caesar prophesied by Spengler would arise from within an elite class and would assert himself even against that class. This is a principle reason for Spengler’s admiration of Mussolini and Lenin. Both, according to Spengler, were not averse to dominating and subduing their own parties for the sake of amassing personal power. Spengler, at this time, believed Hitler did not have this will-to-power within him. As Lewis shows, this was yet another misapprehension of Hitler and his movement - one that would prove particularly tragic to Spengler.

In spite of these misgivings on the part of Spengler, Lewis highlights a short period of time in which there seemed to be an opportunity for rapprochement between Hitler and Spengler. While his caution regarding Hitler remained, Spengler enthusiastically welcomed the erosion of liberal and democratic norms that his rise represented. He seemed to believe at this time that while the Nazis were flawed, with the right guidance they could advance the type of political regime favoured by Spengler.

There were two key events in this rapprochement. The first, the culmination of a long effort on the part of Goebbels in recruiting Spengler to the Nazi cause, was an invitation for Spengler to make a speech at the Potsdam Day Ceremony marking the reopening of the Reichstag - an event meant to unite the National Socialist movement with older forms of German conservatism. Spengler strongly considered the invitation, but his caution won out again and he declined.

The more important event, however, was an hour and a half long meeting between Hitler and Spengler which took place in July of 1933 at the Bayreuth Festival. Though some later commentators have speculated that this meeting was uncongenial to both men, Lewis draws attention to the diary of Spengler’s sister Hilde written right after the event in which she records her brother’s positive impression of Hitler. Though he still did not strike Spengler as the prophesied world-historic Caesar figure, he nevertheless seemed to enjoy their discussion. The content of this discussion has been a matter of controversy (Hilde notes at least that they discussed France and the Protestant church in Germany). One particularly interesting piece of speculation mentioned (but not necessarily endorsed) by Lewis is that of Klaus P Fischer, who believes that one of the topics of discussion was Spengler’s belief that a world-historic leader must not be afraid to purge his own party. If that was discussed between the two, and if the discussion happened to make an impression upon Hitler, Spengler might be the author of his own fall into political irrelevance. This is because, almost a year after their discussion, during the so-called Night of the Long Knives, Hitler carried out just such a purge of his party. Unfortunately for Spengler, one of the principal victims of that purge was Gregor Stasser, the one prominent member of the NSDAP for whom Spengler had a personal affinity and with whom he had struck up a friendly correspondence - a correspondence he promptly destroyed after Stasser’s murder. The purge would also result in the death of Spengler’s friend, Willi Schmid, though this was on account of a clerical error rather than any prominence on the part of Schmid that Hitler might find threatening to his personal power.

This traumatic event would mark the end of Spengler’s attempts at influencing the course of history through his political writings. On account of this personal loss and his subsequent resentment toward the Nazi party, as well as the NSDAP’s growing distrust of a thinker who had resisted their advances and cozied up with the Strasserite fifth column, Spengler spent the rest of his life in retirement and politically irrelevant in a Third Reich that continued to increase in power. He passed away three years prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Lewis understandably does not devote much attention to this quiet period of Spengler’s life, since the focus of the book is on his political thought, as expressed in his writings. But it was in this period especially that Spengler cultivated the self-serving image of himself as an aloof prophet, perhaps because he had failed in his lifelong dream of being an advisor and counsellor to the great German statesmen from whom he hoped a new Caesar would arise.

In addition to being an important contribution to the scholarly literature on Spengler, Lewis’s book does not allow this broken and bitter late Spengler to have the last word on his own legacy l

ML Miller

First published in Cosmonaut