Austin Harrington, German Cosmopolitan Social Thought and the Idea of the West. Voices from Weimar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 440 pages[Record]

  • William Outhwaite
William Outhwaite Austin Harrington, German Cosmopolitan Social Thought and the Idea of the West. Voices from Weimar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 440 pages. One way of reading this superb book is as a counter to “slippery slope” accounts of German thought such as Georg Lukács’ 1955 Destruction of Reason, subtitled The Path of Irrationalism from Schelling to Hitler. Lukács portrayed Simmel, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim as offering no alternative to, or even encouraging, imperial German irrationalism culminating in its fascist apotheosis; he speaks of “capitulation” and rebukes Simmel particularly for his closeness to Lebensphilosophie. Harrington instead points up the strength of liberal traditions of thought in Germany, despite their defeat in 1933. Against the image of the unpolitical German intellectual, dating back to Thomas Mann and recently restated by Wolfgang Lepenies in The Seduction of Culture in German History (2006) – see Harrington’s critique on pages 336-347 – he shows that many of these intellectuals were politically active. Even Simmel and Max Scheler were hardly unpolitical; Max Weber expected to be selected in 1918 as a parliamentary candidate for the Deutsche Demokratische Partei, co-founded and chaired by his brother Alfred, who directed the Heidelberg Institut für Sozial- und Staatswissenschaft, and Ernst Troeltsch was a DDP member of the Prussian Parliament and briefly a junior minister. More controversially, Harrington argues that many of these liberal intellectuals were cosmopolitan, not just in their Europeanist orientation (particularly strong in Simmel, the French literature scholar E. R. Curtius and the sociologist Theodor Buddeberg) but also, more precisely, in their sceptical or even hostile attitude to the “West” before and after Germany’s defeat in 1918. Unlike the aftermath of World War II, when the “Westbindung” of the Federal Republic was widely accepted, “protest at the West” was a strong theme in Weimar, across the political spectrum: […] while the liberals’ opposition to Northern Atlantic political and economic culture shared with the conservatives a certain sympathy for ideas of social tradition and order, it would look askance in equal measure at the conservatives’ virulent anti-Americanism on the one hand and tendencies to obscurantist mystification of the Orient – in both a positive romantic variant and a negative racial-chauvinist strand – on the other (p. 25). These Weimar liberals, Harrington argues, developed a nuanced critique of the West which is highly relevant to concerns in the present century over Eurocentrism. There are many dimensions to this rich argument (and to the sentence just quoted). First, we have to ask how these thinkers mediated between the nationalism they had nourished in the war (and Max Weber retained till his death, despite his virulent critique of the conduct of the war) and a more cosmopolitan orientation. Their nationalism was of course not just anti-Western (with the West meaning mainly France, Britain and the US) but also anti-Russian, with the complication that Russia now stood not only for authoritarian and theocratic reaction before 1917 but also for Bolshevik adventurism. Simmel’s death removed him from this dilemma, though he was clearly moving in a cosmopolitan direction (pp. 144-152); Max Weber, who lived long enough to see the beginnings of Weimar, clung to his nationalist conception of power politics, while Max Scheler by 1925 was welcoming the emergent “Kosmopolitismus der Kulturkreise” (p. 154) and Alfred Weber was arguing for a European federation (p. 165). I am not sure, though I cannot argue this here, that what Harrington calls the critique of the West is not more of an effort to problematise it, along with conceptions of the East and the self-understanding of Germany itself, substantially driven by losing the war and a ...