Elena Kagan’s senior thesis at Princeton University, recounting the history of socialist politics in New York City, cited the theories of an influential German Marxist who notoriously switched allegiances to Nazism after Adolf Hitler attained power.
Werner Sombart was widely recognized as an academic proponent of Marxism and was once praised by Karl Marx’s colleague Friedrich Engels as the only German professor who understood Marx’s Das Kapital. During World War I, however, Sombart endorsed Germany’s "heroic" war against the "capitalist spirit" represented by England. In 1934, Sombart published Deutscher Sozialismus, which advocated the "total ordering of life" as an expression of the German Volksgeist, or "national spirit."
In the introduction to her 1981 thesis, Kagan addresses a question famously asked by Sombart: Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus? — "Why is there no socialism in the United States?"
"The Socialist Party of the United States could not lay claim to the kind of pure proletarianism that Sombart considered essential to any socialist movement; indeed, most of the party’s members did not even consider this a worthy goal," Kagan wrote on Page 3 of the thesis. "But the American socialists ‘failure’ to build a movement that even resembled Sombart’s idealized notion of a class-conscious party . . . did not render their party any less significant. Nor did such a failure render their party any less successful. In the first two decades of the twentieth century the American socialist movement, whose very existence Sombart refused to consider, grew if not by leaps and bounds at least by inches."
In the final pages of her thesis — To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933 — Kagan returns to Sombart’s theories, writing: "Why, in particular, did the socialist movement never become an alternative to the nation’s established parties? In answering this question, historians have often called attention to various characteristics of American society that have militated against widespread acceptance of radical movements. These societal traits — an ethnically divided worked class, a relatively fluid class structure, an economy which allowed at least some workers to enjoy what Sombart termed ‘reefs of roast beef and apple pie,’ — prevented the early twentieth century socialists from attracting an immediate mass following. Such conditions did not, however, completely checkmate American socialism."
Even before he embraced National Socialism, Sombart’s socialist theories reflected an anti-Semitic tendency that identified Jews with capitalism, a theme explored in his 1911 book, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben ("The Jews and Economics," which was published in a 1913 English translation titled, The Jews and Modern Capitalism). In his 1915 book Handler und Helden ("Merchants and Heroes"), Sombart praised the "heroic" German character, contrasting them with "Trading Peoples," especially Jews, whose "commercial" habits Sombart depicted as prevailing among the English.
The influence of Sombart, who died in 1942 at age 78, was scornfully cited in Friedrich Hayek’s famous 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. In Chapter 12 of that book — "The Socialist Roots of Nazism" — Hayek said that Sombart "had done as much as any man to spread socialist ideas and anticapitalist resentment of varying shades throughout Germany."
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