The State – Sombart

The State

By Werner Sombart


It is obviously established in God’s plan of the world that the destiny of mankind is to be realized within the sphere of political associations.

The political association is that in which a majority of persons seeks to defend and vindicate its existence in its totality against another majority. It rests, as Carl Schmitt has aptly expressed it, upon the friend-enemy relationship. It represents the pro-con principle in society, just as the family realizes the pro-with principle. As the family is adjusted from within, the political association is adjusted from without. If the political association owes its existence to a majority of elements which disjoin mankind, the family owes its existence to a majority of the groups. Without ‘the others’ there could be no political association.

The tasks in which the ideas of the political association are manifested are as follows: (1) The external maintenance of the association in its unity and composition for the struggle against other political associations; (2) the development of those inclinations, capacities, and virtues which constitute the public, and in this sense, the political person; (3) the perfection and cultivation of peculiar values for the association in respect of body, soul, and spirit. The idea of the political association presupposes, as a historically-constructed principle, the value of group-wise separation of values and their realization. The higher spiritual values, in particular, are only brought out in particular groups, that is, in the political associations, which then become the bearers of all cultural development.

In them humanity is unfolded according to its differences, but in them the individuals are also drawn together in harmonious structures. So that both humanity and the individual nature realize their consummation in these intermediate forms which then in their development and in their struggle against one another become the real makers of what we call history.

We designate the general, comprehensive political association by a new word – ‘state’. But the thing is very old; the state, as we are to understand it here, is as old as mankind. All theories which give the state an ‘origin’ and which assume a pre-state condition are false.

In my manner of speaking [1], the state is an ideal (having ideas) association (together with family and religious association), by which I mean to say that the meaning of the state lies in the realm of the transcendental, that its purport cannot be significantly explained from an empirical, that is, ‘rational’ standpoint or from the viewpoint of an interest. That an individualistic-rational explanation of the state is excluded, the following considerations will show:

1. The ‘origin’ of ideal associations is irrational. First, in general, because they do not originate, as real associations do, but are always already in existence. Even if we regard the Puritan emigrants in America as founding a ‘new’ state, they did it as members of an existing association – England. But even then, if one would here speak of the ‘origin’ of a state, it would still not be in the sense of a rationally established association, resulting from the free decision of persons of age, since the newly established state , according to its very nature, always includes individuals who were not asked, but forced to become members: children, insane, the dead.

2. The range of problems, the peculiar kind of achievements of our association, transcend every conceivable sphere of individual interest and, therefore, do not admit of being established in its entirety by any particular interest. First of all, it is not a question of circumscribed tasks, which would be the case in every rational association, but one of endless relations. The aims lie beyond individual interests: what concern to the individual is the preservation of the species or the continuance and growth of the nation, if it implies nothing but a continuous struggle? Why should one participate in the creation of works whose completion he himself will not live to see? Why should one, as an individual, trouble oneself about the welfare of others and not only about the welfare of one’s kind, whose interests one may have occasion to promote from some utilitarian consideration, but also concern oneself with the welfare of the dead, the minors, the unborn?

3. The position of the members of a political association in relation to the organization is fundamentally different from any other relation anywhere: in all other cases the position of a member constitutes a claim; in the ideal association, it is a sacrifice, and, in fact, a sacrifice unto death. But the sacrifice necessarily presupposes a super-individual something – call it an idea – for which man sacrifices himself. It is senseless to have one individual sacrifice himself for another; the mother for the child, the warrior for the civilian. The idea may be abstract: liberty, faith, science (here too, it must be anchored in the transcendental, that is, it must be a real idea, so that the sacrifice may not appear frivolous). Or it may be a concrete idea, as it is represented in an association. Then, by that very fact, this association is characterized as having ideas, that is, its meaning points beyond this world.

I do not hesitate to call this conception of the state a genuine, German conception, and I regard the opinion, now so frequently held, that the idea of the state as represented here is foreign to German nature, as false. It certainly was first very clearly proclaimed by Germans in conscious contrast with the individualistic-rational conception of the state which came from the West.

I am thinking of the time at the end of the Eighteenth Century, when Herr von Schlözer, in his Allgemeinen Staatsrecht, could write: ‘The state is a device, men made it for their welfare, as they devised, among other things, fire-insurance.’ At that time there arose, among the romantics, the first opponents of this subaltern state-conception, who, for the first time, with strong emphasis, opposed it with another conception, namely, the German.

Thus Adam Müller permits himself to be heard as follows: ‘The state is not merely a manufactory, a homestead, an insurance association, or a mercantile society; it is the intimate union of all the physical and spiritual needs, all the physical and spiritual wealth, all the inward and outward life of a nation to a great, energetic and infinitely mobile and animated whole.’

The thoughtful statesman, Baron vom Stein, accepts this conception in almost the same words when he writes in his Memoir of November 25, 1822: The state is ‘no agricultural or factory association, but its purpose is religio-moral, spiritual, and corporative development; through its organization it should form not only an artistic and industrious, but also an energetic, courageous, moral, and spiritual people.’

To permit still another romanticist to speak in this connection, I will quote Novalis to show with what depth and clarity he expressed the German idea of the state in poetic glorification, denying all that the apostles of happiness, on the other hand, had philosophized into the state in their attempt to make it an insurance company: ‘All culture springs from the relations of men to the state . . . Man has attempted to make the state a cushion for indolence, whereas the state should be just the opposite. It is an armature of all activities; its purpose is to make man absolutely strong and not absolutely weak, to make him not the laziest but the most active being. The state does not relieve man of trouble, but rather increases his troubles infinitely; of course, not without also infinitely increasing his strength.’

This is the conception of the state which Fichte, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, each incorporated in a special philosophic system and which then, gradually, under the influence of liberalistic development, grew pale. Prussian ‘Conservatives’ and German ‘Socialists’ only, remained loyal to it. I call to mind in this connection men such as Lorenz von Stein, Rodbertus, and by no means least, Ferdinand Lassalle, who in the time of the bleakest Manchester period, under the spell of his teacher, Fichte, represented the idea of the state in eloquent words, when he explained: ‘The state is this unity of individuals in a moral whole, a unity which increases a millionfold the power of all individuals who are included within this union . . . The purpose of the state is, therefore, to bring the human being to a positive development and a progressive development; in other words, to bring human determination, that is, the culture of which the human race is capable, into actual being.’

‘However wide a gulf separates you and me from one another, my lords!’ – thus he apostrophized his judges at the conclusion of his famous defense before the Supreme Court – ‘opposed to this dissolution of everything moral, we stand hand in hand! The ancient vestal fire of all civilization, the State, I will defend with you against those modern barbarians’ (of the Manchester school).

To be sure, all this is true only if we regard the state not as an ‘organization,’ an ‘apparatus,’ or anything else that is formal, which is all too often the case (this perversion of the facts was precisely the trick by the aid of which liberalistic thought wished to devalue the inconvenient idea of the state), but see what it really is – a union of living persons. What it really and truly is, then, will be clear when we realize that there are three views (aspects), that is, that it appears to us, on closer examination, in a three-fold form, namely: (1) as a unity-nation-polis, (2) as an entirety-commonwealth-politeia, (3) as a multiplicity-association-koinonia.

This three-fold substantiality corresponds to a three-fold collectivity of the state: to (1) population, to (2) society, to (3) the personal orbit.

The German Reich is such a political grand-union or state at the present time. And this German Reich, and this only, is also the field of German Socialism. The idea of Socialism, as I have already said, is most closely connected with the idea of the state. And it would imply a complete departure from this idea to remove its activities to the interstate or superstate field. Since Socialism is a social order, it must confine its activities within the area of the state, that is, within the orbit in which the order is consistently placed. The concepts of Socialism and the state, therefore, necessarily belong together; Socialism is possible only within the boundaries of the state, but a unified, properly organized, strong state is also possible only on the basis of Socialism.


[1] I have developed my theory of association in an article, “Grundformen des menschlichen Zusammenlebens,” in Handwörterbuch der Sociologie, 1931.



Excerpt from: Sombart, Werner. A New Social Philosophy. Translated by Karl F. Geiser. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. Text retrieved from: < >.



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