Othmar Spann and the ideology of the Austrian corporate state
Haag, John Joseph
Rath, R. John
Master of Arts
The Austrian scholar and social theorist Othmar Spann (1878-1950) was a major figure in the "conservative revolution" that fired the imagination of many Central European intellectuals after World War I. Born in the Habsburg monarchy as it was disintegrating under the pressures of nationalism and industrialization, Spann seemed destined for a conventional academic career until war, revolution, and economic collapse destroyed the social and ideological foundations of the old order in 1918. A series of lectures delivered at the University of Vienna soon after the war quickly made Spann a major spokesman for the "war generation"--young men whose rough-hewn idealism found few outlets in the grim world of postwar Central Europe. Published in Germany in 1921 under the title of Der wahre Staat (The True State), the ideas which Spann had previously outlined in articles and lectures soon became major ideological weapons for Rightist forces in Germany and Austria. A prolific writer and publicist as well as a gifted lecturer and teacher, Spann had by the late 1920's assembled a circle of dedicated disciples who enthusiastically spread his doctrines throughout German-speaking Central Europe. Spann's conservative view of society can be traced back to the ideas of the early nineteenth century German and Austrian political Romanticists who viewed man and his social destiny in essentially aesthetic and organic categories. In more technically philosophical terms, Spann owed much to Platonism and medieval Realism, both of which claimed that an ideal world of essences existed as such. Spann's ideal corporative society was to be based on autonomous social and economic units that would fuse to form a society infinitely more harmonious than the secular, urban, and industrialized chaos that confronted sensitive conservative intellectuals after 1918. The "true" society's ultimate rationale would be to provide meaningful social goals for both the broad masses of producers and the small elite of thinkers, planners, and dreamers who were to be the heart, mind, and soul of the new "organic" society. Particularly receptive to Spann's ideas were the disillusioned people who accepted neither the conservative and monarchist values of the past nor the Socialist, Bolshevik, or Nazi radicalism of the present. Spann's social philosophy of "universalism" was for them a viable amalgam of historicism and dynamism. Corporative ideas in general and Spann's thought in particular were popular during these years and found expression in such diverse manifestations as the political thought of Ignaz Seipel, the ambitions of Kurt von Schleicher, and the elitism of the Sudeten Germans who belonged to the Kameradschaftsbund. Denounced by the Nazis as "reactionary" and "theocratic" ideas by the Nazis in the 1930's, Spann's corporative doctrines failed to gain a foothold in prosperous and democratic post-1945 Western Europe. Above all, Spann represented the quest for social unity which had led many European intellectuals to abandon the values of knowledge for the values of action. Leaving the tranquil world of ideas, Spann came to grief in the often brutal world of political conflict.