Ferguson and Spengler on Imperialism

Oswald Spengler was certainly eccentric, and some of his ideas were legitimately dangerous.  But in straying far from the beaten path, he occasionally stops you dead in your tracks.

I think he does this with his thoughts on imperialism.

Niall Ferguson represents the traditional view of imperialism as it relates to the overall health of the West in his excellent ” The War of the World.”  For Ferguson, Western Civilization peaks just before World War I.  At this point the West ruled close to half the globe in some way, shape, or form.  Their massive overseas expansion was therefore a sign of health.

This should not surprise us.  Expansion requires

  • Abundance of energy and drive
  • The necessary resources to carry out one’s will
  • A great degree of power relative to those you encounter

All this backs up Ferguson’s position.

But Spengler comes at the question in an entirely different way.  For him, the expansion on the scale Europe indulged in ca. 1850-1914 meant the end of the West was nigh, and I think that came from his psychological approach.

For Spengler, a civilization is healthy when it possesses a vibrant ‘inner-life’ and is at peace with their place in the world.  When a civilization exhausts its inner life, the only thing left is to extend the possibilities of the self outwardly.  So — expansion is sign of boredom, of weakness, a lack of vitality.  Just as we would think that a person who needed constant variety would be bored, so too civilizations.

The picture continues if we apply this idea to a 50 year old man in ‘mid-life crisis.’  What does he do?  He buys a sports car and obtains a trophy wife.  Suddenly he is very tan.  Many admire his “vigor,” and he convinces himself that youth has been restored.

But we know that he deludes himself.  His “expansion” of “energy” comes from profound inward unease.  Rather than deal with it, he paints over it through activity.

I find Spengler’s lens of viewing civilizations as organic, not material, entities compelling.  But this is a great Rubicon to cross, and has many implications. . .



Spengler’s “The Hour of Decision: Germany and World Historical Evolution”

I confess I am a bit mystified by the high reviews some give this book. It’s not just the disturbing racial undertones  of what Spengler says, but the lack of coherent, consistent, and original thinking that made this book a bit of a chore for me.

One highlight, however, is that here is a Spengler book I can actually understand (for the most part).

The book blurb talks of how this book influenced Nazism and Hitler in particular. Unfortunately, there is good reason for this link. Spengler talks a lot about race, racial vigor, blood, and so on in ways that are most definitely unnerving, considering that he wrote in 1933. So, some of it is distasteful, some of it is frightening, and some of his talk about race is downright absurd. But Spengler is too smart for us to dismiss this book outright.

This link between Spengler and the Nazis may not be fully justified. At one point Spengler writes, “Those who talk too much about race no longer have it in them. what is needed is not a pure race, but a strong one, which has a nation within it.”  I think that Spengler would probably accuse the Nazis of “protesting too much” about race in general. He would have thought that their racial obsessions marked deep insecurities.  At least I hope so.

If we unpack this quote I think one can get to his main point. Spengler likes things to be definite. He likes specific cultural achievements and style (i.e. the Gothic). He likes particular people to make their mark on history (i.e. Bismarck). He likes rights particularly defined, at one point praising Burke for talking about his ‘rights as an Englishman,’ as opposed to vague, uncontexualized, “human rights.” He critiqued the Weimar Republic , for example, for eroding all the best that “Prussianism” had to offer Germany.  Here at least I don’t think I can agree.  I admit it’s easy to dislike the Weimar Republic but much easier and better to hate the word “Prussianism.”

This is why he did not like democracy. He brings out the old saw that it essentially is mob rule and will create a blase and meaningless culture.

Is there anything here worth considering?

  • He has a decent analysis of W.W. I as the wrong war to fight at that time. The real enemy was Russia, and any war fought by Germany with such opposites as Russia and France was bound not to be decisive.
  • He makes thought-provoking comparisons between Russia and the U.S. Both, he argues, have despotism in their future. And his links between democracy and despotism are worth considering. The size and scope of the country (note again his preference for measurable, definite things) will naturally pull us in that direction. Of course Jefferson disagreed and thought the size of the country would prevent it from being centralized. We shall see, and I certainly hope that Spengler is wrong on this one.