Academic journal article The Historian

Rudolf Hilferding and the Total State

Academic journal article The Historian

Rudolf Hilferding and the Total State

Article excerpt

Among those who fled Germany in 1933 were Rudolf Hilferding and his colleagues in the executive committee of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Within months of Adolf Hitler's appointment to the chancellorship, the National Socialists had reduced the once powerful SPD to political impotence and forced its leadership into exile. The Nazi triumph marked the failure of the SPD's rigid adherence to parliamentary tactics under Weimar and forced the party leadership to rethink not only its entire political strategy, but also the theoretical basis of its policies.

Hilferding, one of Social Democracy's most important economic theorists and a leading SPD journalist and politician during the Weimar Republic, played a central role in this rethinking process. In exile, he fundamentally revised his earlier views on the nature of state power and developed a theory of the totalitarian or "total" state. The evolution of Hilferding's thoughts on the state, especially his analysis of the state within the context of the SPD's struggle against National Socialism and communism, illustrates the ways in which Hilferding worked to reorient the theoretical foundations of the party's strategy in rapidly changing political circumstances.

When the Weimar Republic collapsed, Hilferding had long been a prominent member of Social Democracy's oligarchical leadership. A member of the SPD's executive committee after 1922, for the next three decades he edited such leading publications as Vorwarts, Die Freiheit, and Die Gesellschaft. The publication of his great work of political economy, Finance Capital (1910), firmly established his reputation as a leading economic theorist, and between 1924 and 1933 he served in the Reichstag as the SPDs chief spokeman on financial matters. In 1923 and 1928-29 he was finance minister in the German government.(1)

Hilferding grounded Social Democratic political tactics within a framework of Marxist political economy. In his view, there could be "no understanding of present day economic tendencies, and hence no kind of scientific economics or politics" without a knowledge of the laws and functioning of finance capital. The formulation of a political strategy required Hiferding to develop a clear position on the SPD's relationship to the state. His analysis stressed the economic framework in which the state developed and reflected shifts in the SPDs own internal and external political circumstances.(2)

Before World War I, Hilferding followed the traditional Marxist view that identified the executive branch of the modern state as a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." He regarded the state as the "conscious organ of [a] commodity producing society" which reached the height of its power in the era of finance capital. For Hilferding the most important features of "modern capitalism" were "those processes of concentration which, on the one hand |eliminate free competition' through the formation of cartels and trust, and on the other bring bank and industrial capital into an ever more intimate relationship." Through this relationship, he argued, capital assumed the form of finance capital which, "in its maturity, is the highest stage of concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the capitalist oligarchy."(3)

Hilferding also thought that the development of finance capital created the economic preconditions for socialism, which could be achieved only through the seizure of political power. Workers, organized in trade unions and in the SPD, could use the state to wrest large-scale industry from the control of finance capital and transform it into public property. He thought that it was possible for the working class to win state power through electoral means, but that capitalist suppression of workers' rights or a major war between rival capitalist powers could lead to violent revolution. Nevertheless, he did not argue that the SPD itself should "make" the workers' revolution. …

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