Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Ideological Background to the German Corporate Tradition

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Ideological Background to the German Corporate Tradition

Article excerpt

The remarkable economic revival of a shattered post-war Germany and its continued economic strength in an otherwise tattered European Union can be partially attributed to its relatively trouble-free employer/employee relations. This dated but hitherto unpublished manuscript traces the intellectual contributions of eleven German theorists to the political and ideological foundation of the German corporate tradition; a tradition which views commercial and industrial corporations as collaborative enterprises with labor and management working together for a common goal in what may be described as a family atmosphere.

Key Words: German Corporate Tradition; German economic success; medieval guilds; French Revolution; Romantic movement; Johann Gottlieb Fichte; Adam Müller; Georg W. F. Hegel; Franz von Baader; Karl Georg Winkelblech (Karl Marlo); Friedrich List; Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler; Franz Hitze; Baron Georg von Hertling; Albert Schäffle; Adolf Stoecker; Otto von Bismarck.


The growth and development of the paternalistic and collaborative attitude of German employers toward their workforce and as a political ideology can only be understood and analyzed as an outgrowth of trends of thought that had characterized German intellectual life since the French Revolution. The French Revolution, with its emphasis on the individualism, rationalism, and empiricism of the Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the Commercial and Industrial Revolution, which was accompanied by the growth of capitalism and the capitalist spirit on the other hand, were two movements that deeply affected German thought and German life. And as a result, both movements produced strong reactions and responses in Germany. In the view of Othmar Spann, following the French Revolution German "economists turned away from atomistic and mechanistic views towards an organic conception of society, a conception which was rooted in philosophy and bore fruit in the romanticist movement. A universalist social and economic idea was contraposed to an individualist one."1

The greatest impact of this German response was felt in the field of philosophy. The overthrow of empiricism effected by Kant led to the replacement in post-Kantian philosophy of an individualism based on the doctrine of natural right with a universalist and organic conception of the State. The cultural expression of this new philosophy was romanticism. In Germany romanticism emerged as a political and economic movement of some consequence. However, in England and the rest of Europe it remained a literacy and cultural expression. The romanticist conception of the relation of man to society was decribed by Spann in the following passage:2

Regarded by the romanticists as a part of a universe, man was no longer looked upon as individualistic, as isolated; he had now become a member of the cosmic commonwealth. Thus, too, in the State and in society he was no longer contemplated as subjective and self-governing, but as a member of a living and organized social aggregate. The skepticism and mysticism of the ego must be extended to the community; State and society had to be absorbed into the cosmic continuum, and it was in this wise that they became the objects of romanticist scrutiny.

Spann concluded that "romanticism was the first countermovement directed against the Enlightenment, humanism, and the Renaissance. In it the German spirit was striving to return to its former self, to the self which had come into being in the Middle Ages. Hence, romanticism may be aptly termed neo-Gothicism."3

The economic aspect of the German response manifested itself in a renewed interest in corporatism and corporative institutions. Prior to 1789 the "old corporative order" had commonly been taken for granted in central Europe, since German society had retained intact a large assortment of characteristically medieval institutions, even after the rise of the absolute monarchies. …

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