Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Political Theory > Historicism in German Political Theory

Historicism in German Political Theory

             A movement or spirit lies within the flow of history that dictates and guides the drive of every man and the occurrence of every event. Far from the simplest formulations of determinism, this concept of historicism sees an ongoing progression and completion in the development of both man and society, inevitable as the tides and just as irresistible. This historicism is a common strand that links Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and Marx together though they utilize it to differing ends. I believe it will shed some much needed light onto the topic at hand first to briefly discuss Karl Popper’s definition of historicism. From there I shall show how Kant proposes historicist elements devoid of any German or national emphasis and instead focuses on cosmopolitan society. Subsequently I shall discuss how Hegel and Fichte reduce the scope of historicism and limit it to the German nation and German people. Lastly I shall show that Marx saves historicism from a nationalistic and state-centered deviation carried out by Hegel and Fichte by returning the historicist vision to a global scale and ignoring the German ‘chosen-ness’ aspect of Hegel and Fichte’s approach.

            For Popper, historicism is, “the doctrine that history is controlled by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man.”[1] Most often, and of most interest here, is the idea of a ‘chosen people’ who are the protagonists in God’s play. But we need not use a theistic approach, as Popper points out: “A naturalist historicism, for instance, might treat the developmental law as a law of nature…an economic historicism, again, as a law of economic development,” and on and on. I believe that naturalist historicism is most exemplified by Kant’s writings, and this historicism is warped first by Hegel and next by Fichte by adding the element of ‘the chosen people’ as Germans. Marx alters this naturalist historicism to reflect a more economic approach, replacing conflicting natural desires with class-struggles and the Germans with the Proletariats.

Kant’s Cosmopolitanism

            For Kant, everyone exercising their own wills freely results in the fulfillment of nature’s planned outcome for humanity and society. Our seemingly autonomous actions play a role in developing our species toward a completion of our capacities. On this Kant says:

History…allows us to hope that, if it examines the free exercise of the human will on a larger scale, it will be able to discover a regular progression among freely willed actions. In the same way, we may hope that what strikes us in the actions of individuals as confused and fortuitous may be recognised in the history of the entire species, as a steadily advancing but slow development of man’s original capacities…Individual men and even entire nations little imagine that, while they are pursuing their own ends, each in his own way and often in opposition to others, they are unwittingly guided in their advance along a course intended by nature. They are unconsciously promoting an end which, even if they knew what it was, would scarcely arouse their interest.[2]

In Kant’s mind, Nature has given man a conflicting set of desires and motivations and it is through the resulting conflict that we are pushed towards our ultimate end.  Even as we pursue our own self-interested goals we are nonetheless contributing to this development of our capacities as a species. As he says, “Nature should thus be thanked for fostering social incompatibility, enviously competitive vanity, and insatiable desires for possession or even power. Without these desires, all man’s excellent natural capacities would never be roused to develop.”[3] Through these contentious relationships we are driven to both consider our own self-interest as well as work with others, albeit begrudgingly, thus fulfilling the part written for us by Nature and moving closer to our fulfillment.

            Those drives within us that derive from our nature force us first to cooperate with one another and subsequently to form states. But our development does not end there, for “the distress produced by the constant wars in which the states try to subjugate or engulf each other must finally lead them, even against their will, to enter into a cosmopolitan constitution.”[4] This cosmopolitan society is one based in peace, where a federation of states joins forces for peaceful trade and to end bloody wars. Kant does believe that we are approaching this cosmopolitan society, though it may be several cycles away. Our continued interest in perpetuating constitutions and our desire for lasting state governments and treaties shows Kant that we are at the very least within sight of our full capacities: “And this encourages the hope that, after many revolutions, with all their transforming effects, the highest purpose of nature, a universal cosmopolitan existence, will at last be realized as the matrix within which all the original capacities of the human race may develop.”[5] It is very important to note that no nation is held aloft in Kant’s writing as chosen by Nature to lead the way into such a cosmopolitan state.

            Ultimately we are not guided by what we do but rather by our often hidden or obscured nature. Of this Kant says, “The success of this immeasurable long undertaking will depend not so much upon what we do (e.g. the education we impart to younger generations) and upon what methods we use to further it; it will rather depend upon what human nature may do in and through us, to compel us to follow a course which we would not readily adopt by choice.”[6] We shall now turn to Fichte and Hegel, who will discard this idea and promote German education as the means towards developing the German state.

The German State: Hegel and Fichte

            In Hegel as in Kant, we find the idea that world events and human actions are driven by some spirit or movement in the course of history[7], one which the naïve excuse away behind talk of chance and separate events lacking cohesion. This naiveté is partially due to a narrow perception.[8] Of this Hegel says, “For their concepts are just as limited as their view of things, which they interpret merely as individual events and not as a system of events ruled by a spirit.”[9] Another source of this naiveté is that we believe events ought to go a certain way, and we do not understand that they are the way they must be: “For it is not what is that makes us impetuous and causes us distress, but the fact that it is not as it ought to be; but if we recognize that it is as it must be, i.e. that it is not the product of arbitrariness and chance, we also recognize that it is as it ought to be.”[10] Thus from Hegel we are given a conception of a spirit that moves us through history, one that most men are ignorant of. Both the course that lies behind us and the course that lies ahead of us are exactly as they must be.

            However, contrary to Kant, Hegel does not believe a cosmopolitan society would be a pinnacle of either development or peace. Reacting to Kant’s assertion as treated above that lasting peace can only be found in the cosmopolitan society, which is our end moral and rational development, Hegel believes war is a stimulant for ethics rather than a depressant. On this he says, “Thus, war preserves the ethical health of peoples in their indifference to determinate things; it prevents…the people from becoming habituated to them, just as the movement of the winds preserves the seas from that stagnation that permanent calm would produce, and which a permanent (or indeed ‘perpetual’) peace would produce among peoples.”[11] From this we may see that Hegel is suspicious of the effectiveness and achievement that a cosmopolitan ‘perpetual peace’ would bring. Rather than hail some cosmopolitan existence, Hegel spends much of his writing on the resolution of the German state, as is seen in his German Constitution.

            For Hegel, the weak collaboration of princely estates that he calls Germany is in a complete state of disarray and the people comprising these estates are not heeding the danger inherent in their position. He likens the need for political reform to that of the German people standing within a collapsing building but refusing to move despite the threat of complete destruction.[12] In Hegel’s mind the German people are the originators of political representation, but they have failed to carry out their ideal. Hegel relinquishes this to a ‘higher law’ that dictates an originator of a universal idea must weaken or die out before the principle is widely accepted. On this he says:

[Representation] came (originally) from Germany, but it is a higher law that any people from which the world receives a new and universal impulse must itself finally perish before all the others, while its principle – though not the people itself –survives…Germany has not developed for itself the principle which it gave to the world, nor managed to sustain itself by it. It has not organized itself by this principle; on the contrary, it has disorganized itself.[13]

Lacking political representation, the very concept they allegedly created, Germany cannot unite the various princely estates and become a nation state. Germany has failed to synthesize the old forms of individualism with the constant development of religion, wealth, and any number of changes in the political landscape.[14]

            Following this idea of Germany’s failure to reshape itself, Hegel introduces the idea of German originality and chosen-ness in two ways, which Fichte will pick up and transform. The first is that Hegel believes the majority of European states have emerged from the Germanic peoples, and that their constitutions have developed from the spirit of the Germans.[15] The second is that, with reference to political constitutions, “the Germans are the people from whom this universal shape of the world spirit was born.”[16] We are now in a position to examine how Fichte further develops both historicism and the idea of German chosen-ness.

            Fichte believes the whole of the world’s development is divided into five epochs in world history. We have passed the third age, “the state of Completed Sinfulness”, and are now entering the fourth age of the world, “the state of Progressive Justification” where truth is embraced as the highest good.[17] In the fading light of this past age, humanity will make itself what it always would become. This development is not just an option but rather a necessity, something that will occur so that we may enter the next era. As Fichte says:

The true vocation of the human race on earth…shall be this, that it fashions itself with freedom into that which it really and originally is. This self-fashioning, achieved deliberately and according to a rule, must now begin somewhere and somewhen in space and time, so that a second principle epoch…would follow the first…We are of the opinion that, with respect to time, this time is now, and that at present the race stands at the true midway point of its life on earth between its two principal epochs. With respect to space, however, we believe that it falls first and foremost to the Germans to inaugurate the new age, as pioneers and exemplars for the rest of humanity.[18]

These ages are not mere theorizing for Fichte, they are the observable and logical path that history will follow. Each age builds upon the last, and only when the human race and society has developed enough can the new age dawn. More importantly, however, is that the Germans are the herald for the new age. This is the continuance of the ‘world-plan’[19] that sets out man’s path of development. As Fichte says, “Yet even this wholly new [epoch] will not be an abrupt departure from what has gone before, but is, rather, the true natural continuation and consequence of the preceding age, especially among the Germans.” The prophetic nature of German historicism reaches a fevered pitch in Fichte’s writing, as can be seen at the end of his Third Address where he quotes Ezekiel and likens German national ties and spirituality to the dried bones of the valley awaiting rejuvenation.[20]

            The means toward rejuvenating the German nation lies in educating the German people and formulating a German identity. Like Hegel, Fichte does not support a cosmopolitan society but rather focuses on developing Germany as a nation and as a state. Fichte uses a number of approaches to establish German identity, such as language and location, each tracing back to the Teutonic tribes. While this does not weigh heavily on the topic at hand, it should be noted that he appeals to the ancient Teutonic/Germanic ancestry as a legitimization of German identity as a nation and ethnic group, even though he agrees with Hegel that most European nations are of Teutonic/Germanic descent.[21] Once the German identity is established, Fichte believes the German state will be at the forefront of the education of the human race because this is the role they have always occupied:

Because the German has brought every step in the development of culture to completion (and for this he has been uniquely spared in the modern world) the same task falls to him with respect to education also. Once education is put to rights, the other affairs of humanity will swiftly follow. This, then, is the actual relation in which the German nation has hitherto stood to the ongoing development of the human race in the modern age.[22]

Here in Fichte we see the union of historicism and German ‘chosen-ness’ reach its climax. Not only does humanity stand at the threshold of the next epoch in our guided development, but Germans will be the people who have and will lead humanity into this new era of development by uniting once more into a state. We shall now turn to Marx, who removes this focus on the German people and returns the historicist theme to one of global proportions.

The Revolution: Marx

             As the Bourgeoisie grows from infancy and capital is created, the Bourgeoisie necessarily creates a labor force to produce property, earlier named the Proletariat. The massive productive force of the Bourgeoisie system requires increased labor and technology. To quote Marx, the proletariat are “a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital.”[26] Eventually to increase productivity the proletariat must either work more strenuously, quickly, or develop new skills to work with technology. As this process unfolds the proletariat class becomes alienated. Thus the Bourgeoisie creates the means of its own destruction: “The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”[27] The expansion of markets is the second aspect of Marx’s historicism, and it also brings to light the cosmopolitan aspect of his theory.

            As production increases there arises a need for markets, and so with the gigantic resources of the bourgeoisie, markets expand to a global scale, assisted by the discovery and population of new areas. This in turn spreads the bourgeoisie and proletariat relationship across the globe, crushing existing classes and replacing them with the aforementioned two. This creates a level of interdependence, which Marx shows as actively gnawing away at national industry, replacing it with cosmopolitan production as well as other relationships:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.[28]

Thus we see that the very drive of the bourgeoisie is to spread markets and destroy other classes. This makes it a resolutely supra-national class, and thus the proletariat also becomes supra-national. Though the proletariat must first struggle on a national level against the bourgeoisie, there “The proletarian is without property…modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character.”[29] And so, though he operates within national boundaries to a certain extent, the proletariat is without a national identity and he is as globalized as the bourgeoisie and capitalism itself. Even though he is the harbinger of historical change, the Proletariat has no national or ethnic identity – all he has is his class association.

Concluding Remarks

            As we have seen, common in each author is the idea that humanity is pushed along a course by forces beyond ourselves. Whether these are based in nature, some world-spirit, national identity, or class struggle, we are nonetheless driven towards our complete development. The differences lie in the level of this development. Kant believes our capacity lies at the global level, eventually enveloping each and every human being. But Hegel and Fichte stunt this historicism and narrowly present it as the development of the German state and nation. In doing so, they neglect human development on the whole and attempt to bypass complete human development and resolution. However, Marx returns the discussion to a global level, and removes the German ethnocentrism injected by Hegel and Fichte. By doing so I believe he opens the door to a more robust and thorough view of humanity’s development, one unfettered by national identities and arbitrary borders.


[1] Popper,Karl. Enemies of the Open Society Vol. I. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. 8.

[2] Kant, Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 41.

[3] Kant, 45

[4] Kant, 90.

[5] Kant, 51.

[6] Kant, 90.

[7] Perhaps the Natural Law, but this is not immediately clear from Hegel’s writing.

[8] Compare this with Kant, who says, “We must look to nature alone, or rather to providence…for a successful outcome which will first affect the whole and then the individual parts…For the whole is too great for men to encompass; while they can reach it with their ideas, they cannot actively influence it.” Kant, 90

[9] Hegel, Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 8.

[10] Hegel, 8.

[11] Hegel, 141.

[12] Hegel, 2: “To do nothing when the ground shakes beneath our feet but wait blindly and cheerfully for the collapse of the old building which is full of cracks and rotten to its foundations, and to let oneself be crushed by the falling timbers, is as contrary to prudence as it is to honour.”

[13] Hegel, 66.

[14] Hegel, 62.

[15] Hegel, 62.

[16] Hegel, 63.

[17] Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Iintro. xx (Gregory Moore), and Fichte, 9.

[18] Fichte, 42-3. The two principle epochs that Fichte refers to are simply the one just past and the one now dawning, since they signal a change from sinfulness to justness.

[19] Fichte, intro. xx (Gregory Moore)

[20] Fichte, 45-6: “Let the parts of our higher spiritual life be just as dried out, and for this very reason also the bonds of our national unity be just as broken, and lie scattered round-about in wild disorder, like the prophet’s bones of the slain; let these be bleached and dried by the storms and rains and searing sunshine of several centuries; – the quickening breath of the spiritual world has not yet ceased to blow. It will seize too the dead bones of our nation, and join them together, so that they stand there gloriously in a new and transfigured life.”

[21] Fichte 47-8

[22] Fichte, Selected Writings, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1994. 81-2

[23] Marx, 158.

[24] Marx, 163-4.

[25] Marx, 170.

[26] Marx, 164.

[27] Marx, 169.

[28] Marx, 162.

[29] Marx, 168.

  1. Christopher Hurtado
    May 12, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    What work of Marx’s are you citing here? You only gave page numbers in your footnotes.

    • May 12, 2011 at 11:08 AM

      I should hope, from the quotations, that the work would be apparent, but good catch anyway – the work is none other than The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, accessed via a Selected Writings book. I will update the citation when I have time. Out of curiousity, what do you think of the post?

      • Christopher Hurtado
        May 13, 2011 at 1:55 AM

        Sorry I wasn’t clear. I’m asking for a citation that will allow me to reference the work cited, i.e., exact info on the edition of The Communist Manifesto cited by you in your blog post. That said, I came across your post looking for agreement on my thesis, which you share. I’m writing a paper on Kant’s politics, focused on his historicism and its influences on Kant, Hegel, Fichte and Marx. I’m also looking back to Rousseau.

      • May 13, 2011 at 5:49 PM

        I am in the process of moving, and so many of my books are packed up. I am really not sure what edition I used, and will not be able to update the citation for quite some time. That aside, I do have to say that I strongly suggest you read The Communist Manifesto yourself rather than simply using the quotations from my post and my edition. Generally, It is recommended that, for academic writing, you cite only those works you have personally consulted. I could be mistaken in my notation of the work, or the translation could be a poor one, etc. Also, not reading it yourself hardly constitutes research.

        I also must say that it makes me more than a little uncomfortable that you are referencing my blog post as you write your own similarly-themed paper. Based on the two comments you have left, your only interest appears to be in getting information for your paper rather than discussing ideas, etc. To reiterate, I am not sure why else you might need my citation information if not to utilize my citations and/or writing in your assignment. Please see my recent post on Site Traffic and Plagiarism for a more detailed description of my feelings on this.

        If this is not your intention, I apologize. If you feel I am being unfair or have mischaracterized you, please feel free to e-mail me and we can continue our discussion. Otherwise, I prefer to keep the comment section reserved for discussion of the material at hand.

  2. Toby Simmons
    August 30, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    Fascinating. A joy to read. Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep posting!

    • September 7, 2011 at 11:12 PM

      Thank you for taking a look around, Toby! I appreciate the encouraging words. When I have a spare moment I will be sure to check out your blog.

  1. May 14, 2011 at 12:44 PM
  2. July 21, 2012 at 11:52 PM

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