Othmar Spann

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Othmar Spann

Othmar Spann (October 1, 1878, Altmannsdorf, Vienna - July 8, 1950, Neustift bei Schlaining) was a conservative Austrian philosopher, sociologist and economist whose radical anti-liberal and anti-Socialist views, based on early 19th century Romantic ideas expressed by Adam Müller et al. and popularized in his books and lecture courses, helped antagonise political factions in Austria during the interwar years.

Early life

Othmar Spann was the son of Josef Spann, a manufacturer and inventor. Spann grew up in Altmannsdorf a suburban area of Vienna, Austria which is 15 minutes outside of the central city. Spann attended a Bürgerschule (citizen school) and graduated in 1898. After that he studied philosophy in Vienna, followed by Political Sciences in Zürich, Bern, and Tübingen. He received his doctorate in Political Science in 1903.

From 1904 to 1907 Spann worked for the "Center for Private Welfare Service" in Frankfurt am Main. He was responsible for empirical studies of this population of workers. By the end of 1904 Spann, along with Hermann Beck and Hanns Dorn founded a newspaper called, "Critical Pages for the whole Social Sciences."

In 1907 Spann wrote his Habilitation in Political Economy for the Hochschule in Brünn. From 1907 to 1909 he was given the position of "privatdozent" which allowed him to teach and collect fees from students. As early as 1908 Spann began working as the full-time imperial-royal vice-secretary of the statistic central commission in Vienna. He was given the position of creating a new census for Austria between 1909 and 1910.

From 1914 to 1918, during the first World war, Spann was a first lieutenant of the reserve. He was hurt during a conflict in Lemberg, Ukraine on August 27, 1914. When he recovered he was first a commander of a company of Russian prisoners and then until later in 1918 he was given a position on the "scientific committee for wartime economy" with the war Ministry in Vienna.

In 1919, Spann was appointed to a position at the University of Vienna where he taught until 1938.

Spann was popular with students, not only for his lectures which would spill out into the hallways at the University, but also for mid-summer festivals which he would hold in the woods where he would teach that "the ability to intuit essences was nurtured by jumping over the fire..." (Caldwell 2004, 138-9)

Repeatedly, Spann tried to draw the ruling powers' attention to his authoritarian theory of a corporate state which, as he saw it, could, and should, be introduced immediately for the benefit of all. In 1928 he joined the Militant League for German Culture.

Although to a large degree in tune with the zeitgeist, he repeatedly met with disapproval until, in 1938, right after the Anschluss, he was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis and eventually barred from his professorship at the University of Vienna, which he had held since 1919. Living as a recluse till the end of the war, Spann tried to get his university post back in 1945, aged 67. However, he was not allowed to resume his teaching and died in 1950, disappointed and embittered.

Notable Students

Spann's Worldview

Othmar Spann 2

Othmar Spann expressed his worldview, which was termed "Universalism" because he asserted that it was universally valid (the term "universalism" here does not refer to the normal usage of that word, which is completely unconnected to Spann's philosophy), most notably in his key book Der Wahre Staat ("The True State") and expanded it in more detail in numerous other books. Spann's "Universalism" was all-encompassing, dealing with multiple topics such as economics, politics, society, science, and religion. [1]

Spann's social theory, which is at the heart of his philosophy, was anti-invidualist and nationalist, and stated that the individual human being only existed within a particular community or society (which existed only within a certain Volk or ethnicity). Spann made scathing critiques of classical liberal and individualistic theories which claimed that society was merely a collection of disconnected and autonomous individuals who had decided to "rationally" associate with each other or make a "social contract." This was a great error, for it assumed that the parts (individuals) precede the whole (the totality of society or community) , whereas in reality the whole precedes the parts.

Thus, Spann asserted that individuals who had connection to each other were already members of a community, which they did not choose but were born into; human beings belonging to a certain society had a pre-existing spiritual unity. [2] Spann wrote: "It is the fundamental truth of all social science... that it is not the individuals that are the truly real, but the whole, and that the individuals have reality and existence only so far as they are members of the whole." [3]

"Universalist" theory therefore rejected capitalism, an economic system and also a way of life which was essentially individualistic and atomistic, and promoted corporatism - which was practiced most ideally as the guild system in the Middle Ages - because this system treated humans as part of a Whole. Corporatism also promoted a sense of cooperation and community by giving people a sense of belonging to their particular corporation and a position suited to their vocation. As for Marxism and modern socialism, they were rejected by Spann because he believed they had overly-mechanical and individualistic elements in both their theories and their proposed practices. [4] "The often-heard statement is in this sense correct, that liberalism and socialism are fruits from the same tree." [5]

In the realm of politics, "Universalism" was authoritarian and sought a return to the respect for authority that was present in earlier monarchical states (although it simultaneously supported a federalistic national system comparable to the Holy Roman Empire). As a political system, any form of democracy and collective government was rejected because it failed to take into account the inherent inequalities of human beings, which meant that only certain people were suited to govern and choose leaders while the rest of the population, which needed to be guided by these elites; the intellectual superiors who were most suited, both in terms of their ethical character and their skills, to govern. [6] "Equality among equals. Subordination of the intellectually inferior under their intellectual betters – those are the constitutive laws of the true state." [7]

In the corporatist True State, the state and society was organized hierarchically, with people living and affecting specifically those positions to which they were suited and not intruding into others above them. Spann said that "Democracy wants to vote about truth – that is not only unfeasible... but also frivolous, because setting the majority in the saddle means that the lower rule over the higher." [8] Furthermore, democratic elections were a purely mechanical process which could only rarely result in the election of honest people, and was easily manipulated by demagogues and by financial elites. Finally, Spann, due to his highly religious Catholic background, believed that the state should be essentially theocratic; that it should be directed by faith in God and a devotion to spirituality rather than personal or worldly interests.


  1. Othmar Spann, Der Wahre Staat (Leipzig: Verlag von Quelle und Meyer, 1921).
  2. For an explanation of Spann's philosophy of society, see: Barth Landheer, “Othmar Spann’s Social Theories.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr., 1931), pp. 239–48. See also Eric Voegelin's Theory of Governance and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1921-1938 (Collected Works, Vol. 32), (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), pp. 29-31, 44-47, 68-75.
  3. Spann as quoted in Ernest Mort, “Christian Corporatism.” Modern Age, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer 1959), p. 249. <http://www.mmisi.org/ma/03_03/mort.pdf>.
  4. See Spann, Types of Economic Theory (London: Routledge, 2012).
  5. Spann, Der wahre Staat, p. 120. Quoted in Tomislav Sunic, Against Democracy and Equality, Third Edition (London: Arktos, 2010), pp. 163.
  6. See: Janek Wasserman, Black Vienna, Red Vienna: The Struggle for Intellectual and Political Hegemony in Interwar Vienna, 1918–1938 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Washington University, 2010), pp. 73–85.
  7. Spann, Der Wahre Staat, p. 185. Quoted in Wassermann, Black Vienna, Red Vienna, p. 82.
  8. Spann, Der Wahre Staat, p. 111. Quoted in Wassermann, Black Vienna, Red Vienna, p. 80.

Quotes from Othmar Spann

  • "Undoubtedly, the essence of capitalism is individualism, but not the kind of individualism whose origins are natural rights - i.e., the individualism which in facts excludes competition and the war of all against all, and which, additionally, in its original contract, abolishes the right of the stronger to victory. The essence of capitalism is Machiavellian individualism that awards the stronger with victory and laurels." (Der wahre Staat)
  • "The often-heard statement is in this sense correct, that liberalism and socialism are fruits from the same tree." (Der wahre Staat)
  • "Mankind can reconcile itself to poverty because it will be and remain poor forever. But to the loss of estate, existential insecurity, uprootedness, and nothingness, the masses of affected people can never reconcile themselves." (Der wahre Staat)
  • "We recognize that at heart…individualism is a fundamental error. Individualism makes the individual lonely and poor." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "Democracy wants to vote about truth – that is not only unfeasible... but also frivolous, because setting the majority in the saddle means that the lower rule over the higher. To repeat, Democracy therefore means the mechanization of the organization of our lives and the state and the exclusion of any fundamental values from the construction of this organization through voting, through majority rule.... The will of the people as political will may only be built through the Leader [Führer], before it can be expressed as such." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "Marx appears in politics as a revolutionary; in science as an evolutionist; in economics as an acolyte of Ricardo and as an individualistic utopian; in political and social theory as an anarchistic optimist of Rousseau’s ilk, who believes in the mechanical capacity of humanity for self-realization. He is therefore a political, economic and pedagogical utopian, in the foundation of his personality a-religious, ametaphysical, materialistic and positivistic, who crossed over from the German idealistic philosophy of his youth entirely to the materialism of French-English science; for this reason, his scientific method was also mechanistic and atomistic." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "Equality among equals. Subordination of the intellectually inferior under their intellectual betters – those are the constitutive laws of the true state.” (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "We believe that in reality history only knows corporately-structured states and that the blurring of the Stände in democratic times has never really succeeded, that it is always only a sickness that feeds on the healthy, true reality.” (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "The German people has tolerated pain and adversity and even dishonor; it has also recently gotten entangled in vile errors. It is now time to rectify the dishonor and to remove the boil, i.e. democracy and Marxism, that has perpetrated all our suffering." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "It is the fundamental truth of all social science... that it is not the individuals that are the truly real, but the whole, and that the individuals have reality and existence only so far as they are members of the whole."
  • "The spiritual history of archetypal humanity is primary religious history. It was Schelling who endeavored to explain race formation from this point of view." (Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "Mysticism is the mother of Religion, which is the mother of Civilization." (Religionsphilosophie)
  • "No totality (composite thing, whole) consists of elements which in themselves are 'real.' Strictly speaking the totality is not a collection of independent things, but is a thing itself. To the extent that we grasp the whole as a unity, we see that it has only properties, pure and simple and not thing-like component parts, which would be something in themselves. It does not contain proper parts in the sense that they are independent and therewith constitute something real in themselves. These 'properties' may look like thing-like components to us because they can turn up in other totalities (i.e., the same human being we find in the religious community is also found in the economic community), and each can appear to be a thing 'in itself.' For example, the individual member of the economic community can appear as the biological individual. Were it not for this fact, we would not think of them as independent individuals." (Kurzgefasstes System der Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "By virtue of their psychic content, the logical, aesthetical, religious, and ethical spiritual systems... represent and objectify themselves and become objects. The creation of logical concepts and the experience of aesthetic feeling only come about as part of systems of spiritual acts.... Such acts realize themselves, structure themselves into systems, and so gain objective reality. The systems are thus called 'objectification systems.' If on the other hand one starts either with the totality of an extreme individualism (Robinson Crusoe), or later from social life as a totality, these systems appear as sub-systems within a whole which is either the individual or society." (Kurzgefasstes System der Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "Where an independent and unique objective context of spiritual contents or acts is found, we also find a particular type of social phenomenon, i.e., a social sub-system, a system of objectification." (Kurzgefasstes System der Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "When we look at a totality it is always the whole which is primary, the properties of which and the laws of which are revealed in its structure. It is permissible to view thse properties as real components, but only when we recognize that they are not independent things which react on their own, but are merely members within a unified whole." (Kurzgefasstes System der Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "If one now asks what remains of the individual, the answer can only be the egoicity, the ego form of all spiritual processes that take place within and by means of community." (Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "[The primary, original reality is that] from which everything else is derived, not in the individual but in the whole, in society. According to this view, the individual is no longer self-determined and self-created, and is no longer based exclusively and entirely on its own egoicity. Thus, the primary reality is no longer found in the individual but in the whole, in society. There are two aspects to this: a) The whole, society, is that which is endowed with true reality, and b) the whole is primary, and the individual is really only present as a component of the whole. Thus the individual is that which is derivative." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "It [the whole] is something that creates and builds itself. It is entirely a becoming, pure movement, a foaming-over that continuously transcends each finished form. Were it to cease to move, it would cease to be, for it is entirely subordinate to the law of life." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "... all spiritual reality present in the individual is only there and only comes into being as something that has been awakened. Only by creating a spark, by kindling a flame, by stimulation on the part of another spirit, does spirituality become real in an individual; not by means of a pure autonomous, self-induced journey into the depth of one's soul. The original, primary condition for the realization of spirituality in an individual is the state of being beamed upon and enkindled by another spirit. Therefore, the spirituality that comes into being in an individual (whether directly or mediated) is always in some sense a reverberation of that which another spirit has called out to the individual. This means that human spirituality exists only in community, never in spiritual isolation. It is never just for me alone, but at the same time for another (however far away); it is always, and essentially, a relationship to another spirituality, to another human being. Spirituality is therefore always found in contact with another spirit, never in pure being-for-itself." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "The beautiful German word 'community' [Gemeinschaft] wonderfully expresses the fact of mutuality, of the reciprocity of all that is spiritual in the individual. However, since besides denoting the purely spiritual, this term is also used to express action in the world... it is necessary to have a purely scientific, technical term as well. Here we have chosen the artificial term 'spiritual community' [Gezweiung] to express the opposite of dividing into two (or breaking into two pieces). Our term refers to the fact that it takes two individuals to form a unity, that in truth two individuals constitute a whole - the exact opposite of the notion that individuals are only whole outside a unity (when they are individual selves again). Some examples of "spiritual community" would be a fork in a road or branch in a tree where two individual elements only exist because they are parts of a whole. We can say that individual spirituality only exists in community or better, in 'spiritual community.' All spiritual essence and reality exists as 'spiritual community' and only in 'communal spirituality' [Gezweitheit]. This means that spirituality only exists when awakened and called forth. It only exists in some form of community with another spirit. This spirit may be a distant friend, a long-deceased writer or philosopher whose books we read, a dialogue between two human beings, or the mere indirect 'interest' on the part of an individual or group in whatever concrete or abstract form the interest is manifested. Whatever direction our investigation takes, we will always discover the elementary fact of social life, that spirituality takes place in community, and only in community." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "The spiritual community surrounding the individual can only awaken the specific abilities (powers) that are in him. In this way we see that an irreplaceable uniqueness and a qualitative individuality are essential attributes of the individual. This leads us to a fundamental conclusion that is important for assessing the theory of the whole. If universalism designates the individual as a mere link in the total spirituality of the community or spiritual community, this does not mean that the individual is destroyed. Rather the individual is given what belongs to the individual, uniqueness, or individuality itself." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "The individual is indeed merely ability (and not ability realized). He has the ability to become various things, ability to achieve a wide range of accomplishments. The influences of the spiritual community will determine which of these abilities will be awakened and realized." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "The uniqueness (i.e., of the individual) is a result of the community's essence, which indeed, as a spiritual organism, requires parts, partial organs, i.e., specialization, differentiation, separation, in order to make a whole out of parts. An organism is not formed of elements of the same kind (homogeneous), but by harmonizing dissimilar (heterogeneous) elements." (Der Wahre Staat)
  • "History teaches us that it is the validity of spiritual values that constitutes the spiritual bond. They cannot be replaced by fire and sword, nor by any other form of force. All governance that endures, and all the order that society has thus achieved, is the result of inner domination." (Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "It remains absolutely necessary that that which is intrinsically valuable and possesses (spiritually) valid content, precedes power as it is represented in law and the state (just as it must precede all other areas of practical life in society). As soon as authority and force, inherent right and external power, become separated, the continued existence of the affected area of society is endangered." (Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "When we consider the essential nature of the matter, we see that the leader is not elected but represents an idea that corresponds to the essential power of the matter. (Without this correspondence he is not truly the leader.) This essential power inherent in the matter makes him the leader, and it cannot be replaced by an election or by external powers or by any other means." (Gesellschaftslehre)
  • "The source of the governing power is not the sovereignty of the people, but the sovereignty of the content." (Gesellschaftslehre)

Spann's Writings

  • Gesamtausgabe. ADEVA, Graz 1974 ff
  1. Frühe Schriften in Auswahl. 1974, ISBN 3-201-00133-3
  2. Die Haupttheorien in der Volkswirtschaftslehre. 1969
  3. Fundament der Volkswirtschaftslehre. 1967
  4. Gesellschaftslehre 1969
  5. Der wahre Staat. Vorlesungen über Abbruch und Neubau des Staates. 1972 (PDF-Datei)
  6. Tote und lebendige Wissenschaft. Kleines Lehrbuch der Volkswirtschaft in 5 Abhandlungen. 1967
  7. Kämpfende Wissenschaft. 1969
  8. Kleine Schriften zur Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftslehre. 1975, ISBN 3-201-00135-X
  9. Kategorienlehre. 1969
  10. Der Schöpfungsgang des Geistes. 1969
  11. Gesellschaftsphilosophie 1. 1968
  12. Gesellschaftsphilosophie 2. 1970
  13. Philosophenspiegel. Die Hauptlehre der Philosophie begrifflich und geschichtlich dargestellt. 1970
  14. Erkenne dich selbst. Eine Geistesphilosophie als Lehre vom Menschen und seiner Weltstellung. 1968
  15. Naturphilosophie. 1963
  16. Religionsphilosophie auf geschichtlicher Grundlage. 1970
  17. Ganzheitliche Logik. 1971
  18. Meister Eckeharts mystische Philosophie, im Zusammenhang ihrer Lehrbegriffe dargestellt. 1974, ISBN 3-201-00134-1
  19. Kunstphilosophie. 1973, ISBN 3-201-00132-5
  20. Gespräche über die Unsterblichkeit. Betrachtungen zweier Krieger im Felde. 1965
  • The only full book by Spann translated into English is Die Haupttheorien der Volkswirtschaftslehre auf lehrgeschichtlicher Grundlage, which appeared under two titles (although the content is equivalent in each version):
    • Types of Economic Theory (London: Routledge, 2012)
    • History of Economics: The Evolution of Capitalism (New York: Arno Press, 1972)

Further Reading

  • Alfred Diamant, “Austrian Catholics and the First Republic, 1918-1934: A Study in Anti-Democratic Thought,” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 603-633.
  • John J. Haag, Othmar Spann and the Politics of "Totality": Corporatism in Theory and Practice, Ph.D. Thesis, Rice University, 1969.
  • Edgar Julius Jung, The Rule of the Inferiour, 2 volumes (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995).
  • Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, Europa: Seine geistigen Quellen in Portraits aus zwei Jahrtausenden, Vol. 1 (Heroldsberg: Christiania-Verlag, 1981).
  • Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, Vom Geist Europas, Vol. 1 (Asendorf: Muth-Verlag, 1987).
  • Barth Landheer, “Othmar Spann’s Social Theories.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr., 1931), pp. 239–48.
  • Sebastian Maaß, Dritter Weg und wahrer Staat. Othmar Spann - Ideengeber der Konservativen Revolution. Regin-Verlag, Kiel, 2010.
  • Johannes Messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Western World (St. Louis, Mo: B. Herder Book Co., 1965).
  • Armin Mohler, Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918–1932, Stuttgart: Friedrich Vorwerk Verlag, 1950.
  • Lucian Tudor, From the German Conservative Revolution to the New Right (Santiago, Chile: Círculo de Investigaciones PanCriollistas, 2015).
  • Lucian Tudor, "Othmar Spann: A Catholic Radical Traditionalist," Counter-Currents.com, 19 March 2013, <http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/03/othmar-spann-a-catholic-radical-traditionalist/>.
  • Eric Voegelin, Race and State (Collected Works, Vol. 2), (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997).
  • Eric Voegelin, Theory of Governance and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1921-1938 (CW, Vol. 32), (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003).
  • Ian B. Warren, "The Heritage of Europe's 'Revolutionary Conservative Movement,'" Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 5), pages 3-9. <Link>
  • Janek Wasserman, Black Vienna, Red Vienna: The Struggle for Intellectual and Political Hegemony in Interwar Vienna, 1918–1938 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Washington University, 2010).

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