Postmodernism, Part 28: Frankfurt Fumbles

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes 1848: Year of Revolution, by Michael Rapport; A History of Germany, by Bayward Taylor; Bismarck and the German Empire, by Dr. Erick Eyck; Freedom and Organization, by Bertrand Russell.)

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism

Revolutionary Disappointment


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Instead, their politics flow from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).  The postmodernists took refuge in the earlier collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to Napoleon’s beatdown of Germany.

Right Collectivism morphed out of the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel), Rousseau, and Napoleon.  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

Left Collectivism sprung from the same German Counter-Enlightenment roots, plus a dash of romanticism and (disgraceful) industrial working conditions.  Romanticism valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution – morality, not so much.  Deplorable (“third world”) industrial working conditions were (truly) breeding revolution.  The Communists Marx and Engels thought so, and concocted their “scientific socialism” (that prophesied a Communist destiny).  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

The Revolutions of 1848 would be a big letdown.  They were driven by hunger (crop failures), nationalism (growing cultural and ethnic identities), and economics (growing industrialization).

bastiatFrederic Bastiat

The French Revolution of 1848 led to a republic and socialist experiments that quickly flopped, triggering (the usual) radical leftist uprising.  (To prevent another Reign of Terror, the uprising was quickly crushed.)  Frederic Bastiat blamed France’s recurring revolutions (1789, 1815, 1830, 1848) on a public deluded by leftist charlatans and their impossible promises (free stuff without taxation).  He rejected the (postmodern) ideas of (totalitarian collectivist) Rousseau, (murderous) Robespierre, and (socialist) Louis Blanc: that the state constructs everything (human nature, society, and property).  (This idea leads to slavery, Bastiat warned.)  He argued that people, society, liberty, and property are natural institutions.

Marx hoped the French Revolution of 1848 was a class uprising.  He was in Paris, at the time, but was focused on German revolution.  (The Communists would be disappointed, as usual).

Prussia Stirs

Germany was divided.  There was Austria (under Emperor Ferdinand I), Prussia (under King Frederick William IV), and the German Confederation (assorted German states, under Austria).  Austria and Prussia competed for German leadership.

In 1847, Prussia was already dealing with liberal revolutionaries.  King Frederick William needed to borrow money to build railways (for military and economic purposes).  An 1820 law compelled the King to get approval for the loan by convening the Estates of the Realm.  (This was similar to how French finances compelled Louis XVI to convene the Estates General, starting the French Revolution of 1789.)

bismarck-1847Bismarck (1847)

The estates met in the United Diet of 1847 (“Prussian Diet”).  The King allowed the press to report on their proceedings (a break from standard censorship).  The public cheered on the Prussian liberals (who demanded a constitution and national representation). The public jeered at the conservative Junkers (hereditary aristocrats), especially the unpopular and obnoxious medievalist, Otto von Bismarck.  (Bismarck preferred popularity with the King over popularity with the people).

The Prussian Diet rejected the railway loan (for legal reasons).  The King dismissed the Prussian Diet (but the political pot had been stirred).

Austria Rumbles

Austrian power was getting shaky.  Emperor Ferdinand (“Ferdy the Loony”) was mentally challenged.  The real ruler was (the legendary) Chancellor Metternich (formidable, but past his prime).  By 1848, Metternich’s 1815 European governance masterpiece had fallen apart.  (He had orchestrated the carving up of Europe, among its hereditary sovereigns, at the Congress of Vienna.)

In March 1848, Metternich (the power behind the throne) got booted out.  In Vienna, revolts broke out (inspired by the French Revolution of 1848).  Students and protestors took to the streets, invading parliament (French-style).  Troops fired on protestors (German-style).  Ferdinand folded.  He announced a constitutional assembly, and gave Metternich the boot. (This was huge!)

Prussia Grumbles
frederick-william-ivFrederick William IV

In Prussia, protests broke out in Berlin.  Protestors took to the streets (demanding free speech, a free press, and a constitutional government).  Troops fired on them.  On March 18, humiliated Frederick William folded (for now), agreeing to the revolutionaries’ demands, and calling for German unity.  “I want German freedom and German unity,” declared the King, “Prussia will henceforth be merged with Germany.”  (Of course, German freedom meant national freedom, not individual freedom).

The Prussian Diet met one last time, to prepare for constitutional rule.  In a speech, (indignant) Bismarck slammed the King for his weakness (and did again, to his face).  A new Prussian National Assembly was elected (minus the unpopular Bismarck).  Bismarck and conservative Junkers conspired in a shadow government, to undermine and plot counter-revolution.

Frankfurt Fumbles

In Frankfurt, the German Confederation (the other German states) got proactive (facing calls for constitutional reform).  They declared popular sovereignty, and convened the first National Parliament of Germany to discuss German governance and unity.

Republican revolutionaries got impatient and frustrated with the constitutional monarchists, and staged an insurrection.  They were quickly defeated..

karl-marxKarl Marx

Elsewhere, radical leftists fomented revolution.  The Jacobin (Rousseauist) Arnold Ruge published leftist propaganda, in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Cologne.  Marx and Engels did the same in Cologne.  However, the Communist Manifesto and their ideas of class conflict alienated German workers.  Also, the German labor movement was quite fond of private property.  Marx was bitter.

Meanwhile, the Parliament at Frankfurt debated German unity.  The republican minority opposed the constitutional monarchist majority.  The “Small-Germans” wanted Germany united without Austria.  The “Great-Germans” wanted Germany united with Austria.  The Protestants opposed the Catholics.  Prussia and Austria were wary of the whole thing.

Elsewhere, ethnic nationalist revolts broke out.  The Poles revolted.  (The communist revolutionary Bakunin was there, fomenting revolution.)  Prussia put down the revolt.  The Czechs revolted.  (Again, Bakunin was there, fomenting revolution.)  Austria put down the revolt.  The Danes revolted.  Prussia (urged on by Frankfurt) put down the revolt, invading Denmark.  Russia and England intervened, pressuring Prussia into a treaty (giving up the disputed territory).

The Parliament approved the treaty, but most were furious over the territorial concessions.  In the September uprisings, protests broke out across Germany.  In Frankfurt, radical leftist mobs threw up barricades in the streets (French-style).  Mobs stormed the parliament and murdered two members (French-style).

In Vienna, the National Assembly fled riots and insurgency.  Austria got serious.  They crushed the insurgency and executed the leaders.  “Ferdy the Loony” abdicated the throne.  The young Francis Joseph became Emperor.

In Frankfurt, the Parliament decided that Prussia should lead united Germany, electing Prussian King Frederick William to the job of hereditary emperor (Kaiser).  (Austria voted nay.)

Thanks, but no thanks, said Frederick William.  He hated revolutions, especially this one.


Germany missed her chance for unification (for now).  The republicans and radicals had underestimated the powers that be.  The Revolutions of 1848 fizzled out, and the conservatives regained power.

The Marxists missed their proletarian uprising.  The communists (Marx, Engels, Bakunin) would end up exiles.

Communism had shown its nationalist and ethnic stripes: Marx and Engels were (unabashed) German nationalists.  Bakunin was pro-Slavic.  Marx was (ethnic) Jewish and anti-Slavic.  Bakunin was antisemitic.  So much for the international brotherhood of man.


Austria struggles to hold its empire together.  Next: Part 29, Young Italy.

Postmodernism, Part 20: Labor Pains

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks (with support from The Conditions of the Working Class in England, by Frederich Engels).

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe.  Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and gave rise to Napoleon.

Rousseau’s ideas (and Napoleon’s conquests) inspired the German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including multiculturalism, moral relativism, indoctrinating education, hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (with German supremacy and destiny).  This partly explains totalitarian collectivism (and German nationalism).

Left Collectivism has roots in romanticism (inspired by Rousseau).  Romanticism was both an aesthetic and a value system.  It valued unthinking passion, sympathy, virtuous poverty, idyllic nature, danger, violence, and radicalism.  It devalued social consequences and conventional morality.  The romantic Lord Byron had a profound influence.  He was an aristocratic rebel who espoused rebellion, amorality, hero worship, militarism, and revolution.

Left Collectivism has roots in the slow and painful Industrial Revolution.  The state and society struggled with market forces in the painful birth of a new order.

Marx’s Sidekick
engelsFriedrich Engels

It’s easy to take for granted the benefits of modernity (health, wealth, knowledge, science, technology, medicine).  Those benefits came at a cost (still do and always will).

Our ancestors paid a lot of our bill.  We often hear complaints about the unequal distribution of economic benefits and costs (including pollution).  This feels unfair and can cause problems (even catastrophic problems).  We don’t appreciate how easy we have it, compared to the problems of our industrial past.

Marxism arose out of the problems of our industrial past.  Karl Marx often gets the spotlight.  (Maybe, it’s that legendary beard.)  Marx’s sidekick, Frederich Engels, seems like “that other guy” in the musical duo.  That’s so not true.  Engels had a budding solo career, before Marx.  Engels wrote a book that caught Marx’s eye – a book about the problems of our industrial past.  Engels (aged twenty-four) explored and studied these horrendous problems.

Engels went to England, sent by his “fanatical and despotic old man”.  His father ran a textile business, in the German Rhineland.  Germany lagged England in industrialization.  So, Engels’ father sent him to learn English business methods (and to get him away from his radical friends).  Engels was awed by English industry.  He found the working conditions revolting (and thought the workers should be revolting, too.)

Labor Pains

We’d call these working conditions “third world”.  There was economic dislocation.  Industrial areas were crowded and filthy.  The food supply was unhealthy.  Healthcare was lacking.  Workers endured long hours and unsafe working conditions.  They struggled to survive business cycles.  They competed against cheap immigrant labor.  Family and society were collapsing.  Government seemed unresponsive.

There was economic dislocation.  Global markets replaced local markets.  Large farms replaced small farms.  Factories replaced craftsmen.  Workers and families flocked from rural areas and villages to growing industrial towns and cities.  Once, they had been able to provide for themselves (at least a meager subsistence).  Now, their only option was “wage slavery” – industrial labor or (worse paid) agricultural labor.

slumSlum life

Industrial areas were crowded and filthy.  Workers needed housing near work.  The grimy worker slums were suffocating mazes of filthy narrow streets and winding alleys.  Whole families shared single rooms (and single beds).  Families shared closets (empty of furniture) or crowded in attics and cellars (rank with sewage).  Sanitation and clean water were inadequate or lacking.  Streets were clogged with refuse, excrement, and live animals.  Rivers and streams were stagnant, foul, and reeking.

The food supply was unhealthy.  Swindlers cheated hungry workers, selling them tainted meat, spoiled vegetables, and adulterated food.  Some workers could afford meat, others sparingly, and some, not at all.  (The Irish lived on potatoes.)  Workers and their families were malnourished.  Many starved to death.  Protectionist laws made food (and other things) more expensive.

Healthcare was lacking.  In those days, even the best medicine was poor.  Quacks preyed on the workers or sold them patent medicines (that were ineffective, dangerous, or addicting).  There were rampant epidemics of typhus, cholera, smallpox, and scarlet fever.  Cancer and tuberculosis were common.  Injuries (work-related or otherwise) caused infection, tetanus, gangrene, or death.

child-laborChild labor

Workers endured long hours and unsafe working conditions.  Whole families (men, women, and young children) worked long hours (up to twelve hours).  Young boys and girls worked in coal mines.  Working mothers left babies and the young with caretakers, who drugged them (with laudanum).  Children died from poisoning, accidents, burns, and mishaps.  Industrial accidents were commonplace.  Industrial diseases were emerging (“black lung” in coal miners, scrotum cancer in chimney sweeps).

Workers struggled to survive business cycles.  Recurring booms and busts made it almost impossible for workers to save or own property.  Those who managed to save during a boom, were left penniless in the busts.  There was little social safety net to speak of.  Debtors prison was abolished, but the Poor Laws provided meager support to the needy.  In bad times, churches and charities were overstretched.

irish-famineIrish famine

Workers competed against cheap immigrant labor.  Irish arrived by the boatload, to escape dire poverty back home.  They were illiterate and spoke no English.  The Irish competed for the lowest paid, most backbreaking labor.  Barefoot and dressed in rags, they worked for next to nothing, and crowded together in the foulest dens (with their pigs).  They were infamous as drunks and brawlers.  (For them, meager wages and England’s worst slums were an improvement.)

Horrid living and working conditions were corroding family and society.  Husbands, wives, and children all worked.  There was little “home” or “family” to speak of.  Children barely knew their parents.  Promiscuity, prostitution, and illegitimacy were rampant.  Alcoholism was epidemic.  The slums were hives of abuse, violence, crime, and moral decay.

chartist-movementWorker protests

Government seemed unresponsive.  Protests and violence had forced political reforms that excluded most workers.  (Men had a minimum property requirement to vote.)  Reform enfranchised the middle class (merchants and employers), but not most workers.  Employers coerced the workers that could vote.  (There was no secret ballot.)  Workers and the poor were politically powerless.  There was growing anger and unrest, protests, and mob violence.

As always, the revolution seemed imminent – the rise of the proletariat.


Economic dislocation.  Workers had been (quite literally) separated from the “means of production”.  Farmers were forced off land they didn’t own (with ownership concentrated in a landed aristocracy.)  Small farms couldn’t compete with large farms.  Craftsmen couldn’t compete with factories.  Feudalism followed by industrialization left most with little means to sustain themselves.

Industrial housing.  The feudal past, again, made things worse.  High property demand in industrial areas made property expensive.  Some factory owners forced workers into woeful company housing.  Modern landlord-tenant laws were yet to develop.

Landlords had economic disincentives to build and maintain adequate housing.  Landlords leased property or owned it temporarily (in the English tradition).  They would lose their housing investments when property reverted to the “true owner” (so to speak).  This creates incentives to minimize investments (in shoddy housing).

Food.  Food safety regulation was inadequate and poorly enforced.  The better off had fewer problems and more reliable sources (bigger markets with better prices).  The workers had to make do.  Poor enforcement meant that scofflaws would simply skip town, when caught.

Healthcare.  Crowding and poor sanitation made bad medicine worse.  Engels’ writings reflect the prevailing medical theory. (“Miasma theory” reckoned that disease was caused by “bad air”.)  Germ theory wouldn’t take hold until the end of the 19th century.  Medicine frequently involved liquor and opiates (or worse).

Wages and working conditions.  Revolution was a powerful threat.  Trade unionism also emerged as a force to reckon with.  Trade unions and moral outrage would prevail.  Laws would be passed, banning child labor, shortening work days, mandating wages, and improving safety (in a slow process).

Business cycles.  The lack of a social safety net was tragic.  Business cycles seem inevitable.  Engels blamed chaotic competition, and saw central planning as the cure.  In practice, central planning’s cure was worse than the disease.

Engels correctly described other culprits: credit-fueled “speculation” and imperfect information.  Credit-fueled market “bubbles” remain a problem, today.  (These are arguably worsened by central banks and misguided monetary policy.)  However, imperfect information proved a far worse problem for central planners.  (Marxist theory predicted perfect information – not even close.)

Immigrant laborEnglish tyranny drove Irish poverty and immigration. England had colonized Ireland.  Irish Catholics were denied political participation (could not vote or hold political office).  They were denied economic participation (could not own land, obtain education, or enter professions).  English laws were “well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself,” wrote Edmund Burke, “the perverted ingenuity of man”.

Societal decay.  “Capitalist” institutions (the state, society, markets) slowly evolved to address many of these problems.  Interestingly, Engels discovered the “patriarchy” (a favorite of later neo-Marxists).  Some wives were forced to become the main provider (where the husband was injured or disabled).  Seeing this, Engels realized that the family arrangement was false, tyrannical, and oppressive.  (The “patriarchy” was the family, itself.)

Government.  Workers slowly gained greater participation, which helped to bring reforms and new laws.  Archaic English courts evolved to provide greater access to justice.

However, Engels would never forgive the bourgeoisie (employers, merchants, the middle class) for their betrayal of the proletariat (working people).  (The bourgeoisie and trade unions helped themselves, first.)  The enemy of the proletariat was the bourgeoisie (not just the rich).

Revolution.  Hegel and Marx need no forgiveness for caring about the misery of the powerless and downtrodden.  They can be forgiven for always thinking that proletarian revolution was imminent.  (Sometimes, revolution was imminent.)  Their economics was another matter.

Nostradamus was a doomsday prophet, too

Economic theories seek to model and predict human behavior.  Good science is hard to do.  Bad science is much easier.  Good science includes theories that are falsifiable and have predictive value.  Good economics suggests a somewhat valid model of human behavior.

Marxism is dubious “science” (in no small part) because its predictive value is so poor.  (It is more polemics than economics.)  To be fair, much economic theory is dubious science (better lending itself to faith).

Marxist theory would become a secular religion (a veritable doomsday cult).  Marx and Hegel boasted that their “scientific socialism” was superior to “utopian socialism” because it was scientific.  Like a doomsday cult, they perpetually awaited the end days (pushed ever out into the future).  Their followers grew impatient and tossed aside the shabby cloak of science.  Marxism revealed itself: the True Faith of utopian socialism.


The utopian roots of socialism.  Next: Part 21, Owen’s Heresy.