The Forgotten German Marxist Who Criticized Imperialism

Christoph Jünke
Virgilio Urbina Lazardi

German theorist Fritz Sternberg, who wrote on the rise of the Nazis, the Cold War, and decolonization, remains an underappreciated figure in Western Marxism. His work offers crucial insights about the centrality of internationalism to socialist politics.

Fritz Sternberg, German Marxist political economist, in 1932. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

The history of German Marxism is usually understood as the history of two conflicting intellectual traditions: on the one hand the official state Marxism of the German Democratic Republic, and on the other hand the heterodox theories of the Frankfurt school, led by figures such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who were as much a part of the literary as the political avant-garde of their times. As with most binaries, this obscures more than it clarifies. The life and work of the German political economist Fritz Sternberg — who lived through the Nazi terror and witnessed the Cold War — do not fit comfortably in either camp.

Sternberg was born in June 1895 to an educated and bourgeois German-Jewish family in Wrocław, a now Polish city then in East Prussia. A precocious adolescent, he devoured the classical socialist literature of his time and began to write his first articles for the Social Democratic Party’s press before turning sixteen. In 1911, he came under the lasting and personal influence of the Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, and even before World War I, Sternberg was engaged in the socialist-Zionist youth movement in Wrocław — at the time one of the strongholds of both Zionist organizing and the radical socialist workers’ movement.

After a short stint in the war, the young objector was granted leave for the purpose of writing a doctoral thesis on Jewish cooperatives in Palestine, which he completed in 1917 (The Jews as the Bearers of a New Economy in Palestine, published in Vienna in 1921). In the revolutionary year of 1918, Fritz participated as a member of the workers’ and soldiers’ council in Wrocław, after which he relocated to Vienna. There he met Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler and became intimately familiar with psychoanalysis. In 1920, he worked as a research assistant to the sociologist and economist Franz Oppenheimer in Frankfurt, but after a falling out Sternberg abandoned his academic aspirations. He instead returned to his birthplace, where he began work on his major treatise on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism, published in Berlin in 1926).

Analysis of Imperialism and Critique of Reformism

For Sternberg, following Rosa Luxemburg, imperialism was a stage in the history of the capitalist mode of production in which noncapitalist territories were forcibly drawn into the system’s commodifying orbit (forced with power and money), so as to — at least temporarily — solve its own internal tendency toward underconsumption. By his estimation, however, this “grace period” was now over:

The number of imperialist dogs is increasing while the number of bones at their disposal is decreasing. The fights of the dogs among themselves are becoming more and more bitter, and so there is a constantly accelerating race toward armament, military as well as industrial.

Original and still stimulating, Sternberg’s historical-comparative methodology analyzes world capitalism in its uneven and combined character and, in doing so, reveals the reciprocal connections between European and American capitalism and addresses the central role of the Russian Revolution and the incipient decolonization movements in moving them.

Against this background develops a sharp critique not only of the social democratic and reformist view of contemporary capitalism, but also of the vulgar Marxist theory, propagated foremost by the parties of the Comintern, which asserted that a labor aristocracy, unwilling to confront elites, was the root of all evil. The Comintern argued that sections of the working class in the developed world owed their secure position to the exploitation of people in colonized countries. Sternberg rejected this mechanical thinking, without denying the reality of colonial exploitation. For him, the wage conditions of the working class in the Global North and the successes of reformism could only be explained to a limited extent by these surplus profits.

Without (reformist) struggles over wages, no progress could be made even in the North — after all, no capitalist makes concessions without pressure. Accordingly, it was not — as some dogmatic Marxists insisted — enough to politically and ideologically exclude a small minority of labor “aristocrats” in order to dissolve the social basis of reformism. It was not a matter of subjective betrayal, but of perceiving and politicizing objective contradictions in the sociopolitical struggle for emancipation.

After completing his book on imperialism, Sternberg relocated to the Mitte borough of Berlin in 1926, already the site of a bustling progressive intellectual and political scene. There he intensified his extensive political involvement in the left fringe of social democracy, involving himself in numerous socialist intellectual circles and anti-imperialist congresses. A subtle connoisseur of art and culture, he made friendship with Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Erwin Pescator, and rubbed elbows with leading German political theoreticians like Fritz Napthali and Henryk Grossmann. He also visited the Soviet Union several times in 1929 and 1930.

When the world economic crisis broke out, he deepened his analyses of the decline of German capitalism, which were as extensive as they were trenchant. In his 1932 The Decline of German Capitalism he argued that the Teutonic nation was the weakest link in the world capitalist system in the first half of the century. His analysis developed a fine understanding of the crisis-ridden nature of global capitalism and an accurate account of fascism as emerging out of Germany’s economic and political backwardness inside the capitalist world system, binding together his anti-fascism with anti-capitalism.

Almost a hundred years on, Sternberg’s analyses of the rise of European fascism have lost little of their penetrating clarity and conciseness. They remain methodologically exemplary in their mediation of the relationship between economics and class politics. Fascism, Sternberg argues, emerged out of a peculiar alliance between the old and new radicalized middle classes with sub-proletarian elements and large-scale and agrarian capital.

With verve he castigated the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for its unwillingness to confront the rising tide of fascism head-on. The SPD’s policy of passivity and cronyism with the bourgeoisie depressed and demobilized the working class by hollowing out its class consciousness and its organizational culture from within. Labor, he wrote, “is not spared the struggle; capitalism does not die of its own accord.”

From Left Socialism to Anti-Communism

It is no surprise, given Sternberg’s dissatisfaction with the SPD, that he became one of the first and leading activists of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), a small but distinguished left-socialist party that since 1931 had been fighting for a revolutionary united front of the otherwise hostile workers’ organizations of the SPD and Communist Party of Germany. This proved to be in vain: neither the Social Democrats nor the Communists took much heed, and German fascism came to power. Sternberg only narrowly avoided arrest.

In mid-March 1933, he traveled to Czechoslovakia and shortly thereafter met Leon Trotsky in France, with whom he would work for a time (he even wrote a draft of an economic program for the as-yet-to-be-founded Fourth International). But Sternberg remained true to the SAP, ultimately did not join the Fourth International, and continued to write diligently for the party’s press in exile. His analyses of fascism in power, the German course of the war, and the foreseeable consequences of the world war, published as books and pamphlets, still outshine much of what is offered on today’s journalistic market. His 1935 Fascism in Power and 1938 Germany and a Lightning War are two of his most brilliant contributions to these debates.

Finally, in 1939, Sternberg emigrated to the United States, where he worked with left-wing trade unionists disillusioned by the Moscow show trials. In the United States he increasingly came under the influence of the so-called New York Intellectuals, a circle of progressive-minded writers and artists originally sympathetic to Trotskyism. In a trajectory that would become common throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the intellectuals would push their radical anti-Stalinism into an increasingly shrill anti-communism, thus maturing into an early version of the Cold Warriors.

While at the end of 1943 Sternberg still saw the only world-historical choice as being between reactionary capitalism and a socialist people’s revolution, Sternberg took the position of the left-liberal-capitalist West in 1947–48, when the people’s revolution failed to materialize in the West and was becoming Stalinized in the East. In his view, only the democratic socialist forces — in his time the social democratic forces, which were still remarkably oriented toward economic and industrial democracy as a “Third Way” — could, through their anti-nationalist and anti-communist coalition, stop the Russians in Europe and Germany.

The choice was no longer between capitalism and socialism, Sternberg announced, but rather:

Between a capitalist state that is carrying out a tremendous process of social transformation on the basis democratic institutions, and the Russian state, which, with its dictatorship against the workers and peasants, has become incomparably more reactionary than the capitalist democratic countries.

Until then he had held social democratic reformism as primarily responsible for the historical failure of the workers’ movement before fascism and the failure of the socialist revolution. Now he argued that the communists were the main obstacle to human liberation. Not abandoning his earlier internationalist perspective, Sternberg’s writings from the immediate postwar era turned their attention to the global geopolitical crisis caused by the great power conflict of his day. In succession he wrote, The Common Crisis (published in 1947), How to Stop the Russians Without War (in 1948) and Capitalism and Socialism on Trial (in 1951).

The Cold War and the Third World

At the end of the 1940s Sternberg changed from a political economist and left-wing socialist to a left-wing social democratic geopolitician, who focused equally on the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, Asia, and Africa. With World War II humanity had finally entered into a truly world-historical epoch, he argued. And it is precisely Sternberg’s methodology, orientated toward an understanding of the postwar world, that has lost little of its fascination and clear-sightedness. Through his political economy–informed criticism, Fritz Sternberg proved to be an early world-systems theorist and global historian, who not only considered the mere interplay of the two superpowers, but who also brought into focus the decolonizing developing countries which he saw as the battlefield of the two great powers waging their Cold War.

Disappointed with the rise of McCarthyism, he pursued closer contact with West Germany, where his books and pamphlets had a strong reception among social democratic leftists, trade unionists, and left-liberals. In the mid-1950s he moved back to Germany. Although he chose to move to the “free West,” he recognized the driving force for a world-historical emancipation in the awakening of the Third World, hitherto held in underdevelopment by colonialism. Mainly encouraging internationalist solidarity between the European left and the national liberation movements, he was hoping that their reliance on a “catch-up” industrialization, organized essentially on the basis of a planned economy, would bring planning and economic democracy back into fashion in the developed world.

“We can no longer opt out of world history!” he announced to the Austrian Social Democrats as the keynote speaker at their party congress in 1961. “Today, you can fly out from any spot in Europe and North America to any city in South America, Asia and Africa in a single day. But we should also recognize that you can from any city in Asia or Africa to any city in Europe or the Americas in 24 hours, too!” This warning that the “Third World” would migrate to the First if it was not helped to develop itself was not an expression of racism of any kind, but on the contrary a fiery plea for a progressive change in the social, economic, political, and cultural relations of the world.

Even though Sternberg remained an intellectual of German and Austrian social democracy until his death in October 1963, the German social democrats and trade unionists who had turned conservative in the 1950s found it difficult to deal with this radical internationalist. For this tradition, Sternberg remained too left-wing. But the student and extra-parliamentary left of the 1960s and 1970s ignored his thinking too. We find some references to his works on imperialism and fascism, but his critique of reformism and Stalinism, his recognition of the world-historical importance of colonialism and decolonization, and his analyses of the global development of capitalism and the historical role of German capitalism are largely forgotten.