The German economic historian Werner Sombart (1863-1941) is known for his work in two fields: socialism and capitalism. He began as an admirer of Marxian socialism and ended as its bitter critic. Several of his works on the history of capitalism are regarded as classics in spite of many errors of fact.
Werner Sombart was born on Jan. 19, 1863, at Ermsleben. His father was a prosperous landowner and a member of the Prussian Diet and of the Reichstag. Young Sombart was educated at Pisa and the University of Berlin, where he studied under Adolf Wagner and Gustav von Schmoller. He received a doctorate in 1888 and became secretary of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. In 1890 he became extraordinary professor of economics at the University of Breslau, where he remained until 1905. His radical views on social and economic reform did not please the Prussian government, and in spite of his outstanding performance as a scholar and a teacher he was given no promotion while he remained at Breslau.
In 1905 Sombart was named to a chair at the Handel-shochschule (Commercial College) in Berlin. In 1917 he succeeded Wagner as professor of economics at the University of Berlin, where he remained until his retirement in 1931. Sombart died in Berlin on May 13, 1941.
In his early years Sombart was an admirer and friendly critic of Karl Marx and Marxism, and even after he had swung to the extreme right and had become a bitter if not vitriolic critic of Marx, he spoke at times of his own work as a continuation and completion of Marx's. Sombart's early publications were on trade unionism and socialism, both of which he looked upon favorably. But his Socialism and the Social Movement is a good example of the shift in his viewpoint. The first nine editions were sympathetic to socialism, but the tenth was a bitter attack on Marxism and Soviet socialism. The last (1934) edition was a thinly disguised apology for the Nazi system.
Sombart's work on the history of capitalism is spread over a large number of volumes, beginning with his classic Der Moderne Kapitalismus (1902-1927; Modern Capitalism) and includes a number of ancillary studies of which The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911; trans. 1913) is probably the best known. His approach is the very antithesis of that of Marx. Instead of presenting history as the resolution of a universal law, Sombart presents it as the outcome of unique social forms and forces. Whereas Marx would stress the role of the material in establishing the ethos of an age, Sombart explains material developments as the result of the ethos, for instance, the role of Judaism in the development of capitalism. Although the detailed accuracy of much of Sombart's work may be, and in fact has been, questioned, his overall conception of the history of modern capitalism is widely accepted among economic historians.
Further Reading on Werner Sombart
A full-length study of Sombart's economic views is Mortin J. Plotnik, Werner Sombart and His Type of Economics (1937). A survey of Sombart's social and economic philosophy by F. X. Sutton is in Harry E. Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). Sombart's career is also examined in Ben B. Seligman, Main Currents in Modern Economics: Economic Thought since 1870 (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Mitzman, Arthur, Sociology and estrangement: three sociologists of Imperial Germany, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Books, 1987.