Commentary Magazine

Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning, by Karl Mannheim

Karl Mannheim’s Thought
Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning.
by Karl Mannheim.
Oxford. 384 pp. $5.00.


Karl Mannheim, the Hungarian-born sociologist who became famous in Germany and who died in England in 1947, held in fascination a wide intellectual circle ever since the appearance of his Ideology and Utopia (in German, 1929; in English, 1936). This fascination appears to be the result of his having personified the sociological Weltanschauung and, indeed, to such a degree that he came to exemplify sociology as a way of life. Throughout his life, Mannheim exhibited a pure devotion to the understanding of society, to the creation, articulation, application, and promotion of sociology. Moreover, the practice of sociology was always synonymous for him with the comprehension of our time. It never occurred to him to make this identification explicit, much less to inquire into it, and his passion was doubtless facilitated by the absence of any concern with examining this identification.

Yet despite his single-mindedness, the character of his life work did undergo a change from a more philosophical to a more active orientation. The focus of Mannheim’s attention during his brilliant years at the universities of Heidelberg and Frankfort was upon the “sociology of knowledge,” upon the effort to understand intellectual behavior sociologically, with reference to its social, or cultural, or historical setting. To view our intellectual heritage from a sociological rather than moral or metaphysical viewpoint was, and still is, an exciting venture; it is a further step in the secularization which characterizes the modern age, and it was one that was congenial to the skepticism and intellectual ferment that composed the climate of the Weimar Republic. The annihilation of that climate coincided with Mannheim’s emigration to England and with his entering there into the second phase of his work, which was cut short by his death.

This second phase stands under the sign of “planning,” more precisely “planning for freedom” or the “Third Way”—between traditional liberalism and totalitarianism. The present work, the first of several posthumous volumes, excellently edited and introduced by two former students of Mannheim’s, Ernest K. Bramsted and Hans Gerth, with the assistance of Mannheim’s friend, Adolph Lowe, clearly belongs in this second phase. Sociology now is understood, as it had been since Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1940) and Diagnosis of Our Time (1943), as our guide that can avert disaster and reconstruct society and ourselves as individuals.

The book under review begins, characteristically, with a “diagnosis” of our crisis: of the social techniques which make it possible for small minorities to exercise unprecedented power; of the small-group and cooperative controls which have disintegrated; and of the value systems, secular and religious, which have lost vitality. A review of the totalitarian responses to the crisis—the pessimistic answer of fascism and the Utopian answer of Communism—leads Mannheim to his own answer, democratic planning.

The central task of the volume is the elaboration of this answer as it applies to society (Part II) and to the individual (Part III). Part II opens with a chapter on power, and deals with such topics as the ruling class in totalitarian and democratic societies; the necessary democratic controls of the social structure, the economy, the military and civil services, communication, and government. Part III, entitled “New Man—New Values,” discusses the potentialities of “the new science of human behavior” with its partial replacement of custom, introduces the important concept of “integrative behavior,” and analyzes the type of personality congenial to democratic society and the measures that might develop this type, with special attention to education. The book closes with an inquiry into the possible integration of the social order through religion, an inquiry which supplements an essay in Diagnosis of Our Time.

This skeletal report will suggest to those acquainted with Mannheim’s previous writings that Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning is similar to his Man and Society; it is, however, more clearly written, more explicitly addressed to a lay audience, and is better worked out (though Mannheim, in this book too, attracts heterogeneous bits of intellectual material like a magnet). If one wishes a comprehensive introduction to Mannheim’s thought, the volume under review is easily one’s best choice.



Two passages will illustrate certain difficulties that accompanied Mannheim’s shift from an emphasis on analysis and understanding to an emphasis on the practical problems of making democracy work. The first occurs in the chapter on the “reformation of politics.” There, Mannheim points out that propaganda is misconceived if it is understood merely as “the fine art of spreading lies and arousing dangerous emotions.” Rather, propaganda “can be fully appreciated only if one recognizes its most significant function, namely, the determination of the reality level on which people are going to discuss and act . . . every society develops a mental climate in which certain facts . . . are considered basic and called ‘real,’ whereas other ideas fall below the level of “reasonably acceptable’ statements and are called fantastic, Utopian, or unrealistic.”

It is interesting to consider this passage in the light of Mannheim’s earlier concern, as in Ideology and Utopia, with reconciling sociological relativism and objective truth. Mannheim was then interested in the question of the social origins of ideology as a means of solving the problem of an objective truth unrelated to social origins; despite the final ambiguity of his conclusions, he was deeply concerned with this question. In his later work, however, he no longer inquires into the implications of his conception of propaganda as “determining” the “reality level,” although the reader is bound to worry over the fate of “truth” attendant on such a conception. Does Mannheim really mean to say that “reality” can be defined by propaganda? Is the victorious propaganda necessarily closer to the truth? In his zeal for the practical, Mannheim seems to ignore the far-reaching and dangerous inferences that can be drawn from his approach.

In a second passage, Mannheim tries to clarify the meaning of “integrative behavior” by contrasting it with “compromise”: “The essence of democracy is the integration of purposes and not mere compromise,” which is a mere “rational adjustment between two or more opposing views.” Here Mannheim is dealing with one of his lifelong preoccupations: how to guarantee truth, how to find a common element in conflicting views. One of his earlier answers was contained in the idea of the “freischwebende Intelligenz,” of the intelligentsia that is (or rather, perhaps, should be) above blind partisanship. The objection that was raised to this answer is just as applicable to the later formula of “integrative behavior”: to be practicable, both formulas presuppose a will to integration, which, in effect, means the absence of radical conflict. However, the problem of integration only becomes crucial because there is radical conflict and an unwillingness to accommodate opposing views to begin with. In other words, the question is begged rather than answered by the new conception of “integrative behavior.” The problem of how to reconcile basic social conflicts still remains—which side shall be called “reality,” who and what determines this, and how.

Mannheim, in the course of his life, moved from analysis toward commitment. While his talents remained as fresh as ever, he tended to disregard important problems which were posed by his ideas. Perhaps this is because, in his development, he came to find in the religious point of view answers that sociology could not give. Though he had thought of sociology as “the most secularized approach to the problems of human life” and was fascinated by the secular penetration of hitherto sacred matters, in the end he seemed to feel that the secular realm was involved in contradictions which it could not solve on its own. But he never articulated his position clearly. Did he feel that while values arise from specific social situations, the sociologist needs extra-sociological sanctions if he wishes to claim a superiority for his own set of values? Albert Salomon has summed up most sharply the point towards which Mannheim seemed to be moving at the time of his death. “There is no sociology of knowledge, but of error; there is no sociology of aesthetics, but of fashions and tastes. . . . [A contrary assumption is not] capable of motivating the principles of freedom and human dignity which remain the goal of Mannheim’s sociological theory of planning. Neither sociological nor psychological techniques of planning are of any avail if they do not create a frame of reference in which living and dying have some meaning.” (Social Research, September 1947.)



About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.