Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) was born in a suburb of Berlin, the son of a rabbi. His first career was in medicine which he studied at the universities of Freiburg and Berlin; he received his M.D. at Berlin in 1885. After he had practiced medicine for a decade, his interests changed. He became a student of political and economic affairs and earned his PH.D. at the University of Kiel in 1908. In 1909 he became an unsalaried lecturer at the University of Berlin, and in 1919 he moved as full professor of economics and sociology to the University of Frankfurt. Ten years later he retired for reasons of health and moved to a rural settlement near Berlin that he had helped to establish before World War i. Like so many of his academic colleagues, Oppenheimer left Germany in 1933; he subsequently taught as a visiting professor in France, Palestine, and the United States. He died in Los Angeles.
Oppenheimer conceived of sociology as a general comparative science of collective life, past and present. Sociology seeks to establish laws that explain change. He was essentially interested insocial dynamics, and he used theoretical models like “comparative statics,” “kinetic processes,” and “ctructural changes” in order to explain change. He related his sociological theories to the psychology of human drives expounded by William Mcdougall, and be was influenced by such economic theories as Hermann Gossen ’s marginal utility theory and Theodor von der Goltz’s theorem that the rural exodus corresponds to the proportion of agricultural land in large estates. These economic theories influenced Oppenheimer’s central attack on the “land monopoly” (Bodensperre), which blocks access to free land as workable property. The abolition of the land monopoly seemed to him indispensable for a “normal” and therewith “just “society. There are themes in Oppenheimer’s system that derive from the federalism of Konstantin Frantz and Proudhon, and the anthropological theories of Schmidt and Koppers are also elements of the system.
Oppenheimer saw prehistoric tribal conditions as a rather serene, if not idyllic, phase of human existence. The great divide between tribal and civilized society occurred when nomadic tribes of camel and horse herdsmen and Nordic maritime nomads (Vikings) set on their course of conquest, subjugating sedentary populations to the east and west. Their conquests led to the land monopoly, tribute payment, and exploitation. All sorts of other monopolies emerged after the land monopoly.
Successive forms of the state also emerged. Initially, conquerors and conquered were integrated into a larger society held together by a new “frame group,” the “primitive state,” with its characteristic legal system; social stratification by class and status implemented this process of integration. The primitive state was succeeded by the Mediterranean “seacoast state” of antiquity. Agrarian capitalism combined with slavery ultimately led to the downfall of ancient Mediterranean civilization. Field slavery was impossible in the northern alpine climate, and the “secondary herdsmen” conquerors of the Teutonic tribes consequently organized a feudal society. Further stages in the development of the state were the estate society, early modern absolutism, and the modern constitutional state that emerged in the revolutions of 1649 (in England), 1789 (in France), 1848 (in several European countries), and 1905 (in Russia). The legal division of societies into estates was everywhere abolished in these revolutions, but the land monopoly remained.
Oppenheimer was proud to acknowledge his indebtedness to Ludwig Gumplowicz, and he traced back the theory of the exogenous origin of the state via Lorenz von Stein to Saint-Simon, Gerrard Winstanley, and Ibn Khaldun. As an agrarian socialist, Oppenheimer opposed dogmatic Marxism, although he accepted Marx’s social determinism with reservations and learned from his analyses of class and ideology.
H. H. Gerth
(1896) 1922 Die Siedlungsgenossenschaft: Versuch einer positiven Uberwindung des Kommunismus durch Losung des Genossenschaftsproblems und der Agrarfrage. 3d ed. Jena: Fischer.
(1898) 1922 Grossgrundeigentum und soziale Frage:Versuch einer neuen Grundlegung der Gesellschaftswissenschaft. 2d ed. Jena: Fischer.
(1903) 1926 Das Grundgesetz der marxschen Gesellschaftslehre: Darstellung und Kritik. Jena: Fischer.
(1912) 1925 Die soziale Frage und der Sozialismus: Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit der marxistischen Theorie. Jena: Fischer.
1919 Kapitalismus-Kommunismus—wissenschaftlicher Sozialismus. Berlin and Leipzig: Gruyter.
1922-1935 System der Soziologie. 4 vols. in 8. Jena:Fischer.
1926 Ein neues sozialistisches System der Rechtslehre und Politik. Archiv fur die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung 12:251-268.
1928 Richtungen der neueren deutschen Soziologie: Drei Vortrdge. Jena: Fischer.
(1931a) 1959 Machtverhaltnis. Pages 338-348 in Handworterbuch der Soziologie. Stuttgart: Enke.
1931b) 1964 Erlebtes, Erstrebtes, Erreichtes: Lebenserinnerungen. With a preface by Ludwig Erhard. Diisseldorf: Melzer.
Aron, Raymond (1936) 1957 German Sociology. 2d ed.Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French. See especially pages 38-43 on “Oppenheimer.”
Fuss, Felicia 1946 A Bibliography of Franz Oppenheimer: 1864-1943. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 6:95-112.
Honigsheim, Paul 1948 The Sociological Doctrines of Franz Oppenheimer: An Agrarian Philosophy of History and Social Reform. Pages 332-352 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Rustow, Alexander 1950-1957 Ortsbestimmung derGegenwart: Eine universalgeschichtliche Kulturkritik.3 vols. Zurich: Rentsch.
Schultz, Bruno L. 1948 Die Grundgedanken des Systems der theoretischen Volkswirtschaftslehre von Franz Oppenheimer. Jena: Fischer.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1954) 1960 History of Economic Analysis. Edited by E. B. Schumpeter. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 854-856.