The Relevance of Weimar

This post is part of our symposium on socialist constitutionalism.

Samuel Moyn –

socialist roseWilly Forbath’s return to the Weimar Constitution is inspiring. I will just point out of a couple of limits to turning back to it in the present — limits that strike me as difficult to overcome. First, the Weimar Constitution’s nod to worker empowerment presupposed the structure of the (local and global) economy in 1919, now almost unimaginably different; second, it does not follow from the fact that progressive political economy is a priority that constitutionalizing socialist principles is too.

In the past generation, especially after September 11, the Weimar text was invoked principally as a cautionary lesson about what happens when emergency powers become devices for scuttling liberal democracy. As Forbath observes, there was a lot more to the Weimar constitution than that. It ought to be canonical for another reason, which is its commitment to worker empowerment, or even some version of “socialism.”

Forbath is right to challenge “Whiggish” histories that forget the desire for “big structural change” at a time of a massive mobilized working class, in a country with a socialist party, at a moment when a caesura in national history opened new possibilities. For sure, the Weimar Constitution was not the birth certificate of contemporary juristocracy, which finds its highest aspirational goal in celebrating the potential of judges to fulfill economic and social rights, or even to strike a blow for distributional equality. As Forbath says, notwithstanding important substantive moral goals constitutions can register, they succeed or fail as devices of the organization and use of power, including for ends not foreseen at the outset. And Weimar’s was promising because it was written with worker empowerment in mind.

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