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The Machinery of State Human beings should not be frantic cogs spinning away in the Government’s factory of Progress.

In two parts

1923 King George V 1910-1936 Music: Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge

© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R29818, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0. Source

About this picture …

‘Prussianism’ goes back to Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), pictured here in 1870. Bismarck was appointed Minister President of Prussia in 1862, serving King Wilhelm I, and proved to be a strategist of high order, using all the power of the absolute State to daunt the people and to manoeuvre other nations into alliances to Prussia’s advantage. In 1871, he masterminded the unification of Prussia and the states of the short-lived German Confederation as the German Empire, with himself as Chancellor and Wilhelm as Emperor. He was forced out in 1890.

The Machinery of State

Part 1 of 2

John Buchan contrasted his view of society, as a delicate ecosystem of living plants suited to a particular climate and soil, with the economic abstractions of political experts in Germany and the Soviet Union, for whom people were mere cogs and pistons in the pounding machine of Government.

WE have seen two creeds grow up rooted in these abstractions, and the error of both lies in the fact that they are utterly unhistorical, that they have been framed without any sense of the continuity of history.

In what we call Prussianism a citizen was regarded as a cog in a vast machine called the State, to which he surrendered his liberty of judgment and his standard of morals. He had no rights against it and no personality distinct from it. The machine admitted no ethical principles which might interfere with its success, and the citizen, whatever his private virtues, was compelled to conform to this inverted anarchy.*

The result was tyranny, a highly efficient tyranny, which nevertheless was bound to break its head upon the complexities of human nature. Such was Prussianism, against which we fought for four years, and which for the time is out of fashion.*

Jump to Part 2

That is, an anarchy among the elite, who think they are wiser than the rest of us and have been given carte blanche to do whatever they say is for ‘the common good’. This view of Government was hardly a novelty, though: a hundred and fifty years before Buchan, Adam Smith had likened it to people playing with live pieces on a great chessboard.

Buchan’s essay was published in 1935, and with hindsight it is evident that Prussianism was already creeping back into fashion as Nazism. Buchan soon became a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler, which perhaps explains that cautious ‘for the time’. For an overview of his life and political beliefs, see John Buchan.

Part Two

Via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

An album from 1926 dedicated to the birth of the Soviet Union offers these portraits of leading figures in the October Revolution of 1917. Among the first acts of the Revolutionary Government was to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, dropping support for Allies in the Great War and ceding vast territories and crucial industries to the Kaiser’s German Empire. Pride of place in this rogues’ gallery goes to Vladimir Lenin, who watched the capitulation unmoved, while Leon Trotsky (to the left as we look) raged uselessly. Joseph Stalin (to the right) reclaimed Russia’s losses in later years, but at a terrible price at home and abroad.

BOLSHEVISM, to use the convenient word,* started with exactly the same view. It believed that you could build a new world with human beings as if they were little square blocks in a child’s box of bricks. Karl Marx, from whom it derived much of its dogma, interpreted history as only the result of economic forces and desired to re-create society on a purely economic basis.

Bolshevism, though it wandered very far from Marx’s doctrine, had a similar point of view. It sought with one sweep of the sponge to blot out all past history, and imagined that it could build its castles of bricks without troubling about foundations. It also was a tyranny, the worse tyranny of the two, perhaps because it was the stupider.* It has had its triumphs and its failures, and would now appear to be declining; but it, or something of the sort, will come again, since it represents the eternal instinct of theorists who disregard history and who would mechanise and unduly simplify human life.*

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That is, the politics of the Bolsheviks (большевики), the ‘majority’ faction in the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which split from the Mensheviks (‘minority’ faction) in 1903. The Bolsheviks went on to dominate in the February and October revolutions of 1917, and to form the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Worse, that is, than the Prussianism of Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Buchan was writing in 1935, before the despotisms of Communism and Fascism had reached their peak. Knowing what we know now, trying to weigh up which of Fascism and Communism is worse or more stupid is depressing and risks diminishing the irremediable evil of both.


From the General Introduction to each volume of ‘The Nations of To-Day: A New History of the World’ (1935) by John Buchan.

Suggested Music

1 2

Planets Suite (1916)

Mars, the Bringer of War

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

Performed by Howard Shelley, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Sir Richard Hickox.

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