1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Tu Ne Cede Malis

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School for 30 years

Search Mises.org
Previous Chapter *  Next Chapter
Table of Contents


1 The Success of Socialist Ideas

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modem spirit. The masses approve of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter "The Epoch of Socialism."

As yet, it is true, Socialism has not created a society which can be said to represent its ideal. But for more than a generation the policies of civilized nations have been directed towards nothing less than a gradual realization of Socialism.[1] In recent years the movement has grown noticeably in vigour and tenacity. Some nations have sought to achieve Socialism, in its fullest sense, at a single stroke. Before our eyes Russian Bolshevism has already accomplished something which, whatever we believe to be its significance, must by the very magnitude of its design be regarded as one of the most remarkable achievements known to world history. Elsewhere no one has yet achieved so much. But with other peoples only the inner contradictions of Socialism itself and the fact that it cannot be completely realized have frustrated socialist triumph. They also have gone as far as they could under the given circumstances. Opposition in principle to Socialism there is none. Today no influential party would dare openly to advocate Private Property in the Means of Production. The word "Capitalism" expresses, for our age, the sum of all evil. Even the opponents of Socialism are dominated by socialist ideas. In seeking to combat Socialism from the standpoint of their special class interest these opponents—the parties which particularly call themselves "bourgeois" or "peasant"—admit indirectly the validity of all the essentials of socialist thought. For if it is only possible to argue against the socialist programme that it endangers the particular interests of one part of humanity, one has really affirmed Socialism. If one complains that the system of economic and social organization which is based on private property in the means of production does not sufficiently consider the interests of the community, that it serves only the purposes of single strata, and that it limits productivity; and if therefore one demands with the supporters of the various "social-political" and "social-reform" movements, state interference in all fields of economic life, then one has fundamentally accepted the principle of the socialist programme. Or again, if one can only argue against socialism that the imperfections of human nature make its realization impossible, or that it is inexpedient under existing economic conditions to proceed at once to socialization, then one merely confesses that one has capitulated to socialist ideas. The nationalist, too, affirms socialism, and objects only to its Internationalism. He wishes to combine Socialism with the ideas of Imperialism and the struggle against foreign nations. He is a national, not an international socialist; but he, also, approves of the essential principles of Socialism. [2]

The supporters of Socialism therefore are not confined to the Bolshevists and their friends outside Russia or to the members of the numerous socialist parties: all are socialists who consider the socialistic order of society economically and ethically superior to that based on private ownership of the means of production, even though they may try for one reason or another to make a temporary or permanent compromise between their socialistic ideal and the particular interests which they believe themselves to represent. If we define Socialism as broadly as this we see that the great majority of people are with Socialism today. Those who confess to the principles of Liberalism and who see the only possible form of economic society in an order based on private ownership of the means of production are few indeed.

One striking fact illustrates the success of socialist ideas: namely, that we have grown accustomed to designating as Socialism only that policy which aims to enact the socialist programme immediately and completely, while we call by other names all the movements directed towards the same goal with more moderation and reserve, and even describe these as the enemies of Socialism. This can only have come about because few real opponents of Socialism are left. Even in England, the home of Liberalism, a nation which has grown rich and great through its liberal policy, people no longer know what Liberalism really means. The English "Liberals" of today are more or less moderate socialists.[3] In Germany, which never really knew Liberalism and which has become impotent and impoverished through its anti-liberal policy, people have hardly a conception of what Liberalism may be.

It is on the complete victory of the socialist idea in the last decades that the great power of Russian Bolshevism rests. What makes Bolshevism strong is not the Soviets' artillery and machine-guns but the fact that the whole world receives its ideas sympathetically. Many socialists consider the Bolshevists' enterprise premature and look to the future for the triumph of Socialism. But no socialist can fail to be stirred by the words with which the Third International summons the peoples of the world to make war on Capitalism. Over the whole earth is felt the urge towards Bolshevism. Among the weak and lukewarm sympathy is mixed with horror and with the admiration which the courageous believer always awakens in the timid opportunist. But bolder and more consistent people greet without hesitation the dawn of a new epoch.

2 The Scientific Analysis of Socialism

The starting-point of socialist doctrine is the criticism of the bourgeois order of society. We are aware that socialist writers have not been very successful in this respect. We know that they have misconceived the working of the economic mechanism, and that they have not understood the function of the various institutions of the social order which is based on division of labour and on private ownership of the means of production. It has not been difficult to show the mistakes socialistic theorists have made in analysing the economic process: critics have succeeded in proving their economic doctrines to be gross errors. Yet to ask whether the capitalist order of society is more or less defective is hardly a decisive answer to the question whether Socialism would be able to provide a better substitute. It is not sufficient to have proved that the social order based on private ownership of the means of production has faults and that it has not created the best of all possible worlds; it is necessary to show further that the socialistic order is better. This only a few socialists have tried to prove, and these have done so for the most part in a thoroughly unscientific, some even in a frivolous, manner. The science of Socialism is rudimentary, and just that kind of Socialism which calls itself "Scientific" is not the last to be blamed for this. Marxism has not been satisfied to present the coming of Socialism as an inevitable stage of social evolution. Had it done only this it could not have exerted that pernicious influence on the scientific treatment of the problems of social life which must be laid to its charge. Had it done nothing except describe the socialistic order of society as the best conceivable form of social life it could never have had such injurious consequences. But by means of sophistry it has prevented the scientific treatment of sociological problems and has poisoned the intellectual atmosphere of the time.

According to the Marxist conception, one's social condition determines one's way of thought. His membership of a social class decides what views a writer will express. He is not able to grow out of his class or to free his thoughts from the prescriptions of his class interests.[4]Thus the possibility of a general science which is valid for all men, whatever their class, is contested. It was only another step for Dietzgen to proceed to the construction of a special proletarian logic.[5] But truth lies with the proletarian science only: "the ideas of proletarian logic are not party ideas, but the consequences of logic pure and simple."[6] Thus Marxism protects itself against all unwelcome criticism. The enemy is not refuted: enough to unmask him as a bourgeois.[7] Marxism criticizes the achievements of all those who think otherwise by representing them as the venal servants of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels never tried to refute their opponents with argument. They insulted, ridiculed, derided, slandered, and traduced them, and in the use of these methods their followers are not less expert. Their polemic is directed never against the argument of the opponent, but always against his person. Few have been able to withstand such tactics. Few indeed have been courageous enough to oppose Socialism with that remorseless criticism which it is the duty of the scientific thinker to apply to every subject of inquiry. Only thus is to be explained the fact that supporters and opponents of Socialism have unquestioningly obeyed the prohibition which Marxism has laid on any closer discussion of the economic and social conditions of the socialist community. Marxism declares on the one hand that the socialization of the means of production is the end towards which economic evolution leads with the inevitability of a natural law; on the other hand it represents such socialization as the aim of its political effort. In this way he expounded the first principle of socialist organization. The purpose of the prohibition to study the working of a socialist community, which was justified by a series of threadbare arguments, was really intended to prevent the weaknesses of Marxist doctrines from coming clearly to light in discussions regarding the creation of a practicable socialist society. A clear exposition of the nature of socialist society might have damped the enthusiasm of the masses, who sought in Socialism salvation from all earthly ills. The successful suppression of these dangerous inquiries, which had brought about the downfall of all earlier socialistic theories, was one of Marx's most skillful tactical moves. Only because people were not allowed to talk or to think about the nature of the socialist community was Socialism able to become the dominant political movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These statements can hardly be illustrated better than by a quotation from the writings of Hermann Cohen, one of those who, in the decades immediately preceding the world war, exerted the strongest influence on German thought. "Today," says Cohen, "no want of understanding prevents us from recognizing the kernel of the social question and therefore, even if only furtively, the necessity of social reform policy, but only the evil, or the not sufficiently good, will. The unreasonable demand that it should unveil the picture of the future state for the general view, with which attempts are made to embarrass party Socialism, can be explained only by the fact that such defective natures exist. The state presupposes law, but these people ask what the state would look like rather than what are the ethical requirements of law. By thus reversing the concepts one confuses the ethics of Socialism with the poesy of the Utopias. But ethics are not poetry and the idea has truth without image. Its image is the reality which is only to arise according to its prototype. The socialist idealism can to-day be looked upon as a general truth of public consciousness, though as one which is still, nevertheless, an open secret. Only the egoism implicit in ideals of naked covetousness, which is the true materialism, denies it a faith."[8] The man who wrote and thought thus was widely praised as the greatest and most daring German thinker of his time, and even opponents of his teaching respected him as an intellect. Just for that reason it is necessary to stress that Cohen not only accepts without criticism or reserve the demands of Socialism and acknowledges the prohibition against attempts to examine conditions in the socialist community, but that he represents as a morally inferior being anyone who tries to embarrass "party-Socialism" with a demand for light upon the problems of socialist economies. That the daring of a thinker whose criticism otherwise spares nothing should stop short before a mighty idol of his time is a phenomenon which may be observed often enough in the history of thought—even Cohen's great exemplar, Kant, is accused of this.[9] But that a philosopher should charge with ill-will, defective disposition, and naked covetousness not merely all those of a different opinion but all who even touch on a problem dangerous to those in authority—this, fortunately, is something of which the history of thought can show few examples.

Anyone who failed to comply unconditionally with this coercion was proscribed and outlawed. In this way Socialism was able from year to year to win more and more ground without anyone being moved to make a fundamental investigation of how it would work. Thus, when one day Marxian Socialism assumed the reins of power, and sought to put its complete programme into practice, it had to recognize that it had no distinct idea of what, for decades, it had been trying to achieve.

A discussion of the problems of the socialist community is therefore of the greatest importance, and not only for understanding the contrast between liberal and socialist policy. Without such a discussion it is not possible to understand the situations which have developed since the movement towards nationalization and municipalization commenced. Until now economics—with a comprehensible but regrettable onesidedness—has investigated exclusively the mechanism of a society based on private ownership of the means of production. The gap thus created must be filled.

The question whether society ought to be built up on the basis of private ownership of the means of production or on the basis of public ownership of the means of production is political. Science cannot decide it; Science cannot pronounce a judgment on the relative values of the forms of social organization. But Science alone, by examining the effects of institutions, can lay the foundations for an understanding of society. Though the man of action, the politician, may sometimes pay no attention to the results of this examination, the man of thought will never cease to inquire into all things accessible to human intelligence. And in the long run thought must determine action.

3 Alternative Modes of Approach to the Analysis of Socialism

There are two ways of treating the problems which Socialism sets to Science.

The cultural philosopher may deal with Socialism by trying to place it in order among all other cultural phenomena. He inquires into its intellectual derivation, he examines its relation to other forms of social life, he looks for its hidden sources in the soul of the individual, he tries to understand it as a mass phenomena. He examines its effects on religion and philosophy, on art and literature. He tries to show the relation in which it stands to the natural and mental sciences of the time. He studies it as a style of life, as an utterance of the psyche, as an expression of ethical and aesthetic beliefs. This is the cultural-historical-psychological way. Ever trodden and retrodden, it is the way of a thousand books and essays.

We must never judge a scientific method in advance. There is only one touchstone for its ability to achieve results: success. It is quite possible that the cultural-historical-psychological method will also contribute much towards a solution of the problems which Socialism has set to Science. That its results have been so unsatisfactory is to be ascribed not only to the incompetence and political prejudices of those who have undertaken the work, but above all to the fact that the sociological-economical treatment of the problems must precede the cultural-historical-psychological. For Socialism is a programme for transforming the economic life and constitution of society according to a defined ideal. To understand its effects in other fields of mental and cultural life one must first have seen clearly its social and economic significance. As long as one is still in doubt about this it is unwise to risk a cultural-historical-psychological interpretation. One cannot speak of the ethics of Socialism before one has cleared up its relation to other moral standards. A relevant analysis of its reactions on religion and public life is impossible when one has only an obscure conception of its essential reality. It is impossible to discuss Socialism at all without having first and foremost examined the mechanism of an economic order based on public ownership of the means of production.

This comes out clearly at each of the points at which the cultural-historical-psychological method usually starts. Followers of this method regard Socialism as the final consequences of the democratic idea of equality without having decided what democracy and equality really mean or in what relation they stand to each other, and without having considered whether Socialism is essentially or only generally concerned with the idea of equality. Sometimes they refer to Socialism as a reaction of the psyche to the spiritual desolation created by the rationalism inseparable from Capitalism; sometimes again they assert that Socialism aims at the highest rationalization of material life, a rationalization which Capitalism could never attain.[10] Those who engulf their cultural and theoretical exposition of Socialism in a chaos of mysticism and incomprehensible phrases need not be discussed here.

The researches of this book are to be directed above all to the sociological and economic problems of Socialism. We must treat these before we can discuss the cultural and psychological problems. Only on the results of such research can we base studies of the culture and psychology of Socialism. Sociological and economic research alone can provide a firm foundation for those expositions—so much more attractive to the great public—which present a valuation of Socialism in the light of the general aspirations of the human race.

[1] "'It may now fairly be claimed that the socialist philosophy of today is but the conscious and explicit assertion of principles of social organization which have been already in great part unconsciously adopted. The economic history of the century is an almost continuous record of the progress of Socialism." Sidney Webb in Fabian Essays (1889), p. 30.

[2]Foerster points out particularly that the labour movement has attained its real triumph "in the hearts of the possessing classes"; through this "the moral force for resistance has been taken away from these classes." (Foerster, Christentum und Klassenkampf [Zurich, 1908], p. 111 ff.) In 1869 Prince-Smith had noted the fact that the socialist ideas had found supporters among employers. He mentions that amongst business men, "however strange this may sound, there are some who understand their own activity in the national economy with so little clarity that they hold the socialist ideas as more or less founded, and, consequently, have a bad conscience really, as if they had to admit to themselves that their profits were actually made at the cost of their workmen. This makes them timid and even more muddled. It is very bad. For our economic civilization would be seriously threatened if its bearers could not draw, from the feeling of complete justification, the courage to defend its foundations with the utmost resolution." (Prince-Smith's Gesammelte Schriften [Berlin, 1877], vol. 1, p. 362.) Prince-Smith, however, would not have known how to discuss the socialist theories critically.

[3]This is shown clearly in the programme of present-day English Liberals: Britain's Industrial Future, being the Report of the Liberal Industrial Inquiry, London 1928.

[4]"Science exists only in the heads of the scientists, and they are products of society. They cannot get out of it and beyond it" (Kautsky, Die soziale Revolution, 3rd ed. [Berlin, 1911], vol. 2, p. 39).

[5]Dietzgen, "Briefe über Logik, speziell demokratisch-proletarische Logik" (Internationale Bibliothek, Vol. XXII, 2nd Ed. Stuttgart, 1903), p. 112: "Finally logic deserves the epithet 'proletarian' also for the reason that to understand it one must have overcome all the prejudices which hold the bourgeoisie."

[6] Ibid, p. 112.

[7]It is a fine irony of history that even Marx suffered this fate. Untermann finds that "even the mental life of typical proletarian thinkers of the Marxist school" contain "remains of past epochs of thought, if only in rudimentary form. These rudiments will appear all the stronger the more the thought stages lived through before the thinker became Marxist were passed in a bourgeois or feudal milieu. This was notoriously so with Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Kautsky, Mehring, and other prominent Marxists" (Untermann, Die Logischen Mängel des engeren Marxismus [Munich, 1910], p. 125). And De Man believes that to understand "the individuality and variety of the theories" one would have to consider, besides the thinker's general social background, also his own economic and social life—a "Bourgeois" life ... "in the case of the college-trained Marx" (De Man, Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus, new ed. [Jena, 1927], p. 17).

[8]Cohen, Einleitung mit kritischem Nachtrag zur neunten Auflage der Geschichte des Materialismus von Friedrich Albert Lange, 3rd extended ed. (Leipzig, 1914), P. 115. Also Natorp, Sozialpädagogik, 4th ed. (Leipzig, 1920), p. 201.

[9]Anton Menger, Neue Sittenlehre (Jena, 1905), pp. 45, 62.

[10]Muckle, Das Kulturideal des Sozialismus (Munich, 1918) even expects of socialism that it will bring about both "the highest rationalization of economic life" and "redemption from the most terrible of all barbarisms: capitalist rationalism."

Previous Chapter *  Next Chapter
Table of Contents