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Nation, State, and Economy
Ludwig von Mises

4. Socialist Imperialism

The older socialists were opponents of democracy. They want to make the whole world happy with their plans and are impatient with anyone who is of another opinion. Their favorite form of state would be enlightened absolutism, in which they always secretly dream of themselves occupying the position of enlightened despot. Recognizing that they neither occupy this position nor can attain it, they seek the despot who would be ready to adopt their plans and become their tool. Other socialists, again, are oligarchically minded and want to have the world ruled by an aristocracy that includes the?in their opinion?really best people. In that regard it is a matter of indifference whether these aristocrats should be the philosophers of Plato, the priests of the Church, or the Newtonian Council of Saint-Simon.

With Marx there occurs in this respect, also, a complete change of interpretation. The proletarians form the immense majority of the population. They all necessarily have to become socialists, though, since consciousness is determined by social reality. Thus socialism, in contrast with all earlier class struggles, which had been movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities, is said to be the movement of the vast majority in the interest of the vast majority for the first time in history. It follows that democracy is the best means for realizing socialism. The real bedrock on which democratic socialism was built was that it found its base primarily in Germany, Austria, and Russia, thus in countries in which democracy had not been realized. There the democratic program was the obvious program of every opposition party and so necessarily of socialism also.

When the possibility offered itself in Russia to a very small number of socialists in relation to the millions of the people to grasp rule for themselves by capturing the means of power of broken-down Czarism, the principles of democracy were quickly thrown overboard. In Russia socialism certainly is not a movement of the immense majority. That it claims to be a movement in the interest of the immense majority is nothing special; all movements have claimed that. It is certain that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia rests just as much on possession of the government apparatus as the rule of the Romanovs once did. A democratic Russia would not be Bolshevik.

In Germany under the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be no problem, as its proponents assert, of defeating the resistance of the bourgeoisie to the socialization of the means of production. If the socialization of small peasant farms is renounced in advance and the continued receipt of small rentier incomes allowed also, as present-day socialism intends, then scarcely any resistance to socialization is to be expected in Germany. Liberal ideas, with which alone resistance against socialism could be mounted, have never won much ground in Germany; today they are shared by scarcely a dozen persons in Germany. Resistance to socialization based on the standpoint of private interests never has, however?rightly?any prospect of success, least of all in a country in which all industrial and mercantile wealth has always seemed to the great masses to be a crime. The expropriation of industry, of mining, and of big landholdings and the elimination of trade are the impetuous demand in Germany today of the overwhelming majority of the German people. To carry it out, dictatorship is needed least of all. Socialism can rely on the great masses at the moment; it does not yet have to fear democracy.

The German economy is today in the most difficult position imaginable. On the one hand the war has destroyed immense property values and laid upon the German people the obligation to pay huge reparations to the opponents; on the other hand it has brought clearly to consciousness the fact of the relative overpopulation of the German land. Everyone must recognize today that it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for German industry after the war to compete with foreign industry without a sharp reduction of the wage level. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Germans are today seeing their small possessions melting away day by day. People who still considered themselves rich a few months ago, who were envied by thousands and, as "war winners," did not exactly enjoy affectionate attention in public, can today calculate exactly when they will have consumed the modest remains of their apparent wealth and will be left beggars. Members of the independent professions see how their standard of living is sinking day by day without hope of improvement.

That a people in such a position can be gripped by despair is not astonishing. It is easy to say that there is only one single remedy for the danger of the increasing misery of the entire German people, namely, to resume work as fast as possible and try, through improvements in the productive process, to make up for the damages inflicted on the German economy. But it is understandable that a people to whom the idea of power was preached for decades, whose instinct for force was awakened by the horrors of the long war, also seeks first of all in this crisis to resort again to power politics. The terrorism of the Spartacists continues the policy of the Junkers, as the terrorism of the Bolsheviks continues the policy of Czarism.

The dictatorship of the proletariat would facilitate getting over economic difficulties for the moment by expropriating the consumption goods held by the propertied classes. It is dear that that is not socialism and that no socialist theorist has ever advocated it. In this way one can only badly and only for a short time disguise the difficulties that confront production on a socialist basis. Imports of foodstuffs from abroad can be financed for a certain time by selling foreign securities and by exporting works of art and jewels. Sooner or later, however, this means must fail.

The dictatorship of the proletariat wants to use terror to nip any stirring up of opposition in the bud. Socialism is believed established for all eternity once its property has been taken away from the bourgeoisie and all possibility of public criticism has been abolished. It cannot be denied, of course, that much can be done in this way, that, above all, all European civilization can thus be destroyed; but one does not thereby build a socialist order of society. If the communist social order is less suited than one resting on private ownership of the means of production to bring about "the greatest happiness of the greatest number," then the ideas of liberalism cannot be killed off even by terrorist measures.

Marxian socialism, as a fundamentally revolutionary movement, is inwardly inclined toward imperialism. No one will dispute that, least of all the Marxists themselves, who straightforwardly proclaim the cult of revolution. It is less noted, however, that modern socialism of necessity must be imperialistic outwardly also.

Modern socialism does not come forth in propaganda as a rationalist demand; it is an economic-policy position that presents itself as a doctrine of salvation in the manner of religions. As an economic-policy idea it would have had to compete intellectually with liberalism; it would have had to try to invalidate the arguments of its opponents logically and to turn aside their objections against its own doctrines. Individual socialists have done that, too. By and large, though, socialists have scarcely bothered themselves with scientific discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the two conceivable systems of social production. They have proclaimed the socialist program as a doctrine of salvation. They have represented all earthly suffering as an emanation of the capitalist social order and have promised, with the implementation of socialism, the removal of everything painful. They held the capitalist economy responsible for all shortcomings of the past and present. In the state of the future all longing and hoping will be fulfilled; there the restless will find rest; the unhappy, happiness; the inadequate, strength; the sick, cure; the poor, wealth; the abstinent, enjoyment. In the state of the future, work will be a pleasure and no longer a torment. In the state of the future, an art will flourish of whose magnificence "bourgeois" art gives no idea, and a science that will solve all riddles of the universe without remnant. All sexual need will disappear; man and wife will give each other happiness in love that earlier generations never dreamed of. Human character will undergo a thoroughgoing change; it will become noble and spotless; all intellectual, moral, and bodily inadequacies will fall away from mankind. What flourishes for the German hero in Valhalla, for the Christian in God's bosom, for the Moslem in Mohammed's paradise?socialism will realize all that on earth.

The Utopians, above all Fourier, were insatiable in wanting to paint the details of this life of ease. Marxism has most strictly tabooed every sketch of the state of the future. But this prohibition referred only to description of the economic, governmental, and legal order of the socialist state and was a masterful propaganda gambit. Since the arrangements of the future state were left in mysterious obscurity, the opponents of socialism were deprived of all possibility of criticizing them and perhaps showing that their realization could in no way create a paradise on earth. Depicting the favorable consequences of the socialization of property, on the contrary, was by no means as proscribed by Marxism as was demonstration of the ways and means by which it could be accomplished. In again and again representing all earthly evils as necessary concomitants of the capitalist social order and further declaring that they would be absent from the state of the future, it has, in utopian depiction of the happiness that it promises to bring, outdone the most imaginative authors of utopian novels. Mysterious intimation and mystical allusion have far stronger effect than open explanation.

That socialism appeared as a doctrine of salvation made the struggle against liberalism easy for it. Whoever seeks to refute socialism rationally encounters among most socialists not rational considerations, as he expects, but rather a belief, not derived from experience, in redemption by socialism. One undoubtedly can also defend socialism rationally. Yet for the great mass of its adherents it is a doctrine of salvation; they believe in it. For those for whom the religious gospels have lost force, it is, in place of faith, a consolation and hope in the difficulties of life. In the face of such conviction, all rationalist criticism fails. Whoever comes to the socialist of this sort with rational objections finds the same lack of understanding that rationalist criticism of the doctrines of faith encounters with the believing Christian.

In this sense, comparing socialism with Christianity was thoroughly justified. Yet the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; socialism, on the contrary, wants to establish the kingdom of salvation on earth. Therein lies its strength, therein, however, its weakness too, from which it will collapse some day just as quickly as it has triumphed. Even if the socialist method of production really could raise productivity and provide greater welfare for all than the liberal method, it would be bound bitterly to disappoint its adherents, who also expect the highest exaltation of the inner feeling of happiness from it. It will not be able to remove the inadequacy of everything earthly, not quiet the Faustian drive, not fulfill inner yearning. When socialism will have become reality, it will have to recognize that a religion not referring to the life to come is an absurdity.

Marxism is an evolutionary theory. Even the word "revolution" has the meaning "evolution" in the sense of the materialistic interpretation of history. Yet regard for the Messianic character of the socialist gospel was bound to drive Marxian socialism again and again to endorsing violent overthrow, revolution in the strict sense of the word. It could not admit that evolution was coming nearer to socialism in any other way than that the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production were becoming ever more glaring and thereby bringing the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism into the near future. If it had been willing to admit that evolution was leading to the realization of socialism step by step, then it would have gotten into the embarrassment of having to explain just why its prophecies of salvation were not also being fulfilled step by step to some extent. For that reason Marxism necessarily had to remain revolutionary if it did not want to give up the strongest device of its propaganda, the doctrine of salvation; for that reason, despite all science, it had to hold firm to its theory of increasing misery and collapse. For that reason it had to reject the revisionism of Bernstein; for that reason it had to let not one iota of its orthodoxy be stolen from it.

Now, however, socialism is the victor. The day of fulfillment has dawned. Millions stand around impetuously demanding the salvation that is supposed to await them; they demand riches, they demand happiness. And now shall the leaders come and console the multitude by saying that diligent labor, perhaps after decades or centuries, will become their reward and that inner happiness can never be attained with outward means? Yet how have they reproached liberalism because it recommended diligence and thrift to the poor! Yet how have they derided the doctrines that would not ascribe all earthly hardship to the deficiency of social arrangements

Socialism has only one way out of this position. Regardless of the fact that it holds power, it must still keep trying to appear as an oppressed and persecuted sect, impeded by hostile powers from pushing through the essential parts of its program, and so shift onto others the responsibility for the nonappearance of the prophesied state of happiness. Along with that, however, the struggle against these enemies of general salvation becomes an unavoidable necessity for the socialist commonwealth. It must bloodily persecute the bourgeoisie at home; it must take the offensive against foreign countries that are not yet socialist. It cannot wait until the foreigners must turn to socialism voluntarily. Since it can explain the failure of socialism only by the machinations of foreign capitalism, it necessarily arrives at a new concept of the offensive socialist international. Socialism can be realized only if the whole world becomes socialist; an isolated socialism of one single nation is said to be impossible. Therefore, every socialist government must immediately concern itself with the extension of socialism abroad.

That is quite a different kind of internationalism from that of the Communist Manifesto. It is not defensively but offensively conceived. To help the idea of socialism to victory, however, it should suffice?one should think?for the socialist nations to arrange their societies so well that their example leads others to imitate them. Yet for the socialist state, attack on all capitalist states is a vital necessity. To maintain itself internally it must become aggressive externally. It cannot rest before it has socialized the whole world.

Socialist imperialism is also quite without a basis for economic policy. It is hard to see why a socialist commonwealth could not also acquire in trade with foreign countries all those goods that it could not produce itself. The socialist who is convinced of the higher productivity of communist production could dispute that least of all.[24]

Socialist imperialism outdoes every earlier imperialism in scope and depth. The inner necessity that has caused it to arise, rooted in the essence of the socialist gospel of salvation, drives it to fundamental boundlessness in every direction. It cannot rest before it has subjugated the entire inhabited world and before it has annihilated everything reminiscent of other forms of human society. Every earlier imperialism could do without further expansion as soon as it came up against obstacles to its spread that it could not overcome. Socialist imperialism could not do this; it would have to see such obstacles as difficulties not only for outward expansion but also for its development at home. It must try to annihilate them or itself disappear.


[24] Note how deficient the argument is in Marxist literature before 1918 for the thesis that socialism is possible only as world socialism.

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