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The Reversal of the Trend toward Freedom

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Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

12/15/2010Ludwig von Mises

[Excerpted from chapter 16 of Theory and History (1957).]

From the 17th century on, philosophers in dealing with the essential content of history began to stress the problems of liberty and bondage. Their concepts of both were rather vague, borrowed from the political philosophy of ancient Greece and influenced by the prevailing interpretation of the conditions of the Germanic tribes whose invasions had destroyed Rome's Western empire. As these thinkers saw it, freedom was the original state of mankind and the rule of kings emerged only in the course of later history. In the scriptural relation of the inauguration of the kingship of Saul they found confirmation of their doctrine as well as a rather unsympathetic description of the characteristic marks of royal government.1 Historical evolution, they concluded, had deprived man of his inalienable right of freedom.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment were almost unanimous in rejecting the claims of hereditary royalty and in recommending the republican form of government. The royal police forced them to be cautious in the expression of their ideas, but the public could read between the lines. On the eve of the American and the French revolutions monarchy had lost its age-old hold on men's minds. The enormous prestige enjoyed by England, then the world's richest and most powerful nation, suggested the compromise between the two incompatible principles of government which had worked rather satisfactorily in the United Kingdom. But the old indigenous dynasties of continental Europe were not prepared to acquiesce in their reduction to a merely ceremonial position such as the alien dynasty of Great Britain had finally accepted, though only after some resistance. They lost their crowns because they disdained the role of what the Count of Chambord had called "the legitimate king of the revolution."

In the heyday of liberalism the opinion prevailed that the trend toward government by the people is irresistible. Even the conservatives who advocated a return to monarchical absolutism, status privileges for the nobility, and censorship were more or less convinced that they were fighting for a lost cause. Hegel, the champion of Prussian absolutism, found it convenient to pay lip service to the universally accepted philosophical doctrine in defining history as "progress in the consciousness of freedom."

But then arose a new generation that rejected all the ideals of the liberal movement without, like Hegel, concealing their true intentions behind a hypocritical reverence for the word freedom. In spite of his sympathies with the tenets of these self-styled social reformers, John Stuart Mill could not help branding their projects — and especially those of Auguste Comte — liberticide.2 In the eyes of these new radicals, the most depraved enemies of mankind were not the despots but the "bourgeois" who had evicted them.

The bourgeoisie, they said, had deceived the people by proclaiming sham slogans of liberty, equality under the law, and representative government. What the bourgeois were really intent upon was reckless exploitation of the immense majority of honest men. Democracy was in fact plutodemocracy, a blind to disguise the unlimited dictatorship of the capitalists. What the masses needed was not freedom and a share in the administration of government affairs but the omnipotence of the "true friends" of the people, of the "vanguard" of the proletariat or of the charismatic F├╝hrer.

No reader of the books and pamphlets of revolutionary socialism could fail to realize that their authors sought not freedom but unlimited totalitarian despotism. But so long as the socialists had not yet seized power, they badly needed for their propaganda the institutions and the bills of rights of "plutocratic" liberalism. As an opposition party they could not do without the publicity the parliamentary forum offered them, nor without freedom of speech, conscience, and the press. Thus willy-nilly they had to include temporarily in their program the liberties and civil rights which they were firmly resolved to abolish as soon as they seized power. For, as Bukharin declared after the conquest of Russia by the Bolshevists, it would have been ridiculous to demand from the capitalists liberty for the workers' movement in any other way than by demanding liberty for all.3

In the first years of their regime the Soviets did not bother to conceal their abhorrence of popular government and civil liberties, and openly praised their dictatorial methods. But in the later thirties they realized that an undisguised antifreedom program was unpopular in Western Europe and North America. As, frightened by German rearmament, they wanted to establish friendly relations with the West, they suddenly changed their attitude toward the terms (not the ideas) of democracy, constitutional government, and civil liberties.

They proclaimed the slogan of the "popular front" and entered into alliance with the rival socialist factions which up to that moment they had branded social traitors. Russia got a constitution, which all over the world was praised by servile scribblers as the most perfect document in history in spite of its being based on the one-party principle, the negation of all civic liberties. From that time on the most barbaric and despotic of governments began to claim for itself the appellation "people's democracy."

The history of the 19th and 20th centuries has discredited the hopes and the prognostications of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The peoples did not proceed on the road toward freedom, constitutional government, civil rights, free trade, peace, and good will among nations. Instead the trend is toward totalitarianism, toward socialism. And once more there are people who assert that this trend is the ultimate phase of history and that it will never give way to another trend.

  • 1. 1 Samuel 8: 11–18.
  • 2. Letter to Harriet Mill, Jan. 15, 1855. F.A. Hayek, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 216.
  • 3. Bukharin, Programme of the Communists (Bolsheviks), ed. by the Group of English Speaking Communists in Russia (1919), pp. 28–9.
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