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Chapter 8: Positivism and the Crisis of Western Civilization

4. The Epistemological Support of Totalitarianism

Every step forward on the way toward substituting more efficient methods of production for the obsolete methods of the precapitalistic ages met with fanatical hostility on the part of those whose vested interests were in the short run hurt by any innovation. The landed interest of the aristocrats was no less anxious to preserve the economic system of the ancien régime than were the rioting workingmen who destroyed machines and demolished factory buildings. But the cause of innovation was supported by the new science of political economy, while the cause of the obsolete methods of production lacked a tenable ideological basis.

As all the attempts to prevent the evolution of the factory system and its technological accomplishments aborted, the syndicalist idea began to take shape. Throw out the entrepreneur, that lazy and useless parasite, and hand over all the proceeds—the "whole produce of labor"—to the men who create them by their toil! But even the most bigoted enemies of the new industrial methods could not fail to realize the inadequacy of these schemes. Syndicalism remained the philosophy of illiterate mobs and got the approbation of intellectuals only much later in the guise of British Guild Socialism, Italian Fascism's stato corporativo, and twentieth-century "labor economics" and labor union politics.4

The great anticapitalistic device was socialism, not syndicalism. But there was something that embarrassed the socialist parties from the early beginnings of their propaganda, their inability to refute the criticism that their schemes met on the part of economics. Fully aware of his impotence in this regard, Karl Marx resorted to a subterfuge. He and his followers, down to those who called their doctrines "sociology of knowledge," tried to discredit economics by their spurious ideology-concept. As the Marxians see it, in a "class society" men are inherently unfit to conceive theories that are a substantially true description of reality. A man's thoughts are necessarily tainted "ideologically." An ideology, in the Marxian sense of the term, is a false doctrine, which, however, precisely on account of its falsity, serves the interests of the class from which its author stems. There is no need to answer any critique of the socialist plans. It is fully sufficient to unmask the nonproletarian background of its author.5

This Marxian polylogism is the living philosophy and epistemology of our age. It aims at making the Marxian doctrine impregnable, as it implicitly defines truth as agreement with Marxism. An adversary of Marxism is necessarily always wrong on account of the very fact that he is an adversary. If the dissenter is of proletarian origin, he is a traitor; if he belongs to another "class," he is an enemy of "the class that holds the future in its hands."6

The spell of this Marxian eristic trick was and is so enormous that even the students of the history of ideas failed for a long time to realize that positivism, following in the wake of Comte, offered another makeshift to discredit economics wholesale without entering into any critical analysis of its argumentation. For the positivists, economics is no science because it does not resort to the experimental methods of the natural sciences. Thus, Comte and those of his followers who under the label of sociology preached the total state could dub economics as metaphysical nonsense and were freed from the necessity to refute its teachings by discursive reasoning. When the revisionism of Bernstein had temporarily weakened the popular prestige of Marxian orthodoxy, some younger members of the Marxian parties began to search in the writings of Avenarius and Mach for a philosophical justification of the socialist creed. This defection from the straight line of dialectical materialism appeared as sacrilege in the eyes of the uncompromising guardians of the undefiled doctrine. Lenin's most voluminous contribution to the socialist literature is a passionate attack upon the "middle-class philosophy" of empirio-criticism and its adepts in the ranks of the socialist parties.7 In the spiritual ghetto into which Lenin had confined himself during all of his life he could not become aware of the fact that the Marxian ideology-doctrine had lost its persuasive power in the circles of the natural scientists and that positivism's panphysicalism could render better services in the campaigns to vilify economic science in the eyes of mathematicians, physicists, and biologists. However, a few years later, Otto Neurath instilled into the methodological monism of "unified science" its definite anticapitalistic note and converted neopositivism into an auxiliary of socialism and communism. Today both doctrines, Marxian polylogism and positivism, amicably vie with each other in lending theoretical support to the "Left." For the philosophers, mathematicians, and biologists there is the esoteric doctrine of logical or empirical positivism, while the less sophisticated masses are still fed a garbled variety of dialectical materialism.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we may assume that the rejection of economics by panphysicalism was motivated by logical and epistemological considerations only and that neither political bias nor envy of people with higher salaries or greater wealth played any role in the matter, we must not pass over in silence the fact that the champions of radical empiricism stubbornly refuse to pay any attention to the teachings of daily experience contradicting their socialist predilections. They not only neglect the failure of all "experiments" with nationalized business in the Western countries. They do not care a whit about the undisputed fact that the average standard of living is incomparably higher in the capitalistic countries than in the communist countries. If pressed hard, they try to push aside this "experience" by interpreting it as a consequence of the capitalists' alleged anti-Communist machinations.8 Whatever one may think about this poor excuse, it cannot be denied that it amounts to a spectacular repudiation of the very principle that considers experience as the only source of knowledge. For in the view of this principle, it is not permitted to conjure away a fact of experience by referring to some allegedly theoretical reflections.

  • 4. See Mises, Human Action, pp. 808-16.
  • 5. Human Action pp. 72-91.
  • 6. Communist Manifesto, I.
  • 7. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (first published in Russian, 1908).
  • 8. See Mises, Planned Chaos (1947), pp. 80-87. (Reprinted in Socialism [new ed., Yale University Press, 1951], pp. 582-89.)