Marxism vs. Liberalism: Thoughts by Ludwig von Mises

Marxism vs. Liberalism: Thoughts by Ludwig von Mises

In this selection, Mises characterizes Marx's work and comparaes it, vis-a-vis, with the old "Liberalism" with which Marxism was in conflict.

August Glen-James, editor

The rapid expansion of Socialism has been compared to that of Christianity. More appropriate, perhaps, would be a comparison with Islam, which inspired the sons of the desert to lay waste ancient civilizations, cloaked their destructive fury with an ethical ideology and stiffened their courage with rigid fatalism.

To Marxians, Karl Marx's supreme achievement lay in the fact that he roused the proletariat to class-consciousness. Before he wrote, socialist ideas had led an academic existence in the writings of the Utopians and in the narrow circles of their disciples. By connecting these ideas with a revolutionary workers' movement which till then had only a petty bourgeois aim, Marx created, say the Marxians, the foundations of the proletarian movement. This movement, they believe, will live until it has accomplished its historical mission, the setting up of the socialist order of society.

Marx is supposed to have discovered the dynamic laws of capitalist society and, with the aid of the theory of historical evolution, to have defined the aims of the modern social movement as inevitable consequences of that evolution. He is said to have shown that the proletariat could free itself as a class only by itself abolishing the class conflict, and so making possible a society in which 'the free development of each individual is the condition for the free development of all'.

Ecstatic enthusiasts see in Marx one of the heroic figures of world history, and class him among the great economists and sociologists, even among the most eminent philosophers. The unbiased observer looks on Karl Marx's work with different eyes. As an economist Marx entirely lacked originality. He was a follower of the Classical political economists, but he lacked the ability to approach essentially economic problems without a political bias. He saw everything through the spectacles of the agitator, who considers first and foremost the effect made on the popular mind. Even here he was not really original, for the English socialist defenders of the Right to the Full Produce of Labour, who with their pamphlets in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century prepared the way for Chartism, had already anticipated him in all essentials. Moreover, he had the misfortune to be entirely ignorant of the revolution in theoretical economics which was proceeding during the years when he worked out his system, a transformation which made itself known soon after the issue of the first volume of Das Kapital. As a result, the later volumes of Das Kapital, from the day they were published, were quite out of touch with modern science. This was a piece of bad luck which hit his infatuated followers particularly hard. From the beginning, they had to be content with barren expositions of the master's writings. They have timidly avoided any contact with the modern theory of value. As a sociologist and historical philosopher Marx was never more than an able agitator writing for the daily needs of his party. The materialist conception of history is scientifically worthless; moreover Marx never worked it out exactly but propounded it in various incompatible forms. His philosophic standpoint was that of the Hegelians. He is one of the many writers of his time, now most1y forgotten, who applied the dialectic method to all fields of science. Decades had to pass before people had the face to call him a philosopher and to place him side by side with the great thinkers.

As a scientific writer Marx was dry, pedantic, and heavy. The gift of expressing himself intelligibly had been denied him. In his political writings alone does he produce powerful effects, and these only by means of dazzling antitheses and of phrases which are easy to remember, sentences which by play of words hide their own vacuity. In his polemics he does not hesitate to distort what his own opponent had said. Instead of refuting he tends to abuse.

Marx's originality and historical significance lie entirely in the field of political technique. He recognizes the immense social power that can be achieved by welding out of the great masses of workers, herded together in workshops, a political factor; and he seeks and finds the slogans to unite these masses into a coherent movement. He produces the catchword which leads people otherwise indifferent to politics to attack private property. He preaches a doctrine of salvation which rationalizes their resentment and transfigures their envy and desire for revenge into a mission ordained by world history. He inspires them with consciousness of their mission by greeting them as those who carry in themselves the future of the human race. The rapid expansion of Socialism has been compared to that of Christianity. More appropriate, perhaps, would be a comparison with Islam, which inspired the sons of the desert to lay waste ancient civilizations, cloaked their destructive fury with an ethical ideology and stiffened their courage with rigid fatalism.

At the core of Marxism is the doctrine of the identity of interests of all proletarians. As an individual, however, the worker is daily in sharp competitive conflict with his fellow-workers and with those who are quite ready to take his job from him; together with his own comrades in his own trade he competes with workers in other branches of the trade and with the consumers of the products in the production of which he collaborates. In the face of all these facts, all his passions had to be raised to induce him to seek his salvation in union with other workers. But this was not so very difficult; it always pays to rouse what is evil in the human heart. Yet Marx has done more: he has decked out the resentment of the common man with the nimbus of science, and has thus made it attractive to those who live on a higher intellectual and ethical plane. Every socialist movement has borrowed in this respect from Marx, adapting the doctrine slightly for its special needs.

As a master of demagogic technique Marx was a genius; this cannot be sufficiently emphasized. He found the propitious historical moment for uniting the masses into a single political movement, and was himself on the spot to lead this movement. For him all politics was only the continuation of war by other means; his political art was always political tactics. The socialist parties which trace their origin back to Marx have kept this up, as have those who have taken the Marxist parties for their model. They have elaborated the technique of agitation, the cadging for votes and for souls, the stirring up of electoral excitement, the street demonstrations, and the terrorism. To learn the technique of these things requires years of hard study. At their party conferences and in their party literature, the Marxians give more attention to questions of organization and of tactics than to the most important basic problems of politics. In fact, if one wished to be more precise one would have to admit that nothing interests them at all except from the point of view of party tactics and that they have no interest to spare for anything else.

This militarist attitude to politics, which reveals the inner affinity of Marxism with Prussian and Russian etatism [i.e., the extreme authority of the state over the individual citizen . . . state socialism--the theory, doctrine, and movement advocating a planned economy controlled by the state, with state ownership of all industries and natural resources] has quickly found adherents. The modern parties of the continent of Europe have completely accepted the Marxian ideology. Especially the parties which aim to promote particular interests, and which gather together the peasant class, the industrial middle class and the class of employees, make use of the Marxist doctrine of class-war for their own purposes. They have learnt all they know from Marxism.

The defeat of the liberal ideology could not long be postponed. Liberalism has anxiously avoided all political artifice. It has relied entirely upon the inner vitality of its ideas and their power to convince, and has disdained all other means of political conflict. It has never pursued political tactics, never stooped to demagogy. The old Liberalism was honest through and through and faithful to its principles. Its opponents called this being 'doctrinaire'.

Today the old liberal principles have to be submitted to a thorough reexamination. Science has been completely transformed in the last hundred years, and to-day the general sociological and economic foundations of the liberal doctrine have to be relaid. On many questions Liberalism did not think logically to the conclusion. There are loose threads to be gathered up. But the mode of political activity of Liberalism cannot alter. It regards all social co-operation as an emanation of rationally recognized utility, in which all power is based on public opinion, and can undertake no course of action that would hinder the free decision of thinking men. Liberalism knows that society can advance to a higher stage only by men recognizing the usefulness of social co-operation; that neither God nor veiled destiny determines the future of the human race, but only man himself. When nations rush blindly towards destruction, Liberalism must try to enlighten them. But even if they do not hear, whether because they are deaf or because the warning voice is too feeble, one must not seek to seduce them to the right mode of conduct by tactical and demagogic artifice. It might be possible to destroy society by demagogy. But it can never be built up by that means.