The Romanticism of Socialism: Thoughts by Ludwig von Mises

The Romanticism of Socialism: Thoughts by Ludwig von Mises

The Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries, in essence, was a reaction against the Enlightenment. Whereas Enlightenment philosophy was dominated by empiricism, reason, mathematics, logic, mathematically formulated scientific laws, and the abstractions of natural rights, the Romantics emphasized the inner world of personal inspiration, subjectivity, and individual perception. The Romantics, through their literature and art, emphasized senses, emotions, feelings, and imagination: this was where the complexities of human existence could be fully understood--where the truth of the human experience could be found--rather than in the sterile objectivity of the Enlightenment. Imagination, to the Romantics, was superior to reason.

The Romantic world believed that childhood was good, the "savage" was noble, and the emotions inspired by both would cause the heart to soar and realize "truth" that was not apparent to logic and mathematical reasoning. Knowledge is gained through intuition, not deduction. The Romantic world, consequently, was a subjective world; it was a world of how things should be rather than how things are.

This sketch of Romanticism will help readers contextualize what Mises writes below.

August Glen-James, editor

The romantic takes all the gifts of a social civilization for granted and desires, in addition, everything fine and beautiful that, as he thinks, distant times and countries had or have to offer. Surrounded by the comforts of European town life he longs to be an Indian rajah, Bedouin, corsair, or troubadour.

The romantic and the social art of the nineteenth century have prepared the way for socialist destructionism. Without the help it got from this direction Socialism would never have gained its hold on people's minds.

Romanticism is man's revolt against reason, as well as against the condition under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and of nature. The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work; he produces in order to improve his position. The romantic is too weak - too neurasthenic for work; he imagines the pleasures of success but he does nothing to achieve them. He does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination. He has a grudge against reality because it is not like the dream world he has created. He hates work, economy, and reason.

The romantic takes all the gifts of a social civilization for granted and desires, in addition, everything fine and beautiful that, as he thinks, distant times and countries had or have to offer. Surrounded by the comforts of European town life he longs to be an Indian rajah, Bedouin, corsair, or troubadour. But he sees only that portion of these people's lives which seems pleasant to him, never their lack of the things he obtains in such abundance. His horsemen gallop over the plains on fiery steeds, his corsairs capture beautiful women, his knights vanquish their enemies between episodes of love and song. The perilous nature of their existence, the comparative poverty of their circumstances, their miseries and their toils - these things his imagination tactfully overlooks: all is transfigured by a rosy gleam. Compared with this dream ideal, reality appears arid and shallow. There are obstacles to overcome which do not exist in the dream. There are very different tasks to be undertaken. Here are no beautiful women to be rescued from the hands of robbers, no lost treasures to be found, no dragons to kill. Here there is work to do, ceaselessly, assiduously, day after day, year after year. Here one must plough and sow if one wishes to reap. The romantic does not choose to admit all this. Obstinate as a child, he refuses to recognize it. He mocks and jeers; he despises and loathes the bourgeois.

The spread of capitalist thought produced an attitude of mind unfriendly to Romanticism. The poetic figures of knights and pirates become objects of mirth. Now that the lives of Bedouins, maharajahs, pirates, and other romantic heroes had been observed at close quarters, any desire to emulate them vanished. The achievements of the capitalist social order made it good to be alive and there was a growing feeling that security of life and liberty, peaceful welfare, and richer satisfaction of wants could be expected only from Capitalism. The romantic contempt for what is bourgeois fell into disrepute.

But the mental attitude from which Romanticism sprang was not so easy to eradicate. The neurasthenic protest against life sought other forms of expression. It found it in the 'social' art of the nineteenth century.

The really great poets and novelists of the period were not social-political propagandist writers. Flaubert, Maupassant, Jacobsen, Strindberg, Konrad Ferdinand Meyer, to name only a few, were far from being followers of the fashionable literature. We do not owe the statement of these social and political problems to the writers whose works have given the nineteenth century its lasting place in the history of literature. This was the task assumed by second- or third-rate writers. It was writers of this class who introduced as literary figures the bloodsucking capitalist entrepreneur and the noble proletarian. To them the rich man is in the wrong because he is rich, and the poor in the right because he is poor. 'But this is just as if wealth were a crime', Gerhart Hauptmann makes Frau Dreissiger exclaim in Die Weber. The literature of this period is full of the condemnation of property.

This is not the place for an aesthetic analysis of these works; our task is to examine their political effects. They have brought victory to Socialism by enlisting the allegiance of the educated classes. By means of such books Socialism has been carried into the houses of the wealthy, captivating the wives and daughters and causing the sons to turn away from the family business until at last the capitalist entrepreneur himself has begun to believe in the baseness of his activities. Bankers, captains of industry, and merchants have filled the boxes of theatres in which plays of a socialist tendency were given before enthusiastic audiences.

Social art is tendentious art: all social literature has a thesis to demonstrate. It is ever the same thesis: Capitalism is an evil, Socialism is salvation. That such eternal repetition has not led to boredom sooner must be attributed solely to the fact that the various writers have bad different forms of Socialism in mind. But they all follow Marx's example in avoiding detailed exposition of the socialist social order they praise; most of them merely indicate by allusion, though clearly enough, that they desire a socialist order. That the logic of their argument is inadequate and that the conclusions are driven home by an appeal to the emotions rather than to reason is hardly surprising, seeing that the same method is followed by soi-disant scientific authorities on Socialism. Fiction is a favoured vehicle for this kind of procedure, as there is little fear that anyone will try to refute its assertions in detail by logical criticism. It is not the custom to inquire into the accuracy of particular remarks in novels and plays. Even if it were, the author could still find a way out by denying responsibility for the particular words put into the mouth of a hero. The conclusions forced home by character-drawing cannot be invalidated by logic. Even if the 'man of property' is always depicted as bad through and through, one cannot reproach the author on account of a simple example. For the total effect of the literature of his time no single writer is responsible.

Mises, L. V., Hayek, F. A., & Kahane, J. (2014). Socialism. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Incorporated.