By Ludwig von Mises
It is a mistake to think that the lack of success of experiments in Socialism that have been made can help to overcome Socialism. Facts per se can neither prove nor refute anything. Everything is decided by the interpretation and explanation of the facts, by the ideas and the theories.
The man who clings to Socialism will continue to ascribe all the world's evil to private property and to expect salvation from Socialism. Socialists ascribe the failures of Russian Bolshevism to every circumstance except the inadequacy of the system. From the socialist point of view, Capitalism alone is responsible for all the misery the world has had to endure in recent years. Socialists see only what they want to see and are blind to anything that might contradict their theory.
Only ideas can overcome ideas and it is only the ideas of Capitalism and of [Classical] Liberalism that can overcome Socialism. Only by a battle of ideas can a decision be reached.
Liberalism and Capitalism address themselves to the cool, well-balanced mind. They proceed by strict logic, eliminating any appeal to the emotions. Socialism, on the contrary, works on the emotions, tries to violate logical considerations by rousing a sense of personal interest and to stifle the voice of reason by awakening primitive instincts.
Even with those of intellectually higher standing, with the few capable of independent reflection, this seems to give Socialism an advantage. With the others, the great masses who are unable to think, the Socialist position is considered unshakable. A speaker who inflames the passions of the masses is supposed to have a better chance of success than one who appeals to their reason. Thus the prospects of Liberalism in the fight with Socialism are accounted very poor.
This pessimistic point of view is completely mistaken in its estimate of the influence which rational and quiet reflection can exercise on the masses. It also exaggerates enormously the importance of the part played by the masses, and consequently mass-psychological elements, in creating and forming the predominant ideas of an epoch.
It is true that the masses do not think. But just for this reason they follow those who do think. The intellectual guidance of humanity belongs to the very few who think for themselves. At first they influence the circle of those capable of grasping and understanding what others have thought; through these intermediaries their ideas reach the masses and there condense themselves into the public opinion of the time. Socialism has not become the ruling idea of our period because the masses first thought out the idea of the socialization of the means of production and then transmitted it to the intellectually higher classes. Even the materialistic conception of history, haunted as it is by "the psyche of the people" as conceived by Romanticism and the historical school of jurisprudence does not risk such an assertion. Of itself the mass psyche has never produced anything but mass crime, devastation, and destruction.*1 Admittedly the idea of Socialism is also in its effects nothing more than destruction, but it is nevertheless an idea. It had to be thought out, and this could only be the work of individual thinkers. Like every other great thought, it has penetrated to the masses only through the intellectual middle class. Neither the people nor the masses were the first socialists. Even today they are agrarian socialist and syndicalist rather than socialist. The first socialists were the intellectuals; they and not the masses are the backbone of Socialism.*2 The power of Socialism too, is like any other power ultimately spiritual; and it finds its support in ideas proceeding from the intellectual leaders, who give them to the people. If the intelligentsia abandoned Socialism its power would end. In the long run the masses cannot withstand the ideas of the leaders. True, individual demagogues may be ready, for the sake of a career and against their better knowledge, to instil into the people ideas which flatter their baser instincts and which are therefore sure to be well received. But in the end, prophets who in their heart know themselves to be false cannot prevail against those filled with the power of sincere conviction. Nothing can corrupt ideas. Neither by money nor by other rewards can one hire men for the fight against ideas.
Human society is an issue of the mind. Social co-operation must first be conceived, then willed, then realized in action. It is ideas that make history, not the "material productive forces," those nebulous and mystical schemata of the materialist conception of history. If we could overcome the idea of Socialism, if humanity could be brought to recognize the social necessity of private ownership in the means of production, then Socialism would have to leave the stage. That is the only thing that counts.
The victory of the socialist idea over the Liberal idea has only come about through the displacement of the social attitude, which has regard to the social function of the single institution and the total effect of the whole social apparatus, by an anti-social attitude, which considers the individual parts of the social mechanism as detached units. Socialism sees the individuals--the hungry, the unemployed, and the rich—and finds fault on that account; Liberalism never forgets the whole and the interdependence of every phenomenon. It knows well enough that private ownership in the means of production is not able to transform the world into a paradise; it has never tried to establish anything beyond the simple fact that the socialist order of society is unrealizable, and therefore less able than Capitalism to promote the well-being of all.
No one has understood Liberalism less than those who have joined its ranks during the recent decades. They have felt themselves obliged to fight excrescences" of Capitalism, thereby taking over without a qualm the characteristic anti-social attitude of the socialists. A social order has no excrescences which can be cut off at will. If a phenomenon results inevitably from a social system based on private ownership in the means of production, no ethical or aesthetic caprice can condemn it. Speculation, for example, which is inherent in all economic action, in a socialistic society as well as any other, cannot be condemned for the form it takes under Capitalism merely because the censor of morals mistakes its social function. Nor have these disciples of Liberalism been any more fortunate in their criticisms of Socialism. They have constantly declared that Socialism is a beautiful and noble ideal towards which one ought to strive were it realizable, but that, alas, it could not be so, because it presupposed human beings more perfect morally than those with whom we have to deal. It is difficult to see how people can decide that Socialism is in any way better than Capitalism unless they can maintain that it functions better as a social system. With the same justification it might be said that a machine constructed on the basis of perpetual motion would be better than one worked according to the given laws of mechanics—if only it could be made to function reliably. If the concept of Socialism contains an error which prevents that system from doing what it is supposed to do, then Socialism cannot be compared with the Capitalist system, for this has proved itself workable. Neither can it be called nobler, more beautiful or more just.
It is true, Socialism cannot be realized, but it is not because it calls for sublime and altruistic beings. One of the things this book set out to prove was that the socialist commonwealth lacks above all one quality which is indispensable for every economic system which does not live from hand to mouth but works with indirect and roundabout methods of production: that is the ability to calculate, and therefore to proceed rationally. Once this has been generally recognized, all socialist ideas must vanish from the minds of reasonable human beings.
How untenable is the opinion that Socialism must come because social evolution necessarily leads to it, has been shown in earlier sections of this book. The world inclines to Socialism because the great majority of people want it. They want it because they believe that Socialism will guarantee a higher standard of welfare. The loss of this conviction would signify the end of Socialism.
1. MacIver, Community, London, 1924, pp. 79 ff.
2. This, of course, is true also of the German nation. Almost the whole intelligentsia of Germany is socialistic: in national circles it is State or, as one usually says today, National Socialism, in Catholic circles, Church Socialism, in other circles, Social-Democracy or Bolshevism.
This article is excerpted from Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis and originally appeared at Mises.org.