Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 33: The Motive Powers of Destructionism - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 33: The Motive Powers of Destructionism - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Motive Powers of Destructionism
The Nature of Destructionism
To the socialist, the coming of Socialism means a transition from an irrational to a rational economy. Under Socialism, planned management of economic life takes the place of anarchy of production; society, which is conceived as the incarnation of reason, takes the place of the conflicting aims of unreasonable and self-interested individuals. A just distribution replaces an unjust distribution of goods. Want and misery vanish and there is wealth for all. A picture of paradise is unfolded before us, a paradise which—so the laws of historical evolution tell us—we, or at least our heirs, must at length inherit. For all history leads to that promised land, and all that has happened in the past has only prepared the way for our salvation.
This is how our contemporaries see Socialism, and they believe in its excellence. It is false to imagine that the socialist ideology dominates only those parties which call themselves socialist or—what is generally intended to mean the same thing—“social.” All present-day political parties are saturated with the leading socialistic ideas. Even the stoutest opponents of Socialism fall within its shadow. They, too, are convinced that the socialist economy is more rational than the capitalist, that it guarantees a more just distribution of income, that historical evolution is driving man inexorably in that direction. When they oppose Socialism they do so with the sense that they are defending selfish private interests and that they are combating a development which from the standpoint of public welfare is desirable and is based upon the only ethically acceptable principle. And in their hearts they are convinced that their resistance is hopeless.
Yet the socialist idea is nothing but a grandiose rationalization of petty resentments. Not one of its theories can withstand scientific criticism and all its deductions are ill-founded. Its conception of the capitalist economy has long been seen to be false; its plan of a future social order proves to be inwardly contradictory, and therefore impracticable. Not only would Socialism fail to make economic life more rational, it would abolish social cooperation outright. That it would bring justice is merely an arbitrary assertion, arising, as we can show, from resentment and the false interpretation of what takes place under Capitalism. And that historical evolution leaves us no alternative but Socialism turns out to be a prophecy which differs from the chiliastic dreams of primitive Christian sectarians only in its claim to the title “science.”
In fact Socialism is not in the least what it pretends to be. It is not the pioneer of a better and finer world, but the spoiler of what thousands of years of civilization have created. It does not build; it destroys. For destruction is the essence of it. It produces nothing, it only consumes what the social order based on private ownership in the means of production has created. Since a socialist order of society cannot exist, unless it be as a fragment of Socialism within an economic order resting otherwise on private property, each step leading towards Socialism must exhaust itself in the destruction of what already exists.
Such a policy of destructionism means the consumption of capital. There are few who recognize this fact. Capital consumption can be detected statistically and can be conceived intellectually, but it is not obvious to everyone. To see the weakness of a policy which raises the consumption of the masses at the cost of existing capital wealth, and thus sacrifices the future to the present, and to recognize the nature of this policy, requires deeper insight than that vouchsafed to statesmen and politicians or to the masses who have put them into power. As long as the walls of the factory buildings stand, and the trains continue to run, it is supposed that all is well with the world. The increasing difficulties of maintaining the higher standard of living are ascribed to various causes, but never to the fact that a policy of capital consumption is being followed.
In the problem of the capital consumption of a destructionist society we find one of the key problems of the socialist economic policy. The danger of capital consumption would be particularly great in the socialist community; the demagogue would achieve success most easily by increasing consumption per head at the cost of the formation of additional capital and to the detriment of existing capital.
It is in the nature of capitalist society that new capital is continually being formed. The greater the capital fund becomes, the higher does the marginal productivity of labour rise and the higher, therefore, are wages, absolute and relative. The progressive formation of capital is the only way to increase the quantity of goods which society can consume annually without diminishing production in the future—the only way to increase the workers’ consumption without harm to future generations of workers. Therefore, it has been laid down by Liberalism that progressive capital formation is the only means by which the position of the great masses can be permanently improved. Socialism and destructionism seek to attain this end in a different way. They propose to use up capital so as to achieve present wealth at the expense of the future. The policy of Liberalism is the procedure of the prudent father who saves and builds for himself and his successors. The policy of destructionism is the policy of the spendthrift who dissipates his inheritance regardless of the future.
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 mostly 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.1 Here, too, his disciples (his school really exists only in Germany and Eastern Europe, especially in Russia) have faithfully imitated the master’s example, reviling their opponents but never attempting to refute them by argument.
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.2
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 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 employers, 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 today 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.3 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.
The Destructionism of the Literati
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 beatiful 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.4 “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 efforts. 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.5 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 had 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.
In Hard Times Dickens puts into the mouth of Sissy Jupe, the deserted little daughter of a circus clown and dancer, remarks designed to shatter Utilitarianism and Liberalism. He makes Mr. M’Choackumchild, teacher in the model school of the Benthamite capitalist Gradgrind, ask how great is the percentage of victims when, out of 100,000 sea travellers, 500 are drowned. The good child answers, that for the relatives and friends of the victims there is no percentage—and so condemns with quiet simplicity the self-complacency of Manchesterism. Leaving aside the far-fetched improbability of the scene, this is of course all very fine and touching. But it does not diminish the satisfaction which members of a capitalist community may feel when they contemplate the great reduction of the dangers of navigation under Capitalism. And if Capitalism has so contrived that out of 1,000,000 people only twenty-five starve each year, while under more ancient economic systems a much greater proportion starved, then our estimation of this achievement is not impaired by Sissy’s platitude, that for those who starve the ordeal is just as bitter when a million or a million million others are starving at the same time or not. Moreover, we are offered no proof that in a socialist society fewer people would starve. The third observation which Dickens puts into Sissy’s mouth is intended to show that one cannot judge the economic prosperity of a nation by the amount of its wealth, but one must consider also the distribution of that wealth. Dickens was too ignorant of the writings of the utilitarians to know that these views did not contradict the older utilitarianism. Bentham, particularly, maintained with special emphasis that a sum of wealth brings more happiness when it is evenly distributed than when it is so distributed as to endow some richly while others have little.6
Sissy’s counterpart is the model boy, Bitzer. He gets his mother into the workhouse and then contents himself with giving her half a pound of tea once a year. Even this, says Dickens, is a weakness in the otherwise admirable youth, whom he calls an excellent young economist. For one thing, all almsgiving inevitably tends to pauperize the recipient. Further, Bitzer’s only rational action with regard to tea would have been to buy as cheaply, and sell it as dearly as possible. Have not philosophers demonstrated that in this consists the whole duty of man (the whole, not a part of his duty)? Millions who have read these observations have felt the indignation for the baseness of utilitarian thought which the author meant them to feel. Nevertheless, they are quite unjust. It is true that liberal politicians have striven against the encouragement of beggars by means of indiscriminate almsgiving and have shown the futility of any attempt at bettering the situation of the poor which does not proceed by increasing the productivity of labour. They have exposed the danger to the proletarians themselves of proposals for increasing the birth rate by premature marriages between persons not in a position to take care of their children. But they have never protested against support through the Poor Law of people unable to work. Neither have they contested the moral duty of children to support their parents in old age. The liberal social philosophy has never said that it was a “duty,” let alone the beginning and end of morality, to buy as cheaply as possible and sell as dearly as possible. It has shown that this is the rational behaviour for the individual seeking (by buying and selling) the means for the indirect satisfaction of his wants. But Liberalism has no more called it irrational to give tea to one’s aged mother than it has called tea drinking in itself irrational.
One glance into the works of the utilitarians is enough to unmask these sophistical distortions. But there is hardly one in every hundred thousand readers of Dickens who has ever read a line of a utilitarian writer. Dickens, with other romantics less gifted as storytellers but following the same tendencies, has taught millions to hate Liberalism and Capitalism. And yet Dickens was not an open and direct champion of destructionism, any more than were William Morris, Shaw, Wells, Zola, Anatole France, Gerhart Hauptmann, Edmondo de Amicis, and many others. They all reject the capitalist social order and combat private ownership in the means of production, without perhaps always being conscious of it. Between the lines they suggest an inspiring picture of a better state of affairs economically and socially. They are recruiting agents for Socialism and, since Socialism must destroy society, are at the same time paving the way for destructionism. But just as political Socialism became finally, in Bolshevism, an open avowal of destructionism, so too did literary Socialism. Tolstoy is the great prophet of a destructionism that goes back to the words of the Gospels. He makes the teachings of Christ, which rested on a belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent, a gospel for all times and all men. Like the communist sects of the Middle Ages and the Reformation he tries to build society on the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. He does not of course go so far as to take literally the exhortation to follow the example of the lilies of the field, which toil not. But in his idea of society there is only room for self-sufficing agriculturists who, with modest means, till a small piece of land, and he is logical enough to demand that everything else shall be destroyed.
And now the peoples which have hailed with the greatest enthusiasm such writings, which call for the destruction of all cultural values, are themselves on the verge of a great social catastrophe.
[1. ]See, for instance, in Das Kapital the remarks on Bentham: “the most homely platitude,” “only copied stupidly,” “trash,” “a genius of bourgeois stupidity,” op. cit., Vol. I, p. 573; on Malthus, “a schoolboyishly superficial and clerically stilted plagiarism,” Ibid., Vol. I, p. 580. Publisher’s Note: In the English edition of Marx, Capital, Volume I, these quotations appear on p. 668 (Bentham) and P. 675 n3 (Malthus).
[2. ]Thus Marxism finds it easy to ally with Islamic zealotism. Full of pride the Marxist Otto Bauer cries: “In Turkestan and Azerbaijan monuments to Marx stand opposite the mosques, and the Mullah in Persia mingles quotations from Marx with passages from the Koran when he calls the people to the Holy War against European Imperialism.” See Otto Bauer, “Marx als Mahnung” in Der Kampf, XVI, 1923, p. 83.
[3. ]See my Liberalismus (Jena, 1927). Publisher’s Note: In English as The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth: An Exposition of the Ideas of Classical Liberalism (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1962).
[4. ]Cazamian, Le roman social en Angleterre, 1830-50 (Paris, 1904), pp. 267 ff.
[5. ]On the socialist tendency in painting see Muther, Geschichte der Malerei im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1893), Vol. II. pp. 186 ff.; Coulin, Die sozialistische Weltanschauung in der franzöisischen Malerei (Leipzig, 1909), pp. 85 ff.
[6. ]Bentham, Principles of the Civil Code, pp. 304 ff.