Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: The Bourgeois Prejudice for Liberty - The Anti-capitalistic Mentality
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
4: The “Bourgeois Prejudice” for Liberty - Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-capitalistic Mentality 
The Anti-capitalist Mentality, edited and with a preface by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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 “Bourgeois Prejudice” for Liberty
The history of Western civilization is the record of a ceaseless struggle for liberty.
Social cooperation under the division of labor is the ultimate and sole source of man’s success in his struggle for survival and his endeavors to improve as much as possible the material conditions of his well-being. But as human nature is, society cannot exist if there is no provision for preventing unruly people from actions incompatible with community life. In order to preserve peaceful cooperation, one must be ready to resort to violent suppression of those disturbing the peace. Society cannot do without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without state and government. Then a further problem emerges: to restrain the men who are in charge of the governmental functions lest they abuse their power and convert all other people into virtual slaves. The aim of all struggles for liberty is to keep in bounds the armed defenders of peace, the governors and their constables. The political concept of the individual’s freedom means freedom from arbitrary action on the part of the police power.
The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. The imperishable glory of the ancient Greeks was that they were the first to grasp the meaning and significance of institutions warranting liberty. Recent historical research has traced back the origin of some of the scientific achievements previously credited to the Hellenes to oriental sources. But nobody has ever contested that the idea of liberty originated in the cities of ancient Greece. The writings of Greek philosophers and historians transmitted it to the Romans and later to modern Europe and America. It became the essential concern of all Western plans for the establishment of the good society. It begot the laissez-faire philosophy to which mankind owes all the unprecedented achievements of the age of capitalism.
The purpose of all modern political and judicial institutions is to safeguard the individuals’ freedom against encroachments on the part of the government. Representative government and the rule of law, the independence of courts and tribunals from interference on the part of administrative agencies, habeas corpus, judicial examination and redress of acts of the administration, freedom of speech and the press, separation of state and church, and many other institutions aimed at one end only: to restrain the discretion of the officeholders and to render the individuals free from their arbitrariness. The age of capitalism has abolished all vestiges of slavery and serfdom. It has put an end to cruel punishments and has reduced the penalty for crimes committed to the minimum indispensable for discouraging offenders. It has done away with torture and other objectionable methods of dealing with suspects and law breakers. It has repealed all privileges and promulgated equality of all men under the law. It has transformed the subjects of tyranny into free citizens.
The material improvements were the fruit of these reforms and innovations in the conduct of government affairs. As all privileges disappeared and everybody was granted the right to challenge the vested interests of all other people, a free hand was given to those who had the ingenuity to develop all the new industries which today render the material conditions of people more satisfactory. Population figures multiplied and yet the increased population could enjoy a better life than their ancestors.
Also in the countries of Western civilization there have always been advocates of tyranny—the absolute arbitrary rule of an autocrat or of an aristocracy on the one hand, and the subjection of all other people on the other hand. But in the age of Enlightenment these voices became thinner and thinner. The cause of liberty prevailed. In the first part of the nineteenth century the victorious advance of the principle of freedom seemed to be irresistible. The most eminent philosophers and historians got the conviction that historical evolution tends toward the establishment of institutions warranting freedom and that no intrigues and machinations on the part of the champions of servilism could stop the trend toward liberalism.
In dealing with the liberal social philosophy there is a disposition to overlook the power of an important factor that worked in favor of the idea of liberty, viz., the eminent role assigned to the literature of ancient Greece in the education of the élite. There were among the Greek authors also champions of government omnipotence, such as Plato. But the essential tenor of Greek ideology was the pursuit of liberty. Judged by the standards of modern institutions, the Greek city-states must be called oligarchies. The liberty which the Greek statesmen, philosophers and historians glorified as the most precious good of man was a privilege reserved to a minority. In denying it to metics and slaves they virtually advocated the despotic rule of a hereditary caste of oligarchs. Yet it would be a grave error to dismiss their hymns to liberty as mendacious. They were no less sincere in their praise and quest of freedom than were, two thousand years later, the slaveholders among the signers of the American Declaration of Independence. It was the political literature of the ancient Greeks that begot the ideas of the Monarchomachs, the philosophy of the Whigs, the doctrines of Althusius, Grotius and John Locke and the ideology of the fathers of modern constitutions and bills of rights. It was the classical studies, the essential feature of a liberal education, that kept awake the spirit of freedom in the England of the Stuarts, in the France of the Bourbons, and in Italy subject to the despotism of a galaxy of princes. No less a man than Bismarck, among the nineteenth-century statesmen next to Metternich the foremost foe of liberty, bears witness to the fact that, even in the Prussia of Frederick William III, the Gymnasium, the education based on Greek and Roman literature, was a stronghold of republicanism.* The passionate endeavors to eliminate the classical studies from the curriculum of the liberal education and thus virtually to destroy its very character were one of the major manifestations of the revival of the servile ideology.
It is a fact that a hundred years ago only a few people anticipated the overpowering momentum which the antilibertarian ideas were destined to acquire in a very short time. The ideal of liberty seemed to be so firmly rooted that everybody thought that no reactionary movement could ever succeed in eradicating it. It is true, it would have been a hopeless venture to attack freedom openly and to advocate unfeignedly a return to subjection and bondage. But antiliberalism got hold of peoples’ minds camouflaged as superliberalism, as the fulfillment and consummation of the very ideas of freedom and liberty. It came disguised as socialism, communism, planning.
No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individuals’ freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom. They called themselves left-wingers and democrats, and nowadays they are even claiming for themselves the epithet “liberal.”
We have already dealt with the psychological factors that dimmed the judgment of these intellectuals and the masses who followed their lead. They were in their subconsciousness fully aware of the fact that their failure to attain the far-flung goals which their ambition impelled them to aim at was due to deficiencies of their own. They knew very well that they were either not bright enough or not industrious enough. But they were eager not to avow their inferiority both to themselves and to their fellow men and to search for a scapegoat. They consoled themselves and tried to convince other people that the cause of their failure was not their own inferiority but the injustice of society’s economic organization. Under capitalism, they declared, self-realization is only possible for the few. “Liberty in a laissez-faire society is attainable only by those who have the wealth or opportunity to purchase it.”* Hence, they concluded, the state must interfere in order to realize “social justice”—what they really meant was, in order to give to the frustrated mediocrity “according to his needs.”
As long as the problems of socialism were merely a matter of debates, people who lack clear judgment and understanding could fall prey to the illusion that freedom could be preserved under a socialist regime. Such self-deceit can no longer be nurtured since the Soviet experience has shown to everybody what conditions are in a socialist commonwealth. Today the apologists of socialism are forced to distort facts and to misrepresent the manifest meaning of words when they want to make people believe in the compatibility of socialism and freedom.
The late Professor Laski—in his lifetime an eminent member and chairman of the British Labour Party, a self-styled noncommunist or even anticommunist—told us that “no doubt in Soviet Russia a Communist has a full sense of liberty; no doubt also he has a keen sense that liberty is denied him in Fascist Italy.”† The truth is that a Russian is free to obey all the orders issued by his superiors. But as soon as he deviates a hundredth of an inch from the correct way of thinking as laid down by the authorities, he is mercilessly liquidated. All those politicians, officeholders, authors, musicians and scientists who were “purged” were—to be sure—not anticommunists. They were, on the contrary, fanatical communists, party members in good standing, whom the supreme authorities, in due recognition of their loyalty to the Soviet creed, had promoted to high positions. The only offense they had committed was that they were not quick enough in adjusting their ideas, policies, books or compositions to the latest changes in the ideas and tastes of Stalin. It is difficult to believe that these people had “a full sense of liberty” if one does not attach to the word liberty a sense which is precisely the contrary of the sense which all people always used to attach to it.
Fascist Italy was certainly a country in which there was no liberty. It had adopted the notorious Soviet pattern of the “one-party principle” and accordingly suppressed all dissenting views. Yet there was still a conspicuous difference between the Bolshevik and the Fascist application of this principle. For instance, there lived in Fascist Italy a former member of the parliamentary group of communist deputies, who remained loyal unto death to his communist tenets, Professor Antonio Graziadei. He received the government pension which he was entitled to claim as professor emeritus, and he was free to write and to publish, with the most eminent Italian publishing firms, books which were orthodox Marxian. His lack of liberty was certainly less rigid than that of the Russian communists who, as Professor Laski chose to say, “no doubt” have “a full sense of liberty.”
Professor Laski took pleasure in repeating the truism that liberty in practice always means liberty within law. He goes on saying that the law always aims at “the conference of security upon a way of life which is deemed satisfactory by those who dominate the machinery of state.”* This is a correct description of the laws of a free country if it means that the law aims at protecting society against conspiracies intent upon kindling civil war and upon overthrowing the government by violence. But it is a serious misstatement when Professor Laski adds that in a capitalistic society “an effort on the part of the poor to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich at once throws the whole scheme of liberties into jeopardy.”*
Take the case of the great idol of Professor Laski and all his friends, Karl Marx. When in 1848 and 1849 he took an active part in the organization and the conduct of the revolution, first in Prussia and later also in other German states, he was—being legally an alien—expelled and moved, with his wife, his children and his maid, first to Paris and then to London.† Later, when peace returned and the abettors of the abortive revolution were amnestied, he was free to return to all parts of Germany and often made use of this opportunity. He was no longer an exile, and he chose of his own accord to make his home in London.‡ Nobody molested him when he founded, in 1864, the International Working Men’s Association, a body whose avowed sole purpose was to prepare the great world revolution. He was not stopped when, on behalf of this association, he visited various continental countries. He was free to write and to publish books and articles which, to use the words of Professor Laski, were certainly an effort “to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich.” And he died quietly in his London home, 41 Maitland Park Road, on March 14, 1883.
Or take the case of the British Labour Party. Their effort “to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich” was, as Professor Laski knew very well, not hindered by any action incompatible with the principle of liberty.
Marx, the dissenter, could live, write and advocate revolution, at ease, in Victorian England just as the Labour Party could engage in all political activities, at ease, in post-Victorian England. In Soviet Russia not the slightest opposition is tolerated. This is the difference between liberty and slavery.
[* ]Cf. Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen, Vol. 1 (New York, 1898), p. 1.
[* ]Cf. H. Laski, “Liberty,” Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 9, p. 443.
[† ]Cf. Laski, op. cit., pp. 445–46.
[* ]Cf. Laski, op. cit., p. 446.
[* ]Cf. Laski, l.c., p. 446.
[† ]About Marx’s activities in the years 1848 and 1849 see: Karl Marx, Chronik seines Lebens in Einzeldaten (Moskau: Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institut, 1934), pp. 43–81.
[‡ ]In 1845 Marx voluntarily of his own accord renounced his Prussian citizenship. When later, in the early sixties, he considered a political career in Prussia, the government denied his application for restoring his citizenship. Thus, a political career was closed to him. Perhaps this fact decided him to remain in London.