Front Page Titles (by Subject) V: Refutation of Some Fallacious Explanations - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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V: Refutation of Some Fallacious Explanations - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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Refutation of Some Fallacious Explanations
The Shortcomings of Current Explanations
The current explanations of modern nationalism are far from recognizing that nationalism within our world of international division of labor is the inevitable outcome of etatism. We have already exposed the fallacies of the most popular of these explanations, namely, of the Marxian theory of imperialism. We have now to pass in review some other doctrines.
The faultiness of the Marxian theory is due to its bad economics. Most of the theories with which we shall deal now do not take economic factors into account at all. For them nationalism is a phenomenon in a sphere not subject to the influence of factors commonly called economic. Some of these theories even go so far as to assert that nationalistic motivations arise from an intentional neglect of economic matters for the other matters.
A thorough scrutiny of all these dissenting opinions would require an examination of all the fundamental problems of social life and social philosophy. We cannot achieve this in a study devoted to nationalism and the conflicts it has aroused, but must limit ourselves to the problems under investigation.
With regard to prevalent mistakes it may be necessary to emphasize again that we are considering policies and political actions and the doctrines influencing them, not mere views and opinions without practical effect. Our purpose is not to answer such questions as: In what respect do people of various nations, states, linguistic, and other social groups differ from one another? Or: Do they love or hate one another? We wish to know why they prefer a policy of economic nationalism and war to one of peaceful coöperation. Even nations bitterly hating one another would cling to peace and free trade if they were convinced that such a policy best promoted their own interests.
The Alleged Irrationality of Nationalism
There are people who believe that they have satisfactorily explained nationalism by establishing its irrationality. They hold it a serious mistake, common mostly to economists, to assume that human action is always rational. Man is not, they say, a rational being. The ultimate goals of his actions are often if not always irrational. The glory and the greatness of their own nation, state, race, linguistic group, or social class are such irrational goals, which men prefer to increase in wealth and welfare or to the improvement of their standard of living. Men do not like peace, security, and a quiet life. They long for the vicissitudes of war and conquest, for change, adventure, and danger. They enjoy killing, robbing, and destroying. They yearn to march against the enemy when the drums beat, when the trumpets sound, and flags flutter in the wind.
We must recognize, however, that the concepts rational and irrational apply only to means, never to ultimate ends. The judgments of value through which people make their choice among conflicting ultimate ends are neither rational nor irrational. They are arbitrary, subjective, and the outcome of individual points of view. There are no such things as objective absolute values, independent of the individual’s preferences. The preservation of life is as a rule considered an ultimate goal. But there have always been men who preferred death to life, when life could be preserved only under conditions that they considered unbearable. Human actions consist always in a choice between two goods or two evils which are not deemed equivalent. Where there is perfect equivalence, man stays neutral; and no action results. But what is good and what is better, or what is bad and what is worse, is decided according to subjective standards, different with different individuals, and changing with the same individuals according to circumstances.
As soon as we apply the concepts rational and irrational to judgments of value we reduce ends to means. We are referring to something which we have set as a provisional end, and considering the choice made on the basis of whether it is an efficient means to attain this end. If we are dealing with other people’s actions we are substituting our own judgment for theirs, and if we are dealing with our own past actions we are substituting our present valuations for our valuations at the instant in which we acted.
Rational and irrational always mean: reasonable or not from the point of view of the ends sought. There is no such thing as absolute rationality or irrationality.
We may now understand what people are trying to say when they ascribe irrational motives to nationalism. They mean that liberalism was wrong in assuming that men are more eager to improve the material conditions of their well-being than to attain other ends, e.g., national glory, the enjoyment of the dangerous life, or an indulgence in a taste for sadistic pleasures. Men, they say, have rejected capitalism and free trade because they aim at goals other than those that liberalism considers supreme. They do not seek a life free from want and fear, or one of steadily increasing security and riches, but the particular satisfactions with which the totalitarian dictators provide them.
Whether these statments are true or untrue cannot be determined by philosophical or a priori considerations. These are statements about facts. We need to ask whether the attitude of our contemporaries is really such as these explanations would have us believe.
There is no doubt that there really are some people who prefer the attainment of other ends to the improvement of their own material well-being. There have always been men who voluntarily renounced many pleasures and satisfactions in order to do what they considered right and moral. Men have preferred martyrdom to the renunciation of what they believed to be true. They have chosen poverty and exile because they wanted to be free in the search for truth and wisdom. All that is noblest in the progress of civilization, welfare, and enlightenment has been the achievement of such men, who braved every danger and defied the tyranny of powerful kings and fanatical masses. The pages of history tell us the epic of heretics burned at the stake, of philosophers put to death from Socrates to Giordano Bruno, of Christians and Jews heroically clinging to their faith in spite of murderous persecutions, and of many other champions of honesty and fidelity whose martyrdom was less spectacular but no less genuine. But these examples of self-denial and readiness to sacrifice have always been exceptional; they have been the privilege of a small elite.
It is furthermore true that there have always been people who sought power and glory. But such aspirations are not contrary to the common longing for more wealth, higher income, and more luxuries. The thirst for power does not involve the renunciation of material improvement. On the contrary, men want to be powerful in order to acquire more wealth than they could get by other methods. Many expect to acquire more treasures by robbing others than they could get by serving consumers. Many chose an adventurous career because they were confident that they could succeed better that way. Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering were simply unfit for any honest job. They were complete failures in the peaceful business of capitalist society. They strove for power, glory, and leadership, and thus became the richest men in present-day Germany. It is nonsense to assert that the “will to power” with them is something contrary to the longing for more material well-being.
The explanation of modern nationalism and war with which we have to deal at this point in our investigation refers not only to the leaders but also to their followers. With regard to these the question is: Is it true that people—the voters, the masses of our contemporaries—have intentionally abandoned liberalism, capitalism, and free trade and substituted for them etatism—interventionism or socialism—economic nationalism, and wars and revolutions, because they care more for a dangerous life in poverty than for a good life in peace and security? Do they really prefer being poorer in an environment where no one is better off than they to being richer within a market society where there are people wealthier than they? Do they choose the chaos of interventionism, socialism, and endless wars although they are fully aware that this must mean poverty and hardships for them? Only a man lacking all sense of reality or common observation could venture to answer these questions in the affirmative. Clearly men have abandoned liberalism and are fighting capitalism because they believe that interventionism, socialism, and economic nationalism will make them richer, not poorer. The socialists did not and do not say to the masses: We want to lower your standard of living. The protectionists do not say: Your material well-being will suffer by import duties. The interventionists do not recommend their measures by pointing out their detrimental effects for the commonweal. On the contrary, all these groups insist again and again that their policy will make their partisans richer. People favor etatism because they believe that it will make them richer. They denounce capitalism because they believe that it deprives them of their fair share.
The main point in the propaganda of Nazism between 1919 and 1933 was: World Jewry and Western capitalism have caused your misery; we will fight these foes, thus rendering you more prosperous. German Nazis and Italian Fascists fought for raw materials and fertile soil, and they promised their followers a life of wealth and luxury. The sacro egoismo of the Italians is not the mentality of idealists but that of robbers. Mussolini did not praise the dangerous life for its own sake but as a means of getting rich booty. When Goering said that guns are more important than butter he explained that Germans in the immediate future had to restrict their consumption of butter in order to get the guns necessary for the conquest of all the treasures of the world. If this is altruism, self-denial, or irrational idealism, then the gentlemen of Brooklyn’s Murder Syndicate were the most perfect altruists and idealists.
The nationalists of all countries have succeeded in convincing their followers that only the policies they recommend are really advantageous to the well-being of the whole nation and of all its honest citizens, of the we; and that all other parties are treacherously ready to sell their own nation’s prosperity to foreigners, to the they. By taking the name “nationalist” they insinuate that the other parties favor foreign interests. The German nationalists in the first World War called themselves the party of the Fatherland, thus labeling all those who favored a negotiated peace, a sincere declaration that Germany did not want to annex Belgium, or no more sinking of liners by submarines, as treacherous foes of the nation. They were not prepared to admit that their adversaries also were honest in their affection for the commonweal. Whoever was not a nationalist was in their eyes an apostate and traitor.
This attitude is common to all contemporary antiliberal parties. The so-called “labor parties,” for example, pretend to recommend the only means favorable to the—of course—material interests of labor. Whoever opposes their program becomes for them a foe of labor. They do not permit rational discussion concerning the expediency of their policies for the workers. They are infatuated enough to pay no attention at all to the objections raised against them by economists. What they recommend is good, what their critics urge is bad, for labor.
This intransigent dogmatism does not mean that nationalists or labor leaders are in favor of goals other than those of the material well-being of their nations or classes. It merely illustrates a characteristic feature of our day, the replacement of reasonable discussion by the errors of polylogism. We will deal with this phenomenon in a later chapter.
The Aristocratic Doctrine
Among the infinity of fallacious statements and factual errors that go to form the structure of Marxian philosophy there are two that are especially objectionable. Marx asserts that capitalism causes increasing pauperization of the masses, and blithely contends that the proletarians are intellectually and morally superior to the narrow-minded, corrupt, and selfish bourgeoisie. It is not worth while to waste time in a refutation of these fables.
The champions of a return to oligarchic government see things from a quite different angle. It is a fact, they say, that capitalism has poured a horn of plenty for the masses, who do not know why they become more prosperous from day to day. The proletarians have done everything they could to hinder or slow down the pace of technical innovations—they have even destroyed newly invented machines. Their unions today still oppose every improvement in methods of production. The entrepreneurs and capitalists have had to push the reluctant and unwilling masses toward a system of production which renders their lives more comfortable.
Within an unhampered market society, these advocates of aristocracy go on to say, there prevails a tendency toward a diminution of the inequality of incomes. While the average citizen becomes wealthier, the successful entrepreneurs seldom attain wealth which raises them far above the average level. There is but a small group of high incomes, and the total consumption of this group is too insignificant to play any role in the market. The members of the upper middle class enjoy a higher standard of living than the masses but their demands also are unimportant in the market. They live more comfortably than the majority of their fellow citizens but they are not rich enough to afford a style of life substantially different. Their dress is more expensive than that of the lower strata but it is of the same pattern and is adjusted to the same fashions. Their bathrooms and their cars are more elegant but the service they render is substantially the same. The old discrepancies in standards have shrunk to differences that are mostly but a matter of ornament. The private life of a modern entrepreneur or executive differs much less from that of his employees than, centuries ago, the life of a feudal landlord differed from that of his serfs.
It is, in the eyes of these pro-aristocratic critics, a deplorable consequence of this trend toward equalization and a rise in mass standards that the masses take a more active part in the nation’s mental and political activities. They not only set artistic and literary standards; they are supreme in politics also. They now have comfort and leisure enough to play a decisive role in communal matters. But they are too narrow-minded to grasp the sense in sound policies. They judge all economic problems from the point of view of their own position in the process of production. For them the entrepreneurs and capitalists, indeed most of the executives, are simply idle people whose services could easily be rendered by “anyone able to read and write.”* The masses are full of envy and resentment; they want to expropriate the capitalists and entrepreneurs whose fault is to have served them too well. They are absolutely unfit to conceive the remoter consequences of the measures they are advocating. Thus they are bent on destroying the sources from which their prosperity stems. The policy of democracies is suicidal. Turbulent mobs demand acts which are contrary to society’s and their own best interests. They return to Parliament corrupt demagogues, adventurers, and quacks who praise patent medicines and idiotic remedies. Democracy has resulted in an upheaval of the domestic barbarians against reason, sound policies, and civilization. The masses have firmly established the dictators in many European countries. They may succeed very soon in America too. The great experiment of liberalism and democracy has proved to be self-liquidating. It has brought about the worst of all tyrannies.
Not for the sake of the elite but for the salvation of civilization and for the benefit of the masses a radical reform is needed. The incomes of the proletarians, say the advocates of an aristocratic revolution, have to be cut down; their work must be made harder and more tedious. The laborer should be so tired after his daily task is fulfilled that he cannot find leisure for dangerous thoughts and activities. He must be deprived of the franchise. All political power must be vested in the upper classes. Then the populace will be rendered harmless. They will be serfs, but as such happy, grateful, and subservient. What the masses need is to be held under tight control. If they are left free they will fall an easy prey to the dictatorial aspirations of scoundrels. Save them by establishing in time the oligarchic paternal rule of the best, of the elite, of the aristocracy.
These are the ideas that many of our contemporaries have derived from the writings of Burke, Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, Pareto, and Michels, and from the historical experience of the last decades. You have the choice, they say, between the tyranny of men from the scum and the benevolent rule of wise kings and aristocracies. There has never been in history a lasting democratic system. The ancient and medieval republics were not genuine democracies; the masses—slaves and metics—never took part in government. Anyway, these republics too ended in demagogy and decay. If the rule of a Grand Inquisitor is inevitable, let him rather be a Roman cardinal, a Bourbon prince, or a British lord than a sadistic adventurer of low breeding.
The main shortcoming of this reasoning is that it greatly exaggerates the role played by the lower strata of society in the evolution toward the detrimental present-day policies. It is paradoxical to assume that the masses whom the friends of oligarchy describe as riffraff should have been able to overpower the upper classes, the elite of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and intellectuals, and to impose on them their own mentality.
Who is responsible for the deplorable events of the last decades? Did perhaps the lower classes, the proletarians, evolve the new doctrines? Not at all. No proletarian contributed anything to the construction of antiliberal teachings. At the root of the genealogical tree of modern socialism we meet the name of the depraved scion of one of the most eminent aristocratic families of royal France. Almost all the fathers of socialism were members of the upper middle class or of the professions. The Belgian Henri de Man, once a radical Left-wing socialist, today a no less radical pro-Nazi socialist, was quite right in asserting: “If one accepted the misleading Marxist expression which attaches every social ideology to a definite class, one would have to say that socialism as a doctrine, even Marxism, is of bourgeois origin.”* Neither did interventionism and nationalism come from the “scum.” They also are products of the well-to-do.
The overwhelming success of these doctrines which have proved so detrimental to peaceful social coöperation and now shake the foundations of our civilization is not an outcome of lower-class activities. The proletarians, the workers, and the farmers are certainly not guilty. Members of the upper classes were the authors of these destructive ideas. The intellectuals converted the masses to this ideology; they did not get it from them. If the supremacy of these modern doctrines is a proof of intellectual decay, it does not demonstrate that the lower strata have conquered the upper ones. It demonstrates rather the decay of the intellectuals and of the bourgeoisie. The masses, precisely because they are dull and mentally inert, have never created new ideologies. This has always been the prerogative of the elite.
The truth is that we face a degeneration of a whole society and not an evil limited to some parts of it.
When liberals recommend democratic government as the only means of safeguarding permanent peace both at home and in international relations, they do not advocate the rule of the mean, of the lowbred, of the stupid, and of the domestic barbarians, as some critics of democracy believe. They are liberals and democrats precisely because they desire government by the men best fitted for the task. They maintain that those best qualified to rule must prove their abilities by convincing their fellow citizens, so that they will voluntarily entrust them with office. They do not cling to the militarist doctrine, common to all revolutionaries, that the proof of qualification is the seizure of office by acts of violence or fraud. No ruler who lacks the gift of persuasion can stay in office long; it is the indispensable condition of government. It would be an idle illusion to assume that any government, no matter how good, could lastingly do without public consent. If our community does not beget men who have the power to make sound social principles generally acceptable, civilization is lost, whatever the system of government may be.
It is not true that the dangers to the maintenance of peace, democracy, freedom, and capitalism are a result of a “revolt of the masses.” They are an achievement of scholars and intellectuals, of sons of the well-to-do, of writers and artists pampered by the best society. In every country of the world dynasties and aristocrats have worked with the socialists and interventionists against freedom. Virtually all the Christian churches and sects have espoused the principles of socialism and interventionism. In almost every country the clergy favor nationalism. In spite of the fact that Catholicism is world embracing, even the Roman Church offers no exception. The nationalism of the Irish, the Poles, and the Slovaks is to a great extent an achievement of the clergy. French nationalism found most effective support in the Church.
It would be vain to attempt to cure this evil by a return to the rule of autocrats and noblemen. The autocracy of the czars in Russia or that of the Bourbons in France, Spain, and Naples was not an assurance of sound administration. The Hohenzollerns and the Prussian Junkers in Germany and the British ruling groups have clearly proved their unfitness to run a country.
If worthless and ignoble men control the governments of many countries, it is because eminent intellectuals have recommended their rule; the principles according to which they exercise their powers have been framed by upper-class doctrinaires and meet with the approval of intellectuals. What the world needs is not constitutional reform but sound ideologies. It is obvious that every constitutional system can be made to work satisfactorily when the rulers are equal to their task. The problem is to find the men fit for office. Neither a priori reasoning nor historical experience has disproved the basic idea of liberalism and democracy that the consent of those ruled is the main requisite of government. Neither benevolent kings nor enlightened aristocracies nor unselfish priests or philosophers can succeed when lacking this consent. Whoever wants lastingly to establish good government must start by trying to persuade his fellow citizens and offering them sound ideologies. He is only demonstrating his own incapacity when he resorts to violence, coercion, and compulsion instead of persuasion. In the long run force and threat cannot be successfully applied against majorities. There is no hope left for a civilization when the masses favor harmful policies. The elite should be supreme by virtue of persuasion, not by the assistance of firing squads.
Nothing could be more mistaken than the now fashionable attempt to apply the methods and concepts of the natural sciences to the solution of social problems. In the realm of nature we cannot know anything about final causes, by reference to which events can be explained. But in the field of human actions there is the finality of acting men. Men make choices. They aim at certain ends and they apply means in order to attain the ends sought.
Darwinism is one of the great achievements of the nineteenth century. But what is commonly called Social Darwinism is a garbled distortion of the ideas advanced by Charles Darwin.
It is an ineluctable law of nature, say these pseudo-Darwinists, that each living being devours the smaller and weaker ones and that, when its turn comes, it is swallowed by a still bigger and stronger one. In nature there are no such things as peace or mutual friendship. In nature there is always struggle and merciless annihilation of those who do not succeed in defending themselves. Liberalism’s plans for eternal peace are the outcome of an illusory rationalism. The laws of nature cannot be abolished by men. In spite of the liberal’s protest we are witnessing a recurrence of war. There have always been wars, there will always be wars. Thus modern nationalism is a return from fallacious ideas to the reality of nature and life.
Let us first incidentally remark that the struggles to which this doctrine refers are struggles between animals of different species. Higher animals devour lower animals; for the most part they do not feed in a cannibalistic way on their own species. But this fact is of minor importance.
The only equipment which the beasts have to use in their struggles is their physical strength, their bodily features, and their instincts. Man is better armed. Although bodily much weaker than many beasts of prey, and almost defenseless against the more dangerous microbes, man has conquered the earth through his most valuable gift, reason. Reason is the main resource of man in his struggle for survival. It is foolish to view human reason as something unnatural or even contrary to nature. Reason fulfills a fundamental biological function in human life. It is the specific feature of man. When man fights he nearly always makes use of it as his most efficient weapon. Reason guides his steps in his endeavors to improve the external conditions of his life and well-being. Man is the reasonable animal, Homo sapiens.
Now the greatest accomplishment of reason is the discovery of the advantages of social coöperation, and its corollary, the division of labor. Thanks to this achievement man has been able to centuple his progeny and still provide for each individual a much better life than nature offered to his nonhuman ancestors some hundred thousand years ago. In this sense—that there are many more people living today and that each of them enjoys a much richer life than his fathers did—we may apply the term progress. It is, of course, a judgment of value, and as such arbitrary. But it is made from a point of view which practically all men accept, even if they—like Count Tolstoi or Mahatma Gandhi—seem unconditionally to disparage all our civilization. Human civilization is not something achieved against nature; it is rather the outcome of the working of the innate qualities of man.
Social coöperation and war are in the long run incompatible. Self-sufficient individuals may fight each other without destroying the foundations of their existence. But within the social system of coöperation and division of labor war means disintegration. The progressive evolution of society requires the progressive elimination of war. Under present conditions of international division of labor there is no room left for wars. The great society of world-embracing mutual exchange of commodities and services demands a peaceful coexistence of states and nations. Several hundred years ago it was necessary to eliminate the wars between the noblemen ruling various countries and districts, in order to pave the way for a peaceful development of domestic production. Today it is indispensable to achieve the same for the world community. To abolish international war is not more unnatural than it was five hundred years ago to prevent the barons from fighting each other, or two thousand years ago to prevent a man from robbing and killing his neighbor. If men do not now succeed in abolishing war, civilization and mankind are doomed.
From a correct Darwinist viewpoint it would be right to say: Social coöperation and division of labor are man’s foremost tools in his struggle for survival. The intensification of this mutuality in the direction of a world-embracing system of exchange has considerably improved the conditions of mankind. The maintenance of this system requires lasting peace. The abolition of war is therefore an important item in man’s struggle for survival.
The Role of Chauvinism
Confusing nationalism and chauvinism or explaining nationalism as a consequence of chauvinism is a widespread error.
Chauvinism is a disposition of character and mind. It does not result in action. Nationalism is, on the one hand, a doctrine recommending a certain type of action and, on the other hand, the policy by which this action is consummated. Chauvinism and nationalism are therefore two entirely different things. The two are not necessarily linked together. Many old liberals were also chauvinists. But they did not believe that inflicting harm upon other nations was the proper means of promoting the welfare of their own nation. They were chauvinists but not nationalists.
Chauvinism is a presumption of the superiority of the qualities and achievements of one’s own nation. Under present conditions this means, in Europe, of one’s own linguistic group. Such arrogance is a common weakness of the average man. It is not too difficult to explain its origin.
Nothing links men more closely together than a community of language, and nothing segregates them more effectively than a difference of language. We may just as well invert this statement by asserting that men who associate with each other use the same idiom, and men between whom there is no direct intercourse do not. If the lower classes of England and of Germany had more in common with each other than with the upper strata of the society of their own countries, then the proletarians of both countries would speak the same idiom, a language different from that of the upper classes. When under the social system of the eighteenth century the aristocracies of various European countries were more closely linked with each other than with the commoners of their own nation, they used a common upper-class language—French.
The man who speaks a foreign language and does not understand our language is a “barbarian,” because we cannot communicate with him. A “foreign” country is one where our own idiom is not understood. It is a great discomfort to live in such a country; it brings about uneasiness and homesickness. When people meet other people speaking a foreign language, they regard them as strangers; they come to consider those speaking their own tongue as more closely connected, as friends. They transfer the linguistic designations to the people speaking the languages. All those speaking Italian as their main and daily language are called Italians. Next the linguistic terminology is used to designate the country in which the Italians live, and finally to designate everything in this country that differs from other countries. People speak of Italian cooking, Italian wine, Italian art, Italian industry, and so on. Italian institutions are naturally more familiar to the Italians than foreign ones. As they call themselves Italians, in speaking of these institutions they use the possessive pronouns “mine” and “our.”
Overestimation of one’s own linguistic community, and of everything commonly called by the same adjective as the language, is psychologically not more difficult to explain than the overvaluation of an individual’s own personality or underestimation of that of other persons. (The contrary—undervaluation of a man’s own personality and nation, and overestimation of other people and of foreign countries—may sometimes happen too, although more rarely.) At any rate it must be emphasized that chauvinism was more or less restricted up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Only a small minority had a knowledge of foreign countries, languages, and institutions, and these few were in the main educated enough to judge foreign things in a relatively objective way. The masses knew nothing about foreign lands. To them the foreign world was not inferior but merely unfamiliar. Whoever was conceited in those days was proud of his rank, not of his nation. Differences in caste counted more than national or linguistic ones.
With the rise of liberalism and capitalism conditions changed quickly. The masses became better educated. They acquired a better knowledge of their own language. They started reading and learned something about foreign countries and habits. Travel became cheaper, and more foreigners visited the country. The schools included more foreign languages in their curriculum. But nevertheless for the masses a foreigner is still in the main a creature whom they know only from books and newspapers. Even today there are living in Europe millions who have never had the opportunity of meeting or speaking with a foreigner, except on a battlefield.
Conceit and overvaluation of one’s own nation are quite common. But it would be wrong to assume that hatred and contempt of foreigners are natural and innate qualities. Even soldiers fighting to kill their enemies do not hate the individual foe, if they happen to meet him apart from the battle. The boastful warrior neither hates nor despises the enemy; he simply wants to display his own valor in a glorious light. When a German manufacturer says that no other country can produce as cheap and good commodities as Germany, it is no different from his assertion that the products of his domestic competitors are worse than his own.
Modern chauvinism is a product of literature. Writers and orators strive for success by flattering their public. Chauvinism spread therefore with the mass production of books, periodicals, and newspapers. The propaganda of nationalism favors it. Nevertheless, it has comparatively slight political significance, and must in any case be clearly distinguished from nationalism.
The Russians are convinced that physics is taught in the schools of Soviet Russia only, and that Moscow is the only city equipped with a subway system. The Germans assert that only Germany has true philosophers; they picture Paris as an agglomeration of amusement places. The British believe that adultery is quite usual in France, and the French style homosexuality le vice allemand. The Americans doubt whether the Europeans use bathtubs. These are sad facts. But they do not result in war.
It is paradoxical that French boors pride themselves on the fact that Descartes, Voltaire, and Pasteur were Frenchmen and take a part of Molière’s and Balzac’s glory to themselves. But it is politically innocuous. The same is true of the overestimation of one’s own country’s military achievements and of the eagerness of historians to interpret lost battles, after decades or even centuries, as victories. It gives an impartial observer a curious feeling when Hungarians or Rumanians speak of their nation’s civilization in epithets which would be grotesquely incongruous even if the Bible, the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the works of Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe, Laplace, Ricardo, and Darwin were written by Hungarians or Rumanians in Hungarian or Rumanian. But the political antagonism of these two nations has nothing to do with such statements.
Chauvinism has not begotten nationalism. Its chief function in the scheme of nationalist policies is to adorn the shows and festivals of nationalism. People overflow with joy and pride when the official speakers hail them as the elite of mankind and praise the immortal deeds of their ancestors and the invincibility of their armed forces. But when the words fade away and the celebration reaches its end, people return home and go to bed. They do not mount the battle-horse.
From the political point of view it is no doubt dangerous that men are so easily stirred by bombastic talk. But the political actions of modern nationalism cannot be explained or excused by chauvinist intoxication. They are the outcome of cool though misguided reasoning. The carefully elaborated, although erroneous, doctrines of scholarly and thoughtful books have led to the clash of nations, to bloody wars, and destruction.
The Role of Myths
The term “myths” has long been used to signify purely fictitious narratives and doctrines. In this sense Christians call the teachings and stories of paganism myths. In this sense those who do not share the Christian faith call the biblical tales mythical. For the Christian they are not myths but truth.
This obvious fact has been distorted by writers who maintain that doctrines which cannot stand the criticism of reason can nonetheless be justified by ascribing to them a mythical character. They have tried to build up a rationalistic theory for the salvation of error and its protection against sound reasoning.
If a statement can be disproved, you cannot justify it by giving it the status of a myth and thus making it proof against reasonable objections. It is true that many fictions and doctrines, today generally or in the main refuted and therefore called myths, have played a great role in history. But they played this role not as myths but as doctrines considered true. In the eyes of their supporters they were entirely authentic; they were their honest convictions. They turned to myths in the eyes of those who considered them fictitious and contrary to fact, and who therefore did not let their actions be influenced by them.
For Georges Sorel a myth is the imaginary construction of a future successful action.* But, we must add, to estimate the value of a method of procedure one point only has to be taken into account, namely, whether or not it is a suitable means to attain the end sought. If reasonable examination demonstrates that it is not, it must be rejected. It is impossible to render an unsuitable method of procedure more expedient by ascribing to it the quality of a myth. Sorel says: “If you place yourself on this ground of myths, you are proof against any kind of critical refutation.”† But the problem is not to succeed in polemic by taking recourse to subtleties and tricks. The only question is whether or not action guided by the doctrine concerned will attain the ends sought. Even if one sees, as Sorel does, the task of myths to be that of equipping men to fight for the destruction of what exists,‡ one cannot escape the question: Do these myths represent an adequate means to achieve this task? It needs to be pointed out, incidentally, that destruction of existing conditions alone cannot be considered as a goal; it is necessary to build up something new in the place of what is destroyed.
If it is proved by reasonable demonstration that socialism as a social system cannot realize what people wish or expect to realize through it, or that the general strike is not the appropriate means for the attainment of socialism, you cannot change these facts by declaring—as Sorel did—that socialism and the general strike are myths. People who cling to socialism and the general strike wish to attain certain aims through them. They are convinced that they will succeed by these methods. It is not as myths but as doctrines considered to be correct and well founded that socialism and the general strike are supported by millions of men.
Some free thinkers say: Christianity is an absurd creed, a myth; yet it is useful that the masses should adhere to the Christian dogmas. But the advantage that these free thinkers expect depends upon the masses actually taking the Gospels as truth. It could not be attained if they were to regard the Commandments as myths.
Whoever rejects a political doctrine as wrong agrees with the generally accepted terminology in calling it a myth.* But if he wants to profit from a popular superstition in order to attain his own ends, he must be careful not to disparage it by calling it a myth openly. For he can make use of this doctrine only so long as others consider it to be truth. We do not know what those princes of the sixteenth century believed who joined the religious Reformation. If not sincere conviction but the desire for enrichment guided them, then they abused the faith of other people for the sake of their own selfish appetites. They would have prejudiced their own interests, however, if they had called the new creed mythical. Lenin was cynical enough to say that revolutions must be achieved with the catchwords of the day. And he achieved his own revolution by affirming publicly—against his better conviction—the catchwords that had taken hold of public opinion. Some party leaders may be capable of being convinced of the falsehood of their party’s doctrine. But doctrines can have real influence only so far as people consider them right.
Socialism and interventionism, etatism and nationalism are not myths, in the eyes of their advocates, but doctrines indicating the proper way to the attainment of their aims. The power of these teachings is based on the firm belief of the masses that they will effectively improve their lot by applying them. Yet they are fallacious; they start from false assumptions and their reasoning is full of paralogisms. Those who see through these errors are right in calling them myths. But as long as they do not succeed in convincing their fellow citizens that these doctrines are untenable, the doctrines will dominate public opinion and politicians and statesmen will be guided by them. Men are always liable to error. They have erred in the past; they will err in the future. But they do not err purposely. They want to succeed, and they know very well that the choice of inappropriate means will frustrate their actions. Men do not ask for myths but for working doctrines that point the right means for the ends sought.
Nationalism in general and Nazism in particular are neither intentional myths nor founded or supported by intentional myths. They are political doctrines and policies (though faulty) and are even “scientific” in intent.
If somebody were prepared to call myths the variations on themes like “We are the salt of the earth,” or “We are the chosen people,” in which all nations and castes have indulged in one way or another, we should have to refer to what has been said about chauvinism. This is music for the enchantment and gratification of the community, mere pastime for the hours not devoted to political business. Politics is activity and striving toward aims. It should not be confused with mere indulgence in self-praise and self-adulation.
[* ]See the characteristic ideas of Lenin about the problems of entrepreneurship and management in his pamphlet State and Revolution (New York, 1917), pp. 83–84.
[* ]De Man, Die Psychologie des Sozialismus (rev. ed. Jena, 1927), pp. 16–17. Man wrote this at a time when he was a favorite of German Left-wing socialism.
[* ]Sorel, Réflexions sur la violence (3d ed. Paris, 1912), p. 32: “Les hommes qui participent aux grands mouvements sociaux se représentent leur action prochaine sous formes d’images de batailles assurant le triomphe de leur cause. Je propose de nommer mythes ces constructions.” [“Men who are participating in great social movements always picture their coming action in the form of images of battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. I proposed to give the name of † ‘myths’ to these constructions.” Reflections on Violence, translated by Thomas Ernert Hulme and edited by Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 20.—Ed.]
[† ]Ibid., p. 49.
[‡ ]Ibid., p. 46.
[* ]Perroux, Les Mythes hitleriens (Lyon, 1935); Rougier, Les Mystiques politiques contemporaines (Paris, 1935); Rougier, Les Mystiques économiques (Paris, 1938).