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Mises on liberalism and the battle of ideas (1927)

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) argued that the power of liberal ideas were so great that they would eventually succeed in “conquering the minds of officials and soldiers” everywhere:

When liberal ideas began to spread to central and eastern Europe from their homeland in western Europe, the traditional powers—the monarchy, the nobility, and the clergy—trusting in the instruments of repression that were at their disposal, felt completely safe. They did not consider it necessary to combat liberalism and the mentality of the Enlightenment with intellectual weapons. Suppression, persecution, and imprisonment of the malcontents seemed to them to be more serviceable. They boasted of the violent and coercive machinery of the army and the police. Too late they realized with horror that the new ideology snatched these weapons from their hands by conquering the minds of officials and soldiers. It took the defeat suffered by the old regime in the battle against liberalism to teach its adherents the truth that there is nothing in the world more powerful than ideologies and ideologists and that only with ideas can one fight against ideas. They realized that it is foolish to rely on arms, since one can deploy armed men only if they are prepared to obey, and that the basis of all power and dominion is, in the last analysis, ideological.

When liberal ideas began to spread to central and eastern Europe from their homeland in western Europe, the traditional powers—the monarchy, the nobility, and the clergy—trusting in the instruments of repression that were at their disposal, felt completely safe. They did not consider it necessary to combat liberalism and the mentality of the Enlightenment with intellectual weapons. Suppression, persecution, and imprisonment of the malcontents seemed to them to be more serviceable. They boasted of the violent and coercive machinery of the army and the police. Too late they realized with horror that the new ideology snatched these weapons from their hands by conquering the minds of officials and soldiers. It took the defeat suffered by the old regime in the battle against liberalism to teach its adherents the truth that there is nothing in the world more powerful than ideologies and ideologists and that only with ideas can one fight against ideas. They realized that it is foolish to rely on arms, since one can deploy armed men only if they are prepared to obey, and that the basis of all power and dominion is, in the last analysis, ideological.

The acknowledgment of this sociological truth was one of the fundamental convictions on which the political theory of liberalism was based. From it liberalism had drawn no other conclusion than that, in the long run, truth and righteousness must triumph because their victory in the realm of ideas cannot be doubted. And whatever is victorious in this realm must ultimately succeed in the world of affairs as well, since no persecution is capable of suppressing it. It is therefore superfluous to trouble oneself especially about the spread of liberalism. Its victory is, in any case, certain.

The opponents of liberalism can be understood even in this respect only if one keeps in mind that their actions are nothing but the reverse of what liberalism teaches; that is, they are based on the rejection of and reaction against liberal ideas. They were not in a position to offer a comprehensive and consistent body of social and economic doctrine in opposition to the liberal ideology, for liberalism is the only possible conclusion that can be validly drawn from such a doctrine. Yet a program that promised something to only one group or a few groups had no chance of winning general support and was doomed from the outset to political failure. Thus, these parties had no other recourse than to hit upon some arrangement that would bring the groups to whom they addressed themselves completely under their sway and to keep them that way. They had to take care that liberal ideas found no adherents among the classes on which they depended.

About this Quotation:

In 1927 when Ludwig von Mises wrote these words it was a courageous thing to do with fascism and bolshevism in power in Italy and Russia and the Nazis about to come to power in Germany. Nevertheless, he argued that the power of liberal ideas were so great that they would eventually succeed in “conquering the minds of officials and soldiers.” This takes place in the middle of a discussion of the nature of political parties which had propelled the fascists and Bolsheviks to power. In spite of their armed thugs and militias Mises believed that ultimately the battle would be won or lost in the realm of ideas not with arms, that the struggle was an ideological one, and that if one could convince the wielders of political and armed force that their cause was an unjust one they would no longer be “prepared to obey” their masters. Mises also has another twist in his argument which is worth pondering, and that is that even those who have a material interest in the use of political force to achieve their ends, come to understand what those “interests” are through a process of thinking about them. Thus, even material interests are ideological in this sense. He also thought therefore that liberal ideas would eventually succeed in “conquering the minds” of the vested interests which benefited, or thought they benefited, from government privileges and subsidies.

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