Mises on liberalism and the battle of ideas (1927)

Ludwig von Mises

Found in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (1927) (LF ed.)

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.

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.