The starting-point of socialist doctrine is the criticism of the bourgeois order of society. We are aware that socialist writers have not been very successful in this respect. We know that they have misconceived the working of the economic mechanism, and that they have not understood the function of the various institutions of the social order which is based on division of labor and on private ownership of the means of production. It has not been difficult to show the mistakes socialistic theorists have made in analyzing the economic process: critics have succeeded in proving their economic doctrines to be gross errors. Yet to ask whether the capitalist order of society is more or less defective is hardly a decisive answer to the question whether Socialism would be able to provide a better substitute. It is not sufficient to have proved that the social order based on private ownership of the means of production has faults and that it has not created the best of all possible worlds; it is necessary to show further that the socialistic order is better. This only a few socialists have tried to prove, and these have done so for the most part in a thoroughly unscientific, some even in a frivolous, manner. The science of Socialism is rudimentary, and just that kind of Socialism which calls itself “Scientific” is not the last to be blamed for this. Marxism has not been satisfied to present the coming of Socialism as an inevitable stage of social evolution. Had it done only this it could not have exerted that pernicious influence on the scientific treatment of the problems of social life which must be laid to its charge. Had it done nothing except describe the socialistic order of society as the best conceivable form of social life it could never have had such injurious consequences. But by means of sophistry it has prevented the scientific treatment of sociological problems and has poisoned the intellectual atmosphere of the time.
According to the Marxist conception, one’s social condition determines one’s way of thought. His membership of a social class decides what views a writer will express. He is not able to grow out of his class or to free his thoughts from the prescriptions of his class interests. Thus the possibility of a general science which is valid for all men, whatever their class, is contested. It was only another step for Dietzgen [Joseph Dietzgen, a 19th century German Marxist and journalist] to proceed to the construction of a special proletarian logic. But truth lies with the proletarian science only: “the ideas of proletarian logic are not party ideas, but the consequences of logic pure and simple.”
Thus Marxism protects itself against all unwelcome criticism. The enemy is not refuted: enough to unmask him as a bourgeois. Marxism criticizes the achievements of all those who think otherwise by representing them as the venal servants of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels never tried to refute their opponents with argument. They insulted, ridiculed, derided, slandered, and traduced them, and in the use of these methods their followers are not less expert. Their polemic is directed never against the argument of the opponent, but always against his person. Few have been able to withstand such tactics. Few indeed have been courageous enough to oppose Socialism with that remorseless criticism which it is the duty of the scientific thinker to apply to every subject of inquiry. Only thus is to be explained the fact that supporters and opponents of Socialism have unquestioningly obeyed the prohibition which Marxism has laid on any closer discussion of the economic and social conditions of the socialist community.
Marxism declares, on the one hand, that the socialization of the means of production is the end towards which economic evolution leads with the inevitability of a natural law; on the other hand, it represents such socialization as the aim of its political effort. In this way he expounded the first principle of socialist organization. The purpose of the prohibition to study the working of a socialist community, which was justified by a series of threadbare arguments, was really intended to prevent the weaknesses of Marxist doctrines from coming clearly to light in discussions regarding the creation of a practicable socialist society. A clear exposition of the nature of socialist society might have damped the enthusiasm of the masses, who sought in Socialism salvation from all earthly ills. The successful suppression of these dangerous inquiries, which had brought about the downfall of all earlier socialistic theories, was one of Marx’s most skillful tactical moves. Only because people were not allowed to talk or to think about the nature of the socialist community was Socialism able to become the dominant political movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These statements can hardly be illustrated better than by a quotation from the writings of Hermann Cohen, one of those who, in the decades immediately preceding the world war, exerted the strongest influence on German thought. “Today,” says Cohen, “no want of understanding prevents us from recognizing the kernel of the social question and therefore, even if only furtively, the necessity of social reform policy, but only the evil, or the not sufficiently good, will. The unreasonable demand that it should unveil the picture of the future state for the general view, with which attempts are made to embarrass party Socialism, can be explained only by the fact that such defective natures exist. The state presupposes law, but these people ask what the state would look like rather than what are the ethical requirements of law. By thus reversing the concepts one confuses the ethics of Socialism with the poesy of the Utopias. But ethics are not poetry and the idea has truth without image. Its image is the reality which is only to arise according to its prototype. The socialist idealism can today be looked upon as a general truth of public consciousness, though as one which is still, nevertheless, an open secret. Only the egoism implicit in ideals of naked covetousness, which is the true materialism, denies it a faith.”
The man who wrote and thought thus was widely praised as the greatest and most daring German thinker of his time, and even opponents of his teaching respected him as an intellect. Just for that reason it is necessary to stress that Cohen not only accepts without criticism or reserve the demands of Socialism and acknowledges the prohibition against attempts to examine conditions in the socialist community, but that he represents as a morally inferior being anyone who tries to embarrass “party-Socialism” with a demand for light upon the problems of socialist economies. That the daring of a thinker whose criticism otherwise spares nothing should stop short before a mighty idol of his time is a phenomenon which may be observed often enough in the history of thought—even Cohen’s great exemplar, Kant, is accused of this. But that a philosopher should charge with ill-will, defective disposition, and naked covetousness not merely all those of a different opinion but all who even touch on a problem dangerous to those in authority—this, fortunately, is something of which the history of thought can show few examples.
Anyone who failed to comply unconditionally with this coercion was proscribed and outlawed. In this way, Socialism was able from year to year to win more and more ground without anyone being moved to make a fundamental investigation of how it would work. Thus, when one day Marxian Socialism assumed the reins of power, and sought to put its complete programme into practice, it had to recognize that it had no distinct idea of what, for decades, it had been trying to achieve.
A discussion of the problems of the socialist community is therefore of the greatest importance, and not only for understanding the contrast between liberal and socialist policy. Without such a discussion, it is not possible to understand the situations which have developed since the movement towards nationalization and municipalization commenced. Until now economics—with a comprehensible but regrettable one-sidedness—has investigated exclusively the mechanism of a society based on private ownership of the means of production. The gap thus created must be filled.
The question whether society ought to be built up on the basis of private ownership of the means of production or on the basis of public ownership of the means of production is political. Science cannot decide it; Science cannot pronounce a judgment on the relative values of the forms of social organization. But Science alone, by examining the effects of institutions, can lay the foundations for an understanding of society. Though the man of action, the politician, may sometimes pay no attention to the results of this examination, the man of thought will never cease to inquire into all things accessible to human intelligence. And in the long run thought must determine action.
Alternative modes to analyze socialism
There are two ways of treating the problems which Socialism sets to Science.
The cultural philosopher may deal with Socialism by trying to place it in order among all other cultural phenomena. He inquires into its intellectual derivation, he examines its relation to other forms of social life, he looks for its hidden sources in the soul of the individual, he tries to understand it as a mass phenomenon. He examines its effects on religion and philosophy, on art and literature. He tries to show the relation in which it stands to the natural and mental sciences of the time. He studies it as a style of life, as an utterance of the psyche, as an expression of ethical and aesthetic beliefs. This is the cultural-historical-psychological way. Ever trodden and re-trodden, it is the way of a thousand books and essays.
We must never judge a scientific method in advance. There is only one touchstone for its ability to achieve results: success. It is quite possible that the cultural-historical-psychological method will also contribute much towards a solution of the problems which Socialism has set to Science. That its results have been so unsatisfactory is to be ascribed not only to the incompetence and political prejudices of those who have undertaken the work, but above all to the fact that the sociological-economical treatment of the problems must precede the cultural-historical-psychological.
For Socialism is a programme for transforming the economic life and constitution of society according to a defined ideal. To understand its effects in other fields of mental and cultural life one must first have seen clearly its social and economic significance. As long as one is still in doubt about this, it is unwise to risk a cultural-historical-psychological interpretation. One cannot speak of the ethics of Socialism before one has cleared up its relation to other moral standards. A relevant analysis of its reactions on religion and public life is impossible when one has only an obscure conception of its essential reality. It is impossible to discuss Socialism at all without having first and foremost examined the mechanism of an economic order based on public ownership of the means of production.
This comes out clearly at each of the points at which the cultural-historical-psychological method usually starts. Followers of this method regard Socialism as the final consequences of the democratic idea of equality, without having decided what democracy and equality really mean or in what relation they stand to each other, and without having considered whether Socialism is essentially or only generally concerned with the idea of equality. Sometimes, they refer to Socialism as a reaction of the psyche to the spiritual desolation created by the rationalism inseparable from Capitalism; sometimes again they assert that Socialism aims at the highest rationalization of material life, a rationalization which Capitalism could never attain. Those who engulf their cultural and theoretical exposition of Socialism in a chaos of mysticism and incomprehensible phrases need not be discussed here.
The researches of this book are to be directed above all to the sociological and economic problems of Socialism. We must treat these before we can discuss the cultural and psychological problems. Only on the results of such research can we base studies of the culture and psychology of Socialism. Sociological and economic research alone can provide a firm foundation for those expositions—so much more attractive to the great public—which present a valuation of Socialism in the light of the general aspirations of the human race.
(LUDWIG VON MISES)