Hayek has spent the last few chapters of The Road to Serfdom explaining the roots and rise of totalitarian governments. In chapter twelve, Hayek highlighted prominent Marxist theorists who would later lay the roots for the German National Socialist party.
Hayek’s whole purpose in writing this chapter, “The Totalitarians in Our Midst,” serves as a warning to his readers. The mass death of WWII had devastated and shocked the world. But unless individuals were able to identify how totalitarianism had taken over Europe in the first place, they would be ill-prepared to prevent it from happening again.
It was for this reason that Hayek uses chapter thirteen to demonstrate to his readers that a similar perversion of truth was already occurring among England’s intellectual elite as had occurred in the leadup to the Third Reich.
Individualism in Danger
England, which, as explained in the last chapter, represented the origin of individualist thought, had steadily been heading down a similar road as Germany had in the decades prior to WWII. While it may have taken a different form, when looked at from the perspective of totalitarianism in all things economic, England, as it stood in 1944, had taken swift strides away from liberalism and instead found itself headed in the direction of complete central authority.
It is for this reason that Hayek’s writing sounds so urgent in this chapter. As fresh as WWII was in the minds of all people, Hayek is urging them to not become complacent. It was not enough to mourn the recent past; they needed to proceed vigilantly and look to the enemies in their own nations.
As Hayek writes:
Probably it is true that the very magnitude of the outrages committed by the totalitarian governments, instead of increasing the fear that such a system might one day arise in more enlightened countries, has rather strengthened the assurance that it cannot happen here.
But for those who pushed away any suggestion that England was in anyway comparable to Germany, Hayek says:
And the fact that the difference has steadily become greater seems to refute any suggestion that we may be moving in a similar direction. But let us not forget that fifteen years ago the possibility of such a thing’s happening in Germany would have appeared just as fantastic…
But the real problem, as Hayek has stressed throughout the entire book, is that the threat to economic liberty comes from both sides of the political spectrum.
…but the Germany of twenty or thirty years ago to which conditions in the democracies show an ever increasing resemblance…We have already mentioned the most significant—the increasing similarity between the economic views of the Right and Left and their common opposition to the liberalism that used to be the common basis of most English politics.”
And most importantly, especially to Hayek, was pointing out how England was already well on their way down a most dangerous path.
England, or rather, Great Britain, is the birthplace of liberalism in many capacities. It is where many of the founding philosophies of the American Revolution came from. These same principles of contract law and property rights served as the roots of free market economics and also came from England. So it was all the more troubling for Hayek to see his this nation going astray.
How far in the last twenty years England has traveled on the German path is brought home to one with extraordinary vividness if one now reads some of the more serious discussions of the differences between British and German views on political and moral issues which appeared in England during the last war.
Men like Lord Morley or Henry Sidgwick, Lord Acton or A. V. Dicey, who were then admired in the world at large as outstanding examples of the political wisdom of liberal England, are to the present generation largely obsolete Victorians.
Although few people, if anybody, in England would probably be ready to swallow totalitarianism whole, there are few single features which have not yet been advised by somebody or other.
Beginning his accusations against those contemporary English figures who were having a dramatic impact on the political climate, Hayek writes:
There are, perhaps, few other instances in contemporary English literature where the influence of the specific German ideas with which we are concerned is so marked as in Professor E. H. Carr’s books on the Twenty Years’ Crisis and the Conditions of Peace.
Explaining why he views Carr (1892-1982) as dangerous to the future England, Hayek writes:
How little difference he is able to see between the ideals held in this country and those practiced by present-day Germany is best illustrated by his assertion that ‘it is true that when a prominent National Socialist asserts that ‘anything that benefits the German people is right, anything that harms them is wrong’ he is merely propounding the same identification of national interest with universal right which has already been established for English-speaking countries by [President] Wilson, Professor Toynbee, Lord Cecil, and many others.
What is interesting, at least to me, when reading this chapter is the tone Hayek takes. Hayek’s entire purpose for writing this book is to warn others not to repeat history, and yet here it is repeating itself and going almost completely unnoticed by the people. You can almost hear the frustration in Hayek’s voice when he condemns Carr’s dismissal of the 19th-century liberalism.
Does Professor Carr, for example, realize, when he asserts that “we can no longer find much meaning in the distinction familiar to nineteenth-century thought between ‘society’ and ‘state,’ that this is precisely the doctrine of Professor Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi theoretician of totalitarianism and, in fact, the essence of the definition of totalitarianism which that author has given to that term which he himself had introduced?
Further commenting on Carr’s negative attitude towards free market capitalism, Hayek quotes Carr himself:
The victors lost the peace, and Soviet Russia and Germany won it, because the former continued to preach, and in part to apply, the once valid, but now disruptive ideals of the rights of nations and laissez faire capitalism, whereas the latter, consciously or unconsciously borne forward on the tide of the twentieth century, were striving to build up the world in larger units under centralized planning and control.
Referring to the principles of capitalism as “disruptive ideas” and praising planned economies was enough to for Hayek to say, “Professor Carr completely makes his own the German battle cry of the socialist revolution of the East against the liberal West in which Germany was the leader…”
Hayek also goes on to undermine Carr’s commentary on economics by writing, ”Professor Carr is not an economist, and his economic argument generally will not bear serious examination.
Professor Carr’s contempt for all the ideas of liberal economists…is as profound as that of any of the German writers quoted in the last chapter. He even takes over the German thesis, originated by Friedrich List, that free trade was a policy dictated solely by, and appropriate only to, the special interests of England in the nineteenth century.
The next target of Hayek’s criticisms is C.H. Waddington (1905-1975) another prominent figure in the field of science British society in 1944 in the realms of developmental biology, genetics, and paleontology. Again, this was so close in time to the horrors of the Holocaust and the pseudoscience that accompanied it, and this concerned Hayek gravely.
It is well known that particularly the scientists and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be the leaders on the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.
But to make matters worse, Hayek’s warnings seem to increase in severity as he digs deeper into Dr. Waddington’s beliefs on totalitarian rule:
Dr. Waddington’s claim that the scientist is qualified to run a totalitarian society is based mainly on his thesis that “science can pass ethical judgment on human behavior”—a claim to the elaboration of which by Dr. Waddington Nature has given considerable publicity.
Further elaborating as to why he believes Dr. Waddington is a threat to liberty, Hayek attacks his belief in freedom in itself. Or rather, his lack thereof.
For an illustration of what this means we do not need to go outside Dr. Waddington’s book. Freedom, he explains, ‘is a very troublesome concept for the scientist to discuss, partly because he is not convinced that, in the last analysis, there is such a thing.’
He continues to make the connection between Dr. Waddington’s work and his own Marxist roots, writing:
As in almost all works of this type, Dr. Waddington’s convictions are largely determined by his belief in ‘inevitable historical tendencies’ which science is presumed to have discovered and which he derives from ‘the profound scientific philosophy’ of Marxism, whose basic notions are ‘almost, if not quite, identical with those underlying the scientific approach to nature.
But, coming to at least one area of agreement, Hayek points out that even those who are pushing England further down the road to serfdom recognize that the country had been on the decline since the height of the liberalism in the 19th-century.
Thus Dr. Waddington, though he finds it ‘difficult to deny that England now is a worse country to live in than it was’ in 1913, looks forward to an economic system which ‘will be centralized and totalitarian in the sense that all aspects of the economic development of large regions are consciously planned as an integrated whole.’
Where We Are on the Road
While Hayek is certainly more urgent in his tone during this chapter, he has not given up hope quite yet. In spite of the stumbling blocks inhibiting free-market competition, he still believes that society has the option of turning back before totalitarianism reached its full and ugly potential.
While there is no reason to believe that this movement is inevitable, there can be little doubt that if we continue on the path we have been treading, it will lead us to totalitarianism.”
But, as is obvious throughout this chapter, Hayek implores the readers to proceed with constant vigilance and to not be fooled by the ruling class once again. And, as is demonstrated in one of his final passages of the chapter, Hayek wanted really to drive home the importance of studying history in order to prevent it from happening again.
But to find it once more held after twenty-five years of experience and the re-examination of the old beliefs to which this experience has led, and at a time when we are fighting the results of those very doctrines, is tragic beyond words.