Neither the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great

Neither the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great

The king of Prussia, Frederick II (“the Great”), confessed that he had seized the province of Silesia from the Empress Maria Theresa in 1740 because, as a newcomer to the throne, he had to make a name for himself. This initiated a war with Austria that developed into a worldwide war (in North America, the French and Indian War), and went on to 1763. Of course, many tens of thousands died in that series of wars.

Frederick’s admission is probably unique in the annals of leaders of states. In general, rulers have been much more circumspect about revealing the true reasons for their wars, as well as the methods by which they conduct them. Pretexts and evasions have proliferated. In today’s democratic societies, these are endorsed — often invented — by compliant professors and other intellectuals.

For generations, the unmasking of such excuses for war and war making has been the essence of historical revisionism, or simply revisionism. Revisionism and classical liberalism, today called libertarianism, have always been closely linked.

The greatest classical-liberal thinker on international affairs was Richard Cobden, whose crusade for repeal of the Corn Laws triumphed in 1846, bringing free trade and prosperity to England. Cobden’s two-volume Political Writings are all revisionist accounts of British foreign policy.

Cobden maintained that

The middle and industrious classes of England can have no interest apart from the preservation of peace. The honours, the fame, the emoluments of war belong not to them; the battle-plain is the harvest-field of the aristocracy, watered by the blood of the people.

He looked forward to a time when the slogan “no foreign politics” would become the watchword of all who aspired to be representatives of a free people. Cobden went so far as to trace the calamitous English wars against revolutionary France — which went on for a generation and ended only at Waterloo — to the hostility of the British upper classes to the antiaristocratic policies of the French.

Castigating the aristocracy for its alleged war lust was standard for liberal writers of earlier generations. But Cobden’s views began to change when he observed the intense popular enthusiasm for the Crimean War against Russia and on behalf of the Ottoman Turks. His outspoken opposition to that war, seconded by his friend and coleader of the Manchester School, John Bright, cost both of them their seats in the Commons at the next election.

Bright outlived his colleague by 20 years, witnessing the growing passion for empire in his country. In 1884, the acclaimed Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, ordered the Royal Navy to bombard Alexandria to recover the debts owed by the Egyptians to British investors. Bright scornfully dismissed it as “a jobbers’ war,” war on behalf of a privileged class of capitalists, and resigned from the Gladstone cabinet. But he never forgot what had started him on the road to anti-imperialism. When Bright passed with his young grandson in front of the statue in London, labeled “Crimea,” the boy asked the meaning of the memorial. Bright replied, simply, “a crime.”

Herbert Spencer, the most widely read philosopher of his time, was squarely in the classical-liberal tradition. His hostility to statism is exemplified by his assertion that, “Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression.”

While noting the state’s inborn tendency toward “militancy” — as opposed to the peaceful intercourse of civil society — Spencer denounced the various apologias for his country’s wars in his lifetime, in China, South Africa, and elsewhere.

In the United States, anarchist author Lysander Spooner was a renowned abolitionist, even conspiring with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South. Yet he vociferously opposed the Civil War, arguing that it violated the right of the southern states to secede from a Union that no longer represented them. E.L. Godkin, influential editor of The Nation magazine, opposed US imperialism to the end of his life, condemning the war against Spain. Like Godkin, William Graham Sumner was a forthright proponent of free trade and the gold standard and a foe of socialism. He held the first professorship in sociology (at Yale) and authored a great many books. But his most enduring work is his essay “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” reprinted many times and today available online. In this ironically titled work, Sumner portrayed the savage US war against the Philippines, which cost some 200,000 Filipino lives, as an American version of the imperialism and lust for colonies that had brought Spain the sorry state of his own time.

Unsurprisingly, the most thoroughgoing of the liberal revisionists was the arch-radical Gustave de Molinari, originator of what has come to be known as anarchocapitalism. In his work on the Great Revolution of 1789, Molinari eviscerated the founding myth of the French Republic. France had been proceeding gradually and organically towards liberal reform in the later 18th century; the revolution put an end to that process, substituting an unprecedented expansion of state power and a generation of war. The self-proclaimed liberal parties of the 19th century were, in fact, machines for the exploitation of society by the now victorious predatory middle classes, who profited from tariffs, government contracts, state subsidies for railroads and other industries, state-sponsored banking, and the legion of jobs available in the ever-expanding bureaucracy.

In his last work, published a year before his death in 1912, Molinari never relented. The American Civil War had not been simply a humanitarian crusade to free the slaves. The war “ruined the conquered provinces,” but the Northern plutocrats pulling the strings achieved their aim: the imposition of a vicious protectionism that led ultimately “to the regime of trusts and produced the billionaires.”

Libertarian revisionism continued into the 20th century. The First World War furnished rich pickings, among them Albert Jay Nock’s The Myth of a Guilty Nation and H.L. Mencken’s continuing, and of course witty, exposés of the lies of America’s wars and war makers. In the next generation, Frank Chodorov, the last of the Old Right greats, wrote that “Isolationism is not a political policy, it is a natural attitude of a people.” Left to their own devices, the people “do not feel any call to impose their own customs and values on strangers.” Declining to dodge the scare word, Chodorov urged a “return to that isolationism which for over a hundred years prospered the nation and gained for us the respect and admiration of the world.” Chodorov — founder of ISI, which he named the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, later tamed down to “the Intercollegiate Studies Institute” — broke with the “New Right,” the neocons of the that era, over his opposition to the Korean War.

Murray Rothbard was the heir to this whole legacy, totally familiar with it and bringing it up to date. Aside from his many other, really amazing contributions, Murray and his colleague Leonard Liggio introduced historical revisionism to the burgeoning American libertarian movement (including me). This is a work now carried on with great gusto by Lew Rockwell, of the Mises Institute, and his associated accomplished scholars, particularly the indefatigable Tom Woods.

The essays and reviews I have published and now collected and mostly expanded in this volume are in the tradition of libertarian revisionism, animated by the spirit of Murray Rothbard. They expose the consecrated lies and crimes of some of our most iniquitous, and beloved, recent rulers. My hope is, in a small way, to lay bare historically the nature of the state.

Tangentially, I’ve also taken into account the strange phenomenon, now nearly forgotten, of the deep affection of multitudes of honored Western intellectuals in the 1930s and ’40s for the great experiment in socialism taking place in Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin. Their propaganda had an impact on a number of Western leaders and on Western policy towards the Soviet Union. To my mind, this is worthy of a certain revisionism even today.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

Keynes and the Reds

Keynes and the Reds

The Free Market 15, no. 4 (April 1997)

It is the widespread view in academia that John Maynard Keynes was a model classical liberal in the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, and Tocqueville.

Like these men, it is commonly held, Keynes was a sincere, indeed, exemplary, believer in the free society. If he differed from the classical liberals in some obvious and important ways, it was simply because he tried to update the essential liberal idea to suit the economic conditions of a new age.

But if Keynes was such a model champion of the free society, how can we account for his peculiar comments, in 1933, endorsing, though with reservations, the social “experiments” that were going on at the time in Italy, Germany, and Russia? And what about his strange introduction to the 1936 German translation of the General Theory, where he writes that his approach to economic policy is much better suited to a totalitarian state such as that run by the Nazis than, for instance, to Britain?

Keynes’s defenders try to minimize the significance of these statements, exploiting certain ambiguities. But none of them, to my knowledge, has ever bothered to confront a quite unambiguous pronouncement by Keynes. It was included in a brief radio talk he delivered for the BBC in June, 1936, in the “Books and Authors” series, and can be found in volume 28 of his Collected Writings.

In this talk, the only book that Keynes deals with at any length is the recently published massive tome by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism. (The first edition carried the subtitle, A New Civilisation?; in later editions, the question mark was dropped.)

As leaders of the Fabian Society, the Webbs had worked for decades to bring about a socialist Britain. In the 1930s, they turned into enthusiastic propagandists for the new regime in Communist Russia—in Beatrice’s words, they had “fallen in love with Soviet Communism.” (What she called “love” their nephew-by-marriage, Malcolm Muggeridge, labeled “besotted adulation.”)

During their three-week visit to Russia, where, Sidney boasted, they were treated like “a new type of royalty,” the Soviet authorities supplied them with the facts and figures for their book. The Communists were well satisfied with the final result. In Russia itself, Soviet Communism was translated, published, and promoted by the regime; as Beatrice declared: “Sidney and I have become icons in the Soviet Union.”

Ever since it first appeared, Soviet Communism has been seen as the prime example of the aid and comfort lavished by literary fellow travelers on the Stalinist terror state. If Keynes were a liberal and a lover of the free society, one would expect his review to be a scathing denunciation. But the opposite is the case.

In his talk, Keynes proclaims Soviet Communism to be a book “which every serious citizen will do well to look into.” “Until recently events in Russia were moving too fast and the gap between paper professions and actual achievements was too wide for a proper account to be possible. But the new system is now sufficiently crystallized to be reviewed. The result is impressive. The Russian innovators have passed, not only from the revolutionary stage, but also from the doctrinaire stage.

“There is little or nothing left which bears any special relation to Marx and Marxism as distinguished from other systems of socialism. They are engaged in the vast administrative task of making a completely new set of social and economic institutions work smoothly and successfully over a territory so extensive that it covers one-sixth of the land surface of the world. Methods are still changing rapidly in response to experience. The largest scale empiricism and experimentalism which has ever been attempted by disinterested administrators is in operation. Meanwhile the Webbs have enabled us to see the direction in which things appear to be moving and how far they have got.”

Britain, Keynes feels, has much to learn from the Webbs work: “It leaves me with a strong desire and hope that we in this country may discover how to combine an unlimited readiness to experiment with changes in political and economic methods and institutions, whilst preserving traditionalism and a sort of careful conservatism, thrifty of everything which has human experience behind it, in every branch of feeling and of action.”

(Note, incidentally, the backtracking and studied inconsistency typical of much of Keynes’s social philosophizing—an “unlimited readiness to experiment” is to be combined with “traditionalism” and “careful conservatism.”)

By 1936 no one had to depend on the Webbs deceitful propaganda for information on the Stalinist system. Eugene Lyons, William Henry Chamberlin, Malcolm Muggeridge himself, and others had revealed the grim truth about the charnel-house presided over by Keynes’s “disinterested administrators.”

Anyone willing to listen could learn the facts regarding the terror-famine of the early 1930s, the vast system of slave-labor camps, and the near-universal misery that followed on the abolition of private property. For those not blinded by “love,” it was not hard to discern that Stalin was erecting the model killer-state of the twentieth century.

In Keynes’s remarks and in the lack of any concern about them among his devotees, we find, once again, the bizarre double standard that Joseph Sobran keeps pointing out: if a celebrated writer had said anything similar about Nazi Germany in 1936, his name would reek to this day. Yet as evil as the Nazis were to become, in 1936 their victims amounted to a small fraction of the victims of Communism.

What explains Keynes’s praise for the Webbs book and the Soviet system? There is little doubt that the major reason is the feeling he shared with the two Fabian leaders: a deep-seated hatred of profit-seeking and money-making.

According to their friend and fellow Fabian, Margaret Cole, it was in a moral and spiritual sense that the Webbs looked on Soviet Russia as “the hope of the world.” For them, “most exciting” of all was the role of the Communist Party, which, Beatrice held, was a “religious order,” engaged in creating a “Communist Conscience.”

As early as 1932, Beatrice announced: “It is because I believe that the day has arrived for the changeover from egotism to altruism—as the mainspring of human life—that I am a Communist.” In the chapter on “In Place of Profit” in Soviet Communism, the Webbs rave over the replacement of monetary incentives by the rituals of “shaming the sinner” and Communist self-criticism.

Up to the very end of her life, in 1943, Beatrice was still lauding the Soviet Union for “its multiform democracy, its sex, class, and racial equality, its planned production for community consumption, and above all its penalization of the profit-making motive.”

As for Keynes, his lifelong animosity to the financial motivation of human action amounted to an obsession. He viewed the striving for money “as the central ethical problem of modern society,” and after his own earlier visit to Soviet Russia, he acclaimed the suppression of the monetary motive as a “tremendous innovation.” For him, as for the Webbs, this was the essence of the “religious” element they detected and admired in Communism.

A notable feature of Keynes’s praise of the Soviet system is its total lack of any economic analysis. Keynes appears blithely unaware that there might exist a problem of rational economic calculation under socialism, as outlined a year earlier in a volume edited by F. A. Hayek, Collectivist Economic Planning, which featured the seminal 1920 essay by Ludwig von Mises, “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.”

Economists had been debating this question for years. Yet all that concerns Keynes is the excitement of the great experiment, the awe-inspiring scope of the social changes occurring in Soviet Russia under the direction of those “disinterested administrators.”

This brings to mind Karl Brunner’s comment on Keynes’s notions of social reform: “One would hardly guess from the material of the essays that a social scientist, even economist, had written [them]. Any social dreamer of the intelligentsia could have produced them. Crucial questions are never faced or explored.”

No, Keynes was no “model liberal,” but rather a statist and an apologist for the century’s most ruthless regimes. Those like Mises who understood the political implications of his economic theory will hardly be surprised.

Republished from

Pin It on Pinterest